Durham war heroes, ice hockey behind the Iron Curtain, and ‘lefty’ Palatinate

Sir Harold Evans edited The Times and Sunday Times, has been voted the nation’s greatest ever newspaper editor, and was knighted for his services to journalism in 2004. To mark Palatinate’s 800th edition, he shares his memories of taking over the paper a mere three years after its creation…

Magical Durham. No-one forgets the incomparable vista from the train when the curtain of hedges parts on the drama of the rocky wooded peninsula, “half church of God, half ’gainst the Scot.”

When I heard from the Editors that this is to be the 800th edition of Palatinate, I had the wild notion that carefully laid one on one, the thousands of pages in 800 editions, and the hundreds of thousands yet to come, could be fashioned into a tower, a landmark of Durham college life captured by journalism as it was lived and preserved for generations.

The science labs and school of architecture could design an indestructible structure for placement outside the Palace Green Library, where a few of us ambitious ink-stained wannabees had shivered in a cold room pasting up columns of type that originated on clapped out keyboards.

Justin Welby gave sermons at John’s before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury; James Bond was at Hild Bede while still Roger Moore

Of course, my fanciful Palatinate Tower would be embedded with electronic links so that a visitor could summon to a central screen anything from the archives – a video of Hatfield’s Will Carling scoring a run for the Colleges; Trevelyan’s Mow Mowlam confronting terror as Secretary of Northern Ireland; Hunter Davies chatting with Paul McCartney; Justin Welby’s last sermon at St John’s before being invested the Archbishop of Canterbury; James Bond at Hild Bede while still Roger Moore.

I was at Castle in 1949, one year after the founding of Palatinate, though at the time I didn’t realize it was so freshly born: where was the heralded curiosity of the journalist? The colleges then had an infusion of real war heroes; freshly demobbed National Service men in our twenties; fresh-faced high schoolers reeking of cleverness.

As a teenager in Manchester, hot with competing newspapers, I’d set my heart on being a reporter. I daren’t think of getting involved with Palatinate in my first Durham year when my ex-serviceman’s grant depended for renewal in a second year on my wrestling Leviathan to the ground and remembering all the conditions covered by ceteris paribus in elaborate models of the British economy. Ceteris paribus indeed, blown up by Brexit blowhards.

(Jason Bell)

Anyway, in 1950 I could not spare the time to be at the Union Society the night the members debated the motion that “the journalist is a man who has sold his soul”. I read about it in Palatinate and it may be this report spurred me to drop in on the 1951 editor Derek Harrison (St Cuthbert’s Society).

I didn’t see people falling over to help him – only three on the masthead – so I volunteered to do proof-reading and paste-up chores. For this, Derek rewarded me with the title Assistant Editor and an interview as his possible successor with the owners of the paper, the Student Representative Council (SRC).

I shamelessly touted my experience as a weekly newspaper reporter at 16 who’d flogged round the streets of the cotton town in Ashton-Under-Lyne, and founded a magazine in the RAF. They were more interested in how good I was at arithmetic.

Truly not very, but enough to reckon that the plan some of them had to cut the number of pages from ten to eight would equal fewer readers, fewer advertisers. I argued that a new editor should be allowed to raise the cover price and add two pages – more sport, more features, more news around town.

In 1950 the Union Society debated a motion that “the journalist is a man who has lost his soul”

I had no newspaper management experience. They would be taking the risk of digging a bigger hole. So I salute members of the SRC who agreed. Every one of these brave discerning undergraduates went on to fame by taking risks to revive giant industries in decline (that last bit is called journalistic licence).

The experiment worked thanks mainly to undergrads flexing muscles in the new open pages. Derek Holbrook, who went on to run labor at ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries], wrote a gossip column, Ian Rodgers, a gadfly poet got enough practice to fly his verses in BBC radio spaces.

It was his idea to do a solid study of the pubs, identifying one over Framwellgate Bridge where you could debate capitalism with Marxist coal miners. We were proud of gown reporting on town, but we were nothing like as assiduous as more recent editors. Has hate crime increased in the area? Ask Palatinate.

I can say, hand on heart, that two experiences at Palatinate were pivot points. The fifties were convulsed by how serious a menace was international communism. Mao had taken over China. Stalin had tried to starve us out of Berlin and snuffed out democracy in Eastern Europe. North Korea had invaded the South. Everyone despised the redbaiter Senator Joe McCarthy, but he had some real fuel for his fabrications and his odious witch hunts.

In this fevered period, the Durham ice hockey team accepted an invitation to take part in the Ninth World University Games in Romania. Behind the Iron Curtain! The Warden of the Durham Colleges and the Academic Council of professors vetoed their departure. The student body rebelled.

I tried out for the hockey team and had the bruise to testify they were not deeply interested in peace with anyone

The official argument that the travel would disrupt studies was a whitewash. The real reason for the fear was that the Durham skaters could be suborned, bullied or blackmailed into pro-communist peace statements. I had tried out for the hockey team and had the bruise to testify they were not deeply interested in peace with anyone.

The uproar gave the new Palatinate lift-off. My shorthand came in handy for covering the speeches but the editorial I wrote supporting the team was a toothless on- the -one hand, on- the other. I cringed when I read it later. Lesson One: Editorials must lead.

Lesson Two came from members of the Durham Colleges Conservative and Unionist Association. They had long complained their events and speakers always got short shrift in “lefty” Palatinate. We took it seriously. Local advertisers were uneasy. We spent hours measuring column inches given to all the political clubs (pictured).

The grievance had no grounds, but the exercise made me acutely aware that an editor had to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. I’d spoken in Union political debates – without anyone being moved one way or another – but something had held me back from explicit allegiance to any political party. I stuck to it.

The Palatinate experience persuaded me that pinning on a party badge would make it easier to have solid reporting and reasoned argument discounted as party propaganda. Enough. This sounds too much like the beginning of a term paper. Discuss. Do not write on both sides of the paper.

Happy 800th!

Sir Harold Evans, MA Dunelm, former editor of The Sunday Times (1966-1981) and The Times (1981-2) is Editor at Large at Reuters. His books include Good Times, Bad Times; My Paper Chase; and Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. Documentary Attacking the Devil, about his role in exposing the Thalidomide scandal, is available on Netflix.

Photograph: Jacqui Morris

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