Poem: 1981

The hooter booms

The day awakes

Coal trucks rattle past my door

Ice traces faces on the window pane

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Rats scurry empty

Miners hurry silently

The dawn breaks past my door

Hot tea poured in an old tin mug

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Cash machine spitting

Newspapers selling

The sun rises past my door

The pit wheel turns and children run

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

The day grinds on

The miners crawl in

Coal dust settles past my door

Rag man yells and old wives polish

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Dinner-time snap

The kids full o’ spice

Laughter lingers past my door

Coal cutters cutting and babies crying

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

No one really knows

But many more fear

Rumours circulate past my door

The milk snatcher she is snatching

The memories of what went before.

(I lived in the mining village of Darton near Barnsley from 1978 to 1982. It was a thriving, happy and hard-working community. But by the end of 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government had destroyed the mining industry. Darton and many other villages like it have never recovered.)


Precious memories, how they linger

dadTODAY rings with remembrance… it is five full years since my beloved father died.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams.

He was not the perfect father, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

His own life was full of obstacles. At four years old, he was knocked down by a car – one of only a few on the road in 1934 – suffered severe head injuries and had his left ear sewn back on. After three months in hospital he had to learn to eat, read, write and talk again.

Later in life, he ruptured a kidney in a motorbike accident, came close to death with hepatitis in Egypt, was rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy while working in Munich and suffered osteoarthritis, glaucoma, temporal arteritis, cancer and a series of mini strokes. His later years were plagued by health problems… but he never complained, even when he was dying with Parkinson’s Disease.

On the counter-side, he enjoyed so many successes. He was one of the junior designers of Concorde, helped design many other aeroplanes too; he rebuilt windmills, worked on the earliest electronics for rechargeable batteries and later the development of ground-breaking microwave engineering.

At home, he made several small fortunes renovating houses and lost small fortunes with his obsession with buying and selling some perverse motorcars.

He took risks, made mistakes, won and lost and won again… he never gave up.

But more than that he was my dad and full of love, which he often found difficult to show.

As an adult, I had to wait until I was battling cancer at the age of 31 to really understand my dad more fully. Over those months, we bonded as father and son and shared many emotions. He was always there for me.

I will never forget the day, about eight years later, when I won my first major press award. At the awards dinner in Edinburgh, dad and mum shared a table with me. After I received my award I returned to our table and dad was the first to stand and hug me and say “well done, son”. That moment always stays with me.

Ironically, I could only repay him after he had passed away. The proudest moment of my life was conducting his funeral service in front of our family and friends.

Some of the words from my eulogy to him I recall now:

“When I think of Dad I think of a man of no compromise yet someone who would do anything and compromise for anyone. And if ever there were regrets in his life, he rarely if ever voiced them.

He always had time to live, laugh, love and work so incredibly hard for his home and his family, whom he adored.

Dad was, at times, the most annoyingly anti-social man you could meet.

With a vengeance he hated Bob Monkhouse, Bruce Forsyth, Margaret Thatcher, the man across the road with a twitch, those bloody long-haired pop singers, the guy with the beer belly who had more hair than him, the happy next door neighbour who would ask after his health, David Beckham, Eastenders, Terry Wogan, Prince Charles… the list could go on and on.

But he also had heroes, golfer Jack Nicklaus, Nat King Cole and Doris Day, and probably his biggest hero heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali – so it is sadly ironic that this magnificent sportsman too is fading with the same disease that took Dad.

Ain’t life a great leveller.

But despite dad’s pretence at anti-social behaviour, he was the most sociable and likeable man anyone could ever meet. In fact anyone who met him was immediately touched by him and loved him.

Count how many thousands of times we caught him happily chatting at the garden fence with a complete stranger, or the times he made a bird table for a neighbour or helped someone decorate or do their garden, or the dozens of times he helped us kids move house, knock down a chimney, lay a carpet, fix a roof, mend a car, drive us to a date, cover for our indiscretions … again the list goes on and on.

And now dad…. as we say goodbye, we will always remember you with love and so much affection… love and affection which we tried to bestow on you whenever we could.”

And we played out his coffin with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”

He is gone and I miss him.

But he left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.

Brief Encounter #6

ernie wiseErnie Wise

WHEN I talk about brief encounters, my brush with the one with the short fat hairy legs was indeed brief… barely time to even cough.

It was 19 September 1981 (I can be precise about the date, because of the dedication of football statisticians) and I had caught a train from my home in Barnsley to Leeds. The object of the trip was to indulge in a spot of music and clothes shopping.

I stood outside Leeds City Station, adjacent to the Leeds Hilton Hotel, momentarily deciding whether to stop for a coffee or attack the Briggate shops.

The area outside the station concourse was particularly busy, even for a Saturday, and uniformed police officers appeared everywhere.

Football fans daubed with red and white scarves milled around us.

It quickly dawned on me that this was the day of one of the First Division’s grudge fixtures at Elland Road… Leeds United versus Arsenal.

I therefore decided to avoid the crush and catch a coffee when suddenly a shining black limousine pulled up alongside me.

From behind me a hotel doorman politely said: “excuse me”. But before I could move aside the rear driver’s side door of the limo’ opened and a smiling grey haired man alighted.

It was Little Ern.

He was recognised instantly by a few Arsenal supporters to my right.

One shouted: “Are you going to the match Ernie?”

I stood frozen to the spot as the comic replied: “Of course!”

Then spontaneously I coughed: “Arsenal!”

I could feel my face reddening, as Ernie turned with a huge grin and winked at me, before disappearing into the hotel lobby.

My one brief moment of comic fame was gone in a cough.

I guess it could all have been a moment from a Morecambe and Wise sketch, with Ernie coughing and Eric shouting Arsenal!


Lou Reed… magic and loss

HPIM1604.JPGTHE death of Lou Reed yesterday hit me harder than I might have expected.

It has taken me the night to fully understand why.

I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, in much the same way I discovered Bob Dylan… or to be more exact, the 1971 Bowie album, Hunky Dory was my conduit to them both.

For while Song for Bob Dylan provided a highway to my lifetime obsession with His Bobness, another song, Queen Bitch, led me to Lou Reed and by dint of passage, to my career in journalism.

I was a 16 year-old teenager trying to find my musical muses and heroes. I had been fed a diet of Nat King Cole and big band swing by my parents throughout my childhood before discovering The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Marc Bolan and T Rex for myself.

I had only recently been turned to David Bowie via his single Starman. Sometime during the summer of 1972, I bought my first proper LP, the now timeless, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Suddenly I was besotted with Bowie and through my local record store in Lancing ordered his back catalogue of Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory… all at £1.99 a time. I was listening to Bowie back to back throughout that summer and autumn.

Through the pages of weekly music newspapers, I had heard mention of Lou Reed and his recent collaboration with Bowie. So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.

From Vicious, you hit me with a flower through Perfect Day, Andy’s Chest, Satellite of Love and New York Telephone Conversation to Walk on the Wild Side and Good Night Ladies, at 36 minutes 40 seconds, it just wasn’t enough.

His voice and his lyrics had me hooked, even if I didn’t yet know what ‘giving head’ meant!

So I returned to Bowie’s Queen Bitch and the oblique reference to Lou Reed’s first band The Velvet Underground.

I trotted back to my local music store and asked a bemused middle-aged proprietor if he could order any album by the American group The Velvet Underground.

He scoured his catalogue and suggested a recently released Best of the Velvet Underground. I waited a full week before I had the LP tucked under my arm and headed home to get it on the turntable as soon as possible.

From the first track it blew me away. Here I had everything Bowie had delivered but much more. This music was raw, invigorating and loaded with lyrics that took a lifetime to unravel. It was nothing like Transformer… it was better!

Lady Godiva’s Operation, White Light/White Heat, Venus in Furs, Waiting For the Man, Heroin and Sister Ray all battled for my attention. This was the real Lou Reed. Added to that, there was the warmth of Nico’s flat voiced psalms Sunday Morning, Femme Fatale and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

The LP didn’t leave my turntable until about Christmas, when, for the umpteenth time, my father yelled: “Turn that bloody racket down”.

I had never written to a newspaper before that point. But something persuaded me to pick up my pen and write a scrawl to my favourite music paper, Sounds. My letter eulogised the Velvet Underground to the point where I described them as more important and better than The Beatles. It was a teenage rant and I never expected to see it published. But a week later my letter was there in all its glory in 9 point Times Roman with a single column headline Better Than The Beatles.

I was in print. It was my first ever published piece of writing and I still have a yellowing copy stuck in a scrapbook in a cupboard in my study.

As for Lou Reed, I became a lifetime fan and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.

The Velvet Underground never achieved commercial success during their 1960s existence, but their influence on music since then is unparalleled.

Music producer Brian Eno once summed up their influence by saying: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

And they also helped create a journalist.

Rest in Peace Lou, you were larger than life and your creative genius will never be forgotten.

* A beautiful video of Lou singing I’ll Be You Mirror, with his wife Laurie Anderson in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUr8oRfG1AM

I met the sons of darkness and the sons of light


IT is almost 2am on a warm summer’s evening and I am sitting on a cracked stone grave in our local churchyard, crying my heart out… again!

I am pissed… and in reality I am unaware of the time or the place.

In the real world, I am a successful journalist, but at home my family and domestic life has been a ripped rag for 30 years. My crutch of alcohol has crippled me as a human being… a host of failed relationships, two estranged kids, personal bankruptcy, lost career opportunities, repossession of my home and a succession of regrets.

Casting a huge shadow over every move I have ever made, every tear, every relationship, every job, is the sexual abuse I suffered as a young teenager. (Read the earlier blog post When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things That Remain for the background to this).

So I drink to forget and numb the pain.

Anyway, before I lose time or place I take you back to the churchyard.

I sit there on the cold gravestone feeling empty and completely alone.

Suddenly I am blinded by a pair of car headlights.

A voice shouts from the darkness… “Hey Nic, you there?”

It is the voice of my wife.

I stand unsurely and walk towards the voice and the headlights. My wife walks towards me, leaving the car engine running. She grabs hold of my arm and leads me unsteadily back to the car and drives us quickly to the safety and privacy of our home.

This is the latest incident she has had to cope with and I begin to wonder how many more before she breaks and realises I am not the man she thought I was when we married.

Most of the time I function… I cook, I do DIY tasks, I work and earn money and I keep up a visage of clean and tidy. But that is just functioning. I left living behind. So I drink.

I sleep like a bedevilled drunk till mid-morning.

But something happens. For the first time in my adult life I am hit by a different blinding light… a light of conscience and maybe realisation. Without any reason I feel an overpowering need to do something to halt my drinking and the further ruination of my life.

To this day I don’t know why that morning on that day was so different, but something happened psychologically to make me do something. Maybe I had at last realised I could not address the child abuse, but I could address my drinking.

Experts and clinicians say that some alcoholics are born with the addiction, while others acquire the taste for booze and the crippling need to have just one more drink. So we drink when something happens and we drink when it doesn’t.

Whatever way it happens, it is an illness.

I guess my path to alcoholism was a mixture of many things and most were conceived in my early teens. It was a rocky and progressive road.

I remember as a 17 year-old, flush with the cash of a summer holiday job, going to a friend’s summer party. While most kids turned up with the obligatory can of cider or beer, I arrived with a half bottle of vodka and another of whisky. I vaguely recall chatting up a pretty girl and sharing the vodka with her before hitting the whisky myself. Similar vague memories of asking her to dance, before waking sometime around midnight on someone’s front lawn, with pools of my own vomit around me … and yes I was just 17!

Two years later at a university, far from home, I was threatened with being sent down at least twice and evicted from my halls of residence for being constantly drunk – usually on a mixture of beer and whisky. Luckily by the third year and with the help of friends I cut down the drinking. But a star student destined for a 1st class honours degree was lucky to come away with a 2/2 degree.

By 21, I was hooked on booze, but the addiction was still fresh and I usually managed to handle the amount I drank and to confine it to the evenings when home from work.

But as many life crises developed so my need for a crutch increased. At 27, I lost my first job as a result of my own indiscretions and hit the bottle as I searched for another career.

Within three years my first marriage failed as my wife could no longer cope with my excesses. My need to cope with a battle against cancer and my failed marriage encouraged me to drink more.

I was never an abusive drunk, but a drunk all the same.

It was a pattern which followed me throughout my 30s and 40s as I drank a bottle of wine and a half bottle of whisky each weekday night fortified by more wine and at least a litre of spirits every weekend… and watched as partners ditched me in despair.

So I return again to the morning after the night on the grave.

I was now 48 years old and something new inside me stirred – it was my life and I had a choice.

The house was empty as I made a cup of tea and opened the telephone book to look up the number for Alcoholics Anonymous. I had written articles about the organisation in the past and I hoped they could help me.

I gingerly dialled the number and, after a couple of rings, a woman with a broad, but gentle, Glaswegian accent answered. With tears again streaming down my face – not drunken tears but ones of regret and realisation – I began to tell her my story. She listened for more than 25 minutes, chipping in with the odd word of encouragement before offering the chance of hope I had always wanted… a chance to live a proper life without the need for alcohol.

Her analogy about alcoholism stays with me…“It is like buying a train ticket from London to Newcastle,” she said. “You can get off the train at Peterborough, Leeds, York or even Durham. Or you can stay on the train until Newcastle or even go right on to Edinburgh.

“All alcoholics are somewhere on that journey and the longer you stay on that train, the more difficult it is to get off and the more it is going to cost.”

I thanked her and took note of my nearest AA branch.

I sort of celebrated by telephoning my mother and my wife to tell them the truth that I was an alcoholic but I was seeking help. I can’t explain the feeling of elation those words gave me.  But I was at last facing one of my most painful demons.

Sometime later on a Tuesday evening, I walked slowly to our local church hall, knocked twice on the door and was welcomed by a smiling older man.  He led me inside and I was introduced to others.

There I met some of the most wonderful people in my life:

Cheryl, a 46 year-old NHS manager who, after years of hiding bottles of vodka in the dirty laundry basket – where her husband would not look – and drinking up to two of them each night, had not had a drink for seven years.

Alex, a 70-something retired merchant seaman, who had been in and out of detox for most of his life but had not touched a drop in 19 years and preached abstinence.

And Vanessa, a 29 year-old social worker who had finally kicked the booze after drinking steadily since she was 14.

Then there was a sad younger girl called Karen who was facing a court case and a likely jail sentence and the loss of her two young children. Desperate to halt her drinking, her father had circulated her photo to every off-licence and supermarket with an instruction not to serve her. So in desperation she bought a toy gun and tried to hold up a local branch of Threshers… all for a bottle of vodka. She had turned to AA as she reached the end of the line and was eventually led from a meeting after smuggling booze in a coke can. She had failed the first test… to stay sober you have to be honest.

My heart bled for her.

This was Alcoholics Anonymous and together we shared sobriety and spent each evening giving support to each other with our ruined but rediscovered lives. It kept me dry for more than eight months and gave me a chance to grab hold of life.

That was nine years ago and although I have wavered from the path of sobriety in that time, I have only been drunk once and I never want to go there again.

Now the need for the crutch has diminished and I can at last enjoy a drink without it ruining everything.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. National AA Helpline: 0845 769 7555


  • Peoples’ names have been changed to preserve their identities.

Most of the time I’m clear focussed all around

abused childI HAVE been blogging now for almost four weeks and am still learning a lot about the art of writing for a world-wide internet audience.

It is a steep learning curve and one thing is for sure, it is a world away from newspaper journalism, where every day you have a guaranteed audience of X thousand readers who pay a hard earned buck to read your words.

To date my posts on cancer (Saving Grace) and child abuse (When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things That Remain?) have been the most widely read and commented upon. Indeed I have been deeply humbled and emotionally affected by some emails, messages and calls I have received from friends and strangers on the back of these postings.

So before I turn to my next big blog – to be posted separately – I want to revisit the second of these subjects: child abuse.

I have been angered by some public comments made in the past eight months over the arrests of certain British showbiz personalities on charges of historic abuse of children and young people. This was particularly evident following the conviction of BBC presenter Stuart Hall and the evidence against the late Jimmy Savile.

Some commentators seem to think that because the allegations of abuse stemmed from instances 30, 40 or 50 years ago, they are in some way not as serious as something which occurred last week. There seems to be an inherent belief that: ‘time is a healer’.

I am sorry to disappoint that view, but quite the reverse is true.

From my own experience, the longer abuse goes unrecognised, untreated and unpunished; the greater is the damage to the victim. Such abuse ruins lives completely and by association can ruin other lives too.

Perversely I am a lifelong supporter of penal reform, but in some of these abuse cases I could quite easily lock up the perpetrators and throw away the key.

I finish by urging anyone who has suffered child abuse to be open, talk about it, report it and seek justice. You really are not alone. Help can be found here:

NSPCC: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/help-and-advice/worried-about-a-child/online-advice/adults-abused-in-childhood/adults-abused-in-childhood_wda87228.html

NAPAC: http://www.napac.org.uk

Young Minds: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_children_young_people/whats_worrying_you/abuse?gclid=CPXFkL3QsboCFXHJtAodLC0A0A

Pardon Monsieur… Am I Hearing You Right? #4

RANGERS - 00MY meeting with England footballer legend Paul Gascoigne was brief, memorable and steeped in humour.

In the summer of 1995, the Gateshead born Geordie had enjoyed three years playing for top Italian side Lazio.

It was no secret that although he enjoyed immense success on the pitch he found the Italian language a little tricky.

Many football punters tipped him to return to England and maybe re-sign for Spurs or even Manchester United or his home team Newcastle United.

So his transfer to Glasgow Rangers for £4.3 million that summer shocked everyone.

On the July day his transfer was to be formally announced, I had been tasked by my newsdesk to attend a Rangers training session and then a press conference at Ibrox to try and grab a word with the great player.

So I spent an hour with my photographer watching a lithe, tanned and fit Gazza train with his team-mates before making our way to Glasgow G51.

The stadium was mobbed by Rangers fans daubed in blue and white, hoping to get a glimpse of their new hero.

I picked my way through the crowd, past a cordon of police officers and showed my press pass at the players’ entrance.

Once inside, the assembled press pack was treated to prawn sandwiches, croissants and coffee before being ushered into a bustling meeting room.

Rangers’ manager Walter Smith and club chairman David Murray sat at the top table next to their new superstar.

The formal press conference lasted about 35 minutes before we were led out pitch side for a photo opportunity.

Gazza was beaming and in a playful mood with the press photographers.

I had not yet managed to ask him a question so waited for my moment.

It wasn’t long before the chance came.

It had crossed my mind that if this Geordie had found the Italian language difficult to deal with, how would he manage broad Glaswegian?

So as Gazza sat in the stands for a final picture opportunity – and remembering my own Tyneside roots – I called to him: “Do you think you will cope with the language here, Paul?”

Quick as a flash, he turned to me and shouted back; “Whey aye man, dyer think thaal understand me. Ye knaa what ah mean leik.”

Both of us broke into a chuckle.

Twenty minutes later as we made our way out of the stadium a couple of my colleagues asked: “What did Gazza say to you?”

I shrugged and lied: “Didn’t understand a word!”


I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

Ted Heath 2MY first proper interview could not have been with a more eminent British statesman.

It is January 1977, I am 20 years old, and to my lasting embarrassment I am vice chairman of our university society: the Federation of Conservative students. I can only blame my position on political naivety and the right wing doctrines of my late father. Thankfully, my Tory years are brief!

Anyway I will cut to the chase…

The evening before this encounter I am part of a small group of third year students attending a new book signing function in Leeds. The guest of honour is the author and recently defeated Conservative Party leader and former Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

During the evening, two girls in our group share a drink, some jokes and a lengthy chat with Mr Heath’s personal assistant and his Special Branch bodyguard. Bearing in mind this is at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Mr Heath’s protective partners are amazingly lax in attitude and seem almost too friendly.

But nothing can surpass the surprise as we leave when the Special Branch detective smiles and says: “See you tomorrow then.”

The 20 mile journey home on a number 75 bus answers the obvious question I need to ask.

Our two female companions had persuaded Mr Heath and his police protection to join us for drinks the following day at the university union!

And to top it all, we will get to interview him on his three favourite subjects: music, sailing and politics – in time to publish in the next edition of our society newsletter.

A heady mix of nerves and excitement mean I do not sleep much that night.

The next morning, I organise the logistics for the meeting with my Tory cohorts and officers from the student union.

We set up three students to ask questions and arrange with the Special Branch officer to sneak Mr Heath up a back staircase into the union president’s office and avoid any verbal flak from fellow undergrads.

I also arrange for a bottle of Mr Heath’s favourite malt whisky to be on hand to help lubricate the interview and settle our nerves.

At about 2pm, an ebullient former Prime Minister arrives accompanied by his Special Branch officer and the personal assistant from the previous evening.

Mr H has a quiet air of someone who has held the highest political office and is smartly groomed in his green and grey Saville Row wool worsted suit.

We gather together in the small but tidy office: Mr Heath, his PA and the Special Branch agent and four nervous students.

We take it in turns to socialise and ask questions and I pour Mr Heath his first whisky, which he drinks quite speedily.

Two minutes suddenly become 15 minutes and it is my turn to ask the political questions.

At this point, with my prepared question about the Warnock Report on education reform, at hand I notice the former PM’s glass is empty.

“Would you like another whisky?” I ask, stalling for time.

“That would be very good,” comes the reply.

I smile and reach for the bottle of malt.

But disaster strikes.

I try to juggle my still full glass of whisky (a double measure), a notebook and pen, while taking Mr Heath’s glass from him.

It all goes horribly wrong.

I drop the notebook, struggle to catch the empty glass from Mr Heath’s hand while pouring the entire contents of my glass down his Saville Row suit.

There is a sharp intake of breath from all corners of the room.

I can feel my face reddening as I stutter an apology.

Mr Heath reaches for a white handkerchief and attempts to mop up the spilt whisky and dry his jacket.

One of our party offers some paper tissues,

I apologise once again, still shaking.

But a smile greets me… “It doesn’t matter… it was an accident,” he says.

The rest of the interview remains a blur, except for the fact I did manage to ask my Warnock Report question, but I can’t remember the reply!

I wait another eight years before daring to try and be a journalist again.