IT was meant to be a happy year for Cockerton Prize Silver Band as it marked its 150th anniversary with a celebration concert.

Coronavirus put paid to those joyful plans and, instead, the award-winning band has the saddest of duties today when members gather with their instruments outside St Edwin’s Church, in High Coniscliffe, to give their Honorary President a fitting send-off.

Last Tuesday’s edition of The Northern Echo carried my report of the death of John Steel, and the reaction underlined his popularity. Today – the day of his funeral – is about going beyond the headline news of a well-known figure’s passing, and delving deeper into a life that enriched many others.

But first, it’s worth recapping on John’s many achievements, and putting into context how much he crammed into his 66 years.

Darlington-born, he became one of the town’s most colourful characters. Not only Honorary President of Cockerton Band – despite not being able to play a note – but the former chairman of Darlington Show, and a pioneering educationalist.

Starting with the latter, John rose to become Headteacher of St John’s Church of England School, in Darlington, but he made an even bigger impact on young lives by using his passion and expertise to become IT advisor to Darlington schools.

As editor of The Northern Echo in 2009, I was proud to work with John on a campaign to improve internet safety for children following the horrific tragedy surrounding Darlington student Ashleigh Hall. Ashleigh, 17, was murdered by a paedophile, who posed as a teenage boy on Facebook to lure her to her death.

With John’s help, the Safety Net campaign set out to make it a formal part of the national curriculum for all children to receive advice about internet safety, with a hard-hitting video being produced for schools.

He went on to become an Ofsted inspector and led teachers on overseas trips aimed at exploring and sharing best practice.

John had many passions in his life, but, according to his wife Linda, none mattered more than his daughter, Beth – their only child.

It was through Beth that John found a connection to Cockerton Band. Linda’s dad had played with the band in the sixties, and Beth joined when she was six. John used to take her to rehearsals, and gradually became immersed in the band’s activities. The dad ended up as President, the daughter – now a mum of baby Ronnie – remains the band’s drummer to this day.

John would be the first to admit he was a bit of a Les Dawson when it came to musicianship. The difference was that Les could actually play when he wasn’t fooling around, and John could not. He was, however, once given special permission to play cymbals at Durham Miners’ Gala. It didn’t quite go according to plan – he broke the strap, was unable to hold one of the cymbals properly, so walked through Durham with it balanced on his head.

Perhaps any even more surreal episode came during Darlington Show in the early 1990s when John was posing for a photo-shoot with a hot air balloon. When a gust of wind hit South Park, John somehow ended up being lifted 20 feet into air, clinging on by his fingertips.

“We’ve always laughed about it, but it was quite a dangerous thing to happen,” said Linda.

John will be remembered for many things, including playing Widow Twankey and Mother Goose in pantos at Darlington Memorial Hospital, where Linda was a midwife. He also appeared on Blankety Blank, and, during a dinner in Monte Carlo, while working for dog food manufacturer Spillers, he was invited on stage to perform as a ventriloquist dummy to an audience that included Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, pictured bottom left.

A committee member of Mowden Rugby Club and Darlington Quoits Club; chair of governors at Heathfield Trust; trustee and director of the Lingfield Trust; and trustee of the North East Wellbeing Trust, he had his finger in many pies – and each of them were more wholesome as a result.

But perhaps he’ll be best remembered for the fun he brought as compere at Cockerton Band events, when even experienced musicians struggled to play because they were laughing so much.

“He was a natural entertainer, with such great delivery,” said band manager Simon Little. “A lovely, warm man who’ll be greatly missed.”

And, so, at 10.30am today, outside St Edwin’s, Cockerton Band will strike up in memory of their Honorary President. Before the service, they will play the miners’ hymn, Gresford, followed by Share My Yoke. He will come out to Breezin’ Down Broadway to reflect his love of driving holidays in America.

Music will fill the air, just as he’d have wanted. Rest in peace John Steel. You couldn’t play a note – but you played a blinder.

DURING lockdown, I’ve really missed my speaking engagements around the North-East and further afield.

So, many thanks to Sedgefield U3A for booking me for a talk on Zoom last Friday.

They’re always such a friendly group and I’m delighted to say the technology worked perfectly thanks to the expertise of the branch IT guru Maxine Patterson.

My talk was entitled Have I Got Lockdown News For You – my take on what’s been happening during the pandemic from a journalist’s point of view. As always, it’s aimed at being entertaining but with a serious message too.

We even had a “Missing Words” round based on real headlines. They included the headline BLANK BLANK ENDS IN ACCIDENT. The winning suggestion came from Gillian Bowman with “UNPROTECTED SEX”. The real answer was SAFETY MEETING but Gillian’s was better.

Hopefully, the audience enjoyed it, although I’m sure it wasn’t quite as entertaining as watching the members coming on to Zoom, one by one, and working out how to get connected.

The most frequently uttered phrases were: “I can see you – can you see me?” “Which button do I press again?” “Click on the little camera icon down the bottom.” “You need to unmute yourself.”

We all got there in the end, it was lovely to spend an hour in their company, and I look forward to the time when I can see them all face to face.

Any groups interested in a Zoom talk, please get in touch (

FOOTNOTE: I never got caught up in a wayward hot air balloon at Darlington Show but I did once take part in a camel race. I was on the verge of victory when my camel decided to stop in the shadow of the winning post to try to eat my foot. Those were the days.