Memories of the brilliant Rob Freeman

The ARSE lunch in January: From left, Mick Thomas, Matt Gocher, Tom McCarthy, John Walker, Alan Ashworth, Rob Freeman and Margaret Ashworth

TOM McCARTHY remembers his friend and colleague, former Daily Mail sub Rob Freeman, who died of a stroke aged 70

Everyone who knew Rob has been hit hard by his cruel loss and our thoughts are with Sue, Ross and Mark.

I worked with him on the Mail for 21 years. As well as being a great operator, he had a brilliant sense of humour that would leave you laughing despite the nightly subbing mayhem. In more serious moments, Rob was wise, thoughtful and kind.

Among his many post-retirement activities, Rob was a stalwart of ARSE (the Association of Retired Sub-Editors), the Mail’s reunion-luncheon club.

We all last got together on January 14, when Rob was in his usual sparkling form. I also had a chat with him later, while he waited for his train. As ever, he was engaging, interesting, charming, full of fun, still making me laugh out loud.

 It’s hard to believe he has gone. Rest in peace, Rob.

*****

MARGARET ASHWORTH writes: It is coming up to 50 years since I first saw Rob Freeman. I had joined the Luton Evening Post at the end of 1971 as a trainee reporter, my first job, and he was a sports sub on the sister paper, the Watford Evening Echo. Both titles were produced at Hemel Hempstead. 

He was a real smasher, like a pop star, with long blond hair. I don’t think we ever spoke (I was soon dispatched to the wilds of North Hertfordshire) and 18 months later he disappeared to work in Tehran. However three years later I joined the Daily Mail to find that Rob had beaten me to it, having returned from Tehran when it got hairy. 

He was deputy stone sub and I did a lot of stone shifts so we got to know each other well and became friends. I also knew his wife Sue, who had been a Saturday copy girl at the Echo. That was how she and Rob met, though they didn’t get together until he was briefly home from Iran for a family wedding, when Sue had become a junior reporter on the Echo. I suspect this had a bearing on his permanent return.

As the years passed, Rob was an excellent chief sub, good at picking the right story for the right sub, ever ready to help if you got stuck over an intro or a heading (and did it better). My spirits always lifted when I walked into the office to find him on the middle bench. 

Looking back over such a long time, I can’t remember a single occasion when I saw Rob flustered, angry or even mildly vexed, and that must cover thousands of shifts. Everything was handled with good humour and nine times out of ten a joke. He took the job seriously and was great at it, but he never let it get on top of him.

I have nearly half a century of memories of a brilliant friend and colleague to treasure.

Rob was also rota editor for some time and was a delight to deal with, unlike a former chief sub who did the rotas with a computer program and refused a fellow sub a day off to get married.

In the past few years Rob had two close brushes with death. The first was in 2013 when his aorta ruptured. He was saved only by a blood clot blocking the hole, a most unusual event. The second was in 2016 after the discovery of an aortic aneurysm; planned surgery to replace the aorta resulted in complications of his lungs collapsing, then his liver and his one remaining kidney (the first probably having given up in the 2013 surgery) and even his circulation. He was on a life support machine for a week, in an induced coma for three weeks and in hospital for two months. 

Even in these difficult times he remained cheerful and upbeat. I went to see him when he got home after the second major op. He met me at the station in his Porsche (Rob was never without a flash car) and as he showed off its marvellous handling at illegal speed he told me that he was doing well but that one of his hands was still a bit numb. 

His two remarkable recoveries and his return to his beloved ski slopes gave us all a sense that he was immortal. We knew he was ill at home but I think we all assumed he would soon be back. This made the news of his stroke and death all the harder to bear.

Dear Rob, I can’t believe we will never laugh together again. But I have nearly half a century of memories of a brilliant friend and colleague to treasure. Rest in peace.

*****

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CRAZY ANTICS: Rob Freeman out on the piste

ARNIE WILSON, former Financial Times Ski Correspondent and Editor of the Ski Club of Great Britain’s magazine, Ski+board.

I can’t believe I’ll never ski with Rob Freeman again. Or hear him chuckle. And I know his many skiing chums will feel the same. You just knew that if Rob was around – both on the slopes and off – life would be fun and laughter would be unavoidable.

I first skied with Rob, in Snowbird/Alta, Utah, back in the 80s, in truly amazing conditions. Back then Rob had a wonderful mop of blond hair and an impressive blond moustache to match.

The Snowbird area is famous for its powder, but this was ridiculous. The deepest I’ve ever seen it there, and it was getting deeper. We were skiing in near blizzard conditions, and the snow was so deep we felt we couldn’t do anything wrong — leaping off cliffs, shrieking with laughter, and landing as if we were sinking into deep, cold cotton wool.

We got so carried away that we even skied a really scary couloir together called — I’ll never forget the name — Angina Chute. I forget who egged who on to do it. It started insanely steep and then — OMG — it got even steeper. It was wildly exciting. It’s a good job that Rob’s delightful wife Sue or their then very tiny boys Mark and Ross couldn’t see our crazy antics!

And so began our skiing and non-skiing friendship. Over many winters (and summers too, waiting for the next opportunity to ski with him again), all Rob’s skiing companions, among whom I was privileged to be just one, relished spending time with him.

It still hasn’t sunk in that he’s gone. I was on the phone to him short while before he was rushed to hospital

He always called me Wilson. In emails, it was Wilson old boy. That was Rob. I liked that. And one of his favourite quips used to emerge after one or other of us had made an innocent remark such as: “I’m feeling a bit off colour” today, or maybe “I can’t be bothered to shave today”. And out would come the famous Rob catchphrase: “That’s not what you said last night!” That sentence became one of his trademarks. 

I invented a catchphrase too — to describe Rob’s friendship with our chum Peter Hardy and myself. Freeman, Hardy and Wilson. Not a bad try, I thought.

It still hasn’t sunk in that he’s gone. I was on the phone to him only a very short while before, unknown to me, he was rushed to hospital. I’d phoned him the previous day too after he’d emailed me to say he’d been ill for almost three weeks. Little did I know it would be the last conversation we’d ever have.

We’ll never forget him. And we’ll all be thinking of Sue, Mark (who teaches skiing in Canada) and Ross.

And if ever I return to Utah to ski, I will venture to the edge of Angina Chute look over the edge, but not ski it. How could I without Rob?  

HIGH POINT: Rob doing what he loved best


PHILIP WEBSTER: Thanks to everyone here for their lovely memories of Rob Freeman, the funniest, kindest, most loyal guy you could meet. A superb journalist, brilliant skier, a laugh-a-minute genius, and devoted family man.

Rob was my dearest friend and I thought I would fill in a bit about his pre-Mail, pre-ski days.

He and I met in 1967 on one of the first full-year journalism courses at Harlow College in Essex. Joe Barrett, ex Sketch and Express chief reporter, was our tutor-in-chief and general guru. We became immediate friends because of our love of football and connections with Norfolk where I was born and where Rob’s family had a seaside property. 

It was a fabulous year, giving us all an enthusiasm for journalism that was never to subside, although one of the 17 entrants, Mark Knopfler, went on to make music after a spell on the Yorkshire Post. Rob had a motor bike and often dropped off Mark on the A1 on a Friday evening, whence he hitch-hiked north to his home in Newcastle for the weekend.

Rob was hugely popular and – like me – rather competitive. Table football games at lunchtime took on enormous significance. Rob displayed even then what was to become a massive talent for acquiring free tickets.  His coup de grace came when the Benfica football team chose a country hotel near Harlow to train before the European Cup Final against Manchester United in 1968.  

Using our doubtful journalistic credentials we found a way of invading their training sessions, and on the eve of the match at Wembley Rob managed to squeeze six tickets out of Jose Torres, Eusebio and others. Tourist chiefs all over the world will know how they felt. It was a triumph of will and we watched the first English win in the European Cup from the Benfica end. 

Rob’s loss is hard to bear. But we will never be short of memories or laughs. We were fortunate to know him.

Other outrageous scams were to follow over the years. Once, following England in Poland, Rob and I accessed the Poland team talk on the day of the match and sat innocently at the back before being thrown out. We did not understand a word and England fell to ignominious defeat.

There is so much more about Rob. He and I were each other’s best man.  When he went to the Mail I went to The Times. We played in each other’s football teams. He learnt to ski years before me, but beseeched me to catch up. On just my second week of skiing I went to the Dolomites with Rob and Conal McCrum, a good GP friend. Despite my inexperience Rob deemed me ready for the Sella Ronda.  Travelling far too quickly down a schuss I smashed into a wall of hard snow and lay there groaning and severely winded. Rob skied back and observing me remarked: “Conal I think this is for you.”

I survived and somehow completed the round trip.

When I was ambulanced back from France to Norfolk just two months ago after – yes – a ski injury, Rob and Sue – whose bravery during Rob’s two previous medical events and since his death has been truly wonderful – were the first to visit me.  I little knew then I would never see him again.

For Sue, Mark, Ross and Gemma, and all his friends, Rob’s loss is hard to bear. But we will never be short of memories or laughs. We were fortunate to know him.

Philip Webster was on The Times from 1973 to 2016, and was Political Editor between 1992 and 2010.


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ON THE RUN: Rob Freeman skiing in Canada


Publisher and Editor FRANK ‘SCOOP’ BALDWIN worked on the Skier & Snowboarder magazine with Rob Freeman for 30 years. Here he remembers some of their fun times together and how Rob played a major part in the success of the magazine.

It is with a great sadness I have to report that Skier & Snowboarder deputy editor Rob Freeman, who I have worked with on the magazine for the last 30 years, has died at the age of 70.

Today (6 April) I should have been joining his wife Sue and sons Ross and Mark to say goodbye at his funeral service, but because of the current coronavirus lockdown I cannot attend. In normal circumstances there would have been a massive crowd from all the different walks of life he was involved in, including the world of journalism – Rob was a highly respected former sub and revise editor on the Daily Mail – and from the world of skiing where he was immensely popular.

There have already been several moving tributes penned about Rob that mention his journalistic ability, integrity, and legendary humour. So here, I am going to concentrate on his contribution to the Skier & Snowboarder magazine and our close friendship, formed over the last three decades.

I can still vividly remember the first time we met. Rob contacted me when a new publisher purchased The Skier (no Snowboarder then) in 1989 and appointed me as editor. We arranged to meet at the now defunct Profiles dry slope (Bromley Ski Centre) where we were doing a photo shoot.

He roared into the car park in his Porsche and my first thought was ‘who is this flash git?’ But I was quickly disarmed by his charm, humour and the fact we had loads in common, including our love of football. He explained how he had already been helping out Charles Halifax, the previous owner of the Skier, and wanted to still be involved in the future of the mag by contributing news and features etc.

A story that many people will not be aware of during Rob’s early years with The Skier is from when the Daily Mail decided to launch their own ski magazine. Rob was told by his bosses at The Mail newspaper he was therefore forbidden from writing for The Skier.

He argued that his work on The Skier was nothing to do with the Mail, but his bosses were not happy. Things took a nasty turn when a member of the Mail staff approached Rob at his desk one evening and said menacingly: “We are going to bury you and your mates on The Skier. We have so much money behind us that you won’t be able to compete.”

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ON THE EDGE: Rob and Frank skiing across the France/Italy border in La Rosiere

I should add here that in our 30-year friendship I didn’t ever see Rob get angry once. But this comment was like a red rag to a bull as far as Rob was concerned and he decided he wasn’t going to be pushed around.

However, while he continued negotiations about his future contributions to the Skier, we decided it might be best if his name didn’t appear in the magazine. Therefore, if you leaf back through copies from the late 80s and early 90s you will find some well-crafted articles by a writer called Ashley Green. I can now reveal that Ashley Green and Rob were one in the same person and the pseudonym was actually the name of the village in Buckinghamshire where Rob lived.

The situation had a happy ending. Rob arrived at work to find a brown envelope waiting for him on his desk. His first thought was that he was getting the sack, but when he opened the letter, he found it was a personal note from the Daily Mail editor Sir David English giving written permission for him to continue his work on The Skier.

Rob had so much experience in the ski business. He and his wife Sue ran Ski Robin, a small ski holiday company that operated chalets in Taos, New Mexico, Verbier and Lenzerheide in Switzerland, and Kappl in Austria.

Rob also became a qualified ski instructor and while still working at The Daily Mail, and particularly after he left, he became more involved working with his wife in handling the UK PR for several ski resorts. These included Crested Butte, Winter Park and Copper Mountain in Colorado, USA, Ischgl and Carinthia in Austria, and Val Gardena and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy.

With so much experience, it has always mystified me why the Daily Mail didn’t get Rob involved when they launched their own ski magazine, but their loss was The Skier’s gain. In those early years of us working together, he helped The Skier rise to become the biggest selling ski title in the UK and an independent study by Sports Marketing Surveys found The Skier to be Britain’s Best-Read Ski Magazine.

During a recent conversation over a drink, Rob and I were in a self-congratulatory mood. We were commenting on the fact that in the last 30 years we have seen ski businesses come and go, ski magazines come and go, editors come and go, and now bloggers come and go. But the one constant in that time has been the two of us working together on The Skier & Snowboarder.

In the early days we rarely had the chance to ski together because we both could not be on the same press trip for The Skier. Eventually with Rob doing more PR or wangling it so he could write a feature for someone else, we managed quite a few trips together.

Very often we would be in groups with other people, but Rob and I liked nothing better than to get away to do some runs together. We both had the same view that it was not just about the skiing, it was being in the mountains and the beauty of the surroundings that we never tired of. So occasionally we would just stop and admire a fantastic view together – at those times no words between us were necessary.

We had such a moment when Rob and I skied together for the very first time. He and Sue had arranged a press trip to Crested Butte. Part of the itinerary included powder skiing at Irwin Lodge, a place so out of the way that it was only accessible by riding up in an adapted piste basher.

After a spectacular day skiing untracked powder Rob and I found ourselves alone in the hot tub outside Irwin Lodge with a couple of cocktails. We lay there looking out over endless snow-covered mountains and fir trees. After several minutes of silence taking in this incredible vista Rob turned to me and said with his ironic and tongue in cheek humour: “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?”

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GOOD FRIENDS: Rob and Frank were often mistaken for each other at ski launches

Rob, and his wife Sue, have also been responsible for some of my most memorable non skiing moments in the mountains. I have joined them to witness Status Quo playing in Samnaun, to hear Robbie Williams sing in Ischgl, and to race in the Art of Kart go karting competition in Austria.

Rob and I also have had the chance to ski together with some top names from ski racing including the legendary Austrian ski racer and Olympic hero Franz Klammer who became our friend. We had several adventures with Franz but one memorable occasion was when Rob and I, as a two-man team, managed to beat Franz and his partner to finish in first place in a novelty ski race. As Franz handed us the winners’ trophy, he said: “This is very unusual for me. I am not used to losing!”

Rob and I have attended hundreds of ski launches and events together. It became a running joke in the ski business that we were interchangeable, or possibly one and the same person, as people often mixed us up. Sometimes at ski events we would mischievously swap name badges just to confuse people even further!

As we worked remotely from each other we also arranged regular business meetings in country pubs, motorway service stations, and ‘greasy spoons’ in London. I always looked forward to meeting up with Rob as we had such an easy-going relationship and he became one of my closest friends.

I can honestly say working with Rob was never dull and his contribution to the success of The Skier & Snowboarder cannot be underestimated. I will of course remember our times working and skiing together with huge fondness, but I cannot quite believe we will never ski or enjoy a spot of après ski together again. I will miss his support and friendship more than I can explain. Farewell Rob.



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