Dawn of the Dark Ages

Ronald Stevens

  • Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street by Ruth Dudley Edwards
    Secker, 484 pp, £20.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 436 19992 0

Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King had been colleagues for 15 years when Cudlipp was ejected from the editorship of the Sunday Pictorial. Though a director of the company, King made no attempt to save Cudlipp’s skin. A couple of years later the man who had toppled Cudlipp, Harry Guy Bartholomew, was toppled himself, and it was King who pushed him. He took over Bartholomew’s chairmanship of the Sunday Pictorial and Daily Mirror and presided over them until, in 1968, it was his turn to walk the plank. This time Cudlipp was the executioner (he had returned to the Pictorial after a brief spell on the Sunday Express) and, just as King had done after ousting Bartholomew, he inherited his victim’s job. Treachery and self-aggrandisement were part of the natural order of things in what Ruth Dudley Edwards, in this double biography of Cudlipp and King, comically describes as the glory days of Fleet Street.

The two men had very little in common. Cudlipp, the youngest son of a travelling salesman, received his formal education in local authority schools and completed it when he was 14. King’s father was an intellectual, a classicist, an able linguist and a pillar of the 19th-century Indian Civil Service. So a governess, a top-notch preparatory school, Winchester and Christ Church were as much a matter of course for Cecil as Gladstone Elementary School in Cardiff was for Hugh. They did, however, share an adolescent ambition to work in newspapers, though for entirely different reasons. King, a nephew of Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), was attracted by the wealth and influence that his uncle derived from owning the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Times and a clutch of periodicals. Cudlipp, whose brothers Percy and Reg were already newspapermen, was attracted by the glamour and excitement which they seemed to enjoy, as well as by the prospect of free tickets to the theatre.

At an age when King had been in his second year at Winchester, Cudlipp was a probationer on the Penarth News, a weekly with a circulation of three thousand which the proprietor subsidised from his milk round. Under the terms of his apprenticeship he was supposed to stay for three years, but the paper collapsed after one. He moved to the Cardiff Evening News on 12 months’ trial, but that too was cut short when the News amalgamated with the South Wales Echo. Cudlipp then gave up on his native city, joined the Manchester Evening Chronicle and began to display his tabloid talents.

In 1995, three years before he died, he wrote an entertaining piece about some of his escapades as the Evening Chronicle’s reporter in Blackpool. In the 1930s even more than today, the Lancashire holiday resort was a bastion of vulgarity and chicanery, and thus an abundant source of newspaper copy. But even Blackpool had its quiet periods when Cudlipp could either take things easy or make something happen – practising what he called creative journalism. This, he explained, was quite different from invention. It was making news, not faking news.

When a vicar lamented his dwindling congregation, for example, Cudlipp helpfully suggested a special service to bless the worshippers’ pets. This idea produced two exclusive stories: one about the dogs, cats, rabbits and other livestock which filled the church on the appointed day, and a follow-up about all the other clergy who were shocked and outraged by the impiety of the event. Then there was the case of the unhappy Blackpool and England footballer, who had financial and domestic problems and confided to Cudlipp that he would like to disappear for a while to sort himself out. Always willing to oblige, Cudlipp arranged for him to spend a week at sea on a trawler from nearby Fleetwood, and while he was away the Evening Chronicle ran daily stories about his disappearance. Had he been kidnapped? Had there been trouble at the football club? Had he killed himself? And when the trawler returned to port Cudlipp was there on the dockside, notebook in hand, ready for the exclusive interview. Once again, creative journalism had delivered the goods.

This, you could say, was journalism as a branch of showbusiness, but at the same time exposure to the interwar depression was forming Cudlipp’s left-of-centre political attitudes. As a court reporter he encountered unemployed men who topped up their dole with the proceeds of burglaries. He visited houses which had been condemned as unfit for human habitation years before. He wrote sympathetically about a cotton workers’ strike in the towns around Manchester: ‘The pawnbrokers’ shops were filled with pledged possessions, the bookies’ runners were idle, and the wives (most of them spinners or weavers themselves) told me the secret of how to make a hot-pot go further by adding water.’ This story got a big show in the first five editions of the paper but disappeared from the final one – the edition which went to London and was seen by Lord Kemsley, the Evening Chronicle’s proprietor. Kemsley had financial interests in the cotton industry.

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