An old note from Richard Whiteley, spy (alleged), and a few thoughts on letters

IT took a while to find that note in the photograph. First, I misdirected myself towards the old tin box filled with letters and postcards.

A search failed to find the note there, although ten minutes or so were spent reading letters from dead friends. There were also what it might be a stretch to call love letters, but letters from girlfriends, certainly. Alongside letters from my grandmother in Southampton, long gone – Eunice Cole, that is; Southampton is still around – there were letters from girls met on holiday, some remembered, some forgotten.

There was also a cutting from a newspaper of a girl lacing up her running shoes. This had been wrapped in clear sticky tape and on the back, there was a name: Averil. She ran in the Commonwealth Games once; or perhaps she didn’t. It was a long time ago. She obviously meant something to me at the time.

The dead correspondents were two friends from university, also long gone, and there were letters and postcards, too, from a university friend who is thankfully still around, and occasionally reads these postcards from my the edge of my laptop.

There was no sign at all of the note from Richard Whiteley, but then I remembered that the ‘work letters’ were somewhere else.

Known for his jovial manner, loud jackets and robust bonhomie, Whiteley was a TV presenter, and the first reporter to speak on Yorkshire Television – and, in another first, the presenter of the first programme on Channel 4, which was Countdown. He was also a spook, if today’s Daily Mirror is to be believed – ‘Countdown’s Richard Whiteley was M15 spy’ is the headline splashed all over the front page.

This accusation comes from the Royle Family actor Ricky Tomlinson, who says the broadcaster was an MI5 spy who helped put him and other striking workers behind bars in the 1970s.

Tomlinson said that if he’d known this when he appeared on Countdown, he would have throttled Whiteley. The actor believes that a documentary fronted by Whiteley showed unions in a bad light and was screened as the jury in his trial was out deliberating.

Tomlinson, a former plasterer, was later jailed and has been campaigning to clear his name, and that of the other Shrewsbury pickets, ever since.

The actor insists he was the victim of a political conspiracy. You can see why he remains bitter, although his recent appearance on Who Do You Think You Are suggested a man much taken with obsessions; as well as a man kept in line by his sensible wife.

Whiteley died in 2005, so he isn’t around to rebuff these claims, but his partner, Kathryn Apanowicz, laughed off Tomlinson’s suggestions as “nonsense”.

The reason for the note from a man who may have been a spy, although that does seem a stretch as he spent much of his life appearing on live television programmes, was that I’d been along to interview Whiteley and watch a recording of Countdown.

The short note said: “Thank you very much for sending me the piece the other day which I thought was very good and accurate – except for the phrase ‘Whiteley’s feeble quip’. Regards, Richard W.”

Perhaps ‘Richard W’ was his spy handle or something. Anyway, this got me thinking about letters and how in the future there won’t be any. And by the future I probably mean now, as the future does tend to sneak up on you. I haven’t written or received a letter in years, so another tix box won’t be needed.

Incidentally, the university friend who sent me postcards has a son who has appeared on Countdown. The recording was over in Manchester as Leeds lost that one a long time ago. My friend’s son had a great time on the show, and my friend said that Rachel Riley was as lovely in person as she is on screen.

And to think, when I went along I only got to meet a fruity old alleged spy and his feeble quips. But Rachel was probably only about four or five then.

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