What Genius Wrote This? Tales from my Newspaper Life by Richard McNeil

ZAR173.04

A brisk and highly readable account of the author's adventures in journalism, spanning more than half a century. Richard McNeill grew up in South Africa but his career took him from Johannesburg to New York and London, where he spent 20 years on the Daily Express. “As it turned out, becoming an Editor with a capital E was the best thing that never happened to me,” he writes. Instead he enjoyed a life of “enormous satisfaction” as a reporter, foreign correspondent, sub-editor, feature writer, magazine publisher, editorial consultant and celebrity profiler, while also pursuing his passion for typographical design.

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A brisk and highly readable account of the author's adventures in journalism, spanning more than half a century. Richard McNeill grew up in South Africa but his career took him from Johannesburg to New York and London, where he spent 20 years on the Daily Express. “As it turned out, becoming an Editor with a capital E was the best thing that never happened to me,” he writes. Instead he enjoyed a life of “enormous satisfaction” as a reporter, foreign correspondent, sub-editor, feature writer, magazine publisher, editorial consultant and celebrity profiler, while also pursuing his passion for typographical design.

Back in South Africa he spent 11 years on the Johannesburg Sunday Times, and later helped produce South Africa’s Daily Sun, the post-apartheid tabloid aimed at the emerging black market, turning it into the country’s biggest-selling daily newspaper. He lives in Lake Michelle, Western Cape.

Reviews:

Although this is a personal account of the author's career as a journalist, there is much here for all readers to enjoy. The story breezes along at a jaunty pace, taking us to South Africa under apartheid, New York in the 1960s and London's Fleet Street, encountering a cast of loudmouths, rogues and eccentrics along the way - all described with verve and good humour. Naturally, world events, such as the release of Nelson Mandela and the election of Margaret Thatcher, feature, too. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

By Gordon O'Leary

As a one-time newspaperman, I was delighted to return to the good old days of Fleet Street described so vividly in Richard McNeill's engrossing and very well-written memoirs. In many ways, they were also the bad old days - but a lot more fun than they undoubtedly are now. McNeill takes us from his early years in South Africa through his time as a foreign correspondent in New York and then more than a decade at the sharp end of national newspaper journalism in London. And his subsequent return to South Africa when that country was making world news. McNeill was an important architect of the powerful print media that emerged after Apartheid and his descriptions of the birth pangs of the new industry and the new country are absolutely fascinating. An utterly enthralling book that is not without some delicious humour.

By Ian Bain

About the Author:

Richard McNeill was one of the best and brightest journalists of his generation. That is saying a lot as I speak here of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, years which were noted for the bright young men (there were few women) who started on a career in journalism.

McNeill worked on three continents with great success and this cleverly-written memoir outlines it in great and amusing detail. It should be required reading for any young man or woman interested in journalism. The author never achieved an editorship but many of the most talented journalists never did. The top job was often a grace-and-favour appointment, granted via the old boys’ network and not always made on journalistic merit. The Daily Express knows this to its cost.

McNeill was my first chief sub-editor on the Daily Express at a time of high tension in the newsroom. The backbench was staffed by bullies who did their best to criticise and humiliate the sub-editors. Rick, as he was known by his colleagues, was not one of them. A red-faced and often drunken night editor whose eyes alighted on some subbed copy that displeased him would shout “What genius wrote this?” The reply, on one famous occasion, was: “What genius wants to know?”

That is the polite explanation. Substitute the word “genius” in both the question and answer with a vulgar four-letter word and you will get the picture. The book begins in McNeill’s native South Africa and moves to New York, London and back to his home turf. In New York his landlord was a former boxer which resulted in Rick, as he was known in the business, drinking with Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey and the actor Jimmy Cagney. He also interviewed Count Basie.

His big dream was to work for the Daily Express, so it was inevitable that he moved to London. The Express was then selling four million copies a day and was truly the World’s Greatest Newspaper — a boast it still carries on its title piece today despite selling less than 400,000 copies.

A 25-year-old McNeill flew to London in 1965 with his wife Rosemary and their four-month-old daughter Fiona with a letter for David English, then foreign editor of the Daily Express, from Reuters correspondent Rennie Airth, now a successful novelist. This got him into the Express building and a welcome handshake from English, a colleague from their days in New York. Managing editor Eric Raybould said he couldn’t guarantee McNeill a job but would “be in touch”.

An anxious week later he received a call from Raybould. “Mr McNeill,” he said in his Brummie accent, “How would you like to go and work on the Express in Manchester?”

“Mr Raybould,” McNeill replied, “I’ve travelled thousands of miles to work on the Express in London. If I’d wanted to work in Manchester I would have gone there in the first place.”

There was a long silence before Raybould replied: “All right, start on Monday.”

That was the start of a stellar career on the Express which saw McNeill promoted from caption writer to assistant editor in charge of features, via the night editor’s chair.

The final third of the book outlines McNeill’s career back in South Africa where he made a name as one of the country’s top newspaper designers., culminating in the launch of the very successful Daily Sun.

This is a gem of a memoir and, in the Fleet Street vernacular, a rattling good yarn.

By Alastair McIntyre

978-1-928455-03-5
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