Updated: Apr 26, 2021
In 1980, at the age of 6 years old, I was invited to be a page boy at my Aunt’s wedding.
It was a special thing indeed because not only was I the only one of my brother’s to be at the wedding, I was one of only two of my thirty odd cousins to be at the event. The other was an older female cousin who was to be a bridesmaid and whose own wedding 5 years later would also feature as a significant event in my childhood.
The other factor that made it special was that it was in England, necessitating an airplane trip to London and onward travel to a place that can be best described as the Craigavon of the South for it’s similar penchant for roundabouts- Milton Keynes.
I had been on a plane before, roundtrip to San Francisco, but I was too young to remember it, however I recall this flight in surprising detail. Mostly because I spent the journey with my head in a sick bag. Before and after that I vividly recall the events. The take off from Aldergrove, now known as Belfast International, Airport was incredibly exciting and may have been the start of my fascination with aircraft. And the arrival into Heathrow coincided with my being presented with a large polystyrene model aircraft as a gift from my parents to make up for how ill I had been in the previous 60 minutes!
As the youngest person at the wedding, and dressed like a miniature version of Hugh Heffner in a crushed velvet jacket, frilly shirt and bow tie I was the cute little boy who kept getting bought lemonade and crisps and being given ten pence pieces to go off on my own and play the table top video game Asteroids - then the coolest electronic device other than a Remington shaver! I would have been outside on the sunny evening flying my model plane but it had of course crashed too often and was broken and in the bin by this stage.
I didn’t mind as I have generally been happy in my own company and indeed for a lot of my life I believed those around me preferred me to be in my own company too!
The following year as a thank-you for being such a good boy I was invited back to visit my aunt and her now husband in the height of the summer of 1981. Very excitingly I traveled on my own from Belfast this time as a UM - an Unaccompanied Minor - it seems strange now to think that at 7 years of age a child would be let go anywhere on their own let alone on a flight but that was how it was.
I remember the night of Tuesday 28th July we travelled in to London and went to see ‘Clash of the Titans’ in the cinema and travel the already heavily barricaded route that Charles and Diana would be taking the next day on the way to their own nuptials which we watched live with the millions and billions of others on the television.
On another day my new uncle took me to work with him in the local sewage works where he worked in the laboratory. That might seem like an odd place to take a child but it was genuinely fascinating seeing how clean water was provided as well as seeing the collection of random things that people had flushed down the toilet like hairbrushes. How does that even get down the u-bend?
My aunt’s older brother, and the uncle in the family who treated us like he was another of the cousins, was also staying at the house in Milton Keynes.
He had gotten a job in the local radio station as a presenter and on one of the days I had gone in with him to the studio to see where he worked and listen to his show.
I recall the place being modern and clean and in a way complementary to a town with such an impressive water treatment facility. This was a city that was not going to put up with any crap.
The week I was there the DJs at the station were very excited to be running a phone-in competition to win tickets for an upcoming tour by Irish Rock legends Thin Lizzy and my aunt was anxious to secure four tickets so she was constantly listening to the radio and getting on the phoneline. And before so for several hours she would disappear off to try her luck.
And indeed she was successful at getting two tickets and was adamant that her luck would hold up and she’d get the other two tickets she would need so as to make a night of it with another couple she knew.
She was running out of opportunities to win and I think there were maybe only two more chances left when she did indeed manage to be the right number caller with the right answer - what the question was I don’t know.
She was ecstatic when announced as the winner and when she hung up the phone she moved around the kitchen and living room in joyous mood, no doubt how she would be when ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’.
It was short-lived of course because after the next song was over the DJ who had by now realised that the winner he’d just announced was living in the same house as one of the station’s employees and fellow presenters, indeed was their sister, was plainly anxious not to run himself into a scandal and so without any warning in advance said; ‘I have to just say that there was a problem with our winner for the Thin Lizzy tickets and they have been disqualified so we will be running another opportunity to win the tickets shortly, stay tuned and we’ll be back after these messages..’ and cut to an advert break.
I can only imagine that when my aunt won the first tickets no one had picked up anything untoward as she did not share the same surname as my DJ-ing uncle but this alert guy knew them both well enough to know there could be trouble so he was taking a stand for propriety and integrity- even though there had been no impropriety as the relationship had not contributed to the winning of the tickets.
You’ve heard the phrase, ‘light the blue touch paper and stand well back’ being the instruction on how to safely ignite a firework and metaphorically that is exactly what had happened in my aunt’s living room that day.
She exploded into a rant of epic proportions and took on the air of both a Gorgon and the Kraken and then rang the radio station, making it clear that if the on-air talent did not immediately take her call she would be driving down and he could deal with her in person. It would be no battle of giants if that happened and so he eventually spoke to her after he had given the tickets away to another listener.
In my house growing up swear words were not a thing. I heard my father say a vulgar word for the first time when he was 65 and I was 38 and I almost fainted. So to hear the stream of abuse that was directed down the phone line at the hapless but diligent man was an unusual experience. I don’t recall what was said but he was under no illusions that a reversal of his decision was the only way out.
And that’s what he did. He went back on air and announced that his previous announcement had been a mistake and in fact there was no problem with the prize winner and the person he had just announced as the new winner would of course get to keep their tickets - there just wouldn’t be any more chances to win tickets after all in the subsequent show. My aunt was effectively being given two tickets on an ex gratia basis rather than being a successful prize recipient.
I can’t say that my aunt was delighted, but she was certainly wasn’t acting like a Killer on the Loose anymore which was a relief.
I have no idea whether two, or indeed four tickets for Thin Lizzy were worth getting so upset about, I was too young to have even heard of them at the time. Certainly to my aunt they were so I guess I can’t quibble over her passion for what she wanted.
Looking objectively at the events now, I can see that as an entrant to the competition she would not have seen anything problematic as she might not have been aware of the standard stipulation that is common knowledge now that employees and their families cannot win competitions from commercial organisations as the risk that it will look like a fix is too great. She got no advantage so why can’t she win.
And I can see the prize givers predicament, of course we can’t let an employees’s sister who he lives with, the prize. They hadn’t thought of the risk in advance, they were a new and small venture, it had likely never came up before and in the panic that came with the dawning of the potential public relations challenge a person who wanted to maintain and show his honesty did what he thought was the right thing in the agony of the moment.
There is a suggested strategy in crisis management that if you don’t know what to do -do nothing til you work it out but that only works when you have experienced heads around who can advise you - and advise you quickly.
If you haven’t worked things out in advance then sometimes you just have to make the best decision you can and hope it works out, and sometimes you have to be ready to evolve your best decision in the light of subsequent events.
I’ve always had a policy when dealing with complaints that if I can see that we have done anything that can be even slightly criticised then we won’t attempt to stand our ground, we take it on the chin, we accept we’re to blame and we make things right. And thats what the radio station did after the initial attempt to deflect responsibility and the problem resolved itself.
If you don’t take responsibility for minor matters, you won’t take responsibility for the major ones and it’s a slippery slope to a loss of your inherent core values, even when you think you’re trying to do right. It’s always quicker in the long run to deal with the problems early without blaming others.
Or to put that as Phil Lynott might have said it:
‘Over at Johnny’s place, they don’t need to be slapped in the face, they accept their mistake with grace.’