The First Steps of a Great Newspaperman
Sarah Johnson introduces an account by her late father of his earliest days in journalism
My father, John Thompson, who died in November, did not live in the past. So it was a surprise when my brother located this fragmentary account of his start in journalism on our father’s last laptop. I wonder how many nonagenarians have a laptop (for the study) and an iPad (for the sitting room) as my father did?
After a career in journalism of more than 50 years, during which he met pretty well all the great and the good, he could easily have bored us all rigid with repeated anecdotes, furnished and burnished by passing years, about his glory days. Fortunately for his family, if not for posterity, this would have been entirely out of character. He lived very much in the present — which made him a refreshing, alert and lively companion until his death at the age of 93.
But for my mother’s powers of persuasion, this account of his first job in a newspaper office, evidently intended to be continued, would not have been written a year or two before he died. He was finding writing and remembering increasingly difficult, but if he was losing his memory, we would joke, it didn’t show — as he had so much more to lose than most people.
From these early days described here, he moved on to the Yorkshire Evening News. During the war he was recruited by Michael Foot — editor of the Evening Standard and later leader of the Labour Party — and there became editor of Londoner’s Diary. In 1963 he moved over to the Spectator where he became deputy editor under Iain McLeod and Nigel Lawson.
By then he was an adept, perceptive and well-travelled political journalist behind whose self-effacing style lay a formidable intellect and breadth of learning. He was offered the editorship of the Spectator but turned it down because, as he told us with typical tact a few months before he died, “It wasn’t that I didn’t like Harry Creighton [the proprietor], I just couldn’t see myself working with him.” Having left the Spectator, with a wife, mortgage and two young children, he found himself walking down Fleet Street — then the centre of the newspaper world at a time when newspapers mattered — and thinking, “There must be a job for me somewhere here.”
Within days the call came. Lord Hartwell, the Telegraph proprietor, asked him to be a regular political columnist on the Sunday Telegraph. Six years later, in 1976, my father’s special combination of calm, correctness and steel, tempered by kindness and warmth, helped Hartwell to decide to appoint him as editor of the same paper. There he nurtured and encouraged many fine talents, while raising the paper’s circulation from some 750,000 in 1976 to an all-time record of over a million by 1980. He retired to Norfolk in 1986 and in later years contributed to the Literary Review and Standpoint.
— Sarah Johnson
The year was 1936. I had left school, aged 16, saying airily that I intended to be a journalist, although I had little notion of how to go about it. There were no family links with that calling. My elder brother was articled to a chartered accountant. My father was not comfortable about my aspiring to a world so distant from anything he knew. However, he set out to be helpful, as he usually did, and through a business friend he arranged for me to consult Sir Linton Andrews, then the editor of the Leeds Mercury (and later of the Yorkshire Post after the two morning papers published in Leeds were merged). That meeting with Sir Linton was my first contact with the world of newspapers and I remember that it was exciting. I presented myself at the office and asked to see the editor. A lordly functionary looked down his nose at this presumptuous youth and said with a sneer, “You can’t get to see the editor of a newspaper as easily as that.” As stiffly as I could I told him I had an appointment. Eventually I reached the editor’s room in a state of high nervousness, which was somewhat soothed by the great man’s quietly friendly manner. What we talked about I have forgotten. I do remember that on his desk were some galley-proofs, things I had never seen before. For me they had a thrilling, behind-the-scenes quality to which I responded.
Afterwards Sir Linton kindly wrote to my father, saying he thought I might be a suitable candidate for journalism. He suggested I should start off by gaining experience on a local weekly, which at that time was the usual first step. Again my father had a helpful idea. He was the managing director of a firm of builders’ merchants in Leeds. He remembered that a customer of his firm had mentioned that he had recently invested in a small printing business, and that attached to that business was a small weekly newspaper called, with rather pathetic grandeur, the Leeds Guardian. This had a tiny circulation and no prestige, but it did appear every week and was indubitably a local weekly, as Sir Linton had prescribed. So my father spoke to the proprietor (whom I never set eyes on, as far as I recall) and it was agreed that I should work for his paper for a wage of ten shillings a week. Thus I became, at the lowest imaginable level, a sort of journalist. The Leeds Guardian existed in circumstances far less impressive than its title. It was produced in a decaying corner of industrial Leeds, an area which must long since have been cleared and redeveloped. The small printing works which sustained it was in a shabby little street called Mill Green, a name which hinted at a more prosperous and salubrious past. Ordinarily this was reached by a mile-long walk from City Square, the central point of the city, as it was ignored by the Leeds tram and bus systems.
On my first day my father drove me there in his Morris car. He wished me good luck as I went through the decrepit door. Once inside the building I thought it likely that I was going to need it. It was not a welcoming scene. The whole of the ground floor into which I had stepped was occupied by noisy printing machinery. I glimpsed one or two men in overalls, and heard them shouting to each other above the din, and I felt rather at a loss. After looking about rather helplessly I noticed a steep wooden staircase rising up in one corner. This, I found, after nervously deciding to explore, led to a small office on the first floor. There was no one in the office but there were plentiful signs of its usual occupant. It was a room made tumultuously untidy by heaps of papers, books, posters, correspondence and — this I found altogether reassuring — galley-proofs. These proofs, by reminding me of those I had seen on the desk of the editor of the Yorkshire Post, suggested that I had indeed come to the right place, as did the sight of an incredibly ancient typewriter half hidden by sheets of paper. There was no one there, however.
Then I heard slow, shuffling footsteps on the wooden staircase outside the door. When it opened there appeared a bent, elderly man in a tattered tweed jacket who identified himself , with a certain diffidence or perhaps anxiety, as Mr Tull, the editor of the paper I was supposed to be joining. We shook hands and he swept some papers off a chair for me. We had a little stilted conversation. I remember thinking that he was a rather mysterious figure, unlike anyone else I had come across. He perhaps felt he had cause for sad reflections at that particular moment. He was plainly near the end of his working life, I presumably was at the beginning of mine. Both of us were trying to hold on to the very lowest rung of the same ladder.
In the months that followed I came to know some aspects of Mr Tull quite well. He was plainly an educated man, widely read and cultivated in speech and manner, habitually courteous and polite. He never spoke of his private life. I never learned his Christian name. I could only suppose that some catastrophe had reduced him to the drudgery of producing, doubtless for a pittance, his poor little newspaper, but he never spoke of his background or the course his life had taken. Evidently he knew, or had known, literary figures of the day. Once he let slip that he had some familiarity with the Belloc family. I speculated that he had been employed in some quiet corner of publishing or journalism from which events had harshly evicted him. His clothes were painfully tatter-demalion and he never spent money. He would walk the streets for miles to avoid spending pennies on trams. This was not, I think, because of meanness but because of poverty. I gathered that he had a wife and a son whom I never met, and I could imagine them loving him but with a certain despair. Sometimes I decided, with the arrogance of youth, that he belonged in the pages of Gissing or Dickens.