By Steve Leary, former Star editor

HOW on earth do you sum up the life of Alan Whalley with a few words?

It ain’t going to be easy. His Whalley’s World feature alone entitles him to immortality. But there was so much more to Alan.

Every week his legion of loyal readers would flick through the Star looking for that familiar whiskery smile beaming out an invitation to join him on a gentle meander down Memory Lane.

His wizardry with words captured an army of fans which later grew into a worldwide supporters club after his column went online.

He created a personal universe populated by old time sports heroes like Our Nell’s Jack, the champion skating racer from the Brown Cow in Billinge or Tom Colquitt who could leap across canals.

St Helens Star:

St Helens Star:

Also on the WW menu you could sample yarns of how an expat St Helens bobby smuggled his favourite Burchalls pies out to Oz, or the day Cromwell’s Roundheads fired a cannon from Billinge Hill as Cavalier leader Prince Rupert hid in Windleshaw Chantry.

He also loved delving into the area’s spooky past like the spectral legend of the Grey Lady of Taylor Park and the cannibal dwarves who devoured intruders in the depths of Crank Caverns.

Whalley’s World was the cornerstone of the paper in those formative years. Weekly, Alan regaled readers with his gallery of lovable rogues, wartime memories and oddball tales.

One trusty subject was big Jonty Pilkington. Alan revealed that this legendary one-eyed hardman who combined punch-ups and fairground boxing contests had a hidden ‘soft centre’ with a lifelong love for operetta, making trips to London to listen to legendary tenor Richard Tauber.

Alan also pulled back the dustsheets to reveal a treasure chest of forgotten St Helens heroes including Oscar winning Hollywood sound legend George Groves and the diminutive film actor Herbert Mundin who starred alongside screen legends Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton.

His writing generated a massive readership and Alan was making a big name for himself. He could so easily have earlier taken the step up to Fleet Street, but opted to remain on his home turf and shape the destiny of this paper.

That infectious personality had a big impact on the Star’s founder Malcolm Smith. They had first bumped into each other at ‘another paper up College Street’. And when the Star’s first editor Lesley Richards left, Alan came in to head up our small but select editorial gang, clattering away on the typewriters in a cramped office next to a newsagents in Corporation Street before expanding into an even more cramped cubby hole in the YMCA Buildings.

As his career progressed, Alan’s skills were recognised by senior figures in our group and he was promoted to the rank of editorial director in the 1980s with a seat on the board of Northern Counties Newspapers Bolton/St Helens.

Whalley’s World took centre stage in the Star until he signed off in 2009, collecting a clutch of top journalistic ‘Oscars’ for Alan along the way. And though Alan ‘retired’ from official duties in 1992, WW remained a regular Star favourite for another 17 years - as witty and fascinating as ever.

But as I hinted, Alan had another facet: he was never stumped for a cracking idea to boost both St Helens and the Star.

There can’t be many papers to have been advertised at the Olympics. But at the 1980 Moscow Games your Star got a massive plug on primetime TV courtesy of BBC boxing guru Harry Carpenter.

Over the course of the tournament Harry introduced three English fighters, brothers George and Ray Gilbody plus Keith Wallace.

The link: the trio all fought out of the ST HELENS STAR Amateur Boxing Club with trainer Tony Smart at their base in Clock Face. Though their Moscow medal bid fizzled out, the Gilbodies and Keith all became multiple title holders.

It was Alan who was instrumental in setting up the club and locating grants and sponsorship.

Alan also helped project the Star’s image at the once massively popular St Helens Show. It was Star Funtime with the Mother and Baby Contest, Miss St Helens Star, Star Junior Talent, Glamorous Gran, Mr St Helens and even a Gurning contest! There was so much Star branding, most people believed it was this paper that ran the show and not the council.

I first met Alan at a nightclub launch party in the town centre. He was working at the Daily Telegraph but was soon to become my new boss at the Star and my mentor for the next four decades.

He pitched himself into so many good fights, I lost count. One that touched him deeply was the battle to keep the old Providence Hospital open. Month by month the donations flowed in. But not even employing the fluid fundraising talents of world record beer gulper Joe Johnson could stave off the inevitable.

My final memory of that sad Providence campaign was helping Alan and his dad rescue a weighty solid iron bench from a top floor verandah. I think his father had been in haulage and he soon had ropes and pulleys in place with Alan and myself dangling below like comedy bellringers. But down it came.

Talking about bringing things back down to earth, although Alan made many friends in high places, he frequently cocked a snook at stuffy authority.

He loved to tell the tale of how as a novice newshound he’d been assigned to cover a council meeting.

Taking his place on the press bench, our young reporter, fed up with all with the endless speechifying, whipped out two chunks of (I think) cardboard and clapped them over his ears.

“Young man would you mind telling the committee what those are for?” one councillor demanded.

The return volley bounced back: “They’re my bull**** deflectors.”

That was Alan to a tee. His impish sense of humour was ever-present through his career netting countless friends from all walks of life.

We will never see his like again.

St Helens Star:

Alan (right), wife Sandra (left) and Lady Pilkington and a friend

I FIRST encountered Alan Whalley, an extremely talented journalist and revered columnist, in 1966, writes Star founder Malcolm Smith.

I had been recruited to sharpen up the business side of a flagging provincial weekly group.

From the word ‘go’ Alan and I had differing ideas on newspaper management. We clashed with no holds barred. That we became exceedingly good friends proved miracles can happen.

We were both obsessive in our views on status. What comes first, the cart or the horse! Editorial and Advertising belong to different worlds. I dismounted from my ‘high’ horse and sank my pint.

Alan was a brilliant writer far more talented than his fellow scribes.

My job was to do the finance bit and I could add up! Money meant nowt to Alan. A clash was unavoidable! Alan, had his brilliant Whalley’s World wooing readers whilst I had the financial headaches. Both of us were successful, a quiet impasse was necessary.

St Helens Star:

Later Alan headed to the Daily Telegraph and shortly afterwards I launched the Star so we saw little of each other for a while. When we did a friendship developed. Of a like age we discovered our ‘playtime’ hobbies were similar…both enjoying the odd pint...often in the nearest bar to my YMCA office. He took an interest in my maniacal project in a casual way. He had influential friends which we often shared and gradually he became an ad hoc PR adviser. Getting Lady M and Lord Harry on the team was one of his scores. On several occasions I tried to tempt him into becoming Editor and eventually pressure won through. I had pulled off a superb coup. Not only had I won over the best possible editor but the “Whalley’s World” reader bedazzling column too.

St Helens Star:

In conclusion I will reiterate a piece he wrote describing my “No Problema” send-up book about living in Spain. Alan’s intro read: “I find it tough trying to sum up Malcolm Smith – perhaps because I know him so well. Words like extrovert, outrageous, brash and gregarious spring readily to mind when reflecting on a friendship which has survived the test of a quarter-of-a-century, since the time we first met whilst working together on the same local newspaper.”

Were it possible to deliberately get in the last word I would say “touche mate”. But I’ll save it for the next time we meet.

That my heart goes out to Sandra says it all!