Love him or loathe him, Keith signs off after 40 years as a true original...
I STAND beside the stationary car for a few moments, expecting the occupant to look up and greet me warmly.
Instead, he sits there, grim-faced, gripping the steering wheel, eyes fixed firmly ahead.
So I tap the window and am ignored again. He looks furious. I knock more aggressively. Slowly the pane slides down.
“Yes. What do you want?” he growls. “I’m fed up with bloody Jehovah’s Witnesses pestering me. What is it about my street? Why do you lot always pick on me?”
I’ve worked with former Observer editor Keith Newbery, on and off, for more than 30 years. It’s several years since we’ve met and it’s clear he doesn’t recognise me. It’s the first time anyone has accused me of being a Jehovah’s Witness.
And it’s not the first time Newbs has had me in stitches. His way with words is legendary. Pithy, to the point, controversial, calls a spade a shovel.
I reveal my identity and this bear of a man launches himself out of the car full of apologies for me, but none for the group of dark-suited people who have followed me up the road. For, yes, it is them. Again.
“Quick, let’s get inside before they collar us,” he says as we head inside his beloved Isle of Wight home he and wife Denise have had for three decades.
The curt style of that greeting will be more than familiar to readers of the Observer, who have either enjoyed or endured Keith’s words for many years in his column.
Love him or detest him, he has built up a phalanx of followers, filled with gloom after his final column appeared in last week’s Observer.
As ever, he was on sparkling form on one of his favourite topics – politics in general and Tony Blair in particular. You could sense his glee as he tickled his keyboard to give birth to this phrase: ‘The former prime minister – who now looks like the product of an unlikely coupling between David Dickinson and Charles Hawtrey...’
Newbs, an energetic 64-year-old who loves few things more than walking his dogs on the downs close to his home and playing verbal fisticuffs with ramblers or stroppy guns who hurl abuse at him when he roams too close to a shoot, is quitting for two reasons.
“In a couple of months the government will be paying me back some of the money I’ve been paying them for 40-odd years. That’ll be nice.
“But the main reason is my seven-month-old granddaughter Betsy. I don’t want her to be looked after by strangers while my daughter and her husband are at work. So Denise and I will do it – 8am to 4pm every day. She’s the absolute apple of my eye and I can’t wait. Surely that’s what families are all about?”
Ah, nuclear families. Roots. It comes with the territory of having been born and never having left (permanently) the Isle of Wight, he says.
“I was once tapped up to see if I would like to meet Ian Wooldridge (the legendary sports columnist on the Daily Mail) with a view to a job on the Mail.
“I never took it up because if you’re an Islander there’s this enormous taproot which goes very deep. It anchors us here.
“Perhaps I always wanted to be a big fish in a small pond...” he shrugs. “But I was happy here. I’ve seen my family grow up. I haven’t been off covering World Cups or test series in Australia and missed children’s nativities and I’m now reaping what I’ve sown.
“My lack of ambition manifested itself in wanting to be close to the family.”
There’s little doubt that Keith would have flourished in Fleet Street. His first love is sport and that first column in 1971 was written about the Hampshire League while he worked on the sports desk at the Observer’s sister paper, the Portsmouth News.
He won the Sports Writer of the Year title at the British Regional Press Awards a record four times.
But it was his achingly-funny television columns which won him national acclaim. In the early 1980s he was one of four shortlisted for the TV Critic of the Year gong in the British Press Awards. “I was up against some bloke called Clive James, who won it quite deservedly, Nancy Banks-Smith, of The Guardian, and some architectural critic from The Times.”
On a table in the corner of his sitting room is a framed picture of Keith looking dapper in a suit. There’s no sign of the trademark shirt tail flapping below his waistband. He’s with the family outside Buckingham Palace having just received an MBE for services to journalism in 2004.
RUNNING THE OBSERVER
Newbs took the helm of the Observer in 1992, and retired in 2006 as executive editor of a group of newspapers including the Observer series and sister paper the West Sussex Gazette, but continued to pen his weekly column.
It all began when he was 12. “I knew then that I wanted to be a reporter. My mum remembered me saying to her that I wanted to be the next Peter Wilson, the sports writer with the Daily Mirror.”
That burning desire continued through his teens until, at 16, he had two O-levels (English and History). “My mum said that all journalists needed shorthand, so she found an old boy in Sandown and twice a week I would go round to him in the evenings after school.
“All my mates took the mickey, saying I was going to end up as a secretary, but I had the last laugh.
“I was 16 and there was me and about ten girls all aged 17 and 18 in the class. Lovely stuff.”
His 100-words-per-minute shorthand got him his first job with the two-man Isle of Wight Times based in his home town of Ryde. He stayed 18 months before landing a job with The News in 1969 and a posting back to the Isle of Wight as a general reporter.
“Then a vacancy came up on the sports desk.
“I applied, got the job and landed in paradise.
“I couldn’t believe I was being paid to sit around all day talking and writing about sport.”
Payment for his work is key. Keith adds: “It’s only ever been a job, never a vocation. I work with words in the way brickies work with bricks and carpenters with wood.
“Words are my tools which is why I’ve never written anything I’ve not been paid for.
“I could no more bother to write one of these new-fangled blog things than fly to the moon. If nobody’s going to pay me, why bother?”
But surely he’ll miss the routine? “No, mate. I won’t. I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years, day in, day out.
“Always having to read the papers, listen to and watch the news, always searching for ideas and always thinking of new ways to say things.
“That’s the key you see. Keeping it fresh and always trying to be original.
“It’s the right time to step back and say goodbye. If I’ve entertained a few people over the years: good.
“If I’ve upset more – even better. I’ve done my job.”