Hold the front page! After decades of reporting the news, Victor Gordon has become the big story
Legendary Portadown reporter Victor Gordon has written every story worth printing about his home town while having a hotline to its most famous exports like Gloria Hunniford. But he tells Ivan Little he was saddened when the Drumcree stand-off created a new image for the place he has always loved
Veteran journalist Victor Gordon who’s called time on his Portadown Times career after 46 years isn’t the easiest man in the world to interview.
Which isn’t because he’s cranky or evasive, but rather because it’s hard to find anywhere to talk privately to him in public without interruption due to the fact that he knows everyone in Portadown — and they all know him.
And even tucked away in a quiet corner of a Portadown hotel’s lounge, there was no hiding place as people spotted Victor and made it their business to ask the popular newsman why he was making the news by retiring at the grand old age of 74.
And they left Victor in no doubt they weren’t happy at the prospect of losing the mainstay of their weekly paper, though it was clear that this proud and passionate Portadown man wasn’t exactly euphoric about hanging up his notebook and pen.
For it wasn’t the mileage on his body clock or the two heart attacks, the quadruple by-pass or even the cancer that finally forced Northern Ireland’s most successful regional journalist to leave the paper he’d served with distinction for nearly half a century.
No, he said it was the changing times on the Portadown Times that eventually made up his mind.
But why, I wondered, had he continued reporting into his seventies? “Because I loved it. Plain and simple,” says Victor who, even after official retirement and his illnesses, sat himself in a small office in the centre of Portadown and worked three days a week.
“The rest of the paper’s staff had moved out into an industrial estate outside the town, but I wanted to stay in Portadown. That’s where the stories were,” adds Victor who, even though he insisted he isn’t looking back in anger, is very definitely looking forward optimistically to a new chapter in his life because his retirement could just about go down in the record books as the shortest in history.
For only three days after he told the Times he was quitting, he was back in the hacks’ harness after a former colleague contacted him to offer him some casual work on Downtown Radio/Cool FM.
“I was asked to go to Portadown College to interview staff about the appointment of their old boy Rory Best as the Ireland rugby captain. Which was funny because I was hooker in the same school team many years earlier,” recalls Victor, whose newspaper career didn’t exactly start in the first flush of youth.
After leaving school he spent four years as a quantity surveyor but he hated the job and retrained as a teacher working with children with learning difficulties.
Next came a spell as a social worker, but Victor was also supplying rugby notes and football reports for the Portadown Times whose editor David Armstrong offered him a full-time job in 1970 after an impromptu ‘interview’ on a park bench. And apart from a short sojourn with an Armagh newspaper, he’s been writing for the Portadown Times ever since.
For two and a half of those years I worked alongside Victor who is without question one of the best journalists I have ever known and that includes former colleagues who now report on world news for the BBC, Sky and ITN.
His contacts were truly remarkable. And nowhere was that more evident than in his coverage of Portadown Football Club whose irascible manager Gibby Mackenzie went to extraordinary lengths to find out the identity of Victor’s moles — of which there were many.
But one of Victor’s biggest ‘scoops’ fell into his lap by accident after he got a crossed line as he rang Mackenzie. He should have hung up of course, but he realised the Scots-born manager was offering to help a player find a club in Ireland on his return from abroad.
Victor happened to recognise the player’s voice as that of former Linfield star Billy Millen. And at the end of the conversation a mischievous Victor rang Mackenzie back and said he understood he was interested in signing Millen.
Mackenzie, who must have thought his phone was tapped, went ballistic. He didn't speak to Victor for two years.
But Victor winkled out exclusives in more traditional ways too.
He says: "My contacts were crucial and I got off to a flying start because I had a big circle of family and friends in Portadown who knew what was happening in the town."
Down the years Victor won an astonishing five regional journalist of the year awards, though more space could be needed in his trophy cabinet after this year's competition.
Many of his winning articles have been about health issues and disabled and under-privileged people which may have had something to do with Victor's former life as a teacher and social worker. "I'm very proud of those stories and the campaigns I wrote about for people affected by Multiple Sclerosis and other illnesses.
"I also tried to champion causes like cardiac care charities who were trying to acquire new equipment."
But Victor also revelled in celebrity stories, too, writing about famous exiles from the town in Britain including Gloria Hunniford who was a contemporary at Portadown College where they used to dance together during lunchtime sessions.
And he utilised their old friendship in later years as Gloria went on to find broadcasting fame in England with Victor chronicling her progress just like he did with other ex-Ports like film critic Alexander Walker and former Shamrock Park footballer Niall Sloane, one of the most high-powered TV executives in the UK.
Niall's father Dougie was the editor of the Portadown News, the other paper in the town, and though the rivalry was intense Victor forged close relationships with journalists just up Thomas Street.
Later Victor spent seven months as editor of the Armagh Guardian, but the managerial role didn't suit the man who was born to be a reporter and he returned to his old beat in Portadown.
And it wasn't long before the town's name became synonymous across the world with the Troubles and particularly Drumcree. But it wasn't always so.
In the early years of the conflict, Portadown managed to escape the worst of the bad times, but when the violence came to the town it was unleashed with a vengeance. And the place was never the same again.
"Suddenly after the calm came the storm and we were covering murders every week," says Victor who admitted he was still haunted by many of the killings which had forced him to steel himself to the madness all around him.
"At the start I panicked about how I was going to follow up the murders by going to see the victims' relatives. But they were always so gracious and they made it easy for me.
"I was humbled when people rang up afterwards to say thank you for what I'd done."
Drumcree also saddened Victor, who used to live on the Garvaghy Road and remembers the Orangemen passing his home long before the march became a contentious issue.
But after all that changed in the Nineties, journalists from all arts and parts used to seek out Victor's views on the stalemate at Drumcree and his contacts were again invaluable as he tried to discover what was likely to happen on the streets.
The main protagonist in the dispute was the late leader of the Portadown Orangemen, Harold Gracey, who went to school with Victor and who didn't see eye to eye with him over Drumcree.
"I think the Orange Order made a mistake by not talking to the local residents to resolve the marching issue which is now a dead duck," says Victor.
But even though he was never afraid to take a stand in editorials which he wrote for the Portadown Times or to expose wrong-doers on all sides, he was rarely threatened.
"I know I broke a few hearts on the council by lifting the lid on controversies and while I was told where to go a few times, I never felt in any real danger.
"I seemed to get away with it and I remember one politician telling me that he thought I was very fair because I didn't care which party I slaughtered," adds Victor who had his first heart attack at the age of 36.
"But it didn't stop me," he points out. "In 2006, however, I had a more serious one when I was holidaying down south and the upshot of that was that I eventually had a quadruple by-pass. I felt great afterwards."
In May last year, though, Victor was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He received 37 sessions of radiotherapy, but typical of the man, he didn't stop writing for the Portadown Times.
"I worked in the mornings just to keep myself sane," he says - but it wasn't long after he got the all-clear that he announced his retirement from the Portadown newspaper.
"I said to myself that I was alive and that I'd had 10 extra years - most of them good - but I wasn't happy with the new direction that was being taken with the paper."
So far family man Victor has had no regrets, though. "People tell me I am far more relaxed and I am certainly enjoying myself. I will probably do a bit of PR work for a number of charities and other organisations as well as continuing to sing in my church choir and Portadown Male Voice choir."
Victor, who still watches his beloved Portadown Football Club - but not from the press box - still lives in the same house that he moved into 48 years ago with his wife Elizabeth.
They have three children and two grandchildren. "We're very proud of them all," he says, who struggled to single out any one story which was his favourite among the thousands he has written for the Portadown Times.
But one tale about Victor is legendary. The normally persuasive newshound had been getting nowhere in his pursuit of a Portadown man, Tommy Baird, who was planning to sail to New Zealand in a boat he had built in his garden.
Baird had shunned publicity, but one morning Victor got a tip-off that he was sailing from Ardglass harbour, and within hours he and a photographer arrived just in time to see the boat on the horizon.
"We've missed him," said the cameraman. But the resourceful Victor slipped a tenner into the hand of the captain of a fishing trawler and said the immortal words: "Follow that boat".
Which he did. And Victor netted his most bizarre catch - a front page to remember.