You may not have known Alan Burgess. If not, count yourself unlucky. Alan never did count himself unlucky; not really. True, he had plenty of ÃŸcause to rue his misfortune. There isn’t much to be said for getting lung cancer in your early 40s or being told that it’s spread to your brain and you’ll be dead within the yearâ€¦ especially when you’ve not long been married to the girl you’ve spent half your adult life hoping to meet. Especially when your lovely baby daughter isn’t yet one year old.
Yet Alan, who last week succumbed to the inevitable, aged 44, weighed it all up and reckoned he’d still had a pretty good deal.
“Best thing I ever did was park up in Preston,” he said.
In 1983, after reporting on the Hull Daily Mail, Alan moved to Preston to join the Lancashire Evening Post, moving from senior reporter to education correspondent and then news editor.
He spent two years as features editor before making a break into newspaper sales as regional promotions and travel manager in 1997.
In 1999, Alan was made newspaper sales director of the Lancashire Evening Post, the Wigan Evening Post and the Chorley Guardian.
Alan deserves a lengthy obituary. You couldn’t have met a funnier man. You may think you have, but how many people do you know who could truly laugh in the face of death? And not with any apparent bitterness either; simply in the way he always would, cursed by cancer or not. Imagine: after he left work, his colleagues, desperate not to lose his talents prematurely, rang to beg him to revive his brilliantly irreverent television column “Burgess on the Box”.
“OK, I’ll do it,” he replied, “but you’d better sort it out quick, otherwise it’ll be Burgess from the Box.”
God knows, the greatest weapon in the human armoury is humour. Alan’s brand, while often as black as soot, was the more appealing because there would inevitably be some selfdeprecation along the way. He once wrote of his “distinctive” looks that his face was not so much lived-in as occupied by squatters. Lines like that suggest a rare talent for humorous writing, for journalism in its most entertaining form. Budgie had it in spades.
So it was all the more disappointing when he left his editorial colleagues to join the commercial world of promotions and newspaper sales.
He’d been education correspondent, news editor, executive features editor -all jobs that reflected how good he was and how daft (some of us thought at the time) he was for jumping ship.
But we should have known he’d make a success of it. Alan fasttracked into the top job and was soon producing graphs that showed sales figures that compared to the very best in the regional newspaper industry.
But it was no ivory tower he occupied. Two years ago, as Preston North End were trying and just failing to make the Premiership, he was standing outside the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, selling copies of the Evening Post in his jeans and anorak. Just then a former colleague with whom he’d written a ground-breaking pop music column in the early Eighties walked past, did a double-take and only narrowly failed to disguise his sadness that an old mate had fallen on hard times.
“I suppose it didn’t help that I was wearing a Deepdale Duck hat,” said Alan. “He never did see my company Audi.”
When he was eventually forced to quit work, having been told by his doctor, “you’ve got weeks, maybe months, but certainly not a year”, Alan simply carried on being practical. He took most of his clothes to charity shops. Several months later, realising he still had time for a cruise on the QE2, he went back to one of those shops and bought back the very dinner jacket he’d given away.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Alan breezed through his illness. Though outwardly inspirational, there would have been private moments of deep anguish, both mental and physical.
To that end he and his young wife wisely sought counselling and they were immensely grateful to the local cancer care charity Vine House.
We last saw each other in the pub; a few old workmates having a bit of a reunion. Alan was on top form, a description which, after testing five pints, he said was also true of the Guinness. We also exchanged letters. He was sorry that his was typed, not handwritten. “Cancer’s knocked my arm out,” he said.
That letter speaks volumes. For safekeeping it’s tucked in between some of my old LPs – an appropriate place, I reckon, because Alan loved music with a rare passion. If there’s a larger record collection than his, it’s owned by the BBC.
But he knew a greater love. In the end, he achieved his ambition of sharing with his wife Alma their baby daughter Anya’s first birthday in March. Alma is the girl he met a few years back at the Lancashire Evening Post. They married 10 months before their daughter was born.
Together, wife and daughter are the reason why this son of Hull from a family of six knew he’d found his true home across the Pennines. “Best thing I ever did was park up in Preston,” he wrote, “and the last six years have been sparkier and gutsier and funnier than the rest. I’m sure that will live on in Alma and little Anya.”
For sure it will live on, too, in the second child Alma is now expecting. As Budgie Burgess would be the first to remark – with just enough emphasis on the double entendre – you can’t keep a good man down.
His letter ends with a quote from one of his musical heroes, Jimi Hendrix: “I’ll see you in the next world, and don’t be late.”
Actually, it’s quite a comfort knowing he’ll be there, giving everyone a laugh.
No laughs today, though. Just profound sadness that another of the good guys has gone, far too young for it to be fairâ€¦ though he did, of course, outlast his doctor’s most optimistic assessment, just to prove a point.
By the way, if you did know Alan Burgess, then you’d also know that he wasn’t very tall.
Something else you’d know tooâ€¦ tall or not, he was a giant of a man.
Peter Richardson, features editor, Lancashire Evening Post
Peter Richardson, features editor, Lancashire Evening Post