It’s all in a name

The cast of Heartbeat, with Bill Maynard, far right, who played one of Dads most well-known characters, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass
Dad’s Heartbeat mugs in his study
The mug Dad received from the cast after the series ended



The mugs on the shelf in Dad’s study where I had ignored them for years

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 13th April 2018, & the Gazette & Herald 11th April 2018. 

Dad had a talent for coming up with splendid names in his books, and he insisted that the best ones were inspired by real people from his life growing up and working as a bobby on the North York Moors.

One of Heartbeat’s best-known characters was the loveable rogue that was Claude Jeremiah Greengrass, portrayed so brilliantly by the inimitable Bill Maynard, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. According to Dad, that was a genuine name he had come across as a young bobby many years before it ended up on the pages of the first ‘Heartbeat’ novel, Constable on the Hill, published in 1979.

In Dad’s column from 15th April 1978, we encounter the august-sounding Septimus. Septimus was a schoolfriend, and was so called because he was his family’s seventh son. He was unique because his father was also a seventh son, and so he was in the traditionally auspicious position of being the seventh son of a seventh son.

These fortunate beings were supposed to have been blessed with supernatural powers, but Dad observed that his friend, whom everyone called Sep, displayed no discernible mystical talents. It was possible though, at the tender age of eleven, they were yet to burst forth.

In mediaeval times, it was believed that for the gift to work, the son must be seventh in a line of only boys. If a daughter appeared before the seventh son was born, then the chain, and all the powers associated with it, was broken.

One of their legendary skills was the ability to heal the sick, and back in the day people would travel miles just to be touched by the blessed one. Families would encourage these children to train to be doctors, but those who couldn’t afford to pay for such an education ended up as peasants and labourers, who were nevertheless subject to a constant stream of visits from the great unwell.

It was widely believed that they had a particular talent for curing the illness known as the King’s Evil, or scrofula, a type of lymphatic tuberculosis that resulted in enlarged glands in the neck. Dad recounts a story, reported to have happened as late as the start of the twentieth century, of a Somerset man who had the reputation for curing people with scrofula. On Sundays, he would touch the affected parts of patients, who had to have fasted, and repeated the words of a prayer that only he was allowed to know.

The belief was not confined to England, but was also very strong in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and in Ireland where the lucky one was also thought to have the gift of second sight. In France, they called this person a ‘Marcou’, and their body was said to be marked somewhere with a fleur-de-lis. Those with scrofula would touch this marking in the belief that it would rid them of the disease.

Going back to names, I was up at my mum’s the other day and, as I often do, I went into my dad’s study to mooch about a bit. I was intrigued by a couple of mugs on his shelves that had been there for a number of years but which before I’d never really paid much attention to. The two mugs were covered in lists of first names. One mug had ‘Heartbeat VI’ on the front, and when I picked up the other, I found a curled up piece of paper in it which read ‘A gift from the Heartbeat actors’. So I deduced that these must have been ‘end of series’ presents from the actors to the crew. The slightly sad thing about the second mug is that on the inside was inscribed ‘Heartbeat R.I.P.’ next to the picture of a broken heart.

I was, and still am, mystified as to why ITV axed Heartbeat in 2009 when it was still achieving some of the best viewing figures on that channel. Today an active and significant band of fans continues to express their affection for the show through things like Facebook and Twitter. So who knows what the future holds?

It is Dad’s first anniversary soon, and going into his study still stirs up such mixed emotions, as it is the place where I feel his absence most keenly, and yet, his presence is all around me, in his books, in his files, in his collection of trinkets and Heartbeat mementos. Does the time ever come when you stop missing your Dad?


Watch out, the sheriffs are coming

Alan Rickman as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham
The new High Sheriff of North Yorkshire, Christopher Legard, front centre, with outgoing High Sheriff Simon Wrightson, front left.

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th April 2018, & the Gazette & Herald 4th April 2018.

When I sit down to write these columns, I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about until I read the column that Dad wrote in the corresponding week 40 years ago. Often, at the very point I think inspiration has left for its holidays, I see or hear something that ends up being the pivotal subject of the column.

Today, I experienced such a moment after reading Dad’s piece from 8th April 1978 in which he talked about the April weather, albino people (following on from his mention of albino blackbirds a couple of weeks before), the annual influx of migrating birds, clouds and the custom of ‘pricking the sheriffs’.

I was undecided as to what to plump for, until I opened my iPad and there on the open BBC iPlayer app was a programme called ‘The sheriffs are coming’. It was a sign.

The word sheriff immediately conjures up two images for me, a Wild West cowboy with a star-shaped badge, and the actor Alan Rickman, whose portrayal of the embodiment of evil that was the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1995 film ‘Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves’ was so memorable.

Today there are two distinct categories of sheriff in our country. Those featured in the BBC programme are officially High Court Enforcement Officers and are tasked with collecting money or goods in respect of a debt. They are authorised by the Lord Chancellor, but privately employed, unlike bailiffs, who are salaried civil servants. Debts below £600 can only be recovered by bailiffs, and debts over £5,000 can only be recovered by sheriffs.

The second category is now mainly a ceremonial role to represent the Crown at county level and are known as high sheriffs. City sheriffs have largely disappeared, apart from in London where there are two.

The original sheriff is possibly the oldest official role in the country, and the name derives from ‘shire reeve’, meaning the governor of a shire or county. ‘Reeve’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘reeafan’ which was a levy or seizure. We don’t know for sure when the first shire reeve appeared, but we do know that Alfred the Great (871-901) appointed men to this role. They were the king’s representatives at a local level and executed writs on his behalf. They collected rents and taxes and were responsible for keeping the peace, which also led to them assuming responsibility for prisoners. This made them very powerful and some, like the supposedly merciless Sheriff of Nottingham, abused this power.

To counter the problem, a new official, the ‘coroner’, was installed to oversee all the sheriffs (although clearly they have a very different role today!).

It is the duty of the incumbent high sheriffs to nominate successors. Formal nominations take place at the High Court in London on November 12th and is presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. This is followed by the ‘pricking of the sheriffs’ by the Sovereign in March (I bet you’ve been thinking that was a typo!).

The list of nominees is put on to a vellum (calf skin) scroll which is 15 feet long by a foot wide and, as in centuries before, the Queen chooses her high sheriffs using a silver bodkin, which is a large sewing needle, to prick a hole in the scroll over the selected nominee’s name.

There are a couple of explanations for this rather odd method of choosing. I do like my dad’s, where he explains that it dates back to the time of Elizabeth I. She was sewing in her garden when the time arose to choose her sheriffs. The scroll was brought to her, but she had no pen, so consequently used a bodkin from her sewing basket.

The second (possibly more plausible) reason I found on the high sheriffs’ official website ( Apparently not all the nominated sheriffs welcomed the role due to the high expenses they incurred, and the challenges of calculating and collecting taxes. So to stop them trying to remove their names, a hole was made in the vellum which could not be removed, nor sewn up without being noticed.

This year’s ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace on 14th March where Simon Wrightson was succeeded as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire by Chris Legard, of Scampston Hall near Malton, who will officially assume his duties this month.