Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 4th July 2017

RECENT terrorist outrages in Manchester and London have prompted some people to urge the reintroduction of the death penalty.

It’s not going to happen. The death penalty for murder was scrapped in the 1960s after some notorious cases, including the hanging of the innocent Timothy Evans for the Rillington Place murders; the execution of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in this country; and the case of Derek Bentley, whose conviction was based on the interpretation of his “let him have it” entreaty to the fellow criminal who shot and killed a police officer. Did he mean shoot him, or hand over the gun?

I don’t have any particular moral opposition to the death penalty for the most abhorrent murders. The former leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttall, suggested that he would volunteer his services to pull the lever. I wouldn’t go that far, but how would you ever get a jury to convict these days? If it was difficult in the 60s, imagine how much harder it would be now to find 12 good and true men and women who were prepared to send a fellow citizen to their death.

In today’s world the very concept of a handful of people standing outside the prison gates on a grey morning, awaiting the posting of a notice of an execution, as they used to do, is just not thinkable. Besides, many terrorists welcome death when they set out on their evil missions. Any who survived being shot by armed police would regard going to the gallows as martyrdom, prompting more division and anger.

This part of the world played a key part in the history, and abandonment, of capital punishment when, on 13th August, 1964, two men were hanged for the brutal killing of a 53-year-old man at Seaton in West Cumberland. Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen were the last two criminals to hang in this country after losing their final appeals.

It was, said the appeal judge, difficult to imagine a more brutal murder, but both men were subsequently said to have been “of limited intelligence”. It provided our county with a place in judicial history that it would probably prefer not to remember.

REMEMBERING HARRY

THERE’S a saying in my business that goes “once a journalist, always a journalist”.

I confess that, even in semi-retirement, I still go around with my eyes open for a good story. I’ll see something and think “that will make a decent tale for someone”. And whenever I hear a police, ambulance or mountain rescue siren sounding, for a moment I’m back in reporter mode until I realise it’s not my job any more to dash out and find out what’s going on.

Old habits die hard and most retired journalists I know still do a bit of work, still keep their hand in, and like me they follow what’s in the papers every day. Like me, too, they can’t resist a bit of criticism. We’d never have done it that way in our day. But of course times and practices have changed rapidly.

Now, for many reporters, it’s as important to whack stories on to the websites as it is to get them into print, and these are difficult times for newspapers struggling to rebrand and survive.

My recent piece about early days covering shows and fetes, and the spirit that used to exist between journalists from different papers, sparked some readers to recall legendary names of the past. One name that cropped up was that of Harry Griffin, journalist and mountaineer who wrote numerous books about his beloved Lake District and was the Guardian’s Country Diarist for 53 years.

I’ve been prompted to search my bookshelves for some of Harry Griffin’s work and re-read his enthusiastic musings about long walks in the hills, skiing on Helvellyn, climbing ice gullies on Great End, days spent exploring Gable and Scafell and other adventures and occasional misadventures which added to the storehouse of stories which went into his books and diaries.

I remember Harry, who we knew as “The Colonel”, once having a battle with a council official during a meeting over a window which he insisted remained open for fresh air, but which the official demanded should be closed as it was rather chilly. Every time the official closed the window Harry ostentatiously opened it again until, eventually, he won the argument. The council chap put on his overcoat in a futile gesture. The Colonel had won. Harry started work as a cub reporter in Barrow aged 17. Noted for his wry comments, proficiency and sharp ear for a story, he moved on to the Lancashire Evening Post which is where I first met him in the days when those of us despatched to cover meetings wrote our copy in long hand so it was ready to be phoned over or go straight to the printers when we returned to the office.

Harry had an assistant who arrived on a scooter, faithfully every hour on the hour, to collect his handwritten copy and rush it into that evening’s edition. State of the art journalism in the pre-technology era.

During the Second World War Griffin served in the Far East in the Intelligence Corps and was staff officer to Lord Mountbatten and eventually Field Marshal Slim. He received the OBE in 1996 for services to mountaineering and journalism. Although he was a friend of Alfred Wainwright, he regretted that his guides had contributed to the great increase in people following the routes on the fells and wrote many times about the traffic, noise, litter and “excesses of mass tourism” afflicting the Lakes.

Harry Griffin died in 2004, aged 93, still “in harness” as they say, penning his diaries for the Guardian to the very end. In his obituary they spoke of his “economical evocation of mood and soundness of approach”. Indeed, said the Guardian, “there was not a mountain writer to touch him”.

There was once talk of naming a Lakeland tarn in his honour. He got wind of it and batted the notion away as a joke saying, in any case, the site above Grasmere was “a dreary pool”. Many of my older readers would have come across Harry either as a journalist or as a mountaineer. One of the great characters of a job which used to attract great characters. His was a classic example. “Once a journalist …”

YES, NEW MINISTER

JAKE Berry. Know him, do you? No, I thought not. He’s the MP for the Lancashire constituency of Rossendale and Darwen and he’s been appointed the third minister for the Northern Powerhouse in the short time since George Osborne, once Chancellor now newspaper editor, adopted his flagship policy for rebalancing the economy.

It’s a revolving door post. First there was James Wharton, MP for Stockton South. Then last year along came Andrew Percy, MP for Brigg and Goole, all bouncing with enthusiasm. Now it’s Jake Berry, the man with the “Tell Jake” app on his website.

I suspect the Northern Powerhouse is not the project uppermost in the minds of Theresa May and her fellow ministers right now. Thus far the Government has paid little more than lip service to it and, for those of us living in this part of the North, its relevance is unclear if it exists at all.

With such a rapid movement of junior ministers any continuity or purpose is lost. Jake Berry is probably not holding his breath for a long stay in office.

TRACKING CANT

I WAS once despatched by my editor to track down a famous children’s TV presenter who was supposed to be visiting a local village. “Even if you don’t recognise him, you’ll recognise the voice,” I was told.

Actually I would have known it was Brian Cant if I had come across him. My kids loved him. So did I. He had the gift of speaking to children and to their mums and dads. Those soft, modulated tones as he introduced Trumpton’s firemen, Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub. Blokes my age still go round saying the names.

I loved the story of his self-deprecating humour when, following a doctor’s visit, he rang to tell a friend he had “got Parkinson’s”. “When’s it on?” said the friend, thinking Brian had been chosen to appear on the Michael Parkinson Show.

Cant always said he enjoyed making children happy with his television programs. Not a bad philosophy for life. Shame I never did find him.