Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Mel Cook: Great journalist, greater friend

The small Parish Church of St Giles in Balderton was packed yesterday ... with some of the best-known names in regional newspapers. They were all there for one reason, to celebrate the life of Mel Cook. Mel died two weeks ago, only six months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 51. He was one of the most popular and likeable journalists I have ever met - which is why the church was brimming. In a business full of egos and ambition, there are not many people who get to the top and remain loved by everyone. Mel was an exception. I have truly never heard anyone say a bad word about him. Not only was he a hugely talented journalist, but he had an honesty and humour that endeared him to all. That came over in the service in Nottinghamshire yesterday afternoon. There were brave and tearful tributes from his dad and his sister who both shared their unbearable grief. And then four of his closest friends and colleagues delivered a eulogy that captured the spirit of the man. This is what they said:

Mike Sassi, editor in chief of The Sentinel, Stoke 

Monday June 20 1988 was my first day in journalism. It was also the first time I met Mel. I turned up at the front desk of the Derby Evening Telegraph to be greeted by a short, chubby chap with a bouffant of blond hair. (That wasn't Mel - that was Steve Hall.) He took me into a crowded newsroom where the news editor announced that first assignment for the nervous new boy would be to run the Dovedale Dash - five miles across The Peak District. I was shell-shocked. Until a kindly-looking fella with unusually tight curly hair and a luxuriant moustache wandered over and whispered: Don't worry mate - I'll show you what to do. That was Mel. And show me he did. He guided me through the training runs, helped me write the features and even gave me a lift there and back on race day. Because that was how Mel was; kind and generous - even to someone he'd never met. His kindness was legendary. But so was his sense of humour…

Simon O'Neill, editor, Oxford Mail 

Mel was the best friend a man could ever have. But my fondest memories of him are a blur of flaming hair, fluffy wigs and phantom news pages. The wigs were inspired by Mel's old sparring partner, then a balding Derby Telegraph news editor, Kevin Booth. During moments of great stress Kev would be confronted by chief sub Mel sporting a huge curly wig and screaming 'Calm down! Calm down!', in a ridiculous scouse accent. Oh how Boothy laughed. The phantom news pages were another little gift from Mel to the Derby news desk. When he didn't think they were under enough pressure he'd tell them they had extra pages to fill... and make sure they ended up doing huge amounts of unnecessary extra work – just for fun! And the flaming hair? Well they were Mel's own curly locks – set alight every year as part of the Christmas festivities, by then Derby editor Mike 'General Belgrano' Lowe. But there were no hard feelings. It was Mike Lowe who also appointed Mel to the most prestigious job he ever had: Manager of the infamous Derby Telegraph football team…

Steve Hall, MD at the Derby Telegraph 

Yes, this was a role in which Mel excelled. He led the team on football tours across Britain – memorably setting off hotel fire alarms in Gloucester, collapsing crossbars in Darlington and scuffling with three men wearing the same T-shirt (at the same time) in a Hull nightclub. The football wasn't pretty. But then again, neither was the team. With Mel at the helm, they gave a whole new meaning to the phrase 'winning ugly'. And Mel wasn't just a winner on the football pitch, he was the best production journalist that I’ve known in 30 years in the business. Everything I learned about subbing and design, I learned from him. He was also a brilliant friend. I knew that I could always count on Mel in a crisis. I found out just how much after I was badly injured playing for (you guessed it) that Derby Telegraph football team. Mel carted me to hospital, spent all day there while I had a couple of broken bones put back into place and then, every day for six weeks afterwards, drove 20 miles out of his way to get me into work for 7am! Cookie was a great journalist – and an even greater friend…

Alan Geere, consultant editor, the Nottingham Post

A great friend indeed. But also very humble. One of my strongest memories of Mel was the day he was appointed editor in Scunthorpe.  Mel was already an experienced journalist, yet he insisted on driving 300 miles, down to Essex, to pick my brain about his new job. That was the measure of the man. Never too proud to ask. Always eager to learn. Of course, Mel spent much of his career teaching other journalists – particularly production journalists – how to do their jobs. I remember, in Wales, him trying to persuade one sub editor that every photograph had to be given a unique name, otherwise the new computer system might publish the wrong picture. Mel only realised he'd failed when he opened the following day's paper and saw a feature about the solar system... illustrated with an eight-column picture of a Mars bar! Yes. There was never a dull moment when Mel was around.
Mike Sassi again 

So you see Mel was a very special individual, who will be sorely missed. People loved him. Sometimes it was the small things, like leaving bags of joke sweets – full  of salt and pepper – lying around Mike Norton's desk. Because he just knew that Knocker Norton would not be able to resist taking a handful. It worked every time. Then there were the astonishingly annoying Star Ship Enterprise noises that he downloaded on to Richard Bowyer's keyboard – and refused to show anyone how to remove. But my final, favourite memory of Melly Mel was of the South Wales Echo football tour he organised to France. This was the day on which all his victims had their retribution. During a civic reception, in front of 500 guests, we secretly arranged for Mel to be invited onto the stage by the Mayor. With trumpets sounding, Mel was accepted as an honorary member of the Ancient Order of The Chevalier – The Gallic Freemasonry of French Musketeers. I will never forget the look on Mel's face as a floppy D'Artagnan hat – complete with three-foot feather – was placed on his head. The Mayor of Nantes announced: "We are proud to welcome Monsieur Melvyn Cook – the finest hairdresser in all of Wales!"  Mel stepped up to the microphone, straightened his tie and said: "Thanks lads!" 
No Mel. Thank youThank you for being such a generous, kind, happy fella. And for being our friend.

Here's to Mel. After the funeral we all raised a glass to Mel at his favourite drinking den, Brown's Bistro in his village of Fernwood. This is a picture that Mel would have loved. It shows me, Keith Perch,  Richard Bowyer, John Meehan, Mike Norton,  Mike Sassi, Alan Geere, Steve Hall and Simon O'Neill with a framed photograph of Mel and his partner Helen.

They are typical of the stories about Mel, told with warmth and real affection. Here are a couple of other tributes, from two of his former editors.

Mike Lowe, editor of Cotswold Life and Mel's editor at the Derby Evening Telegraph, recalled:

The Derby Evening Telegraph newsroom of the early 1990s was a place of remarkable talents - Keith Perch, Simon O'Neill, Kevin Booth, Steve Hall, Mike Sassi, Richard Bowyer, Simon Irwin, Jeremy Clifford - all of whom went on to great things. At the heart of this powerhouse, as chief sub, was Mel Cook.
Mel held it all together when things were in danger of spinning out of control. When an editor was making unreasonable demands or when the newsdesk wanted just five more minutes more, Mel was completely unflappable and utterly professional. And he met those unreasonable demands and he found those five more minutes. His sense of humour and positive attitude to life enhanced everyone's working day. His daily jousting with Boothy, our news editor, so often released the steam on the pressure cooker. He was always the one responsible for the latest practical joke. On rowdy football tours or for an hour down the pub, he was delightful company. He was a great friend and colleague and will be missed by all who were lucky enough to meet him.

Captain Cook. Mel (second from right, front row) with the infamous Derby Telegraph team

Mel later worked as deputy editor to John Meehan at the Hull Daily Mail. John said: 

We once faced the challenge of a very talented young reporter who had become disenchanted and had given in his notice. We were determined to persuade him to stay. I saw him but failed completely to change his mind.  I knew there was only one person who could turn this around - Mel. With his cheery, eternally positive nature, Mel was a master of motivating journalists. He decided a heart-to-heart with 'Uncle Mel' was required and he took the young reporter out for a liquid lunch to an Irish bar near the office. Trouble was, unknown to Mel, the bar had recently become a lurid gay meeting place.
The change was not obvious from outside, but inside it was dramatically different in 'ambience'. The lunchtime motivational session took place amid much interest in Mel - at the time sporting a moustache that would not have been out of place on one of the Village People - and his fresh-faced companion. The unusual setting worked a trick. The young reporter came back with a great story and all was right with the world. As ever, Mel also revelled in telling the story against himself. 

Humour, warmth and kindness were clearly a huge part of Mel's personality. There are some poignant comments about him on Hold The Front Page that illustrate what people truly thought of him. Mel was a first rate journalist and editor, a great father and family-man, a talented sportsman and a musician and comic who fronted the Yorkshire punk band, the Padlock Sisters. He was also one of the most positive people you could ever meet. When he was diagnosed last October, he was having none of it. He tackled it head-on, refusing to be anything but positive for those around him. He and his partner Helen created a 'wall of positivity' in their home - filled with messages, cards, mock front pages and memories.  It gave him and those who visited him an enormous amount of joy. 

Mel's journalism career started at Pontefract and Castleford Express and took in the Derby Evening Telegraph and South Wales Echo before he was appointed deputy editor at the Hull Daily Mail. He moved to the Scunthorpe Telegraph as editor and did a first rate job of taking the paper weekly in 2011. He was appointed editor of the Nottingham Post in May last year. He will, of course, be missed terribly by his family, including his daughter Ellie, his partner Helen and her son Luke, and by his friends and colleagues … but we will all cherish his memory and be grateful we had the privilege to know him.

Among the regional newspaper cast of thousands in the church yesterday were Mike Sassi and Richard Bowyer from the Sentinel; Simon O'Neill, editor of the Oxford Mail; Mike Norton, editor of the Bristol Post; former Leicester Mercury editor Keith Perch; former Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan and deputy Paul Hartley; the executive team from the Nottingham Post including Steve Hollingsworth, Alan Geere and Charlie Walker; Steve Hall, MD at the Derby Telegraph; Mike Lowe, editor of Costwold Life; Kevin Booth, editor of the Burton Mail; Michelle Lalor, editor at the Grimsby Telegraph; Jeremy Clifford, editor at the Star in Sheffield; Dave Atkin, editor at the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Jon Grubb, former editor of the Lincolnshire Echo; Local World chief executive Steve Auckland and executive director Rich Mead; media lawyer Tony Jaffa; former editor of the South Wales Echo, Robin Fletcher; former editor of the Retford Times, Nick Purkiss amd former Grimsby Telegraph MD Mark Price. These are just a few of the people I caught up with. There were dozens of other journalists (if I missed you out, please forgive me) and of course countless other friends and family. It was a great tribute to a great man.    


  1. Mel was my best friend and I will miss having a cheeky one in the pub, it was always my fault we got drunk, or that's what you said, I had the pleasure to be his best man and would have been honoured to have done so again. It was only a friendly match why did you have to turn up in the team bus from Notts Forest buts that's you isn't it. Many great great memories. I would like to pass my deepest sympathies to Helen, Ellie, and family and also to Anna.

  2. Hey Mel
    One question, why did we have to close the curtains to rehearse a sketch about dustbins so my wife thought I was gay, "the dustbin theatre" never got off the ground what were we thinking
    great times

  3. Thanks for adding Shanny. Good memories.