By Harold Evans
In his autobiography, Harold Evans, best known for his fourteen-year editorship of London’s Sunday Times, tells a life story entwined with the printed page. He became interested in newspapers as a child, when he noted the disparity of press reports on the troops’ high morale following the “victory” of the Dunkirk evacuation, and his own observations of returning battered, dispirited, and weaponless British soldiers, sprawled on a local beach.
The epiphany on Rhyl beach shook my faith in the printed word, but it did not make me averse to newspapers. On the contrary, as I entered my teens, I grew ever more eager to involve myself in their mysteries. Newspapers were clearly more important and more fascinating than I had imagined, reporting more than a matter of stenography. But how was I to become a reporter and learn the newspaper trade?…How could I equip myself to decode the complex, ever-changing, thrillingly dynamic mosaic of live news and bring it to the public with the raw integrity of truth?
So began my paper chase.
Evans’s chase started as a lowly re-write man for a small, local paper, interrupted by military service as a clerk in the post-war Royal Air Force. Access to a typewriter, mimeograph machine and paper provided an opportunity to edit and publish his outfit’s newspaper, first of many times as editor. On to higher education at Durham University, financed in part by a grant available to veterans, then a reporter’s job at the Manchester Evening News, a major paper.
A Harkness Fellowship won Evans two years of travel and study in the U.S. in the mid-1950s. He fell in love with America, although with keen observation, he noted the faults and failures of our society even in “the golden Eisenhower years.” His take on this period is must reading, especially for those of us who remember those years.
Back in England, and with the Sunday Times, he describes the big scoops under his reign as editor. The Soviet spy Kim Philby is unmasked, and the damage he did, and the resulting lives lost, revealed. Evans crusaded against the miserly compensation paid to the victims of thalidomide, those children born disabled and deformed because their mothers took the wonder drug to ward off morning sickness. Evans writes that “The thalidomide scandal was the most emotionally draining of all the stories I became involved with at the Sunday Times.” His persistence worked: the eventual payments to the victims, from the national government and the offending drug company, were more than ten times the original offer, all a result of his unrelenting investigations and reporting in the Sunday Times.
My Paper Chase is not only a personal story, but also a social and political history of Great Britain and America during Evans’s time as a journalist and writer, World War II to the present. It also describes how a newspaper works, from reporting to editorials to the physical production of the final product. Add to that, in Evans’s case, dealing with eccentric owners, striking unions, and a financial crunch.
All ends well, as Evans moves to the United States, becomes a citizen, and finds life after newspapers as editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, editor of Condé Nast Traveler, president and publisher of Random House (notable for Colin Powell’s autobiography and Primary Colors) and as an author: his monumental accolades to his new country, The American Century and They Made America.
All ends—and starts—well for the reader, too. Evans is a clever writer with a lively style. If he chose to edit the phone book, he could make it a page-turner.
My Paper Chase by Harold Evans. Little Brown, 2009. Paperback, First Back Bay, 2010.