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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

Here’s another beautiful obituary of an old friend of mine, big Ted Scallan, a veteran reporter in Belfast, written by a contemporary who has always been a fabulous writer, John Edwards, in the Daily Mail last week. It has nothing to do with Ibiza and though it certainly has nothing to do with sober life, it is about everything that led up to it for me. I hope you appreciate it and besides it made me cry.

SMOKE from overnight bombs and big fires hung in streaks over the small brick houses of West Belfast and waited for a wind to blow it off to sea. Only a few bombs.

Also, the body count was really low for those bad times in the Seventies. Three or maybe four is what the police were saying.

And Ted Scallan went to work in the morning a little later than usual. He walked down to Monico's bar in Queen's Arcade and tapped the window with a bunch of keys. The guy inside was finishing cleaning and opened the door wide for Ted. The tap of the keys was as distinctive as his voice.

That was a couple of minutes before nine-thirty. Which was Ted's time for the first drink of the day. Monico's then was always the place.

The barman put up coffee and a scotch and water. Ted had the scotch first.

Then he smiled as if an angel had touched his lips. Now he was off and running, and the IRA or the UDA couldn't throw a thing at him that would spoil the rest of his day.

This was his city. He loved every dangerous, grubby square inch of it. And nearly all the people, whichever side they were on.

Sometime in the next eight hours, he would be along to the Daily Mail office in High Street by the big clock and telex the most incisive account of politics and mayhem that appeared anywhere in the newspapers next morning.

This was Ted Scallan's game.

Hardball. He was the best and the last. Never again were there going to be guys like Scallan.

They are not around like him in the reporting trade any more. All gone. The era is stuffed into history. He talked of stories and long drinks. The new people began talking of gyms and carrot juice. Ted knew nothing of it.

He liked to stand at all sorts of bars and the news came to him from the people involved. Which is how he was at Monico's, a roll of morning papers under his arm.

After Monico's, he was through some back alleys to the Red Barn.

Ted hit it every day about 10am. It was his alternative office.

They left the door open a little bit for him so he wouldn't have to knock.

As he walked in, the barman turned and hit the whisky Optic twice. Ted poured his own water. A phone was on the wall. No mobiles then.

He threw a ton of small change on the bar and started making calls.

Every day was the same.

The guy could drink like a champ but his morning eyes were clear like a kitten's.

What was that, Ted? The call had seemed ferocious. 'Some fellow I know, that's all.' This fellow could have been at the head of the IRA or the UDA. Ted went to the top for information. He was trusted.

'Why don't you spend a night with the IRA?' he said to you with about four scotches gone already. WHO could fix it? He said nothing, walked over to the phone and made a call. 'A man will be in touch with you. Do what he says,' Ted said after the call.

Three nights later and a black taxi driver came and took you to a dark, smelly ground-floor room in the Markets district.

The IRA man in the place was called Joe. In the back of the room, a woman was monitoring British Army patrol two-way calls on a huge Sony radio. She was telling IRA groups in the city where the patrols were heading. It was good stuff.

Ted fixed that because he knew people in bars. There wasn't much he couldn't fix. Only two drinks in the Red Barn. Now the office. He checked in.

As boss, he gave reporters assignments and looked at the messages. For most of the rest of the day, he would be at one of those numbers, he said. The numbers were on a card stuck to the wall. There were 30 numbers. All of them pubs.

Ted crossed the streets day after day, limped a little bit down another alley and got into the Morning Star right on opening hour.

He drank some more whisky and talked privately to a man who just happened to drop in. The man was a senior cop. The cop left. Ted got out a notebook and made a few notes.

He had his story for the day. THE Albert pub got the skip. Ted needed to see a contact.

The contact was from the Bus Company. Drivers knew and saw everything.

Ian Paisley was around. Ted liked Paisley. They had friendly fights.

Paisley smelled the air and looked hard at Scallan. 'I see you've been cavorting with John Barleycorn again,' he said.

There was the Albert to have a drink in. The Crows Nest was next, The Blackthorn just before.

Late afternoon in the office, Ted faced the telex machine and they talked to each other like old friends.

He belted out his story. His stuff went straight onto the front page.

In the evening, the steep stairs into Frank McGlade's were never a problem. McGlade's was the city's big newspaper bar. But nobody in there had covered the patch like Scallan.

He checked the visitor's book to see who was new. One day he saw the signatures of Major Bowes-Lyon of the British Army and Seamus Toomey, IRA Chief-of-Staff, signed in the same afternoon.

McGlade's was serious. Only no one in there could tell Ted anything he didn't know. That was how the life of a real newspaperman in Belfast was back in the Seventies. Scallan was right there on top of the biggest running Story in the world.

Lots of friends were around his wife Annie the other day talking of his legend. Then, he came by in his coffin going into Roselawn Cemetery. He was 71. And his life had been like nobody can even understand today.

Sinclair Newton