WITH a silver tongue and a cheeky glint in his eyes, Danny Brown could talk the hind leg off a donkey and sell snow to the Eskimos.
It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, his former doctor, Gary Turk, sat him down and told him: “Danny, your brain is dying, and you will die with it.”
Raised on the mean streets of east Belfast, with a street-fighting father who ran with the likes of Buck Alec, Stormy Weather and Silver McKee, Danny wasn’t going to do down quietly.
Rather than retreat into himself, he has since become a spokesperson and ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society.
He goes out every day, to good-naturedly ‘torment’ the ladies who work in Tesco while getting his groceries and lovingly tend the garden at The Cabin, the Alzheimer’s Society’s facility in the town, which has become a real passion for him.
He shaves, washes and irons his own clothes and cooks for himself. Despite a diagnosis of vascular dementia, Danny is something of a miracle man and a huge inspiration to others living with the disease, and their families.
“When people are first introduced to me, my son is often with me, they are scared and anxious about themselves or their loved ones.
“But then my mouth opens and out it all comes, they are shocked.”
Danny remembers vividly the time he was told that a series of small strokes had damaged his brain beyond repair.
He experiences particular difficulties down his left side.
Before that, he had been forgetting to cook for himself and eat, food was going out of date and getting spoiled, and he had been falling over.
“People knew me, and they knew something was up, I have always been a wind-up merchant myself, and I could hear people calling over the fence ‘you out measuring the grass again, Danny?’
“Even now, if I go for a walk up the town, I’ll get a thump on the back or a swat on the back of the head or someone will shout something at me.
“I always shout something back!
“Antrim people do look out for each other, in their own way.”
Born in 1943, Danny grew up in Glenvarlock Street on the Castlereagh Road, his father a steel worker in the shipyards, with two big sisters, one of whom passed away many years ago.
He was given the name McAllister, to remember his Scottish roots.
“Everyone fed each other. If a sack of spuds fell off a lorry, the whole street would have spuds.
“Someone else would stump up the scallions.
“In the evenings, the fruit and veg shops would call people in and if there was anything too soft or two hard or misshapen that hadn’t sold, that went in the pot too.
“We were all in and out of each other’s houses.
“The wages were good in those days, with all the industry in Belfast, Shorts and Mackies and Harland and Wolff, but it was a man’s world and many men preferred to spend the money on drink and gambling instead of on their families, it was a tough time.”
Aged seven and struggling with illness, he was sent to live with his grandparents and soon-to-be-married Aunt Madge, between Newtownards and Millisle.
“My granda was a fisherman and would shoot, he would take me out on to the shores of Stranford Lough, and I was the dog!” he laughed.
“We would snuggle up together to keep warm, and then there would be the fluttering of wings and my granda would shake me off and fire the gun, and away I would go.
“We brought home many’s a duck or a goose and even the odd swan, although I couldn’t swear to it!
“My grandfather was captured during World War I but escaped and came back to his own lines with three French soldiers and got his sergeant stripes there and then.
“My son Danny loved to hear all these stories and I have taken him all round east Belfast showing him the old haunts.
“My granda was great for tying flies and taught me too, and instilled in me a great love of fishing.
Indeed, Danny fought for many years to allow the stocking and public use of many of Ireland’s rivers, which had traditionally been privately controlled by wealthy landowners, and was a major figure within Kells, Connor and Glenwhirry Angling Club.
His mother was glad to have young Danny back at home, with the fresh air helping aid his return to health, but he retained a lifelong devotion to his aunt, who also eventually moved to Antrim.
“I would take her out every Sunday for something to eat after her husband passed away and she would always order so much food,” he said.
“But she would take the lot of it home in tinfoil and stick it in her handbag and feed herself for the rest of the week. She wasn’t even shy about asking for the tinfoil.”
Danny attended Ashfield school, but got out as soon as he was able.
“I wanted to be out working and earning,” he said.
“Everything else was involved with the church, so I joined the Life Boys and the Boys’ Brigade and kicked football.”
At 14 he left school and went straight into the Co-Operative.
Horses and carts were being replaced by electric lorries and Danny was put through his driving test at 17.
With his gift for the gab, Danny knew he would make a good salesman.
His next workplace was Norton Abrasives, and he managed to get into the quality control department
From there he moved to English Abrasives and his first sales job, wowing the big crystal factories with his demonstrations and patter.
He was eventually head-hunted by the oil company Duckham’s, for many years a household name.
Danny remained in the industry until retirement, with Duckham’s being swallowed up by BP, finishing his career with Texaco.
“I think when I was working, the heads of these big companies and even the customers, when they saw me, a well-dressed salesman, when I opened my mouth, they weren’t expecting my accent to come out,” he said.
“I wasn’t a well-educated man, in fact, a few years after BP bought out Duckham’s, we were all got rid of and replaced by people with university degrees, but I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories, and that’s what selling is really.”
Selling oil meant he was able to meet a great many people from all walks of life, he was on first name terms with the Dunlop family and his son Danny junior grew up in the high octane atmosphere of motorcycling and stock car racing.
“Joey Dunlop was as down to earth as they come,” said Danny.
He would just get off the bike, there was tape holding everything together, and take the helmet off, and someone would come over with a flannel and give his face a wipe.
“His knees and knuckles were skinned, he used to be so close to the road. He had no fear, he was a brave man.
“There was a spray called Adsil, bakers used it to stop bread and pancakes getting stuck to ovens, and I told Joey to put it on his saddle and it would give him more flexibility.
“I used to leave cans of Adsil behind the counters of the wee petrol stations near Ballymoney and say, Joey will be in for that!
“Billy Hastings (the late hotel magnate) was another one, he was so down to earth, he would walk through the restaurants and ask people how their meals were, no one knew he was the owner, he would come and talk to all the kitchen staff and the housekeepers personally, I met so many wonderful people.
“People were so good to me. If I was out on the road late at night, customers would put all their children into one room and make up a bed for me to stay the night.
“There were people I would divert for and give them half a tank of oil if they were in difficulties.
“But it was often the people with the most money in the big houses in Helen’s Bay and Bangor who were the worst payers!
“In places like Donegal and Crossmaglen, people really looked out for me, there were a lot of places where I was the only oil man that was allowed in.
“Of course that attracted some attention, but there was an element of trust there.”
On the road during the worst of the Troubles, Danny observed some sights that will never leave him.
“Out on the roads of South Armagh, I found several bodies,” he said.
“I saw men who were alive one minute and dead the next.
“I also witnessed the murders of three young policemen in Newry, two of whom, Karl Blackbourne and Peter Kilpatrick I knew personally, they were good lads and would prank me quite often, I will never forget them.
“I think I have been very lucky in life, to have been so close to shootings and bombings and to have come away from it.
“But when I was getting sick, I saw lots of ‘doctors’ and then I saw lots of ‘misters’, the consultants, and at least ten psychiatrists.
“Some of them say it was because I worked too hard, some of them say it was because of the stress caused by the things I saw, but no one can say definitively.”
After experiencing ‘hassle’ in the city, two RUC men called to his home and advised Danny that the ‘new town’ of Antrim might be a safer place to live.
He initially moved to Town Parks North and then on to The Folly, but never lost his love of fishing.
“Wherever I went, I always had my rod,” he said.
“I remember once being on the Lower Bann and a man shouting out, did I know where I was, was I lost?
“I must have been some sight, there I was wearing my suit and tie and waistcoat - and my waders.
“I became quite famous as the man in the yellow Ford who fished in his suit, people would blow their horns at me.
“When I retired I had about 15 suits. But if I had an hour or two spare on the road, what else would I do but fish?
“I never raced a bike, I think you have to have it in your blood, it has to be a passion.
“Because of my grandfather, I was a hunting and shooting and fishing man, and that was my passion.
“I was never at home and I never had a garden growing up in Belfast, so now my passion is the garden at the Cabin.
“Watching those green shoots coming through every spring really keeps me motivated.
“I don’t drink or smoke, so I just have green fingers!
“I love to take pictures too and can spend hours in the Castle Grounds.”
With son Gary, daughter Debi and grandaughter Tiffany close at hand, Danny says that his ‘other family’ are Lisa and Valerie from The Alzheimer’s Society.
“They have been such a big help,” he said.
“Sometimes it is really hard for families to see their loved one maybe struggle to recognise them or forget what they were doing yesterday.
“But from the moment I stepped into the Cabin, it gave me a new lease of life.”
A few years ago Lisa and Valerie saw how helpful Danny was being to new clients and encouraged him to speak publicly about his dementia experience.
His frank stories and easy delivery - a typical salesman - meant he was a huge hit, and an appearance on TV beckoned.
Danny began to start picking up awards for his work and was even invited to speak at the Alzheimer's Europe Conference 2017, spending three days in Berlin, addressing some of the world’s top dementia experts and meeting top EU figures.
“I shouldn’t still be verbal, never mind this verbal, I shouldn’t still be independent, but here we are, and if I can help other people, all the better,” said Danny.
“I know that look of fear, especially on the face of a husband or wife or family member, terrified that they will now have to become a carer for the rest of their loved one’s life.
“But when I speak to them, I hope I can give them a bit of reassurance.
“I have signs up all over the house reminding me what day it is, to close the doors, to turn things off properly. I have the dates written on all my food, as I hate food being spoiled.
“White is a big problem, people with dementia find it hard to see the colour white and all the doors in the house are white, so for a while I had to have signs up reminding me which one was the bathroom and which one was the living room.
“I used to write all my signs on the back of cereal packets, but now a lot of companies have caught on to these things and make them professionally.
“I think the research that is being done now is wonderful and people know so much more about the disease and how to help people who have it.
“But there is still a lot of stigma.
“If I had a broken leg, people would understand, it’s visible, but it is my brain that is broken.
“A lot of the family members who come into the cabin end up being volunteers, when they see the great work that is being done
“But for me, I hope to stay independent for as long as possible and just make the best of it.”
Danny, a huge Clint Eastwood fan, concludes: “At the moment I feel like I am outrunning the posse.
“I know the posse is sure to catch up with me some day, but until that time, I will just enjoy my life.”