BBC Today presenter Nick Robinson loses his ‘impartial’ way amongst my non-existent tattoos and “broad” accent.


The ‘impartial’ Nick Robinson


In the late 1980s, during my time as a BBC Production Trainee in Manchester, I worked with the well-known BBC journalist Nick Robinson.  He is now a presenter on the ‘Today’ radio programme.  Nick and I worked together in as much that we worked for the same TV programme Brass Tacks, attended production meetings together and shared the same set of offices.

In a recent inaugural lecture in memory of my late and much lamented former Brass Tacks producer, Steve Hewlett, Nick Robinson describes me in the following way:

“Our team included a former merchant seaman with a broad Scouse accent and arms covered in tattoos. I have worked with few like him in TV since.”

The full text of Nick Robinson’s lecture can be read here:

Anyone who has ever taken the slightest genuine interest in me discovers immediately that I am from Manchester. Not Liverpool (where Scousers and the ‘Scouse’ accent comes from). In fact, I was born in Salford, which Manchester is near, as my dear, fellow Salfordian Tony Wilson always so beautifully put it. Moreover, anyone who knows about the North West of England, as Nick Robinson claims to do in his lecture, would never commit the Cardinal Sin of confusing a Manc such as me with a Scouser. The reverse is of course also the case.

Now we come to my arms.

Thankfully, I have the same arms now  as I did in the late 1980s when I was at BBC Manchester. I have one tattoo on my arms and one tattoo only. This tattoo is located on my upper right arm, but I have never been in the habit of flaunting it as is the mode these days. In other words, my arms are not and never have been “covered in tattoos”.

Finally, and most important to me, I have a name. Nick Robinson is not interested in my name, so did not do the usual journalist routine of ringing or mailing a mutual colleague to jog his memory as to my identity before writing his nonsense about me. Nor does he seem to remember that the subject of his lecture, Steve Hewlett, and your author made a hard hitting film for Brass Tacks about injuries to young Irishmen on building sites in London.

Where did Nick Robinson get this caricature image of me, which has clearly remained in his mind for several decades? It is of course a posh boy’s stereotype of a working class man who managed to make it through the centuries’ thick cultural wall that separates ‘ordinary’ people from media elite like him. If Nick Robinson had bothered to ask about me rather than regaling his audience with a tale about a  ‘freak’ (my term and emphasis) the likes of which, as he says himself, he has rarely seen before or since, he would have found out that in my Brass Tacks days I was just as well known as the expert linguist I am as for my previous life in the Danish merchant navy, and also that I won the European Journalist of the Year award in 2007.

For Nick Robinson I was just a chance to conjure a sloppy and inaccurate picture in order, ironically and tellingly, to highlight the fact that there are just not enough of us rough types around in the media; though he does caution against the idea of employment quotas for our type.

The overall subjects of Nick Robinson’s lecture were impartiality and how the Fourth Estate can make the media more diverse and relevant to the masses in this age of media fragmentation.

Nick Robinson is clearly blind to where the real problem lies; blind also, in this instance at least, to the need for the kind of care and accuracy he urges in his Steve Hewlett lecture.



@Paul Larkin – Monday 2 October 2017, Donegal, Ireland


Update to the above article.

Nick Robinson has been gracious enough to apologise to me via twitter for mistakes he ascribes to a hazy memory.:

“Paul, My apologies for the hazy memory & for failing to find you. I did ask around former colleagues but clearly should have tried harder”

It’s never easy to apologise and admit mistakes, so we must applaud Nick for that and I have expressed my gratitude to him. The problems regarding class bias in the media however will, I fear, remain with us until the social profile type of journalists is changed way beyond its present recognition.


Month’s Mind for my late Captain Svend Poulsen – the importance of ‘mind’

Kaptajn Svend Poulsen – 11th of April 1929 – 8th July 2017

The tradition of ‘Month’s Mind’ – a special commemorative day for a deceased loved one that is held around a month after his or her death – is in all faiths and traditions, regardless of how that is arranged and expressed. The Month’s Mind tradition is still very strong in Ireland and, of course, the Celtic use of the word ‘mind’ as a verb is to ‘remember’. Do you mind that day when he was here?  If I mind correctly, it was last autumn when the tree fell, and so on. Memory is the basis of all culture.

The word ‘mind’ is essentially Germanic in origin and, interestingly, in Old Norse we find that ‘mind’ as minna and then the related mynd can be both a remembrance and also an image. Modern Icelandic ‘hug-mynd’ meanwhile is a thought or perception. We mind and we image and we imagine, and this, my Months Mind for my dear, recently deceased sea captain Svend Poulsen, is an important way of helping me bring my thoughts memories and images about him together. To help me create. To help me ‘mind’. It also tells me once again that no matter how much, justifiable, anger we feel at religious institutions and their collapse into imperious moralism and too often evil abuse, we mustn’t throw away the traditions they have carried for centuries in our cultures.  Our rituals and myths are there to help us to remember not to forget. Memory is the basis of all culture.

‘MS Skaga Sif’ in Spain with timber from Russia – the author bending over her gunwale under the watchful eye of a boatswain in the foreground who’s stowing a pilot ladder.

Most of you will already have noticed that it’s more than a month since my Captain died but I wrote much of this essay just after his cremation service in Salford and then work, in the form of a book deadline, has delayed me until now. Captain Poulsen will forgive me for allowing work to take precedence; for he always stressed the value and dignity of work. He was at heart a worker. Despite his exalted position as a Ship’s Captain, he was really just an extraordinary ordinary man who chose to live amongst the people. That was the way we met. His wife lived in Salford and that’s where he chose to live. Salford of all places. Grimy, already post-industrial, Thatcher ravaged Salford. The allegedly feral Salford. My home town. He could have chosen anywhere in the world to live and most sea captains do. By a beach, usually, on their retirement. A living death scenario for my Captain.

The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic – a novel

I’ve written a novel that’s based on my time at sea. It is, or more accurately ‘became’, fiction, but Svend Poulsen features more or less as himself. The key story is a young man’s voyage of self and cultural discovery and is obviously partly based on my own life, but by far the majority of events in the book are fiction. There is strong truth in good fiction. It is an incredible process when the characters you mind as you write a book suddenly begin doing things you weren’t expecting, or show sides you didn’t know about, but they are nonetheless true – for that character and for that life in that book. Creating true metaphysical lives is an astonishing human gift.

The book doesn’t romanticise. Life at sea can be harsh, as is shown. Inevitable tensions arise when people must live cheek by jowl with each other for long periods of time. And you can’t just walk off a boat in the middle of the ocean. But deep cultural symbols and memories emerge. The Danish crew’s love of good food. The seriousness also with which most Danes takes democracy. I mind (create) conversations my shipmates were having – about poverty in England and the reasons for it. The way they left things aside for that boy. Suddenly found things they didn’t need. Work gear the boy didn’t have. Even the right wing or cussed ones had constant flashes of Grace. Liked the boy also because he loved to work.

Of course, I’ve written the novel after studying Old Norse, Scandinavian and other languages for many years. I learned Danish almost as a child does. So came the knowledge that the Scandinavians have this precious thing called serious discourse in their culture. That they are highly individual and have a deep sense of personal right. That a person also has a right to be awkward. That there must be space for Loki as well as Thor. The phrase Holmgang – a single combat duel over a legal dispute that is fought out on an islet or ‘holm’ – has gone into English. With ‘Holmgang’ in your culture, you need to know your law and be ready to be yourself to your very essence. And they help this boy find his true self back in Ireland from whence his ancestors had to flee. Truths that had been hidden from him, as is the immigrant way with their children.

I only sailed twice under Captain Poulsen but they were long trips. Once on ‘MS Inger Kansas’ from England to Portugal, the Canary Islands and then Africa, with an extended stay in Nigeria. A remarkable journey into the creeks of the Niger delta. And then a second tour under his command on ‘MS Skaga Sif’. On Skaga Sif we went from Sweden to White Sea ports around Archangel in Russia and then down to Morocco; on then into the Mediterranean and its captivating harbours. It’s far from it I was reared, but my Captain saw good things in me and knew I was able. He wanted me to continue my life at sea; was even willing to pay for me to go to the naval officer college in Denmark. But he and his crew had lifted me from the mire of a grim childhood and the only journey I could make was that of self-discovery, which is a journey into art. I know he was disappointed, but he freed the yearning salmon as freedom lovers do.

Svend Poulsen was always just himself. Happy in himself. Happy in his own self sufficiency as Kierkegaard put it. Happy in the knowledge he had not only been a quietly brilliant ship’s master, but had also helped other people. Happy amongst the people. He’s in Valhalla now and waits to steer the Gods in their longship. Away from Ragnarök on that fateful day. He was brave and forthright. A great mariner. Gladly faced into storms with a glint in his eye. An impish grin, even. He was both Thor and Loki. The essence of a Dane.

Farvel så længe, Kaptajn. Vi ses nok igen, engang.



@Paul Larkin , An Charraig, Gaoth Dobhair

Mí Meán Fómhair 2017

The infallible full-beam empathy test

Why Astonishment Rocks?

Well, in my interesting life experience I’ve found that professional types, usually middle or upper class, or ‘aspiring’ people, have a tendency to be cynical about people and life. Their sense of wonder and awe at life – and also their basic empathy? – is somehow blunted. This is not for a moment to denigrate professionals such as media commentators, psychotherapists or academics  as human beings. I’m talking about social tendencies here not the sacred dignity of any person. And everyone of us is capable of change.

More on empathy very shortly.

In this new blogsite, I intend to look at astonishment and wonder and lots of other related questions in some hopefully interesting detail.

I grew up in a Salford slum and very few of the people I know or care about, or am interested in, lack a facility for astonishment and wonder, no matter how hard their life has been. Being always quite bright and inquisitive, I’ve long puzzled how so called ordinary people could retain at least an element of wide eyed innocence and delight at the world, yet professionals and experts often look at that same world with a baleful, suspicious or weary eye. It should be the other way round, surely?

A number of brilliant thinkers and artists have pondered this problem of cynicism, or the related idea of a general scepticism at life. Chief among them is the North American philosopher Stanley Cavell who influences me greatly. Writers like Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje also explore this theme in great depth – the general pervasiveness of scepticism and a lack of wonder and then those brave enough to believe in miracles and great feats of determination, or will, or dreams. They also give telling depictions of those who lack any empathy, or are cynical and mean, damaged in some way.

The brilliant North American novelist Marilynne Robinson has written persuasively on how sceptical experts now control social discourse:

“A central tenet of the modern world view is  that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires … [but] … certain well qualified others do know them.”

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson

Ms Robinson, it seems to me, hits the professional nail on the head with this quote. We are told we don’t know our own minds anymore, but ‘experts’ do.

The problem is that perhaps apart from the late (very sadly lamented) John Berger, few of the good guys, the astonishers let’s call them, actually speak to ordinary people in an ordinary way and this is where I  can help. That at any rate is the basic aspiration of AstonishmentRocks.

In many of these short blogs I will try and tell a tale or record a short note about a particular issue.  So let’s start with empathy.

Empathy – our innate, untaught, ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

The infallible full-beam empathy test

If you drive a car at night, particularly in country areas, like where I live in Ireland, but also in most places, you will get this point immediately. Because every single one of you has dipped your headlights if they were on full beam and a car has approached from the other direction. The driver coming the other way has almost certainly done the same.

Why have you done this? You don’t know the opposite driver and he/she doesn’t know you. And  it’s not to avoid an accident, because this dipping or dimming procedure usually starts from a long way off.

It is simply a common courtesy and gesture. It doesn’t make us all saints in lots of other regards but it’s a sign of universal empathy nonetheless. A small miracle. The kind of little wonder we’ve stopped recognising.



@Paul Larkin, Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair, Mí an Mheithimh