Remembering our Anita
WRITING seemed to be effortless for Anita Robinson.
Each week a perfectly-formed column would arrive on time and to length at the Belfast offices of The Irish News, never a letter out of place, every clause of every sentence justifying its inclusion.
Whether a wry take on food or fashion, or musings on marriage, teaching or advancing age, the columns were witty and wistful and always a must-read for her legions of fans.
But what perhaps was most remarkable about Anita's writing was its consistency over hundreds of columns penned over more than two decades.
Of course anything that looks effortless is usually the product of hours of practice and preparation.
Anita's weekly routine, explained to her close friend Mark Patterson during an hour-long special on Radio Foyle, would start with jotting down in beautiful longhand some ideas and observations in rough draft.
A confirmed technophobe, she would next get a pair of scissors, cut out each line and scatter them on the floor around her.
Pritt Stick in hand, the process would begin of carefully constructing a column from the pieces, like a jigsaw, before it would be converted to email – transcribed by the talented Melanie – and dispatched to The Irish News.
Often she would ring Sarah – 'Daughter Dear' so familiar from the columns – to tell how she had a beginning and an end but a yawning gap in the middle, or was 57 words short, or was contemplating whether a second glass of wine would bring inspiration.
Although separated by the Irish Sea, the bond between mother and daughter was extremely close.
They might phone four, five or six times a day, checking for news, or to relate some silly thing that had happened, or just to hear each other's voice.
Sarah said the secret of her mother's columns was her fascination with people and the ordinary, everyday things that preoccupy them.
"It's all those little nuances she would pick up, snippets of conversations, and her ability to weave those into a piece or into just one sentence or phrase."
Another key feature of Anita's appeal was how she related to readers' own experiences.
She was born in the Waterside area of Derry, the youngest in a family with four much older siblings – a "little shock''.
They lived in the overwhelmingly Protestant Bond's Hill near Waterside train station – her good friend, broadcaster Joe Mahon, joked that she lived 'above her station' – and her father, Jack Armstrong, taught her as principal of Ardmore Primary School.
Her oldest sister Dympna, a huge influence, was then one of her teachers at Thornhill College and Anita knew from an early age, as she schooled her dolls, that she would follow their career path.
She progressed to St Mary's teacher training college in Belfast in the early 1960s, an innocent abroad who once turned down two tickets for The Beatles because she was a Rolling Stones fan.
After teaching practice at Holy Child primary school on Derry's sprawling Creggan estate, she spent four more years there as an early years teacher followed by four at St John's PS on Bligh's Lane, helping ensure it provided a semblance of normality for children as gun battles raged on the streets outside.
The rest of her career was spent in Carnhill PS, serving hundreds of new homes on the northern edge of the city.
It was in 1969 that she met Trevor Robinson in the Leprechaun cafe on Derry's Strand Road.
As a non-Catholic, their union did not please everyone but they were both apolitical and clicked instantly.
'The Loving Spouse' was very much the foil to Anita's feisty persona – patient, kind, refusing to rise to provocation – but it was a marriage filled with laughter.
"It was us against the world, we were devoted to each other," she said.
With little nightlife to speak of in 1970s Derry, a highlight of their week was the Colmcille Debating Society.
Hundreds would pack the Guildhall to hear the city's best public speakers engage in verbal jousts and Anita, a born performer, often found herself on a team with Joe Mahon.
When Radio Foyle opened, she became a regular contributor and was produced by Joe on projects including the discussion programme Round Robinson. Her columns for The Irish News began soon after.
He said she was a wonderful speaker with a unique style, which he once attempted to describe as "part Dorothy Parker, part Margot Leadbetter".
"Anita had this crisp, cut-glass delivery and almost lady-of-the manor persona but underneath was a very warm-hearted, generous person.
"She became extremely well known locally and sought-after as a speaker. She was a perfectionist and would never like to be caught without her make-up or hair done or script in hand.
"She was always witty, bright and such great fun to work and be with."
Anita and Trevor made their home in Glendermott outside Derry and were enjoying retirement when a query was raised over one of Trevor's regular blood donations. He was diagnosed with cancer and died 13 months later.
It was a devastating blow and Anita would write movingly in her column of their love and her great loss.
"What I’d give for a wet towel on the bathroom floor, a scatter of newspapers on the sofa, a screwdriver on the coffee table and his shoes sprawled inside the front door. I don’t know the secret of a happy marriage – but I had one. Like all men, the Loving Spouse was far from perfect, but I was selfish, he was selfless. He was my guide and my guard. He minded me like a china doll."
She continued writing, saying she inherited from her mother the ability to keep going: "Put a brave face on the world, because others have ills of their own – try to be positive and try to remain useful, and if you're good at something keep on doing it until you drop dead."
Anita and Sarah also relished the time spent in each other’s company, with days trekking round the shops, whether in Belfast or Cambridge, or simply content just being together.
While thousands of readers feel the loss of Anita intently, the greatest loss of course is Sarah's.
Asked how she would remember her, she said she would leave the last words to her mother. They would be the last words she would ever write:
"I wonder what they’ll find when they open up my heart? FROCKS! SHOES!! JEWELLERY!!! STUFF!!!! ( and my darling girl…)"
Anita Robinson was 76 when died following heart surgery on February 2. She is survived by her daughter Sarah and brother Ted.