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Farewell ‘Mr Hampstead’: Gerald Isaaman, the man who knew everything

Journalist spent 40 years at the Ham & High before joining the CNJ as a feature writer

02 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

A cartoon of Mr Isaaman by Trog

IN the frenetic world of newspapers, journalists often spend one or two cub reporting years on a local paper before mov­ing onto the nationals.

But Gerald Isaaman, who has died this week aged 85 after a short illness, loved writing about Camden so much he devoted his career to it, editing the Hampstead and Highgate Express for a quarter of a century and later becoming a feature writer for the New Journal. “He was so brilliant with ideas,” said column­ist Ruth Gorb, who also work­ed for both papers. “He could often be construct­ively critical, but we listened – because he had a wonderful eye. You knew if he said some­thing, he was right – he was a journalistic genius.”

Gerald Isaaman with the late Peggy Jay

He grew up in east London, working for five years on the Stoke Newington and Hackney Observer after leaving school.

He joined the Ham & High, as the paper is known locally, in 1955 as a sports reporter, paid 25 shillings a week. By 1968, he had been handed the editorship, a role he would hold for 25 years.

Author Hunter Davies, who would often contribute to the newspaper during Mr Isaaman’s time as editor, said: “Gerry was ‘Mr Hampstead’. He had a finger in every pie, knew everyone and everything, and even when he didn’t he knew someone who did. But he didn’t just know the gen, he got involved. He was in many ways the last of the old editors who saw themselves as part of the fabric of the community, with a social conscience, a political nose, who was not just passing through on the way to Fleet Street, to better things, but felt he was here to stay, to serve his parish, his readers, the locality.”

Gerald Isaaman

At one time the Ham & High was selling 20,000 copies a week, had an office in Hampstead and a host of famous contributors. The affectionate joke handed, down through the generations, first used by the New York Times, was that it was “the only local newspaper with a foreign policy”.

Mr Isaaman, who accepted an OBE in 1994, was drawn into many local campaigns. He was proud to be one of the leading campaigners who fought to save historic Burgh House from being sold as a private residence. He fought similarly over the old Hampstead Town Hall building in Haverstock Hill.

Journalist Matthew Lewin, who worked under Mr Isaaman and then took over in the editor’s chair, said: “Nobody could work a room like Gerry Isaaman. He would drift around the chamber at meetings of Camden Council, and then hand me 16 story ideas from stuff whispered into his ear, all written on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes. “In the office, his phone never stopped ringing. He really was the journalists’ journalist, with a passion for his job and a very deep understanding about how it all should be done.”

Former Labour councillor John Mills said: “He was so well-respected. People knew they could speak with him. He could see that life was not always straight­forward. He also cared greatly for the Camden New Journal, as well as the Ham & High.”

Former chairman of the Heath and Hampstead Society Tony Hillier said: “He was instinctively attuned to what Hampstead cared about. I remember he skewered the young Oliver Letwin, who had hoped to win the Hampstead and Highgate seat for the Tories. Letwin had said how he had been the architect of the poll tax and that gave Gerry a headline – and turned half the population against him.”

In retirement, he helped set up a community newspaper in Marlborough, Wilts.

He leaves a wife, Delphine, and a son.

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