2015 Annual Reunion Dinner - Report

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A total of 54 Old Bordenians gathered for the Association’s annual dinner on Saturday 7 March at UK Paper Clubhouse in Sittingbourne.

It was an enjoyable and convivial evening in excellent surroundings, with a first class dinner and an accomplished speaker in old boy Dennis Fowle who told the entertaining story of his career in journalism spanning 60 years. Having received encouragement from headmaster George Hardy, Dennis fulfilled his ambitions by becoming editor of the Kent Messenger at an early age and enjoyed a rewarding career in which his campaigning style eventually led him to start his own newspaper, the Downs Mail, in the east of Maidstone. He told a moving story of how he had cajoled Kent County Council into building a £1.5m footbridge over the A249 at Detling following a tragic road accident in which a young girl and her grandmother had been knocked down and killed. Dennis said it was a perfect example of what could be achieved through the power of the local community and the press – his paper started a fund and persuaded local residents to raise more than £150,000 towards the cost of the bridge. It was a hard fought campaign with a fantastic result that had moved him to tears along the way. By contrast, he had the audience chuckling as he generously shared some of the more comedic errors that had appeared in print over the years in various publications. We had published a death notice which stated: ‘In loving memory of our very dead dad’.  They say judge a business on how it deals with complaints.  It took me a half-hour to apologise and arrange a correct notice the following week.  But it was also a way to win respect and friends.  I still see some members of that family around Maidstone – and now we can smile about it.”

At the end of his speech Dennis proposed the toast to the Association. Dennis's full speech is at the end of this report.

Vice-president Peter Lusted thanked him warmly and then made a presentation to Neil Hancock who recently retired as Association treasurer after a 13 year stint.

Friends and acquaintances then moved to the bar to continue reminiscing over a few drinks as the evening reached its natural conclusion.

The turnout this year was down 15 per cent on last year and seemed to confirm an established trend which gives cause for concern.

Dinner secretary, Chris Laming, said: “We run the risk of not being able to stage this annual event if the numbers dip much further. It simply won’t be financially viable. I’d urge all those who care about the dinner to encourage all Old Boys to attend in 2016 on Saturday 5 March. Please make a note of the date in your diaries.”

More pictures will be published shortly.

 

Dennis Fowle's speech:

Gentlemen 

What was the most significant day in your life? I have now reached 80 and there has been time for a little personal reflection.

SCHOOL DAYS

For me it was a bright spring day 70 years ago when a very nervous 10-year-old was ushered in to the study of Borden Grammar School headmaster Mr George Hardy for the oral test of his 11-plus exam.  Mr Hardy was not behind his imposing desk – but sat beside me in his chair.  All Sittingbourne seemed well primed on all his favourite questions – but I must admit to forgetting most now.  When he handed me a pack of 52 cards and wanted 47 returned I knew exactly what to do – and extracted five for myself.  It was a kind interview – and I hoped I did ok. 

I was not really aware at that time  Mr Hardy was holding my whole future in his hands.  He alone would decide if I should benefit from the education and social mobility a grammar school offers.

My parents were so supportive of my education – but it was all down to them.    I attended what was regarded as  Sittingbourne’s toughest school – Holy Trinity, Milton.  I was there from 1939 to 1945 – years which may well ring a bell.  That school  had tough (even brutal) teachers and tough kids. 

Holy Trinity was never a school with many 11-plus passes.    I was so determined to get there,   Often I walked a mile or so from Holy Trinity  to Borden Grammar to peer over one of those lower field fences. I WANTED TO SEE THE SCHOOL AND WATCH THE BOYS PLAYING SOCCER AND CRICKET ON THE UPPER AND LOWER FIELDS.  By that time my great lifelong love of sport was blossoming – and how desperately I wanted some of what Borden offered.

I was not to know that brief  visit to Mr Hardy’s study was the first of many over the next six years.  Not every one of the early visits was as happy and I am embarrassed now I gave him cause to take me to task.  I was in awe of this great man but this was to turn to respect and deep admiration as my school years went by.

Mr Hardy knew the importance of competitive sport in the life of a successful school and the support of the staff for cricket, football, hockey, athletics, table-tennis was so significant  for all of us who played.  I was so proud to represent the school – and later to captain teams.  I dedicated myself to school sport and this helped bring me closer to Mr Hardy and some magnificent teachers of that period.

Mr Hardy knew by the end of my 5th year my desire for a career in journalism.  He was remarkably supportive.  He personally set me writing projects and spent several lunchtimes going through these with me in his study.  He even arranged for an Old Boy, then a young Fleet Street journalist, to visit Sittingbourne and take me out to tea at the Carlton Café in the High Street.

He was delighted when early in my 6th year I was guaranteed a junior journalist’s job with the Kent Messenger Group.  I did not study hard in my only 6th-form year – but I helped the school in many ways.  Much was linked to furthering sport and I still cherish my last summer which I devoted to captaining a very talented school cricket team.  But I enjoyed helping the school in many other ways – I even spent a couple of weeks helping mark the current II-plus exam papers.  I feel it made me more worldly – and cemented my love for school and  staff.

Without Mr Hardy’s decision in 1945 – YES, THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF MY LIFE – and his personal HELP in 1951 could I have ever had a career in journalism and enjoyed such a fulfilling professional life?   I think NOT.

SO TO JOURNALISM.

In September 1951 I became a very junior reporter in  Sittingbourne office of the Kent Messenger in Crown Quay Lane.   I was there for little more than a year because National Service intervened and for two years I was at Royal Air Force, Sutton Coldfield.  When I returned it seemed a very quiet and rather boring small office.  But it was this boredom which helped me make a mark with the KM editor.  I studied the Kent League football table in depth and found at that time teams were doing better playing away from home (quite unusual).  I wrote a story and it clicked with the editor, who put up the headline: ‘More at home away.’  There was no space  that week and he asked me to update it.  The story never did  appear.  But the editor remembered – and within a few months I was offered a vacancy as manager of the Gillingham office.  Life can so often turn on little things.

What a change.  The Medway Towns were buzzing with the Navy, Army, Dockyard and 250,000 people.  And I arrived in the aftermath of the Royal Marines Cadets disaster when more than 20 marching boys were killed by a bus in the dark of Dock Road, Chatham.  I really cut my teeth on journalism and editing in five very exciting years.  

I was newly married and we bought a house in Lower Gillingham.   I earned very good money as a local freelance correspondent for so many London-based national newspapers.  After a while I visited head office at Maidstone every Thursday with our Chatham news editor to put the KM’s Medway Towns newspaper, the Chatham Observer, to press.  We had two lovely daughters – and family life, work, sport and new found prosperity were great.  I could even afford a small A30 car – instead of covering the Medway Towns on bicycle. 

I can tell the story of a charity football match played one Sunday afternoon between Medway Press and the Show Biz ALL Stars with a crowd of around 5,000.  Mike and Bernie Winters were their stars and Tommy Docherty the referee.  The press could not find a goalkeeper until a young coloured journalist volunteered.  He had never played the game before.  In the first minute Docherty awarded a penalty against us, put the ball on the spot and blew his whistle.  Our goalkeeper thought this meant it was a race to kick the ball off the penalty spot and he dashed from his line to do the trick.  It brought the house down.

They were such happy years – and I was learning very fast at the very sharp end of journalism.  Surely this could never end……

Then, when I was 27, a call came from head office in Maidstone.  The proprietor and editor-in-chief, Roy Pratt Boorman, wanted to see me.  What had I done ng wrong?   I was mystified.  IT WAS TO BE PROBABLY THE SECOND MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF MY LIFE.  He wanted me to move to Maidstone and take over as Kent Messenger editor with a team of around 100 journalists, sub-editors, photographers and more.  It meant giving up my cherished life in Gillingham, the substantial income from national newspapers, there was the cost of moving home to Maidstone and taking on so much more responsibility – and he said he would increase my £13 a week salary by £2. BUT IT WAS AN OFFER I JUST COULD NOT REFUSE.

On the first day the four very experienced sub editors invited me to join them for a lunch time drink at the pub.  I needed their loyalty and had to go along.  With my round that meant five pints of beer in an hour.  I also did it on Day 2 - but they were hardened to all this.  Like all good journalists I then made my excuses and left.

It was such a different job with many pressures.  The Kent Messenger had a circulation of around 100,000 across Kent with about 10 different editions.  On top of that there was a mid-weekly and a couple of county glossy magazines.  I had to learn lots of things fast, especially management and getting to know the makers and shakers of Maidstone. 

Much editor liaison with readers is when things go wrong.   I had about 10 members of one family in my office one Friday morning.  We had published a death notice which stated: ‘In loving memory of our very dead dad.’  They say judge a business on how it deals with complaints.  It took me half-hour to apologise and arrange a correct notice the following week.  But it was also a way to win respect and friends.  I still see some members of that family around Maidstone – and now we can smile about it.

In my ninth year we started an evening newspaper in the Medway Towns, the Evening Post. It was probably the biggest challenge of all  and a great experience - and it had a very successful launch.  But I was getting further away from my real love of journalism and in to complex management and publishing finance and after 10 testing years at Maidstone it was time to move on.

TO LONDON – AND OUR PUBLISHING COMPANY

I went in to business with two journalist colleagues and for about 20 years we published from London personality books mostly with TV tie-ins, magazines and newsletters.  It was boom-and bust time in the economy and we reflected all that.  Fortunately for us there was a little more boom than bust.

They were exciting years and took me all over the world.  We had a tempestuous relationship with singer Dorothy Squires and her former husband Roger Moore.  Fortunately she was touring Australia in the 70s and I had to go down there.  Guess what?  It was exactly the time when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were battling away with Colin Cowdrey and Denis Amiss in memorable Test matches.  That duty took me longer than expected!

Our biggest success was linked to the film JAWS.  We bought the rights to a factual books on true shark attacks.  It really hit the button world wide and made us a lot of money.  So did the inside story of relationships within the Rolling Stones.  Another winner was  published within a day or so of the death of John Wayne.  I was an author too – and timed just right a book on the 1970s’ successes of Kent Cricket Club titled ‘Kent The Glory Years.’

But there were plenty of flops too – but not enough to stop me at the age of 60 to decide I could now afford to retire from all those journeys to London and lead a much more relaxed life.  I promised my wife more holidays and plenty of pub lunches with friends.  She was delighted I was retiring.

I enjoyed retirement  - but only for a couple of months.  There were no challenges, no business buzzes,  the phone went quiet….

THE DOWNS MAIL

I had always dreamed of running my own small local newspaper and I started to work a few things out.  I told my wife I wanted to launch a newspaper centred on the Bearsted area of Maidstone – a monthly I would distribute via Royal Mail’s special door-to-door service.  My second daughter was now looking for a job as the youngest of her three children had started school and I put to her that her experience selling for the fashion chain Next would be valuable.  She liked the idea.  So we geared ourselves up to launch a newspaper called the Bearsted Mail in spring of 1997.  I would be editor and chairman; she would run advertising sales from the small kitchen of her Bearsted home.  I told my wife in would only take a couple of days a week – but she knew me too well and was not convinced.

So about 12,000 copies of the Bearsted Mail hit the houses east of Maidstone.  There were some interesting local stories, I played up the really local angles and advertisers responded much better than expected.  We were assured of a small profit on the first eight A4-size pages.  It was fun for me – and I had no great expectations.

But within a few days there was an unexpected and very pleasing buzz.    People liked their new newspaper which was FREE with FREE delivery.  I was surprised but delighted.  It encouraged me to think we could try a few more issues.

Very soon we had to grow to 12 and then 16 pages, take on sales help for my daughter and open a small office just off Bearsted Green.  We even did a deal for Bearsted Parish Council to sponsor a full page of its news – and I attended every council meeting to write it.  Soon Boxley and Thurnham parish councils followed suit.  We needed to look at expanding the distribution area and included four or five big villages to Maidstone’s eastern boundary. 

Distribution was now 18,000.  But we had to change name from Bearsted Mail to Downs Mail to reflect the wider area we covered.   I had to accept that my hobby newspaper was growing in to something much more serious both as a publication and a business.  My wife was watching all the signs.

By now the staff had grown to four – and to secure the business we had to expand.  We looked at repeating the formula in the 16 villages south of Maidstone and so the Weald edition was born with a circulation of 15,000.  It took a year to settle – but advertisers had confidence and within a year it was doing well.  We appointed an edition editor and more sales staff.

The next big challenge was launching a Maidstone Town edition with a distribution well over 30,000.  This meant taking on the Kent Messenger in its real home town.  But we were very different newspapers and I thought there was room for both. 

Again, it took a year to settle but around this time Maidstone Council liked what was going on and sponsored its own regular newspaper to be published  in the centre of all three editions of the Downs Mail.  So we had a newspaper coming out three weeks of every month – and a staff of about 12 doing the work.  By now it was more than a full-time job for me – but I really enjoyed the life as an Editor in my own local community.  My wife and I may not have had the pub lunches with friends – but the social life of a local newspaper editor and his lady can be very interesting and exciting. 

I have always seen a good local newspaper as vital to a community, especially if it can campaign for improvements.  I think what really made the Downs Mail a success was its vigorous campaigns.

The biggest followed an appalling road accident in the village of Detling.  An eight-year-old Jade and her gran were trying to cross the busy A249 to buy sweets in the village shop on a Saturday afternoon just before Christmas.  Both were killed. 

We had been carrying stories about the dangers of this very fast road which split the village.  Within three days I was sitting with the parents in a dimmed lounge with a Christmas tree and the girl’s presents underneath.  It was the most harrowing two hours of my journalistic career.  The couple were part of the campaign for a proper village crossing.  As I left I stood by the side of that hectic road in tears.  How could we expect those villagers to cross the two lanes of what is really a motorway.   I thought the Downs Mail could do something about that.  I spent Christmas Eve with a friendly local solicitor – and Boxing Day with the chairmen of three parish councils closely concerned.  Within a week or so the Downs Mail was published with a savage attack on Kent County Council for allowing the situation and an appeal to our readers to donate to a new crossing.  Detling was very active in the campaign – so were the parents.  The Downs Mail kept the attacks going for two months.  Then one morning my wife answer a phone call.  It was Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, Leader of Kent County Council and he wanted me to visit him.  After such attacks, what was he going to say? 

We sat in his room and after 10 minutes of chat he said: “You have got your bridge.”  That was emotional too.  The Downs Mail fund raised more than £100,000 towards the £1.5m project.  Within a year or so the bridge was up.  I suspect most of you have driven under it and seen the dancing Jade on the sign.  It was a high-profile campaign – and I believe this was the time when the Downs Mail really grew up as a significant newspaper in Maidstone.  It won us the Shepherd Neame award for the outstanding newspaper campaign. And it was also the start of a valued friendship with another great man in Sandy Bruce Lockhart.

There have been other campaigns since – probably only matching Detling in significance.  We are in a period of hospitals losing some of their local services under NHS reconfiguration policies.  I was very concerned with the plan to remove emergency and orthopaedic surgery from Maidstone to a new hospital at Tunbridge Wells.  So were many people in Maidstone.    

We formed an organisation called Maidstone Action for Services in Hospital (appropriately known as MASH) and I am the current chairman.  We ran a major local campaign with help of local MPs, councillors, surgeons and doctors.  But we lost a Government decision. Soon afterwards the NHS decided that women’s and children’s services, including maternities, should be transferred too.  If the first reconfiguration was emotional – this was doubly so with women in labour expected to travel up to an hour on a poor road system between the two towns.  By this time I had been appointed chairman of MASH and Helen Grant was the new MP for Maidstone and The Weald.  We worked so hard together to persuade the Secretary of State for Health not to go ahead and many highly emotional meetings were held.  We won several battles, many of them very helpful to Maidstone today, but not the main war.  We helped ensure Maidstone retains an excellent hospital – especially after the horrors of seven or eight years ago when almost 100 patients died in an appalling outbreak of the C-difficile infections. 

Now MASH works gently and well with our local hospital and administrators, hopefully to the benefit of all.

The Downs Mail continues to grow.  We have launched a Malling edition and we reach around 90,000 households in Maidstone  area.  I retired about five years ago as full-time editor and chairman but still contribute a few hours a week one way or another.  There is even time now for a few pub lunchtimes with my wife and friends.

I am, of course, proud of the Downs Mail.  But of one thing I am sure – it would never have been launched without the background of Borden Grammar School and that wonderful headmaster Mr George Hardy.  Yes – it WAS all his fault.

I am also a proud supporter of the grammar school system in general and Borden Grammar School in particular.  I am sure all here tonight share that pride and I ask you to join me in the toast to our: OLD BORDENIAN ASSOCIATION.