MY Friends in the North were bemused. The Byreman said he couldn’t believe it.
“It’s not the end of the world,” I told Godzone’s millionaire milk producer (retired). “Columnists can’t go on forever, especially writing without pay. . .”
His eyes rolled. He wasn’t talking about The Newcastle Journal losing most (if not all) of its regular columnists at one miserly fell swoop. “I’m talking about Newcastle going bottom of the Premiership!” he bellowed.
I searched for sympathy among the Red Lion regulars. “It will be the end of them,” Klondike the wind farmer predicted. “They’ll be a laughing stock.”
Now that WAS going a bit far. “We wouldn’t wish THAT on The Journal,” I said quickly. “It’s been a great paper for nearly two centuries and just because its £1.8million-a-year chief executive needs to save money by ceasing to pay us columnists is no reason to. . .”
He dismissed an attempted defence of my former employer with a snort, his arms flailing like one of his wind turbines. “I’m talking about Labour’s new leader!” he roared. “Did you notice he doesn’t sing the national anthem?”
This was no time to tell him that I rarely sing it, either, given that I’m half-Scots and all that third-verse Jock-bashing stuff hardly seems designed to promote national unity. I headed, instead, in Farmer Morebottle’s direction.
“I suppose you’ve heard about the Journal column,” I muttered. “No,” he said nonchalantly, before admitting cruelly and somewhat unnecessarily that he “hadn’t read it in a while, actually. I get all my news off the internet these days and they don’t put the good stuff on there.”
Which is where the idea was born. Right there, from Morebottle’s mealy mouth; that and a timely reminder of something TV agony aunt and former Journal columnist Denise Robertson wrote me in a message after she departed The Journal two weeks ago.
“I gave up my Express column and only went to The Journal when [they] told me it was under pressure and needed help,” she said. “I also put my weekly column on my website which is free and non-profit making and is there for anyone with a problem.”
That is only half of Denise Robertson’s story. A friend to all through her columns and motherly advice freely given via ITV’s ‘This Morning’ programme, Denise is an inspiring example of a woman long past her sixties whom, you might think, has earned the right to rest.
But does she? Not a bit of it.
“I wrote my column – eventually for half the agreed fee [to help the paper’s finances] – because it allowed me to rant about the injustices of this world,” she told me. “And as they seem to be increasing daily there’s still plenty to write about.”
She is a woman with a giant heart. Born in Sunderland, she is also an inspirational northerner with a passion to evangelise on behalf of the North Country.
Excited, her fellow former columnists – me, Tom Gutteridge, Keith Hann and Bernard Trafford – composed a wishful response: would Denise eschew her ‘forced’ writing retirement and join us in creating the Voice of the North? We didn’t need to wait long for her response.
“Of course I will,” she said. “I really fear that our northern voice will vanish unless we do this.
“There will just be a voice emanating from the South and probably a pretend northernness somewhere. Let me know what you want, when you want it and I’ll do it!”
Joy unconfined! Four infamous fellows now have our Famous Fifth and a powerful new voice begins to sound.
To be joined, no doubt, by a host of writers and commentators eager to bring a much-overlooked region to national prominence. To stir regional passion and national conscience. To provide a platform for YOUR comments and thoughts.
To truly become the Voice of the North.