Darlington's evening newspaper - Big Brother's little sister - was put to bed for good in 1986. Erstwhile colleagues held a reunion last week to swap stories from the inky trade.

HATCHED? September 5, 1914. Matched? Often not. Despatched? April 18, 1986, after issue 22,013, price 16 pence.

"The newspaper that was born to bring you news of the war is today at peace," wrote Robin Thompson, the editor, in the final issue. Apathy, he added, had been their biggest enemy.

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Sometimes the Northern Despatch, latterly the Evening Despatch, it principally served Darlington and south Durham, had a Saturday night Pink which was a minor miracle of red-hot metal, was properly referred to as the Northern Echo's "sister" but may periodically have imagined that the Echo was Big Brother, too.

Last Saturday there was a reunion for all those who'd worked in editorial, who'd learned the inky trade there, who still wanted to put a protective arm around the kid sister and say - well - never mind.

Robin Thompson was there, if not still grieving for his baby - the baby into which he breathed memorable new life - then still a bit miffed at the manner and the moment of its passing.

"To me and to many of my staff, it is the death of a bright, talkative child," he'd written on that sad afternoon in 1986. "To many of you, though, it is the passing of a grand old story teller."

Good bloke, Robin, though still he bears the mien of a disgruntled football supporter denied victory by last-minute penalty box theatricals from Cristiano Ronaldo. He wuz robbed.

Brian Nicholls, editor before him, was there, quoting - as a Scotsman might - the comedian Chick Murray's aphorism that happiness can't buy you money.

Arnold Hadwin was there, too, appointed in 1964 at the time that the esteemed Harry Evans was editor of the Echo and the older he gets, the more greatly bearing a resemblance to him.

Arnold was the man who gave me my first job, £9 1s 6d a week and on the first grass-green morning a piece of string in the canteen cabbage.

I complained. The silence spoke volumes, like an incredulous workhouse upon Oliver asking for more.

Arnold was a Spennymoor lad, youngest of eight, his father a fitter at the coke works. He'd joined the papers' Bishop Auckland office as a 16-year-old in 1946, told he'd be paid just 15 shillings a week because for the first few months he'd be a bloody nuisance.

"I resolved to be a bloody nuisance for the rest of my life," he said.

He gained two Oxford degrees, became a Royal Marine commando, also edited papers in Bradford and in Lincoln, was awarded the OBE in 1982, still teaches journalism in under-developed countries and may be the only man alive who can legitimately include Gandhi and tiddlywinks in the same sentence.

He's one of only two life vice-presidents of the Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society, a distinction thought to have been conferred after he got the result into the stop press of the Oxford Mail, to the exclusion of the 3.15 at Sandown.

The tie simply said OUTS. "My wife always supposed there should have been an L in front," said Arnold.

Now he lives in Lincolnshire, sits on the parish council, still has his Rington's tea delivered, had been asked down the village pub the other day if he knew how to play poker.

"The last time I played poker," he told them - to some apparent disbelief - "was on a paddle steamer on the Missouri coming out of St Louis."

He won £60 and three skinned rabbits. They believe him now.

There were proud Despatch people like June Hawdon - whose Printers' Pie kids' club proved such a success - like Dot Butler, still blonde, still bonny, still buoyant and like Mark Tulip, now with Look North, whose by-line had been on the final, late-final, back page.

The Quakers, managed by Cyril Knowles and chaired by Archie Heaton, had a cash crisis. Deja vu? In the Red Lion they've heard it all before.

There were apologies for absence from someone working for Al Jazeera and someone else in Market Harborough - both doubtless valid - and the very substantial presence of Paul Routledge who'd been there when I began and, like me, spent time in the Bishop office under the erratic tutelage of Harry Stott, a chief reporter known sometimes as Aristottle and sometimes as very much worse.

Harry was a lovely chap but by no means the most lucid of newsmen, not even before they opened.

Bishop office in the 1960s was a bit like a journalistic Heartbeat. "Make that deadbeat," said Paul, in time one of the country's leading political editors but still fondly remembering old Labour lads in Darlington like Jimmy Skinner, Jimmy Whelan, little Cliffy Hutchinson and the incomparable Cecil Spence.

"Ah," said Paul enigmatically, "Cecil Spence."

Paul now lives in North Yorkshire, still writes acerbically for the Mirror - "Tony Blair has finally admitted what many of us have known for a very long time, that he is a political liability for Labour" - and has been a biographer of everyone from Gordon Brown to Betty Boothroyd, from Harold Wilson to Peter Mandelson.

Another publication was called The Bumper Book of British Lefties. Old Labour suited young Routledge.

The paper had again been renamed Evening Despatch in 1969, went tabloid - today's preferred term is "compact" - in 1973, was cosmically relaunched by Robin Thompson in 1978, achieved the biggest sales increase of any British daily publication and was still picking up awards just weeks before its demise.

Folk also recalled a mid-afternoon armed robbery on North Road somewhere, both bank and front page held up, more reporters than pollisses. Times change: newsrooms are now compact, too.

The Despatch's death had been marked by an affectionate obituary in the following day's Northern Echo - though exception was taken to the line that the Echo's reporters coveted their neighbours' kettle - and by a wake in Aycliffe Village, for which someone composed a glorious threnody to the tune of American Pie.

No room for all the words, of course, suffice that "shiver" rhymed with "liver".

Ten years on, they'd had a first reunion, at The George in Piercebridge, realised it was time to go home when the staff - quite literally - began pulling the carpet from beneath their feet.

This one was at the Bannatyne Hotel, fat of the land, in Darlington. At 1am they put the lights up, at 1.15 started taking down the tables, at 1.30 we were all still talking. In another decade, it's greatly to be hoped, we shall again relive to tell the tales.

Is 'pluff' just a bluff?

LAST week's note on the passing of Tow law lad John Maughan - forever Johnny Maffen - recalled for John Heslop the days when his grandfather was a butcher in Durham.

Weekend deliveries would take the pony and trap eastwards to Haswell Plough - which his dad always pronounced Haswell Pluff. "I did the same," says John, "until I discovered that others pronounced it as in farm machinery."

Is "pluff" common local usage, he wonders, or just a private joke?

THE generally complimentary reviews of Bob Dylan in Newcastle - last week's column - aren't echoed by Brian Shaw in Shildon, ensconced in a distant £50 seat.

"Just about all we could see clearly was his white hat," says Brian. "We were told beforehand that if anyone threw so much as flowers onto the stage, he'd be off.

"He didn't say a word, not even Good evening', hardly sang any of his early songs and they were selling off tickets before the start."

One consolation, Brian was a corporate guest. "I'd hate to think," he says, "that I'd spent fifty quid of my own.

Laurel, but hardlyAPPARENTLY dedicated to Stan Laurel, the put-upon one of the great comedy duo, the Stanley Jefferson pub opens in Bishop Auckland market place on the May Day bank holiday.

We hear, however, that the local Sons of the Desert - the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society - don't find it funny at all.

Sand kicked in their faces by Wetherspoon pub chain bosses, they plan to boycott the opening.

"The sign outside - see above - looks more like Hugh Grant with his hair slicked down," says Tony Hillman, vice-sheikh of the Hog Wild "tent" Disappointed that the pub was to be named "Jefferson" - the actor's real name - and not Laurel, his altogether better known stage name, the Sons still hoped to make a first day fuss.

Laurel and Hardy fans from as far away as Southend were expected to get their Desert boots on. Now, however, the Sons have had their filial.

Apart from the sign, the pub has a "meaningless" bronze-coloured sculpture purporting to represent the comedians, an information panel which gets Stan's father's name wrong and no other images of Laurel and Hardy.

"We've offered to supply some images but they don't want to know. All they have is lots of old pictures of Bishop Auckland," says Tony.

Born in Ulverston, Cumbria - where the Stan Laurel pub overflows with memorabilia - young Jefferson was educated at King James I grammar school in Bishop Auckland, the town where his father was a theatre manager.

"They've told me they want it low key with no more pictures of the Boys in there," says Tony. "They've missed a fantastic opportunity. It's just another pub."

WITHIN 24 hours last week, we were interviewed for Look North television and for the Richmond Talking Newspaper.

Downsizing, the BBC sent a one-man band - at once the cameraman, sound man, interviewer and producer. It's called video journalism, apparently.

The Talking Newspaper - for the visually handicapped - had both interviewer and sound recordist. David Clarke, the interviewer, not only provided copies of his provisional list of questions but had written his lead-in and lead-out, too. Mike Porter, the savvy sound man, is a media professional. The chocolate biscuits were great, too.

Well done, the Richmond boys. A talking point, if ever.

STILL spouting, we addressed the Durham Ladies' Lecture Club, temporarily housed in St Nic's church while they put a lift in the town hall.

The club's 68 years young, formed in the year that war broke out. Things change there, too. "You always knew when it was Ladies' Lecture Club day because there were so many hats in Durham. There might be 300 of them," said Sheila Hays, the secretary.

On Tuesday, to a woman, they were bare-headed. Hard times on Milliners' Row.