It’s finally Friday, Simmsy. A farewell to a great journalist and father
I don’t think anything really prepares you for the profound feeling of emptiness that comes with the loss of a parent. As I watched my father’s health deteriorate over the past five years, I knew at the back of my mind that his death was on the horizon.
He was 73 when he died in January — on Friday the 13th. He would have found the irony amusing, even more so because he often engaged in banter on Facebook through his “Is it Friday yet?” posts. He was 70 when he was forced into retirement, and in his late 60s when he started to lose the full use of his legs, which did more than just take him to the newsroom.
My father had four loves in his life, and one was hiking the hills of Hong Kong. Another was motorcycling. At the time of his death, his Suzuki Bandit 1200 had sat, unused, for many months, getting only a very occasional run. Then there was music (although anything released after The Beatles “destroyed rock ’n’ roll” didn’t count).
He also loved the English language and detested its misuse. He was a staunch enemy of the tautology, the run-on sentence, and what he affectionately referred to as “word wankers”.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, his last employer and one of several newspapers to run glowing obituaries, said of my father: “Armed with a razor-sharp wit, mastery of English and grasp of Latin, Simms will be remembered for schooling generations of reporters and sub-editors on the importance of good language, saving many a story from the trappings of tautology and verbiage.”
He was a mentor to many young journalists over the course of his 55-year career in the media. He was also a good mate to many people. Before my time, his journey had already taken him to lofty heights in the newsroom.
He was deputy news editor of a daily newspaper at a time when many journalists these days are barely out of university; an old-school editor, who learned his trade in the trenches, not in a classroom.
He hated the way journalism has foregone accuracy and cautious editorial oversight since the trade migrated to the Internet. He didn’t feel that click-bait and being loose with facts and language were tenets of real journalism. He was, of course, correct. My father didn’t like retirement, either, nor the way he was pushed into it.
However, I like to think there were benefits. About a year after he was cast out of his last job in the newsroom, I moved from New Zealand to the Philippines. I wanted to be back in Asia, where I had grown up. I liked the country, bought a house and had a child. In the last two years of his life, my father spent a lot of time with us on the northern coast of Luzon, often only returning to Hong Kong for a few weeks before booking another ticket. That my daughter got that time with her grandfather is a priceless thing. That he spent that time with her is also precious.
He started his career on a small paper in the rural New Zealand town of Kaitaia, a few kilometres from the family’s dairy farm — a business he never took to.
Years later I found myself working on the same newspaper. He came to visit me at the office once and he told me I was even sitting in exactly the same spot he had occupied when he was starting his career. It was on that trip he also took me to meet someone very special to him, Derek Vincent, the editor who had first hacked away at Simmsy’s copy, as he was to hack away at so many other reporters’ copy over the course of his career. If my father had a truly formative mentor, it was Derek.
After working his way up the ladder at a number of newspapers in New Zealand, he headed to Blighty. There, he took a job at the Sheffield Morning Telegraph in South Yorkshire, where he remained for a number of years. He also worked for a while at the Guardian. Unfortunately, this is a period of my father’s life of which I know very little. I wasn’t born when my parents moved to England and our conversations always seemed to centre around Asia.
When he was on the cusp of his forties he moved to Singapore, where he took a position as copy editor on the now-defunct Singapore Monitor. Here, he further cemented what was to be the defining feature of his career — helping other people fix their copy. As such, his bylines are few and far between. I did, however, manage to find one from the Monitor. Published on May 14, 1984, when I was three years old. The article is headlined: “Some spicy leftovers from Mother”.
It begins: “It is part of family legend that my mother’s eating habits as a child — acquired largely on a river boat in Malaysia 70 years ago — were a source of anguish and despair to her mother.
“My maternal grandmother was the dour daughter of a Welsh clergyman and, so the story goes, could never quite cope with the sight of her curly-haired moppet squatting on the deck with the crew and dipping into their communal pot as the boat chugged downriver to Kota Bahru.”
His mother was born in Karimon, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), although soon after her birth the family moved onto a rubber plantation in Kelantan, in Malaysia’s wild northeast.
My father, on the other hand, grew up in Ahipara, a small town in the far north of New Zealand. Many times over a beer or two he would share with me his memories of those times.
One of the stories he often told was of how he was beaten up in primary school because his mother had hired home help, a habit she’d acquired in the East. Other children felt that the Simms clan had ideas above their station.
Another story he recounted that was to be pivotal to his future was the first time he got on his motorbike and pointed it south — leaving Ahipara behind and heading to New Zealand’s most populous city. For those unfamiliar with that road, there is a point just to the north of Auckland where a first glimpse of the city lights appears. It was the first time he saw how big the world really is, and knew he was done with small-town life and (before long) living in New Zealand.
My father never lost his love for the country of his birth, though. He had a holiday home in the far north that he visited for a few weeks each year until, for various reasons, it became too complicated to continue his trips.
He had been working at the Melbourne Age when he made his life-changing move to Asia. The Age granted him a three-year leave of absence to take the Singapore Monitor job. At the end of the contract he would return to Australia with enough money to pay off his mortgage and buy a new car, and have a job to come home to. That was always his intention.
Unfortunately, the Monitor closed down so he did not complete his contract. A return to Melbourne was not on the radar, though. By now he had fallen for the lure of Asia. So at the end of his time in Singapore he found himself looking not back to the Antipodes but instead to Hong Kong, where the sun was setting on the British Empire. He took a job on the Hongkong Standard and would eventually become the paper’s editor. Hanging proudly on the wall of his Hong Kong apartment was the Standard’s front page from July 1, 1997. The headline was his: “Flag rises on new era”.
My father was 37 and still at the Melbourne Age when I came along, although we were already in Asia by the time I formed my first memories. One of my earliest recollections is of eating satay in a Singapore hawker centre. I also remember us driving the length of Peninsular Malaysia (at age three and a half) to visit the small, riverside town where my grandmother learned such poor table manners from the boatmen. That was before there were any highways in Malaysia, and most of the drive was through rough dirt roads. It is a trip we often talked about.
We were in the middle of the Kelantan rainforest when a torrential downpour brought our small sedan to a halt after the road was transformed into a river. We were towed out by the Malaysian army and taken to a hotel in the jungle. I’ll never forget this place, which I called the “bat hotel” — it had an open-air restaurant. While we sat and ate our meal, we saw bats hanging from the light fixtures.
I made the same journey a few years ago, while working in Kuala Lumpur. It took a few hours (where the first had taken days) on the large network of modern highways that now criss-cross the country. We pulled into Dabong and I called Dad from the side of the road. What was left of the old plantation house was barely visible on the opposite shore, and the rubber plantations had succumbed to the inexorable march of the rainforest.
I told Dad, “You’re not going to believe this, Simmsy, there’s a giant highway across the river now, no boatmen waiting to take people across”. He was similarly disappointed when he finally made it to Karimon, his mother’s birthplace. Nothing remained of its colonial past.
If you’re sitting in a pub in London or Amsterdam, tales of the old colonial East are romantic and exotic. From the perspective of the people who were overthrown by force, made to work for low wages and in poor conditions, and were responsible for the prosperity of the Empires, however, it’s not such a loss.
This illustrates another thing my father taught me: not to be aloof from the local people when you’re living abroad. You’re no better or worse than any of them, and if you shut up and listen, almost everyone has something to teach you.
It’s perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my father. Other gifts Simmsy gave me were his single-mindedness and his work ethic. I’d also hazard a guess that my love of all things Asian could be attributed to him.
I can also credit him for my distrust of blind faith and a mind that is always open to changing direction upon receipt of new evidence. He was a passionate atheist. He even specified in his will that he did not want a Christian funeral, and that no Christian minister should be allowed anywhere near his remains. He was one of the founding members of the Hong Kong Atheists Society and once said that “debating God with a Christian is like debating water with a fish”.
I will be forever grateful to my father for his intellectual curiosity, and later for the chance we had to do some real straight-up, honest talking, when I sat with him and admitted to so many of the wrong things I’d done in life. It was a chance not to beg forgiveness but to clear the air.
It was about 18 months before he died, on one of his first visits to our house in Luzon, that we got all that dealt with. This left us free to carry on and enjoy each other’s company, rather than be held back by old grievances. This is another great gift my father gave me: his forgiveness, which I did not deserve to win so easily.
This leaves me wondering: what gifts did I ever give him? For most of my life our relationship was fraught with anger and turmoil. My behaviour through my teens and 20s was abysmal and I’m lucky I didn’t end up dead, in prison or worse.
I never gave him the reconciliation between myself and my brother that he so desperately wanted. Nor the reconciliation between myself and his brother. For that I’m very sorry. I did give him his granddaughter, Gabriella, and I’ve never seen his eyes light up like they did the first time he held her.
I’ll be forever sorry that I didn’t do more, but I did my best to make up for lost time once I got my head on straight and got off all that junk. Was it enough? Not for me, and I doubt it was for him. My habits had already featured so prominently in our relationship that it would have taken years to recover it fully. If only I’d known that we didn’t have years, we only had months. Then again, even if I did somehow know how much time we had left together, I’m not sure what I could have done differently.
The outpouring of genuine grief that has come out in the wake of his departure has been amazing. Journalists from all over the world have contacted me, saying just what an impact Simmsy had on their lives and careers. Many of them thought I was a total prick, which I was. I’ll cop that sweet.
So farewell, old man. I’m sorry we didn’t manage to have one for the road. Your memory surrounds me and I’m sorry that I left it so late to form a real relationship with you. That is, and will forever be, my loss. Thank you for all you did for me and with me. Thank you for the gifts you left behind. You are missed.
Simmsy leaves behind his wife Jean, children Anton & Damon, grandchildren Paige, Lauren & Gabriella and brothers Danny & Paddy.
There have been a number of obituaries published, here are the ones I have been able to find online. If anyone has any other links please get in touch.
Michael Simms, the Hong Kong journalist who put it right mourned by all — South China Morning Post, January 15th, 2017
Ex-Standard editor dies — The Hong Kong Standard, January 16th, 2017
Stellar career began at the Age — The Northland Age, January 17th, 2017
Jet-setting journalist who spent time with regional daily dies age 73 — Hold The Front Page, February 10th, 2017
Here is what I’ve been able to find online that was published and attributed to him