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My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times

Review

My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times

It’s probably unfair to say that Harold Evans has led a
charmed life, but there’s ample support for that conclusion
in this spirited memoir of his diverse career in newspapers and
publishing. The story of his rise from a working class background
in Manchester, England to the heights of British journalism is a
briskly and skillfully told tale of hard work, a healthy dose of
luck and an unflagging commitment to the highest standards of the
profession he has pursued with admirable intensity for more than
half a century.

From his days as a 16-year-old working on the
Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, Evans seemed to have
newspapers in his blood. Overcoming his share of Britain's class
prejudice as he scrambled up journalism’s equivalent of
Disraeli’s “greasy pole,” he displayed a healthy
appetite for the grunt work that brought him to the attention of
superiors who offered him positions of increasing responsibility
along the way until he became editor, in 1961, of the stodgy
Darlington Northern Echo, a regional paper in
England’s northeast. In that role, he launched a series of
investigative campaigns that served as the model for the more
far-reaching and dramatic ones he would pursue when he moved to
London.  

Evans astutely grasped early in his career that
“transmitting information is easier than creating
understanding,” and throughout, he devoted himself to
stimulating readers and provoking them to action. Although
it’s apparent he possessed rich stores of self-confidence to
sustain him in the rough and tumble world of British journalism,
there’s a nice air of self-deprecation in observations like
this one, attributed to one of his colleagues: “The only
qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like
cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary
ability.”

The pace of the memoir slows somewhat in its second half, the
bulk of which recounts the years that Evans served as editor of the
London Sunday Times. In contrast to the crisp and
frequently humorous stories of his upward climb in the newspaper
business, in these chapters he tends to dwell at length, although
with understandable pride, on the investigative journalism he
relished. One chapter details the obstacles posed by
Britain’s Official Secrets Act to the effort to uncover the
truth about the Kim Philby spy case. Another chronicles the
paper’s lengthy campaign to help secure just compensation for
the young victims of the drug Thalidomide, exposing a sorry tale of
corporate greed and the intransigence of the British civil justice
system in the process. And in one of the book’s lengthiest
accounts, Evans relates the mystery surrounding the death of the
Times Middle East correspondent David Holden, the victim
of a still unsolved murder plot in Cairo. While Evans narrates
these stories with passion and verve, some of the controversies
lack sufficient intrinsic interest, and most of the principal
actors are so little known, that American readers, at least, may
find their interest flagging.

Although it’s given fairly cursory treatment relative to
the rest of his memoir, the most recent quarter century or so of
Evans’s life, including forays into the worlds of magazine
(Condé Nast Traveler and U.S. News & World
Report
) and book (Atlantic Monthly Press and Random House)
publishing, has been among the most stimulating. He’s frank
in describing how his affair with glamorous journalist and editor
Tina Brown (so famous, he notes wryly, that some have referred to
him as “Mr. Harold Brown”) brought an end, amicable as
he describes it, to his first marriage. His take on Rupert Murdoch,
who purchased the Times as it emerged from a year-long
strike in 1981 and forced Evans from his position as editor of the
paper after barely a year in that position, is harsh, but in some
respects oddly admiring. These portraits, and numerous others like
them, are offered up in a witty, verbally dexterous style.

MY PAPER CHASE closes by reminding us that not a week goes by
when there’s not some dispiriting story of the real or
threatened collapse of a venerable newspaper in this country. Given
the dismal state of the industry, one might expect the memoir of a
man who had spent most of his life toiling as a print journalist to
end on an elegiac note. Instead, reflecting the adaptability that
sustained his career, Evans is optimistic about the ability of the
traditional newspaper to transform itself into something just as
important and useful in the new world of online media. “The
question is not whether Internet journalism will be
dominant,” he writes, “but whether it will maintain the
quality of the best print journalism. In the end it is not the
delivery system that counts. It is what it delivers.”

If the current generation of journalists is determined to carry
on with integrity and grit equal to Harold Evans’s, perhaps
those who cherish newspaper journalism don’t have as much to
fear as they may think.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 12, 2011

My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times
by Harold Evans

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2010
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316031437
  • ISBN-13: 9780316031431