Local treasure Morcea Walker, the queen of Northampton’s carnival community, pulled me aside once and revealed conspiratorially to me: “You have one of my former pupils writing for your magazine…”
I spent a few minutes trying to guess who she meant and eventually she put me out of my misery by disclosing that it was Mike Ingram.
“He was a good boy. Very polite. Very keen,” she smiled and remember how bemused I was to think of Mike as a schoolboy in Northampton, a man I regarded as one of its most expert keepers of histories and mysteries.
My first encounters with Mike, to be honest, were a little strained. Twenty years ago, maybe more, I was on the Chronicle & Echo and Mike had written an enormous piece on some aspect of the town’s history that there simply wasn’t enough room to carry without severe editing.
I found myself in the middle of an unhappy negotiation between the staff putting the pages together and Mike, trying to work out what we could cut. I can’t remember the outcome but it wouldn’t surprise me if between us all we decided that no piece was better than a decimated piece.
Mike’s NQ stories
“He’s very good but he writes too bloody much. We always end up not being able to cut it and deciding not to use it,” one of my colleagues explained to me.
I was the kind of irritating newspaperman who wanted to try a different new idea every week and I did mull over the Mike Ingram ‘problem’ – how could we tell those long, complicated, involved stories that just wouldn’t fit into 1000 or 2000 words? It took a couple of decades but eventually I found myself launching NQ, and Mike and I were able to resume our working relationship.
He set about producing a series of blockbuster articles unveiling the epic scale of Northampton’s history that frequently ran to seven or eight pages. Countless people would say to me that Mike’s stories were the ones that made them put the kettle on and find a comfy chair for an hour. I wanted the NQ to be a magazine that was worth keeping around the house to come back to and Mike’s contributions justified that on their own.
In the early days of the NQ Mike invited me on one of his battlefield tours at Delapre, the site of the second battle of Northampton. He led a party of a dozen or so of us across the terrain, showing us where the King’s redoubt would have been just in front of the abbey and then taking us up the hill to Queen Eleanor’s Cross where the ultimately victorious rebel army had assembled.
When we reached the cross Mike did an amazing thing that made me realise there was more to this man than a nerdish obsession with swordfights and civil wars. He invited us all to join him in a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who fell in the battle hundreds of years before, acknowledging that the remains of many of them are probably still there undiscovered a few inches beneath the feet of picnicers, golfers and dog walkers.
I suddenly saw Mike’s empathy for the historic people he wrote about: their stories were alive in his head and he was uncompromising in his determination to deliver them with every detail he could claw out of the past intact. Like all great Northamptonians he worked with the urgency and conviction of a lifeguard – in this case a rescuer hauling lost souls out of the waters of obscurity, giving them the consolation and dignity of being remembered and understood.
Northamptonshire Battlefields Society
The impact of his passing is clear to see across the social media accounts of so many of Northampton’s institutions and organisations. Mike’s tireless campaigning to preserve and recover his town’s heritage could occasionally make him a thorn in the side for some of them but it is heartening to see how universal the respect for him is. In his way he was only asking for us to be our best selves and for Northampton to be the best it could be and it was not really his fault if we doubted our ability to live up to that.
A lot of people campaigned for the recent restoration work on Queen Eleanor’s Cross but Mike and his colleagues at Northamptonshire Battlefields Society were right at the heart of it. When it was completed I remember Mike feeling a communal sense of achievement that a small piece of Northampton’s history would be ‘handed on’ to the next generation and I was pleased for his victory. Reflecting on it now, it seems more like a victory for the people of Northampton than for Mike because, like all his work, it wasn’t really for him it was for us, when we had time for it.
This piece is a tribute, not an obituary, and I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of responses to Mike’s passing showing the admiration and respect in which he was held.
I am a little shocked because Mike and I were working on his latest article just a few hours before he died. He contacted me to make a correction. The last communication he had from me was a Thumbs Up on Facebook.
I am selfishly grieving for the enlightening conversations I will no longer be having about which TV dramas are getting it right, or the surprising things buried under Northampton town centre. There were so many stories inside him, it is like a library of rare books has burned down.
My thoughts are with his family who know best what the rest of us are only discovering now: what an irreplaceable legend Mike Ingram has been.