I do like writing, and usually I am the one deciding what to write, and enjoying the oddness of where ideas come from and why they strike me as being interesting at that time. But every now and then someone else comes along and provokes the idea. So it was over Christmas when the Yorkshire Post asked me to write a piece for a series they are running on ‘the town that made me.’ Being the Yorkshire Post they wanted it to be a Yorkshire town, and as I was born in Keighley, I qualified.
They ran the piece last week, and gave it a good show, but given I had rambled on a fair bit, and as any newspaper article has to come to an end at some point, they had to make a few cuts. So, not least for those who sent nice messages about what they read, here is the full piece as drafted, complete with a few more names, not least Charlie Hurley, the former Sunderland player – how random that he should have popped into my head? – my first teachers, and some of the many friends my parents had in Yorkshire.
One of the paper’s writers, Jayne Dowle, in an article on my article, seemed to think there might have been a political purpose to my reminiscences, contrasting my northern upbringing with the metropolitan bent of Labour under its current leader. Not so. It was a piece of pure nostalgia which allowed me to reflect on a broadly happy childhood in a place I often wish I had never had to leave.
Here goes with the full piece.
So Keighley, the town that made me. Technically this is beyond dispute. I was born in Keighley Victoria hospital, May 25 1957, and almost certainly conceived – too much information? – in Oakworth nine months or so earlier. At the time we were living there but as the family grew – I was the third of four – we moved to Laurel Grove, a stone’s throw from Cliffe Castle in the town itself.
I like to play up my tough northern roots to my own London born and bred children, telling them all manner of Monty Pythonesque hard luck (and tall) stories but in fact we lived in a big house with a nice garden and – the place I spent a lot of my time – a back yard out by the garage.
It was where I could let my sporting fantasies run riot. I grew up wanting to play football for Burnley and Scotland (my parents were both Scots and my dad taught me and my older brother Donald the bagpipes from an early age), cricket for Yorkshire and England (my birthplace allowed both) and rugby league for Keighley and Great Britain. Indeed, out in that back yard, with or without Donald and my other brother Graeme, I did just that.
I had an old cricket scoring book and recorded every ball. I regularly opened the batting with Geoff Boycott and despite his slow approach we would cruise past 100 before he would be out and then Phil Sharpe would come in. I enjoyed great partnerships with Jackie Hampshire and Brian Close and when I was bowling, (opening with Freddie Trueman), I took a lot of wickets thanks to Jimmy Binks taking world class catches behind the stumps.
I get asked ‘why Burnley? given I grew up in Yorkshire. But we were pretty much equidistant between Leeds and Burnley, and would watch them both, but I liked Burnley’s colours. Also, they were reigning league champions when I first saw them. And before you say ‘glory hunter’ I have followed them all the way down through the leagues and now most of the way back up again.
I went to most home games as a kid and when my dad couldn’t take me I went with a girl called Jane Davis and her family or Peter Loughlin, the son of one of my dad’s best mates. I still see a lot of Pete because he goes to every game home and away from his home in Riddlesden.
As for the Cougars, I went back to see them a few years ago and did a piece for the Times. Great blokes, tough and dedicated to a sport for love more than money. I told them the story about Pete’s dad Paddy Loughlin, a GP who was the team doctor on match days. He and my dad liked a drink at the weekend and one morning before a game at Lawkholme Lane against Dewsbury Paddy called saying he had a massive hangover and would my dad stand in? ‘Paddy, I’m a vet,’ my dad protested. ‘Ah don’t worry they won’t know the difference,’ came the unconcerned reply.
I went to Utley Primary School and if memory serves me right my first teachers were Mrs Feather and Miss Gill. Or was that Mrs Gill and Miss Feather! I liked school and was eager to learn. It was a walk of a few miles to get there and I ran part of it because Donald told me one of the houses we passed was haunted. I went back to the school a few years ago and it had changed in so many ways. The outside toilets were gone – I used to hate those. And whereas when I was there I think all the kids were white now nearly all of them were non white.
I have always been passionately anti racist and I think growing up in Keighley, and walking through a very Pakistani area whenever I walked into town, or to the swimming pool, or to my dad’s surgery, the back of which was bang opposite the pool in Spencer Street, made me so. I actually liked living so close to people from different cultures.
My best friend at school was called John Bailey. We lost touch but one of the upsides of me becoming well known through politics is that he tracked me down and we have met up since and keep in touch. I had a great friend called David Shuttleworth at Eastburn and used to go fishing with him. I also had fishing lessons from an old man called – I think it was Mr Staines – possibly at Hebden Bridge. Or was it Oxenhope?
My mum and dad threw themselves into their social life and I can remember some pretty good parties at home. My parents had some stellar friends, the Hamiltons, the Bransfields, the McNaes, (all doctors) Pat and John Lees, (he was a Tory lawyer) many many more, and of course his vet practice partners at Campbell, Crabtree and Green.
Dad was president of the Keighley show one year. I got invited back to talk at the show a few years ago and it was a nice point of connection with my dad, who had died not long before. I took my mum and she loved it. Sadly she died last year but she and my dad often said the Keighley years were the happiest years of their lives. His ashes are scattered over the fields where he spent so many years tending animals. At my mum’s funeral last year the Yorkshire contingent almost outnumbered the Scots. She was always brilliant at keeping in touch with people.
Dad had a surgery in Bingley in addition to the Keighley one but though he did his small animal duties there his big love was farm animals and especially horses. He Showjumper Harvey Smith was one of his clients and years later when I was a student in the south of France I met up with Harvey and he got me an in to be interpreter for the GB team. Unpaid.
I have a lifelong love of beautiful scenery and I think that was inspired by going out with my dad on his rounds. The town itself may not be the prettiest, though parts of it are nice and Keighley and Worth Valley Railway is a jewel, but the area around Keighley takes some beating.
My dad had a horse and trap and used to love taking us out in that. It was probably safer than the car. I once let the handbrake off the car while we were waiting for dad at a farm and we ended up careering down a hill.
I was quite accident prone. I had a few broken bones down the years. One of my daftest moments came when I accepted a dare to walk across a neighbour’s glass-roofed garage. Unsurprisingly the glass broke and I fell through the roof. My sister Liz reminds me of that a lot, whenever she thinks I am getting above myself.
The neighbours were called the Bairstows and they were away on holiday but my parents made me apologise in person when they got back. They were very moral like that. There was a sweet shop round the corner and I once stole some sweets, just a few aniseed ball and a handful of mints. My dad found out and marched me round there to admit to being a thief and apologise and promise to pay back with interest.
We went to Sunday school every weekend at the Presbyterian church in Bradford and then Harry Ramsden’s for lunch which I liked more than the Sunday school.
We had to leave Keighley when I was eleven and for all of us, it was pretty traumatic. We certainly didn’t want to leave. But my dad had had a bad accident when a sow attacked him while he was injecting her piglets. She was tethered but broke free and battered him up against a wall. He was in hospital for what seemed like ages and visiting times were very strict so I used to send letters to him with my mum every day. I think that is when I basically started to keep a diary which has come in handy in more recent years! It was just telling him basic stuff like what I ate and did at school and how Burnley played. I remember drawing a picture of Charlie Hurley who played for Sunderland. How random is that?
He tried to get back to his practice but the 24/7 nature of it was beyond him really and so he sold up and joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a vet for a quieter life, and he was moved to Leicester.
I was at Bradford Grammar then. I went back to the school to do a talk just before Christmas and it was so different to how I remembered it. I really didn’t want to leave Keighley. It was the last day before the Christmas term and I said good bye to my friends at lunchtime and left. It was the day Oxford were playing Cambridge at rugby, I remember that because it was on the telly when we went to the house of the Davidsons, family friends in Bradford where I was meeting my siblings before getting driven south by a family friend, our parents having gone ahead. I’d only been at Bradford for a term and started at a new school in Leicester in the new year.
Because we never had any relatives in Keighley we didn’t go back that much though by an amazing coincidence years later I went out with one of the girls from the family who bought our house in Laurel Grove when we left Keighley. She was studying in Leicester and lodging with my mum when I was at Cambridge University. She was actually the first big love of my life, Maxine.
These days when I go north it is usually to Burnley though I have been back to Keighley a few times, including to campaign for the Labour Party. And when someone did a big portrait of me for a charity project recently I donated it to Cliffe Castle.
I often wonder how my life might have been if we had never left. My accent would be different because I was pretty broad Yorkshire but was young enough for it to change when I moved away. I also think that one of the reasons I became fairly tough mentally – and I have needed that at times – was because leaving Keighley was a big blow at a difficult age but I just had to get on with it.
I did well at my new school but I never ever took my Burnley scarf off. It was my way of saying I wasn’t really one of them and never would be. I left Keighley almost half a century ago now but still feel more emotional attachment to it than many of the other places I have lived.
– Alastair Campbell’s latest book, WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED, is out now £20 hardback Hutchinson books. The paperback will be published in the spring