Encyclopaedic historian of figure skating
Tuesday 06 September 2005
For over half a century, Dennis Bird was one of the world's foremost authorities on figure skating, a walking encyclopaedia for the history of the sport. Up to his death, despite the computer era when facts are easily obtained with a few strokes of the keyboard, "Dicky" Bird's phone number was a prized research tool. He was still fielding occasional telephone calls from around the world while in hospital from the stroke which felled him earlier this year. In this he was aided by Anne, his wife of 46 years, and a giant master index he had assiduously created.
As archivist of the National Ice Skating Association of Great Britain, he produced Our Skating Heritage: a centenary history of the National Skating Association of Great Britain, 1879-1979, an outstanding book commissioned to celebrate the association's 100th anniversary which is unmatched both for its detail and its lack of errors. He was also an occasional but authoritative contributor to The Independent's obituaries, most recently in 2003 recording the life of Vivi-Anne Hulten, the Swedish skater who in 1930, aged 19, captured the heart of the young Peter Scott.
Earlier this year, the sport's largest commercial figure skating magazine, International Figure Skating, reproduced an article he wrote on the 1952 Olympic Games, under a nom de plume, John Noel, for Skating World. It was with this magazine, which has long since ceased publication, that Bird had first established his credentials, covering national and international events and writing features. He became the skating correspondent of The Times in March 1959, when he deserted his wedding preparations to attend a skating competition, filing a story three days before his marriage.
His relationship with his sports editor, John Hennessy, was not always smooth but it survived a blow-up during the 1976 Winter Olympics. The big story in Innsbruck was John Curry's gold medal for Britain. Bird always wrote his stories meticulously in a large book in which he had drawn a grid to show the exact word count. Wanting to speed up the process by dictating the early part of Bird's story to meet a deadline, Hennessy attempted to tear out the first sheet but Bird was horrified at the idea of destroying his record book.
Their relationship further deteriorated when Bird learned that Hennessy had suppressed a message that Bird's wife's father had died earlier that day, delivering it only when Bird had completed his assignment late at night. Bird was mortified that he had not been able to contact and provide consolation to his wife earlier in the day. The association ended finally when The Times went on strike in November 1978, but Bird continued to write whenever and for whatever publication requested a skating story.
Dennis Bird was born in Eastbourne in Sussex, moving at six months to Shoreham-by-Sea, where he lived for all of his life, other than the 20 years he spent in the RAF, which he left in 1968 as a squadron leader. He then became a senior lecturer at the Civil Service College until his retirement in 1991.
His love of skating began after his sister, Joan, who was four years older than he, took him to the Brighton Sports Stadium to watch a competition. At that time, in the late 1940s, it was one of the leading centres of figure skating in Britain. Training there were Jennifer and John Nicks, who won the 1953 pairs world title, and Jeannette Altwegg, who was the 1951 world champion and 1952 Olympic gold medal winner.
Bird developed a crush on one of the competitors, Barbara Wyatt, and took up skating as a ruse to meet the famous skater, who had a notoriously over-protective mother. He quickly decided that his talent was very limited, however, and, since he had written for his school newspaper, directed his fascination with the sport into publicising it.
Although he is most known for his knowledge of skating, Bird was a man of multiple interests. In later life, he was a popular lecturer on many subjects including schoolgirl fiction. He also co-wrote Shoreham Airport Sussex (with T.M.A. Webb, 1996), a definitive history, and was a classical music aficionado. He appeared on Mastermind (in 1975), answering questions on opera, and on other television and radio programmes including Brain of Britain. His last public appearance was in 2002 at the opening by the Queen of the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.
Bird could not have accomplished all he did without the support of his wife. He maintained that he was pre-ordained to marry Anne, since the two would never have met but for an accident. He had been asked to be the best man at the wedding of a schoolfriend but declined because he was stationed in the Outer Hebrides. However, he broke a bone while riding his bike and was given leave. Anne, a cousin of the groom, was a bridesmaid. It was love at first sight and he proposed the second time they met.
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