THIS morning's paper explains away the non-appearance of my Saturday column by saying that I am "away". This is true in a minimalistic fashion, for my full predicament is much greater.

On Tuesday, I had my fourth knee operation in four years. Roughly. I've had so much knee surgery I have genuinely lost count. This may be four in four. It could be the fifth in five. I can't recall. My son, though, is seven. He believes Christmas comes but once a year. Then comes his birthday. Followed by Easter and lots of chocolate. Then a summer holiday. And then, two weeks every year, daddy hangs out on crutches. It is perfectly normal. It is routine.

The reconstruction two years ago of my left anterior cruciate ligament has failed, so they've taken some of my right patellar tendon and implanted that through a keyhole into my left knee. To prevent if from failing once more, they (well, he: I've placed full faith in my surgeon, Louis van Niekirk) sliced open the inside of my leg and inserted a piece of polyester to act as a new medial ligament.

I had what I define as a "rough" 72 hours, although the staff at Darlington's Woodlands Hospital would probably define me as a "wuss".

Now I lie here, stretching out as instructed, and looking down on what is from this elevation a horribly huge scar.

But at least it gives me a little time to look at the book I'm supposed to be writing for publication in the spring about Rockliffe, the luxurious new hotel developed by Middlesbrough Football Club in the palatial Hurworth hall of banker Alfred Backhouse.

I soon realised that there was a horrible hole in my research concerning Nicholas Bragg who pursued Alfred through various courts in the Regina versus Backhouse case which was Dickensian in its nature.

I emailed Katherine Williamson at the Darlington Centre for Local Studies (aka: the library) and, thanks to the ancient art of librarianship and the modern science of scanning, she kindly whizzed me back some details.

But it quickly became apparent that before I could understand Mr Bragg, I had to know about William Alexander Wooler of Sadberge Hall.

William was one of eight sons of Joseph Wooler of Whitfield Hall, Wolsingham. They all migrated to Darlington to find the fame and fortune that can only be found by living in a metropolis such as Darlington.

Jonathan was another of those sons. For a while he lived in India, superintending his father's trading business in Bombay. He returned and settled near William. Jonathan built Almora Hall in Middleton Lane, Middleton St George. It is now some form of hospital, I think, but it is a splendid piece of eccentric Victorian architecture with its dominant central tower.

William's Sadberge Hall, which is now, I think, a residential home, is quirkfree in comparison.

William was many things: a solicitor, a property-dabbler (Wooler Street in Northgate is named after one of his developments) and a friend of Charles Darwin. Above all, he was a Conservative.

He formed the Darlington Conservative Association in 1879 and then the North Star newspaper in 1883 to act as a counterbalanace to the horrible Liberalism of The Northern Echo 100 yards away. The North Star offices were in Crown Street, opposite Wilko's where a fruit and veg shop is today with the Key Club above. The offices were designed by GG Hoskins, who was working on Katherine's library at the same time and so the two compliment one another.

On July 27, 1885, Darlington's Conservatives gathered for a dinner in Central Hall to commemorate William's committment to their cause. They presented him with an illuminated address which spoke of their great "admiration of the energy, intelligence, and single-minded zeal, combined with a manly independence and love of justice, which have uniformly characterised your participation in the business of those public bodies".

Their address concluded: "We unite in the prayer that your valuable life may be long spared to us, and that your great ability and services may continue to be devoted to the moral and material advancement of your fellow men."

Then Mr Wooler rose to respond. He said that their long-worded illuminated address should be cut down to a single, but exceedingly worthwhile, sentence: "Mr Wooler has earned the undying envy and malice of the Northern Echo." This was greeted with great laughter and applause.

Mr Wooler then spoke at length about the history and character of Conservativism in the town, which is where Mr Bragg comes in.

But that'll have to wait until after I've done another bout of painful stretching exercises...