THIS grand old newspaper of ours is preparing to mark its 150th anniversary next year and that, of course, will be a reason for celebration.

But, in the meantime, staff from another much-loved newspaper held a party at the weekend to celebrate a proud milestone.

The Darlington and District Talking Newspaper is 40 years old this year, and glasses were raised to a job well done during the  anniversary get-together at the town’s Masonic Hall on Saturday.

The newspaper talks because its readers are blind or visually-impaired, and the volunteers who have kept them informed over four decades deserve enormous credit.

Margaret Harrison has been on the committee throughout and was vice chairman when the charity – established by the Council for Voluntary Service – held its inaugural meeting at the Town Hall in February 1979.

It was the idea of the remarkable blind councillor, Norma Town, and began with a committee of 12. Jim Partridge was the original chairman, Grace Mason served as secretary, and the Society for the Blind, along with Darlington Social Club for the Blind, provided the first 20 recipients of news-packed reel-to-reel cassettes.

Naturally, The Northern Echo and the Darlington & Stockton Times were the main sources of material, and the first recordings were made under the technical guidance of Borough Architect Eric Tornbohm in the basement of the CVS.

“For a long time, the cassettes were produced monthly, but we always had an ambition to go weekly,” recalls Margaret.

The volunteers got halfway towards realising the ambition in the 1980s, as the service went fortnightly, with two teams of readers and new equipment being purchased. “Scrubbers” were introduced, with the task of scrubbing off what was on the old cassettes so they could be reused.

In the late 1980s, the CVS wanted its basement back so the talking newspaper found a new home on the third floor of the Arts Centre in Vane Terrace.

“We had five teams of readers by then but most of them were out of breath by the time they reached the studio,” smiles Margaret.

When the disability access laws arrived in 2001, the third floor was no longer acceptable, so another new home was needed. Some fella called Peter Barron, who’d been made The Northern Echo’s editor, took pity on the charity and arranged for offices to be made available at the newspaper’s head office in Priestgate. A sound-proofed studio was also provided, and a new era began, with CDs replacing cassettes in 2006.

These days 200 blind or partially-sighted people, as well as 14 care homes, receive 80 minutes of news CDs every week, lovingly produced by a team of 50 volunteers.

After 18 years of rent-free accommodation, the charity is now in a financial position to move to a new base at Birch House, in Eastmount Road.

“Our aim to continue what we do as well as we possibly can,” says Jane Greenwood, who shares the chairmanship with Pat Walker. “We want to reach as many people who need the service as possible and they don’t necessarily have to be visually-impaired – for example, we can also cater for people with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or who’ve had strokes.”

It’s back to founder member Margaret Harrison to answer the question: “What was the funniest story you can remember recording?”

Even now, Margaret descends into fits of giggles as she recalls the tale of the man who stole a string of sausages from a local butcher’s and tried to escape with them shoved down his trousers.

“We were always told to be professional and not laugh when we read the news but we all just corpsed whenever we tried to get through that one. I’ve no idea how many takes it took,” she says.

The sausage thief was eventually caught...bangers to rights.

However many takes are needed in the future, here’s to the next 40 years of Darlington and District Talking Newspaper.

And, for the record, thank you.

TALK of Norma Town, pictured below, brings back a memory of sitting next to her during a council meeting in the Town Hall.

Her faithful old guide dog, Olwyn, spent the meeting licking my shoes under the table. It was the cleanest they’d been since the day they left the shop.

The Northern Echo:

LOVED by some, loathed by others, John McCririck, who died last week, was certainly a character.

I had the picture below taken with him at York Races in the mid-nineties when the Echo launched a column called “Lose Your Shirt With The Barron – Britain’s Worst Tipster.”

To promote the column, I was packed off to York and foolishly given £50 to back horses for charity. They all lost!

A case of the blind leading the blind if ever there was one.

The Northern Echo: