Norman the Great: Friends pay glowing tributes

SUCH FUN: Norman Cox, centre, with, from left Elaine Canham, features secretary Alison Greenacre, and Jeff Boyle at a Daily Express features redundancy party in 1985

TRIBUTES have been pouring in for Daily Express features executive Norman Cox who has died at the age of 84.

Norman was a wonderful man and a huge character with a terrific sense of  humour which is reflected in his colleagues' eulogies.

Former Hickey diarist JOHN ROBERTS said: Alas, I was unable to attend the funeral of the great Norman Cox but I have been remembering him, specially his sojourns on the Hickey desk. 

Norman huffed and puffed at our perceived shortcomings and junior common-room humour to the extent that we dubbed him Eeyore. Soon his Hickey-desk sub’s seat became known as Eeyore’s ‘sad and boggy place.’ 

I’m afraid we would wind him up close to explosion point. Then, when the debris settled after his finger-wagging eruption, that smile would slowly cross Norman’s face, the sun came out again and we were all chums once more. He was a great sub and fine human being. May God grant him the rest we rarely gave him.

*****
Former Daily Express editor CHRIS WILLIAMS said: "Norman was a fabulous colleague and a first class operator. I particularly loved his unorthodox attitude to authority.

"One night Editor Larry Lamb marched into features and berated Norman over the layout of the Hickey page. He declared it rubbish and ordered a re-draw.

"Norman declined in his usual unflinching way, offered the boss a pen and suggested he show how he wanted it. Both men, unsurprisingly, had earlier taken refreshment.

"Larry had a stab at the page, but his spectacles fell off and clattered to the floor. He peered at Norman and muttered: 'I’ll make an agreement with you, Mr Cox. You pick up my glasses, I’ll go home and you can leave the page alone’.”

*****
JON ZACKON: In 1962 the subs’ room of the Daily Mail’s Manchester office was a rather sombre, soulless place where newcomers were thankful for any work that came their way while trying hard not to attract too much adverse attention to themselves.

All that changed in a single afternoon when two whizz kids, Mike Taylor and Norman Cox, took their places at the main table. They were brash and loud and, it had to be said, brilliant.

The chief sub, Arnold Earnshaw, loved them. They were not just skilled, but also exceptionally fast. There were times when Norman would have four or five stories piled up on his desk, waiting to be subbed for the first edition. His frequent cries of “copy down,” louder than anyone else’s on the table, still ring in my ears.

I don’t think he thought much of me, a barbarian from southern parts, but we shared common interests in sport and, in particular, racing.

We went to Haydock, where, in a three-horse race, we had only to choose between two because one of our party, Geoffrey Levy, had been told the third runner was a non-trier. We still managed to back the wrong one.

Norman’s greatest love was West Ham. I trailed along to see his team playing Burnley at Turf Moor. Norman made much of the Hammers’ captain, Bobby Moore. I can only imagine how proud he must have been four years later when England, bolstered by Moore and two other West Ham stars, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, won the World Cup.

He had spent time with Joan Littlewood in Stratford, east London, and spoke with a theatrical lilt. He admitted to being a frustrated thespian. I found this highly amusing. I was used to people shouting, “You’ve really buggered that up, man,” whereas Norman would say, “That’s not how we do thing here, m’dear.” He taught me a lot.

I found Norman had one abiding characteristic — cheerfulness.

We bumped into each other throughout our careers - on the Daily Sketch, the Express and one or two Sunday papers besides.

I found he had one abiding characteristic — cheerfulness.

This became abundantly clear the night he and Trish held their engagement party at a pub in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge. Afterwards they gave me and my wife Anne a lift back to Hampstead Garden Suburb. Norman was sozzled and, ignoring Trish’s protestations, drove his Ford Prefect at speed, ever so slightly on the wrong side of the road.

Halfway up Abbey Road he had to swerve violently to avoid an oncoming car. We had come within inches of a head on collision. As it was, the two cars smacked together and the Prefect’s wing mirror and offside door were damaged.

When we arrived at Hampstead Garden Suburb we all got out, shaking with fright. Trish proceeded to give Norman the worst and most deserved dressing down I have ever heard. Norman turned white, but took his punishment like a man.

Then they drove off. To my astonishment, Norman gave us a parting wave and there was no doubting he was already back to looking perfectly cheerful.

In recent years our contact was limited to phone chats before Aintree or Cheltenham. I loved his sad-sack, fatalistic but utterly indomitable attitude to his gambling. He could have starred in any number of Neil Simon movies.

Given he was now close to total blindness, I asked how he was getting his bets on. He explained that he caught the bus from a stop outside his house in Muswell Hill to the betting shop, a single stop away. After racing was over he would walk to the kerb and wave his white stick. Sooner or later a kindly passer-by would usher him across the road to catch the bus home. It always worked, he laughed.

Now that’s indomitable for you! I think I miss him already.

BOTTOMS UP: Norman with Dave Searby and Mike Snaith in 1985


 ROBIN McGIBBON: Norman and I go back 57 years, to when he was a highly-valued operator on the Daily Sketch - alternating between Splash sub and middle-bencher — and I was on trial as a holiday relief. 

He went out of his way to be friendly and, as the summer wore on and I became more and nervous at not being kept on, Norman assured me I would. That meant everything to me, since I'd chucked in my job on a provincial evening paper and was fearful of being out of work with a wife and a three-year-old daughter to support.

Two years later, I was having trouble securing a building society mortgage and needed someone in authority to confirm — on Sketch headed notepaper — that I was earning £35 a week (which I wasn't). I turned to Norman for help and he responded as I hoped he would.

"You write the letter," he said. "And I'll sign it, as Chief Sub-Editor."

I'm happy to say I got the mortgage. And our secret conspiracy stayed between us.

Convivial as he usually was, Norman did not suffer fools, and was never slow to speak his mind as I witnessed one particularly hectic night at the Sketch when he berated the Night Editor for reading a paperback book in the middle of the edition.

Despite his blindness, he was as friendly, cheerful and welcoming as ever

I was relatively new to the job and astounded that an assistant chief sub had the audacity to attack a senior colleague so vociferously. But that was Norman: in my experience he never gave a toss.

I didn't see much of him after I left Fleet Street (the first time) in 1970, but, whenever we did meet he was as friendly and charming as ever, and always interested in whatever entrepreneurial activity I was up to.

Thanks to Jon Zackon, who knew him before I did, I was able to speak to Norman at his home  in Muswell Hill, three years ago. Despite his blindness, he was as friendly, cheerful and welcoming as ever — and most amused when I quoted the intro on a Sketch Splash he'd written in 1963! 

It was on a story about the police hunt for Great Train Robber Roy James, the racing driver, nicknamed "The Weasel."

In those days, Sketch splash intros were 14pt, so they had to be very brief. Norman's was: 

The hunt for The Weasel popped over to Ireland last night.

I'd only been on the paper a matter of months and thought that was jolly good!

*****

JEFF BOYLE: Norman was, indeed, larger than life and great fun to drink with, and was always up for a good debate — on any subject.

One classic event I remember involving Norman was one night in the Pops (where else?) What started as a discussion on religion turned into a full-scale cowboy-style bar room 'brawl'. The bar area cleared, leaving just Norman at one end and the then Welsh Assistant  Features Editor, whose name escapes me, at the other trading insults about their respective religions. Needless to say they had both had a couple of sweet sherries, but the spectacle was hilarious. You just couldn't make it up. They kissed and made up the next day.

If there is a heaven (and Norman always assured me: ‘Don't worry old man, when the end comes God will see you right') he will even now have all the other chums we have so sadly lost in stitches!

*****

ALASTAIR McINTYRE: “One Christmas Norman came into the newsroom and sat on the backbench to present his completed William Hickey page to editor Arthur Firth.

"Norman had forgotten that he was still wearing his paper hat, a remnant from a boozy festive lunch. 

"As luck would have it Arthur was lighting a cigarette and was still holding the blazing lighter when Norman sat down. So obviously Arthur held the flame to Norman’s hat.

"It caught fire and Norman snatched off the hat and stamped out the flames.

“The office erupted in laughter — and an unharmed Norman joined in the merriment.

“That was the Daily Expess I remember … lots of fun and pranks — even from the editor.”

*****

RICHARD DISMORE: "I always found him a sound bloke. A good operator and quirky, even eccentric in his ways. What a features team that was.”

*****

ALAN FRAME: “It seems as if I have known him for ever. He was wonderfully eccentric in a nice way and was a great ally when I started as features editor.”


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre