Voice of The North grieves the death of its guiding spirit

David Banks, 1948 - 2022

Former The Journal columnist and VoTN co-founder Keith Hann writes:

Few people can have defied the Grim Reaper with more audacious dedication than David Banks, who is usually billed as the co-founder of this website but was really its guiding spirit as well as its editor-in-chief.

After determinedly surviving leukaemia, meningitis, glandular fever, the loss of an eye and a litany of other potentially fatal ailments – I have a distinct memory of an exchange that went “but the doctor said that the good news is that at least the leukaemia has seen off your diabetes”, or possibly vice-versa – it came as a huge shock to receive an email on Tuesday morning to say that the man we all called Banksy had died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep, during his first night at home after a 10 day stay in hospital.

To put that “unexpectedly” in context, the Banks’s had a call that evening from a neighbour who is the village undertaker, and Banksy had assured him that he would not be needing his services for some time yet. Clearly tempting fate, with the benefit of hindsight.

I first became aware of Banksy when he was given a column on The Journal in Newcastle after he retired to his beloved Godzone in north Northumberland in the mid-2000s. His column appeared on Friday, mine on Tuesday. We met at a rare – indeed, I think the one and only – lunch organised for the paper’s freelance contributors and I recognised him at once as one of those people who can only be described as “larger than life”.

Traditionally this is a semi-polite way of conveying that someone is a fat bastard, and Banksy was certainly amply proportioned by the time I got to know him, but his largeness went well beyond that: he had a personality that commanded attention, a voice that could not be ignored, and a rare ability to promote both serious thought and absolutely rapturous laughter.

As Banksy wrote in his fine tribute on this site to another late Journal columnist, Willy Poole, he and I had almost nothing in common: Banksy a lifelong socialist and a professional journalist to his fingertips, I a stern, unbending Tory and a rank amateur. But we shared a love of Northumberland, words, and good food and drink. Particularly the drink.

I am sorry to reflect that I shall never again hear one of his glorious tales of the epic benders and expenses scams that were at the heart of Banksy’s Fleet Street experience.

Although we had to agree to disagree on so much in life, I always loved meeting Banksy and it was a rare lunch or dinner that did not bring me close to crying with laughter. If there is an afterlife, that distant murmur may well be the sound of angels chuckling.

There is so much of Banksy’s wit and wisdom on this site for you to explore that I feel tempted to close with the epitaph granted to Wren in St Paul’s: si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

I suspect, though, that Banksy would have dismissed that as a cliché. So I shall say instead – as I say of very few – that I loved the man, and my thoughts are with those who loved him even more: his wife Gemma and their children Tim and Tash, and his and Gemma’s grandchildren.

And thank you so much, boss, for all the laughter.

P.S. I am conscious that my tribute here is nothing like as good as the ones Banksy wrote on this site for his younger brother Richard, Willy Poole, or his friend the Byreman. On the one hand I am conscious of giving him much less than he deserved. But then again, I rather suspect that this proof of his superiority as a wordsmith is exactly what he would have wanted.

Former The Journal columnist and VoTN co-founder Bernard Trafford writes:

Compared to others – such as Keith, Tom and Brian, I came late to the party. I use the metaphor advisedly: any encounter with David Banks seemed rapidly to assume the characteristics of a party: even without drinks or canapés, there was always an anecdote (or several), sparkling repartee and booming laughter.

In 2008 I moved to Newcastle to take on a serious job, as head of the city’s Royal Grammar School. Through good luck (and the significant help of (very) former students, Keith and Tom), I managed to avoid being too serious by becoming one of that select group of people (the others, all media people, much better qualified than I was) writing light-hearted weekly columns for The Journal.

It was only natural that we should sometimes hold occasional columnists’ lunches or dinners: thus I finally got to meet the long-legendary author of the Journal’s hilarious Friday accounts of life in Godzone, the patch of Northumberland that he and wife Gemma had chosen for retirement from his distinguished career in journalism in London, Sydney and New York.

A cheery meal with Banksy always brought some risk, and not merely that of liver-damage. As we swapped wisecracks and funny stories, I knew that all would be filed away in his razor-sharp mind, and that any blunders or excesses I might reveal would be embellished and dished up, barely recognisable but hugely comical, in a future article.

I recall the derision that greeted my announcement at one such lunch that I couldn’t have a drink, and had to leave early, in order to get to an important school netball match. Sure enough, the next piece covered the issue, with highly inappropriate imputations as to my motivation and a side-splitting attribution to Keith of an ASBO relating to an alleged obsession with girls’ sports-kit.

Also owning a cottage nearby, my wife Katherine and I gradually got to know Godzone’s Young Farmers (average age 75) at Milfield’s Red Lion, where Banksy would hold court and reduce an entire pub to helpless mirth.

Once retired ourselves, we were able to spend more time with David and Gemma, but evenings together didn’t get any quieter. On the contrary, whether in the pub, in their house or in ours, they became ever more uproarious. Picking up on Katherine’s and my background as music teachers, Banksy would burst readily into song.

“Did I say I was rather a fine boy soprano in my day?” The fact that he had told us, more than once, didn’t prevent him from breaking into yet another Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.

Meanwhile Dave was, inevitably, the driving force behind both Voice of the North and the Clarion, and still a dog with a bone (a newshound, that is) when pursuing a deserving local cause and laying bare the shortcomings of a utility company or local councillor.

Great journalist; unparalleled raconteur; loving husband, father and grandfather; warm and compassionate human being; generous friend; a man who simply couldn’t help making us laugh. We all loved him, and life without him will be just that bit less fun.

Former editor of The Journal Brian Aitken writes:

David was already a Fleet Street living legend by the time he retired to his beloved rural Northumberland. I was Editor of The Journal and it soon became clear that he was not yet ready to hang up his notebook.

I remember him getting in touch and asking for a meeting at our offices on the Bigg Market. He loved being back in a newsroom environment again and it soon became apparent that his main mission for the day was that I should hire him as a columnist for The Journal.

It was not a difficult decision to make.

The stories he told about life in Crookham, and the verbal pictures he painted of the characters he encountered, meant that the column quickly became a hit.

People began making day trips to the village to see for themselves Jock the Cock, the Byreman and David’s domino-playing buddies from the pub. It was a far cry from the Fleet Street boozers of his heyday.

Here is a sample from one of those columns:

Did I ever tell you about the four ladies who were lunching in the Lion when I popped in for a prefuneral stiffener the day we weighed off Old Bob, my domino partner? Much whispering from the table in the window: ‘It’s that Mr Banks who writes in The Journal,’ hissed the loudest one, pointing to my picture in the paper. ‘I wonder if I can get an autograph?’ As she hurried over to the bar I fished out my Biro, smirking condescendingly and reaching for her newspaper. ‘Oh no!’’she cried. “I wouldn’t want to bother YOU, she lied. ‘I just wondered if that wonderful man the Byreman was with you?’ And a little bit of me died.”

In 2007 David got the good news that he was in complete remission from leukaemia. The very same day The Journal published a story about a lovely girl called Josie Grove who had decided to stop having chemo for her leukaemia and live the rest of her life to its fullest.

Seeing the picture of this smiling effervescent young teenager with only months to live on the front page of The Journal had a huge impact on David. ‘Why her and not an old bugger like me?’ he said to me.

Under encouragement from his wife, Gemma, he started a sponsored slim to raise money for the Dragonfly Cancer Trust, a charity set up by Josie’s parents to raise money to support children and young people with cancer. Needless to say, The Journal’s readers were not slow in supporting David’s charitable efforts.

Former editor of Drapers Eric Musgrave writes:

David Banks was the friend of a friend and he became my friend over the past three years. Although he was eight years older than me, we had similar backgrounds – bright Northern working-class grammar-school lads who got into journalism.

That profession has many facets and Banksy ploughed a furrow a long way from my own, which was primarily in trade mags for the clothing industry. He was an old-school Fleet Street tabloid man, which meant he had many stories to entertain me when we’d meet occasionally for a pint.

Typically of the man, he readily extended the hand of friendship when I contacted him after my wife Jane and I moved to Etal in 2018. Unlike Banksy, we had no family ties to the area but soon became as enthusiastic about God’s Own Country as the man himself.

I soon learned that, despite appearances, he was not retired. Any throwaway remark of mine or shared bit of local gossip could easily by recycled by him in Voice of the North.

In due course I felt very privileged to be invited to his select gatherings of cronies at The Red Lion. Everyone there has to have a nickname. Mine became The Fashionista (a term I detest, but never mind, it was how Banksy saw me).

Old hacks don’t retire. They just write for a different title. I saw Banksy in action soon after I appeared on a TV quiz show in January 2019. He emailed me asking me to write about the experience for VoTN. I blithely said yes even though no payment was involved.

A few idle days later I got a sharp reminder from Dave of my promise. “I have made a start for you,” he barked (if you can bark in an email). He had written a short piece from the viewer’s angle. His editor’s email was the kick up the backside I needed and I quickly produced a companion piece giving my view on the proceedings in the Millionaire hot seat.

About a week after these were published on VoTN the local newspaper contacted me and asked if it was OK if they recycled the info therein. I politely suggested it would be better if they interviewed me themselves, which they did after I presented myself at their office. Talk about doing the work for them!

About a week after that “news story” (I use the term loosely) came out, another larger paper from the county contacted me to do a follow-up follow-up. They were so behind Banksy I’d nearly spent all my winnings by then.

Given the state of modern journalism, I am pleased that David Banks worked in the industry in a different age. We won’t see the likes of Banksy again and that makes me feel ever so sad.

My condolences go to Gemma, their children and grandchildren.

Peter Harland writes:

I think we first met Dave in the early 70s, at a New Year’s Party at Gemma’s parents’ home on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, where an early morning encounter with a cargo ship on opening the lounge curtain left a lasting memory. By then the Dartford College of Physical Education had brought four young ladies together as firm friends, one being Gemma and one my now wife, Sue, and we and our respective partners are very close friends still today.

We now morph through a number of weddings, Gemma and Dave’s in N Wales in particular, but November 1975 sees Gemma, Dave, Sue and I on a camping holiday in Normandy, Dave being the VIP, as his job came with a company car, oh joy!! After a delightful visit to Mont St Michel, that evening we are eating out at a local restaurant, and intending to return to the camp site, but Dave’s car fails to start. Undeterred, Dave says leave this to me, so we stay at the restaurant finishing our wine and, after some time, Dave returns with our “transport to the campsite “. Outside the restaurant is a member of the local Gendarmerie, and his very French Black Maria Van and off we go, back to camp!! The Press Card worked!!

Dave sent me an email a couple of months back and reminded me of this Black Maria event, and some kind thoughts on how to manage serious illness diagnosis and the depression that can follow. On the 9th of Feb this year we had our regular “Dartford College Zoom” from the wilds of Crookham, across the length of England and to us in NZ. Dave as ever in cracking form talking especially fondly of their grandchildren in Ghana and the latest, asleep in their house.

Dave we are sending all our love to Gemma and the family, but we will miss you big guy big time……..

Do you also have a fond memory of David Banks? If so, do please share it with us at contribute@nullvoiceofthenorth.net


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