Deeley caters for the old hack’s trade

Peter Wilson reviews Copy! Boy! A ‘black’ from Brum, Peter Deeley’s account of a real hack’s life

There are many books by journalists, but very few featuring the hacks of the trade. Max Hastings’ tome obsessed with Conrad Black, Andrew Neil’s with the unions, while Piers Morgan’s feisty memoir was pretty much about the stars he had rubbed shoulders with (although none, of course, as great a star as Piers himself). So Peter Deeley’s slim volume of memoirs is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

This book comes under the vanity publishing category: that usually means it is by someone whose opinion of themselves is greater than that bestowed on them by their colleagues and others, or that they truly do have something to add to the culture of the trade. Copy! Boy! should be filed under the latter, although up to a point.

To start with, the memoirs are from Deeley’s early days as a journalist, rather than his later years when he wrote about sport, politics and home news for some of Fleet Street’s major titles and also in Australia. This book is not about name-dropping.

It is about the Caters news agency and about his hometown, Birmingham, and it is a very enjoyable read.

Agencies such as Caters provide a vital chapter in the history of British journalism. Their role not only in delivering news but also in producing first-class journalists is second to none.

Deeley entered the trade from school as a copy boy in 1951 and his picture of the time with the country, in general, and the Midlands, in particular, still recovering from the war is a vivid one.
When Deeley joined Caters, the agency had been going for 22 years. Its concentration on local news meant that it didn’t need big budgets, but even so it was run with a tight rein on expenses. Deeley’s starting wage was 30 shillings a week (£1.50 in new money).

The indenture his parents and employers had to sign – “the apprentice” shall not play unlawful games or frequent taverns but in all things he shall demean and behave himself towards the masters as a good and lawful apprentice ought to do” – is a marvellous document.

Like most youngsters entering an agency he was nothing more than a gofer: making the tea, running the errands and phoning over the copy of his more senior colleagues; indeed, he saw very little of the game during his first professional visit to his beloved Aston Villa because he had to ring over a colleague’s reports from the seclusion of the press room. But Deeley finally got to write his own stories, doing the obligatory court reports and even getting to sit in the Villa Park press box.

The anecdotes at first come thick and fast, with my particular favourite about the person who made up a fictitious works football league in an obscure part of the country to make money selling the results to agencies, who, of course, sold them on to the nationals. Or the Birmingham Mail reporter who, having gone to report on a funeral straight from a few drinks in a pub, tried to read the inscription on a wreath being lowered on the coffin and fell into the grave.

Deeley writes, almost fondly, of the power of the unions, well the NUJ, at least, at the time and that great advocate of trade unionism, George Barnwell. But there is a lot of melancholy in Deeley’s reminiscing; that of someone who is glad to be retired in this age of celebrity-obsessed news and papers overloaded with celebrity columnists.

The book, though, loses its narrative momentum about half-way through when Deeley first dedicates a chapter to Birmingham in the 1950s that would have been better near the front of the book and possibly tied in with the stories Caters sent out at the time. Some of it is interesting, but it drags on and you start feeling that all you are reading are page fillers.

Also, like many vanity-publishing enterprises, the subbing and layout of the book leaves a lot to be desired, although much of the time Deeley’s words prove more powerful than these irritations.

He belatedly returns to the main subject, Caters, and charts the agency’s downfall, before it was resurrected again in the 1990s only to be swallowed up by a bigger parent company. Even so, local news agencies continue to remain a vital part of journalism in Britain, and the press is better for it.

Copy! Boy! may not be as comprehensive as that great book on the Press Association, George Scott’s Reporter Anonymous, but it is a worthwhile venture and one it is hoped other hacks will follow.

Copy! Boy! A “black” from Brum by Peter Deeley (£8.50, with 50p going to the Newspaper Press Fund). Available from Peter Deeley, 2 Knapton’s Croft, Market Sq, Lower Heyford, OX25 5NR

For previous book reviews, click here.