After 50 years Harry Mead's weekly column is coming to an end. Chris Lloyd talked to him about the poetry of the Yorkshire countryside and the prose of our democracy

“THE first one was a not very engaging subject, I must confess,” says Harry Mead, with his cuttings book from 1966 open on his lap.

The book is labelled “Comment 1” with a homemade sticky tag from one of those old clicky embossers. It smells a little musty and the pages are beginning to yellow, but the writing is as fresh and as hard hitting as all of the columns Harry has carefully crafted in the 53 years since.

“It was about the standard of shopping centres on Teesside, and I was criticising the council for thinking things were all fine,” he says. “Teesside had an inflated sense of how the nation was taking note of it, but really it was still a backwater – its waves didn’t ripple much beyond Northallerton. I wanted to make it less parochial. I wanted to stir things up and get things moving.”

Harry began his journalistic career straight from grammar school in Redcar in 1956, turning down the chance of university to ensure he didn’t lose his beloved Shirley, to whom he is still devotedly married, to any of her other admirers. He began as a reporter with the Middlesbrough Gazette before becoming its columnist and then, in 1969, transferring to the broader canvas of The Northern Echo, where his first column was published on March 22 – 50 years ago this month.

“And this first column once again doesn’t sound very thrilling,” he says, turning the pages. “It’s about Durham Education Authority – and I actually started it with those three words, oh dear – providing driving lessons for sixth formers. I think I was against that.”

His point was that education should be far more eye-opening and inspirational than just preparing teenagers for the day-to-day drudgery of driving.

After 50 years, time has caught up with Harry, and his last weekly column appears on the page opposite.

In truth, he had been preparing themes for his columns throughout his childhood in Normanby, which was then a self-contained village at the foot of the Eston Hills. Middlesbroh, he says – with the long last syllable of a true North Riding accent – was a distant metropolis.

“I walked to school on a country lane and I remember there was a cornfield that went partly up the slope of the hills and when the wind blew, it looked as if the clouds were rippling across the field,” he says.

His love of the Yorkshire countryside is a major theme of his writing, warning how we despoil it at our peril.

“You’ve got to have progress,” he accepts, “but the industrial revolution rarely benefited the people at the epicentre of it. East Cleveland’s iron industry boomed for 25 years and after that it was largely decline, but when you have messed up your environment, it is very difficult to regain prosperity.

“Ryedale escaped that, and now has a booming tourism industry but they are facing fracking – if that goes ahead, they are in danger of repeating what happened in east Cleveland.

“You can never really restore beauty. The human soul needs beauty as well as bread, that’s where I stand.”

His love of cricket stems from the same source. “It’s the spectacle of white figures on a green field as much as it is the competitive element,” he says. “I played at Normanby Hall, as did my dad, and the cricket field was completely in the countryside with cowslips on two sides, carthorses in a field on one side and great beech trees on the other – it was every boy’s dream to drive into those beeches.”

A third defining theme is revealed as he recounts one of his earliest jobs as a reporter.

“It was a weightlifting contest, and it was amazing to me to go into this dusty church hall and see these blokes puffing and blowing,” he says. “When the weights went down they brought up clouds of dust, and I remember thinking of these lines from Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings’.”

Poetry is a major thread through Harry’s columns, and he scrabbles athletically around the carpet of his living room, pulling out volumes from bookshelves behind the television to check the accuracy of his quotes.

'For a time I included a snippet of verse with every column,” he says. “They were so popular I thought it might be a good idea to ditch the column and just present a weekly choice of poetry."

In comparison with such art, he says, his sort of column is just pushing words around a page. “It’s ‘this is a scandal, that’s an outrage, get it sorted’,” he says. “I remind myself of Mr Growser the grocer in the Toytown stories who says ‘this is a disgrace; it ought not be allowed’.” Only from Harry’s head could an allusion to Noddy follow on from a learned discourse about Vita Sackville-West’s poetry about gardens.

But recently Harry has been especially scandalised and outraged by Brexit. In 1975, he voted for Britain not to join the common market, writing that the country would be downgraded to the level of a county council.

With Domino the black and white cat sleeping peacefully on a chair and Shirley baking a lovely light almond cake in the kitchen, Harry’s in full flow.

“I don’t think most governments believe in democracy,” he says. “They regard the people as a nuisance to be got round and avoided, and once the elections are over, most government is done by the lobbying of big business.

“Every advance in democracy has had to be wrenched from the ruling class, same as now.

“I put the Brexit vote on a par with the 1945 election when seemingly against all expectation, Churchill, who people adulated, was rejected by the people because their instincts told them it was wrong to go back to the type of government he represented, that they needed a new future.

“That was right. The vote for Brexit showed similarly that people recognised the value of democracy which their predecessors had fought for so long ago.

“The sad thing is that Brexit is being debated entirely in economic terms whereas the key thing is having the right to control your own future.”

After 50 years of railing against injustice and promoting beauty, the columnist’s passion is undimmed, although he’ll no longer be venting it on a weekly basis.

“It is rather strange as for the last 50 years anything I’ve seen, read or been told has been grist for my column,” he says. “When I saw that a footballer had been punched on the pitch, I started thinking about how this is the tribalism of football taken to unacceptable levels.

“But I no longer need to take it on, so there is a sense of liberation – but I’d like to think I haven’t yet written my last newspaper piece.”

Let’s hope the power of his pen will continue to be reverberate throughout these pages in the future.