For those who may not already have seen them, these splendid photos were taken the other day when Brenda took her son David on a tour of BBC Newcastle.  He was apparently overcome with awe when he met Colin Briggs - a feeling I know well.

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The other day, I was stuck at some traffic lights behind a van which boasted, on a plate next to the registration number, that it had been made by ‘Robinson’s Truck Bodies’, which sounded quite thrilling and appropriate for someone who has the physique of a pantechnicon.

Inasmuch as a listener once told me that everyone with the same surname is a 14th cousin, and that I am therefore distantly related to companies that make truck bodies AND barley water, I’m wondering when I’ll get my share of the fabled Robinson Millions.

On the other hand, the same listener also told me that everyone on earth is a 19th cousin to everyone else - so perhaps I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much.

Robinson is, admittedly, a depressingly common name.  In fact, it comes in at number 14 on the list, after Smith, Jones, Taylor, Williams, Brown, Davies, Evans, Wilson, Thomas, Roberts, Johnson (well done, Keith), Lewis and Walker.

Presumably, then, there must have been quite a few ‘Robins’ about to spawn so many sons.  And indeed there were; thereby hangs a tale…

Robin is, of course, primarily the name of a bird - probably England’s national bird (if we had such a thing).  Equally obviously, the robin’s most startling characteristic is its red breast.  So why did so many men acquire a nickname derived from this bird? 


In mediaeval times, the great and the good employed messengers to carry important documents from one battlemented fastness to another.  So that their passage would not be hindered by the 13th century equivalent of traffic lights, level crossings and one-way systems, these messengers wore brightly-coloured red waistcoats.

Which is why they were nicknamed Robins.

Why they had quite so many sons is a different matter altogether.  Red is still, of course, the colour of the postal service and perhaps the saucy, seaside-postcard version of modern postmen shares a trait bequeathed to it by my raunchy ancestors.

Just for the record, here are some other surnames that may ring a bell...

‘Dweller by the stream’, or perhaps, ‘by the gutter’.  Sorry, Hildie.

‘A servant at the bower’.  Makes you wonder what Sid’s ancestors got up to ‘at the bower’.

‘Son of Gregor’.  Gregor itself is ultimately derived from an Ancient Greek word for ‘watchful’.

This is derived from an Irish and Erse word for ‘yellow’.

Neville can relax; his surname has nothing to do with harpooning whales.  It is a variation of Anglo-Saxon ‘wheeler’ - a man who made wheels, a wheelwright.

This is, fairly obviously, ‘Michie’s son’.  Mitchie means ‘big’ and is related to mickle and muckle, which our ancestors always mixed up and soon stopped using altogether.

So now you know….
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The recent escape of a captive rhea in Hertfordshire (of all places) has made me wonder - amongst other things - why anyone would want to keep such extravagant birds as pets.  They can, after all, decapitate you just by looking at you.  And it can’t be easy to replicate the endless pampas ranges of South America in deepest commuter-belt Harpenden or St Albans.

When I was at school, the family of one of my classmates kept two pet hedgehogs, which - to a boy whose family had kept only the regulation hamster (‘Titch’), a blue budgerigar called Billy, and a ferocious Jack Russell cross called Bos’un (which had eventually to be put down) - seemed strangely exotic, though a trifle unnecessary.  Even odder, though - and still a cause of bemusement to me - was that they couldn’t be told apart and were therefore both called Pickles.

These creatures remained the most unusual pets I’d personally come across until a Blue Bus listener brought in a sandwich box with two tarantulas in it.  Fearlessly, I insisted that he stand 100m away in a sealed lead box behind a wall.

He also brought me - as a gift - a dead tarantula in a lidless Summer County margarine tub.  Unaccountably, I kept it.  I recently rediscovered it amongst some BBC memorabilia in a box under my bed, where it had probably been terrifying my cats for a decade.

Just as exotic, and much more charming, is the pet Belgian hare kept by a friend of mine.  It’s a beautiful, deep brown, shiny and wonderful animal the size of a house-dog and just as affectionate, although you can’t exactly take it for a walk.  At least, I don’t think you can.

All this is by way of saying that, in the last few days, this list has been blasted clean out of the water by news of the most utterly inexplicable pet I’ve ever come across.

An otherwise admirably sensible friend told me - over a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie - that someone he knew kept a ‘hissing cockroach’ as a pet.  He countered what must have been my self-evident disbelief by showing me a photograph much like this one…

The need human beings have to keep animals as pets seems to be irreversible and unassailable and I can understand the comfort and companionship we get from dogs, cats, budgerigars, mice, rats (well done, Lawrence) and rabbits.  I start to baulk a little at tortoises, lizards, snakes - and rheas.

But my fecund imagination is defeated completely by the thought that, not too far from Robinson Towers, a hissing cockroach is being stroked, talked to and fed by its adoring owner.

The heart, though, has its reasons.  And I’ll be smirking on the other side of my face if that cockroach-owner grows into a world famous entomologist and presents programmes about them on BBC Four.

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This is a copy of the letter every schoolchild in Britain received from the King 
on the first anniversary of the end of World War Two.  A Blue Bus listener donated to me 
and I treasure it enough to have had it framed.
The text is enlarged here...

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To mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, the BBC has been broadcasting some cracking programmes over the last few months.  There have been a couple of excellent ‘dramatic reconstructions’ (of which I’m not normally an enthusiast), two series of poignant ‘footstep’ documentaries and two series which have told the story of the war itself - from the way in which Europe seemed to sleepwalk into it to its sudden and surprising end.

If you haven’t been able to catch these programmes, I recommend that you give them a try on iPlayer.  You may find - as I did - that the appalling events of the past have quite a lot to tell us about the present and - God forbid - the future.

They've also rekindled in my mind a desire to visit the historic sites of World War One.  I’ve seen a couple of war cemeteries from trains on my journeys in France and Belgium - white headstones marshalled in neat, obedient lines like the soldiers whose graves they mark.  Perhaps this would be an appropriate year for me to finally visit the Somme, the Marne, Amiens and Passchendaele.  And the mighty memorial at Thiepval.

A friend who has visited these sites has suggested that I’ll need to ‘steel‘ myself against their effects; she found them almost unbearably heartbreaking.  So I’d be interested to know if any truckshunters have been there.  If you have visited these sites, what thoughts and emotions did they stir in you?

Did your family lose anyone to the conflict?

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Hildie has been digging around amongst the emails she sent me during my time on The Big Blue Bus and re-sent me this one the other day.  It’s a charmer…

‘Ahh! Ian, it's such a shame that the Blue Bus didn't make it to Dipton this morning because I had borrowed a couple of old Log Books from the school to show you. Honestly, they are wonderful, you would have gotten so excited !               

For example .....

29 Sep 1943  
We held our Harvest Festival this afternoon. The children brought their gifts of fruit and vegetables which are to be sent to the wounded soldiers at Shotley Bridge Hospital.

19 Nov 1943  
The weather has been very cold and stormy. Many children are absent due to flu and poor boots.

13 Mar 1947  
There is a very bad blizzard today.  No buses are running and there is only a single track made by pedestrians through the village.  The snow is very deep and paths to the lavatories are filling in as quickly as they are cut.  No dinners were received at school today.

18 May 1949   

The children watched the crowning of the May Queen in the school garden this afternoon.

And here are some examples from a different Log Book...

8 Mar 1918  
School closed this week on account of Food Rationing.

10 Feb 1932  
Twelve pairs of boots have been distributed today amongst necessitous cases.

11 May 1937  
Tomorrow...King George and Queen Elizabeth will be crowned.  The children will assemble at school & form a procession to Bute Park where a programme of dancing and singing will be given.  Then form a procession & return to school where tea will be provided.  Later, the children will be presented with a Coronation Cup and Saucer.

And, earlier in the same book…

25 Feb 1914  
Miss Stelling absent today having gone to hospital for a slight operation.’

It’s interesting that all the children seem to have worn boots; shoes were still footwear of the future.  (And surely only a teacher would use the word necessitous, which has otherwise - and thankfully - disappeared from regular vocabulary.)

Both Hildie and I can’t help wondering what Miss Stelling’s ‘slight operation’ was and whether or not she fully recovered.
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A famous Arnold...


The web-based genealogy company ancestry.co.uk must be making huge wads of cash from the recent upsurge in enthusiasm for family history.  Ever since Who Do You Think You Are? first appeared on tv, people have been digging around in register offices, archives, graveyards and each other’s memories in order to fill out the often bare branches of family trees - my own family included.

In order to keep their name firmly at the forefront of this trend, the company recently published a fascinating report about an aspect of past-digging that rarely takes centre stage:  our ancestors’ forenames.  They have combed birth registers to come up with a list of names whose unquestioned popularity has been almost entirely eclipsed since about 1905 and which are very nearly - and, in some cases, completely - extinct (for want of a better word).

So, before a generation arises which simply doesn’t believe that these names ever existed  - let alone uttered unironically - I think it’s time we gave them a final airing.
A celebrated Dorothy...

Have you, for example, ever known anyone called Gertrude?  Or Blodwen?  Or Bertha? 

(My great-aunt’s next-door neighbour was called Bertha - and, as you’d expect, she looked the part.  Naturally, she joined a rich panoply of ‘adoptive aunties’ by whom I was surrounded in my youth - including...

- Aunty Norah, with that all-important ‘h’.  She was my godmother, but I wonder now how old the youngest person in England is who is called Nora(h);

- Aunty Sissy; Cecilia, presumably - a glorious name which is apparently making a comeback;

- Aunty Lil; Lily - a name which, I suspect, has no hope whatsoever of future popularity; and

- Aunty Topsy, whose name has genuinely puzzled me ever since her tall, thin and immaculately well-dressed figure stood at nana’s kitchen door; I feel seriously honoured to have had a Topsy in my life.)
An infamous Phyllis...

My great-aunt herself was called Mill.  It wasn’t short for anything - it was the only forename she was given and it’s the only one that appears on her headstone.  Despite extensive family research, no-one has found a satisfactory explanation as to why her Victorian parents chose the name for her.  Perhaps it was some sort of family in-joke.

In any case, I’ve never come across anybody else whose name was simply Mill.

But I digress…)

According to the report, we have already said Goodbye to Willie and Cecil and Rowland.  I draw a blank with all of those, as I do with Horace and Cyril and Arnold, all of which seem to have hit the baby-naming buffers once and for all (although I did once know a Norman (as it were).
Arguably the best-known Ethel EVER...

No little girls seem to have been christened Dorothy or Gwendoline or Phyllis for decades.  Where have all the Marions and Cynthias gone?  And when my great-aunt Ethel (Mill’s daughter-in-law) died last year, she may well have taken her name with her.

So spare a thought.  Although there is still at least one Ada gracing us with her presence - the august and venerable Honorary President of the Truckshunters - the world is surely a less richly-patterned place without an Agnes or an Edith in it.
Esther (my nana) and Mildred...

Two names on the list intrigued me, though.  Mam’s name was Mildred, which I’ve never heard applied to anyone else, before or since.  It now seems to have vanished forever.

And the other is Hilda, which is on the official ‘danger list’.  So we’d better look after our own Hildie really carefully; she carries an awesome responsibility….

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...is now hopelessly out-of-date.  I looked at it just now to remind myself of who I was and realised that it's now merely a description of who I was when I wrote it.

Please consider it a work in progress...

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A Scottish wildcat - Britain's own lion
Sleek, beautiful, shy - and extremely aggressive...
I've actually seen one of these - but it was in a specially-built enclosure in St Albans (of all places).  
If I could see one in the wild, I would die happy...


Finding no references to Paul Wappat in a recent newspaper article headlined The Natural Curiosities Report, I instead made a startling discovery - not about him but about me.  Namely….that, considering how much wildlife this crowded island still manages to support, I’ve seen shamefully little of it.  And this despite the fact that I smugly imagine myself to be an enthusiastic lover of our native flora and fauna.

In all my sixty-five-and-a-bit years, I have only ever knowingly seen two foxes.  Two.  One was sunning itself on a garage roof in deepest Southampton and the other ran across the road in front of me near Easington Village.  Every other fox I’ve seen has been very dead.

I’ve only seen one toad - it hibernated in my garden in Sheffield.  Only one single weasel has made itself known to me - by running very sinuously across my path up near Crook.  (And, even then, my powers of observation are so limited that it could easily have been a stoat - in which case I apologise to weaseldom.)

I once caught sight of two hares running energetically across a hayfield in Galloway.

I’ve never seen a living badger at all.  Not even one.  As they’re being culled, I’d better get my wildlife-watching skates on.

The Natural Curiosities Report offered a list of British birds, mammals and snakes which, despite their relative commonness, are reportedly almost never seen by Britain’s urban-living population, me included.

I’d be interested to know which of the creatures in the list’s Top Ten (er, actually Top Eleven) you’ve seen; where did you see it and when?

At Number Ten…
The Kingfisher…
I was lucky enough to see quite a few of these on the many canal holidays I took when I was younger.  The extraordinarily exotic iridescent flash of turquoise and orange is never, ever forgotten, once seen.

There are thought to be 2,000 and more breeding pairs in Britain (including many here in the north-east) and yet just 34% of us claim to have seen one.

At Number Nine…

The Raven…
The only ravens I’ve ever seen are those in the Tower of London - and they’ve had their wings clipped and don’t count. 

Incredibly, there are about 7,400 breeding pairs of ravens in Britain; only 30% of us have ever seen one, though.  Are there any round here?

At Number Eight…
The Adder
In Blue Bus days, we had a regular contributor called John Grundy, who was something of an expert on adders and promised to take me on an ‘adder walk’ on the heaths of north-west Durham.  For reasons I can’t quite remember, we never got round to it - a fact I regret very much indeed.

So John - if you’re there….

Nobody seems to know how many adders there are in Britain but only 29% of us claim to have seen one.

At Number Seven…
The Slow-Worm
Again, nobody seems to know how many slow-worms there are in Britain; only 25% of the population have seen one.

So...John Grundy - if you’re there…

At Number Six…
The Cuckoo
More than 16,000 pairs migrate to our island every year and yet, although quite commonly heard in some areas, they’re very seldom seen.  I am among the 78% of people who’ve never caught even a fleeting glimpse of one.

At Number Five…
The Otter
Otters have made a newsworthily spectacular comeback in recent years; there are thought to be about 10,000 of them in Britain now, and there have been dozens of well-reported sightings here in the north-east, even on the edge of urban Tyneside.

But not by me.  I stubbornly remain one of the 83% of people who have never seen one.

At joint Number Four…
The Weasel
I’m not sharp-eyed enough to know if what I saw near Crook was a weasel or a stoat (see above) but - whichever - I can count myself lucky.  Only 16% of us claim ever to have seen one, even though there are about 450,000 of them scurrying over the landscape.

Also at Number Four…
The Stoat
Unbelievably, there are even more stoats than weasels snuffling through the undergrowth - about 462,000 of them.  It’s unbelievable because 94% of us have never, ever seen one.  (Or we have, and thought it was weasel!)

At Number Three…
The Golden Eagle
I seem to remember being told that there was a nesting pair of golden eagles somewhere in the Lake District but I’m fairly certain that this wonderful creature - as exotic and as unlikely as the kingfisher - is now confined to Scotland, where there are thought to be over 400 pairs.

9% of people claim to have seen one; I wish I was amongst them.

At Number Two…
The Pine Marten
I reckon we’re almost back in stoat/weasel territory with this one, except that there are far fewer of them - only about 3,300.  Which is perhaps why 95% of us have never caught sight of one.

But...where do you go for the best chance of a sighting?  Do they exist locally or is a safari to the forests and mountains of Scotland or Wales necessary?

The Nightjar
They nest on the ground amongst bracken and forest scraps, they feed on moths and other flying insects, they are active only at twilight or during the night, they can (uniquely) sink into a torpid state just short of hibernation, and are beautifully camouflaged for the crepuscular world they inhabit.

Which latter could be why, despite their being over 4,600 pairs in Britain, over 96% of us have never seen one.   

The nightjar is the least-commonly sighted native wild animal in Britain.

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Please get back to me if you can throw any light (as it were) on any of the animals in this curious list - specially if you’ve seen one or more of them and can suggest an outing for me so that I can see one, too.

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Saltwell Towers is a gloriously exuberant, lavishly embellished and (it has to be said) extremely unlikely country house set in parkland of manicured perfection - clipped borders, burgeoning shrubs and rolling lawns - with an arboretum and a boating lake thrown in for decorative good measure.  That it’s in Gateshead just makes it even more remarkable.

A wholly appropriate place, then, to hold a truckshunters AGM.

There have been several AGMs there already and, naturally, I’ve always been amongst the last to arrive.  This time, though, things were different.  For a start, I somehow miscalculated my wayward timetable and managed to get there on time - just as the caff opened.

And there was no-one else there at all. 

Rather than the jamboree, brass bands and bunting which usually accompany our musterings, I was greeted by an ocean of empty tables and chairs and decided that maybe, at long last, AGMs had finally run their course and that I’d be spending a lazy hour or so with nothing but Earl Grey and an iced finger to keep me company.

Other AGMs have started as bleakly as this.  I was wrong to make my doom-laden assumptions about them then - and I was wrong this time, too.

Within seconds, Vivienne appeared out of the arboretum and we were soon sipping our lattes amongst a growing crowd of prams, push-chairs, toddlers and gossiping mothers.

Hildie arrived next.  She’d come all the way from Dipton by bus.  By two buses, in fact.  And she’d walked the width of Saltwell Park in the drizzle as well.  She almost staggered into the caff, poor lass.

Linda and Keith arrived fresh-faced and rosy-cheeked from South Shields and the redoubtable Brenda breezed beamingly in amidst smiles and hugs to make up the necessary quorum. 

Proceedings commenced according to the well-worn traditions associated with AGMs.  That is to say, they descended into anecdote, catch-up, enquiry, wisecrack, nostalgia, recollection and general undirected conversation.  Chat, you might say.

It’s not easy to describe what happens at an AGM, as anyone who’s ever attended one will verify.  Thankfully, however, no AGM has ever committed the sin of being boring and this one was no exception.  From Hildie’s peculiar box of chocolates - long thin sticks like delicious overgrown toothpicks - to recollections of the Tipsy Duchess’ glorious appearances on Paul’s Saturday show all those years ago; it was all grist to a hugely enjoyable truckshunter AGM.

If I’ve swapped a few good tales, discovered a new truth or two, and had a bloody good laugh, I’m happy.  And I was happy.

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The absence of Sid and Dave - both of whom had planned to attend if at all possible - reminds me, though, that not everyone’s sky is as cloudless as it ought to be right now.  I can’t help wondering what the Honourable Company can do to make it feel more like April and less like November…

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