A fond farewell to a musician from war-torn Lebanon who made County Durham his home.

Lee El-Hakim's funeral takes place in Newton Aycliffe this afternoon, many miles from his native Beirut and after a six-year battle with cancer. Trapped in war-torn Lebanon, his brother and sisters are unable to attend. For his devastated 82-year-old mother, in Britain but almost unbearably isolated, it is the third son she's lost to cancer.

Lee's is the most remarkable of stories for all that, a love song become unchained threnody.

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He and Marie Sinclair had met in 1972 in a restaurant in Beirut. He was the band leader, moustached and darkly handsome, she a petite blonde singer from County Durham en route to bookings in India.

"He asked me what I could sing," recalls Marie, at 57 a year her husband's junior. "I suggested Summer Time in C-minor and he just looked at me. That was it, it really was love at first sight." They married two years later.

Marie was originally from Witton Gilbert, near Durham, a professional singer since she was 15. "Her father brought her to see me when I was organist at Cockerton Band Club in Darlington," recalls entertainment agent John Wray.

"I asked her to sing These Boots Are Made For Walking. The moment she did, I knew we had a star."

Holder of a law degree, Lee was a Lebanese Christian, son of a wealthy businessman and racehorse owner - who lost almost everything he had in an earlier conflict.

"I'd gone for dinner but they got me up to sing," Marie recalls. "I could only see the back of Lee's head but the way he played, he could make that keyboard talk. Then he turned around and looked at me... "

They made sweet music ever since, worked all over the world but finally settled in Newton Aycliffe to be near Marie's sick father - they gave him ten days, he lasted 15 years.

Georgie, their son, leads a band called G-Force - "You look at him, you see his dad, chip off the old block" - daughter Michelle is, like her father, multi-lingual.

With their band they became known as Lee, Marie and Feelings - in demand in all the top North-East clubs in the 70s and 80s.

"They were my friends but I can honestly say they were the best act I ever saw, and that was when clubs were clubs," says John Wray, who will deliver the eulogy at today's funeral.

Even early in their relationship, Lebanon was at war. "I can remember landing at Beirut when it was being bombed," says Marie, "running across the apron when eight months pregnant with Georgie. It's all so incredibly frightening.

"We were there two years ago for one of Lee's brother's funerals and they'd rebuilt the city wonderfully. What took 25 years, Israel has destroyed in ten days, both on the Christian and Hezbollah sides. I still have a house in Beirut and I don't even know if it's standing."

In the week that he was diagnosed with cancer of the colon - "We thought he was just slightly anaemic" - they'd won a two-year contract to work American cruise ships.

"I was packed, we were ready, we were going," Marie recalls. "When they said it was cancer of the colon, it was like they pulled down a blind on our lives."

In time, Lee played only for family and friends and for the hospices in Darlington and Bishop Auckland where he received day care. "They'd ring up to ask when he was coming," says Marie, her own phone ringing constantly, her lounge disappearing beneath condolence cards.

"Lee would take his keyboard, or the karaoke machine. He said he still played and sang to help him forget, but he knew it helped others forget, too. The effect was wonderful."

For years they'd kept his illness secret from his mother - "We just couldn't tell her, she wasn't capable of receiving the news" - but at last she had to know.

"She came over last November, thinking it was just for Christmas. We told her as gently as we could that her son had terminal cancer, but she'd lost two already. Her other son's terrified, poor soul."

Ceasefire too late, Beirut's airports and roads are destroyed, Lebanon's seaways still blockaded. A sister with an American visa tried to get out, travelled three miles in five hours and gave up.

Lee's ashes will be divided, half taken to the family tomb in Beirut and half buried in a small family plot in the North-East.

"He loved living up here," says Marie. "He loved the people in the clubs, the laughter and the fun and the sense of life about them.

"Everyone said he was a real gentleman. He spoke six languages, loved sport, played golf off a three handicap, was into politics and had a brilliant voice.

"We worked together, lived together, sang together, 24 hours a day. We always loved each other, were always loyal to each other.

"He just loved my voice and I loved his playing. It was something just meant to be."

* Lee El-Hakim's funeral is at St Clare's Church, Newton Aycliffe at 2.30pm today, followed by cremation and by a reception at the Cumby Arms in Heighington. Donations will be shared between the Butterwick Hospice in Bishop Auckland, St Teresa's Hospice in Darlington and Macmillan Nurses.

Stan would appreciate these Fringe benefits

Ambling around Darlington, we bump into Tony Hillman, voracious film historian and assiduous memorabilia collector and autograph hunter.

"The trick is to ignore the public relations people," he advises.

The following day he's off to the Edinburgh Festival, hoping that the delectable Sigourney Weaver will make her mark, that Sean Connery will oblige - "He's a very nice man, I've got him before" - and to visit a Fringe production about Stan Laurel, neatly titled One Night: Stan.

Laurel spent formative years in Bishop Auckland, of course. Tony's a central pole of the Bishop tent (as they call it) of the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society.

The Fringe also had a Stan Laureate last year, the Thin One played by Bob Kingdom and the best line said to be something about a myth being a moth's sister. The Guardian was unimpressed. "The performance is methodical, lugubrious and entirely static," said its critic. Rudi West and Mike Millington would sympathise.

Both West and Millington are well known on the North-East comedy circuit. West, a former supermarket worker and tyre fitter, lives with his wife - fellow comedian Lynnette Larkin - near Durham. Millington, a former tampon salesman, is a primary school teacher in Newcastle.

They played the Fringe, beyond it mainly, in 1999. The biggest headlines they made was after being in a car crash.

"We've made more impact being hit by a knacker than we have in two weeks working our nuts off," said Mike.

The column caught up with them at a subterranean place called The Liquid Room. "They are festal virgins," we recorded. "Up for it and vulnerable."

Six people turned up, two of them given tickets by a taxi driver who'd been given them in turn. They sent them away again. "The problem is that people hear about comedians and still expect to find Tommy Trinder," said Rudi.

Fringe benefits notwithstanding, they never went back.

So what of the Stan Laurel statue, long proposed for the site of the Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland where his father was briefly manager?

More than two years ago we revealed plans, generally ridiculed, for a bowler hat on a pole. The idea was quietly (if risibly) dropped, in favour of something a little more conventional by Washington based sculptor Bob Olley, who also has a Laurel statue in North Shields.

"It was rejected by the council planning committee for various technical reasons," says town centre manager Derek Toon. "They're having another look at size, materials and location and reporting back to the town centre forum on August 29."

The Sons of the Desert - the official title of the Bishop Auckland "tent" - feel time's shifting sands, concerns raised at an informal pub gathering on Monday evening. "Another fine mess," someone whispers.

Stetson on his head, John Alderson strolled into Horden Conservative Club like John Wayne looking for his boy. The bar lads looked up from their afternoon refreshment. "Why yer bugger," someone said, and that's swearing.

It was March 2002. Basher, was on what he knew would be his last visit to home and hearth at Horden, He was 86, still a huge man and not built for economy class airlines. He'd been almost 60 years in Hollywood

He'd spent just two weeks down the pit, joined the army, rose to major, married the American general's daughter, was allowed to register as an army bride on condition that he wasn't five months pregnant and became one of Tinseltown's most enduring stars.

Chiefly he appeared in westerns, usually the villain - local lad made baddie - but perhaps best remembered as Sgt Bullock in the long running Boots and Saddles series.

"Me mam tellt us she'd been to school with Sgt Bullock," said someone in the Cons Club, thereabouts known as the Tin Pot. "I thowt she was mekkin' it up, there was no one in Horden talked like Sgt Bullock."

John's death, at 90, was reported this week. A few months ago he broke his hip and leg in a fall.

"I think he just gave up after that," says Janet Officer, his great-niece. "He's got to 90 and that was enough.

"He was very proud of where he came from. He still really loved Horden, was always e-mailing even though he was 90."

None of us saw him again after that sentimental journey four years ago, though he kept in touch.

"There's not a day goes by when I don't think of Horden," he said on the last occasion we spoke.

"I'm an American citizen now, but there's no way on earth that Horden isn't home."