Farewell, Denise Robertson . . . the heart of the North

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Denise, the beating heart of Voice of the North and the inspiration behind its creation

A GREAT Voice of the North, perhaps the greatest, has fallen silent.

Denise Robertson, the friend and colleague who inspired Voice of The North, has died of pancreatic cancer after a brief but determined battle with the disease which she hinted at to Voice colleagues when it was diagnosed in early February.

The 83-year-old author, TV agony aunt and columnist quite recently explained her sudden disappearance from her slot on the ITV This Morning programme in typical no-nonsense style:

“Sorry I’ve not been around for a couple of weeks but a persistent health issue has turned into something quite a lot bigger. I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”

Typically, she refused to mope or be treated as somehow special.

“It has come as a surprise to me and my family but we know that many others have suffered and dealt with this condition and I don’t plan to give up without a fight.

“My doctor is referring me for chemotherapy and hopefully that will start soon.”

Denise, who quit writing for The Journal, Newcastle, along with fellow regular columnists Kate Fox, Keith Hann and me (David Banks) when the paper decided it could no longer afford to pay even the meagre fees agreed with its writers, was the inspiration behind the group’s decision to go it alone with a website.

“We owe it to the readers who have followed us so faithfully for years,” she told me. The lass from East Boldon in County Durham was a passionate Northerner. “Who will speak for the North when all the writers have been made redundant and the columnists and opinion formers have shuffled off down to London?”

She was determined that our voices should be heard and, pointing to her own website and magazine column which offered personal advice from the formidable agony aunt, urged that was the path to follow and hinted she’d be prepared to help fund it.

Driven by Denise’s determination, Messrs Hann, Trafford and Banks recruited another former Journal columnist, independent TV producer Tom Gutteridge, and together decided to ‘blog on’.

Denise’s delight was spontaneous. “Glory be!” she emailed me. “Someone is taking charge. I await your instructions, m’lord. After all, you are one of ‘them opinion-formers’! Happy New Year, Denise.”

Typically, our Mother Hen added a very constructive postscript: “A little guidance on what we are would help. My brief at the Journal was NOT to write about the north-east unless in a national context [but] the reason I write is to air things I think are not fair or are not being fully disclosed.

“What exactly do you want VoiceoftheNorth to be when it’s fully fledged?”

Without pausing for the demanded response she began writing. Her columns answered her own question. Months after they began appearing (and you can still read them in Denise’s own area of this site) these are still two of the most-read pieces of writing on the site.

Brave Denise walked the red light areas of Leeds to tell the story
Brave Denise walked the red light areas of Leeds to tell the story

“ Last week I spent a night walking the streets of Britain’s first official red-light area [the Holbeck district of Leeds] to talk to some of the women who ply their trade there and find out, for a television programme, exactly how that official designation has affected both them and residents of the area. . .”

Classic Denise: brave, unafraid, determined to root out and expose a story by marching into a scary area and somehow representing both sides. She was a campaigner for her beloved National Health Service (to which she paid tribute live on air from her hospital bed in the final days of her illness) and wrote this stark plea for its survival . . .

“For the first time since its inception, I can foresee the demise of the NHS. Several announcements over the weekend, coupled with the doctors’ strike, dispelled any doubts.

“The first alleged that hospitals had been banned from declaring a “major incident” even if they are so overcrowded that patient safety is at risk. In addition, trusts can no longer go on “black” alert to indicate trouble ahead.

“The second alleged that hospitals are paying millions of pounds in interest under a new scheme of emergency government loans. Hospitals borrowing to cover wages, electricity or phone bills pay an interest rate of up to 3.5 per cent.”

That WAS Denise Robertson: feisty, female and fit for a fight. We, her male colleagues, were awestruck. And we began to believe, to plan the full-fledged website that would fight for fairness and transparency from the North but not solely for the North.

Tom Gutteridge undertook to commission a designer. Trafford, Hann and Banks talked about how we should finance the project. It went like this:

HANN: As for a website, I don’t actually have any spare money at all but so long as Mrs Hann NEVER finds out I am prepared to invest up to £1,000 of my ‘historic’ Journal earnings in getting it done properly. Is anyone else willing to step up and, if you are, will that be enough?

TRAFFORD: I’ll match it, if we have a proper plan.

BANKS: And me. I’d have thought Denise might, too (maybe wishful thinking?).

O ye of little faith! The Great Lady emailed indignantly: “I’m in for a thousand! Denise.” Then she was off again, issuing suggestions that sounded more like Royal commands.

“I think we should have something like a letters column, letting people air their views in a short contribution. And invite more people to write, open the columns to all shades of opinion. And readers’ photographs, what about them? After all, we live in a beautiful part of the world. . .x Denise”

She was indomitable. At 83, still travelling to London every week for her well-loved TV appearances, answering problems through her advice website, writing to fans, penning her columns. . .

She did hint that all might not be well when, in one message encouraging us to “get on with it and define what we’re doing, then we can push publicity [and] as for your occasional pessimism, of course it may fail but chances are it might not. I want to live long enough to see it achieved!”

She seemed indestructible. With benefit of regretful hindsight, I hope she did see ‘her’ Great North site in its present form. At the time, I just wanted her well and writing again. And I fully expected that to happen.

Until the day in February when her familiar email address carried not her latest column but a brief, polite note from someone I had never met.

“Dear David, I am Denise’s son, Mark. Sorry to tell you my mother is in hospital but she sends her regards and hopes to be back in touch soon.”

She never was. The woman who had inspired this unique Northern ‘viewspaper’ and, by means of her writing and campaigning, had given the site its name was, I now realise, too ill to respond to the emails I sent updating her on its progress.

Tom Gutteridge remembers most her humility. A woman who had been a regular fixture on This Morning since its first broadcast in October 1988 following her earlier BBC Breakfast Time career, who ran her own advice line, contributed to newspapers and magazines and was made an MBE in 2006 for her services to broadcasting and to charity “always sent in her columns with the simple question ‘do you think this will do?’ Tom recalls.

WE will miss her comradely encouragement and inspiration.

YOU will miss her wit, her wisdom and her warmth.

What we will NOT lose is this website. Her home for ever. This link she created for the North to make a noise.

Farewell, Denise; your wonderful words live on.

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