This autobiography gives a fascinating insight into the life and times of Northern Ireland journalist Alf McCreary.
Not an easy book to write especially the early years and the time he discovered the circumstances of his birth in the little South Armagh village of Bessbrook. ‘I was born out of wedlock….’ he writes adding, ‘…. there was no cot so I was cradled in a drawer.’ His mother Lena was in her teens, his father Norman was unemployed although he went on to have a successful career, became very rich; he wrote two booklets about his native Bessbrook but sadly his only child, his son Alf wasn’t mentioned in either.
Chapter One tells how the young man suffered emotionally from being labeled illegitimate although when we talked, he assured me the stigma has long gone: “Thank God, I’ve cured that demon but I know how others feel and I’ve always treated those in the same position with a compassion.” It was a traumatic day when he told his school mates he was going home because his father wanted him. He writes: ‘Then a bumptious boy said to me with a sneer: “He’s not your father. He’s your grandfather, and you are a bastard” ……. The hurt seeped in to me to the point where I began to lose self confidence at an age when this is important to any young person.’
Two things helped him regain self esteem, one was sport and the other was writing. I remember meeting Alf in the 1960s when, having played in goal for the British Universities, he was hockey correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph, he at the start of his career in newspapers as I was at the start mine in television. He progressed to writing his popular TV column and then to important in-depth features, becoming a leader writer for the Telegraph where he is currently religion correspondent. As well as this he has written more than 30 books.
The opening chapters of Behind the Headlines feature his family, Bessbrook Mill and the town characters, learning to knit in the infants school, watching in horror as a pig was slaughtered. Writing of events during The Troubles was equally bloody and horrific but readers will get a unique glimpse of what was going on in those days, the heart of the action and the aftermath. Alf is concise in his writing, his words give colour to events but such are the brutal stories he has covered, sometimes it’s a difficult read. But this is from the horses mouth, told as he saw it.
In another chapter, he doesn’t mince his words about hosting his chat programmes in the BBC and the inflated egos of some colleagues, also of his time as Director of Information Officer at Queen’s University Belfast. A difficult section to write as the author had studied at the university years before alongside Seamus Heaney, Bernadette Devlin, Robin Eames and John Taylor. Although he had and has a loyalty to Queens he admitted he was seeing it from another angle. “In the book I talk about being disappointed at the insularity and narrowness of some academics, clever in their own subject but with the inability to see beyond their own noses.”
Thankfully after three years, he returned to what he loves most, writing and his vivid and disturbing chapters on visiting the Developing world and the suffering experienced there underlines how fortunate we are.
An important book when it comes to the recent history of Northern Ireland through the eyes and the pen of one of our most respected writers.
Review by Anne Hailes
Behind the Headline
50 Years in Journalism
Buy Behind the Headlines from Waterstones here.