Get involved: send your pictures, video, news and views by texting CHNEWS to 80360, or email
Farewell to our own John Sheard
9:50am Sunday 28th December 2008 in Dales Folk
On a September morning in 1956, a callow 17-year-old youth fresh out of an ancient grammar school walked into a Grade Two listed office building to start a job as a copy boy on his local weekly paper, a traditional, county broadsheet with ads on the front page. It was called the Derbyshire Advertiser.
Today, after years in and out of Fleet Street and the editorship of glossy county magazines, he will make the same journey in reverse, figuratively at least, by leaving the office of the Craven Herald to a busy retirement.
Our Country File columnist John Sheard is giving up newspapers this weekend after 52 varied years.
He started and finished his career on strikingly similar newspapers, but in between spent 20 years in and out of Fleet Street, covered the troubles in Northern Ireland, delved into the police investigation in the Yorkshire Ripper murders and – perhaps most importantly of all – campaigned to save ancient York from the hideous attentions of the 1960s town planners.
“My career has been a complete parabola,” he told the Herald this week. “I loved working for the Derbyshire Advertiser although I had given up the chance of university to take the job.
“Even in national newspapers, I always knew I would end my working days writing for a country weekly. That it was to be the Craven Herald was one of the luckier breaks in a working life that was sometimes far from a bed of roses.”
John was educated at Derby School, founded in the 13th century, and was one of dozens of young people bidding for that first job. From there, he followed what was then the classic “through the mill” career path for any ambitious journalist aiming for Fleet Street.
As a reporter for the Nottingham Evening Post, he covered Grantham when Margaret Thatcher was first standing for Parliament – and had a row with Alderman Roberts, her father “the most boring man I have ever had to report”. He then freelanced, first in the Home Counties – which he hated – and in York, which he loved.
It was in York in 1964 that he formed an alliance with the up-and-coming architect Dr Patrick Nuttgens, later to become director of Leeds Metropolitan University, who was campaigning against 1960s “brutalist” planning development in York.
When Dr Nuttgens resigned as adviser to York City Council over plans to build a bowling abbey opposite historic Micklegate Bar, where the decapitated heads of traitors were hung on pikes to rot after various battles in the Wars of the Roses and Scottish uprisings, the story John wrote made the front pages of all Britain’s quality papers.
“That caused such a row that the Government suspended the city council’s planning powers,” says John.
“It led to a major review of planning procedures in historic towns like York and Bath and was probably the most important story I ever wrote.
“Public opinion can be rallied by the right sort of publicity – as we have proved here in Skipton in the past few months.”
In York, John met and married Valerie, his wife of 44 years, who was a graduate of York College of Art and then worked as a set designer at the city’s famous Theatre Royal. They have two grown-up children and three grandchildren.
From York, John joined the Sunday Mirror to go to Ireland to write features for a new, all-colour edition being pioneered in Belfast.
Instead, he ended up covering the troubles, being at the first riot and driving home in a car splashed with blood from the heads of Catholic protesters who had been baton-charged by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
When it was time to go back to Fleet Street, popular journalism had changed. Says John sadly: “The popular press had gone downhill into the gutter.
“We were writing about pop stars, footballers and soap actresses, not bent politicians or crooked businessmen. I hated it.”
Instead, he went to the Manchester office of the Sunday Mirror as northern chief reporter, covering the North of England, Scotland, North Wales and his old patch in Ireland. He won a Cudlipp Award – the Mirror’s highest honour – for his investigation of the failings of the police attempts to snare the Yorkshire Ripper, but this was a rare highlight in years of growing frustration.
“That at least was a proper story,” he says now, the disgust still in his voice. “Most of the time, I was expected to write drivel. Then Maxwell bought the Mirror Group and I quit – even though he robbed me of £60,000 in redundancy pay. My family suffered a lot from that, but they backed me all the way. It is still the decision I am most proud of in my entire career.”
John became assistant editor, then editor, of Lancashire Life, then group editor of the Life series of 12 county magazines – including Yorkshire Life – and moved first to Lothersdale and then into Skipton after quitting the magazine group to go freelance here in Craven.
“I always knew I would end up in beautiful countryside writing for a country weekly. I didn’t think it would have ads on the front page, but that made it even more like coming home,” he said.
We can now reveal that John was The Curmudgeon, who wrote 500 columns for us, taking an ironic view of village life in the Dales, before launching the Dales Folk series of profiles.
“After all those years of interviewing so-called celebrities – many of whom lied to me through their teeth – it was a breath of fresh air to meet ordinary country folk who told the truth, people who called a spade a shovel,” he said. “Those 250-plus columns gave me more pleasure than anything else in over half a century. I hope the readers took some pleasure too.”
John, who will be 70 in two weeks’ time, is not giving up the pen (or rather, the keyboard) entirely. Over the years, he has published seven books and now he plans to finish another based on his Curmudgeon column and continue a countryside column on the internet.
“I still have a lot to say, but then I always did,” he said. “From now, I shall be able to set my own deadlines which, after half a century, is total luxury. And we shall stay in Craven of course – we have put down some pretty deep roots these past 21 years.
“Could I please thank Craven folk for making my family feel at home.”
Craven Herald editor Peter Greenwood said: “The Herald and its readers owe John their gratitude for gracing our pages every week.
“The term “gentleman of the Press” has been over-used down the decades but, in John’s case, it is totally apt.
“His distinguished career speaks for itself and we have been fortunate that he chose to spend the last years of his lifetime in journalism writing for us.
“He has never failed to entertain, inform and – when the mood took him – provoke and that is what has made him essential reading.
“His contributions to the Herald will be sorely missed.
“The many hundreds of Craven people who know John will join us in wishing him a long and lively retirement.”