IT was such a curious initiation that you sometimes wondered whether Illtyd was in on it with the editor, a probationary challenge dreamed up to test concentration and detail. Young journalists who thought they were rock stars for getting a front page byline in the CNJ would be brought shuddering down to earth by being asked to ‘take down Illtyd’. This didn’t mean rugby-tackling him at the door. It meant him appearing at your desk when you were at your most busiest, ruffling into a satchel, pulling out an A4 pad of yellow paper with notes which he himself could hardly read, and dictating a book review or a feature. He spoke mid-pace but the speed wasn’t the hurdle for the commandeered typist. His rich Welsh tones were so soulful, but sometimes so hard to decode that the keyboard would melt under a panicked desperation. Most of us had never met someone called Illtyd before, and were still puzzling over the consonants in his name by the time he had already reached his third paragraph and a tale about a boisterous breakfast he’d once had with Denis Healey.
As Andrew Walker, a journalist who worked with the New Journal in the mid-2000s, recalls if you asked him to go back over a passage then his eyebrows would pincer in mock anger and the next lines would be delivered in perfect thesp. There may have been some comedy Welsh swearing about how everybody was to be seen next Tuesday in there too, before a conciliatory ‘thank you for doing that for me’.
And yet those mornings and afternoons in our old upstairs CNJ office with our dear friend Illtyd Harrington, who passed away this morning aged 84, sort of sum up how the newspaper has benefited from the unconventional. The new recruits, us, would get a history lesson, learn the value in a bit of patience, in listening, and gain a crucial understanding that to get a paper like ours out on the street each week takes a group rather than individuals; that you can be the johnny big show writing the front page one moment and deciphering the Illtyd yellow pad code the next.
The New Journal, meanwhile, benefited from his treasure chest of anecdotes. Right up to his final weeks, he was still dictating columns, full of lessons from the past disguised in deliciously acerbic assessments of the po-faced and pious characters he had met along the way. And I hope in return, Illtyd, pictured above with Tom Foot, benefited too; that he enjoyed the freedom of his ‘As I Please’ column in the newspaper. He may have used it to floridly settle a few scores from a political career which no doubt deserved higher office, but even in his 80s, when on form, his sketches could be right on the button, often exposing elitism and hypocrisy.
Amusingly, he could bitchily call people bitches and somehow get away with it by using a poetical turn of phrase. He would also skilfully cut down inflated egos, in the same breath as shamelessly name-dropping a recent lunch guest. But more importantly his pieces contrasted from the diet force-fed to us all by the section of the national press which I think Jeremy Corbyn calls ‘the commentariat’; you know, the ones still big-bollocking their apparently insightful analysis of politics despite their hopeless reading of, first, the general election, and then the Labour leadership contest. Illtyd’s pieces were usually an alternative view, and engaging because he had seen the things he was writing about, first hand. Some might say a guy who was said to have been stabbed in the back, politically, and survived made for the perfect witness.
The most calming thing about news of his death, however, is the feeling that he’d enjoyed himself over his years, even if no career in politics ends without some disappointment. A former teacher, he was the deputy leader of the GLC, and a councillor, he worked with groups which helped disadvantaged children, the elderly and even the people who look after the canals running through Camden Town. He cared, and he changed things – and partied as he did so. He fought inequality where he saw it, battled prejudice, a foe which had perforated his own life. His relationship with theatre dresser Chris Downes, a 50 year partnership, was remarkable not only for its length. The pair had lived through a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Others who are better-placed, I hope, will write about his political achievements in the coming days. They can talk of his deep-rooted principles, and belief in a fairer way. But as superficial as it may sound, I, and most of the people who came to work at the New Journal in the last ten years, know Illtyd simply as the rascal storyteller with the kindest of hearts, holding court in the middle of an office full of people 50 years younger than him. In more recent times, he’d check the last Arsenal score before he’d ring me even though he had no real interest in football, and unfailingly asked about the kids. My first was bought a pushchair despite never meeting. He was the same with everyone else. He valued loyalty and friendship. No wonder then that when we arrived in Brighton for one of his recent birthdays, it seemed the whole town was packed into the hotel bar to celebrate with this unrepentant charmer.
And, of course, of course, he was the New Journal’s Santa at Christmas time, ringing a bell and handing out hampers paid for with the annual reader collection. Our friend Claire Davies, another former journalist at the CNJ, told me today, and I hope nobody will mind me sharing the secret: “I will never forget him and me in the car delivering Christmas hampers. The pattern was hamper, then pub stop, hampers, pub. Every time we stopped at traffic lights, he’d ring that bell.”
Here was an associate of Harold Wilson, playing it for laughs as he surprised the elderly on council estate landings with a gift and often a whiskery kiss, a picture in itself of how a local paper like ours can be better for its absurdity.
I think we could all hear his voice in our heads today; telling us that we were doing well at the paper, and then warning us not to get too big for our boots, or half-singing an anthem from another time and then berating us for being too young to know what it was. I was stood next to him at Metro’s news editor Joel Taylor’s wedding when he was booming out the hymns. It’s that Merthyr Tydfil heckle, powerful but gruff, which will spring to our minds when we think of him…
…for I don’t think he ever finished the story of what actually happened at that breakfast with Dennis Healey. As Kim Janssen, a reporter in Chicago also part of the New Journal alumni, said earlier: he often made me think, always made me laugh.