Matthew Lewin on Gerald Isaaman

“What do you like doing?” asked the legendary Gerald Isaaman.

That
was the one question I hadn’t prepared myself for, since every other
(unsuccessful) job interview I ever had was all about what I had done,
where I had worked and whether my training, such as it was, in South
Africa was up to scratch. But it was at that moment, in 1973, that I
knew I was going to work for the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

I
don’t want to go too far overboard, since Gerry is still very much
alive and still a presence in Hampstead, despite living in
Gloucestershire, and we don’t want to give him too big a head.

But
he was without question the finest local newspaper editor I ever came
across. He had a piercing vision about what people wanted from their
local paper which, he believed, should cover every aspect of their
lives, including what he called “the good things in life” such as
music, art, theatre and – above all – literature.

Few, if any
other local papers, regularly reviewed West End theatre and art or
carried two or three pages of book reviews a week, the stable of
reviewers including Michael Foot, Margaret Drabble, Bill Rodgers, Ion
Trewin and the like.

Gerry worked for the Ham & High for
nearly 40 years (25 years as editor), before he retired in 1994, having
created something quite unique.

The paper is to some extent a
product of its high-income, literate readership, but Gerry added to the
mix by demanding excellence from both reporters and subs. He once
clipped me round the earhole for starting a story with the words:
“Angry residents…”.

“Tell the damn story, and the readers will know that the residents are angry,” he demanded.

To
watch him “work a room”, whether a council meeting or reception, was an
education, and he would end up with a pocketful of stories on scraps of
paper. But his greatest gift to me was to open the door for me to
succeed him eventually to what, I am convinced, is the best job in
journalism in the world.

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