Journalist Mike Amos, formerly of The Northern Echo, recalls larger-than-life George Reynolds, who died this week.
GEORGE Reynolds, one of the North-East’s most colourful, most contentious and perhaps most complex characters of the past 50 years, died today. He was 84.
Many he antagonised, some he drove scatty. To me and to many others the former Darlington FC chairman and worktops wizard offered frequent recourse to the adage that you speak as you find.
We met in the smoke-filled corridors of Bishop Auckland magistrates court, late 1960s. George, like Norman Stanley Fletcher, was an habitual criminal and one who may similarly have viewed porridge as an occupational hazard. I was a wet-eared reporter.
What we had indelibly in common was that we were both Shildon lads – me by birth, George by adoption – and were both quite proud of the fact.
He’d been born in Sunderland, educated – if that’s the word – in a reformatory in Worcestershire, turned fairly effortlessly to an early life of crime. To George, safe blowing was akin to a game of cops and robbers and, like all games, you won some and lost some.
By the early 1970s, however, George was trying – not always very hard, not always successfully – to go straight. He began a small joinery and club-fitting business in Shildon, then the Dolphin coffee bar – named after his beloved Alsatian – and, above it, the GR night club in what once had been Snowplough Hall.
When I had a party there, George paid for Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas – No 1 hit makers just a couple of years earlier – to be the cabaret. When Peters and Lee played the GR – well, that’s a story for later on.
A few years afterwards I was George’s best man – his second wedding, the one at Bishop register office, and not the third, which was at the Castle of Mey, one of the Queen Mother’s former homes in Scotland. Win some, lose some, I wasn’t invited to that one.
If women were his Achilles heel, and if blithely and indifferently he could make enemies, his worst enemy looked back every morning from the mirror as George sought to camouflage his comb-over.
He not only harboured a grudge but positively nurtured the damn things. He talked too much, especially on the phone – BT may go bust following his death – and he declined counsel in the perhaps not-unreasonable belief that he was a latter day Midas, and that all he touched turned to gold.
His business card was gold laminated, too. “Utter genius,” it said.
For a man dragged up in a reformatory, unable properly to read and write until adulthood, he was certainly a very astute fellow.
The worktops business was an incredible success and George was quick to show off its trappings. There was the Roller, the yacht, the helicopter, the opulent mansion in Witton-le-Wear, the London home next door to one or other of the Spice Girls. In the 1990s it was impossible to drive more than ten miles, anywhere in Britain, without spotting a Willie Worktops wagon.
He became Darlington FC chairman with the best intentions, invested millions just to keep the club solvent and a great deal more on what became the 25,000-capacity Reynolds Arena, on the edge of town. If it represented the actions of a megalomaniac, if it were a gilt trip – as Midas man might supose – he deserved a great deal more credit than many Darlington followers have ever afforded him.
The last competitive game at the much-loved old Feethams ground didn’t involve Darlington at all, but was the 2003 Northern League Cup final between BIllingham Synthonia and Shildon. George charged nothing, asked nothing, paid for everything.
He’d also been guest speaker – idiosyncratic but greatly entertaining – at the Northern League’s annual dinner. As always, there was no charge; for once the dinner made a profit.
Good friend, bad enemy? The former, certainly, but sometimes the greatest threat was to himself.
The worktops business sold, the football club imploded, George turned to other things, none with conspicuous success. There were the perfumes and the pheronomes, the e-cigs, the handbags, the bling. Don’t even mentioned Georgie Porgie’s Pudding and Pies….
After moving from Witton Hall, he spent the last 15 years or so living alone in an apartment – “the penthouse”, he insisted – in Nevilles Cross, Durham. Others in the block knew him as a caring and considerate neighbour, though his health and mobility had long been declining.
He’ll be remembered for many years to come, sometimes authentically but more often apocryphally. There was a great deal of folk lore, some self-generated – never believe the story of the lion at Lambton, nor the man with the flapping shoe sole, for that matter – but some wonderful experiences, too. With which to conclude the longest-ever blog, five from personal and grateful experience.
*A couple of miles from Shildon, I was walking home late one night in 1972 when a battered Thames van pulled up. The passenger, a chap in dark glasses, sought directions to the GR Club.
Told that I was heading that way, he budged up. It was after 11 o’clock. George, familiar in daft leather hat and expensive leather jacket, paced the pavement outside. The van’s occupants were Peters and Lee, unknown when he booked them and No 1 in the charts by the time, belatedly, they reached Shildon.
Still outside, Dianne Lee gently wondered – since they’d kept their side of the bargain – if they might have a few bob more. George pulled a bit of paper from his jacket, demanding that she tell him what it said.
Thus it was that Peters and Lee, No 1 in the charts that very week, played Shildon for £12. Shildon won.
*George had long promised that when his ship came in – his yacht, anyway – he’d buy his key workers a Mercedes apiece. He promised me that he’d pay off our mortgage. I’d mentioned as much to Sharon.
Late home one night, doubtless from a match, I was greeted with the news that George had been on the phone, insisting on being as good as his word.
Sharon said that there was really no need; George was adamant. So it went back and forth for several minutes until finally, perhaps uniquely, he gave in.
We paid off the mortgage 15 years later.
* Darlington Football; Club’s former ground at Feethams adjoined the cricket club. With George running the football side, they were not good neighbours.
Brian Johnson, the cricket club chairman, was a retired solicitor. More polar opposites could hardly be imagined. Brian was well educated, well spoken, effortlessly urbane. George was- well – George.
They met one evening on what might almost be supposed the demarcation line, the old arguments at once rekindled and me – incredulous, notebook in hand – the only witness. George, the rough lad from Shildon, very deliberately kept his cool; Brian, the successful solicitor, became ever more agitated. There was only one winner.
* Mackenzie Thorpe, a successful artist from the Boro, asked me shortly before the Reynolds Arena opened if I could arrange a personal tour. George was happy to oblige.
The stadium was handsome. Particularly George was proud of the escalators and of the Italianate marble fitings in the gent’s. We’d barely been there a minute, ascending the former en route to the latter, when George pointed to one of the bits of art work hanging – like the London Underground – on the wall.
It was that black haired lass, Tina they called her, once familiarly showing a hint of cleavage over a million mantelpieces. “Now that’s what I call art, Mackenzie,” said George.
“That’s what I call s***e, George,” said Mackenzie Though the escalator continued to head upwards, the day thereafter went very quickly in the opposite direction.
* About 15 years ago, Shildon FC was very, very close to oblivion. Left in the lurch by the disappearance of the chairman, the club – with which I had no formal involvement – turned via me to its last hope. They needed George to let bygones be bygones, and to bail them out.
Setting up that club fitting business back in the 1970s, he’d asked a Shildon director if he might be considered for work on what is now the lovely little clubhouse beneath the Pagoda. The guy told him in no uncertain terms that they wanted no dealings with criminals – and George vowed that he’d never forget.
But these were desperate days. The late Mike Armitage, who’d had nothing to do with the initial contretemps, asked if I could seek George’s help to survive.
I’d not been in his office a minute before he wrote a cheque for £10,000 – almost certainly the sole reason that the club successfully survives today but with the proviso that nothing be mentioned publicly until after his death.
Now his long and unique life is over and they, I and many more should be forever grateful for it.
* Reproduced, with permission, from Mike Amos’s online blog, which can be found at mikeamosblog.wordpress.com/