Bob Coole, who died on Wednesday aged 80, was a sub-editor and features executive of such rare talent that it is, for once, appropriate to employ the clichÃ© “legendary”.
Several former Fleet Street editors lined up to praise a man regarded as a master technician. Like his fellow subs on a string of newspapers – notably, the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Express – they regarded the speed and accuracy of Bob’s subbing with awe.
When he turned up on the subs bench at The Sun in 1972, where I was deputy chief sub, I was told that his greatest skill was in transforming a mountain of agency copy into a coherent 250-word story without missing any salient fact.
So it proved. He was so quick at spotting an intro he would often put the first ‘take’ of copy into the revise sub’s basket within minutes of being given the task.
Well into his seventies, at the Express, he was still illustrating his craftsmanship. Editor Peter Hill says: “I doubt if there has ever been a better sub-editor. Despite failing health, Bob would never let you down. Though he struggled into the office on very dodgy legs, his brain remained pin sharp.”
He also had a biting wit, often employed to withering effect as a features supremo in the 1970s at The Sun and in the 1980s at the Daily Star.
Hill, who first met Bob at the Star in 1979, recalls him being “an uncompromising executive who knew exactly what he wanted and who despaired of those who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards”.
What struck everyone about Bob was his patrician appearance and attitude. Writer Jean Ritchie, who followed Bob from The Sun to the Star because of her respect for his talents, says: “I thought he looked as if he ought to be conducting a classical concert, all flowing hair and rather theatrical head tossing”.
For years I thought he was a public schoolboy, having traded down to work on the tabloids. Yet Bob came from solid working class stock. His father was a building worker in Bristol where Bob was born in 1930.
Educated at Thornbury Grammar school, he was immediately conscripted to national service and posted to the Ministry of Defence, where he learned shorthand and typing. To his surprise this qualified him for a job at the Bristol Evening World.
He soon grasped how to write a competent news story but never got to grips with his Saturday duty of covering football matches, eventually paying a lad from a local greengrocer’s to attend and then describe what had happened.
He moved on to the Sheffield Star, discovering his true metier as a sub, and after a brief spell in Manchester at the News Chronicle he managed to win a coveted place on the subs desk at the Daily Mirror in London. It was there he won his reputation as a super-sub.
He was also renowned for his disdain for authority in an era where senior executives on popular papers created regimes of fear. According to Bill Hagerty’s history of the Daily Mirror, Read All About It, the foul-mouthed night editor, Dick Dinsdale, once bawled across the editorial floor: “What cunt subbed this?”
From the middle of the subs bench, Bob is reputed to have shouted back: “What cunt wants to know?”
Though now regarded as an apocryphal tale, even by Hagerty, it properly reflects Bob’s wit and self-assurance. He was not only concerned with subbing; he also had ideas about commissioning copy too. When the Mirror launched its ill-fated colour magazine in 1969 its editor, Mike Molloy, grabbed Bob to be its features editor.
Molloy says: “Seldom has a man’s name described him better. He was the coolest man I’ve ever known, a craftsman who exuded a quiet confidence.”
By this time, encouraged by Keith Waterhouse, Bob was spending any spare time writing for radio and television. He churned out a dozen or so plays for Radio 4, half a dozen comedy dramas for TV plus the first series of Howarth, the tale of a Yorkshire newspaper owner. He even scripted a film for the French actor and director Jacques Tati.
But Bob loved popular newspapers and, after the collapse of the Mirror Magazine, he was recruited by one of his former Mirror colleagues, Larry Lamb, who was in the process of building sales at the Mirror’s expense as editor of The Sun. After a spell as a news sub, Bob was put in charge of the features department, happily overseeing such merry promotional ideas as page 3 girls engraved on beer glasses and a memorable Christmas special – knickers in a tin.
Despite the froth, Bob’s greatest forte was ensuring that every word in his pages read well. Patsy Chapman, then a rookie sub and later editor of the News of the World, remembers how he worried over galley proofs, doing all the cuts himself in order to prevent a stone sub butchering his treasured pay-off lines. Job done, says Chapman, “he would give a flick of his long, shiny hair and swan away”.
In 1979, he became associate editor of the newly-launched Daily Star, working alongside Peter Grimsditch and then Derek Jameson, who says: “I’ve known a few hundred subs in my time, but he was by far the best of them all – a rewrite man of genius with a head full of feature ideas.”
After several years on the Star, Bob became features editor of Plus magazine, an experimental publication distributed with local newspapers across the country, and then worked at Today.
He also wrote a booklet, “Crisp, clear writing in one hour”, for the Sunday Times Word Power series and became a consultant for the HarperCollins reference guides to English usage.
After a long spell out in the ’90s while recovering from cancer and chemotherapy, he found a chair at Associated New Media, as editor of UK Plus, easily acquiring new media skills in his mid-60s.
He could not bear retirement and in his final years he joined other old Fleet Street lags to sub at the Express. He was still working the night before a heart attack and kidney failure two and a half years ago.
He leaves a daughter, Charlotte, and eight grandchildren from his first marriage, a daughter Daisy, a jazz musician, from his second marriage to the journalist, Alix Palmer, and a stepson, Leon.
Alix remembers overhearing a teenage Daisy telling a friend: “My parents are both very intelligent. I think Dad just has the edge.”
Truly, Bob Coole had the edge on almost everyone.
Bob Coole, born 13 January 1930, died 17 March 2010. His funeral will take place at Golders Green Crematorium next Thursday (25 March) at 11.30am. Donations to the North London Hospice.