Gerry by Gerry – A Tribute to Gerry Loughran

Gerry by Gerry – A Tribute to Gerry Loughran

by his nephew Ged Naughton

In his self-penned memoir – “How Long Will You Be Staying?” given away to attendees at his 80th birthday party in July 2015 and a lucky few since – Gerry said he hoped “to explain to the youngest members of his extended family what their Uncle Gerry was up to all those years away in other people’s countries.”

We learned the details of the dates we already knew – but maybe the impact of Uncle Gerry’s life has only become clear these last few weeks.

I remember Uncle Gerry’s visits home in the 70s when he was working as a journalist in some of the worlds most important places and biggest trouble spots. Beirut, Moscow, Paris, New York. The   names tripped off the tongues of his 10 nephews and nieces – even if we had no idea of their significance.

He bought us Arab headdresses, fezzes from Egypt, Russian military badges, and belt buckles, and – even better to my mind – his press packs from the 1974 and 78 World Cups.

My mother would re-tell his stories to me and my brothers. I didn’t always get all the nuances, but the pride and love in her storytelling shone through.

I was names after him; I still get called Gerry by some family and some friends. I wanted to be a journalist like he was and travel the world.

Gerry was born in a Newcastle nursing home on June 25, 1935, the second of six children to Margaret (née Monaghan) and Joe Loughran. They were devout Catholics and family life revolved around the school and parish and club of St George’s, Bells Close.

At the age of 13, Gerry had a letter published in the John Bull magazine (for which he received a guinea?), calling for more playing fields in Lemington “What’s the point of a healthy mind if you haven’t got a healthy body?” He had deep conviction that journalism was his calling.

At the Catholic grammar school, St Cuthbert’s, he walked into the Saturday morning meeting for those considering A Levels and was greeted with the words, “Not you, Loughran, go home!” so he followed an instinct that he was meant to be a journalist and started as a trainee at the Northern Echo’s district office in Hartlepool.

After national service and a few more years developing his craft in the regional newspapers in the North East, he moved to the Daily Nation in Nairobi at the very start of Kenyan independence. He was one of a host of local newspapermen – reporters and sub-editors – from Britain’s thriving regional news scene, recruited to bring their standards and attention to detail to a brand-new title dedicated to support the fledgling democracy.

He moved on to the London bureau of United Press International, a global American agency that rivalled the likes of Associated Press and Reuters for a glorious period in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Again from his memoir: “….being taken hostage by Palestinian guerillas, receiving 12 bottles of fine wine from General Pinochet, fleeing Syrian rockets one day and Israeli bombs the next, being arrested by the British army in Muscat, getting tear-gassed in Paris and Seoul, talking to President Carter in Washington, racing down a Beirut street trying to interview LSD guru Timmothy Leary, drinking whisky out of teacups with William S Burroughs, and eating steak off mucky plates in the poet  Allen Ginsberg’s house in New York.”

As his friend and colleague Ray Wilkinson said in his own tribute: “Not bad for a northern English grammar school laddie who had such a profound effect on African journalism and who became the first no-American foreign editor of a news agency operating in nearly a hundred countries serving 6,000 newspaper, radio and television clients.”

The few black and white photos we have from the time show Gerry in open collar play acting around a tank, giving mock peace signs, or in shirt and tie in the office. It summed up the extremes of life at that time as “a career foreign correspondent, who remains offstage, serious, anonymous, un-opinionated, often unbylined.”

From Beirut, Gerry moved to Paris (how dull in comparison), and Moscow in 1974. Russia was a closed shop and yet here was our uncle, with his KGB liaison and official party driver, wearing his Brezhnev hat and coat in the Moscow snow. Gerry would buy his maid Zena something nice, like a shawl or scarf, at one of our decadent Western shops when he was home on leave and would get a rib-cracking bearhug of thanks in return.

Gerry was advised that since he wouldn’t be able to spend much of his UPI salary in Moscow, however meagre it was, he should invest in property, so he bought Huntford for £15,000, a house in need of work with an acre of land just across the Scottish border. We used it for family holidays for years, climbing trees, building camps, getting bitten by insects in the old barn and pigsty, and having our fingerprints taken by the over-zealous local constabulary. Naturally, we hated it because it wasn’t what all our schoolfriends were doing, but looking back it created a love for me of country walks and growing vegetables.

After Moscoe, he landed the role of International Editor for UPI’s New York headquarters, later to become Foreign Editor. He oversaw the news coming n to the country: so, it was just a reporting job where the entire world (minus the United States) was his patch. The Foreign Editor was the guy who sent out the American news to the rest of the world No pressure…..

Because no-one at UPI really cared about minor foreign sports like football or athletics, he wrangled trip to the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and to the World Cups in West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978. Gerry persuaded his bosses about the latter two by tagging on the aforementioned interview with General Pinochet in Chile on the way. And no, he wasn’t allowed to keep the wine.

Gerry left home at the age of 17, buy on his press pass for the 1976 Olympics, he put down Sugley Street, Newcastle, as his address. Interesting that after twenty years working away, that still felt like home.

To the dismay of his colleagues at UPI, he left in 1984 to set up Compass News Features, an agency producing feature stories for and about the developing world. He visited several African cities, even checking out his old stamping ground in Beirut, to find a suitable place to set up the office but had to settle for Luxembourg and then London for logistical reasons.

Compass was part of the Marion Group in Kenya and Gerry kept supplying the Nation with columns and feature ideas. When it closed in 1991, he moved with his cats briefly to Huntford and then responded to a new call from the Nation to set up a brand newspaper, the East African.

He went to Rwanda in 1995, at the age of 60, to cover the aftermath of genocide and was more profoundly shocked by what he saw and heard there than anything in his previous career.

He wrote a history of the Nation newspaper, effectively a history of the first 50 years of Kenyan independence, that was published in 2010.

Gerry was a regular Mass goer and took the devotion established at Bells Close to St Andrew’s, Newcastle. When he realised, he was technically in the parish of St Mary’s Cathedral, he switched his allegiance there. Typical Loughran pragmatism and obedience.

Gerry supported schoolchildren in Kenya through the Hilda Back Foundation and visited them with Newcastle shirts and gifts, getting the full Maasai regalia in return.

With his relaxed approach and self-depreciating humour, his interview style was to soften the subject up first and then go in with the difficult questions.

I introduced Gerry to a friend of mine from Liberia. Aaron asked him what his advice would be if he ever managed to secure an interview with former president, Charles Taylor- another despot, responsible for around 250,000 deaths in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Gerry said: “Be nice to him. Then you might get a second interview.”

Gerry was never happier that with his journalistic colleagues. He wrote about the time he and a bunch of western journalists were taken hostage in a hotel in Amman, Jordan, by Palestinian guerillas. The account is full of neat pen portraits of the other correspondents: the whiners, the play it by the book men, the BIFFOs (Big Ignorant F***** From Oldham) and some of the unflappable down-to-earth guys who came from the same background.

At one point, Gerry and a colleague from another news organisation took on sub-editing the kidnappers’ demands. Originally asked just to just to check them over, the two western hacks re-wrote them in even more bloodcurdling terms than they had received them.

We knew the details of his career, but perhaps we didn’t appreciate the effect his kindness, warmth, intelligence, and talent had. A post shared on Twitter/X by the Nation newspaper marking the passing of their ‘Letter from London’ columnist quickly got more than 30,000 views and umpteen likes, re-posts, and comments. His dans repeatedly mentioned his wisdom and good humour. How reading his column over 30 years had become a Sunday ritual. One poster said they had read his own column since they were old enough to hold a newspaper, and he learned what was simple, clear writing.

I suppose this is what sums Gerry up. Camaraderie with those around him, basic human kindness, and a capacity for recognizing that in others, and pride in his craft.

This was his formula: “Words on Paper! Stop handwringing, head-scratching and nail-biting and put down words, rough word, any words; make sentences, paragraphs follow, the story emerges.”