Words for Friends #8

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#8 Sharon

I have known Sharon since 1991, but she has only known me for the last eight years!

I met her via a TV screen and an old VHS video player while I lived in a loch-side cottage on the wild, west coast of Scotland.

Life really was wild and devoid of modern culture in Knapdale, Mid Argyll, without TV reception and the nearest cinema some 45 miles away.

So to stay in touch with the late 20th century, my partner and I would rely on monthly trips to Glasgow – some 102 miles away – to buy a clutch of videos of which ever movies took our fancy.

One such video was called Clockwise  a hilarious 1985 British comedy starring John Cleese and co-starring a then unknown actress.

Sharon turned my head. She was funny, beautiful, slightly quirky and most of all reminded me of my first teenage girlfriend!

So it came as a surprise when some 17 years later I stumbled across her on Facebook and realised that we had mutual friends – largely due to my time at drama college in the late 1970s.

A friendship grew slowly via social media, emails and telephone chats and blossomed with our shared experiences, values and a constant battle against injustice and abuse. We also share very similar humour and a mutual disdain for bullies and deceit.

I now consider Sharon a close personal friend and someone whom I trust implicitly.

Thank you for returning that friendship.

Shedding off one more layer of skin

THE UK has a population of approximately 65 million people and with ever faster transport systems and micro second communication technology it is now just a large village.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me at what a very small world we really live in.
As regular readers of this blog may know, I was brought up near Brighton, on the rolling downs of Sussex – for world readers, this is the deep south of England.
Recently I received a small and quite pleasant shock. My best friend while growing up in the village of Mile Oak was my next door neighbour, Johnny. Please read There’s danger on the battlefield where the shells of bullets fly for further references. I lost complete touch with Johnny when I left school at 18 for university life in Yorkshire… that was 40 years ago!
Two weeks ago, while browsing updates about old class mates on the website Friends Reunited, I noticed Johnny’s name and the fact he was living and working as a boat builder in Argyll, in the north west of Scotland. I tracked his company email address and fired off a “how are you?” email. Ten minutes later came a surprised reply. He had moved to Argyll in 1990 – the same year I moved to Argyll – and has lived there ever since. He lives in a village some seven miles away from where I used to live for two years. But most surprisingly he used to read the newspaper I edited every week, never realising that I was the editor. He even remembered in detail one story I had published. We both laughed at the fact that we still remembered in detail the hand grenade incident in 1966!
One of the more bizarre examples of the village-like geography of my life reads like a Pete Frame “Rock Family” tree.
I studied for my degrees between 1974 and 1979 at Huddersfield Polytechnic and the nearby Bretton Hall College. My oldest and best friend from this time was an art student called Judith, while the best man at my wedding was a music student called Howard. In my second year at college I was gobsmacked to find that while I was at home for a reading week, the famous folk singer/comedian Mike Harding had slept in my bed following a gig at the college. I dined out on this simple story for many years.
As time went on I became a huge fan of the English folk rock group Fairport Convention and would often attend their annual Cropredy Convention festival in Oxfordshire each August. Over the years, I got to know a few members of the band, while sharing a beer at the festival bar – the most lugubrious of whom was multi-instrumentalist Maart Allcock.
In 2007 I discovered that Maart lived close to me in North Wales. I popped along to watch him perform in a local pub and briefly chatted to his wife Jan.
Roll on August 2008. My old friend from student days, Judith, said she would like to come to Cropredy with me. We made plans and packed our camping gear. A couple of days before the festival started, Judith told me that her sister in New Zealand had mentioned that an old best friend from their childhood in Coventry called Jan had married a member of Fairport Convention. There could be only one combination! So three days later I introduced Judith to Maart and Jan Allcock at the festival bar. There followed a mix of laughter and tears and a few pints of beer. We later bumped into Mike Harding, who was compering part of the festival!
But this, by chance, simple reunion didn’t end there.
Over the next couple of years, Maart and I began to swap matey emails and I discovered that (a) He studied at Huddersfield Polytechnic while I was studying there. (b) He played with my best man and fellow music student Howard. (c) After leaving Huddersfield he moved to Leeds and played with the aforementioned Mike Harding.
Meanwhile, on the back of my “look who’s been sleeping in my bed” story I became Facebook friends with Mike Harding and mutual friend Andy Kershaw – who happened to be the events secretary at Leeds University – a spit away from Huddersfield – in the mid 1970s.
And to take things to a natural conclusion, last year I found out that Andy Kershaw is currently a neighbour of a good friend Yvonne in Todmorden, near Huddersfield. That friend is in turn a mutual friend of Judith!
A silly and quite bizarre post script is that one Christmas Eve, 20 years ago, my wife’s parents received a knock on the door at their home near Coventry. My mother-in-law opened the door to be greeted by a man carrying a large turkey. “Oh my God, you’re that Mike Harding from the telly!” she exclaimed. It wasn’t… it was fellow comedian and local Brummie Jasper Carrott, whose sister lived next door. He had simply knocked on the wrong door!
Mike Harding was acquainted with this tale only last year!
Which all goes to prove the six degrees of separation theory!
And it is with my wife Gill that the next simple twist of fate takes place – and it really is a double whammy!
Long before we met, Gill lived and worked as an English teacher in the Greek city of Thessaloniki for 10 years. She returned permanently to the UK in 2002 and often tells me stories of the sun drenched café lifestyle, restaurants and architecture of this beautiful Greek city.
When Gill and I first got together we lived in small hamlet in the North Wales hills. My son Nathan attended a primary school in a nearby village. The school was tiny with just 10 pupils in his year group and 96 pupils at the school in total! One day, about 18 months ago, Nathan told me that a new Greek boy had joined his school. “And he does taekwondo too!” he enthused (his favourite sport). A few weeks later at a taekwondo training session, Nathan introduced me to the new boy Yanni and his Greek dad Dino and British mum Nicola. I, in turn, introduced them to my wife. The next 15 minutes stretched believability as we discovered: (a) Yanni’s family had moved from Thessaloniki. (b) They lived just one street away from where Gill had lived. (c) Dino and Nicola owned a restaurant which Gill dined at almost every week. (d) They were both friends with one of Gill’s closest friends from her time in Thessaloniki. (e) When Nicola first arrived in Greece she had gone to the British Council where Gill worked to ask for advice on learning Greek! Needless to say we are now all good friends!
But Gill and my life coincidences don’t end there.
Gill is nine years younger than me and the first coincidence is we share the same strange surname: Outterside. There are only about 240 Outterside households in the entire UK!
Both our families originally herald from the Newcastle and Sunderland areas in North East England.
In September 1984, my first wife Ann, our new born son Ben and I were staying with relations in the region. We took the opportunity to visit my elderly Great Aunt Nan Charlton (my grandfather’s sister) at her small villa at Bank Top in Throckley, a few miles west of Newcastle. Aunt Nan was aged about 94 at the time and I had not seen her since my grandfather died three years earlier. When we arrived at the house I was amazed to find this frail old lady picking blackberries at the end of her garden. She looked pleased to see us and chirped: “The blackberries are good this year. The young girl next door is picking a basket full too.” I looked through the hedge to see a pretty young woman of about 18 years of age picking the fruit.
Over a cup of tea, my great aunt explained that the new next door neighbours were also called Outterside, but had not realised her own maiden name for many months after they had moved in. She said she did not think we were related in any way, but the girl’s father Bruce had once worked with my father’s twin brother Geoff at Heathrow Airport!
I thought little more of it and was saddened a few years later when I had to miss Aunt Nan’s 100th birthday party, and a year later, her funeral.
Anyway, time and divorces passed by and sometime about 25 years later I befriended Gill via Facebook. The friendship was partly based on the fact we both lived quite close but mainly because we shared the same surname. The friendship blossomed into love two years ago and in February 2013 we became married.
Along the way we discovered that (a) we share the same great-great-great grandparents (b) I had worked with Gill’s brother on the Outterside family tree some 10 years earlier (c) Gill had attended my great aunt Nan’s 100th birthday, because (d) she was the young girl picking blackberries in the neighbour’s garden all those years ago.
It is a very small world!

Lettin’ the cat out of the cage and keeping a low profile

In the past fortnight I have republished three of my newspaper articles written while I was working as an investigative journalist in Scotland and North East England. One looked at the likely governmental conspiracy over the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 another at the secrecy of the Bilderberg organisation and yesterday I reloaded a piece about the top secret Aurora aircraft.
Today we are back down to Earth with an article about big cats at large in the UK. This was first published in 1999 and republished in 2009.

ARE they overgrown pussycats, the figment of over-active imaginations, or something much closer to jungle reality? The mystery surrounding Scotland’s big cats has grown to Nessie proportions. Now experts claim there may be 50 of them prowling our countryside
The eyes flicker gold against the dipped headlights. The bared fangs belong to a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. The coat appears a buff fawn. The shape is unmistakably that of a big cat – possibly a puma. But this is not Saskatchewan – it is Scotland.
It is a clear February night. My car is parked in a lay-by on the A712, a remote road which winds its way through the Galloway Forest. I have taken a short break from a 200-mile journey home from friends in the North. I am awe-struck. I move my left hand slowly across to the passenger glove box where I know my camera is loaded with flash and film. The plastic lock unclips and the camera drops into my hand. I look up – but the beast is gone.
Like many others before me I have my one and only brief encounter with one of Scotland’s mysterious big cats. No physical evidence, just what I saw with my own eyes. The mystery beast – possibly the famed Galloway Puma – could be one of up to 50 big cats roaming free in the UK.
During the past two decades thousands of people have reported sightings of big cats from Cornwall in the south to Caithness in the north. In Scotland, the Galloway Puma has cousins in Angus, Argyll, Aberdeenshire and Moray. Experts are now united in agreeing that the cats are real, may have been at large for more than 20 years and bred generations of offspring.
Marcus Matthews, who has researched big cat sightings since 1986, is convinced. His 165,000-word manuscript on UK sightings is set to become a definitive book on the subject. His study-bedroom is cluttered with 25 files and 5,000 letters he has collected on the subject.
“I have over 1,000 letters confirming sightings,” he says. “But for every reported sighting there are probably two or three others which have never been recorded. We are talking of maybe 50 big cats out there, ranging from black leopards to lynxes and smaller jungle and leopard cats. The evidence is there,” he urges. “For instance the skull of a puma found on Exmoor in 1993 was certainly genuine.”
In Scotland, a puma was caught in the hills north of the Great Glen in 1980, a leopard cat was shot near Jedburgh in the Borders in 1988 and another killed in Berwickshire a year later.
The Ross-shire puma was found in a trap by a Cannich farmer following an eight-month hunt during which he had lost many sheep and foals. The beast – suffering from chronic arthritis – was taken to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie, where she lived out her last years, dying in 1985. The origin of the Berwickshire leopard cat remains unknown, but the Jedburgh cat originally came from Edinburgh Zoo and had escaped from a private collection in Cumbria.
Last month, Buchan welder John Aitken revealed he had two encounters with a big cat within a year at Crimonmogate, near Fraserburgh. His sightings are part of a wave of new reports of puma-like creatures across the North.
Last year farmers in the Kiltarlity area in Highland blamed a big cat for a spate of sheep killings. Alan Syme, of the Scottish Agricultural College’s veterinary laboratories in Inverness, later confirmed that at least one of the sheep had been killed by “some creature other than foxes or dogs”.
Other sightings of big cats have been made near Stonehaven, Findhorn, Lochinver, Turriff and Huntly.
In South-west Scotland, the existence of the so-called Galloway Puma was recently given credence when three Canadian tourists staying in holiday chalets at Newton Stewart reported seeing the cat. They said it was identical to animals “back home” in Vancouver.
Sightings in the Forfar, Dundee and North Perthshire areas of the black-coloured “Angus Big Cat” have been reported for many years.
In 1994, Tayside Police followed their Grampian counterparts in appointing an officer to investigate reports of a predatory big cat roaming the rural areas and killing sheep.
And the big cat story is getting bigger:
First there was the Beast of Exmoor and the Surrey Panther.
A swamp cat was run over by a car at Hayling Island, Hampshire.
A Devon farmer shot a South American leopard.
The history of big cats in Scotland can be traced back to the 1920s when three lynxes were killed in traps set at individual points in the Highlands. Alford vet May Crossling says she first saw a big cat 20 years ago while driving in the Montrose area. She believes the most likely explanation for continued sightings is that a number of “panther-like cats” were released from private collections and have successfully bred in the wild. It is a view shared by others.
Malcolm Moy, former owner of the Argyll Wildlife Park in Inveraray, has long espoused the existence of a number of puma-like cats at large throughout Scotland. “It started when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in 1976,” he said. “Before that you could even buy these things in Exchange and Mart and many people had them as exotic pets. But after the Act local councils told owners to either get a local authority licence and provide secure caging or have their pets put down. Many couldn’t afford the expensive cages and couldn’t bear to have their cats destroyed, so dumped them in remote places in Wales, south-west England and Scotland.” Other beasts escaped from insecure small zoos and careless owners.
Mr Moy’s conclusions were confirmed by another expert. Police big-cat tracker Steve Ashcroft claimed there were an “alarming number of big cats now living wild in Britain”. He said there could be as many as 50. Mr Moy added: “By now some of these cats would have got together and produced litters.”
A puma’s usual prey is rabbits, roe deer or young red deer. But it will also attack stock. “We had a panther in Argyll and one farmer lost 18 sheep to it after the local rabbit population got myxomatosis,” he added. New sightings in mid-Argyll have added weight to claims that a family of panthers may be roaming the area. A recent sighting at Ford near Loch Awe was the 36 th catalogued by police in Lochgilphead since 1984. The animal was caught on video tape and the film corroborated by a local SSPCA officer.
Terry Moore of the Cat Survival Trust believes the estimate of 50 big cats at large may be a little high. But he is confident there are as many as 24, from seven different species, living on the mainland of Britain.
Fears over an increase in big cat numbers have been made by zoologist Quentin Rose, who has investigated sightings for seven years. Mr Rose claims to have identified 27 reliable reports of leopards, 32 of pumas and 18 smaller members of the cat family – jungle cats, leopard cats and ocelots – in Scotland, Wales, the West of England and East Anglia. He believes the known reports are just the tip of the iceberg. And he warns that if nothing is done, the big cat population could explode, posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, livestock and humans.
Bob Fotheringham, chief game warden at Blair Drummond Safari Park, near Stirling, is less alarmist but still believes there are big cats at large. “Every three or four weeks we get phone calls of sightings of big cats,” he said.
“There are currently a lot in the Fife area and close to Balfron. We know there are native Scottish wild cats, but they are only seen rarely because there is such a vast area of Scotland in which they can lose themselves. For similar reasons I personally believe there are big cats out there.”

My Back Pages

I AM about to close the pages on a 28 year career in magazine and newspaper journalism with more than just a tinge of sadness and nostalgia.

During those years I have worked on weekly and daily newspapers, glossy magazines, sports publications, county council journals, in-house buzz feeds and too many supplements to list.

But now it is all change and I view the future with an excitement I have not felt since I was 12 years old.

I am writing a more considered piece on my time in journalism for later publication, but turn my head now to headlines and howlers that accompanied me along the way.

I am proud of creating a few great headlines – along with far too many crap ones – over those years and remember five of them with particular fondness.

The first was during my tenure as editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser way back in 1991. We landed a genuine exclusive that Strathclyde Police detectives were investigating allegations of potential property development fraud within the local council.

The story was massive and it called out for a full page headline FRAUD SQUAD MOVE IN ON COUNCIL.

Two memorable headlines were gifts while I edited the Galloway Gazette in 1998.

The first of these involved some brilliant investigative and painstaking journalism by one of my reporters to identify that seven county councillors were claiming expenses and allowances which would have puts the MPs’ expenses scandal to shame. None of them could properly justify why they had claimed so much from the public purse.

My answer was simple… to line up seven pictures of these councillors across the top of our broadsheet front pages under a banner headline: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

The second of the Gazette pair was a simple piece of amusement. It involved the world famous artist and sculptor Hideo Furuta working with local school children to create circular murals for the town’s church clock – which was away being repaired.


The final two headline memories are more recent and come from my tenure as editor of The Denbighshire Free Press (2006-2013).

For the first I have to thank my former chief reporter Adele Forrest for her help. In early 2009 she investigated and wrote a truly gobsmacking front page exposing the county council as it struggled to turn round a failing education department. Adele discovered that in their battle to improve matters the council had employed a new education director who lived in Lanzarote and commuted weekly by plane to her job in Ruthin in North Wales, while being put up at tax payers’ expense in a local hotel.

The headline took some work, but we never regretted: PLANE POTTY TO COMMUTE FROM LANZAROTE.

And I close this section with a headline from just a few months ago.

In the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal, my reporter Kirstie Dolphin undertook a blind steak tasting test comparing horse, beef, zebra, and others meats. She voted horse as the tastiest of all the steaks tested, but that didn’t matter because we had a readymade headline: DOLPHIN EATS HORSE SHOCK.

But my headlines were amateurish compared with the real pros.

I worked for a short time in the early 1990s with former national tabloid sub the late Ged Phelan. His penchant for witty and eye-catching headlines was unsurpassed. For one story regarding Sotheby’s valuation of an old Stradivarius violin discovered in the cupboard of a local church vestry, his wording was timeless: MILLION POUND FIDDLE AND NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

Another great colleague and headline writer was The Scotsman’s former deputy features editor Clare Flowers. She excelled in simplicity. On a feature about the release of long lost out-takes by The Beatles, she titled it THE QUALITY OF MERSEY.

And for one of my own pieces about pesticide poisoning of a large area of Kent countryside she scribed the brilliant:  GREEN UNPLEASANT LAND.

But my favourite headline of all time was written by a sports sub at the same paper and related to former Middlesbrough football star Emerson arriving back late from South America. At the time he was linked in transfer talks with Italian club Parma. So the headline had to be: EMERSON LATE AND LINKED WITH PARMA.

Headlines and stories are the bread and butter of newspapers. But real unexpected howlers keep us going.

The most famous I can recall was from a High Court divorce hearing in the mid 1980s, when a wife cited that her husband was often away seeing Bruce Springsteen. In innocent pomposity the judge asked: “And this Mr Springsteen, is he a friend of the family?”

But one howler cost a colleague his job in 1992. At the time I was Editor of the Argyllshire Advertiser and Campbeltown Courier in which this public notice advertisement appeared: “Southend Church, Campbeltown, service times for Sunday: 8.30am Early morning service, 11am Family Service, 2pm Sunday School, 6.30pm Evensong followed by anti-christ barbeque on the beach.”

The final line should have read: “followed by readings in the ante-room”. Unfortunately for the ad man responsible, not only was his error deliberate, but the church in question was regularly attended by the commercial director’s mother.”

My own worst nightmare was reporting from Colwyn Bay magistrates court 24 years ago, when the 19-year-old son of the Chief Constable was up for motoring offences. Throughout my entire court copy for the next day’s paper I put the father’s Christian name instead of the son’s. To make matters worse the son still lived at home with his parents, so the two shared the same address. The copy passed through news desk, subs and editor unnoticed.

Thankfully my career was saved by a sharp-eyed stone sub, just as the plate was being winged away to the press.

And that, as they say, is the news.

All you can do is do what you must

Princess AnneTHE more I think about it, my entire career in journalism has been one of a succession of  moments when… if only the ground would open up.

This tale is a warning to reporters to treat their snapper brethren with professional honour and respect.

Back in the summer of 1991, I was preparing, as editor of a local newspaper in Argyll, to cover the visit of the Princess Royal to our local fishing village of Tarbert.

I had lined up two staff photographers and a freelancer to capture what would hopefully be a picture special for my paper and our sister title, The Oban Times.

I even decided to take an office SLR camera along myself.

Arriving on time I checked in with our local police superintendent, who I knew quite well, and ensured my snappers were not over-stepping protocol for the visit.

He glanced at the camera in my hand and whispered: “If you want a cracking good picture, just stand here next to me.”

I smiled back and took up position. Sure enough, within 15 minutes, the Royal Range Rover pulled up within four feet of me and out stepped Princess Anne and Peter and Zara. I immediately raised my camera just as the Princess looked straight at me with a smile (yes a smile!) on her face.

I clicked the camera button and clicked again … but nothing happened. No whirr, no shutter release, nothing. The blasted thing was jammed. As I frantically tried to get the camera operational, I managed to open the back and expose the film to daylight. I muttered something in disgust as the superintendent turned to me and asked: ‘Get a good picture?’

I cursed, ferried in my pocket for a new roll of film, and looked up to see the Royal entourage had moved on some 100 yards away.

It was my first and last attempt at being a newspaper photographer. My adage is now: leave it to the pros and respect what they do.


There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down

ashdownI HAVE always been a political animal and am proud to be labelled a socialist and a pacifist.

But as a journalist I have tried to maintain a political neutrality and treat politicians from all parties just the same.

I was close personal friends with the late Tory politician Bill Hodgson and the SNP’s Margaret and Fergus Ewing. I also class as friends former Labour Defence Secretary Des Browne, SNP Leader Alex Salmond and the Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy.

Among politicians, as in life, there are good and bad, and in my opinion these were some of the good guys.

But “proud and smug” are just two words I would use to describe the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.

It is probably wrong to feel so strongly about one man after just two short intercessions, but Ashdown pressed the wrong button for me, and now when I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio… I turn off!

I will take you back to early 1992.

I was in my first editor’s chair overseeing The Argyllshire Advertiser, a wonderful small weekly paper in the west of Scotland.

Our paper happened to sit in the middle of the marginal Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute.

It was a General Election year. The seat was held by likeable Lib Dem MP Ray Michie, but under threat from the Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Indeed after the Tories committed electoral suicide by deselecting their own candidate, the SNP’s Neil MacCormick was coming up fast on the ropes as an unlikely favourite to take the seat.

Meanwhile, nationally it appeared that John Major’s Tory Government could be defeated by the narrow swing in just a handful of seats.

Argyll and Bute was one of them.

So in March 1992 I decided to commission a public opinion poll on the streets of our principal towns to gauge which way the votes might fall. We polled 450 people (about half that of a typical Mori or Gallup opinion poll) and were amazed to find that Prof MacCormick was ahead of the sitting Mrs Michie by about 3%.

The ramifications of this poll were bigger than anything I imagined at the time.

Within 24 hours of my paper publishing the poll results, both BBC and ITV were reporting on it. They wheeled out each of the party leaders for comment and each in turn gave their own turn or spin on the result.

Except for a clearly rattled Paddy Ashdown who in an obvious fury branded our poll as: “A Mickey Mouse poll taken by a Mickey Mouse newspaper”. Quite amusing in hindsight as my paper had been known locally for almost 100 years as “The Squeak”!

I was angered by Mr Ashdown’s outburst and sought to get a response for the following week’s edition of my paper. Each party obliged by giving us good reactive comments. But Mr Ashdown refused to even speak to me and the Scottish Lib Dems moved into dirty tricks territory to discredit our poll and our paper.

As it turned out the Mrs Michie held the seat at the General Election that year with a 2,600 majority.

She later privately told me that she often found Mr Ashdown: ‘quite pompous’ and she apologised for the way he had treated us.

But it wasn’t quite the end of my affair with Mr Ashdown.

Some years later while I was a reporter with Scotland’s national broadsheet The Scotsman I had to attend a question and answer event with the Lib Dem leader.

I sat at the front of the audience of about 200 people with my carefully prepared questions.

When it came to my turn to ask a question, I gave my name and publication. Ashdown looked down at me from his podium and as if he did not hear me, moved on to the next questioner!

This was Paddy’s cold shoulder.