I HAVE written before about happy times as a reporter on my first newspaper, the Burnley Evening Star. Looking back, it never ceases to amaze me that a local rag could have had so many talented writers on its staff.
Pre-eminent among them was Peter Storah, a man who turned drinking into an art form. He it was who introduced me to the practice of always ordering halves rather than pints. In theory this was because if you were called out abruptly on a story you would be leaving less beer on the table. In practice it meant that you drank more – a half would go down in two swallows; a pint more like six. And I have never, ever, seen a journalist abandon a drink.
Storah was already a legend when I arrived on the paper in 1974. He had made his name four years earlier after a Dan-Air charter flight from Manchester crashed into a mountain range near Barcelona killing all 112 passengers and crew. Forty-five of the dead were from North East Lancashire, including several families, children as young as six and four members of a Padiham football team, the Britannia Wanderers.
Peter recalled: ‘I had started work on Saturday morning and was about to go and cover a cricket match. The editor phoned and a photographer and I were on a flight to Spain that afternoon.’
Storah and snapper John Hutcheon got to within a quarter of mile of the crash site near the small town of Arbucias. ‘There was so much wreckage,’ said Peter. ‘The site was still smoking.’
The pair were the only foreign journalists on the scene and Storah’s heartbreaking copy was syndicated around the world.
Spanish law stipulated for some reason that all of the crash victims must be buried within 48 hours. They were placed in a communal grave after a mass funeral on the Sunday.
Storah and Hutcheon were still the only Britons there apart from an English vicar who conducted the service.
‘There were lots of local people there, though,’ Peter recalled. ‘They showed so much compassion and grief. The victims’ families couldn’t be there but the locals did their best to make it a proper send-off.’
Unable to get to the funeral, memorial services attended by thousands took place in Padiham, Burnley and Manchester.
George Parker, a Padiham councillor, said: ‘The whole town was grieving. Everybody knew everybody at that time and we were all affected in one way or another.’
There are memorials to the dead in Burnley and Padiham, while on the Spanish hillside where the funeral took place, Les Agudes, an 8ft headstone bears the names of all the victims.
In 1971 the Spanish Air Ministry released a report into the crash which said the plane had taken an unusual route owing to air traffic control delays in the Paris area. The pilot, Captain Alexander Neal, 48, was making his first flight into Barcelona as commander. Air traffic control confused the Dan-Air plane with another in the area and cleared Neal to descend to 2,800ft, at which point the aircraft crashed into a beech forest.
Following his return to Burnley, Peter, a brilliant joke teller and raconteur, cast a humorous eye over local life in columns including Storah Says and Nick o’ Pendle. Then he had a brainwave. Since he spent so much of his life in pubs, why not write about them exclusively?
Thus was born The Snug, a twice-weekly round-up of news and gossip about the many hostelries of Burnley, Nelson, Colne and Rossendale. Perhaps Peter’s finest hour was when he organised the Miss Snug competition, open to landladies and barmaids in the circulation area. This was not just a beauty contest, with entrants also judged on personality and knowledge of the trade.
It culminated in a grand final in one of the larger Burnley working men’s clubs, with a tie-break involving the pouring of a bottle of Worthington White Shield. This was a live, bottle-conditioned beer with sediment in the bottom. The trick was to release it gently into the glass, creating a crystal-clear drink while leaving the sediment to be swallowed separately if the customer sought a cure for constipation.
One or two of the finalists just chucked the beer into the glass leaving it cloudy and murky but the winner, strangely enough from one of Peter’s favourite watering holes, poured it perfectly and was crowned Miss Snug. She vowed that it would not change her life, and it didn’t.
Peter was not only a gifted boozer but also a talented musician. He had met his future wife Joan when they were partners in a piano competition and in 1971, with their ten-year-old daughter Caroline, they won a family music class at Burnley Festival with a ‘six hands at one piano’ version of The Lake and the Village Band.
I kept in touch with Peter after moving to the Daily Mail in Manchester and one afternoon in a Burnley drinking club my colleague Robert Carson and I convinced him that a man of his calibre shouldn’t still be on local paper money. He began doing sub-editing shifts in the city and before long got a job on the Daily Star, moving on later to the Daily Sport. OK, not the pinnacle of journalism but the pay was a lot better.
It was a huge shock when he died after a short illness in 2015, aged 79. Many familiar faces from the past turned up at the funeral and you can imagine how many toasts were made to his memory at the wake as we exchanged fond memories. Cheers, Pete!
Old jokes’ home
Roman legionnaire walks into a pub, flashes a V-sign at the barman and says: ‘Five beers, please.’
A PS from PG
Beginning with a critique of my own limbs, which she said, justly enough, were nothing to write home about, this girl went on to dissect my manners, morals, intellect, general physique and method of eating asparagus with such acerbity that by the time she had finished the best you could say of Bertram was that, so far as was known, he had never actually committed murder or set fire to an orphan asylum.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves