As Simon Schama observed on hearing the sad news of Harry Evans’s death, Harry was that rare combination of great and good. The English phrase “the great and the good” is ironical, implying that the great (in the sense of the socially or politically powerful) are rarely good. Harry Evans was never one of the great and good in that sense. He was simply a great editor and a good man.
By birth and by temperament he was an outsider, a foreign body in the metropolitan and still partly hereditary British Establishment. Born in Manchester, the son of train driver, Harry began his career as a boy reporter at the age of 16. His early years are vividly described in his memoir, My Paper Chase. His career coincided with the rise, apogee and fall of the national newspaper as the most potent force in British political life. When he started out, the press was still to a striking extent regionally structured, as it had been in the 19th century. The Manchester Evening News, like the Manchester Guardian, was a northern paper, like the Northern Echo, of which he became the editor in 1961. But when Harry moved to London to edit the Sunday Times in 1967, the press became Fleet Street: centered in London and capable of making and breaking ministers and even governments.
It was newspapers that determined what merited front-page coverage, and what was merely a “small earthquake in Chile.” Without press campaigns such as Harry’s at the Sunday Times, would the thousands of fetal abnormalities caused by the drug thalidomide have become so notorious, and would the drug companies have been held accountable? Would we ever have found out the full extent of the treachery of the Cambridge spies?
I am too young to have written for Harry. By the time I got to Fleet Street in the mid 1980s, he had lost his fight with Rupert Murdoch and had left for New York with Tina. But “the Harry Evans Sunday Times” long remained the epitome of a golden age of British journalism, spoken of with a rare reverence in the insalubrious watering holes of Wapping and Docklands—to the great annoyance of Harry’s successors, who strove to match his scoops.
So it was in New York that I got to know Harry and Tina. Late to the party as usual, I first met them in the early 2000s, post-Talk, pre-Daily Beast. I suppose I had expected them to be the ultimate power couple, as that was how they were generally billed. Certainly, the book parties they hosted had stellar guest lists. And yet, to my surprise and delight, the couple seemed to regard their power, and that of their guests, as droll to the point of absurdity.
I think this was perhaps Harry’s greatest gift to Tina: even when editing Henry Kissinger’s memoirs—no minor undertaking—Harry retained his Mancunian sense that the corridors of power were partly floored with banana skins. I always imagined the two of them hooting with laughter after Manhattan society had said its goodbyes. Tina’s recently published diaries from the 1980s confirmed that, unlike true power couples, they had a real private life and love. They were in fact happiest alone together in with Georgie and Izzy at their Long Island retreat.
Most people can’t write. Those who can have generally learned by doing a lot of reading and then being ripped to shreds by good editors. Until Harry’s Do I Make Myself Clear? there was no worthwhile guide on how to write. Newspapers, as my grandfather never tired of telling me, are tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping. (He was an earlier vintage of the same grape that produced Harry.) Even the biggest page one splashes are ephemeral. But the best of Harry’s books will endure, even after we who knew and loved him have gone the same way as the fish and chip wrappings.
Harry Evans was both good and great—in that order. One of the many things I learned from him was that if you ever had to choose between the two—between your ambition and your integrity—you should always go with good.
So goodbye, Harry. I’ll bet there’s a great swimming pool up there where you are now.