Back in the day, in the old Express, circa 1974, in what would be my formal introduction to the world of newspapering (three months as a trainee), it was a normal thing to see people sitting at their desks smoking while they worked.
The debate about the dangers of second-hand smoke was yet to come. So there were those who smoked and those who chain-smoked. Kitty Hannays, the Features/Sunday Editor to whose desk I was assigned as a cub reporter at age 18, was among the latter.
Kitty, as everyone called her, was one of the people who in that era made the newsroom a special place. It was not just that she knew everyone...everyone knew her.
She already was a kind of legend in journalism. She was the daughter of a legend in his own right, the famous attorney Sir Courtenay Hannays. Between 1957 and 1959 she had written a daily commentary in the Guardian newspaper on sociopolitical issues under the pen name “Macaw”. But the Kitty I knew was so modest, so self-deprecating, that she never liked to talk about it or have it mentioned.
The columns would turn out to be pioneering work as they were written in local dialect. In the early 60s they were compiled and published by the newspaper. Titled Notebook, it is now out of print, which is a pity as each column provides a necessary insight into those times. The thing about Kitty was that she had a real sense of humour and I had the good fortune to work with her.
The newsroom was also occupied by other well-known journalists many of whom were from the Mirror days. There was Janet Date-Bernard, lanky and full of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of nervous energy, a real newswoman. There was Elma Reyes who wrote so definitively on Trinis at home and abroad, cultural matters and folklore. There was Kit Roxborough, Bootins Alkins who inspired more than one generation of sports journalists, Charlie Ramsumair and so many others. Most had known my father and knew me as a child, now came the opportunity to interact in the work setting. It was priceless to me. These people knew their jobs thoroughly.
In those days anyone could come into the Express newsroom simply by walking in; almost.
The Express front door was next to the old Bryden’s building. The newsroom was on the ground floor and there was a big glass window through which passers-by would look in and we could look out onto Independence Square. If someone wanted to see you, they would peer in the glass and then come in.
So the place was always full of characters, mostly welcome. Every Independence, for example, a self-styled “Best Dressed Man” would come in to be interviewed and photographed. The costume would be top hat and tails in red, white and black.
Then there were the calypsonians like the eccentric Lord Fluke who was always dropping by to bring Kitty up to date on his latest exploits. Like when he got married to a whiteish kind of lady whose, well, let’s just say “chambers were missing”. With each visit he treated her to his verses, thus she may have been among the first to hear the now classic “Adam and Eve used to suck mango/naked they come/naked they go...”
These journalists, as I recall them, worked relentlessly but they also knew how to mix it up and there is a funny story to share.
Every day from about midday or just before, there was a small group that would disappear for what is still known as liquid lunch. They would go to an establishment located upstairs, across the square, obliquely opposite the Express. In addition to liquid lunch, they sold a delicious fish broth.
This particular day lunch was unusually long, even for the group. Back in the office, concern began to mount. Pages needed to be done, stories needed to be written, etc. A search party went out, stayed for broth apparently and eventually returned with the group straggling behind. But one of the group was more advanced than the rest. He was ordered to go upstairs for coffee in the canteen, at the time run by Helen. This was not so simple however. The stairs were too much on that day. He started the ascent, both legs became entangled and he ended up back down. It was fascinating to watch. Someone eventually warned, “Mr G is leaving at 4, you better don’t let him see you.” More panicked scrambling, he made it halfway and gave up, head sunk in hands.
To cut a long story short, Mr G did descend at 4, but he sailed past, looking neither right nor left. Suffice it to say, liquid lunch did not resume for a day or two.
The Express is now celebrating its 45th anniversary. I left the paper and returned again in 1981, left again and returned in 1987. Each version has had its unique flavour but that first experience with Kitty at the helm—British accent, coiffed hair, twin sets, pumps, pearls, cigarette in filter—has a special place.