Prince of prints
MOST of us have at least one stroke of luck in life and mine came when I was working on a weekly paper in York. The highlight of the week was rewriting the reports from the WIS: ‘The prize for the three best tarts was won by Mesdames Smith, Jones and Robinson.’ An army boyfriend persuaded me to write in the affiliated regional morning paper, The
Northern Echo, about the trouble the local regiment, The Green Howards, was having in Germany. To my amazement, it led the front page.
Shortly afterwards, I got an invitation from the editor. Would I join their newsroom? The editor was Harold Evans. Like me, he started as a cub reporter at 16; in 1961, aged 32, he was an editor.
My work with him was some of the most exciting a reporter can imagine. We campaigned for a pardon for Timothy Evans, executed for his baby’s murder. Later, it turned out that the killer Reginald Christie also lived at 10, Rillington Place. Evans, hanged in 1950, was pardoned in 1966.
In 1963, as Harry was driving to speak to a Rotary Club on the coast, he heard on the car radio that Kennedy had been assassinated. He drove straight back to the newspaper. The entire staff was mobilised and we produced a four-page supplement for the morning paper. My role was to sit in his office reading the telexes as they arrived (no emails then) and trying to make sense of what had happened.
While dealing with this sort of high drama, Harry also remembered that his was a mining region and so the paper covered not just local mining news, but triumphs and disasters in mines around the world. He virtually doubled the circulation.
Not surprisingly, the young campaigning editor came to the attention of the nationals and Harry was given the job of editor of The Sunday Times, then a rather dry weekly with a high opinion of itself. It didn’t know what was in store.
Like many of The Northern Echo staff, I was invited to join the team, where my job was to fill in for others who took the statutory sabbatical. Variously, I was the women’s editor, that of the environmental and gardening pages, the letters editor and given charge of such columnists as Jilly Cooper and Joan Bakewell.
I ended up on the Arts pages, which was a treat in itself. The editor was Godfrey Smith, who would summon all the critics— Bernard Levin, Dilys Powell, Alan Brien, Marina Vaizey—on Friday to read their copy and have a good gossip. Claire Tomalin was literary editor and her assistant Julian Barnes (now a famous novelist).
To ease things along, Fortnum & Mason would deliver lunch— something like a whole brie cheese with gulls’ eggs on the side. As commentators said, The Sunday Times under Lord Thomson was a playground for journalists.
Harry was a campaigning journalist to his shoes and his most notable effort was to get reparations for those children permanently disfigured in the womb when their mothers took the drug Thalidomide. It was a long, hard battle, but he never gave up.
His advice to other campaigners was never to start on a crusade you couldn’t win. Always make sure there was a chance. I don’t think he was ever defeated.
In 2002, he was voted as the greatest editor of all time by two professional journals. He lives in New York with his wife, Tina Brown, and has just published a book, Do I make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters.
It should be essential reading for anyone who, as the title says, wants to be clear. That includes journalists, managers and, above all, politicians. I am certainly ordering a copy.
The Sunday Times was a playground for journalists