If Harry Evans wasn't already aware of it, this past week he has discovered he has become, in that old Fleet Street cliché, a legend in his own life-time. He has been everywhere: every radio and TV show, gossip column, media page (including an excellent interview in this newspaper with my colleague Ian Burrell), even making a guest appearance at the Guardian editorial conference.
Once the bright young campaigner editor of the Northern Echo who made his name as editor of the Sunday Times, today he is the Grand Old Man (at 81) of the Golden Age of newspapers when there were printers and ink, hot metal, galleys and page-proofs, spikes and sometimes even – particularly in Evans's career – good old-fashioned scoops.
Evans has clearly revelled in the adulation he has received from a generation of journalists who know him only through his books and writings they have studied at media school. And why not? No one deserves it more. He was greatly admired – and liked – by the last generation too, people who worked with him or against him, as he worked his way up through all the disciplines of his profession, from junior reporter in Lancashire to sub-editor, leader writer and feature writer with the Manchester Evening News (it then had six editions and was regarded as the busiest newspaper in the world), and finally as the best editor of his day.
His last role, which ended his 35 years in British newspapers, was as editor of the Times, which at one time an aspiring journalist might have regarded as the very pinnacle of the profession. For Evans, it was probably the only unhappy episode of an eventful career, culminating in being called into Rupert Murdoch's office, the day after his father's funeral, to be told: "I want your resignation".
He has already told the story of his showdown and departure from News International in his book, Good Times, Bad Times, and doesn't spend too much time on it in this new autobiography. In any case he has long got over his grudge against Murdoch, if he ever bore one.
Evans's sunny and optimistic nature is not given to grudge-bearing, and today he rather admires what Murdoch is doing to the Wall Street Journal and for his commitment to old-fashioned print media. When a television company asked him to condemn Murdoch over the move to Wapping and the sacking of 4,000 printers in 1986, he refused: "Murdoch is right".
The best part of this absorbing book is his pre-Sunday Times career, particularly the very early days where Evans displays not just an extraordinary eye for detail but a phenomenal memory. Most older journalists can't remember what they did yesterday let alone the stories they subbed and wrote more than 50 years ago, but Evans can even recall his failed headlines effortlessly improved by the chief sub.
His career probably coincided with the best years of the print profession, starting with the acquisition of each one of the skills which would be so important to him when he reached the top. He learned shorthand and touch-typing, sub-editing and, of course, news and feature writing. He trooped around the local funeral parlours and sports grounds, picking up the tiny stories which made the regional paper such an integral part of the local community, and later he wrote some excellent series, including an attack on the complacent and out-of-date Manchester textile industry which he warned was going to die if it didn't wake up (it didn't and it doesn't exist today).
But, unlike modern editors, he was also fascinated by newspaper design, the author of several coffee-table books which I inherited along with his office furniture when I joined the Sunday Times in 1984, two years after he had left. In every way he was the complete newspaperman, a master craftsman. Today it all feels like the age of steam, and in the early part of his life, that's exactly what it was. Evans's father was an engine driver who dismissed diesel trains as a "toff's job", and young Harry grew up as a working-class boy in Greater Manchester who failed his 11-plus. But somehow he got himself to Durham University as a late entrant (he had spent over two years doing his national service in the RAF), got his degree, and then a job on the Manchester Evening News, learning his trade from one of the great editors of the time, Big Bob Henry, whom Evans clearly worshipped. It is not recorded how Henry regarded his young recruit but one can imagine the joy of having someone so bright, enthusiastic and creative on the staff.
His time at the Sunday Times was obviously the high point of his career – and many would say, even those of us who worked on it later, probably of the paper's history. He tells it as a series of highlights: his Thalidomide campaign, which he is most remembered for, the coverage of Bloody Sunday, of the still unsolved murder of the foreign reporter David Holden in the desert outside Cairo, the death of another, Nick Tomalin, in the Yom Kippur war and the unmasking of Kim Philby.
The evergreen Evans, energy undiminished, is still as enthusiastic about newspapers as he ever was, but has also embraced the new technologies. His wife, Tina Brown, has created the highly successful website, The Daily Beast, and Evans is clearly longing to get his hands on it and to use its speed and flexibility to continue where his print skills left off. He is not finished yet.Reuse content