Gordon Thorburn.


My old friend Gordon has died. This is him in all his glory.

He was a writer, at first a copywriter with an ad agency which is where we met, then later a writer of books of all sorts. His writing could reduce me to helpless laughter and giggling as I tried, sometimes in vain, to get some sort of drawing out from them.

Some of you might have seen a book called “Men and Sheds”, which was extremely succesful, and which he wrote. It’s well worth a read and it was succesful because of the words more than anything. He could be described as the Father of Sheddism, wether he would like that is entirely another matter, which is what “sheddists” are like.

He also ghost wrote for other people less able to deal with words like he could. He did books about Bomber Command and Vets! So a wide portfolio, and to my mind a brilliant writer.

We once walked down the Pennine Way in the 70s from the wrong end. Where most finish the trail in Kirk Yetholm in Scotland we walked down from there, thinking it would be downhill all the way. I let him navigate which was not my best decision, but frankly the only one I could make as I was clueless at maps and the compass. I suggested later as we veered off course yet again, that he could perhaps write a book called “Avoiding the Pennine Way”. He avoided the temptation.

More recently he wrote all the words for a book collaboration with me called ” Some Missing Persons” Take a look at his words here for:Man who mends cars…



And even more recently I illustrated another story all from him, here’s another little snippet: 7. The Prime Minister gets the shopping in.


Our first book together: “43 Unsporting Moments” is something that I shall return to and perhaps publish on here again  in due course. I read bits of it on the night he died to cheer myself, and it did.

We had quite a lot in common, both from the North, he sadly from the wrong side of the Pennines, but you can’t have everything. On the day he died (  he’d been unwell for a while), I was out walking with our mutual friend Richard, and was ready to post a picture and some words on what a super day we’d had. It was not to be as we heard the sad news later in the day.

He really was unique. We shall miss him and his magic words.

Here’s Gordon’s piece about our Pennine Way trip from the 70s:


The Pennine Way could hardly be called sporting these days.  You can see clearly where to go along the entire length of it.  In fact, they’ve even put duck boards down in some places, and built proper footpaths where the treading millions have ploughed their fun-filled furrow.  This is a shame.  It was never meant to be like that.  The Pennine Way might have been called a long-distance footpath but really it was just a route.  Except where it ran along bridleways, Roman roads and such, which were already there, there was no path to see.  You had to find your own way, with no help from previous footprints.  Of course you could buy guide books.  In 1973 there were two.  Wainwiright’s was a marvellously intricate work with hundreds of superb little drawings but it made a couple of basic assumptions which could render it useless to the Pennine Way virgin of that time.  To find the little drawings helpful, you had to be already smack on the route.  And, you had to be walking south to north, from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Berwickshire.  If you were a bit lost, and walking north to south, and it was pouring with rain, a beautiful Wainwright drawing held upside down is not much good to you. Also, Wainwright made it clear he didn’t like the Pennine Way.  Good luck to you, he said, but you wouldn’t see him on it. 

The other book was Tom Stephenson’s.  He was the blazer of the trail and he described the walk with calm confidence.  You felt reassured.  His book had sections of 1 inch to the mile OS map, with the Way marked by a red stripe.  This stripe was an eighth of an inch wide which meant, on the ground, it was a furlong.  You could easily get lost in a furlong – and, the red stripe did not run down the middle of the page.  Quite often it went close to the edge, and so if you wondered away from the wrong side of the red stripe you fell off the page and the rim of the known world.  Such a thing can easily happen in the Cheviots.

 The map here is a meaningless tangle of wiggly brown contours and the reality is equally puzzling.  Every Cheviot hill looks exactly the same as the other Cheviot hill, a round brown bump – except presumably THE Cheviot, which is a few feet higher than the rest.  I say ‘presumably’ because the red stripe runs over it but I don’t think we did.  We, the writer and illustrator of this book, trying to navigate this 27-mile opening stretch of the southbound Way, had been walking for hours on our first day.  It was clear and sunny, but nothing was recognisable and nothing got any nearer.  We came to a wide stream so we sat on the bank, smoked a cigarette, took off our boots, rolled up our trouser legs and set off across sharp and slippery stones, holding hands to help prevent our heavy packs from causing gravitational disaster. 

About halfway over I was suddenly irritated – on my stomach, my thighs, and the bits the nurse asks you to wash yourself.  Ants? Ants?  I ran for it, the perils of the steam bed suddenly rendered as inconsiderable as a bed of nails might be to a fakir.  Indeed, I remember mentioning fakirs at the time as I left Paul to look after his own centre of gravity.  He seemed to find it funny, watching me with my rucksack still on, hopping around naked from the waist down, but he did help to smite the red hordes as they emerged, confused and angry, from the garments I had carelessly tossed aside in my emotion. 

By 7:30 that night we were done.  We couldn’t find water, except for a trickle in the peat which needed no Oxo cube to colour it, but we camped and tomorrow would be another day.  We set off in a grey and thick mist.  Just over the brow, no more than 50 yards away, was water.  A lake full of it.  Roxburghshire Water Sports Centre, it said – on a sign, that is, not on Stephenson’s map. We were many furlongs off the edge of that by now. 

We asked directions and eventually got onto Hindhope Hill, which is quite near the Pennine Way.  We met a farmer who refused to let us walk across his land but gave us a lift in his Landrover to the bottom of an 80 degree slope, at the top of which was Dere Street.  Dere Street was a bowling-green boulevard, a strider’s delight leading straight to England and the Roman fort at Chew Green.  We couldn’t get lost on this, even in the rain and fog, and so someone had put up signs every six inches.  When we got to Chew Green, where there were at least 50 different ways to go, there was no sign at all.  We should have turned right but we turned left instead and ended up in a hamlet called Makendon.

 The farmer, in purest Northumbrian (the accent, like anything else with any sense, does not cross the Cheviots), said he would give us a lift into Byrness in his Reliant Robin, except we wouldn’t want that as we would want to walk it all.  Paul sat in front, I was in the back, and the weather turned nasty.  At the Byrness Hotel, after a couple of pints, with the throbbings of our feet making waves in the pools of water forming around us and the wind crashing and the rain slashing down outside, we enquired nonchalantly if there were any rooms for the night.  “Or yer not campen oot toneet then, hurr hurr hurr?”  It got worse before it got better.  A few days later we had another bath and bed at the Greenhead Hotel. My drained bath looked like low tide at Barrow in Furness.  My feet looked like the Cheviots, except the blisters were clearly different from each other.  One was two inches long by half an inch high and wide, with a circular satellite blister (or foothill) of half an inch diameter. 

Next day, we found out why we were doing it.  We were not walking at the time, but lying on our backs on the Maiden Way, a Roman B-road, grilling in the sunshine, listening to a million larks and watching a weasel dragging a rabbit along the path.  We gazed at the river below, at The Wall distant behind, and laughed scornfully at the aggressive-looking silhouette of Cross Fell up ahead.  Cross Fell is a very nearly 3000 feet and shaped like the bows of an ice-breaker.  It has its own microclimate on the end called The Helm, which hovers there waiting to make you wish you had never been born.  Going up from the Garrigill side is seven miles of zig-zag, notable for views back up the South Tyne and for its Blue John, a kind of fluorspar, an unprecious stone, used for pendants and ashtrays and found exclusively (it says on the shop door) in the famous Blue John Mines in Derbyshire near Mam Tor. 

How it gets to be on Cross Fell in such quantity I don’t know.  At the top of Cross Fell you can see nothing because the plateau is so wide and flat and you’re in the middle of it.  From the next but one along, Great Dun Fell, with its air-traffic-control mausoleum, and tomorrow from High Cup Nick, you will – if the weather’s right – see the finest view in England. 

Below you is the Eden Valley, where they could have built Jerusalem.  Further over are the Lake District Hills.  You can easily make out Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Blencathra.  Southward are the Howgills were the River Eden rises before flowing up to the glitter of the Solway Firth and the smudge of Carlisle.  Alas, you must turn your back on this glory and start walking down the eastern watershed into Teesdale.  You have completed nine pages of Stephenson’s stripe.  Only 13 to go.





10 thoughts on “Gordon Thorburn.

  1. Always sad to lose a good ‘un, of course, Paul. But a brilliant tribute to an obviously brilliant man – if you were more comfortable on the edges of the red stripe, of course. Great piece

  2. Very sorry to hear that Gordon has died, many thanks for the extracts of his wonderful words , which I have just re-read ,and the portrait- he looks just as I remember him !
    Kenny X.

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Gordon was a big influence. When I left university I took a job working for him at his agency in East Anglia. I was only there a year but learned so much about writing. We also shared a love of Leeds United. And beer.

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