How Dad landed a Major undertaking

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Dad’s predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough
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Dad’s first ever Countryman’s Diary column, with letters to and from the editor

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th August 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 23rd August 2017)

I’ve reached a kind of milestone in writing these columns – this is the 10th that was published in the Malton Gazette and Herald and the Darlington and Stockton Times. It’s amazing to think how quickly they add up, and looking at my dad’s vast collection of folders, it’s staggering to see the volume of paper generated by these columns alone, never mind those surrounding his books. He kept file upon file of paperwork linked to his writing, in fact I would go as far as to say he was a bit of a hoarder in that respect, which I think drove Mum slightly crazy at times. And now the question is what to do with it all? At least I feel I am making use of a small fraction of it within these columns, and they really are a treasure trove of precious, forgotten material.

I have just come across the folder containing Dad’s very first Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times, which was published on 10th January 1976. In it, he pays tribute to his late predecessor, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, who’d written the column for an incredible 54 years and who’d recently died at the ripe old age of 93. He was locally very well known and respected for his knowledge of all things country, with a specialist knowledge of Yorkshire and horse racing. Dad, like myself, felt he had some big shoes to fill.

In that first column, he wrote: “I have known the ‘Grand Old Man’ as he was affectionately known since I was a very small boy. It was through him that I developed my love of Yorkshire and life among the moors and dales…Through his encouragement, I began my modest attempts at writing and I know he would be pleased to know that my 27th book was recently published.”

Clearly, this man was one of my dad’s earliest inspirations, and what I found particularly interesting was that Dad had always dreamt of taking over Countryman’s Diary. As the Major continued to write into his 90s, Dad would have recognised that there would need to be a successor. In fact he had written a hopeful letter to the editor of the day, a Mr Ernest Pannell, a full three years earlier in 1973 in which he stated his long-held ambition and offered his services for when the inevitable time came.

The editor’s reply, must have been a joy to receive. “Dear Mr Walker,” wrote Mr Pannell, “One of the most constant problems I have had in my 12 years as Editor has been that of finding someone to follow J.F.B. – your letter brings a prospect of relief!”

It is quite remarkable that both Dad and the Major continued to write their columns until almost their very last moments. Fairfax-Blakeborough died on January 1st 1976, and my dad’s first Countryman’s Diary didn’t appear until the week after his death. One would assume therefore that the Major had kept going until very near the end. Dad’s last column appeared just a week before he died. That’s the thing about natural-born writers, they never retire because they can’t resist the urge to keep going, and do so until their body or mind simply won’t allow them to do it anymore.

I’m not sure that will apply to me, we shall have to wait and see, but trawling back through these archives is bringing so much pleasure, alongside frequent waves of grief, reawakening long-forgotten memories from the past, memories that are even more special now that Dad’s not here to share them. But at the same time, I feel extraordinarily lucky because through his passing I have stumbled upon a way of getting to know him better than I ever thought possible.

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