BitDepth 569 - March 27

The late George John, career journalist...
Calling it George

George John. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

I do not like you Doctor Mark,
The reason why you need not ark,
But what I know, I know full sark
I do not like you Doctor Mark.
- George John, 1962

Okay, so it wasn't George John's finest hour as a craftsman of words, but it was unerring in its effect. From my earliest memory of him, George John, who I grew up calling Uncle George, would drive me to a boiling fury of frustration by reciting this verse.
It wasn't until I was much, much older that I would come to understand that it was what he did. He would write gently, playfully, sometimes even nonsensically, but always with a deft command of what his words could do and how they would affect someone who read them. Or in the case of my young ears, hearing them.

As a child, I grew up knowing him as a keen-eyed, carefully spoken man with a playful, no, make that mischievous, smile that let you know that he was quite aware of what you were up to and that he was in on the joke.
His doggerel verse apart, he was one of the few adult males I grew up taking respectful note of, even as I adamantly ignored him and his seemingly never-ending efforts to taunt me with that damned refrain.

Teen years
Next I knew him as I grew out of my teens and decided that I wanted to write. I had been doing movie reviews at the Sunday Punch for just over a year when he gave me a chance at the Express, where he was the Editor.
I wrote then for "The Young Scene," a small section of the features pages of the Sunday paper set aside for reporting on the antics of the youth.
He would call me into his office occasionally to offer comments on the way I had approached a particular story and to encourage me to go out and report, to see things and talk to people and find out what was really happening.

On that beat, I went to house parties to listen to small bands slamming enthusiastically through their repertoire and found The Last Supper, a band that included in its line up a young Robin Imamshah and Carl Henderson.
Through it all, as I figured out what writing for a newspaper could be, there would be the intermittent visits to an office commanded by piles of that yellowish newsprint that we typed then and in one corner was a huge typewriter, weathered, angular and black on which I never saw him type a single word.

At The Guardian
His writing was always done reflectively and in private. Even in our third time working together, when we met at the Guardian, he as the senior editorial consultant in situ and me, one of the young turks brought by Lennox Grant from the Express in 1998, I would never see him actually write.
If I entered his office and he was staring at the screen, he would stop and talk, never glancing back or seeming particularly eager to finish what he had been doing.
He would sometimes drop by my little office then, making a flourish of taking one of my sweets, but really on a mission to share a thought or offer some advice.

Once, in a particularly over-the-top bit of exuberance, front page designer Kevan Gibbs ran a headline in what must have been 200 point type, a vast slab of black text that commanded the page.
"It's very impressive," George said, unwrapping a mint slowly, "but what size will you use if there's a war?"
I can't count the times that he would guide me from my earliest days as a writer until he left the Guardian. And it wasn't all advice. Sometimes it was a reference. Read this. Talk to that person. Look up that. His knowledge wasn't offered as a prescribed main course but rather as a buffet. No matter what you picked up, it was always a pleasant surprise.

Old journalists just type away
Now George is gone. His four-decade-old threat to show anyone impressed with me an old photo of his daughter Deborah reeling from my attempt to kiss her at my fifth birthday party is over. He won't be calling my mother Mona Jamaica at their every greeting.
I regret never having thanked him for caring, for his prickly insistence on better and for being, in what for other people would have been old age, one of the funniest people I've ever known. Of course, if I had, he would have dismissed it and made a wisecrack, but it should have been said.

If George got a bit crankier in his later years, it probably was in frustration at the revolving door of talent that the media had become. In his world, being a journalist was evangelism, you believed in it, had faith in its capacity to overcome its failings and worked at making it more relevant every day. But everytime he was called on to teach, it must have seemed like the whole congregation had changed.
George John stayed the course, a journalist from his first professional moment to his last, his writing fluent, clear and dizzyingly wide ranging, a monument to his skill and enthusiasm for this country's people and it remains a lasting touchstone to everyone who comes after him in this business.
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