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Feeling homesick while on the Harkness Fellowship


Turning down a job offer from Lord Beaverbrook
Anthony Howard Writer
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I’m a journalist. I’ve joined Reynold's News. This is 1958, the very beginning of. And I immediately ran slap into a problem. In those days, the NUJ were a very strong trade union among journalists, and their rule was that you had to serve an apprenticeship for three years in the provinces before you were to work in London, and they’d signed a deal with what was then called the Newspaper Proprietors Association, I think, the NPA, saying that that was what was to happen. And so when I arrived at Reynold's, you know, straight out of the army, I suppose I was nearly 24... 23 or 24... all the loyal staff members said, ‘No, we can’t have him here. He hasn’t qualified as a journalist'. So there was a tremendous, sort of, battle about whether I could actually even join the staff, even though the job had been offered to me. And in the end, we outwitted them because I went round the back door, to the London freelance branch, and because I’d been earning so little in the army from the War Office, £5 a week, I was able, I think with a little stretching of the point, to claim that in the previous year, my earnings from journalism had exceeded that from my main employer, the army at the time. And I think it involved a slight stretch of the truth but it was nearly there because I’d written for a lot of papers. I’d written for Reynold's News, indeed, which had offered me the job. I’d written for the New Statesman fairly regularly. I’d, I think, written once or twice for an obscure weekly at the time, called Truth magazine, now out of business. And so we could get it up to sort of, after all, £5 a week was £250 and we could get it up to the very near there. And so I got my card to be a journalist, NUJ card from the London freelance branch. And that meant that the opposition to having me in Reynold's collapsed. I think there were some old sweats there who rather disapproved of my arrival.

And anyway, they were on the whole, very nice to me, and it was a baptism of fire, in that I think the first week I was writing a political column for it, goodness knows why. I think they knew I was a Labour candidate. That reassured the ownership of Reynold's, who were... the cooperative movement. And I was a very young prospective Labour parliamentary candidate and they thought that meant that I was reliable and safe and all that, but the very first week I arrived, we had the resignation of the Treasury, of Thorneycroft who was the chancellor, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch. So I was thrown in at the deep end and frankly, I knew nothing. I mean, I’d been, you know, I'd never been near… I’d been to, I think, sitting in the press gallery at the House of Commons… well, not the press gallery, the public gallery of the House of Commons once or twice but I didn’t know anything about how a lobby worked or anything like that, and so I was thrown in, this very raw recruit, very, sort of, naïve. And I hadn’t helped matters, as a matter of fact, because I… before I think I… no, that was later, I think. I’m just trying to work out. I’d written a very unwise article in Town magazine, owned by Michael Heseltine and that was all about how politics was covered and individual lobby correspondents named but I think I’m jumping ahead of myself. I think that was before I joined the New Statesmen, which came afterwards, so better not go into that now.

Instead of that, I found myself in this newsroom in Reynold's, and Reynold's was a very worthy paper, but there was something terribly depressing about it, that all the photographs looked as if they’d been taken in the 1920s. And whereas the Sunday pic would have, sort of, ravishing girls in bikinis, we had sort of ladies in... wholly covering their skin swimsuits and all the rest of it. That was because the Co-operative Women’s Guild wouldn’t have anything else. But there was something very depressing about it and I can hear it now in my mind’s ear. You know, you’d sit there on a Saturday afternoon and there’d be reporters who’d brought in... you’d hear this hum going: ‘No, no, not the Empire News, Reynold's News here, Reynold's News’. And people had never heard of Reynold's or quite a lot of people you were ringing up or reporters were ringing up. There was one man I greatly admired, in that he wouldn’t go through any of this. He’d just say, ‘Will you tell his lordship that Mr Jack London called from London'. And I thought he had more self-confidence than all the rest.

Anyway, I would probably have stayed there for quite a time but I’d only been there about three months and I got a mysterious message to go and see Lord Beaverbrook, who was the great press panjandrum of the age... owned the Daily Express, Sunday Express, the Evening Standard. And this mysterious phone call, not made, of course, by Beaverbrook himself, came from some minion saying, ‘Lord Beaverbrook would very much like to see you. Will you go and see him next Monday afternoon at Arlington House?’ Which is a very grand block of flats just behind… down from the Ritz off St James’ in Piccadilly. So I went and duly presented myself, and there was some kind of manservant who admitted you. And he said, ‘Sit down, his lordship will be with you shortly'. And I sat in this rather alarming drawing room and eventually I heard the sort of patter of feet, and sort of from behind my back, Beaverbrook appeared. And he had this, you know, slightly unnerving habit of talking to you from behind your back. And he walked up and down and I couldn’t see him, he could see me, and he was perfectly agreeable. He finally said, ‘Do you want to make mischief? he said ‘Yes, I like making mischief.’ He said, ‘Good! Come and make mischief at my papers'.

So I suppose you could say it was a job offer and certainly, shortly afterwards, I received approaches, I think, both from the Evening Standard, from the editor of the Evening Standard, and from the editor of the Sunday Express, asking me in the latter case to go and be cross-bencher, which was then the political column, and had quite a lot of impact in those days. And that was Sir John Junor, the editor… not Sir John then, he was just John Junor. And we had a long negotiation, lasted through alot of the summer, and eventually I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come'. And they were going to pay me about double what Reynold's were paying and it was obviously a step up in the journalistic world. But I remember I went on holiday to Paris and I just couldn’t reconcile myself to a life of being a journalist or indeed a life on the Sunday Express, and it so happened that that very Sunday, and I think I must have seen it in Paris, the Sunday Express had a really disgraceful story about some poor ordinand who’d been ordained in Ripon Cathedral and whom they had dug up some kind of gay episode in his past, and here was this man pilloried on the front page of the Sunday Express. He was only about 25 or something, just about to be ordained deacon. And I thought, do I want to live with that as the kind of paper I work for? And I made up my mind I didn’t. So I came back to London and I wrote as nice a letter as I could to John Junor, saying I’d changed my mind, very sorry. Never heard from him and I think he always held it against me, and I went back to work for Reynold's.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Reynold's News, NUJ, National Union of Journalists, New Statesman, Truth Magazine, Town Magazine, Daily Express, Sunday Express, Evening Standard, Peter Thorneycroft, John Enoch Powell, Baron Thorneycroft, Evelyn Nigel Chetwode Birch, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, Max Aitken, Sir John Donald Brown Junor, William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook

Duration: 6 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009