Lucky Lad

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

  • My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times – An Autobiography by Harold Evans
    Little, Brown, 515 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 4087 0203 1

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the English press was diverse and vigorous. Apart from the Times, whose threepenny price marked it as the newspaper of record for the ruling class, London had a clutch of what were conveniently known as penny papers. On one side were the Tory Morning Post, Daily Telegraph and Standard, on the other, the Liberal Daily News and Daily Chronicle, surviving or even thriving on circulations well under 50,000. To call them ‘quality’ or ‘serious’ morning papers was superfluous, as there were no others, until the great challenge – and the terrible portent – of 1896, when Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail at a halfpenny, far brighter and brasher, and soon hugely outselling all the others.

What happened to the Daily News and Daily Chronicle was curious, and likewise something of a portent. First they both performed weird political volte-faces. When the Boer War began, the News supported it and the Chronicle opposed it, but both saw their editors sacked and their policies on the war reversed: a warning of how little editorial independence can mean in practice, as Rupert Murdoch would be the first to agree. Then they went sharply downmarket, to keep company with the rampant Mail. By 1930, the two had merged as the News Chronicle, and by 1960 that sad survivor was itself folded, ironically enough, into the Mail.

There was also a flourishing provincial press, which good judges at the time reckoned perhaps the best papers in the country. The Yorkshire Post, the Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald, the Birmingham Post and, in a special position of repute and influence, the Manchester Guardian, yielded nothing in self-esteem to the London papers, although most of them had a guilty secret: they were supported by evening papers whose essential function was to provide the racing results. That was true not least of the austere Guardian, subsidised by the Manchester Evening News.

One other local paper had acquired considerable fame under a brilliant editor. W.T. Stead was a Yorkshire boy who had begun his working life as a clerk. In 1871, he was made editor of the Northern Echo of Darlington at the age of 21, and soon became the most famous campaigning journalist of the day, before he moved to the Pall Mall Gazette, one of several London evening papers with an influence quite out of proportion to their small sales. Stead continued campaigning there, most famously with the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ series, exposing the extent of child prostitution in London and leading to new legislation. While researching the series, Stead himself technically broke the law and was imprisoned for three months; after his release, he would ostentatiously wear his convict’s uniform once a year.

In 1961, 90 years after Stead, a young man who took him as his hero was appointed editor of his old paper, the Northern Echo. At 33, Harold Evans wasn’t quite as precocious as his predecessor, but he came from a world in some ways closer to Stead’s than to England today. In the engaging early pages of My Paper Chase, Evans describes his upbringing and entry into journalism: the heartening story of a likely lad of parts who rises from humble origins by ability and diligence. His grandfather had left Montgomeryshire to work on the railways at Crewe, where his son followed, climbing the ladder from ‘passed cleaner’ to ‘red ink fireman’ to ‘black ink driver’, and ending with a pension of seven shillings a week.

Born in 1928, Evans grew up ‘in the L.S. Lowry landscape’ of Eccles, which he describes in when-I-were-a-lad pages reminiscent less of Lowry than a Hovis ad. ‘I’ll see you never wear clogs,’ his mother said, and in their stockings every Christmas ‘there was always an apple, a nut and a shiny new penny.’ Despite living for many years in London and New York (and marrying Tina Brown), Evans has retained an agreeable touch of puzzled or even prudish innocence: ‘the effing and blinding that is the vernacular today’ was unknown in his family. Perhaps he doesn’t realise just how interesting he is in this respect. He comes from a society which has vanished almost without trace, the respectable or ‘self-helping working class’: the chapel-goers who went on to create a Labour movement infused by provincial Dissenting virtue. In this case they were literally self-helping. From selling ice cream at weekends, the Evanses opened a small corner shop and eased into modest prosperity.

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