‘Thanks for everything - it’s been a privilege’ - Janis Blower calls it a day

Cookson Country spawned spin-offs such as the magazine Banks of the Tyne.
Cookson Country spawned spin-offs such as the magazine Banks of the Tyne.

Forty four years, eh? No one can say I didn’t give it a go.

And for more than half that time, I’ve had the privilege of writing this page, which readers have helped shape over its course into something quite different from the diary column it was originally intended to be.

The case room at the Gazette, before the death of hot metal.

The case room at the Gazette, before the death of hot metal.

So how did we get from there to here? Well, take earache.

I’ve had a grumbling one for a few weeks now. As a child, the home remedy would have been a few drops of warmed olive oil, a pad of cotton wool, heated in front of the coal fire, and two Junior Aspro, bought from the corner shop where they’d be snipped off a ribbon of waxed paper.

More persistent earache would be taken to the doctor – in our case, a stern (to me) Scotsman, whose surgery occupied the ground floor of a Victorian house.

The decor, it seems now, featured only two colours: brown (the furniture and Linoleum), and black (Bakelite light switches and telephone). The still-early post-war NHS had no truck with arty-farty interior design.

I’m just profoundly grateful to all those who, over the years, have written letters, asked questions, shared their family albums, argued black is white, made me laugh (and sometimes cry) and, as a consequence, let me tell the story of this amazing place we live in.

The hoped-for outcome, of course, was a day off school, tucked up on the settee, with a comic and a packet of Spangles, tuning out Mrs Dale’s Diary while Mam ironed.

And so the past begins to weave its magic, returning us to places – and people – long gone.

But without, I hope, the tunnel vision of ‘nostalgia’ – that cliched world of ‘coal in’t bath’ and Hovis sandwiches.

There is nothing sentimental about an innocent butcher getting his windows smashed because he has a German name at a time of national crisis; or living off the toil of enslaved people – just two stories featured recently.

Gazette shipping reporter John Landells.

Gazette shipping reporter John Landells.

That doesn’t ignore the fact that when Cookson Country started in the late 1980s, the past did, for a time, seem a more reassuring place to inhabit than the present – and certainly the future.

The old industrial power house that had been the North East was being brought to its knees.

The closure of the shipyards, pits etc tore away all the old certainties about who and what we were.

Newspapers went through their own convulsions. The chatter of typewriters and the cacophony of lino-types was being replaced by the impersonal hum of computers. A whole swathe of the industry was being consigned to history.

Lifeboat and river historian Bos Whitaker.

Lifeboat and river historian Bos Whitaker.

As the future of hot metal began to turn to ashes, one old hand said to me: “Don’t love it, not the way I have, because it’ll break your heart.”

Sorry Norman, I didn’t listen. Because I have loved it. How could I not?

I laugh now when I remember that on my first day at the Gazette in 1971 – the era of the late, great Jim Sinton as editor, and, as news editor, Pete Johnson, a wonderful journalist of political conscience – I went home at midday, as if I was still at school.

I quickly grew up, as I had to, to do a job that asks people to let you into their homes, to share with you their joys and their tragedies.

Beyond the lure of getting ‘the story,’ and the adrenaline rush of meeting a deadline, which can be addictive, I learned - and came to be fascinated by - the larger narrative of who we are as a community.

That endless curiosity is what came, I hope, to sustain Cookson Country (and was the spur for its spin-offs, the book series Aall T’githor Like The Folk o’ Shields and the magazine Banks of the Tyne), even if, a lot of the time, I was muddling my way down unknown paths, to times and places of which I had no personal experience.

The adrenaline rush of meeting deadlines can be addictive.

The adrenaline rush of meeting deadlines can be addictive.

But I had my mentors. I couldn’t have written about ships the way I have without the incomparable archive left by my dear friend and former colleague, Gazette shipping correspondent, the late John Landells. Bos Whitaker, historian of the lifeboat and of the river, kept me straight on a lot of things.

Forgive me if I’m not able to mention everyone.

And then there have been all the folk who have shared their photographic collections: Kevin Blair, Bill Clavery, Norman Dunn, the late George Wanless, again to name only a very few of the many also deserving of a mention, if there was space.

But mostly I’m just profoundly grateful to all those who, over the years, have written letters, asked questions, shared their family albums, argued black is white, made me laugh (and sometimes cry) and, as a consequence, let me tell the story of this amazing place we live in.

To have had the support I’ve had from Gazette readers has been beyond what most columnists could surely dare to hope for.

What now? Well, I will still be writing. There may be a book ... And I am still on Twitter.

And please still ask me to give talks, which raise money for the lifeboat.

In the meantime – thank you for all the kind letters and messages. Goodbye.

As they say in these parts, I’m away now.

My first news editor, Pete Johnson.

My first news editor, Pete Johnson.

Editor Jim Sinton.

Editor Jim Sinton.