A shining light has gone out here in South Yorkshire at the sad passing of the iconic Barnsley legend, our motoring mogul Don Booker MBE at the age of 87.
While many will remember the name Don Booker from his days as celebrated Barnsley Chronicle editor, a company that he dedicated over 65 years of his life to, others will have enjoyed reading his wit-filled anecdotes that bejewelled his popular motoring editorials in Aroundtown.
But aside from his journalism career, critical success, and an address book filled with endless notable friends, Don always stayed true to his Barnsley roots, playing a part in many philanthropic actions and projects across the town and borough.
To commemorate a fine gentleman indeed, we revisit our Aroundtown Meets feature from May 2015 where Don took us on a journey back through the tuneful tales and transport trips that carved a life of fulfilment for Don.
Don Booker MBE – 1931-2018
Born in 1931 in Dodworth, Don was a welcome present to his mother Ada as he was born on her birthday. The family moved to the Old Mill area of Monk Bretton parish when Don was aged three; a village that he remained in ever since.
Don’s father, Harry, was a specialist breeder of Old English Game Bantams and was known locally in the village as the Hen Doctor. As Don recalls, people flocked to Harry with a feeble bird and he would literally open up the hen on the family’s kitchen table before stitching it back up again – one pastime, Don says, he simply did not acquire from his father.
Don started his education at Burton Road School, with one schoolmate being England and Manchester United footballer, Tommy Taylor, who tragically lost his life in the Munich air disaster of ’58.
Whilst at school, the Second World War was rife and many male teachers were sent to join the military which led to Don failing his 11+ exams. Due to this, he went on to Raley School where he stayed for two years.
Long before a career in journalism, Don started a building and general education course at Barnsley Technical College. But with the war still on, times were very difficult and jobs were few and far between – after leaving college, he managed to find work as an apprentice plumber.
A hard job, Don worked on the top of West Riding Courts and the Miners’ Offices in Huddersfield Road – all at a time before transport was so readily available.
“We had a hand cart and I can remember delivering the first Bendix washer in Barnsley to Dr Slack at Stairfoot. Imagine that – pushing a washer on a hand cart?” he laughs.
But with only an old Austin Seven for use at the firm and no vans in sight, everything had to be transported by hand.
Writing his own career path
After 18 months as a plumber, Don decided to take his career in another direction and sought a job as a photographer for Barnsley Chronicle through the Junior Employment Bureau at the Town Hall.
The job had already been filled by one of Don’s best friends but the editor offered him a chance in advertising.
Whilst sitting on the front desk focusing on births, deaths and marriage notices, Don wrote a piece about his local youth club taking a trip to Manchester and it was from this that he was repeatedly asked to join the reporting team – which he repeatedly declined.
“Someone always used to get the sack every week. I got the sack three times because they said I’d been cheeky. But I’d get my job back a few days later,” he says
After deciding reporting might actually be the job for him, Don joined the paper’s Wombwell edition before moving to the Royston edition, covering areas such as Kexborough, Bretton, Cudworth and Grimethorpe. With such a vast area in which to scoop out the daily news, Don was given his first motor scooter – an unreliable old thing which was emblazoned with the paper’s name across the back.
Booker and Parky
It was at this time that he met Michael Parkinson, another Barnsley lad who started off in grass roots journalism. However, Mike worked for the opposition, the South Yorkshire Times, but the pair would still meet and collect news together.
“He rode a push bike at the time because that’s all he’d got. But I’d got a motorbike so he used to jump on the back and ride pillion passenger,” Don says.
Although Mike lived in Cudworth, the pair could often be seen cutting through a farmer’s field from Royston aboard Don’s bike to speed up the journey and shorten the route back to Michael’s home.
Forging a strong friendship, the Barnsley lads would meet up for lunch to swap that day’s copy at 11am at the Railway canteen on Midland Road.
“We must have been the only folks in Britain to be having treacle sponge and custard at 11 o’clock in a morning,” he laughs.
As young journalists hitting the streets of Barnsley, Don says the pair fancied themselves as original rat-pack actor, Humphrey Bogart after seeing the film Deadline Midnight about newspapers.
“He used to wear trilbies, but the trouble is you couldn’t wear a trilby on a motorbike. So we used to buy knicker elastic from this shop in Royston to make a band to wear under our chins. We called it the chin strap.”
Don and Parky’s friendship has been one to cherish, with the pair filming a BBC programme for The One Show with John Sergeant where the friends visited their old haunts where they used to collect news together.
On the show, the pair reminisced about how Don kept Michael on his journalism career path after a two-year stint in Suez for his National Service. On his return, Don got Mike a job at the Chronicle, where he then went on to work in television.
Laughing about the good old days, Don recalled how the pair were in charge of collecting obituaries – and they also had to view the body of the deceased.
“Folks in them days, there were no chapels of rest so they used to have to lay the body out in the front room or in kitchen. And when Parky and me were there, they used to say ‘Would you like to see ‘em?’
“Well, what do you do? You couldn’t say no. And you couldn’t say they looked well, so we used to say, ‘They look at peace’” he says.
Don played a part in Michael’s episode of This Is Your Life in the 80s, with producers asking him to hop back on a motorbike and relive the pair’s days gone by. Having not ridden one for over 30 years, Don says he was a bit dubious, but rode around Cudworth all the same.
But then they asked him to ride onto the stage at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing that!’ I thought if it doesn’t start, I’ll look a right Charlie. But looking back, if it hadn’t have started, it would have been one of highlights of the series because it’d have been a scream if we were kicking away at it on stage,” he laughs.
The pair always kept in touch, with Michael writing the introduction to Don’s autobiography, A Barnsley Lad, which he published in 2000.
“Mike still used an old portable typewriter so there were letters above and below,” he says.
A Motoring Mogul
Aside from his duties at Barnsley Chronicle where he was editor from 1985 to 1994, Don also had a strong passion for vehicles throughout his lifetime and was a motoring writer for over 50 years, picking up ten national and international writing accolades along the way.
It was through his Old Mill neighbours and uncles that Don first developed his passion for wheels, with the smell of leather fuelling his interest.
As a boy, many a summer was spent with his Uncle Jack stripping down old prams to create a trolley.
“He’d say to me: ‘Get thisen four wheels an’ I’ll make thi a trolley.’ And off I’d go to find a family with a pram they didn’t use,” Don says.
Along with his favoured two-wheel motorbikes of his early Chronicle days, Don also developed an interest in cars – starting off with a 1946 Standard Flying Eight which he picked up from an advert in the paper. Throughout the years, Don added Morris Minors, Austins, Fords and Singers to his collection.
But it is the iconic Morgan that holds pole position in Don’s motoring memoirs – having owned numerous of their hand-assembled vehicles for 45 years.
Through his time as motoring writer, Don was invited to launches across the world, visiting 56 countries in total, meeting chief executives and industry experts along the way.
He’s driven across the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and along the top of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, along with packing his family into the back of a tiny MINI to go to Skegness with a pram on the roof and a plastic bath inside.
He had an offer from Nissan’s CEO who wanted to buy his prized Morgan to take back to Japan; and was left red-faced when he had to hand back just the keys to a Ford Fiesta in a Jiffy bag when TWOKERS stripped the test-drive car down outside his house in Monk Bretton overnight.
Don even did a Michael Caine and drove a Fiat Spider the ‘Italian Job’ way on top of the brand’s Lingotto Building after having dinner with their head, King of Italy, Gianni Agnelli.
All for the love of cars.
In 2005, Don took to the skies with female pilot, Tizi Hodson to cross the English Channel in a 1945 plane with a Renault engine. He also flew on Concorde on its first flight to Germany.
There are not many places he hasn’t been, hasn’t seen. He even, indirectly, travelled to outer space. Or the Chronicle’s mascot, Sam Barns did, with the help of Russian astronaut Alexander Volkov.
A patron to the town
Aside from the written word, Don led a charitable and ever-giving life, serving his local community for decades.
For over 70 years, Don had been associated with the Scout Movement, starting up as a member and working his way up to group leader for the Monk Bretton group. He even purchased a plot of land for £25 to build the new headquarters.
He was one of the founder directors of Barnsley Hospice and regularly donated the fees he received for giving career talks to the hospice.
Don even spent time as Barnsley Co-Operative Society’s first press officer where he was paid £5 for managing the PR for each of the town’s stores – some years after cheekily sneaking dried fruit from under their noses.
“I used to be in a dance band and, one time, we were practicing in a place where they kept Co-op supplies. There was this big bag of sultanas left under a table and me and the other band mates stuffed our pockets full of them so our mams could make us a Christmas cake, as sultanas were really expensive back then. Well, we thought, ‘they won’t miss a few handfuls.’”
With faith on his side, Don devoted a life-long loyalty to his local church, St Paul’s of Monk Bretton, having been a choir boy, altar server and church warden for 42 years. In thanks, the church congregation appointed him Emeritus warden.
After a visit to the site of the Burning Bush in the ‘90s, Don brought the Biblical botany back to Barnsley – and it actually grew, to many disbeliefs.
Through his community spirit, Don was made a Member of The Order of the British Empire for services to journalism and the Barnsley community in 1995 as part of the Queen’s New Year’s Honour list.
A few years later, Don was also included in Barnsley’s first Millennium Awards of Merit List as part of their Millennium Heroes – making him the only local journalist to be honoured by Queen and town.
One thing’s for sure, he met some extraordinary people in his lifetime. Along with the Queen, Don also had a chance meeting with Mother Teresa whilst waiting for a plane at Heathrow Airport where they spoke about their faiths.
But none more so than his favourite character of all time, Norman Wisdom –with whom he created a BBC radio programme about flat caps.
“Well, they were Norman’s trademark. And the producers thought: ‘Oh he’s from Barnsley, he must know about flat caps,’” he says.
After leading such a colourful life and bringing light to his hometown for many years, we cannot put into words just how much this humble and endearing man with the full head of white hair, thick Barnsley accent and true Yorkshire heart will be sorely missed.
He remained loyal and supportive to us, not just as colleagues, but as friends over the past five years and our motoring pages will never be the same again.
Don leaves behind his loving wife of 62 years, Freda, daughter Julie, son-in-law Simon and granddaughter, Lucy.
We finish off with a touching tribute from Don which mirrors his witty nature and effortless charm that remained with him until the end.
“Life is wonderful, if you can see the funny side of it.”
Here’s to you, Don.