THIS year marks the 30th anniversary of Mackenzie Thorpe taking the plunge by opening his shop in Richmond and embarking on a professional career as an artist.

With the help of some square sheep, and much more besides, he has gone on to be celebrated around the world. And everywhere he has gone, he has taken the spirit of his home town of Middlesbrough with him.

As a fellow Boro lad, with as many Mackenzie prints as I can afford on my walls at home, it was an honour last week to attend a ceremony at the beautifully renovated Middlesbrough Town Hall to see Mackenzie presented with the Freedom of the Borough.

It is a rare honour – the highest the council can give – and is reserved for those who have “rendered eminent services to the borough of Middlesbrough”. If it means Mackenzie now has the right to take his sheep across the Transporter Bridge, they had better be square ones.

Remember, this is a man who was written off as “thick and lazy” at school when his dyslexia held him back from progressing academically.

Yet he’s made a mark that will live on for generations – at Middlesbrough railway station, on the sides of public buildings, in local hospitals and – with the recent unveiling of the “Waiting For Me Dad” sculpture – by that landmark of a bridge.

The Mayor of Middlesbrough, Councillor Dave Budd, was right when he told Mackenzie: “We are as proud of you as you are of Middlesbrough. You have the gift of bringing people together, which is an art in itself. Your story gives hope to many young people in our town – that if you live with determination and passion, you can achieve so much. Thank you for all you have done.”

In reply, Mackenzie said: “I have so many layers of gratitude for you all that you have picked me out for this honour – it is beyond words. I feel part of a family and it’s called Middlesbrough, and I take that with me wherever I go. Next week, I’ll be standing on a stage in Japan to receive a fellowship and, by God, they’re going to know I come from Middlesbrough.”

He had this inspirational message for youngsters who might be uncertain about their future: “You’ve got everything you need to do what you want. If you’ve got a dream, if you can think it, you can do it. So just go ahead, believe in yourself, work harder than anyone else you know. If you really, really want to achieve it, you will.”

The freedom ceremony gives me another chance to say a personal thank you to Mackenzie for giving me my favourite front page of The Northern Echo.

When I needed something special to grace the front of our Remembrance Sunday edition, marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, I put in a call to Mackenzie’s office with the faint hope that he might be able to help.

To my delight, he called back from New York, listened to my request, and within 48 hours had produced “Remembrance” – a stunning piece of art depicting a huge poppy bearing a teardrop, with three soldiers silhouetted inside.

It led to the day when The Northern Echo itself became a stunning work of art, and I’ll always be grateful.

MIDDLESBROUGH’S Mayor, Councillor David Budd, had a candid marital confession to make during the ceremony. “One thing my wife and I agree on is the piece of Mackenzie Thorpe art we wanted on the wall at home...We disagree on most things.”

AND so to another artform – the age-old, gentle tradition of Morris dancing.
On Saturday, Darlington was alive to the sound of jingling bells and clashing sticks as 17 Morris dancing groups came together for a “Day of Dance.”

Over at BBC Tees, they decided it would be a good idea to have presenter  Neil Green and I learning some of the moves.

They also asked if I could make it the subject of the daily Headline Challenge, in which the listeners have to come up with a better headline than mine on a chosen story.

Struggling to think of anything half decent, I asked my youngest son, Max, if he had any suggestions.

“Are you going to be doing it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, how about The Lard of the Dance?” he said.

For the record, I’m on a diet.

I HONESTLY don’t mind having a go at most things but I have to confess to being worried about my guest appearance at Darlington Magic Circle’s Easter Show on Friday.

Last year, branch president Ian Wragg guillotined me in front of a live audience . The carrot alongside my head was sliced in half but, somehow, I lived to tell the tale.

“I’ve got something even better lined up for you this year,” he announced.

“What is it?” I gulped.

“How do you fancy being the target for a spot of knife-throwing?” he asked. “I hardly ever miss.”

Morris dancing suddenly seems a much better option.

God willing, I’ll be back next week with an update.