Life on local newspapers, especially in district offices, used to be conducted at a different pace. And sometimes from a different planet, as ANTON RIPPON just about remembers
I wish I could remember his name. Small, pale, thinning hair, raincoat, he came to work at the Burton Mail in the late 1960s.
Or it might have been the early 1970s.
That’s the trouble: the older you get the more previous decades seem to merge.
Whatever, I was at the Derby Evening Telegraph’s district office in Burton. They were halcyon days for local newspapers; ours in particular. Circulation touching six figures – thanks in no small part to Brian Clough’s miracle work at the Baseball Ground – and advertisers joining a two-week long queue to promote whatever it was they were selling.
Our office was a one-up-one-down affair at the corner of Abbey Arcade and the Market Place. It’s a nail bar now.
A 19th-century wrought-iron circular staircase used to connect the upstairs reporters’ room with the downstairs’ publishing “department”. Otherwise, communication was by means of a bulldog clip on a long piece of packer’s string, on which late news and racing results hot off the teleprinter (which in cold weather was always three letters behind the one you’d just pressed) were lowered to be put in the “fudge” (for young people, that’s the stop press; we’ll explain the stop press itself another time) using a “bushing machine”, a sort of giant duplicator so called, I think, because it was manufactured by Bush of Loughborough.
All local sport was covered from the office, lumped together with Rotary club lunches, town council meetings and magistrates’ court, which meant that the affairs of Burton Albion, then in the Southern League, fell to a succession of reporters who had no actual interest in sport in general, never mind football in particular.
The only problem was that the presses at the old Northcliffe House, slap-bang in middle of the town centre – Derby’s city status was still a few years away – weren’t all that reliable. Sometimes the first Burton edition didn’t arrive until late afternoon. And even then, it often carried Burton area stories that were perhaps two days old whereas the Burton Mail, printed just down the High Street, was bang up-to-date.
But life there was a cosy affair. No one from head office bothered us and long lunchtimes were spent in the office pub that stood on the other side of the Market Place. I liked the Royal Oak. During my time in Burton it had a number of agreeable landlords including one who divorced his second wife and remarried his first. It takes a real man to admit that he’s made a mistake.
Now, the Royal Oak took in lodgers and this is where my mysterious character comes in. He came to work at the Burton Mail and took up residence at the pub. Then one lunchtime he dropped into the conversation that he had once dated Fenella Fielding, “England’s first lady of the double entendre”, and then a household name in film and television.
We were impressed. But then the following day he claimed to have discovered Matt Monro, taught Denis Compton how to bat, and set Henry Cooper on his way to the heavyweight championship of Great Britain and the British Empire. So now we took his alleged dalliance with La Fielding with a large dollop of salt.
Such scepticism was justified a few days later when he announced that he had to make an urgent call to Dave Charnley, the British lightweight champion, who he said he managed. He was busy on the pub telephone, apparently arranging a world title fight in New York for the Dartford Destroyer, when the landlord picked up the extension to listen in.
You may be unsurprised to learn that there was no one at the other end. We decided not to let on because he was such good entertainment value.
Alas, one Sunday morning, he took the landlord’s prize pedigree bitch for a walk, let her off the lead, and returned with her pregnant by a mangy mutt that was roaming loose in Stapenhill Pleasure Gardens. It was a misdemeanour too far. When the truth emerged, he was asked to find new accommodation.
I still can’t think of his name. I wonder if Fenella Fielding might remember?