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Jul 27 2012

Booked! The Hacks’ List of Inspiring Novels Starts Here

In the beginning of the very hot summer of 2003, I was on my way back from Jerusalem to Oxford. After 6 months of a fellowship with the Reuters Foundation Programme, I was to be affiliated to St Antony’s College, aka Oxford’s “spies college” because of its dedication to international relations, as a Senior Associate Member. This very posh title basically means that the college allows you to come in, have lunch at the college’s dining room, hang out at the Seniors Common Room while reading newspapers and drinking tea, use the library and write a book. I was ecstatic over the opportunity to expand my paper about the Guardian’s coverage of Israel into a book. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Disenchantment-Guardian-Israel-Daphna-Baram/dp/1842751190

On my departure I received an unexpected present from my colleague Anshel Pfeffer. Anshel, is now Ha’aretz correspondent in London. Back in Jerusalem we had a somewhat rocky professional friendship. When I was Kol Ha’ir’s lefty-liberal News editor he was my right-wing and religious (I believe he lost both traits over time, facts for which I take absolutely no credit…) correspondent for religious affairs. The professional respect we held for each other carried us above those differences, but it had taken me a while to forgive him the fact that he later was appointment editor-in-chief over my head.

That’s probably why I’ve not really checked out the present he’d given me, until one cold afternoon later in the following winter. I just couldn’t bring myself to leave the shabby north Oxfordian room I was staying in and walk down to St Antony’s to labour over my own writing. I was out of the crime novels which I’d been binging on as if they were sweets; so I dug into my suitcase and reluctantly opened the present. The book,  Michael Frayn’s ‘Towards The End of the Morning’, delighted me and nobody saw me for the 3 days it took to consume from cover to cover.

Frayne’s novel is about a newspaper in London in the 1960s, in which nobody ever gets fired and about John Dyson, its ambitious and useless crosswords-and-nature-notes editor who is horrified by the parachuting of a young and diligent “can-do” into his dusty department. It is a truly hilarious novel but it also captures the sadness of a moment in time – just like the moment we are all living through now – where the game of journalism completely changes. Television emerged as the sparkly new game in town and getting oneself a spot as a talking head was becoming the to-be-or-not-to-be of a whole generation of journalists. But for me, more than anything else, it was a road map to the new world I found myself in, the world of British journalism. ‘Towards the End of the Mornin’g does not mention the name of the newspaper in the centre of its plot, but it is almost common knowledge that it was inspired by the Guardian, the newspaper in which Frayne worked for long years. The Guardian I walked into in 2003 to interview its contributors and editors for my book was a very different place to Frayn’s caricature of a 1960s paper. Boozy lunches were a thing of the past (by that time the only place where they still survived bravely was Peter Wilby’s New Statesman, until his retirement in 2005) , at The Guardian everybody seemed terribly efficient and deliberate, friendly and helpful. But I was a wide eyed journalist from a Middle East. When we fire someone, they know it, when we are angry, you hear it the next street and when we suspect something is not kosher, we raise hell.  Had I not read Frayne’s book I would never have been able to figure out that “I’m reluctant to go ahead” means “this is never going to happen”, that “let’s leave it at that” means “I’m furious and suspect I’ve not been told the truth” and that “I shouldn’t keep you” means “blimey! Are you still here?”…

I still go back to Frayne’s book, both for its entertainment value, but also for guidance. Whenever I need to decide whether to take offence by something an editor or a colleague said, whenever I need to understand what has actually happened in the last meeting I’ve attended, I read a few pages in ‘Towards The End Of The Morning’. And somehow, the vagaries of existence in John Dyson’s crossword-and-nature-notes department make it all clear to me, or at least, makes it clear that it does not necessarily matter. Thanks again, Anshel Pfeffer!

Asking colleagues for their inspirational novels, I received the following lovely contribution from our own Christopher Walker in London:

“Even before entering into the journalistic waters of the big world, I was one of many who cut their milk teeth as editor of the the Oxford student weekly Cherwell, and it was in that role that I first encountered the legendary (and now sadly, late)  Richard Hughes at his home from home, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, where reporters seeking R and R from Vietnam drank its potent bull shot (treble vodka and consomme) and he held court magnificently, addressing one and all by ecclesiastical titles such as “Monsignor” and  giving generously of his 30 years experience as the top UK and Australian reporter in the Far East, and its premier “China Watcher.”

Much of this wit and wisdom is distilled in his autobiography “Foreign Devil: Thirty Years of Reporting from the Far East”, published by Deutsch. As all good Far Eastern hands are aware, a Gweilo or “foreign devil” is what most of us expats are regarded as by the locals. Hughes, often dressed in voluminous khaki shorts and blessed with a wicked sense of humour, used to let any such suspicion roll of his broad back  by quoting the traditional 7th century Japanese folk song Nara:

“Whene’er I take my walks abroad

What bloody fools I see;

But, such the justice of the Lord,

They think the same of me.”

One critic wrote of Hughes’ much loved tome:, having quoted as an intro a famous request to a young Hughes by a Japanese sea captain: “We do not have dirty words in Japanese.. please teach us the Australian ones…” that Hughes was a journalist, raconteur and in all liklihood, a spy. He was suspected of running the M16  station in Hong Kong, a vital info point,and also very possibly of doubling on the side for the Russians.

As such, he is famed in some of the finest literature of espionage of being  the model for both Dikko Henderson, the Australian spy in Ian Fleming’s  “You Only Live twice” and  even more famously, “Old Craw” in John Le Carre’s Honourable Schoolboy.

In real life, where Fleming as foreign manager of the postwar Sunday Times was indeed his boss, he was famed for securing an exclusive interview in 1956 in Moscow with the runaway British spooks, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. But he never managed to emulate the feat of his fellow Aussie Sunday Times man Phillip Knightley in securing a face to face meeting with Kim Philby himself.

Anyone who had tasted of  the accounts of the mysterious and inscrutable ways of the Far East in Hughes’ prose, and later from his own mouth, was destined in my view to follow his chosen profession (foreign correspondent that is), although perhaps without his range of experience, varying from Kobe’s Honourable Sex Shop to the drinking of turtle blood at a sayonara banquet  for respectful members of Japan’s newly-formed secret police.

 

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Now, dear colleagues, friends and readers – this is your turn. Let’s get our list of the 20 best books about journalism going. 18 to go, put your comments down here.

2 comments

  1. Henry

    I would say ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ – by the late, great, genius that was Hunter S Thompson.

    Read with caution and whatever you do, don’t go to Barstow!

  2. Mike Shum

    Believing is Seeing by Errol Morris is not necessarily a book about journalism but it’s about truth and perceiving truth and everything in between when it comes to photography. It’s pretty stellar!

    But I agree with Henry. Don’t go to Barstow!

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