- Of This Our Time by Tom Hopkinson
Hutchinson, 317 pp, £8.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 09 147860 X
When Tom Hopkinson was nine years old his father called the family together. He had decided, he said, to become a clergyman. Later he told his son that he had been persuaded to take this long-contemplated step by hearing a sermon ‘so distracted and confused that he had realised the clergyman delivering it must be overwhelmed with the burden of his work.’ He had seen that the only thing to do was to go out and help him. So the Hopkinson family was translated from the comfortable life of a lecturer in Classical archaeology in the University of Manchester to the comparative hardships of an industrial parish. The need to serve was in the blood: Tom’s sister Esther spent most of her life as a missionary in South Africa and Rhodesia, his brother Stephan became a clergyman. Tom edited Picture Post.
The first half of Of This Our Time describes his childhood and boyhood, and the jobs he took while hoping to break into journalism and to make a reputation writing fiction. At Crawford’s the advertising agency, while E. McKnight Kauffer was producing posters and advertisements which are still classics of their kind, Hopkinson was writing copy he thought worthless: ‘During the four years I spent at Crawford’s I never lost the feeling that I was serving a prison sentence.’ He worked for Odhams, obtaining, with appalling ease, endorsements for a fourth-rate encylopedia from ‘the great minds of the day’. His escape into journalism came with the success of A Strong Hand at the Helm – a collection of news pictures and press cuttings which damned Ramsay MacDonald and his Ministers out of their own mouths. Gollancz published it, and Odhams offered him a job on the Clarion – a left-wing paper they had acquired and were trying to put new life into. The free-offer formula failed to raise circulation and Odhams ‘perhaps for the first and only time in its existence was prepared to try something new’. They took on Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian who had been imprisoned by the Nazis, and had edited the German picture magazine Münchner Illustrierte. He helped turn the Clarion into the Weekly Illustrated, and went on to found a magazine of his own, Lilliput. He sold it to Edward Hulton, for whom he was to set up a new paper, a weekly illustrated magazine, which escaped being called Lo! and became Picture Post. Hopkinson joined Lorant when the magazine was being planned, and worked with him until Lorant went to America in 1939. Hopkinson was editor for the next ten years.
The format Lorant had created became, in Hopkinson’s hands, an institution. While at Crawford’s, Hopkinson had become a prison visitor – one result of which was a shift to the left in his politics. Picture Post published articles on the Beveridge Report, and on the plans of the post-war Labour Government: a serious popular paper with a left-wing bias was something a principled man could be proud to work on. The pictures came first. Hopkinson would get rough lay-outs from Lorant with notes like ‘get H.G. Wells to write this article. Explain to him yourself exactly what he is to write.’ Writers would complain that the photographers were ‘treated like royal children’, but the hard fact was that without pictures there was no story. Even so, Picture Post’s greatest asset was probably its writers: if it was not the best picture magazine ever, it was probably the most literate.
Lorant had given the format, Hopkinson supplied sustained editorial direction, the photographers and journalists he employed provided the content – so what was the owner’s contribution? In the end, Hulton did the only thing a proprietor with a strong editor with whom he disagrees can do, and fired him. The disagreements were political. The issue which led to the final break was the story James Cameron and Bert Hardy brought back from Korea about the treatment of prisoners in the South. Hulton would not publish it.
Picture Post was a model for a new kind of pictorial journalism. Television documentary and news programmes, where many of the journalists Hopkinson had recruited found work, came closer to carrying on that tradition than anything in Fleet Street. The magazine’s excellences were due in part to its protected position. During the war it could sell more copies than it could get paper for: but its mix of serious and light articles, like the ‘balanced programming’ of the BBC, was liable to be difficult to maintain in the face of competition from a wide range of easier reads. The BBC, it is worth noting, seems now to be worried by an analogous threat from the multiplicity of channels which cable and satellite television promise to make available.
Hopkinson would probably rather have made his mark as a writer than as an editor. His first wife was Antonia White, and he desbribes how they would ‘sit for as many hours as we could allow or keep awake at our two desks. What I was writing was a novel – unpublished and happily never to be published – about a young man who gets involved in advertising when he wants to be a journalist.’ She was writing Frost in May. It was tough competition, but he was to have his own successes as a writer of stories.
The lunch where Nika Hulton, Edward’s super-managerial Russian wife, launched her frontal attack is a set-piece to make defenders of proprietors’ rights think twice:
‘I’ve listened to all you’ve said. Now let me tell you what’s to happen. Teddy will decide what goes into the paper. You can find the pictures and arrange the pages, but Teddy will make the decision. Is that clear? ... Teddy will take charge of your weekly meetings. You can attend but he will be in charge.’
‘Yes. I’m going to be the fashion writer.’
Hopkinson’s account makes editing seem hard, but not difficult work. You can see how it might even look quite easy. But the proprietor came a cropper when he tried it.