Thunder? They could have been Vikings…

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newera2015RUGBY League stands at the beginning of (yet another) new era. It’s the sport’s latest reinvention — and reinvention is something rugby league has always pursued.

In 1895 the founders met at The George Hotel in Huddersfield and created the Northern Union, breaking away from the Rugby Football Union over the issue of broken time, the act of paying working men for wages lost as they played their sport. In other words, it was about the money.

Over the next 100 years rugby league evolved, all the while being persecuted by rugby union. And then, in 1995, the entire professional game was uprooted from its winter season and turned it into a summer sport. Once again, it was about the money.

And expansion of the game was on the agenda. Why did this sport have to be confined to its heartlands?

newcastlethunderAn idea was forming, one which led, in 1999, to Gateshead Thunder joining the Super League. For the latest new era that club has a new name and a new home. So welcome Newcastle Thunder and good luck…

The article below, a reaction to a plan for a club playing its games in York and Gateshead, goes back to the beginning…

First published in The Northern Echo, April 18, 1995
The dust has yet to settle on plans for radical change in the sport of Rugby League but Echo writer PHIL LAMBELL believes the North-East should be included in the Super League

MEDIA tycoon Rupert Murdoch has forced Rugby League into profound, and much-needed, change.

Only a handful of the 32 professional clubs have two pennies each to rub together. A game which is athletic, action-packed and colourful is played in slums – a 90s sport with 30s facilities. The offer of £75m over five years from Murdoch was too good to turn down. It took the club chairmen just 96 hours to write off 100 years of history.

This will be the last season of Rugby League as the sport’s fans know it. Coming soon: the summertime Super League.
Clubs will be forced into shotgun marriages, famous names will vanish. There is uproar in the heartlands of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. There are cries of class betrayal.

But Super League is a golden, once-only opportunity for the sport to break out of those heartlands and the North-East should be on board.

So far only a handful of observers have recognised the opportunity that the North-East offers to a sport desperately in need of national credibility.

John Stabler, chairman of Ryedale-York, has recognised it, but his Northern Vikings plan may not be what the region needs. It could be difficult to build if only half the team’s home games are at Gateshead.

Much hard work has already been put into building the sport in the North-East and 6,000 — almost all locals — turned out on a foul February night to watch England play France at Gateshead Stadium.

The sport is now played by hundreds at amateur open-age level, hundreds more in schools. Last Saturday 15 teams of under-nines filled the Gateshead Riverside Bowl with their Little League enthusiasm.

On an average Sunday 50,000 pay at the turnstiles to watch Rugby League. Yet there are 2,300,000 within 45 minutes’ drive of Gateshead Stadium. Even a gate of 5,000 would boost an entire professional sport’s attendances by ten per cent.

A North-East crowd would come fresh to the sport with none of the prejudice or bitterness presently stalking established Rugby League territory and none of the baggage of the schism with Rugby Union 100 years ago.

The commercial appeal of a sport backed by exposure in the Murdoch media and the crowd potential of the North-East make a Super League team based in Gateshead irresistible.

It may be that Stabler’s scheme is not what is needed but someone in the sport must grasp the North-East opportunity. I think they will.

o The Northern Vikings never happened. Widnes, one of the founders of the Northern Union in 1895, adopted the Vikings name. Shane Richardson, an Australian, and Kath Hetherington, from Yorkshire, grasped the North-East opportunity and started Gateshead Thunder in 1998. John Stabler was a shareholder and director. The club’s Super League life lasted only one season, 1999, before the money ran out.


In retrospect, it’s all about that sweet soul music, 2014

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MY favourite band are playing their annual hometown Christmas gig on Monday, December 29, at the Rolling Mills Club in Darlington. Here’s who they are, and what they do. Gig details at the end of the article.

First published in Darlington & Stockton Times, December 2014

A SOUL band that can trace its roots back more than 35 years is marking Christmas with a new CD and a home town gig.

The Smokin’ Spitfires have been performing their unique combination of soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues originals and covers of Stax and Atlantic classics since 2003.

But the band can trace its origins back to 1978 when the still-remembered East Side Torpedoes played their first gig in the upstairs room of the Travellers Rest in Darlington and set off on a journey that saw them get very close to the music business big time.


The Smokin’ Spitfires 2014. Back, from left, Alan Thompson (sax), Bob Garrington (guitar), Ian Rigby (bass). Front, from left, Gary Cain (drums), Mike Hepple (keyboards), Steve McGarvie (sax), Terry O’Hern (trombone), Neil Hunter (vocals). Picture supplied by the band (copyright unknown).

Then, as now, the lead singer and songwriter was Neil Hunter. The East Side Torpedoes started as a five-piece, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section. Terry “Ernie” O’Hern on trombone is the other constant in the two bands.

The East Side Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by Chas Chandler, formerly of The Animals. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop station. They appeared at the Knebworth festival and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film about them.

Along the way they were the first band to play at Darlington Arts Centre, in what would become the Garden Bar. In July 2012 the Smokin’ Spitfires were all but the last band to play there before the centre closed.

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Hunter – in the mid 80s. He and O’Hern stuck together in North-East bands the Blue Sharks , the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires.


Retrospective features ten tracks from the Smokin’ Spitfires

The new ten-track CD which was made available at the Spitfires’ monthly Sunday gig at The Cluny in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago is called Retrospective.

Hunter explains: “In the early days of the Spitfires we decided we would release some CDs of original material, five CDs of five tracks each and we called them Five for a Fiver.

“The original idea was we’d release them over about ten months. It took closer to 10 years. We still get asked for them and there haven’t been any to sell for a long time. We felt we needed something for those people who wanted it so we looked at what we had and polled the band on their favourite two tracks from each of the five CDS. Retrospective is what we’ve come up with.”

Producing the CD was a task for the band’s youngest member, tenor sax player Steve McGarvie. According to Hunter: “He reckons I’m old enough to be his granddad.”

“Steve got hold of what was left of any masters and went to work,” says Hunter. “He’s done a pretty good job really, considering what he had to work with. Then Gary Consiglio, who has done the artwork for CD, has come up with some new branding that’s so much better than anything we’ve had in the past.”

The Spitfires are a band happy in their work, which shows on stage. “Everyone in the band gets on so well together,” says Hunter. “The age range doesn’t matter. If you love the music and love what you’re doing anything else is irrelevant. We’re happy as a band, we’re a good band. I think it’s like BB King says, it’s 60 per cent personality, 40 per cent musicality.

Many musicians have passed through the Smokin’ Spitfires over the years and some will return for the Christmas gig being staged at the Rolling Mills Club. For that one evening the band becomes The Mighty Smokin’ Spitfires with 11 on stage.

As well as the Spitfires’ original songs the audience can expect a selection of soul classics made famous by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave and James Brown.

“We’ve been doing this gig between Christmas and New Year in Darlington for about 10 years,” says Hunter. “We started in the Travellers, then the Arts Centre and since that closed this’ll be the third one at the Rolling Mills. It’s always been a good opportunity to play more of our own stuff than we get to do normally. The Cluny gig has taken that on too. We’ve almost had to start learning our own stuff again.

“It’s definitely a Darlington-based band. I lived in Darlington, Terry, Steve and Mike (Hepple, keyboards) are all based in Darlington, Ian (Rigby, bass) is from East Layton.

“The important thing about this gig is that people can have a good time, dance, drink some beer, have some fun.”

Smokin’ Spitfires, live at the Rolling Mills Club, Longfield Road, Darlington, on Monday, December 29, 2014. Admission at the door £8, doors open 8pm. Retrospective will be available at the gig.

The band is on Facebook
or visit the website:


Brass and banners

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I’M on the train to Durham for the 130th Miners’ Gala – the Big Meeting. Across the aisle are four Yorkshiremen. One wears a T-shirt with a slogan which won’t be topped during the day — “Druids against fracking”. Their conversation is about the iniquity of employers (and why not, on today of all days?) not allowing time off for religious festivals, such as Beltane, Samhain and Imholc. It’s more Peter Tinniswood than Monty Python. Then one alights upon the signs on the door to the rear of the carriage. “There’s first class,” he observes. “But why in’t there space for working class.” They’re going to be getting off at Durham.

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The new St Hilda pit banner, paraded at the Big Meeting on July 12, 2014

It would be a cliché in a film but you really can hear the sounds of brass bands tuning up as you emerge from the station.

And by the time you reach the city centre you can sense the occasion. People started arriving before 8am. By 11am bands and banners are queuing many hundreds of yards back from the County Hotel – where the day’s fraternal guests gather – in three directions.

There’s a press of people, some waiting with the bands, some squeezing by, inching their way towards the County and onwards to the Racecourse, some with something else to do and caught up in this unique day. The streets of Durham weren’t built for festival and impatience.

And it’s not all about mining any more. It is, after all, 20 years since the last coal was wrenched from underground in the once great Durham coalfield. So the first band I see isn’t brass or silver at all. It’s a pipe band, from Morpeth, in Northumberland. But brass is all around.

The steps at the bottom of Saddler Street, as you go down to Elvet Bridge, have become an impromptu grandstand. A group of men have decided the best protection against the rapidly warming sun are little paper cooks’ hats, courtesy of Krispy Kreme, the doughnut people. Two dancing women dressed for a summer night in Tenerife are demanding a tune from the nearest, patiently waiting, brass band. Eventually the conductor gives in and rewards them, not with an anthem but with Rock Around The Clock.

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The rear of the St Hilda banner, depicting the causes of the 1839 disaster and the subsequent adoption of the safety lamp in the mines

The party is in full swing. Arms full of tins (here rarely called cans) are carried and handed round. It is, apparently, even acceptable today to drink wine from the bottle. Why not, it’s a celebration. Of something.

Halfway down Elvet Bridge I find a banner representing St Hilda pit in South Shields. It’s the pit I think my great-grandfather George worked in, before he went off to the war that began 100 years ago this year. He worked underground, then spent three years in the Hell that was France. And he didn’t come home. He survived it until July 1918 and lies in an unvisited grave in a place called Crouy. What a life.

St Hilda closed in 1940 but, wonderfully, this new banner has been created in commemoration of the men who worked in it and those who perished in the disaster of 1839. The front bears a picture of the South Shields pier, which helped create safe harbour for the ships taking coal to the South. The rear tells the story of the disaster, which killed 51 men and boys, the youngest aged nine. Out of tragedy, it is a thing of beauty.

In among the miners’ lodges are other trades unions. The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers are here to mark the passing of their leader, at the age of 52. They wear T-shirts proclaiming “Bob Crow. RMT. Legend.” Unison are here, fighting to protect public services from austerity cuts. The teaching unions are here, postal workers, firefighters. And sword dancers. And a primary school from a one-time pit village, keeping their heritage alive. And a group of men from the Rhineland, I think, in smart blazers and the most marvellous pillbox hats with tall white plumes.

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The Boldon banner passes the balcony at the Royal County Hotel

On the balcony of the Royal County Hotel the leaders of what is left of the Durham Miners’ Association and their guests look down from above a sign for Starbucks Coffee – one of the current great Satans of the left for its history of avoiding UK tax – as the bands each play their party piece.

And down on the Racecourse, normally home to Durham University’s cricketers, what a scene. Imagine if you will, a fairground, thrown to the edges of a field, with all the light and colour and noise that entails. In the centre, a political rally, with rabble-rousing orators. A crowd of thousands of the committed and the curious.

And in amongst it the casualties of the beating sun, and the early start to drinking. Never have so many slumbered through so many speeches for so long. And all the time, turning pinker.

It’s here that I spot my second favourite T-shirt slogan of the day. “Labour,” it says. “I preferred their early work.”

If you’d like to know more about the Gala, or Big Meeting, try

Just another grim Northern town?


I’M from a town called South Shields. It sits at the mouth of the River Tyne in the North-East of England, the region recently characterised by The Guardian newspaper as the UK’s Detroit – a grim metaphor for urban decay. Despite its size – it’s a town of about 90,000 people – it often seems few people have heard of it. “It’s near Newcastle,” is our reluctant last resort.

It was a coal mining town, a shipbuilding and repairing town. It’s where County Durham’s miners and their families went for a summer day out. Long before that it was famous for glass – and salt. And before that, the Romans built a fort there to protect the river mouth that gave access to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s where the lifeboat was invented.

In recent years its biggest exports, via TV talent shows, have been the likes of  Joe McElderry, half of Little Mix, and, last week, a small percentage of Collabro. The comedians Sarah Millican and Chris Ramsey are from Shields, as is the journalist and political commentator Kevin Maguire.

It’s struggled since the demise of the heavy industries and the town centre isn’t the best. I moved away in 1980, but when I go back, and that’s been more often recently, I marvel at the coastline and the seafront. Here are some recent views from my grim Northern town…


The Great Goodbye


THEY’RE just machines aren’t they? One hundred and two tons of metal forged and hammered into shape to fulfil a function.


Mallard at The Great Goodbye

Well yes, and no. If that’s all they were we wouldn’t care about them would we?

Not only do we care, we are in awe of these machines. This morning I involuntarily smiled when I heard one of them whistle, a sound carried on the breeze across the north of Darlington, as it made its way down the branch line from Shildon.

And we cared in huge numbers over the last week or so as the remaining six Class A4 Pacific steam locomotives went on show at Locomotion in Shildon ( in an event named The Great Goodbye.

I was one of 18,000 to visit on Saturday. Organisers expected 72,000 visitors over the nine days, they eventually welcomed 120,000. Shildon, not a big place, came to a standstill at times, overwhelmed by traffic. Normally empty two-car trains heading for the event were leaving Darlington full-and-standing.

The A4s were built between 1935 and 1938. Much of the love for them relates to the world speed record set by the most famous of these six survivors – Mallard – as it hurtled down a bank north of Peterborough at 126mph in 1938. It is little remembered that Mallard then broke down, and never completed the run into Kings Cross.

It helps that the A4s are streamlined. Their curves speak of speed. They were nicknamed Streaks. Like the Spitfire, or Concorde, or the Tyne Bridge, they are beautiful. What they all share is that their designers and builders managed to combine engineering and purpose with grace.


Union of South Africa steams along a short line at Locomotion, Shildon

One of the guides at the event pointed out that the A4s remained in service into the 1960s. After their glamour days were over they finished their working days painted black, pulling goods trains. The last ran in 1966.

It was Sir Nigel Gresley, named after the man who designed the A4s, I heard this morning. Union of South Africa and Mallard left yesterday. Bittern will take its leave tomorrow. Dwight D Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada will be at Shildon for a few weeks yet, before going back to their homes across the Atlantic.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see the six together. And I’m glad that someone saw beyond the metal and the functional to save them.

Odeon nights and a Majestic afternoon

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The Odeon in Bondgate, Darlington, is being restored after decades of neglect

WHEN I first moved to Darlington, to spend a year at college, I stayed in digs with three fellow students. We had a landlady who didn’t like us cluttering up her home, despite us being paying guests, and who fed us macaroni cheese at least three times a week.

This meant we had to seek shelter and sustenance elsewhere. The Odeon cinema on Bondgate regularly provided the shelter, while the Americana Fish Bar across the road provided the antidote to the macaroni cheese.

It was 1979, before multiplexes, and around the time desperate operators started dividing up their cinemas into smaller units – typically one big screen and a couple of studios – so they could show more movies, in the hope that audiences. presented with a greater choice of rubbish, would turn up.

The Odeon hadn’t been divided. It was vast, seating about 1,100 in stalls and circle, and frequently almost empty. That I can’t remember anything I saw there suggests we watched whatever was on, rather than making any kind of discerning choice.

By the time I returned to Darlington to work, in 1986, the Odeon had been closed for five years. Riley’s turned part of it into a snooker hall where I occasionally played, badly, before setting off for an evening’s work. The outside still looked like a cinema but inside they’d done a decent job of disguising the building’s original function.


The original ceiling remains intact

I hadn’t thought about the old place much for decades before I stumbled across a Facebook post about it. I don’t think I even knew that its original name was the Majestic.

It’s still a snooker club, although it has had a couple of operators since I last played. But it’s now being transformed by a local commercial property developer, Devlin Hunter.

Today he was giving guided tours of the building, organised via Facebook ( by people who’ve taken a keen interest in the Majestic’s future. He took us into areas few people had seen since the last reel played out, although some of the building was still off limits for safety reasons.

He’s already removed a hideous suspended ceiling, uncovered the proscenium arch, and made a start on restoring some of the tremendous art deco features which appear to have survived the years relatively intact. There are stained glass windows and a magnificent, hidden façade yet to be tackled.

Mr Hunter’s visitors ranged from architecture lovers and cinema enthusiasts to local people with their own memories of the building and the merely curious.


The original facade of the Majestic survives, complete with its many stained glass windows, but is, for now, hidden (Orphan internet picture, I’d be happy to acknowledge the photographer if anyone knows who that was)

He says he’s been surprised by how many people seem to have a view on his project and he’s already spent more than he intended as more features have been revealed. He resisted every attempt to get him to disclose what the ultimate use will be. There have been reports of a “multi-purpose leisure facility”.

Whatever it turns out to be it would be nice to think that the people of Darlington will once again find  their entertainment in this impressive building.

Now, about reopening the Americana Fish Bar…

Return of the Sunday soul sessions, 2013

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spitfires october 2013 (2)THE Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of gigs – first Sunday of every month – in aid of the Bubble Foundation at The Cluny, Newcastle. The next, the sixth, is on February 2, 2014. Doors open at noon, £6.50 admission. Here’s the back story to what was meant to be a one-off:

First published in The Chronicle, Newcastle, August 2013

THEY’D queue from 11.30am with the doors opening at noon. Soon the foyer of the Newcastle Playhouse at the top of the Haymarket would be heaving, with 200 or more music fans crammed inside.

From 1982 to 1986 the Sunday lunchtime gig they’d all come to see was a Tyneside institution.

The East Side Torpedoes was a North East soul and rhythm and blues band who played all over the UK. But every Sunday they came home, missing only a couple of gigs in all that time.

East Side Torpedoes 1982

The East Side Torpedoes outside the Playhouse in 1982. From left, Steve Hall (guitar), Neil Hunter (vocals), Dave Connolly (trumpet), Dave Allan (drums), Derek Nattrass (bass), Andy Hawkin (keyboards), Nigel Stanger (alto sax), Lindolph D’Oliveira (tenor sax) and Terry O’Hern (trombone). Picture copyright ncjMedia

They had started as a five-piece, led by singer Neil Hunter, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section.

And while classic soul covers figured, the set was mainly original material, some of it evocative of North East life. The Evening Chronicle said their live shows featured “a brand of music that is powerful and fun” and called the band “a breath of fresh air”.

It was £3 to get in. Gill Johnston, who sometimes took the money on the door, remembers:  “The atmosphere was electric. You had to stand and it got very hot. The band would do two 45-minute sets but the second one could go on and on depending on their mood.”

Coast to Coast album coverThe Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by former Animal Chas Chandler. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop broadcaster. They appeared at Knebworth and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film on the band.

Neil remembers: “Some weeks we’d play three or four nights, some weeks five or six, sometimes none but we’d come back for the Playhouse, often driving through the night, because it was that important. We had a road crew of three or four guys who were on £25 a week and the Playhouse gig paid their wages if we didn’t have the work in.”

Gill recalls the gigs always ending on the same song, the slow, Hunter-penned ballad On Such A Night As This. “By then”, she says, “you’d have the audience swaying, everyone singing, people singing harmonies and descants.”

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Neil – in the mid 80s. He and trombone player Terry ‘Ernie’ O’Hern stuck together in the Blue Sharks, the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires in 2003.

And it’s the Spitfires, complete with a four-man horn section, who are playing a Sunday lunchtime gig once again, in aid of the Bubble Foundation which funds life-saving treatments for babies born without an immune system. It is a cause the band has supported for some years, introduced to it by Gill Johnston, now Bubble’s fundraising manager.

The venue is The Cluny in the Ouseburn in Newcastle on Sunday September 8, doors open at noon.  Gill’s hoping it’ll recapture some of the spirit of the Playhouse days.

o Tickets £6.50 on the door or visit More about the Bubble Foundation at

o The article above appeared in the Chronicle, Newcastle on August 31, 2013

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