The man with ink in his veins

Shortly before Singaporean journalist Alan John retired last year, he queried a younger colleague on his soon-to-be- published report in some detail.

When another colleague saw the questions, he told the reporter: "Welcome to the club, you've just been alan-johnned."

"It was the nicest thing I'd heard in a long time," says John, 62, adding that he often "gave reporters grief" late in the night, refusing to run a story he found unsatisfactory or even scrapping it.

Seasoned journalists are said to have ink in their veins and the former deputy editor of this newspaper is no exception.

When he was a rookie reporter at Malaysia's The New Straits Times in the 1970s, he blew his pay - which was then less than $1,000 a month - on a five-volume set of Editing And Design by Harold Evans, once the editor of the Times of London.

"Book One, Newsman's English, was my favourite and everything I know about writing simply, cleanly and without big words, I learnt there," he says.

While his new book, Good Grief!, comprises his musings on being a son, husband, father and friend, he has written commentaries on current affairs that bug him too, such as paying for human organs and the group representation constituency system.

His first book, Unholy Trinity (1989), is an account of the gruesome Adrian Lim murders and will be re- issued here later this month.

Asked who influenced him and his writing, he names fellow retired newsmen: Ambrose Khaw, "who could clean up reporters' copy in record time and who announced howlers to the whole newsroom in his booming voice"; former Straits Times editor-in-chief Peter Lim, who told John to "lick that beast called pride of authorship"; and another former Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, who told him: "If you can't write a clear summary of your story in four lines, your story will be in trouble."

Given that his memoir is titled Good Grief!, how much of his life has been good and how much of it has been grief?

The father of two says: "I lean shamelessly on God and it helps that I am not someone who wallows. If you work in a newsroom, you encounter plenty of grief, but you cannot stew too long because there is a paper that won't wait."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'The man with ink in his veins'. Print Edition | Subscribe