Opinion Analysis

Sunday 16 December 2018

Diary of a Somebody from the North . . .

The Beginning of the End By Walter Ellis Mainstream, st£9.99

The Beginning of the End By Walter Ellis Mainstream, st£9.99

Maurice Hayes Walter Ellis tends to present his self-deprecating memoir as the diary of a Nobody - but a man who has been squelched by Janet Street Porter for not having lunched at The Ivy (not even knowing where it is) is surely a Somebody of sorts, not the usual run-of-the-mill nonentity. This book describes a journalistic career of some distinction after an unremarkable childhood in lower-middle class protestant East Belfast. This is an area and a community that has not often found its voice.

David Park has written sensitively about it in Swallowing the Sun, and so too has Van Morrison in his own way, but even in Ellis's account it is a closed society, socially stratified, with little contact with Catholics. This is not the East Belfast of Sam Thompson, nor yet of Forest Reid or CS Lewis, squeezed between the shipyards and the solicitors, clinging on to the rock of certainty in face of the changes that assail and threaten to engulf them.

All this is recounted with a slight curl of the lip - not always pleasant reading for former schoolmates, teachers or numerous girlfriends encountered in an early life of shiftless indecision and rebelliousness. He was, however, lucky in his parents and a family circle of some eccentricity.

His father, a tea-traveller and later a successful shopkeeper, had the unusual capacity to support both Vanguard and Alliance, to back the Ulster Workers' strike and to lunch twice weekly with a prominent priest.

Walter, having failed the 11-plus, missed out on grammar school. However, he goes some way to disproving his own thesis that happy childhoods do not make good copy.

He had the good fortune of attending the most progressive of the secondary schools, something which he did not then, and perhaps yet, always recognise. Orangefield, with an enlightened headmaster in John Malone, did try to be really comprehensive and, although he did not hit it off with the Head, the young Walter was lucky enough to encounter a couple of gifted teachers who opened him up to drama and literature.

What gives the memoir muscle is the pervading presence of its anti-hero, the dominating, devious, bullying and treacherous presence of one Ronnie Bunting. He was a distant cousin who pushed Ellis into rebellion and ultimate expulsion while retaining enough grip on the school establishment to secure his own place at university.

The career of Bunting, the son of one of Paisley's early disciples, from school-bully through civil rights and Marxism to murderous leader of an extreme republican splinter group is well told and gives body to the book.

Bunting (here given responsibility for the murder of Airey Neave) found cover for his own psychopathic tendencies. Like most dedicated revolutionaries, he was prepared to lie and cheat and use his friends ruthlessly , including Ellis' generous and unsuspecting mother, and Ellis himself, until he broke free. Like many of those who live by the sword, he was to die by it.

This book recalls a life in journalism, and most vividly the reporting of the war in Ulster in the early 1970s, and the journalistic lions who cut their teeth there - Robert Fisk, Simon Hoggart, Fergal Keane, Conor O'Clery, Fergus Pyle and, like a shooting-star, Henry Kelly. Many of his current readers will be amused to find Bruce Anderson as a protesting student on the Burntollet march, opposed with violence orchestrated by Bunting's father, the Mad Major.

This is a beautifully written and personalised memoir of a period of crisis in Northern Ireland. Walter Ellis (now living in New York, where he contributes to a variety of publications and from where he writes a Saturday column for the Belfast Telegraph) met his own recurring personal crises with courage and stoicism, and survived to tell an interesting tale. Perhaps the wider community of East Belfast will do so too.

Maybe this sensitive, and not uncritical, account will help a wider audience to appreciate their fears and aspirations, and the challenge which political and demographic change presents to them.

Senator Maurice Hayes is a former Ombudsman in the North

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss