Harold Evans and his "rag and bone men of the opinion trade"

Harold Evans, doubtless the finest English newspaper editor of his time, could make you weep in his memoir of formative days in Manchester and glory years (1965 – 1981) with the Sunday Times of London. Weep, that is, not so much for the anemic papers so close to death today, but weep for those cheeky deadline artists, the newspaper writers and “subs” on the copy desk who are disappearing into memory and mythology, like the American cowboy.

My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times is the story of Harold Evans’ addiction to printed news, and of the characters whose trade he lifted — newspaper guys (and they were all guys, long before Evans met Tina Brown) with nicknames like Nifty, Bow Tie, “Big Tom” Henry, “Beachcomber” of the Daily Express, and “Mr. Will” on the Northern Echo, Evans’ first paper. “Curiosity is the thing in journalism,” Mr. Will said. “Ask questions, Evans.” And then there are the giant by-lines of the Sunday Times, like Godfrey Hodgson in America, John Barry in Ireland, David Leitch in Vietnam, and the investigator Bruce Page, everywhere.

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Harold Evans spins my head around just when I’d begun to think we could do without the papers, which we may just have to. But what about those people — those “rag and bone men of the opinion trade,” where Evans located himself; those lightning desk editors on the Manchester Evening News, “hunched men in cardigans reducing cataclysms to column inches,” and all those reporters gifted, as one of them said, with “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

The thread in our conversation is: how long can free democratic people survive without those faithful wretches?

We are a mixed bunch. One of the great strengths of the Sunday Times, when I edited it, was how variegated the characters were. I mean we had a former antique dealer, who actually led us to the first exposé of the antique dealers’ rings. We had a microbiologist. We had a woman who gutted chickens who later became Anne Robinson … so we had a really variegated staff. That is one thing that I think is missing today. That heterogeneity that we celebrated is slightly disappearing… I think the business of discovering truth is much assisted by different perceptions of renegades. At the same time, I had all these these very clever PhD’s in my office. So, whichever way you spun it, it seems a very bohemian bunch of people, some of them drinking a lot, some of them smoking a lot, some of them not doing either of those things. We had a few aesthetes on my papers, in my time. But out of this multi-faceted approach to our complicated world came something very close to the truth from time to time…

It’s more important to find out than to sound off. And we get a vast amount of sounding-off today, without anybody knowing what the hell they’re talking about. Just think how different our last ten years would have been if we’d done the proper job of reporting on Iraq before we went into it… This era overlapped with the web. And I love the web. The point is that not even the web, not all the famous bloggers really got onto this.

So we have a situation, we’re entering now a world where we’re going to have cascades and cascades and cascades of information, like rain, and none of it will reach the flower of truth.

Harold Evans in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 19, 2009

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  • I so badly want to say my generation is ready to live up to the journalistic standard of the “golden age” discussed in this show. We have a lot of advantages, we’ve grown up on shifting grounds, and we should be used to the idea that we have to adapt to an every changing media landscape. Concepts like crowdsourcing are intuitive to us. The speed at which we can get information that is already available is wonderful. But my generation is also one that barely rebelled against their parents, and seems to have accepted unending war. (The war in Afghanistan has been going on nearly as long as I’ve been conscious about the existence of a world outside my family and friends. I have conversations with children who were born after it started.) I don’t know how many of us have any fight in us. But I will do what I can, and I’ll look for others and support their efforts.

    There is so much I want to say, but it would be difficult to say it without making it anything but a messy list of ideas and observations. The problem is, I don’t think there really is not “a” solution, that all we can hope to do is improve various parts of the news media process (process is such a strange word to use, but it’s the most appropriate that I can think of). And solutions are going to be disparate.

    I will submit this observation though: In the show, it’s said one of the most important things is to get people to care. One of the mixed blessings of the fall of the authoritative voice of credible major newspapers is that more and more the voice considered the most authoritative is that of a person one feels a personal connection with. A friend! I think for people here, the problems will be clear (the echo chamber effect, 15-hour-a-week talk radio show hosts filling the friend role), but this is also a great way to get people to care, to get people involved. This might be used for more good than ill someday.

    Actually, one more: I recall hearing once (maybe on Open Source) that young people often attempt to do charity work on their own, instead of joining an established organization or even working together. I feel there are probably similar problems in the blogging community.

  • Sir Harold Evans was voted by his colleagues as the all-time greatest British newspaper editor and has enjoyed a flourishing high-profile career in publishing in the United States. His new memoir, “My Paper Chase”, also looks at his early days as a reporter, his award-winning journalism at the Sunday Times through the 70s, and his new found life in America. I think there is a great depth in his sentences –

    “So we have a situation, we’re entering now a world where we’re going to have cascades and cascades and cascades of information, like rain, and none of it will reach the flower of truth.”

    Regards

    ——-

    Andy

  • Potter

    You mentioned in passing a few great journalists from the past. I’d like to insert George Frazier- he who popularized the term “Duende” and went on and on about it- which we loved. It was back in the early 70’s when we relented to have the Globe delivered to us and then were constantly threatening ourselves to end our subscription. It never lived up to the NYTimes – and in those days you could not get the NYTimes delivered to the suburbs. I was particualrly annoyed at the profuse typographic errors. The only reason we kept the Globe going was for Frazier’s columns. It was shortly after that he passed away – 1974- when we quit the Globe.

    Now if you look on the web you can hardly find a thing that Frazier wrote. For that matter there is not much about him with the exception of his article about the art of wearing clothes which was his greatest hit I guess.

    This memory had me on a hunt that turned up these couple of links:

    The Art of Wearing Clothes (Frazier’s articles)

    Jazz, George Frazier, and late-Night Boston Richard Vacca on the character he was and his short jazz writing career (before my time).

  • Dear Potter:

    You mention one of the magical saints of print. O yes, we must remember the great Frazier and his many definitions of duende, the Spanish notion beloved of Garcia Lorca, the almost divine element that lifts a dancer or singer or a moment or a painting into transcendence. The Frazierism that comes to mind was a distinction between class or style, and duende, and his example was Joe DiMaggio. When the great DiMag turned his back to the plate and raced to catch a deep fly at the centerfield wall in the Stadium — that was indeed the nth degree of style. But when he threw Peter Lawford out of Marilyn Monroe’s funeral… that was duende! I was addicted to George in the days when he wrote six long columns a week in the Boston Herald. When that gig came to grief, I was proud to play a hand in restoring him to his native Boston readership in his great late efflorenscence in the Globe of the early Seventies. Yes, there were astonishing newspaper writers once upon a time. George was as good as the best of them — to wit, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, Russell Baker.

  • Potter

    Dear Chris- Then I am so happy to have brought up Frazier’s memory. I wish we had a book, a compilation of his columns. It would be fun to read again. Frazier was authentic -which is what I think draws us to anyone.

  • Now it’s difficult to see that media people once were interestin­g. The media person of 2010 is as exciting, charasmati­c & dynamic as a Japanese salaryman standing among a throng on a subway platform.