Gary Lightbody has not had a girlfriend in eight years. He’s a handsome rock star, the lead singer in Snow Patrol, known for great anthems of love and longing like Run and Chasing Cars, but still he’s single. “Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, does it?” says Lightbody with a wry smile, running a hand through his longish black hair.
Snow Patrol are about to make a comeback after a very long time away, but they are still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Lightbody can connect with whole stadiums full of people, so why does he have nobody to connect with as a partner?
“I wasn’t a great boyfriend. I cheated and I was shut down, emotionally. All the clichés of terrible boyfriends. So I wanted to sort myself out before I started anything with anyone. That coincided with us coming off tour seven years ago. And I started drinking heavily. And I thought, ‘That’s another reason not to get involved with anyone.’ I didn’t want them to be with me in this mess…”
Derren Brown looks deep into my eyes and smiles. ‘Being a hypnotist is the ultimate fantasy of control really, isn’t it?’
I can only agree with this master of manipulation, a grand illusionist with the power to read the minds of strangers and make them do outrageous things like rob a security van, shoot Stephen Fry or push an innocent victim off a roof. Those were faked for television specials The Heist, The Assassin and The Push (To The Edge) but the men and women involved though it was all happening for real.
So did the viewers who were alarmed when he risked blowing his brains out on television with Russian Roulette – or astonished and envious when he seemed to predict the right numbers on How To Win The Lottery.
So is that why Derren Brown became what he is: for the sense of power over people? ‘Big time. The desire to perform was huge, and so was the controlling aspect of it.’
Seventy years ago, a young man known as Seánín died on the Great Blasket, a remote island at the tip of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. He was one of the few remaining strong, youthful men in an island community that had once been strong and vibrant and famous for its oral, storytelling culture. Most of the young had gone to America, where they gathered again in a place called Hungry Hill and flourished. The death of Seánín broke the hearts of the remaining islanders and ultimately led to the evacuation of the Great Blasket in 1953.
I was privileged to be able to tell his story and go in search of the islanders for the book Hungry for Home (published by Viking 2001 and later by the Curragh Press, and now being prepared for a revised, updated edition with details here) with the help of my friend and guide Mícheál de Mordha. The photograph above shows Dr Mike Carney looking out across the Sound to the island where his brother died, when Mike risked his life to go back for one last look in 2013, at the age of nearly 93. In tribute to Seánín and the rest of the remarkable Ó Cearna – or Carney – clan, here is Enda Oates reading from the first chapter of the book, describing those final moments. It was originally broadcast by RTE.
Since posting this, I have learned of the death of Ray Stagles, a fellow Englishman who was passionate about the Blaskets. He was a friend, a mentor and a great support when I was writing the book and I will always remember him as a gentleman and a scholar.
Henry Allingham saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent today, the centenary of the start of the Somme, in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be.
Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.
“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”
Softly, with a voice that is still clear after all these years, Dame Vera Lynn begins to sing. “For a little bit of heaven fell, from out the sky one day …”
She is 97 now and rather frail, the light from the window making a halo of her finespun white hair. But some of the old strength returns as she duets with her younger self. Every word is right, even though this recording was never released and she is hearing it for the first time in 70 years. Back then, Vera Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart”: the girl with the bright smile whose songs kept the home fires burning.