Nick Smith: Stalwart of the 'Independent' Foreign Desk


Nick Smith, who has died aged 64, was part of the Foreign Desk team at the launch of The Independent 25 years ago. His name has never previously appeared in this newspaper. Nor did it appear in the other newspapers that he served with skill and devotion for more than four decades, including the Rand Daily Mail, The Times and the Financial Times. Nick was a supreme example of a journalistic breed which has become scarce, though not extinct. He was a supremely skilled sub-editor who took an enormous pride in improving, and rescuing, the work of others. He showed no desire to move on to writing or executive positions, once describing his career aim as "well-paid obscurity".

The greatest tribute one can pay to Nick Smith was that, when your copy was given the Smith treatment, you still fondly believed that it was your copy. With patience and care, he corrected grammatical and factual mistakes and removed misjudgements. Who could complain that their copy was irretrievably better?

In other ways Nick was the antithesis of the old school journalist. He was not a "hack in a mac", addicted to pubs and cigarettes. He was a slender,cycle-mad, militant anti-smoker, who would spend a couple of hours wind-surfing in some forsaken wharf in London docklands before turning up for work in his Lycra cycling outfit. Nick avoided the canteen and pub grub. His diet consisted of what one former colleague describes as "sinister, macrobiotic packed lunches".

Once he had changed into office clothes, his routine was sacred. He would remove his subbing tools from a drawer – the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Odwe), Hart's style guide and several others – and arrange them beside him like a surgeon arranges his scalpels and saws.

Nick Smith was a late addition to the Independent's original staff. Before launch, the paper's founders were convinced that sub-editors were redundant in the computer age. They soon discovered otherwise. Many of the subs who were hurriedly hired at this time went on to great things on this and other papers. One of them, Brian Cathcart, latterly deputy editor of The Independent on Sunday, now Professor of Journalism at the University of Kingston, said: "All of us in the original subbing team relied on Nick enormously and deferred to him, and he was of course unfailingly patient, charming and helpful. I have been telling sceptical students for nearly 10 years that sub-editing is a great art, a highly refined skill in journalism, and when I say it I often mention and always think of Nick."

Charles Nicholas Smith was born in Chelmsford in Essex in 1947. His parents, Eric Smith and Gwen Smith, née Withers, came originally from Birmingham. In 1955, when Nick was eight, his father, a metallurgist, took a job at Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia, now Gweru, Zimbabwe. Mr and Mrs Smith loaded Nick, his sisters Margaret and Bridget, his younger brother Stephen and the family car, into a steamer at Southampton. They drove north from Cape Town to their new home.

Nick was educated at St George's College in Salisbury, now Harare. When he finished school he rejoined the family, by now in Johannesburg. His only surviving family member, his sister, Bridget Smith, recalls that Nick's original choice of university studies was not a great success. "He said he wanted to be a businessman and make a lot of money and started a commerce degree at the University of Cape Town. He seems to have spent two years mostly surfing in the western Cape."

Nick switched to an English degree at the University of Natal, Durban. By Bridget's recollection, he was not at this time completely opposed to drinkor even to smoking cigarettes. Hisexasperated father soon warned him that he would have to pay his own way. He took a series of low-paid jobs,including one looking after old ladies in a home.

Upon graduation, he drifted into journalism and worked for the Rand Daily Mail and the Cape Times. In the early 1980s, despairing of the then unbending apartheid regime, he moved to London. He worked at first for The Times and then The Independent from just before its launch in October 1986. From 2000, he worked for the Financial Times.

Outside work, Nick was devoted to art, music and travel. His home was an Aladdin's cave of books, almost all of them works of history or reference. He had a series of girlfriends but never married. Three years ago, he suffered a severe bout of depression. Nick recovered and returned to work at the Special Reports section of the FT last year. A few weeks ago, he was diagnosed with a virulent and incurable cancer. He died at the Trinity Hospice, Clapham, in south London.

John Lichfield

Charles Nicholas Smith, journalist: born Chelmsford, Essex 11 August 1947; died London 8 November 2011.