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Guy Kewney: Integrity in socks and sandals

My years in the Kewney Chaos Field

Obituary Guy Kewney was the UK's first technology journalist and remained the doyen of the trade until the end.

Born in South Africa in 1946, in the 1960s Guy quit the apartheid regime for the UK. After rattling around in a number of jobs, including programming and writing advertising copy, in the 1970s he eventually found his permanent niche: writing passionately about technology with his loyalties firmly on the side of his readers.

His column featured in the opening issue of Personal Computer World in 1978 and in the last one in 2009 before the magazine closed. Throughout that era the IT industry, his readers and his colleagues saw Guy as the exemplar of fearless technology journalism.

Guy’s approach never wavered, born out of his fierce intelligence and intense curiosity, tempered by a hint of humility. He’d ask the right question in a terribly polite way – and get results. IT executives would either blurt out what they didn’t want to say, respond aggressively or give the game away by clamming up. Either way, Guy would know he'd asked the right question.

Described as the man who made Britain love computers, Guy got it right more often than not. He predicted that microcomputers would become a huge market. He called the future dominance of Google correctly as soon as its first, minimalist website appeared. And he correctly said in 2002 that mobile video would be limited not by bandwidth but by power consumption.

During his 35 years as a journalist he engaged with a vast range of people, including many who became household names, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Clive Sinclair. All were just a phone call away, before they became too exalted to talk to journalists. Alan Sugar, during the days he was selling computers, would speak only to Guy.

The roster even included Hitchhiker's Guide author Douglas Adams, who became a close personal friend. Guy once described the first conversation he had with Adams, where he began by explaining who he was. Adams responded: "Yes, yes. I read all your stuff all the time. You're famous, you are."

Guy was funny, incisive, insightful and idiosyncratic (wearing socks with sandals became a trademark), and his character shone through his copy. It didn't matter what you asked for, what you got was Guy’s voice every time - no kow-towing to corporate or magazine styles - and readers loved him for it.

He achieved a wider degree of infamy too, most notably following an incident without which no recounting of his life would be complete. Guy went to be interviewed live by BBC News 24 but, while waiting in the lobby, the programme researcher mistook a Congolese graduate, Guy Goma, who was waiting to be interviewed for a driver's job, for Kewney and found himself live on TV, being asked questions about Apple vs the Beatles. Kewney never quite lived that one down.

Guy could be infuriating to work with. His relaxed, Adamsian approach to deadlines, which he claimed was a ploy to hinder editors' attempts to meddle with his copy, exasperated those who worked with him. Meanwhile, calculating and submitting his expenses became bêtes noire with which he struggled throughout his working life, raising the blood pressure of those with the thankless task of managing him.

So working with him, as I did for almost 15 years, nine of them across the desk from him at PC Magazine in the 1990s, was always entertaining. I especially enjoyed what became known as the Kewney Chaos Field: perfectly good pieces of technology, often pre-released hardware or software products, became inert door-stops as soon as they got within ten feet of the man. No one ever figured out how technology in his hands become so reliably unreliable.

Through it all shone the integrity of the man. Not only was he unfailingly honest, no matter whose corns were trodden on; but also as a result of the kindness he showed to people - especially those new to the industry - he inspired generations of journalists and those in the PR and IT industries.

As his colleague and friend Rupert Goodwins said: "I doubt anyone who's known Guy has escaped the perplexity, infuriating teeth-grinding frustration and sheer essence du D'oh that the man induces in all who draw near. Nor do I know anyone who, having experienced all that, counts it other than a price worth paying, and cheap at that...

"Guy drives everyone who knows him mad, and then has the chutzpah to wonder out loud and at length why the world is so full of mad people. The man has not a hadron of malice in his soul, and is clearly on the wrong planet."

On his blog, to which he contributed until close to the end, and on this tribute site, the praise paid to him shows the high esteem in which he was and remains held.

I visited him just a week before his death. He knew he was soon to die of the cancer that started in his bowels then ate away at the rest of him. But although he was physically weak, his brain was undimmed, and he was perfectly relaxed and accepting of what was about to happen; the rational man that he was took it in his stride.

Guy died peacefully at home at 0040 on Thursday 8 April 2010, aged just 63. He left behind his wife Mary and two daughters, Lucy and Alice. He is sorely missed. ®

Manek is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience, mainly focusing on business-related technologies and issues. Most of those years were spent involved working with or alongside Guy Kewney. If he has a claim to fame, it's his stint at PC Magazine, where he ended up as editor-in-chief. He's currently freelancing for a number of technology and business-focused websites.

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