December 8 2019: Margaret’s marvellous medicine

The blog a few days ago raised a glass to the former Federation Brewery, formed exactly 100 years ago and owned by the region’s workmen’s clubs. They sponsored the Northern League for four years in the 1990s and Dunston, almost next door neighbours, for very much longer.

It sparked all manner of memories, not least of the time that they put me on a fizzer at Old Shildon WMC – barrack room lawyer, I got off – and of Billy Gypp at Cockfield WMC, perhaps the only man in history to be suspended for cadging.

Clubs historian Brian Bennison points out that a century ago it was the Northumberland clubs, not their colleagues south of the Tyne, who were keenest to launch their own brewery. On October 1 1919 the Northern Daily Mail in Hartlepool reported that the Co Durham CIU branch had circulated 181 – yes 181 – member clubs to gauge interest, of whom 124 didn’t bother to replay and only 37 of the remainder offered to chip in a few bob.

Ian Cusack, in the same connection, insists that it was Wallsend MP Ted Garrett and not his Easington counterpart John Cummins who get Fed beers into the House of Commons.

Perhaps the best remembered figure in the region’s workmen’s club movement is Jack Amos – great bloke, good mate, no relation – who wrote the Jack of Clubs column in the Sunday Sun and who left full-time journalism to be Durham CIU branch secretary for 20 years.

He did it magnificently, despite all manner of health issues which included the serious injuries suffered by both Jack and his wife Flo in a car crash on their 28th wedding anniversary.

“Other people talk about giving their bodies to medical science. I reckon they’ve had mine already,” said Jack.

He was also going deaf, poor chap – the result, he reckoned, of always being placed in the best seats at the front and thus endlesslhy assailed by the amplifiers.

Jack was from the Consett area, was appointed MBE in 2004 for services to workmen’s clubs in the North-East, died three years later. Most vividly of all he may be remembered for the Command Performances, organised through his Sunday Sun column to raise money for charity and attracting all the top names on the then booming circuit.

On one occasion they even persuaded Princess Margaret to put in an appearance – though not, it’s thought, to do a turn. Jack reckoned she stayed for several hours, steady away on the whisky and dry ginger. She insisted, he added, that it was medicinal.


December 7 2019: Christmas lights

Easington Colliery’s ground has had a £200,000 transformation, dressing rooms and clubhouse impressively refurbished and the floodlights, at long last, on the mains. Previously they’d only generated frustration.

Ever-active club secretary Billy Banks does the guided tour, particularly proud that they now have an office – an office with a computer, even, though that’s chiefly for the use of progamme editor Conor Lamb. Billy and computers are not what they call compatible.

No chance that they haven’t paid the leccy bill, then? “We’ve paid everything,” says club chairman Paul Adamson.

The work was completed in the close season, following the sudden death in June of vice-chairman Les Measor. Today’s the first I’d heard of it. Smashing chap, he was perhaps most familiar in the tea hut, where he served a mean burger.

Les had moved with Billy Banks down from Peterlee Newtown. “Lovely feller, great worker, good friend,” says Bill. Les’s daughters Janice and Sophie are now both on the committee.

Today they’re playing Durham City, thanks to the rain the first home game since November 1. Lights seem to dominate the agenda. Earlier in the season, Durham were leading Easington 1-0 at their temporary home at Willington when the lights failed in the 81st minute. Sod’s law, Easington won the rearranged game 4-0.

The programme also talks of a recent away fixture against Washington, ironically now at Durham’s former New Ferens Park home. The lights were “dreadful”, says Conor – 13 out of 24 bulbs out. “It’s really not good enough, but definitely not Washington’s fault.” The league is thought to be aware of the issue.

No problem with lights today. City, second bottom of the ENL second division, battle hard but go down 4-0.

*For probably the first time in 30 years, my Northern Eco column – the last one – was edited this morning. They excised the phrase “I am redundant”, leaving the mistaken impression that I’d retired.

I haven’t, I’ve been retired which is a very different thing. I’ve been pushed, defenestrated. The bruises are still vivid and they bloody well hurt.




December 6 2019: smart Alexa

The final column of my journalistic life appears in The Northern Echo on Saturday, 55 years after the first foray. Without real explanation, I am redundant.

David Walsh recalls another quote about December 7 – “a date that will live in infamy,” said President Franklin Roosevelt, but that was 1941 and he was talking of Pearl Harbour.

Infamy, infamy? Who knows but Saturday’s paper looks like being a sell-out. A possible record may be claimed by former Hartlepool United chairman Garry Gibson who lives in Scotland but who’s headed to the nearest newsagent he knows which keeps the Echo – at Bamburgh, on the Northumberland coast.

He’ll also find a very good butcher’s there and, three miles down the road at Seahouses, the North-East’s best fish and chips.

The good luck messages  – carefully crafted, kind and eloquent, continue to arrive by the shoal. I’m truly grateful.

*Yesterday’s blog had cause to mention Alexa, a sort of robotic handmaiden employed by clever folk like West Allotment Celtic secretary Ted Ilderton.

Don Clarke has her on the payroll, too. “You should get acquainted,” he writes. “It’s female, I assume, and if so the only one I’ve known who obeys my every command without complaint.”

Another blog reader, whose email’s misplaced somewhere, endorses the recommendation. “A great gadget but can’t perform the impossible and get three points for the Arsenal.”

Several other correspondents show shameless schadenfreude, as the Germans neatly have it, at Arsenal’s plight. “The Gunners became the Gooners and now they’re Gonners,” writes former Crook Town secretary Dave Thompson from Australia.

It’s doubtless coincidental that this week’s Spectator magazine has a cartoon of an elderly lady sitting in an armchair, talking to her own grandmother’s little helper on a shelf nearby. “Alexa,” she says, “do you remember the good old days?”

Ah me, if only.

December 5 2019: busker’s swansong

Several times after trips to Tyneside we’ve discordantly reported on the world’s worst busker, an elderly gentleman usually to be found at the foot of the Metro escalator at Newcastle Central. He particularly liked Elvis.

His name was David Stokes, he lived in Gateshead, died last weekend aged 77 and he’d raised £53,000 for local charities. Well, what do you say except Rest in Peace?

David had been a bus conductor, once told the Chronicle that he didn’t realise that he could sing until he was 60, was particularly peeved to be in hospital when the Queen visited the Sage in Gateshead because he was sure that Her Majesty would love to have heard him.

His singing always reminded me of Bob Dylan on his Riding Home for Christmas CD. Those who’ve heard it may understand. His fund raising and his tenacity were truly remarkable.

*Bob Willis, the great fast bowler who died this week, was born in Sunderland. His father, known for some reason as Tannoy, worked for the BBC. It wasn’t his parents who gave him the third forename Dylan, however, it was Willis himself who added it as a teenager in homage to the singer.

The hero worship lasted throughout his life. He may never have heard Riding Home for Christmas.

As yesterday’s blog noted, I was back on BBC Tees today for a journalistic valedictory, the deal clinched by the promise of chocolate biscuits. All denied knowledge of them, not so much as a crumb from Aunty’s table. All that was on offer was a cup of coffee that tasted very much as fly spray must to a bluebottle.

Still, several people – including Ebac Northern League president George Courtney – kindly phoned to say nice things and West Allotment Celtic secretary Ted Ilderton was able to pick it up in Whitley Bay.

How? He asked Alexa, whoever she is. Perhaps he could also ask her for three points for the Arsenal.




December 4 2019: golden gates

Gateway to heaven 4-1

Crook Town have handsome new gates at the much-loved Millfield, and thereby hangs a lovely little story.

Graham Readman was a raggy-trousered kid from Crook who’d habitually sneak into matches through a hole in the fence. “It’s still there, only bigger because I made it bigger as I got older,” he insists.

These days he runs a metal fabrication company near Darlington. When the club needed a bit of work doing on a floodlight pylon Graham – “through a friend of a friend,” says Town chairman Vince Kirkup – agreed to lend a hand and insisted on doing it for nothing.

Then he saw the gates – “Well, they were a bit manky and they’d been there an awfully long time,” says Vince. Graham has now designed, made and installed new gates at an estimated cost of £4,000 – that’s him in the centre of the pic, with colleagues – though the cost to the club is diddly squat.

“It’s recompense,” says the glorious gate man, “for all those times as a kid when I got in without paying.”

Crook’s home match with Jarrow tonight is the first at the Millfield since mid-October, such the effects of the monsoon season, and the first anywhere for three weeks. Among the 93 crowd is South Shields secretary Philip Reay – inevitably clad above the waist only in T-shirt – and former Brandon secretary Barry Ross who recalls bumping into Philip at a Hebburn night match a couple of weeks back.

“It was minus four degrees and he was still just wearing a t-shirt,” says Barry.

“It was a warm minus four,” says Philip.

The Shields lads are seeing a bit less of club chairman Geoff Thompson just now, since he’s an independent candidate for the borough at next week’s election, So, says Philip, is Dunston UTS benefactor Shaun Sadler – the UTS chairman – in the adjoining Jarrow constituency. Shaun’s promised that, if he wins, his parliamentary wages will be invested in grass roots sport.-

Crook trail 1-0 but recover to win 3-1, their fifth successive league win and a clear boost to promotion hopes. Perhaps they could buy a bottle of something fizzy with an additional financial boost – the last word, as always, to Vinc e. “Those old gates mightn’t have looked much, but we got £30 scrap for them.”

*My pentultimate Northern Echo column appeared yesterday and, as several readers took valedictory pleasure in pointing out, contained a mistake. It wasn’t Max Bygraves who sang about the windmill in old Amsterdam, it was Ronnie Hilton.

I was going to retort that Ronnie Hilton once stood in a parliamentary election at Hartlepool, but I think that was fellow singer Ronnie Carroll. I’ve got that wrong before, an’ all.

Those within earshot may care to note that I’ll be talking about the life and times of a now-redundant journalist on BBC Tees from 10 30 on Thursday morning. Times being hard, they’ve promised chocolate biscuits.


December 3 2019: both barrels

Redundant after 55 years, I’ve sent my last column – the finished article, as it were. No longer any need to worry about picking up unconsidered trifles but barely ten minutes into Shildon v Hebburn Town and Shildon director Norman Smith brings good news.

Ben Reay, a 17-year-old Barnard Castle boy who’s come through the club’s junior ranks, has been chosen for England’s under-18s schoolboy squad, a great achievement.

The only Shidon resident to have gained full England honours was Dickie Downs, with Barnsley at much the same time as the club had a mascot called Amos. Amos was a donkey; we are not thought to have been related.

The only Shildon player to have won England amateur international honours while with the club was Bobby Davison, lovely man, his sole cap coming against Ireland in 1954-55 and an FA scroll still framed in the clubhouse.

Bobby, lovely and loquacious, was a miner from Kimblesworth, near Chester-le-Street, played for Bishop Auckland in the 1950 and 1951 Amateur Cup finals and was Crook Town’s ultimately victorious captain in the twice-replayed 1954 final against Bishops.

After the second replay, at Middlesbrough, the team was escorted to the Millfield by the Church Lads’ Brigade band and greeted by 15,000 fans. It was reckoned the only time you couldn’t hear Bobby speak.

He was also a successful cricket professional – would have had a lot more centuries at North Bitchburn, he reckoned, but for the electricity pylon at long on – and, like young Lambton, an enthusiastic angler on the Wear.

Once he caught the bank manager’s hat. “He’d have given me £1,000 if I’d let him,” Bobby insisted.

I’d last seen him, struggling a bit, at Crook’s 2006 FA Vase quarter-final against Bury Town, played on a treacherously icy pitch. “We’d have played on ten foot of snow in my time,” said Bob. He died, aged 84, the following year.

On a crisp winter evening,Ben Reay makes but a late cameo for Shildon, the show stolen by no means for the first time by Billy Greulich-Smith who hits a hat-trick in his team’s impressive 4-0 win against the league leaders.

Great good luck to the youngster, but to most of the 349 crowd at Dean Street, it’s Billy who’s England’s number one.

December 2 2019: Fed and watered

The blog on November 26 had cause to recall the Federation Brewery, effectively owned by the region’s workmen’s clubs and the Northern League’s principal sponsor from 1993-97. It reminded former Alnwick Town secretary Cyril Cox of a perhaps unforgettable league dinner at Newcastle Civic Centre.

The Fed, either very generous or very green, offered free beer for all until ten o’clock. “The beer barrels were stacked high behind the bar,” Cyril recalls. “Every two tables were served by a waitress who brought massive jugs all evening.

“When it got close to 10pm vases of flowers on the tables were emptied and were in turn filled with beer or lager. The poor waitresses were shattered.”

All that’s remarkably coincidental because it’s 100 years this month – and in Alnwick – that the fledgling Fed paid £10,000 for its first premises, without first letting the brewer have a look. Not least because they’d been a munitions factory during the war, they were ruinous and wholly unsuitable.

Finally settled in Newcastle, the Fed brewed its first pint in 1921 – “the only true free trade brewery in the world,” said a House of Commons early day motion in 1996, sponsored by Easington MP John Cummins. It may also have been he who ensured that Fed Best was sold in the House of Commons bars.

For 17 years the chairman was Jim Ramshaw, who’d played football for Shildon and – a lesser claim to fame – had a stand at Hexham racecourse named after him.

They’d moved to a new £20m brewery at Dunston in 1980, soon linked up with the neighbouring football club and at peak production were turning out 10,000 barrels a week (and not all for the Northern League dinner.)

Sadly, for the beer was very drinkable, the brewery closed in 2004 and the premises were sold to S&N. Newcastle Brown Ale production was moved to Tadcaster in 2010, though the Lancastrian function suite remains.

By 1996-97, my first season as league chairman,the annual dinner had itself moved to the Lancastrian Suite, though both the venue and the speaker (Johnny Giles) proved so disappointing that we moved thereafter to the Ramside Hall Hotel near Durham.

It’s proved an excellent venue but, despite many suggestions, the lads have never had free ale all night.