Memoriousness

E.S. Turner

  • Memories of Times Past by Louis Heren
    Hamish Hamilton, 313 pp, £15.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 241 12427 1
  • Chances: An Autobiography by Mervyn Jones
    Verso, 311 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 86091 167 5

Louis Heren, the veteran foreign correspondent, had hoped to become editor of the Times in succession to William ReesMogg, when Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper. Heren was told that, at 61, he was too old. Under Harold Evans he failed to flourish (‘Evans trashes me, to use the US Army expression, and most of my former colleagues in his book Good Times, Bad Times’), so he took his redundancy money and settled for writing books. His autobiographical Growing up in London was followed by Growing up on the ‘Times’ which concentrated on his overseas assignments. Both were vivid and zestful memoirs.

Memories of Times Past is an odd gatherall of a book, blending as it does personal reminiscence with dips into newspaper history, analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of various Times editors and reflections on the role of newspapers. There are recapitulations from his last book, whole passages being lifted or lightly paraphrased. At times it is as if the writer is sitting, glass in hand, in a sunset home for retired correspondents, holding forth once more with his favourite tales: my row with Adenauer, my bigger row with General Templer, my ‘scoop’ of the Dead Sea Scrolls, my meeting with Glubb Pasha (again likened to a chubby curate), my air crash in Israel, my sight of the frozen bodies of American Marines stacked like cordwood in Korea, awaiting shipment home.

Heren, born in the East End of London, was taken on as a messenger boy in Printing House Square when Geoffrey Dawson was at the helm. If, fifty years on, he had succeeded to the editorship, he would have known better than to cast himself as an unofficial member of the Cabinet, which was where Dawson, the villain of this book, went wrong. Dawson intrigued to unseat Edward VIII (a good thing, as it happened, but none of his business) and was the architect of his newspaper’s appeasement-of-Hitler policy, his belief being that the Empire, in which he took an obsessive interest, was not at that stage fully behind Britain. Says Heren: ‘He was not appointed editor for the greater glory of the British Empire but to report the news.’ Heren explains that his crime was to ignore the reports of his foreign correspondents, even to the point of suppressing an early report on the concentration camp at Dachau. Dawson has taken much stick for all this, both in official and unofficial histories of the Times, and there is not much that Heren can add, other than the indignation of a newsman who, while proud to work for the Times, refused to look on it as a national institution or an arm of government. Heren commends Sir William Haley’s clear and sensible definition of what the Times should stand for: ‘It is an entirely unofficial non-party newspaper appealing to men and women of reason and good will of all kinds of opinion. It seeks to judge each issue that arises only by reference to the broad national good. It will not subordinate this judgment to the interests of one class or another.’ Fair enough, except that Dawson would have argued that he was indeed trying to serve the broad national good.

Haley said nothing about subordinating judgment to the views of the proprietor. It has long been accepted wisdom that an editor should be free to put over his own views, leaving the owner to pick up the bills and go bankrupt if necessary. This curious doctrine assumes that the hired man is necessarily wiser than his employer and should thus be protected from interference. Heren thinks that the owners of the Times could have done more to restrain Dawson from his excesses; as it was, John Walter IV, co-proprietor with Lord Astor, complained when ‘our leader-writer’ proposed dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. His qualms were ‘airily’ brushed aside by Dawson. Half a century on, what of Rupert Murdoch? ‘Arguably,’ says Heren, ‘he owns too many newspapers to run any of them properly, but that could be an advantage if the staff remains free to uphold and extend the paper’s traditions.’ To the outsider, it seems unlikely that Murdoch’s empire, however far-flung, is one in which over-mighty subjects stand to prosper.

Ironically, Heren’s task as overseas correspondent was helped by the widespread belief that the Times was indeed part of the British Establishment, an error which opened doors to him everywhere and sometimes led to recrimination afterwards. His book shows how in the last century the newspaper’s roving correspondents took part far more than their editors did in political, military and imperial affairs. William Howard Russell, backed by Delane, could be said to have brought down a British government by the vigour of his Crimean reporting, a legitimate feat in the circumstances. But the Times’s correspondent General Ferdinand Eber, a Hungarian condottiere who served under Garibaldi, could not resist leading a cavalry brigade into action in Sicily, which brought him this rebuke from London: ‘Surely you do not think that we sent you to Sicily to liberate the island ... I must call on you to make your election between the Times and your other masters.’ Flora Shaw, the paper’s first woman correspondent, egged on the conspirators in the Jameson Raid. ‘It was hardly in the best traditions of the paper,’ writes Heren, ‘but being a good journalist she insisted that the raid must not take place on a Saturday. She did not want the Times scooped by the Sunday papers.’ Other correspondents with divided loyalties were China Morrison, Peking representative and player of the ‘Great Game’, who has been credited with starting the Russo-Japanese war, and the stone-deaf old Etonian James Bourchier, who ‘successfully combined the roles of Times correspondent and founding father of modern Bulgaria’ (he was eventually sacked not for organising Balkan alliances but for being late with his copy and then over-filing). When Heren began his tour in the Middle East, the newspaper’s correspondents included two brigadiers and a colonel. ‘They were empire men, members of an extraordinary network which had once encompassed the world. They were not spies in the accepted sense ...’

The uncommitted Louis Heren, sipping drinks (and how lovingly he records his drinks!) in Government Houses or presidential palaces, must occasionally have wondered if he ought not to have been putting his shoulder to the wheel of history, instead of resolutely distancing himself from the wiles of statecraft. His pursuit of the truth, as he saw it, sparked difficulties. The index to his book, under Heren, contains entries like ‘trouble with British authorities in Malaya’, ‘offends Indian leaders’ and ‘persona non grata with Kennedy administration’. It is good to read that the Times always supported its correspondent on these occasions. If Heren led no cavalry into action, he at least became adventurously involved in the search for Sir Edmund Hillary, who was missing on Makalu in Nepal. When he offered to cable an account of his own experiences he received (as he tells in Growing upon the ‘Times’) the reply: ‘No, the readers of the Times are not interested in the adventures of its correspondents. Return Delhi soonest. Regards, Times.’ It was a happy day for Heren and many of his colleagues when bylines and even photographs were introduced.

Heren became deputy editor under ReesMogg and had repeated tastes of what it was like to run the paper. There were heady moments. In the course of a feud with Number 10 he decided to sue Harold Wilson and the head of the Civil Service for denying the newspaper the usual advance copies of the Honours List. ‘I did not have a watertight legal case,’ he admits, but counsel were engaged and a vacation judge was alerted. If Number 10 had not caved in it would have been a fine comedy interlude. Geoffrey Dawson had treated prime ministers as equals and probably would never have needed to sue them. For deputy editor Heren there were sharper shocks in store: he discovered all too soon what it was like to be shut down at whim by the print unions, and even by his own journalists – that ultimate betrayal which led the Thomson ownership to sell up. These were days of disillusion and Dead Sea fruit, but the author tries to keep bitterness at bay. He wishes he were part of the Wapping team, not least because he was born in a coffee-shop near Murdoch’s ‘fortress’.

Mervyn Jones, author of 23 books of fiction and one of the Left’s ebullient romantics, was born in a Regent’s Park Nash house now worth (he assures us) over a million pounds. It bears a plaque to his father, Ernest Jones, biographer of Freud, who once sent him to be psychoanalysed by Melanie Klein. He went to a progressive school called Abbotsholme (‘progressive by the standards of 1889’) and at 14 became a foundation member of the Left Book Club. By 16 he was a Young Communist and soon found the intellectual discipline of Marxism ‘irresistible’. He did all the Left things. When Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact he saw the Soviet action as ‘sensible, logically defensible and indeed unavoidable’. He was then in New York with his mother and was under military age. When London was blitzed he was in his second year at New York University and, perilously idealistic, ‘joined in the opposition to Roosevelt’s measures to help Britain’. Then Hitler attacked Russia and he reverted to being anti-fascist. By January 1944 he was a second lieutenant in the British Army, having convinced himself that ‘since most officers were reactionaries and snobs, it was desirable that there should be some who held progressive views and treated the men as human beings with human rights.’

Old sweats borrowing Chances from the library will have difficulty in leaving unannotated the record of ‘an incurable political animal’ in uniform. The progressive subaltern was sent to France, by mistake, two days after D-Day and taken prisoner by mistake, which enabled him to do a lot of reading. After VE-Day, while still an officer, he canvassed for the Communist candidate in Westminster. Then he found himself on a draft to India faced with the excruciating prospect of becoming a sahib: ‘I should be shunned by precisely the sort of Indians with whose aspirations I sympathised.’ But there were compensations. At the Deolali base – where, traditionally, the inmates become ‘touched’ – the authorities were rash, or touched, enough to authorise the formation of a Forces Parliament, which quickly had an overwhelming Labour majority – and a Communist group to which Jones adhered drew up the subjects for discussion. Before he left the Army his possessions were searched by Intelligence, who suspected him of being ‘a Bolshie who might be a mole’.

Failing to land a job on the Daily Worker he went to Tribune, where Robert Edwards was leaving to join Beaverbrook and Michael Foot, recently a Beaverbrook man, was acting editor. (Will Mervyn Jones also end up in the Beaverbrook stable? the reader anxiously wonders.) Tribune paid him £16 a week to spread himself over the paper and, after Suez, he helped Foot with that instant book, Guilty Men. He had begun to write novels and even to wonder whether that might be his real métier; the world’s slow stain comes in insidious forms. But new dawns kept breaking around him. He was in at the birth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, on the first Aldermaston march, ‘walked with Doirs Lessing, Christopher Logue and Kenneth Tynan’. Twice he was arrested and Vicky drew him as a convict in broad arrows. The year 1968 found him with the insurgents in the Sorbonne, but in Britain ‘few shared my enthusiasm for the students of Paris.’

In many ways he was a glutton for punishment. It was temerarious to a degree to tour the Soviet Union by car in the Sixties, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and would still be no picnic trip. All grist to a writer, of course. It is a pleasure to find him establishing himself as a novelist, receiving film offers and spending his frozen royalties in the Eastern bloc. Yet he still said yes to invitations which the more prudent scribe would reject, like giving evidence at the Old Bailey for Oz and Linda Lovelace (a two-line mention only), or becoming writer-in-residence first at a Hackney comprehensive and then at Sutton Library, or, far worse, agreeing to write a long, time-consuming report for Unesco at the request of ‘the distinguished Irishman, Sean MacBride’, which, though it brought excursions to Paris. Delhi and Acapulco, turned out ‘futile and degrading’. The hardest part was writing the report in sterile officialese, for Mervyn Jones is very far from being a jargonaut. What greatly grieved him was to find a whole generation of graduates who did not know that Bruce Page’s New Statesman was badly written, because they had not come across any other form of writing.