Publication in Britain and the United States
of the Autobiography
"My Paper Chase"
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans: review
“...this is a work of extravagant exuberance. It is tough, optimistic, full of verve and friendship, written with clarity and energy, and goes like a train.”
– Melvyn Bragg
SIR Harold “Harry” Evans remains one of the great figures of modern journalism. For this reason, and because the kind of campaigning, reporting-based work he stood for is threatened as never before, his autobiography, written as he turned 80, is both gripping and timely. - Full Review
The Financial Times
“Amid the pervasive gloom surrounding the future of newspapers, Harold Evans has produced a memoir to lift the spirits.”
– Lionel Barber, editor Full Review
"Like many others I was lucky to have worked with him. His book is illuminating and entertaining on his personal history and it gives a valuable record of what used to be known as English provincial life; more vital then, perhaps than now. But the important reason to read it is that it tells you how good newspapers were once made and why they still matter."
– Ian Jack Full Review
Life stories are intertwined in this continually entertaining autobiography… Evans is incapable of telling a dull story.
–Brian MacArthur, Daily Telegraph London
"The sagas over which Mr. Evans then presided...have long since passed into the canon of press lore. Mr. Evans tells these stories well...displaying all the while the rambunctious, anti-establishment, North Country willfulness for which Britain still fondly remembers him."
"Overnight success, especially for a working-class lad, was impossible in that world; instead, one had to mount a long, slow, relentless assault on the battlements of a highly structured social system. The system is gone, as is the way that people like the young Evans operated within it, and what’s most arresting about “My Paper Chase” is that Evans makes us miss them."
"His new autobiography, succeeds marvelously....It is the dream of journalists not just to spin interesting yarns, but to influence the world around them, and Evans did time and time again...Evans' career mattered, and matters still."
"Harold Evans recalls an exuberant run in 20th-century journalism...The book is a fight song that revels in the music of those times."
"In this readable, almost wistful memoir, Sir Harold Evans remains the rare self-made Englishman who changed British journalism."
My Paper Chase
The energetic memoir of Harold Evans, a newspaperman who refuses to sing the blues.
"A refreshing memoir by the venerated editor of London’s Sunday Times and champion of pre-Thatcher British investigative journalism, jettisons hand-wringing over the “vanished times” of its melancholy subtitle for one man’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his life’s work...."My Paper Chase" is the Gospel of Evans, and the gospel makes juicy copy."
By Justin Moyer
"A scintillating memoir….Written with self-deprecating humor and quiet conviction, this is a fine valedictory for a heroic style of journalism one hopes still has a future." Full Review
MY PAPER CHASE: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
"Despite the title, Evans's memoir is more than relevant in the age of computer news; good reporting still demands what Evans exemplifies here-honesty, courage and dogged determination."
The Times Literary Supplement
"The autobiography of Harold Evans, Britain’s greatest post-war editor, is subtitled True stories of vanished times. It presents vivid accounts of the campaigning …innovations at The Sunday Times of London that made his the most famous newspaper name in the 1960s and 70s: the unmasking of Kim Philby, the pioneering publication of a Cabinet minister’s diaries, investigations into air crashes and wine frauds, the struggle to make a multinational company accept responsibility for the birth defects caused by Thalidomide. My Paper Chase elegantly evokes too an earlier newspaper age in Manchester and Darlington. Much of what is powerfully described here has, indeed, vanished for all time.
– Peter Stothard, editor TLS, and editor of the Times, 1992-2002
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
"Reading these evocative and enjoyable memoirs, one feels the warmth of his sunny personality even as the lights seem to be going outin much of print journalism. He saw the best of it - o, lucky man!"
- Robert Harris, lead reviewer Full Review
The title “Greatest Editor of his time” is often awarded to Sir Harold Evans who edited the Sunday Times through a series of headline-making campaigns during the sixties and seventies which some now regard as the golden age of Fleet Street. He merits the compliment, but what is really absorbing in his autobiography is not his years at the top but the years at the bottom from which he extricated himself by will power, hard work, and, of course, a rare degree of talent. ..Harry, we’ve missed you.
–Peter Lewis, The Daily Mail (London)
Andrew Marr, the BBC's commentator and author, writes:
"Inspiring" is an overused word. My Paper Chase truly is. Anyone who feels cynical about public life in general, and journalists in particular, should drink down this wonderful book in a single gulp. Harry Evans was the great crusader of the twentieth century British press. His memoir, which is also jaw-dropping social history, is the best education possible in what true journalism's all about."
A Golden Age
"Journalists’ memoirs tend to be as transitory as the great stories they lovingly recall. Few of them impart much of value, except perhaps for a fleeting sense of nostalgia. Harold Evans must surely be counted an exception. because for more than a decade, he ran the best newspaper in the world. The Sunday Times, in the 1970’s, was good because it placed journalism at the heart of the paper, and allowed it free rein."
- Magnus Linklater, editor, The Scotsman 1988-94 Full Review
"Perhaps the most surprising thing about the memoirs of the man who was arguably Britain's greatest editor of the second half of the 20th century is that he doesn't reach the editorial chair of the Sunday Times until page 287, more than halfway through the book. …Two names – Samuel Smiles, the Victorian apostle of self-help, and Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy – came to mind as I was reading this engaging tale of the poor lad from Eccles, the son of a train driver, who failed his 11-plus yet rose to become editor of the Times. I found this section moving…"
- Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer 1975-93 Full Review
“...this is a fascinating memoir that evokes a disappeared world of Underwood typewriters and smoke-filled newsrooms. More importantly, it makes a compelling case for the importance of long-term, campaigning investigative journalism that breaks out of the goldfish memory of the 24-hour news cycle, defies the weight of establishment opinion and has the courage to keep pursuing a story even when the public’s interest is on the wane.”
– HUGH LINEHAN Full Review
"My Paper Chase is far more than a treatise on journalism. It is social history. Evans was not just witness to an age, he was a participant in some of its most stirring events. They come to life in a sparkling narrative..."
"From a working-class childhood to editor of one of Britain’s most influential newspapers, Harold Evans’s memoir, "My Paper Chase" is a record of the changes in society and journalism since the early 20th century. Jaunty and anecdotal yet thoughtful, this book is another splendid example of Evans’ good writing."
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Harold Evans regrets that the wholesale distribution system of finished books in the UK has suffered teething troubles (nothing to do with Little, Brown publishers) affecting many titles including My Paper Chase. The following websites have been servicing orders swiftly, and no problems are anticipated outside the UK.
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A man for his Times
By Mae Woods Bell
Friday, January 8, 2010
From a working-class childhood to editor of one of Britain’s most influential newspapers, Harold Evans’s memoir, "My Paper Chase" (Little Brown; 580 pages; $27.99), is a record of the changes in society and journalism since the early 20th century. Jaunty and anecdotal yet thoughtful, this book is another splendid example of Evans’ good writing.
Evans begins by paying a heartfelt tribute to his hard working, enterprising and loving parents. Evans tells at length how his father worked his way through years of hard work to become a railway engineer – called a train driver in England. Of his mother he writes: “Not only did she manage to bring up four boys with equal affection – five if you include Dad, who was lost without her – but in time she started a business that thrived on the relationship.”
In 1944 when he was 16, Evans applied for his first job in newspapers. None of his scattershot applications had an effect at first. Finally, he did get a job at paper a few miles from his home in Manchester. He recounts that introduction to a newsroom: “There was an exciting smell to which I would become addicted. It was hot news. Lead, antimony, and tin bubbled in each Linotype’s melting pot, kept at 300 degrees centigrade by a gasoline burner. Digital typesetting at a computer has consigned the Linotype to the museum, but the speeding electron has none of the aromatic urgency of hot metal marinated with printer’s ink.”
His first day on the newspaper has to be told: The editor, a Mr. Middlehurst, thrust up bunches of paper and mumbled “asparagus.” Evans skimmed the papers Middlehurst had given him, mostly handwritten scrawls, postcards and sheets torn from an exercise book. At a loss of what to do and in awe of the editor, Evans typed “asparagus” at the top of page 1 and prayed for inspiration. A helpful youth came to his rescue, telling him to write up each submission as a separate paragraph – that was it!
In 1952, after military service and his education at Durham University, Evans began his serious career when he was hired by the Manchester Evening News. His crusading and investigative work bore fruit from then onward. As an investigative reporter, Evans took on what seemed a strange campaign at his editor, “Big” Tom Henry’s, behest: Manchester cotton mills were losing business despite their good quality products. By going to countries in Europe, Evans discovered that Manchester goods were considered old-fashioned and not attractively displayed. His reports and suggestions managed to antagonize the big cotton kings but pleased his editor. A few months later, the Cotton Board took notice as did Henry.
The editor’s next assignment for Evans was to find out how soldiers from Manchester who were assigned to the Guards Division stationed in Germany were faring. Officers told of defective gear and antiquated communications equipment, leading to a full-scale debate in the House of Commons. As a result of his successes, Henry piled on Evans’s assignments, sending the reporter into assignments in bleak Communist Berlin, examining the case of equal pay for female soldiers, checking whether the new West German army posed a threat, reviewing what was in the offing at the National Physics Laboratory, examining technical education and looking into solar power – always making waves as he reported.
Evans continued to be a crusader when he left Manchester for the London Sunday Times and the daily London Times in January 1967. At the Times newspapers, his first prolonged experience as a national editor was dealing with central government and the charmed circle of influence and power during the Kim Philby spy investigation. Among his crusades was taking up the cause of the thalidomide children. He fought for them and their caregivers, bucking the courts and, finally after much litigation, leading the drug’s manufacturer to accept liability.
Evans writes that he doesn’t quite know how it happened, but not long after he left the Times in 1982 he was invited to be a visiting professor at Duke University in the United States. The final chapter of the memoir recounts how he found himself in charge of Atlantic Monthly Press and at the same time editorial director of U.S. News and World Report. In 1993, Evans became an U.S. citizen.
“My Paper Chase” includes a list of the principal Sunday Times books published during his tenure there, a bibliography, index, illustrations, and endpapers.
Harold Evans is author of The New York Times best seller “The American Century” and “They Made America.” Editor of the London Times between 1967 and 1981, he was voted by British journalists as the greatest all-time editor. He lives in New York.
When I was given a number, 2318611, I clung to the seven digits of my new identity as a baby to a mother. I’d have been no good under interrogation by the enemy. Just the word “number” would have triggered a reflex response.
The transmutation from reporter to recruit was complete when I went through one door in a sports jacket and came out the other in a uniform and an improbable forage cap with the even more implausible motto Per ardua ad astra (Through adversity to the stars). We were all given effing haircuts and effing kit bags, huge sausages designed to dislocate shoulders and impose hours of ironing time for everything stuffed inside Then as numbered freight we were dispatched in groups to Compton Bassett, Wiltshire, for six weeks of square bashing to make men of us. Opinion is divided to this day as to whether they succeeded.
I found it a relief to be turned into a robot for six weeks; no need to plan, worry, or think for oneself, just do what the man said when he shouted a number. It gave me a glimpse of how a fighting unit that didn’t happen to have me in it could perform acts of incredible bravery. The challenge set for me on passing out of the drill squad as an AC2 (aircraftsman second class) was how to escape from the clerical Colditz to which I was immediately dispatched, the dreaded Ministry of Aviation Records Office at Innsworth. There grown men recently trained in warfare went on paper chases into the endless rows of filing cabinets and were never seen again. Redundant aircrews flew metal desks.
I was pretty miserable myself; collecting the names of whist drive winners was thrilling in comparison to my duties at Records. I was in a division responsible for compiling and filing movement orders that sent airmen to their new stations. I tried hard to get the RAF to realize it had a wasting asset. I filled in lots of forms for reassignment. I volunteered for aptitude tests whose results suggested I had no aptitude for anything.
When, resigned, I’d all but forgotten these escape attempts, I received one of the movement orders we sent to others. With effect immediately, 2318611 was posted to Hullavington, Wiltshire, home of the Empire Flying School (EFS) and headquarters of No. 23 Group in the Flying Training Command. There was no hint what 2318611 would be doing there. I didn’t care; it was such a relief to exchange the claustrophobia of Innsworth for the vicarious excitements of an active airfield. Flying school! It was as if I had stepped through the pages of my wartime scrapbooks.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times Harold Evans. Little, Brown, $27.99 (592p) ISBN 978-0-316-03142-4
Old-school newspapering comes alive in this scintillating memoir. Anglo-American journalist Evans (The American Century) reminisces about his rise up the ladder of English newspapers to its pinnacle as editor of the Sunday Times and his late-career hop across the ocean to run Condé Nast Traveler and the publisher Random House. The author depicts British journalism as a more rugged affair than the American version; editor Evans dodges British laws that permit prior restraint of news stories by the government, gets sued by the Irish Republican Army and battles a thuggish printers' union that he hates even more than he does his boss, Rupert Murdoch. America presents its own unique hardships, including protracted discussions with Marlon Brando over acquiring his memoirs, during which the blowsy thespian accuses Evans of being a CIA agent. Evans creates a lively, evocative portrait of 20th-century journalism: the mad deadline pressure of the copy-desk, stocked with Dickensian characters; the epic investigative pieces that make reporting a kind of spy craft; the obsessive pull of editorial crusades against official wrongdoing. Written with self-deprecating humor and quiet conviction, this is a fine valedictory for a heroic style of journalism one hopes still has a future. Photos. (Nov. 5)
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times. By Harold Evans. Little, Brown; 528 pages; $27.99 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
SIR Harold “Harry” Evans remains one of the great figures of modern journalism. For this reason, and because the kind of campaigning, reporting-based work he stood for is threatened as never before, his autobiography, written as he turned 80, is both gripping and timely.
The book opens with an account of Sir Harry’s rise from an upper working class home in Manchester. After an early setback of failing his 11-plus exam, his story is one of relentless ambition and determination. He left school at 16 to become a cub reporter on a local weekly. In love with journalism, he started a newspaper for the 800 men stationed with him in Wiltshire while doing his national service in the RAF.
Returning to civilian life in 1949, Sir Harry attended a lecture by a rather condescending executive (your reviewer’s father) from the ineffably superior Manchester Guardian, who grandly informed his audience that it was not possible to explain world events without a knowledge of politics and economics gained from reading the likes of Macaulay and Keynes. Inspired, and against considerable odds, Sir Harry wangled himself a place at Durham University. With a degree came the offer of a job at the Manchester Evening News, then one of the country’s most powerful provincial newspapers and, with its eight editions every weekday, one of the most demanding. It was here that Sir Harry acquired his hallmark virtuosity in almost every aspect of newspaper production. From reporting to editing to layout, there was no newsroom job he could not do.
A two-year break travelling America on a Harkness scholarship might have resulted in a career change. But at 32 he returned to England and was offered the editorship of the Darlington-based Northern Echo, a somewhat dated paper that still sold 100,000 copies daily across north-eastern England. Sir Harry speedily re-energised it with a revamped design, sharper reporting and editorials that addressed local issues. But what probably caught the eye of Denis Hamilton, the successful editor of the Sunday Times in London, was Sir Harry’s flair for investigative and campaigning journalism. The young editor bravely ran national campaigns in his regional paper when he believed there was a wrong to be righted. His battle to force a reluctant health service to introduce countrywide screening for cervical cancer may have helped save the lives of thousands of women.
Hamilton brought Sir Harry to the Sunday Times and soon after, in 1966, made him his successor. Highly profitable, with a circulation of over a million and a formidable editorial staff, the Sunday Times was a wonderful stage for Sir Harry to perform from. He was also fortunate in his proprietor, the Canadian Lord (Roy) Thomson, who was steadfast in his belief that readers would pay for independent journalism.
Sir Harry quickly founded a full-time investigative unit to expose important scandals and carefully reconstruct major events. He believed teams were the key to investigative work because they enabled journalists to follow many trails (some inevitably false) and deploy a wide range of expertise in often technical material. A team is also likely to be more dispassionate than a single reporter on a mission.
Recalling his 14 years at the Sunday Times, Sir Harry gives compelling accounts of big stories, such as the paper’s unmasking of Kim Philby’s full damage as a spy; its noble campaign to win decent compensation for the victims of Thalidomide; and its efforts to report what was happening in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, from the treatment of internees to the shootings on Bloody Sunday. Such stories involved long, costly and wearying challenges to political and legal authority. Writing about the Thalidomide affair, for example, often meant hazarding a jail sentence or a heavy fine for contempt. These were risks that Sir Harry bravely took, changing the law in the process. The paper “had to be ready to commit the resources for a sustained effort,” he says of its lengthy investigations. “No campaign should be ended until it had succeeded—or was proved wrong.” He left his beloved Sunday Times in 1981 after the paper and its daily sister were bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Persuaded to take up the editorship of the Times, he soon found himself butting heads with Murdoch executives. But his passion for anti-establishment causes made him a fish out of water there regardless.
Sir Harry then turned his back on English journalism. He went on to make a second career in publishing in America and as a writer of popular history. But he happily admits to playing second fiddle to his much younger and nowadays more famous second wife, Tina Brown.
The book has its faults. Chums are often granted sycophantic epithets (“irrepressibly creative”), which Evans the editor would have rejected. It also leaves readers with a depressing question: is the kind of important, risky, expensive journalism that Sir Harry exemplified still possible? Katharine Graham, a former publisher of the Washington Post, once observed that the best guarantee of first-class journalism is a strong bottom line. But the commodification of news on the internet has meant that this is something few newspapers have. Sir Harry remains optimistic, believing that the potential of the internet outweighs its threat. He suggests that with the right financial model, “we will enter a golden age of journalism.” Readers of this book may well conclude that the golden age of journalism has come and gone.
My Paper Chase
Review by Lionel Barber
Published: September 19 2009 00:20 | Last updated: September 19 2009 00:20
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times – An Autobiography
By Harold Evans
Little, Brown £25, 512 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
Amid the pervasive gloom surrounding the future of newspapers, Harold Evans has produced a memoir to lift the spirits. My Paper Chase is the story of a locomotive driver’s son from Manchester who wins fame and fortune, first as a crusading editor in London and later as an author, broadcaster, publisher and showman in New York.
There is a touch of Horatio Alger about this transatlantic tale, though Evans is no sentimentalist. As editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, he pioneered a brand of hard-hitting investigative journalism that produced a string of scoops: The Crossman Diaries, the Thalidomide scandal, the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland and the unmasking of Kim Philby as a KGB agent working for MI6.
The diminutive, irrepressible Evans belongs to a generation that saw print journalism as a craft rather than a profession. (Full disclosure: my father worked alongside Evans as a splash subeditor for 13 years on The Sunday Times. He shared the same passionate view.)
Evans left school at 16, learning his trade at the Ashton-Under-Lyne Weekly Reporter. After national service in the RAF and a postwar degree in social studies at Durham University, he joined the Manchester Evening News, then a leading (and profitable) regional daily with a million readers.
Newspapers in the 1950s were an essential part of the community. Television was an upstart; computers were the stuff of science fiction. What gripped Evans was the industrial process of putting together a paper.
More than 50 years on, he still marvels at the experience. Here is his description of his first day as a downtable subeditor at the Manchester Evening News: “Mr Bow Tie ... indicated an empty chair at the long table and equipped me with the tools of the trade: spike, gluepot, two pencils, scissors, a galley listing deadline times for every page of the day’s edition, a pad of copy paper and an office book of typefaces.”
Subeditors these days are an endangered species as newsrooms cut back on production costs but Evans venerates subs as “the hidden impresarios of the news”. These male craftsmen (women were virtually non-existent) sorted out the reporters’ stories, wrote the headlines and ticked up the copy to length before it was dispatched for processing into hot metal and, finally, the printed word.
Evans himself was a master craftsman. Few journalists could match his expertise in basic editing skills, whether cropping a picture, honing an intro or selecting the correct font size. His five-volume series on editing, design and photojournalism, published 30 years ago, still ranks as the last word on the subject.
As an editor, he was a self-confessed meddler, especially when deadlines approached. But he also possessed two other enviable strengths: an eye for talent and a willingness to publish and be damned. He recognised that it was not always enough to print the truth once. “Amnesia is a characteristic of all newspapers,” he observes, “because we move on to the next story.”
Evans’s success as editor owed much to the high-mindedness of the Thomson family owners, especially Roy Thomson, the bespectacled patriarch. The latter’s belief in editorial independence was unshakeable, born of a conviction that a great newspaper depended on the dedication and skills of a professional journalist rather than an interfering proprietor. Thomson also had a mischievous sense of humour, declaring that “part of the social mission of every great newspaper is to provide a home for a large number of salaried eccentrics”.
The era of benevolent ownership ended with Rupert Murdoch’s successful bid in 1981. The Thomson family had no strategy for dealing with the unions which had rendered Times Newspapers ungovernable and unprofitable. But the Australian parvenu had a plan.
First, Murdoch persuaded the Thatcher government to pass on a competition probe, despite having a sizeable share of the UK newspaper market. Then he seduced Evans into leaving his Sunday stronghold to edit The Times, only to fire him less than a year later. Evans confesses that his ambition to edit a distinguished daily paper got the better of his judgment. More interesting is how he has reappraised Murdoch and his legacy.
The Mephistophelian character of Evans’ account in Good Times, Bad Times (1983) has transformed into a visionary reformer. Evans now accepts that by moving his titles from Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping in London’s Docklands in 1986, Murdoch outwitted the unions and gave the newspaper industry a new lease of life.
In fact, both Evans and Murdoch have more affinity with each other than either would care to admit. Both rose to prominence as anti-establishment characters; both moved to a bigger stage in America and became US citizens. Evans writes that Britain has “a penchant for secrecy, social privilege and the nurturing of an educational elite remained pervasive in the culture and has not been quite expunged to this day”. Murdoch could easily have written the same words (though he did attend Oxford).
After the privations of wartime Manchester and the snooty sniping of the Oxbridge elite in London, Evans revelled in meritocratic America. He and his wife Tina Brown became one of New York’s power couples – she went on to edit Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and now runs The Daily Beast, a news blog. Evans even accepted a knighthood, confirming his view that in the US everyone has a second chance.
Is there a second chance for the newspaper industry? Murdoch has signalled that he wants all his titles to be charging for online content by next year. Once again, he is being heralded as the saviour of the industry. But the methods and scale of charging are still up in the air, even if the principle is sound. My Paper Chase is an inspiring tale but in the end it is a vivid and eloquent testament to a bygone age. For once, Evans has buried the lead. The sub-head tells the story: True Stories in Vanished Times.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT
From The Times Literary Supplement
September 16, 2009
Harold Evans: memoirs of the future
The Spike, Mr Bow-Tie and other Fleet Street legends
Few stories of Fleet Street are told without mention of the Spike. This simple thing of metal and wood, a kind of mahogany kebab, was for a century the most distinctive item on editorial desks, the place where copy was killed, the final home of all news deemed not fit to print. It was an apt metaphor for the editor’s trade, for the power to reject, for the exercise of choice, for discrimination and caprice and the occasional insertion of steel between the shoulder blades. In 1965, Peter Forster explained its use as the title for his newspaper novel in a suitably terse, single-paragraph preface:
Upon “the spike”, in journalistic parlance and practice, are impaled galley-proofs, articles, stories which have been rejected, or used, or which may perhaps be used on a later occasion. This happens also with people.
Editing newspapers has always been as much about spiking stories as about uncovering or creating them. Critics of the press may whisper darkly about political bias and censorship – as well as the verbal violence of Anthony Trollope’s “thin blade” – but even for some “ideal” editor, in some wholly idealized world, there could never be enough space to print everything. Whether the shortage of newsprint was caused by wartime rationing, the capacity of the presses, the loquacity of the writers, the unwillingness of advertisers, or the wage structures negotiated by unions, there were always battles about what was printed and what was not.
The autobiography of Harold Evans, Britain’s greatest post-war editor, is subtitled True stories of vanished times. It presents vivid accounts of the campaigning and design innovations at The Sunday Times of London that made his the most famous newspaper name in the 1960s and 70s: the unmasking of Kim Philby, the pioneering publication of a Cabinet minister’s diaries, investigations into air crashes and wine frauds, the struggle to make a multinational company accept responsibility for the birth defects caused by Thalidomide. My Paper Chase elegantly evokes too an earlier newspaper age in Manchester and Darlington. Much of what is powerfully described here has, indeed, vanished for all time.
In his final pages Evans poses directly the question of what else is vanishing. The spike disappeared in its nine-inch steel form in the mid-1980s, when computer typesetting replaced typewriters and carbon-paper. After that – with Health and Safety inspectors in hot pursuit of recidivist users – it had to survive in spirit alone, and did so unchallenged for as long as newspapers were still made primarily in printed form. But in the online age, when there is limitless room for anything and everything, even the spirit of the spike is disappearing, at unpredicted speed and with unpredictable consequences.
The editor’s craft has always demanded some of the same skills as that of a reporter, including those most often quoted from one of Evans’s own stars, Nicholas Tomalin, “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”. Paramount for editors, however, is the skill of selection and rejection, the creative use of defined limits. The role of the selector, discriminator and judge has become very different – and is becoming more so – when there is no longer the shortage of space against which journalists railed for so long.
I should declare a personal interest in this book. I was recruited into newspapers in 1979 by Harold Evans and saw my first spike on the editor’s desk of his Business News. The offices then, and throughout the whole period described here, were in a metalcladded block on Gray’s Inn Road, between King’s Cross Station and the Inns of Court, layers of grimy floors bound in copper like a birdcage. I was too late an arrival in this golden age to discuss expenses with Ian Fleming, to share a lift with Cyril Connolly or to read Richard Crossman’s Diaries when the government believed they were a vital official secret. But the “magic” that Evans eloquently describes was then still only a little dimmed by the industrial disputes and economic dangers that were looming larger year by year. There were some very sharp-beaked birds inside the Sunday Times cage, a staff that, as Evans argues, was not large by US standards, but was still capable of producing many times as much material as could be published in any one issue. Viewed from the lower perches rather than the loftier ones, the struggle for any story to win precious newsprint was even more intense than it appears in this book.
In those days, a newspaper could not easily increase the number of its pages to meet editorial or advertising demands. The trade unions imposed a generally impossible cost on that. Many words were commissioned each week for what would certainly be very few spaces on a Saturday night. On Peter Forster’s spike there were impaled stories “which may perhaps be used on a later occasion”. But his was a fictional daily newspaper: on The Sunday Times, anything that failed once was unlikely ever to rise again. A vital skill for an editor – one of the many in which Evans was supreme – lay in motivating rival individuals and groups to ignore the very high risk that their work would be in vain. A vital skill for a reporter – even more important than finding stories with one’s ratlike cunning – was protecting their exclusivity, promoting them to the news and features editors who shared the title of “space barons”, and, subtly (sometimes not so subtly) ensuring that they had a higher appeal than those promoted by others.
Such was the atmosphere – bitter-sweet and smoky – in which individuals and teams toiled for months to show in 1974 how a Turkish Airlines DC-10 had crashed in the world’s then biggest air disaster, who had shot whom and why on Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday in 1971, and what the truth was behind the diplomatic careers of Britain’s Cold War traitors. While all this work was being done, Evans was a master of being everywhere and nowhere at the appropriate time. The cry of “Where’s Harry?” was ubiquitous, whether from journalists wanting his approval for some eyewateringly high expenditure or from those fearful that the Editor was out of sight somewhere, favouring some other project.
My Paper Chase is a series of dramatically crafted stories recalled from the highest newspaper perch of all. There is a notably taut chapter, opening with Tomalin’s epigram, in which Evans describes the fear of an editor when reporters risk their lives in war zones. There follows the bleak narrative of how in 1977 his Middle East correspondent, David Holden, was found dead in mysterious circumstances in Cairo, dumped among old newspapers by the side of a sandy road. Had Holden lost his life in the service of journalism alone? Or through a misidentification by his murderers? Or was he a survivor from an earlier age when the job of spy and journalist were often conveniently combined? This is Evans at his nagging, questioning, storytelling best.
One chapter is entitled “The Rolls Royce of Fleet St” in recognition of the vital truth that The Sunday Times was highly profitable as well as editorially successful. It was the place where advertisers as well as journalists most wanted their words and pictures to appear, and, like the journalists, those who paid for their place in the paper might also find that there was insufficient space. Sometimes an advertiser had to be told that there was no room for the launch of his campaign. Evans recounts an unusual encounter with the then rising star of British advertising, Maurice Saatchi, over the limits on how much of a page could be for sale. Premium prices for pictures of aeroplane seats and whisky bottles consistently funded premium budgets for the Editor to deploy against fraudsters in aero-engineering and the wine trade.
The Sunday Times staff, as Evans describes, included an exotic range of talents, many of whom had professional skills far beyond those of journalism itself. This was an age when direct recruitment of graduates was rare (thus the horror of the Cambridge man who challenges the old lags’ ways in Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, 1967); media studies courses were despised or unknown; and an airline pilot, a psychologist, a bond dealer, an accountant, a chemist, an antiques dealer and an expert in molecular biology were among the lawyers, classicists and craftsmen who made the system hum. The ascetic liberal commentator Hugo Young (whose posthumous papers were reviewed in the TLS, November 21, 2008), could be seen on a Saturday afternoon arguing the finer points of prosody with colleagues whose briefcases clanked with bottles plundered from mini-bars.
Evans himself brought to the driver’s seat an experience of journalism that began in 1944 on the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, continued through the student newspaper at Durham University and advanced through the Manchester Evening News to his first editorship at The Northern Echo in Darlington. His first day in the Manchester sub-editors’ room was under the tutelage of “Mr Bow-Tie”, the copy-taster who gave him the tools of his trade: “spike, two pencils, glue-pot, scissors”. Mr Bow-Tie had “two shiny spikes ready for the day’s torrent of copy” – as well as a ready query about whether the new man, a graduate and a novice, could make the grade.
In answering that question – through front-page stories of train crashes and discussions on Russian and espionage with the then “colour-writer”, Michael Frayn – Evans amassed a rare range of knowledge and, more unusually, left none of it behind. For ever after he was able to enter any part of a newspaper, the news room, the darkroom, the open desks where the pictures were cropped and the headlines written, the curtained halls of the leader-writers, and do whatever task he saw as needing to be done. It was hard for anyone to match his mercurial pace around an office. He moved, and still moves, like an Eastern table-tennis master, like a game bird low on the ground, settling briefly to solve a problem (not always one whose owner wants it solved) before setting off to make some small improvement somewhere else.
His first Sunday Times colleagues had immediately recognized him as something different. Lord Snowdon, then husband of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was the paper’s top photographer and arbiter of style. He decreed an office for the new man “in startling red and black tones” to match his character. Evans never quite worked out why this was. His father had been a train driver with an unusual skill in manipulating numbers, his mother the proprietress of a grocery shop in their Eccles front room. This was not the background expected for an editor of The Sunday Times, but in the 60s it was not a barrier either. The opening chapters are an intense, often very moving, evocation of the first of Evans’s vanished times, the clogs and cotton mills, the privet hedges that could tolerate any amount of industrial pollution, the “monkey run” dances where his parents met, and the omnipresent fear of pneumonia.
Not every car can be – or should be – a Rolls-Royce. Nor need every newspaper have the resources of The Sunday Times, then or now. Not even the best-financed luxury car always works smoothly, and Evans is philosophical about what went wrong as well as what went right. But while he avoids the Fleet Street memoir trap of excessively romanticizing the past, it is hard to review this powerful personal story without wondering whether the conditions that created its finest years, the concentration of incoming cash into the concentrated output of journalism, will ever return.
Evans is both an enthusiast for new technology and a natural optimist. After well-publicized troubles on leaving for The Times in 1981 (there is minimal reprise here of his memoir published in 1984, Good Times, Bad Times), he began a second career in publishing, writing and editing in New York. One of his most successful books was a history of American technical innovation with a strong progressive theme (They Made America, 2004). He revels in the World Wide Web as an extraordinary tool of research, a mechanism that can put any reporter, whether on a rich newspaper or none, in touch with expertise in city fraud, air accident investigation, hurricane forecasts and wine guides. Knowledge that had once to be painstakingly and expensively assembled in the Gray’s Inn Road birdcage is now available to all. “My hopeful nature”, he writes, “makes me believe that we are in a period of transition at the end of which we will see a perfect marriage of the Web and the traditional newspaper.”
This “perfect marriage” is still, however, some way off. Nor is the identity of its celebrants clear, nor the guest list, the drinks bill, the best man’s speech, the bridesmaids’ dresses – nor even the identities of the bride and groom. As well as providing access to the truth, the Web also puts the unwary in touch with fakes and frauds. In the age where “interaction” is a much-promoted virtue and “comments” make a massive extension of the traditional “letters page”, discrimination about what is “put up” is inevitably less considered, sometimes dangerously less so. Those who once complained about journalists spiking opponents and each other have now to deal with the gang warfare of anarchic bloggers. As Evans himself puts it, “the question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism”.
There is a quickening and much-needed debate about how expensive journalism will be paid for. Online advertising will rise when the economy recovers, but it will be shared among thousands of sites. Those with a clear sense of identity and a clearly expressed editorial taste will prosper. It will be a challenge to create the future concentration of revenues that funded the DC-10 and Thalidomide inquiries, and the continuing tradition of editorial excellence that has lasted on that paper to this day.
In Peter Forster’s novel, published the year before Evans came to London, The Sunday Times is already described – with both envy and an attempt at superiority – as “a supermarket”, a recognition that it was early in the business of offering the widest range of wares, in politics and sport, society observation and social commentary, everything from fashion to fishing. This was the strategy that in the post-trade-union era of high pagination and multi-sections, allowed the successful claim that “The Sunday Times is the Sunday Papers”. In the Internet era, however, most of the stock is being given away – a problem that extends far beyond The Sunday Times of London and into newspaper markets around the world. A “spike” is now an unexpected rise in online demand, the word for millions of website visitors suddenly reading something for nothing.
More online readers must pass in future through some sort of check-out till. They will need the best possible motivation to do so. There are many strands to what is now a fast-developing debate, but websites will surely have to define themselves more tightly, not merely by what appears on those virtual supermarket shelves but by what does not appear, not just by what their editors prize most but what by what they deem as alien to their store’s values. Readers will need more of the old reasons to visit zones of high quality in a world of the low, the sense that someone whom they trust is discriminating on their behalf. How are publishers to make readers pay? How are they to divide the journalism that is free from the journalism that must be purchased? How are readers to be guided from the first into the second? Those are arts that will define the great editors of the future. And they will have to be learnt fast if the virtues of Harold Evans’s world are not to vanish along with clogs and mills and mass death from industrial disease.
Peter Stothard is Editor of the TLS. From 1978 to 1981 he was a reporter on The Sunday Times and from 1992 to 2002 he was Editor of The Times. His book On the Spartacus Road is due to be published in January.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times - An Autobiography by Harold Evans
Ian Jack is reminded of a golden age of journalism by Harold Evans's rags-to riches autobiography
The Guardian, Saturday 19 September 2009
Harold Evans edited the Sunday Times between 1967 and 1981, when it was advertised as "one of the world's great newspapers" on the sides of the delivery vans that queued up every week outside its offices in Gray's Inn Road. I can't remember that any of us on the paper doubted this boast. The Sunday Times in those years set standards of liberal, humane and inquiring journalism that made the staff proud to work for it. In Lord Thomson (and, later, his son), the paper had a benevolent and non-interventionist proprietor; in Evans, one of the most creative editors in British newspaper history. Everybody knew him as "Harry" and, though he had some irritating, quicksilver qualities, none of his faults could dent our solid affection for him - or not, at least, for long.
He was - still, at 81, is - a small-framed man without an ounce of fat. His deputy called him "the young master". The paper's late-night driver, a Cockney, would ask after "the jockey". He ran everywhere. When, in this autobiography, he says he "raced" back to the office or to an airport we can ignore the instructions of old newspaper style books ("Ambulances 'went' rather than 'raced' to the scene, please") and refuse to modify the verb. He ran to the composing room, he ran to the loo; somebody once claimed to have seen him there, flies open at the urinal, a pencil in one hand, the other pressing a few sheets of paper to the wall, editing a story as his bodily functions looked after themselves. When feet weren't enough, he'd take to his BMW bike. And when speed served no practical purpose, such as getting the paper out or reaching somewhere on time, he'd deploy it for fun over a ping-pong table or a tennis court or down a ski run, or in 20 quick lengths of the pool at the RAC club (where his lunch guests would be left waiting at the table). Newspaper culture then could have been cartooned as a picture of podgy, bibulous men in cardigans, frowning at typewriters and glue pots below clouds of tobacco smoke - cirrus at the newsroom ceiling, cumulus lower down - but Harry pinned a notice to his door: "Smokers are welcome, but not their cigarettes." In this, as in so many ways, he ran ahead of his time.
What made Harry run? His book takes us back to an LS Lowry townscape. He was born in 1928 in a Manchester two-up, two-down to parents whose formal education had ended by the age of 12. His father was then a locomotive cleaner, about to scale the craftsman's ladder to the job of engine driver. His mother worked in the carding room of a cotton mill. To describe such a past is difficult now: the sketches of satire shows have made rags-to-riches stories too easy to mock, and here the author may not help himself by introducing the reader to his present location, a summerhouse near the Hamptons, as his memory's viewing platform. But he gives a fine account of his childhood: tender but not mawkish, reported sympathetically rather than embroidered with polemic. "I'll see you never wear clogs" was his mother's frequent promise to her four sons, but Evans never writes about his professional rise as though he'd severed the bonds of his upbringing and "escaped". And yet the distance travelled is remarkable - more typically American than English. His grandfather began to earn a living when he was nine by running errands for railway platelayers near Crewe. Two generations later, Rupert Murdoch tempted Evans to edit the Times. "You know, Harold, it's a rum thing," his father says, one day in 1981, opening that morning's edition soon after his son has taken over. "What would people say if they knew the man editing this newspaper is the grandson of the man who couldn't read a word of it?"
In many ways, Evans's own early career now seems almost as remote to us as his illiterate grandfather's; the subtitle's "vanished times" is right. He failed to get into grammar school but worked hard at shorthand and typing, and developed a hunger for the printed word. Aged 16, before the war was over, he went to work for the Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter and waited at bus stops for bus drivers to hand over envelopes stamped "News Urgent" that contained copy from the paper's farther-flung correspondents in the Derbyshire hills. Called up to the RAF, he started a newspaper, the Empire Flying School Review, and saw how a picture of a young Diana Dors on the front page did wonders for its circulation. In Manchester again, chief reporter of the Gorton & Openshaw Reporter, he heard Beethoven at the Free Trade Hall and read Thucydides on the top decks of buses. All very Neville Cardus, all very earnest and ambitious, but often written with an amused view of himself (describing some argument five decades later in New York, he says he was at his "earnest worst"). As for carboniferous Manchester in the early 1950s: "too often we lived on the first page of Bleak House."
He isn't quite an autodidact - he went eventually to Durham to read politics and economics - but self-improvement played a large part in his philosophy of newspapers. For a time, he taught evening classes with the Workers' Educational Association and was "made to appreciate what schoolteachers learn painfully, but journalists behind a shield of print rarely do: that transmitting information is easier than creating understanding". The experience was his first step towards grasping what he describes as the art of "popular explanatory journalism", which became one of the hallmarks of the Sunday Times after he reached it from the Northern Echo in Darlington. His memoir quite rightly concentrates on the great campaigns and disclosures of his editorship: battling with the law to win more compensation for the victims of thalidomide, unveiling genocide in Bangladesh and army torture in Northern Ireland. Just as animating a spirit, however, was Evans's curiosity about all things, and his belief that all things could be made clear to the reader. How does a volcano work? What's the truth about cellulite? How do you make a water glass out of a wine bottle?
The last of those questions came my way when I was editing what would now be called the lifestyle pages - "It's the kind of thing you should be covering," he said. The process, a kind of Biblical miracle in reverse, was apparently all the rage among Harry's neighbours in Highgate. I deliberately mislaid the idea, knowing that no harm would come to me. The late Hugo Young, then the Sunday Times's chief leader writer, described Harry's paper as "the most effective scourge of power in the whole of the British press", but Harry himself was not at all scourging. As he writes of himself: "One of the characteristics in which I'm deficient as an authority figure is that I don't scare people."
His later stay at the Times lasted only a year. Murdoch connived with some ambitious malcontents at the paper and sacked him, a manoeuvre that would have been much more difficult had he stayed embedded with his old staff on the Sunday. Then, in his 50s, he began a new career in American publishing, where his second wife, Tina Brown, became editor of Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker. "I flew into America on the wings of hope and it has not let me down," he writes, after describing various adventures and coups in the book trade as the publisher of Marlon Brando, Colin Powell and Primary Colors. I don't doubt that the job was enjoyable and that he did it well, but the truth is that others could have done the same. Nobody else, on the other hand, could have shaped the Sunday Times as he did. His time there is the centrepiece of his autobiography, and will surely remain his outstanding achievement.
Like many others, I feel lucky to have worked with him. His book is illuminating and entertaining on his personal history and it gives us a valuable record of what used to be known as English provincial life; more vital then, perhaps, than now. But the important reason to read it is that it tells you how good newspapers were once made and why they still matter.
My Paper Chase by Harold Evans
Brian MacArthur enjoys Harold Evans's My Paper Chase, the memoirs of a newspaperman who decreed that even hard news should be delivered with fizz
By Brian MacArthur
Published: 5:50AM BST 04 Oct 2009
I worked with Harold Evans on The Times and The Sunday Times for four years and they were the most exciting period of a 40-year career on national newspapers.Evans was the newspaperman’s newspaperman and working with him was never dull. He exuded flair and encouraged it in his staff. 'Where’s the fizz?’ he would demand when the paper seemed to lack sparkle; but the truth was that he supplied the fizz.
Journalism mostly gets a bad press nowadays; and with only a few exceptions – Andrew Marr and Max Hastings come to mind – journalists’ memoirs tend to be self-serving and interesting only to other journalists. But Evans used newspapers not to dumb down the standards of public life but to champion noble causes (his campaign for justice for the victims of Thalidomide) or to mastermind investigations (the naming of Kim Philby as the Third Man). Evans also respected his readers – an Insight report on the history of the Ulster troubles was written at 50,000 words. Evans didn’t flinch but published it across eight broadsheet pages. Vanished times indeed, although he is sanguine about the future of newspapers in the internet age.
Evans’s fascination with newspapers started early. He was 12 and on a family holiday in North Wales when his father went to talk to some soldiers who were recuperating after Dunkirk. The front page of the Daily Mirror, pinned up in their boarding house, was proclaiming 'Bloody Marvellous!’, but the soldiers were bitter and bewildered and felt let down. That 'epiphany’ shook Evans’s faith in newspapers but made him ever more eager to involve himself in their 'mysteries’, which he did for the next 40 years.
Three life stories are intertwined in this continually entertaining autobiography. One, still continuing, is the story of his life as author, editor and publisher in the United States since he was fired from The Times by Rupert Murdoch in 1982 (he says now that at Wapping in 1986 Murdoch the carnivore liberated the herbivores – the journalists – from the over-mighty print unions). The main story is his editorship of The Sunday Times and The Times, much of which he has already told in Good Times, Bad Times in 1983. So for many readers the main interest will be the story of the working-class Manchester boy who failed the 11 Plus, didn’t go to grammar school, left school at 15, learned shorthand and typing in a class of girls and started his career on the Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter.
After national service in the RAF he served nine years on the Manchester Evening News and went to Durham University, where he edited the student newspaper, before becoming editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington when he was only 33. Ashton-under-Lyne and Darlington are a long way from Fleet Street, but Evans is incapable of telling a dull story; and it was his successful Northern Echo campaign for a pardon for Timothy Evans, who had been wrongly hanged for the murder of his baby daughter, that caught the attention of Denis Hamilton, who was editing The Sunday Times. It helped that Hamilton was a northerner who had started his career as a reporter in Middlesbrough. He invited Evans to join the paper. A year later he was editor.
Evans writes a memorable passage in which he describes the excitement of editing The Sunday Times. 'I still get a high from the fumes of those Saturdays when a vague idea from the beginning of the week – or an investigation started months back – crystallised into a thriller package of story, headline, photograph and graphs; and then the glorious moment when we got our hands on the first copies of the newspaper, expunging all the raw urgent untidiness of the passion and fine-tuning in the making of it. How authoritative everything looked! How delicious the smell of the still warm newsprint! How envious the rivals would be!’
All of us who worked with Harold Evans got the same high.
The title 'Greatest Editor Of His Time' is often awarded to Sir Harold Evans, who edited the Sunday Times through a series of headline-making campaigns during the Sixties and Seventies, which some now regard as the golden age of Fleet Street journalism.
He merits the compliment, but what is really absorbing in his autobiography is not his years at the top, but the years at the bottom from which he extricated himself by willpower, hard work and, of course, a rare degree of talent.
Sunday Times editor Harold Evans (third right) at work.
Half the book is devoted to his northern working-class childhood and upbringing in industrial Manchester. He describes it not with resentment, but affection and sympathy. He almost made me want to have shared the community spirit and human decency generated in those back-to-back streets in the daredevil days of depression.
His father was a railway engine cleaner, who worked his way up the promotion ladder to engine driver (steam). All wee boys wanted to be one - but we had no idea of the years of physical effort, knowledge and iron discipline that was demanded on the footplate. Now I know.
His mother, a former mill worker, promised her children 'you'll never wear clogs', and showed her business flair by turning their front room into a successful corner shop.
Harry - I can't keep calling him Sir Harold - failed the 11-plus, the dreaded trial that condemned 90 per cent of school pupils to a second-rate education and second-rate chance in life at an age when many, like him, had not yet found out what they were capable of.
Luckily, he found good teaching at St Mary's Central School, began to do well, stayed late for extra work, fell under the spell of newspapers in the shape of the old Daily Express and, after many rejections, got an apprenticeship on a local weekly paper.
He was launched on a career that would take him via the Evening News, a mighty beast of the cut-throat Manchester newspaper jungle, to the Northern Echo, of which no one outside Darlington had heard until he began editing it at the age of 32.
There he started launching national campaigns - one was for cancer smear tests on the NHS - before the national papers thought of it. He made such a stir that he was offered the prestigious editor's chair at the Sunday Times in January, 1967, when he was 39.
At these heights he was very conscious of his working class, non-Oxbridge background, of his northern accent and the snotty attitudes that prevailed towards such things among the elite of what was still Macmillan's England. But along the way he had been educating himself, reading Thucydides on the bus to work, and had skilfully wangled his way into Durham University.
Going to university until then had been dismissed as a disadvantage to young journalists - they'd have been better employed as copy-boys or junior reporters.
The term 'Media Studies' had not been dreamt of - what was there to study? We weren't 'Media', we were newspapers, the written word which, with the telling photograph, can convey and interpret far more than glimpses of most fleeting footage in abbreviated TV bulletins. Well, Harry trained both ways.
Editors are a different breed from reporters. Reporters hanker for a front seat at the news-face while editors compile the whole jigsaw puzzle of the world on that day. If they're good, they are searching for wrongs to expose and causes to espouse.
Over 14 years at the Sunday Times, Harry, a natural editor, developed investigative team journalism that laid bare the shabby treatment of thalidomide victims, the full truth about Kim Philby, the use of torture in Northern Ireland and much more.
Once known as the Running Man for the speed at which he moved, he drives his life story along at an exhilarating canter, always eager to get to the next chapter. He is kind, perhaps too complimentary, to all his colleagues other than the saboteurs in the print and machine rooms. It was their greed that killed Fleet Street, the goose that gave them such golden pay packets.
Led by some of the blindest and stupidest union bosses ever elected, resisting all change to the last, they marched obediently over the cliff into oblivion. Hot metal printing became as obsolete as the stage coach. Like the rest of us, Harry could only watch with dismay.
Rupert Murdoch saw them off. Alas, he also saw off Harry Evans, sacking him after only a year as editor of the Times. Harry has already written a book (Good Times, Bad Times) about the incompatibility of a ferociously independent editor with a hands-on proprietor.
Anyway, he took off for a new career in America, which he loves, editing magazines, directing book publishers and marrying his young fellow editor Tina Brown. Despite their 26-year age difference, his marriage has been a great success, like everything he has tackled.
But he never again edited a British newspaper. Harry, we've missed you.
His story ends with the hope that newspapers and the internet will soon combine to create a new golden age. It is a brave hope. But there's no denying that one golden age was then.