In this posting...
*Frank Thomas Dodds
Now read on, Macduff...
Right now I have a particularly virulent cold. You know the sort of thing - a nose that seems to be running with the unstoppable and inexplicable volume of High Force, sinuses so blocked that a sink-plunger wouldn’t make the slightest impression on them, a throat so sore you could strike matches in it and a head like Craghead (as my Nana used to say).
It’s at times like this that I’m prone to pathetic and unwholesome feelings of self-pity. Well, to be brutally honest, I’m prone to self-pity at other times, too. Generally, all I have to do is consider the more monstrous and preposterous aspects of existence - why is Jim Davidson permitted to exist? why didn’t I move to somehwere warmer 20 years ago? why are airports (and the people who work in them) so loathsome? why don’t the people of Middlesbrough rise up in rebellion, demolish the place and start all over again? - and I’m plunged into a wallowing morass of barely excusable grumpiness.
And that was exactly my frame of mind when I woke up yesterday morning. I felt drunk. And if you really want to know how that feels, ask a glass of water.
Luckily, I have developed a workable solution to these situations. I have a kind of safety valve. I tell myself that, if life seems to have hit rock bottom for some reason, all I need to do is consider the alternative. So yesterday morning I did what I’ve done several times before - I went out, bought my paper and an apple yum-yum and went to Newcastle Crematorium.
It’s lovely there. The flower-beds are beautifully planted and maintained, the buildings have a solid, peaceful air of eternity about them, the birds are singing - and you’re surrounded by uncountable numbers of departed souls who, given a choice, would much rather be quietly devouring an apple yum-yum than doing whatever it is they are, or are not, doing.
As the minutes passed I found myself watching - at a discreet distance - the preparations for a funeral. A small crowd of people - say, about 40 or so - slowly gathered at the crematorium gates to await the arrival of the hearse and, as I watched, I became increasingly fascinated by them.
Funerals being what they are, you expect the mourners mostly to comprise of older people. Indeed, a ceremony had just finished and, as those who had come to say their goodbyes walked back to their cars, the sea of grey hair and the forest of walking sticks seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion.
But the group gathering by the gate for the next funeral was not like that at all. The age mix was astonishing. There were a few older people but the vast majority of mourners were well under 30. And much of their attire defied funeral tradition, too. One young lad was dressed in white, there were a few jeans and leather jackets. And one man in particular wore an eye-catching and very handsome fedora.
I found myself wondering whose funeral this could be. And the Service Order told me.
Frank Thomas Dodds.
The cortege arrived, Frank’s coffin was duly borne into the chapel and the crocodile of mourners followed it inside. By this time, I was so curious about the man whose funeral could attract such a wildly disparate group of people that I almost followed them inside to find out more about him by listening to the orations.
And now, a day later, I wish I had. Frank Thomas Dodds, whoever he may have been, whatever he may have done and however he may have died, proved to me once again - just as I was in danger of disappearing up my own self-pity - that everyone has a story to tell and that no story is more or less important or interesting than any other.
During his lifetime, Frank was obviously held in high esteem by an amazingly varied and perhaps unexpectedly diverse group of people, many of whom turned out to mourn his death. I hope, in their loss, that those closest to him were able to take comfort from the numbers - and the youth - of those who attended his funeral with them.
Goodbye, Frank Thomas Dodds. Whoever you were.
As I turned away from the chapel, I was reminded of one of the saddest days in my career on the Big Blue Bus.
My first job at BBC Radio Newcastle was to join Paul for the last hour of the Saturday programme he used to do. The theme of the hour was local history and one of our regular, though infrequent, callers was Vivian in Rothbury. Whenever we heard his voice, we smiled at each other and knew we were in for a treat.
He told us early on that he was a retired serviceman, although he didn’t need to. He spoke with that deliciously deep and resonant voice which seems to be reserved for retired Army colonels who are utterly convinced that they know what they’re talking about and that their opinions and views have been gained from years of adventure and active service and ought therefore to be listened to.
In his own case, he was perfectly correct. Our on-air chats with him were invariably informative, saucy and laced with the spice of past glories fondly remembered and humorously recalled.
Time passed. I left Paul’s Saturday show to plough my own furrow as the traffic and travel presenter and then to host my own Roots programme for a while. And then came the Big Blue Bus.
Eventually - after a couple of years - we arranged to broadcast a programme from Rothbury. As soon as the bus was parked up on the green, I made it my business to enquire after the wonderful Vivian. Did anyone know him? Where did he live?
Oh yes, they knew him. A well-loved and well-respected member of the Rothbury community. A real old-fashioned eccentric; a character regarded with affection by everyone in the town.
Vivian - who had died three weeks before I was able to meet him.
Journalists and presenters have an unduly harsh reputation for being too dispassionate and uncaring about their jobs and the people they come into contact with; their audience. But believe me, I was broken-hearted that morning in Rothbury. Vivian had been amongst the first few listeners I had spoken to in my fledgling career at the BBC and his audio presence had commanded my respect and affection in equal measure. I had always wanted to meet him. Knowing that I would never have that opportunity - and that his death had been so mercilessly recent - felt like a familiar light being extinguished before I could enjoy its warmth and brilliance at first hand.
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