Bowing out with memories of zebras, Babs and Mr Branson

Craig Fleming interviews Virgin boss Richard Branson after a working lunch on a day visit to Majorca
Craig Fleming interviews Virgin boss Richard Branson after a working lunch on a day visit to Majorca
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I never intended to stay, of course. But 41 years, seven months and 12 days later (give or take the odd hour or so) this is one Gazette hack who has finally left the building.

By the time you read this Saturday Slant I’ll have been enjoying Day One of my early retirement.

Craig Fleming '1972

Craig Fleming '1972

I’m glad, however,that I did put down roots because you would be hard pressed to find a newsier area, with a good mix of serious issues and light-hearted tales.

Blackpool always has been larger than life and in other towns where something would be branded off-beat it is likely to be the norm here.

If I had stayed in Rossendale, where I was born and raised, would I have been chasing zebras within a few weeks of starting? The animals escaped on Blackpool Zoo’s launch day, and I came face to face with one of the strays in a back garden in Newton Drive.

Would I have found myself visiting a widow for an obituary report, taking notes next to her husband’s coffin, with the lid off, on trestles, in the front garden,for the neighbours to pay their respects?

craig fleming (minus beard)-1974 / GAZETTE REPORTER

craig fleming (minus beard)-1974 / GAZETTE REPORTER

Would I have found myself sitting at the end of the top table, notebook on my knee, at a range of glittering dinners? A constant, as the mayors, mayoresses and literally a chain of association leaders alongside me changed each year? And that is where I first heard the Blackpool version of the Loyal Toast. One association figurehead always insisted on saying “The Queen AND the Duke of Lancaster. God bless them both.” The Queen is the Duke of Lancaster!

Would I have found myself interviewing actress Joanna Lumley on the upper deck of an open top tram trundling along the seafront, or sharing a table in Roberts Oyster Bar with Carry On star Barbara Windsor, long before she joined the cast of EastEnders?

But it was never a foregone conclusion that I would be working here.

My job interview came a week or so before I started and I was worried it might instead be a non-starter when Brian Hargreaves - the first of 10 editors I’ve had the pleasure to work for - asked me to persuade him to take me on. He said my application letter had been misplaced and, besides that, there were no vacancies.

craig fleming (with beard)-1980 / GAZETTE REPORTER

craig fleming (with beard)-1980 / GAZETTE REPORTER

If I could win him over he would create one. No pressure there then!

I must have done something right, because he took a chance on me and I joined the ranks on June 19, 1972, the week before my 19th birthday, a nervous newcomer surrounded by unknown faces on the first floor of a rabbit warren in Victoria Street.

The newspaper was not only written in that building, but was printed there - the floors literally shook when the basement machines were spinning furiously - before being despatched from a criss-cross of streets that have since been long pedestrianised.

Highlights over all these years? Too many to mention, but moments that stand out include travelling to Majorca for the day in the company of Richard Branson, in 1999, when he threw a long-distance working lunch to launch his Virgin Sun package. His mum handed out choc ices on the plane.

Gazette reporter Craig Fleming receives his award / l-r anthony goldstone, craig fleming and dianne oxberry / CRAIG FLEMING WAS NAMED NORTH WEST JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR FOR THE SECOND TIME IN 4 YEARS

Gazette reporter Craig Fleming receives his award / l-r anthony goldstone, craig fleming and dianne oxberry / CRAIG FLEMING WAS NAMED NORTH WEST JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR FOR THE SECOND TIME IN 4 YEARS

Our appetites satisfied by an outdoor feast, they were then whetted when Richard spoke of his next venture – galactic travel, a subject which many readers might have assumed was a joke, but they read it first in The Gazette.

Or, on a travel trip to New York in 2000, shaking hands with Hillary Clinton when she was on the campaign trail, and also bumping into somebody I knew at the top of the Twin Towers, less than a year before they were so shamefully, horrifically destroyed.

Or looking beyond the glitz on a fact -finding trip to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, also in 2000, when Blackpool was chasing its casino dreams.

Or perhaps being named North West Travel Journalist of the Year in 2000 and again in 2003.

I’ve made a few gaffes in my time. Some of them cringeworthy even now.

Like the time I was on night duty and someone had taken over the crow’s nest at the top of Blackpool Tower.

On my first routine call to police I was told there was “nothing, apart from a chap clinging to the flag pole”. I assumed it was a wind-up, on a par with left-handed screwdrivers and buckets of steam. Two hours later, next round of calls and a different officer mentioned the same incident. “Not you as well,” I groaned, “so how long has he been up there?”

He replied: “since 1939”, and I suggested the poor chap would be frozen solid after all those years. The situation was genuine, the 1939 referred to the 24-hour clock. There was some explaining to do next morning.

But I have absolutely no hesitation in recalling my best exclusive. Lyndsey Brown, who I met when she was working briefly at The Gazette in 1978, and I am happy to report we’ll have been married for 35 years on her birthday this October.

So much for the colleague who gave it three months!

In the early days I thought my news editor Len Whiteside was an unreasonably hard task master, but his disciplined approach instilled the need to beat, never mind meet, deadlines.

And I have never forgotten his maxim about getting too involved with the subjects of your stories.

“Remember kid,” he told me, “be warm, be human, but never let it interfere with your work.”

The advice is as relevant today as it was then even if the rattling typewriters have long been replaced by computers.

I fear the big crunch will come on Monday morning when, Wallace & Gromit-style, I might just end up putting on those proverbial “wrong trousers” and set off, on auto pilot, heading for my newly-vacated desk in Avroe House from where I watched the planes on the nearby airport apron.

Then again, perhaps not.

But I’ll still be reading The Gazette, cover to cover, not out of any sort of loyalty (of which, by the way, there is plenty) but because I intend to keep in touch with what is happening across the Fylde Coast.

The difference is, like you I’ll now be reading what somebody else has written.Thanks, readers, for sticking with me over the last four decades.

The privilege was all mine.