I learned a lot about my native North-East this week. I found out that American pop idol Del Shannon, who topped the charts with Runaway in 1961, was once turned away from a Shildon workingman’s club where he was the star turn - because he didn’t have a ticket.
I read about how Ronnie ‘Rubberbones’ Heslop used a teaspoon to become the first man to escape over the wall at Durham Jail.
And I discovered that Prince Harry, under the name of Spike W, played cricket at Spout House in North Yorkshire.
All of these fascinating nuggets – and many, many more – were found in journalist Mike Amos’s book Unconsidered Trifles which has just landed on my desk.
If there was ever a journalist who needed to write an autobiography, it is Mike.
He spent 55 years working in the same newspaper office. That isn't a typo – it really was 55 years. I can’t think of any other journalist who has stayed at the same paper for a working lifetime and a half! All of this is even more remarkable when you consider he has never been able to drive and is as short-sighted as Mr Magoo.
Mike's career began when he joined The Northern Echo straight from school, in the former pit-town of Shildon, in 1965 for a weekly wage of £9 1s 6d. He wrote his last column just before Christmas last year. He collected more than 40 awards, including an MBE for services to journalism, and in 2006 was named in the Regional Press's Hall of Fame – the 40 people who had made the most significant contribution to regional journalism in the last 40 years.
When I turned up at the Echo in 1979 Mike, already 14 years in, was news-editor. It was clear, though, that his real strength was as a story-getter and writer. He mainly wrote columns – John North, Gadfly, Backtrack, Eating Owt, At Your Service – about the extraordinary characters of North-East life. His stories were picked up in pubs, at football matches and on buses – and always told in a compelling and colourful way.
Now he has wrapped up the best of them in a 390-page meander through six decades of Northern life. Football gets a good show, which is hardly surprising given Mike was chairman of the Northern League for 20 years.
I particularly like the story about meeting Paul Gascoigne over pints and cheese toasties in the Newcastle Arms after a chance conversation with a taxi driver, who also happened to be Gazza’s agent. Mike has long convinced me that reporters cocooned in their cars, rather than taxis, buses, trains and quite often Shanks's pony, miss so many stories.
Another well-known character, George Reynolds, gets a chapter all to himself. Reynolds was a small time safe-blower who became the millionaire chairman and owner of Darlington Football club. His encounters with Cynthia Payne, aka Madame Cyn, and unlikely chart toppers Peters and Lee are worth a read.
It was a time when the best newsroom was an empty newsroom … the stories were out there, not at your desk.
One of Mike’s strengths as a writer was that he was rarely in the office. It was a time when the best newsroom was an empty newsroom … the stories were out there, not at your desk. That said, the book does touch on some of the newsroom antics and captures the 70s and 80s drinking culture of newspapers. There are plenty of anecdotes that resulted from the “lunchtime liverners”. Job interviews for reporters were also usually in the pub “because that seemed to be more relaxing”. Mike remembers one such interview was given to Peter Barron, a young applicant from the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, who 'had heard about this unusual practice and was worried. He wasn’t much of a drinking man. Could he stand the prospective pace?
“Much to his consternation, Pete was unable to finish his third – or was it the fourth? – pint. It didn’t count against him: I admired his enthusiasm and local knowledge and recommended his appointment.”
Peter got the job, went on to edit the paper for 19 years, and was also awarded an MBE. Maybe the industry should bring back the pub interviews … they clearly worked. Peter later said of Mike that he had more impact and influence on the Echo than any of its great editors, including Sir Harold Evans.
The book brought back many memories for me. One was of the late Evening Despatch, where I was chief sub, and its closure in 1986. Another was the Ales in The Dales – a regular event where all the male hacks loaded on to a coach for a tour of the best pubs in the Yorkshire Dales. The women went on a Gins in the Inns and we met up in Barnard Castle in the evening. The picture in the book is before my time but I recognise most of the faces. My stag do and 30th birthday were both coach trips round the dales with darts, dominoes, pool and fastest pint trophies. Happy days.
Mike also mentions the Britannia in Darlington – the office pub – run by the inimitable Pat and Amy Kilfeather. He says that it was “so traditional that on the second Sunday before Easter they still served carlins, cooked memorably with butter and onions, atop the bar. Pat was a usually genial Irishman but with a tendency for refusing to serve folk without obvious reason. He wasn’t obliged to give one, of course, but gum chewers had no chance.”
After 55 years working the same patch … Mike knew everyone, the famous and the everyday folk, with a story to tell. There are snippets about Tony Blair, the Bishop of Durham, Bobby Robson, Arthur Scargill and the royal family – but mainly the book deals with the remarkable tales of characters such as the Demon Donkey Dropper of Eryholme, John ‘Basher’ Alderson, the Horden pitman who went on to feature in 150 films, and the magnificent world-record breaking athlete Sharon Gayter.
Perhaps the story that tells us the most about Mike is that when he took his family – wife Sharon and sons Adam and Owen – to Buckingham Palace to receive his MBE, he didn’t book a table at the Savoy or the Ivy. Instead they had pie and chips in a pub called the Coal Hole. “It seemed somehow appropriate”, he said. Indeed it does.
Unconsidered Trifles: Memories Of A Jobbing Journalist by Mike Amos (and designed by my old chief sub Jon Smith) is available on Amazon here. You can also order a hardback copy for £22, or paperback for £10, plus postage directly from Mike on firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike will be happy to sign your copy, writes Peter Sands.