Some writers resort to four-letter words when they run out of ideas. Michael Hewitt, who died suddenly in his sleep last week at the age of 51, deployed them like hot horseradish in the hands of a master chef.
As a technology columnist, chronicler of bizarre real-life experiences for national titles and web-forum contributor, he had the ability to provoke at least one coffee-spraying moment of laughter or outrage per article. Generally in the persona of a sardonic misanthrope that was belied by his real life generosity to friends and colleagues.
Michael (never Mike) came late to journalism, after what he claimed was a lucrative career in PR. By his account, bored rigid in the office, he took to posting messages on CIX, a bulletin board that pre-dated the worldwide web. IT journalist Steve Cassidy recalls wondering initially if ‘Hewitt’was an invented character, a sort of digital Henry Root. ‘We discovered eventually that what you read was what you met: unrepentant, balancing engaging wit with comedic arrogance, his was a talent that couldn’t be limited to that early, text-only, glacially slow world – something that the small coterie of editors using that service eventually figured out.”
Indeed Michael’s talent was spotted by Personal Computer World magazine, which ran his vinegary musings for much of the 1990s in a column called Sounding Off. It won Michael two nominations for columnist of the year.
His talent flowered as a contributor to Arena magazine, where he appeared as an urbane lady killer astutely observing modern manners. For the Telegraph and Evening Standard, he deployed his talent for the absurd under such headlines as ‘I was a male escort’and in chronicles of experiences ranging from an abortive relocation to Cornwall to a day in sandwich boards at Speakers’ Corner.
For his lucky friends, however, Michael’s funniest writing came for free. His splendidly arrogant daily Facebook updates oscillated between boasts about his (considerable) culinary skills and lethal or obscene threats to anyone who had crossed him that day. As a stalwart on the Journobiz journalists’ web forum, he was equally forthright about incompetent and parsimonious clients.
However the mask slipped when he stepped forward to help newer colleagues with ideas, advice and contacts, delivered with self-deprecating humour. In a discussion about how journalists describe what they do for a living, he once growled: “I tell people I write ‘lifestyle’ pieces. If they ask for clarification, I explain that ‘bullshit’ more or less covers it.”
Michael’s was five-star gourmet bullshit. We were looking forward to so much more of it.