“What you leave behind, you don’t miss anyway” – Paul Hewson.
Friday 26th September 2003.
That’s twenty years ago today. Madness. This was the day when life unknowingly all changed for me. It did for me and it could for you too and you will never expect that. I certainly wasn’t ready for a new life. I didn’t have time. Excrement to that.
” You’ve been so busy lately that you haven’t found the time” – Damon Albarn.
The week was a new changed life. It all started on Friday 26th September 2003, about 3 a.m. But let’s backtrack a bit…
“The grass is always greener on the other side” – Anon.
On Monday 22nd September 2003, I had a staff night out in The Beach Bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Workmates were there from my job at Steenson’s Food Centre in the seaside town of Bangor. I worked with a lot of people there over a two year period before sowing my seeds to leave behind, Northern Ireland. I have a few photos from those days, but the only one I found in a box this week was with Sarah who worked with me there. Oh we were so young. The following day, the Tuesday, I was back in work at Steenson’s with Chris, Dickie, Janine, Sarah, Emma, Garry, Trevor, Alma, Mark, Jonny G, Steven Boyd, Tracey and Mildred.
That evening, Tuesday 23rd September 2003, I did a final farewell pub crawl in my homecity (then, my hometown) of Bangor in Northern Ireland. On that pub crawl, were my mates Darren Latimer and Gavin Moore, my brother Marko and Debbie, Darren’s girlfriend. It was a quick quiet farewell really because I was leaving Northern Ireland to move to Bournemouth, England. We said our goodbyes and that was that. Twenty years on, I haven’t seen Gavin Moore or Debbie since! Ridiculous but true. And I’ve only seen Darren once since then, a short night out, again in Bangor in 2005. Life was about to change, forever. But I didn’t know it then and I wouldn’t have predicted it. One of my previous jobs in Bangor was working with Darren in McMillen’s Bar and restaurant, this photo below is 2001 though I was close friends with Darren up until I left in 2003.
And then that week, I worked in Steenson’s on the Wednesday and Thursday and then came home to pack for my trip. On the Friday, I’d leave Northern Ireland at 3 a.m. for Bournemouth in England. As I type this up, TWENTY years on, it’s staggering that I never returned. I just never moved back there, not even for Easters, Christmases or Summers. In fact my longest time back in Northern Ireland since then was only when I broke my leg in 2007 and fell into depression in 2016, when I spent a few weeks in my homeland. Yet suddenly, from 3 a.m. on Friday 26th September 2003, I had left Northern Ireland forever. If you told me that back then I’d never have believed you. I’m flabbergasted.
“You never know what’s around the chimney corner” – RT.
“You don’t know what awaits you in life. Sometimes, you can’t predict it” – AM.
Oh this was destiny. Come on. I was meant to move here. Of that there is no doubt. If you really don’t know the story by now, then you’ll have to read my books on it, or meet me down the pub. In that, you’ll know it was a mixture of –
- Coastal B seaside towns on the brain (Ballyholme, Bangor, Belfast, Boscombe, Bournemouth)
- Northern Ireland’s last World Cup goal was scored by Colin Clarke (then of AFC Bournemouth)
- Northern Ireland legend George Best’s last European club was AFC Bournemouth
- I was too busy working to choose a university for UCAS so I stuck the first 6 alphabetically (Belfast, Brighton, Aberystwyth, Bournemouth…)
- Bournemouth was the first of those 6 to accept me
- If I hadn’t got into Bournemouth University, I had decided I wasn’t going to any University at all
“It was written in the stars for me to score that goal” – Steve “Super Fletch” Fletcher.
“We were bust and going down, but Fletcher scored v. Grimsby Town” – Jonny Blair.
But there was more to it than sticking a pin on a map. A few weeks earlier, I had received confirmation from Queen’s University in Belfast that I had got a 72% grade in my Tech Access Course. It was a ridiculous result for me. I needed 70% to pass. I needed 70% to get into Bournemouth University as I had chosen a course that was strict to get into – BA Honours Public Relations. Bournemouth had requested I submit an essay and get over 70%.
Here, in Newtownards my birthtown, I was studying English Literature, Irish History, European History and Sociology. A quadruple that sure as hell inspired my journeys later. I passed that course with wacaday aplomb and this meant I was accepted onto a new course at Bournemouth University in England – Bachelor Of Arts Honours Public Relations. I had no idea what that even meant!
Working full time in the local butchery and salad bar, this was a victory for the underdog, against the run of play. There was time for one last Northern Ireland home match, versus Armenia before I headed away. Weirdly, since that 1-0 defeat, we haven’t played Armenia since!
I was too busy working to expect I’d pass that course. I worked flat out. 6 days a week at Steensons Food Centre. I’d work 5 of the days between Monday and Saturday and then I’d work every Sunday. I was saving money to be able to survive when I moved to England. If I ever got that 70% grade.
“I miss you like a hole in the head, because I do boy” – Sugababes.
In honesty, I hadn’t expected to pass that course and get it. I felt like an underdog. I wouldn’t make it. But then the news came in that morning when I drove to Ards Tech to collect my results. 72%! I was in. I was going to Bournemouth! Seaside B towns on the brain (Ballyholme, Bangor, Belfast, Boscombe, Bournemouth, Brzezno…), inspired by George Best and Colin Clarke, this was my dream, my new adventure. My trip to from B to B, Bangor to Bournemouth was overland and oversea. I wasn’t flying in with a Miss World like Geordie had done…
Caught in the here and now, I travelled to Bournemouth by car. I had my own car back then. Those shifts in the local pub and butchery had helped me own that. The car was paid off and I loved that car. A white Hyundai Accent 1.3 litre.
Even my move to Bournemouth was a sign of things to come. I backpacked 4 countries on route!! From Bangor through Newry in Northern Ireland and down to Rosslare in the Republic of Ireland. I had filled my car with things I might need for my new life in Bournemouth. Dad was more a traveller than Mum and so he wanted to come with me and help me settle in. Although my parents were never big travellers, Mum had backpacked in Canada and Dad had backpacked in northern Spain. They both did that in the 1960s. Each time I tried to chat to them about it, they didn’t want to tell me about it, they always tell me to focus on the present and the future, but the sentimental past intrigues me more! I still wonder how tourism all was back then. I was leaving behind a life here in Northern Ireland, could I cope without all that? No more Marlo, Kilmaine, Ballyholme, BGS, Glentoran, Belfast, Northern Ireland…
The four country trip to Bournemouth
That morning, Friday 26th September 2003, after byballing sleepy Newry, we were now in the Republic of Ireland. We then went from Rosslare to Fishguard in Wales with Brittany ferries ⛴️.
Then I drove across the border into England, passing by Warminster and Sturminster Newton to end up in the seaside town of Poole. In the irony of life, despite moving to Bournemouth that day, I’d be working in Poole, studying in Poole and later (at Alton Road) living in Poole. My first stop was at Bournemouth University in Poole. It was here where the reception held my house key for a “unilet”.
I had organised through Bournemouth University to sleep in a flatshare (“unilet”) in the district of Charminster, on Avon Road, number 72. This was a 6 bedroom house and the mystery awaited me. I had no idea who these new flatmates would be!! Actually, that was exciting. Somewhere in the previous week they had changed the plans and I would now be sharing a 4 bedroom house in the district of Springbourne. My address was to be 256 Holdenhurst Road. No Google Maps back then, I had no clue where it was or what it would look like.
Once here, I’d never forget it, and the first thing I did was to check how close the AFC Bournemouth football stadium (Dean Court) was. Dean Court was, to all intents and purposes at the end of the Holdenhurst Road. 20 minutes walk. This dream was certain to be a good one. I picked up my keys 🔑 and opened the door of my new house. I was in room 1, on the lower floor. There was nobody else in the house. Back in 2003, I wasn’t on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter or Instagram. Some of them hadn’t even been invented yet! I was on Friends Reunited and Bebo! If you remember those. I had never heard of Google or Wikipedia. My search engines were Altavista and Yahoo. I used Ask Jeeves if I couldn’t find something.
“Times have changed but I’ve only aged a little” – Jonny Blair.
It’s also important to note that when I started University, I had never used a laptop before, nor bought or owned one. I simply didn’t know how to use a laptop. We did have a Bournemouth University login portal though and it looked like this –
In 2003, I had never used videocalls, smartphones, photo messages and even rarely emails back then. Technology was on the evening of a golden rage. 50% of our assignments at university were done by paper and pen and handed in to be marked the same way. Hardly anything at university was done online in my day.
“Don’t know what is pushing me higher. It’s the static from the floor below” – Girls Aloud.
So while we didn’t have all that technology back then, at least in the flat, we did have the classic paper and pen. And that’s how I got to know who my new flatmates were. In the kitchen of our flat, we each chose cupboards. I had been the last of the four of us to arrive, yet the first to move in. Basically I learnt my other three flatmates grew up in England. They had all popped into the house on the Monday of that week to choose their cupboards, move some stuff in, check the place out and leave notes. Then, they had left, back to their English hometowns. I was to learn that Steve was from Horndean in Portsmouth. Hannah was from Oxon in Oxfordshire and had been born in Sri Lanka 🇱🇰. Claire was from Cowroast near Tring and Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. They had all left notes, introducing themselves and writing they’d be back to move in properly on the Saturday! I liked the idea of 2 girls, 2 guys. A cosy start to a fresh new life.
“Traded in my sorrows for the joy that I borrowed; back in the day” – Kylie Minogue.
I moved in for good on the Friday. Dad was with me. That first Friday night will stick in my mind. I seem to have a better memory for things that happened way back then, than what happened this week. After unpacking all my stuff at that new house, Dad and I went for a walk. It was already dark by then. We dandered to the left out my front door, as this road was a main road that headed into town. A few streets down and we found a small Italian restaurant called Casa Pepe. We ate in there and knew there was a live English Premier League match an hour later. It was Arsenal v Newcastle United. That Italian restaurant, Casa Pepe, I only was ever in twice. The second time would come in January 2004 for a date with Emma Halstead. It doesn’t exist now, like many things in my life.
Again, we continued our walk into town from here and on a corner near an Asda and a Halfords, we found a pub. It had white walls and red writing and was called Samson’s Bar.
We popped in and got 2 seats, 2 pints of Carling and the football came on. My Granda is Sam, Dad’s Dad so the irony that our first bar and beer in Bournemouth fell on “Sam Son’s” wasn’t lost on the brace. Two of them were here. No prefix (Dad) and grand (me).
[photo to be added]
As we watched Arsenal bate Newcastle United 3-2 that night, we heard some live music from a bar next door. It turned out that Samson’s was connected to a rock club / nightbar called The Villa.
There were a few vacant seats at our table and some rock lads asked if they could join us. They could and they were Fleudian Slip, a Pink Floyd covers band. After the match we headed back to my new home and slept. Dad slept there that night. It had been a tiring trip. The next morning we were up early sorting my stuff into various rooms (lounge, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom). We went to the shops B and Q and Wilkinson to grab a few more essentials and then…I met my three new housemates, they all moved in that day. In order, I met Hannah, Claire, then Steve.
Steve, Hannah and Claire. Luckily they all also moved in with help from their parents so it wasn’t uncomfortable that Dad was here. In fact, the parents all went together to the University campus that day for a parents event! I had now moved in to my new home. With that group of 4 we decided on going out that evening for drinks and to get to know each other. Claire had reckoned we head to the “student bar”. Even though there were three student bars on our street – Heat, The Inferno and The Old Fire Station, we headed by taxi across into Poole to Dylans Bar. The place was rammed. Totally packed out. At the start I began to get frustrated actually. Service at the bar was so slow (not like in the photo below).
There were no free seats and the queue at the bar was huge. I could hear the echo and subsequent strange looks as I spoke in a Northern Irish accent in a room packed with English people. I was the foreigner here, the outcast, the odd one out.
“One million light years from home, throwing up and feeling small” – Tim Wheeler.
At the start, I didn’t like that. I wanted to be the same as everyone else, but I wasn’t. I had been naive all those years, of studying English language, English Literature, Irish History, British History and Politics.
Now it was clear to me. There was no country called “UK”, “United Kingdom” or “United Queendom” for me. This was a country called England. I wasn’t from here.
I’m from a country called Northern Ireland.
The contrasts were staggering. Now. It was only now when I realised it and then, I revelled in it.
Once I knew I was a foreigner here, I loved it. I put my Northern Ireland flag on my bedroom wall the day I moved in.
I’d also form an international group in University. Soon, I’d be studying with people from a load of different countries. Early ones were England, Wales, Botswana, Isle of Man and Costa Rica. I’d later work with people from Guinea, New Zealand, Poland, Australia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, France, Algeria, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Venezeula, a pretty dancer from Hungary and more…I was suddenly global and Bournemouth is where that all began. This was a bigger world here than in my Bangor homecity.
“Round round baby the world’s spinning out on me” – Mis-heard Sugababes lyrics.
So back to that first night in the packed bar, Dylan’s, as I was queueing in a mad frenzy for cheap beers, my irritation was clear to see. I’m impatient. I hate queues. When I turned to the random lad next to me in the queue, I thought well everybody is in the same boat here, we are probably all new to this bar, this University, this town. However the lad next to me wasn’t. We got talking in the queue. He was Austin. In the noisyness of the bar, I heard his name as “Ossty” and knew for sure I was in a wild foreign land. Austin was local, from Poole. Like me though, Austin was also out on his first night out with his new University housemates. Soon we were talking like a house on fire. He was an AFC Bournemouth fan, a local cherry. I told him about George Best, Colin Clarke, Jimmy Quinn and Warren Feeney. 4 famous Northern Irishmen who played football for AFC Bournemouth. Before we’d even got to the bar to be served (the queue was people deep), he’d invited me to the AFC Bournemouth match that next Saturday, at home to Hartlepool United at Dean Court. He’d also invited me and my new housemate Steve to their table as they had some space. Then finally I got served an ice cold beer. At Austin’s table, our two houses came together as we met the girls Hannah, Sarah and Ali. By coincidence Hannah was on my course and Sarah was studying journalism which I had done in Belfast before. We also met the lads Chris and Haz. After a few drinks, we all decided on a nightclub and chose the Showbar. We partied in there. I had new friends, a new life and a new adventure. Here’s a photo of the four of my new flatmates on our first night out.
Steve. Jonny. Hannah. Claire.
I loved being the foreigner here. Within a week, I’d have started my university course, got a local bus pass, got two new jobs (ironically in ASDA and Tesco – rivals), watched the Cherries and met Warren Feeney! After one week, I knew I wasn’t going back to Northern Ireland. I just knew it. Life had turned on its head.
There was no way I was moving back to Northern Ireland, when I now had all this…
The Cherries – My Love For AFC Bournemouth
Having met local Cherries fan Austin on the Saturday (27th September 2003), we arranged to meet in The Dolphin Pub pre-match for Hartlepool United at home, the following Saturday. Steve my housemate also came and over the next few years, we’d develop a bigger group of Cherries fans all going together. This first match was unforgettable and I fell in love with the place from day one! While warming up, Warren Feeney spotted my flag and came over for a quick chat!! We went 1-0 down and then Warren Feeney came on as sub. He scored one and set up one as we went 2-1 up. In the 90th minute, a Gavin Strachan free-kick dimmed it as a 2-2 score but I was in love already and felt like I’d always been a Cherry. Over the next 6 years, I’d amass over 100 home matches and about 30 away matches. It was nuts. I’d meet Warren Feeney, Steve Fletcher, James Hayter, Brian Stock and Eddie Howe.
“Boscombe back of the net” – AFC Bournemouth fans.
“Up the Cherries; in all departments” – AFC Bournemouth fans.
My Jobs In Bournemouth
In the first week, I got a job in both Tesco and ASDA. When it came to choosing one, I eliminated ASDA as they wanted me to work every Saturday, which dug into the football time. In fact it was a crazy story as I broke the overhead projector at my ASDA interview and still got the job!! I’d also work for the Students Union, on Nerve Radio, on Nerve TV, for Nerve Magazine. By the next summer, I was working by the beach selling ice cream and back in the bar trade working nights on the bar at the Heathlands Hotel (where ironically I had stayed on my first ever visit to Bournemouth in 1994). Jobs there kept coming and I’d also work in the theatre, the BIC, the arcades, on ferries and even at a crazy golf place. There were so many jobs available in those days! I estimate I made 500 new friends from all over the world. It was madness.
“It’s funny how your new life didn’t change things. You’re still the same old boy you used to be” – The Eagles.
The Likely Lads
Aside from my housemates and coursemates, there were so many young people around to meet. In my first year at university, I met two of the lads who would become friends for life – The Famous Millwall Neil and Lock In Lee (Lee Adams).
I’d end up at Millwall matches with Neil when I later lived in London and actually we met up in 4 continents since, backpacking over 10 countries together, room-sharing in 3 of those – he was my flatmate in England, Australia and Taiwan!!
“Bo bez ciebie nie ma nic” – Pawel Kukiz.
In my second summer, I’d meet Rafal from Warszawa in Poland who worked with me (at one point I was actually his boss!) and he was to become my best mate and we’d tour 8 countries together.
On the PR course, my favourite girls were Rebecca (from Marlow) and Clare (from Ashington). Lovely ladies, I’d later house-share with Clare. I’d guest on the radio station B1rst as well, also in my first year living there.
Of course there was studying to be done here too, but that was the fifth most important thing for me here. My top 5 would have been –
1.work (we need money)
5.the actual degree itself (it was the least important thing – it was really just an excuse to be here!)
Then there was Nerve Radio. I DJ-ed again, as I had done on Radio Belvoir at Tech in Northern Ireland. Here it was a bit more professional. “Jonny Blair on the Air” was back and I’d use it to my advantage to get a load of nights out and awards events. I did over 300 radio shows on Nerve, including about 50 on FM. It was all a bit mental. I met Colin Murray, DJ-ed with him in Jumpin Jaks and did a nude radio show for Comic Relief.
The Lock-in (University Big Brother)
I got chosen for the university Big Brother project in my first year. The first auditions were held in D2, the student bar and I passed. The second auditions were held in The Commodore in Southbourne and then I was voted in by the “public” by a text message vote. It was called “The Lock In” and like many things, it also turned my life on its head. I wasn’t shy or solemn anymore, I was wild and confident. In the Gameshow itself, I finished third and should have been second. Weirdly in the final 6, the three lads came in the top 3 and the three girls were 4th, 5th and 6th. That proved to me, that the vote hadn’t been fixed – it was honest.
Lock In Lee, of course, was the deserved winner and became one of my best mates – we encourage freaks.
“Before my eyes, beyond the stars, beneath the sun” – Tim Wheeler.
On the final day, when it was announced I was third, I came out buoyant and wearing my Glentoran shirt and flying high my Northern Ireland flag – everybody else in it was English so I particularly enjoyed that. The coincidence and fate played a part as that is when I first met The Famous Millwall Neil. He was out with his coursemates supporting Danny, also in The Lock In.
“Water’s running in the wrong direction; got a feeling it’s a mixed up sign” – Girls Aloud.
If The Lock-In felt like madness, it had only just begun. Lee and I would hat-trick the Big Brother Auditions (and not get in!). I’d later partake in another university project called “Locked Out” (a spoof of “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here) and muster an invite to the NASTAs, which was utter mayhem. Speaking of which…
National Students Awards (the NASTAs)
This madness would reach a peak in April 2005 when I went to the National Student Television Awards (NASTAs) in Loughborough to represent Bournemouth. I couldn’t have dreamt of being invited to such a thing, in a town of 200,000 people and a University with over 3,000 students! But there I was. My radio station boss Jason Hawkins had invited me and we won a few awards and got smashed on free booze for three nights! When collecting an award, we’d all been drinking loads of champagne and beer. They let me go up and collect the award with Alex McKee (who also worked with Nerve Media). When collecting the award, I told the audience of 500 that I’d just got back from “watching Northern Ireland away in Poland” and that “it makes a change to spunking off a monkey in yer bedroom”. Those were wild nights. We all looked really good too – despite lack of sleep and nights on the booze. A shoutout to Alex, Paul, Sandra, Rachael, Jason and Eric – our Bournemouth Team – cosy group!
And so there you go – Bournemouth was where it all properly began for me, TWENTY years ago today. Of course, I’d later leave the seaside town behind, backpack 200 countries, work in 50 jobs, get engaged and split up, study in 6 countries, live in 7 countries and sink into depression. The euphoria of those early days in Bournemouth cannot be beaten. I just didn’t mellow. I just worked and worked and partied and partied and then travelled. It doesn’t always work out right. So it doesn’t.
“I’m not sure if it’ll ever work out right, but it’s okay. It’s alright” – Noel Gallagher.
“Because it never ever ever works out right” – Noel Gallagher.
Here 20 years on, I’ve got busier, now leading a quadruple life where I work as a writer, blogger, teacher and marketer. I live in Poland. I’ve released 5 printed books now, and 5 paper books. For sure I’m proud of that and I know they’re good. The best is yet to come. I’m so busy now, that I’m years behind. I have 3 more books written but not released; I have 1,000 plus unwritten blog posts, 1,000 plus poems penned and I will never find the time to finish all that and release them.
Despite all that, in the end though, leaving Northern Ireland 20 years ago was still possibly the worst decision of my life. It didn’t bring happiness or the only thing I wanted in life, which is of course a wife and kids. Well I found them, about five times. They just didn’t want me, on the flipside. It was supposed to be *** and she got me all wrong. She was the one for me and I was the one for her. It’s still her face, I’m looking for, on every street.
“It’s your face I’m looking for on every street” – Dire Straits.
Maybe one day, something better than all this will happen to me. For now, thanks Bournemouth and as always “Up The Fucking Cherries!”
“You’ll never change what’s been and gone” – Noel Gallagher.
I don’t have many videos from my early days in Bournemouth, but here are a few I managed to find down the years: