Generous tributes to a real national treasure

Happy man: James Alexander Gordon at work

Happy man: James Alexander Gordon at work

First published in News by

James Alexander Gordon died (of cancer, aged 78) in plenty of time — if that doesn’t sound callous — for me to have included a tribute to him in last week’s Gray Matter. I didn’t write one straightaway, though, because I suspected that commentary elsewhere would supply further food for thought. And I was right.

The man who read out the football results on BBC radio for 40 years was remembered in a way wholly gratifying to those of us fortunate enough to have known him. The extent of the coverage — a full-page obituary in The Times, no less! — and its content, provided evidence that his sunny personality — instantly obvious to anyone who met him — had somehow been transmitted, along with those all-important scores, during his weekly broadcasts.

The first tribute I heard on Tuesday of last week — indeed, what brought me news of his death the previous day — was on Radio 4’s Today. Sports presenter Garry Richardson did a fine job of remembrance, with a notable contribution from the veteran football pundit Jimmy Armfield. He was the first of many to mention James’s beaming smile, which he bestowed upon everyone at a first meeting and continued to provide at every subsequent one.

My introduction to James came at the hospitable home in Bladon of fellow BBC broadcaster David Bellan and his artist wife Suzanne O’Driscoll. This was early in David’s long stint as The Oxford Times’s well-regarded dance critic, so we’re probably talking round about the year 2000.

It turned out my reputation had preceded me, for James — though he lived off this newspaper’s ‘patch’, near Reading — had made a point of buying a weekly copy in order to read his close friend David’s contributions. Having an abiding interest in food (as some of the obituarists mentioned), he eagerly followed my restaurant reviews and occasionally visited the featured establishments with his wife Julia.

Many meetings with him at occasions chez Bellan followed. To sit beside him at a lunch or dinner was to be richly rewarded with wit and wisdom which — cliché as it sounds — perfectly defines what he supplied in abundance.

David alluded to his skill as a teller of anecdotes in the memoir of his friend I invited him to contribute to this column. He wrote: “I first met James 40 years ago, when I had just begun a contract as a presenter on Radio 2. As I came off the air, a huge smile entered the studio, closely followed by the man I would know for so many years as JAG. ‘I’ve come to look at the face behind that voice,’ he declared.

“James had overcome polio as a young boy, which had left him with a leg-brace and a severe limp, but he would never give in to it — often walking from my flat, through Regent’s Park to Broadcasting House, and never accepting a disabled parking permit.

“When he was young he had been told he would not live long: every day was a celebration that he was still here. Mainly though, he was great fun, a raconteur of exuberant tales, a lover of fine food, and a good musician and composer. He never practised, but his fingers could do amazing things: they were the Usain Bolts of the keyboard. In short, a man of terrific style, a true one-off.”

David will be expanding on these thoughts, I am sure, in the eulogy he is to deliver at James’s funeral in Tilehurst today. I shall be there to hear him.

As prominent a feature of the obituaries as James’s smile was mention of his trademark delivery of the football results. The Daily Telegraph’s quoted Michael Palin on the subject. He said that a careful student could guess the outcome of a game as soon as the first part of the result had been uttered: “ ‘Sheffield United [Palin’s home team] three . . .’ which might have sounded promising, but equal stress on all the words was ominous, and as soon as Gordon’s voice (the voice of all our hopes and fears) shifted up an octave you knew you were done for: ‘Arsenal’ (telltale pause) ‘four’.”

The implied suggestion in this and elsewhere was that this was a style of his own invention. But if this was the case, how is it that I remember precisely the same sing-song reciting of the scores on BBC Television’s Saturday afternoon Grandstand in the early 1960s, a full decade before James took up his duties in 1972?

A moment’s research on the Internet revealed that James was indeed beaten to it, as it were, by Australian-born Len Martin.

His Wikipedia entry tells us: “He performed his Grandstand role from the programme’s very first edition in 1958 until his death in 1995. Martin was well known for his intonation when reading the scores. It was clear from the way in which he presented the home or away team name, followed by number of goals, whether the result was a home win, an away win, a no-score draw or a score draw; this was important for the pools results.”

The Times (among other newspapers) quoted James on the fabled scoreline: “East Fife 4 Forfar 5.” He dismissed it as “a myth”. In fact it was not so very far from reality, because there was once a Scottish League Division 2 result of Forfar 5 East Fife 4. James was not required to get his tongue round it, though, because this was in the 1963-64 season. Len Martin didn’t get to say it either, because the match took place on a Wednesday evening when there was, of course, no Grandstand.

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