Monica Porter on Geoffrey Smith

My
first job as a journalist was on the Local Government Chronicle, a
venerable, if somewhat dry, weekly magazine based in Dickensian little
offices in the City of London. I joined as a staff writer in 1975 when
I was 22. The editor, Geoff Smith, was in his mid-40s and a bit crusty,
like Walter Matthau in The Front Page. But he was likeable and had a
wry sense of humour.

Naturally, I was pretty green behind the
ears, and while I can’t say he taught me everything I know about
writing, I certainly learnt the basics of story construction from his
terse, no-nonsense directions. And they have stood me in good stead
over the decades in some diverse forms of journalism.

He imparted
other nuggets of wisdom, too. When I told him I’d written a piece for a
local newspaper without payment, as a favour to an editor, he peered at
me disapprovingly through his specs. “Only a fool ever wrote for
anything but money,” he declared.

“Remember Samuel Johnson.” I never made that mistake again.

As
a proud new member of the NUJ, I was taken aback when he told me he had
quit the union. I assumed it was because of some high-minded principle.

But
he said it was just that he’d got sick of paying endless surcharges to
enable “a bunch of Marxists” to go on strike every other week. In time
I came to agree with his view of what was then a very po-faced and
doctrinaire organisation, and I quit, too.

Geoff didn’t get
everything right, though. I remember coming back to the office very
excited one afternoon, after attending the press launch of Ansaphone –
the first telephone answering machine – and telling him all about the
revolutionary new piece of equipment. He just snorted and said:
“That’ll never catch on. Who wants to talk to a bloody machine?”(Sorry, Geoff. Couldn’t resist.)

He liked the good things in life and knew a lot about cooking. I was
newly married and knew zilch. So from time to time he threw me a handy
culinary tip, that you had to “blanche” potatoes before roasting them.
He even explained how to make Irish stew.

What more could you want of an editor?

I worked at LGC for
three years before leaving to have a baby. Geoff was there until he
retired many years later. I haven’t seen him since 1978, but I’m
pleased to hear he continues to enjoy life, as before.

Monica Porter is a freelance journalist and author.

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