Anton Rippon: New book explores gritty subject set in the streets of Derby

Anton Rippon column, Derby Telegraph, June 4, 2014

WHEN I wrote of an 11-year-old who had never heard of a typewriter, my fellow columnist, Neil White, recalled the days when hand-held communications devices were something out of Star Trek.

As a young reporter, when Neil needed to phone over his copy he first had to find a public telephone that hadn’t been vandalised.

“They were days of carbon paper, smoke-filled town-centre newspaper offices that shook when the presses rolled, and editors who would never admit to dyeing their hair.”

Our industry has certainly changed a lot since the days when the staff door at Northcliffe House in Albert Street stood conveniently cheek-by-jowl with the entrance to the Exchange Hotel.

Opening that door one summer Saturday evening I was pinned to the ground by the photographer who had been leaning on it. He had called at the Exchange on his way back from an afternoon in the beer tent at Derby Regatta.

Back in those days, such things were tolerated. Now they have been recaptured in a new book, First Dead Body, set in Derby and written by former Derby Telegraph journalist, Richard Cox, whose nom-de-plume is Tony R. Cox “because there are too many writers out there called Richard Cox”.

Richard’s Derby credentials are impeccable: his maternal grandfather was headmaster of Gerard Street School in the 1930s; and the bottling plant for his great-grandfather’s business, Cox & Garrard, was in Abbey Street.

At the Derby Telegraph, Richard learned the basics, from collecting names at society funerals – and risking the news editor’s wrath if even one name was wrong or omitted – to producing the stories of praise, hope, fear and death which are the lifeblood of a regional newspaper.

He said: “In the late 1960s and early 70s it was a rite of passage for a cub reporter who showed some talent to be shown the ropes by the chief crime reporter on a big story.

“In First Dead Body, for Simon Jardine the sight of his first dead body is the catalyst for a mentoring relationship with the hard-drinking, hard-grilling crime hack, Dave Green, alongside their mutual friend, a DJ and part-time private investigator.”

Green knows the identity of the corpse found in East Street. It is the son of a woman with whom he had an affair while her husband was in prison, and First Dead Body follows the trail of the three amateur detectives who become enmeshed in the corruption and violence that are rife in the construction of Derby’s new inner ring road in the early 1970s, their snooping exposing them to risks that they are not trained to handle.

Richard’s book vividly captures life in the days when reporters’ lunches were often long and liquid, when contacts were met in pubs like The Dolphin, Exeter Arms and Wagon and Horses. He should know, because he was there.

His characters are amalgams of the many people, including exceptional journalists and ex-journalists, who were part of the life of a large town in a beautiful county. It was an age of call boxes, notebooks and travelling to jobs by bus. As we said at the beginning, how times have changed …

First Dead Body (£6.99) is available from Amazon later this month.

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