Book review: What Genius Wrote This? by Richard McNeill

SEAT OF POWER: Rick McNeill, centre, chats to Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the opposition, during a visit to the Daily Express offices in London in the late 1970s. Smiling on the left is the editor, Derek Jameson

By ALASTAIR McINTYRE

rick mcneill

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, pictured, 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.

rick book cover

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.

What Genius Wrote This, Tales From My Newspaper Life is published by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for £12.99 or ebook for £5.99. It is also available from Amazon.

Ricky and Roy Wright2

EXPRESS BACKBENCH: Rick discusses the night’s edition with editor Roy Wright and Ted Dickenson, far left



© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre