Simon Kelner: Passing of a true pioneer who led me from the start

Kelner's view
  • @Simon_Kelner

He would surely have appreciated the irony. The death at 76 of Dudley Stephens, the personification of an old-school journalist, was announced via Twitter.

Tributes were paid to him via this most modern medium, but within 140 characters, no one could adequately capture the charm, warmth and generosity of spirit of a man who was a formative influence on my career and who provided guidance – both spiritual and professional – to countless young journalists.

All right, the spirits he majored in generally came with optics attached, but you get the point, and the reason his passing merits more than just tweeted acknowledgement is that he represented a way of doing things that this computerised, digitalised, de-personalised age has just about obliterated.

There are two strains that run through working life today – job insecurity and a lack of human engagement. Dudley inhabited a time before people sitting across a desk from each other would converse by email, a time when if you wanted to get a message across, it didn't mean texting. It meant talking, preferably in licensed premises. And he never viewed those younger than him with anxiety or envy: in fact, he would unselfishly share the lessons of his experience, giving generations of prospective journalists a rich flavour of how newspapers used to operate.

He would delight in the great headlines of the past and would embellish the story with the exact circumstances in which said headline was written, usually by a man too drunk to stand up, or by someone who had just spent a night in the cells.

Dudley believed in the important role local newspapers played and spent most of his career in local papers in Wales. I first met him as a trainee reporter in Neath.

When the Neath Guardian became a freesheet in 1984, Dudley and I, together with colleagues from the national press and some local figures, launched a rival paid-for paper, the Neath Independent. Dudley was the editor and as I look back at old issues, I can see his skill in headline-writing on almost every page. But a few weeks after we launched, the miners' strike started and the economy of Neath took a hammering. There wasn't enough advertising around to keep us going and, after nine months, we reluctantly abandoned ship.

In some ways we were ahead of our time – there is recognition these days that local papers are vital to the health of communities – and I feel proud to have been involved in such an adventure.

I then found myself thinking of Dudley, his bandy gait, his shambolic appearance, his gift as a raconteur, his fellowship, his encouragement of those around him. I lost touch with him some years ago, but his death made me ache with sadness for a time long since passed.