WHEN SIR BOBBY ROBSON headed back to the North East to manage Newcastle United in 1999 it wasn’t just about football – it was about coming home.
He left the region in the 1950s and for decades his job took him round the UK and Europe. But while work took he lad out of the North East, it didn’t take the North East out of the lad. He said he’d always dreamed of returning to his roots and managing his beloved Magpies.
Actually, ask just about every exile if they share that dream and they’ll say much the same thing. Apart, that is, from Eric Burdon (of whom more later!).
When I interviewed Bobby for a magazine concerning his Newcastle-based cancer charity, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, I asked him why the region meant so much to him. I was expecting a few nostalgic reminiscences about the magnificence of Durham Cathedral or the Geordies’ own ‘cathedral’ of St James’ Park. But certainly NOT a paean of praise for Langley Park, the unassuming County Durham pit village where he (and I, a generation later) grew up
He said he loved to look down over the village from a nearby hill from which he could see the house where he grew up, the cinema where he courted his wife Elsie, the coalmine where he used to work – and the football pitch that got him to Fulham.
“Looking over that valley you could see everything that formed me,” he said.
That planted a seed in my mind: to put together a coffee-table book of exclusive interviews with other North East celebrities about what they believed was special about the place they call home, together with stunning landscape photographs of their favourite places, haunts and hang-outs.
A few years down the line, ‘My North East – By Its Famous Sons and Daughters‘ was published: in-depth interviews with 65 top names and featuring stunning views from Tees to Tweed and all points in between.
It was labour of love for me and my other half, Mick Hamilton – both journalists, we did all the interviews – and our favourite landscape photographer, Graeme Peacock, who provided most of the images. We also roped in a book designer mate, Jeremy Hopes, to make it look the part.
Within days we had sold out the first print run and a second print run sold out weeks later. It meant we could donate profits of £5,000 to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. Now the book is available in softback.
Everyone we interviewed (once we had pinned them down) was up for taking part. Not bad going when you think of the time demands on the likes of Sting, Mark Knopfler, Alan Shearer, Denise Welch and the Duchess of Northumberland, to name but a few.
Hand on heart, they were all a pleasure to talk to. Mick was particularly taken by Brian Johnson, one of the most down-to-earth people you could meet. He told a tale of driving back to his old family home in Dunston in a Ferrari and asking the woman who lived there if he could take a look around. Her answer? “Nah”!
I was impressed with the Paralympic swimming champion Josef Craig – an old head on young shoulders – who persuaded his mum to let him take time off doing his homework to talk to me. His drive to succeed against the odds paid off for him, and I hope he goes on to reach his future ambition of being a motivational speaker.
Just have a read of a few more of the many quotable quotes we collected from some of the celebs we talked to: they show how this region of ours gets into your soul.
Paul Rogers told us: “I’m stamped through with the North East just like off the assembly line.” The great Sir Bobby himself said: “The North East is where my wife and I belong. It’s where we’re from and it’s where we’ll stay.”
But there are always downsides. I promised at the start a rare view from a great Geordie celeb, and here it is, from The Animals’ Eric Burdon: “Early school years were a dark nightmare. A combination of the river pollution and humidity led to asthma attacks which I still encounter today. A little reminder of what I inherited from Newcastle.
Ah, well. As Sir Bobby might have added: “You can’t win ’em all!”