Adam Gopnik writes about the influential British journalist and editor Harold Evans, who died on Wednesday, at the age of ninety-two.
At his first-ever job on a newspaper, at the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, outside his home town of Manchester, the young Harry Evans was approached by a surly editor who demanded that Evans tell him exactly how many spokes there are in a bicycle wheel. (In those parched wartime years, Evans was cycling fourteen miles to work.) “I don’t know, sir,” the cub reporter replied. “Find out! Curiosity is the thing in journalism. Curiosity! Ask questions, Evans!” the crusty editor insisted.
And the boy did. Of all the memorable things about Evans, who died on Wednesday, at the age of ninety-two, the most memorable one was the quality and constancy of his curiosity. Curiosity can seem a secondary virtue, like courtesy or punctuality, but the quality of Harry’s curiosity was always a reminder that in the right hands, or in the right mind, it could be a primary one—and that for newspaper and magazine folks, curiosity is, along with courage, the virtue that matters most. Harry was always curious—charmingly curious, omnivorously curious, demandingly curious, and, to the people who worked for him, sometimes exhaustingly curious: curious about politics, curious about writing, curious about love, curious about the world. Above all, curious about the truth of things—not the official truth or the acceptable truth or the cosmetic truth but the unvarnished reality of significant events. He sought that relentlessly and fearlessly, and the charm and ingenuous boyishness of his personal manner was never more than a cover for someone who thought that, whether about bicycle spokes or buried secrets, it was his job in life to know.
He begins his wonderful memoir of his newspaper life, “My Paper Chase”—published when he was already in his eighties, but still beautifully, breathlessly high-hearted in tone and spirit—with a story of seeing exhausted soldiers on a beach, just evacuated from Dunkirk, and realizing, though only a child, that the standard story of Dunkirk as a morale-boosting “triumph” was far from the lived experience of Dunkirk for its witnesses. That scene on the shore informed his life with the confidence that the official story was not necessarily, or even probably, the adequate story—and that the official story might contain elements of the truth rearranged.
Evans’s flight to America saw him transformed, in some measure, as the husband of his second wife, Tina Brown. Photograph by Ann Clifford / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty
It was this pursuit of truth, often in the face of resistance, that made him the most famous newspaperman in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. As a newspaper editor, he was on a level of legend that, in America, only Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post can quite equal. At his first significant editorship, of the Darlington Northern Echo, Evans led a quixotic fight to clear the reputation of a young man named Timothy Evans, who was wrongly convicted and hanged for murder. The reporting spurred the struggle against capital punishment in Britain and caused Evans to believe that it is just at the moment when a newspaper is getting bored with its own crusade that…
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