A wise and waspish raconteur…

The Extra’s new diary column pays homage to the indomitable spirit of former colleague Illtyd Harrington

Friday, 21st January — By Richard Osley

illtyd Harrington

Illtyd Harrington

OUR group of newspapers in Westminster, Camden and Islington has had many great storytellers over the years, but perhaps none have been as mischievous as Illtyd Harrington.

He was our literary editor, but readers also loved his As I Please column in which he would share snippy but thoughtful reflections on the world, and a life which had seen both celebrity and politics up close. He deliciously exposed hypocrisy and elitism.

There has undoubtedly been a hole in our office since his death six years ago, aged 84, but whenever his name is mentioned memories flash back to his raspy Welsh tones dictating a book review, or recalling “a party he was at with Twiggy”, a time he was stuck in a lift with Margaret Thatcher or that “boisterous breakfast with Denis Healey” and so on.

Given how far he had come, he was a generous colleague to new starters and the experienced reporters alike, capable of puncturing inflated egos in the kindest of ways, while also boosting those whose anxieties were holding them back.

When you spent time with him, there were gems of advice simply about being a good human-being among the outlandish gossip and shameless name-dropping.

Beyond our walls, he was the former teacher who became a councillor and the deputy leader of the GLC. Sometimes he was badged as Ken Livingstone’s “Number Two” – but that belittles his own work and there were certainly elements of that relationship that frustrated Illtyd.

It was Illtyd who deserved the real credit for the formation of the Freedom Pass for pensioners on public transport for London; in later years he was at the forefront of resistance whenever it was suggested it should be removed.

He helped pensioners struggling on their own, disadvantaged children, and worked on the preservation of the canals. And he hit back against prejudice wherever he saw it. Some of it was personal. His 50-year relationship with theatre dresser Chris Downes was remarkable for its length but also because they had lived together through a time when being gay was deemed illegal.

That snappy, waspish, sense of humour was always there. When his coffin was wheeled away for the final time at a crematorium in Brighton, the music he had requested was Josef Locke’s Blaze Away.

A final giggle.

For our newspapers, 2021 was a year like no other. Eric Gordon, the editor who set up our independent titles, beginning with the Camden New Journal in 1982, passed away. He was the only editor we’d ever had.

While I am editor of the paper now, it is a wider collective of long-serving staff who have picked up the reins and are working hard to keep the founding principles in place.

These are simple but often overlooked in a world of conglomerate groups where click metrics are king over quality: we want to produce newspapers which are open to all, challenging, campaigning – and yes entertaining too.

As we must, we are adapting to the new terrain faced by the local paper industry and most critically the seismic changes that have been accelerated by the Covid crisis, but it is our resolve not to forget the friends who meant we are in print today. So many people stood up for us over the past 40 years, and believed in our purpose.

Illtyd is very much included in this – and today, as we launch a brand new diary column in the Westminster Extra, we title it in his name. Harrington.

This is not an attempt to replace him, usurp him, or even to think we could do justice to the unique zip in the diary-writing with which he used to bless these pages.

But when thinking of a title for a new page that will feature a mix of gossip, reflection and nostalgia, it seemed appropriate to remember him now.

Too often he is overlooked in the great political histories of London. His name will now stand across the top of this page.

First edition, next week.

Related Articles