Arthur Crook - future editor of the Times Literary Supplement - started work at The Times in Blackfriars in 1926, when he was only 14, a scholarship boy from Holloway who had had to leave school early because of money problems at home.
He had the lowest job going, as one of the front-door messengers, who sat in line like so many taxi-cabs until they were hailed, and then sent off round the town on their errands. In those days, even a messenger might need a family connection to land a job on The Times, and Arthur got his as a favour, because his father was already working there, in the composing-room. That mind-stoppingly rowdy setting wasn't one likely to appeal to a boy who was a big reader. Instead, after two years of running messages, he got a job in the newspaper's library, making and filing cuttings, looking up the answers to journalists' queries, and educating himself more effectively and practically than if he'd been able to stay on at school.
Two years of the library and he was taken on as a junior help on the Times Literary Supplement, the weekly paper of which all but 30 years later, in 1959, he became the editor, and a thoroughly popular and accomplished one at that.
The rise from errand-boy to editor makes for a good life-story, even if it wasn't so extraordinary at the time as it has become since - Sir William Haley, the editor of the main paper through much of the Fifties, had begun on it at much the same low level as Arthur Crook, and was very supportive of his fellow teenage entrant when the editorship of the TLS fell vacant.
By the time it did, Crook knew all there was to know about the daily running of the paper, since he had in effect been doing that during the time in office of his predecessor, the footloose Alan Pryce-Jones, whose frequent absences abroad and generally casual ways had by the end put the management's back up. A writer, not an editor, it was decided. Crook was the opposite, an editor, with no wish to be a writer. He ran the TLS for 14 good years, genially, forthrightly and hugely grateful to be entrusted with the stewardship of a paper that was admired throughout the intellectual and academic worlds both in Britain and, increasingly, in the United States.
In the late 1960s, when I joined it as one of two assistant editors - the other was the late Ian Hamilton - it was a wonderfully enjoyable place to work, under an editor who believed that when you took people on at a paper like the TLS you didn't sit on top of them but gave them their head, to think up articles and contributors it would be good to publish. Which wasn't at all how the atmosphere had been at the time Crook first went to the TLS. Then, the paper was still the fief of its august first editor, Sir Bruce Richmond. Richmond was to say the least aloof, so much so that he had his own office two whole floors of the building above that of his staff, and consulted with them seldom or never about which books to send out for review to whom.
Crook wasn't very complimentary when reminiscing about Richmond, nor about the disorderly, offhand way the TLS was then put together. But he got on well with the editors who followed Richmond, with D.L. Murray, who took the paper down-market and nearly put paid to it, and Stanley Morison, who was called in to take it austerely and restoratively up-market once again. Both were good to him, and encouraging; and, when Pryce-Jones was finally eased out, it made excellent sense that Crook should take over as editor.
The paper in fact did notably well during the 1960s, thanks not least to the new deputy editor who was recruited, John Willett, someone of unusually wide intellectual interests, and adventurous when it came to commissioning reviews and think-pieces. The circulation by the end of the decade was higher I suspect than it had ever been, and certainly higher than it has ever been since.
But, if the paper's coverage grew livelier, more various and more professional, no compromises were allowed with the old intellectual standards. Crook saw his job as being to maintain the TLS, never radically to depart from traditions that he admired. You could always stir him into argument with a little teasing iconoclasm, such as asking him - as I can remember once doing - why he didn't do away with the most distinctive (and contentious) tradition of all: that of the unsigned review. The main contents of the TLS had been anonymous from the start, in 1902, and under Crook it was not, you could see, going to give up on that.
In the mid-1960s, however, The Times was losing a lot of money and was sold by the Astor family, to the Thomson Organisation. It was soon obvious that changes were going to be made, if the papers, the TLS included, were going to come even close to making a profit. The Astors had an impeccable record of not interfering editorially in any of the papers they owned, and the financial state of the TLS wasn't thought greatly to matter. That wasn't going to continue.
Crook was never at ease with the new, more commercially minded management as he had been with the old, going so far as to hope at one point, having found a potential buyer, that Thomson might be persuaded to sell the TLS off, on its own. His conservatism became frankly obstructive when he felt he was being got at, as now he was, to "modernise" the paper, usually in unspecified ways.
The threat of vulgarisation was in the air, there was tension between editor and managers, and eventually, in 1973, Crook was removed, in a particularly graceless manner, from the editorship that he so greatly prized. The first big change that the new editor, John Gross, made, needless to say, was to do away with anonymous reviews; at the time Crook was appalled though I think finally he came to see that anonymity could not have gone on much longer in the age of the golden byline.
The abrupt way in which he had been unseated made many of us afraid that he would, by now in his sixties and a very sociable man, be lost, with the Garrick Club still but no TLS office to go into every day. The paper seemed to have come to fill and to justify his life, so where would he be without it? In the event, his retirement proved both remarkably long and contented. Whenever I met with him during those many years he appeared as hearty and as positive as ever he was.
His marriage had collapsed before he left the TLS, but Juliet Wrightson, who had been his secretary there, now became his permanent companion and she, I don't doubt, was the making of his successful old age.
John SturrockReuse content