Thursday, 9 May 2013


On the gorblimey trousers and the dustman's hat history is silent but Harry Whewell's Old Man was certainly, if improbably, a dustman. . . As a child on Friday nights Harry sat round the kitchen table with the family sorting through the likely rubbish brought home by his father searching for valuables.

Later in life from his mansion flat he toured the great universities, as news editor, then editor, of The Manchester Guardian, searching for literary talent.  Michael Frayn, Jonathan Steele, Benedict Nightingale and Simon Hoggart were among the many he discovered. He was part of the Team of Immortals: Alastair Cooke, Neville Cardus, Howard Spring among others which made The Guardian by a mile the world's greatest newspaper.  Last week he died at the age of 91 which came as a surprise to those of us who believed him to be immortal.  During the war he was a navigator with Bomber Command, surprisingly, since he could get lost in an office corridor. Training at "Hell's Mouth" in North Wales he met, married and loved Esther Rose, the daughter of a celebrated journalistic dynasty who worked on a weekly paper to fund his student years. She was one of the pioneer writers who launched Coronation Street and until her tragic death led its creative team.  They have a son, Tim, an outstanding foreign correspondent on Newsnight.

Harry was small, saturnine, with an impish grin like a devil on holiday and he could ruin a suit by standing next to it.  His cap was his badge of office and he had a genius for conversation.  Google lists only seven Harry Whewells in Britain.  Personally I don't believe in six of them.

Oddity in Harry was brought to a fine art.  Respected and enjoyed, he could only have found a home in The Manchester Guardian, which for him never became The Guardian.
He was discovered and encouraged by the empire building Alastair Hetherington,an unlikely pairing.  Although the great universities were his talent pool his net went wider . His choice of a foreign editor, Joe Minogue, he plucked from the small, irascible group who reported on Manchester municipal matters, with whom he had worked as a reporter. It proved a brilliant choice, though international coups never achieved a venom like to the municipal intensity.  Minogue formed an anti-cultural group[in the newsroom.

Harry was amiable and curiously domestic in his ways. Though obdurate.  Hetherington's, grand ideas were achieved round him, rather than through him.

His Guardian did not encourage change.  He refused to have telephones in the newsroom because they disrupted his writers' thoughts and he was overheard  telling a correspondent: "The ManchesterGuardian does not take murders over the telephone."
The Guardian was the only paper he could have  worked for.  Impossible to think of him working anywhere else than the little rabbit warren of offices, sheltered by its milch cow The Manchester Evening News, in a court off Cross Street in central Manchester.  For years I have been telling the story of The Guardian news editor who counselled me never to learn shorthand if I wished to succeed as a newspaper reporter.  Harry's death frees me of the obligation.  It was he who gave me that gem of advice which flew in the face of received wisdom.  Harry was right, of course.  He said news editors needed reporters who wrote shorthand to cover courts, councils, and all the dross that made up an edition. Others would be chosen for those chores until I, without a Pitman's stroke to my name, was the only one in the office. "And that," said Harry, "is when the plane will crash."

A year later when I was working on The Yorkshire Evening News a jet fighter crashed at RAF Finningley.  I was the only reporter in the office so I was sent on the story and got my first byline.

In the early days of our friendship we competed in sending fantasy letters to weekly newspapers.  My winner was a query about the Rochdale Flock Hound, a mythical beast, which nonetheless brought letters from readers claiming to have bred them.  Harry's was to wonder whether pictures existed of the Sioux Indian chief photographed on a Bury tram in full ceremonials during a visit by American Indians to the town.  We were amazed at the number of readers who claimed to have seen the photograph.

Harry reached his apogee in the Battle of the News Editor's Desk.  To Harry's horror Hetherington announced The Guardian was moving to new offices in Deansgate, sharing with The Daily Mail.  This was across town from the Bodega bar and Sam's Chop House where Harry held daily court about fifty paces from his desk.

He refused to move.  They showed him his new state-of-the-art office.  He was unimpressed.  They offered him suites of executive furniture.  He spurned them.  He insisted his desk would be too large for the new office and abandoning it would be unthinkable.  He pointed out that the great C.P.Scott had sat at his desk.  We could all see the point.  Harry's desk was bigger than some sporting estates.  It had drawers that had remained unopened for years and candle sconces like the old pianos.  It was more than wood.  It was history.  And Harry was adamant.  Britain had conquered the world with smaller gunboats.  Some of the drawer fronts, it was said, were gun ports behind which cannons stood.  The impasse continued for weeks.  Both sides came to see the desk as a symbol of everything The Manchester Guardian represented.  To the management it was clumsy, fusty and out of date.  To Harry it was A Noble Tradition.  Our money was on Harry.

Finally management caved in.  They agreed to move the desk.  When it arrived at its destination, doors had to be widened but by this time management's nerve had been shattered.

Harry pronounced himself pleased and went back to the old building to collect the canary in its cage, his office companion over many years.  We formed a guard of honour for its progress from Cross Street to Deansgate, to admiring glances from shoppers.  There may even have been cheers.

Every holiday he took the bird home with him so that it would not be lonely.  Seeing him with it one Christmas, a printer asked: "Where you going with that?"  "I am taking it home for Christmas," said Harry.  "Are you?" said the printer. "We're having turkey."

Writer Colin Dunne recalls going for an interview with Harry who offered a different view on shorthand:

He sat me down across the desk before asking me exactly the questions I had been dreading.

How did I feel about American imperialism and their war-mongering in the Far East?  Oh Gawd.  I sort of shrugged and said I didn't know much about it and didn't - pathetically, no doubt - have any strong feelings about it.

Where did I stand on women's rights and the women's movement in general?  Oh Gawd, again.  I pulled a face and said it was all a bit of a mystery me and I'd rather leave the whole thing to women.

Which university did I attend?  Gawd.  None.  I left school at 16.  I did an A-level at Bradford Tech, if that helped.

Could I do shorthand?  At last - my moment.  Yes, I assured him, I could do reasonable shorthand.

"Thank God," he said, reaching over to shake my hand. "I have these buggers from university coming in here for interviews, they sit where you are and put their feet - in suede shoes - on my desk.  All they want to write about is the wicked Americans in the third world and the worldwide fight for justice for women.  And not one of them can ever do shorthand.  When can you start?"

Sadly I wasn't able to take the job.  He was a funny, clever man.  He used to pin up a list of slightly unusual words in the news room and invite the reporters to try to get them into their copy.  The idea was to raise the level of the language in the paper: it worked too.

Revel Barker recalls a typical Whewellism:

He was interviewing a girl from The Northern Echo Newcastle office for a reporter's job on The Guardian.

It was going very well and he asked her whether there was anything about the paper she didn't like, or might like to see changed.

Well, she said, she thought there might be a greater use of pictures (this was in the late sixites).

Ah yes, said Harry. Well of course they had thought about that, but they had come to the conclusion that ..."in the space it would take to display a decent size picture we could place... oh, I don't know... maybe a thousand words."

We shall not see his like again.


"My college flat mate Loren Needles, who is 71, pointed out to me that by
reaching 68 I am only 1.50% older than I was last year!

In your case you’ll only be 1.21% older than you were on your last birthday…"

“Venus was sculpted by man,
But the far more attractive woman, Margaret Thatcher,
Was sculpted by Allah.
My heart raced when I saw her face to face.
Her skin was smooth as ivory,
Her cheeks as rosy as an English rose,
And her eyes as lovely as a mare’s.
Her figure is more attractive than the figure of any cherished wife
Or coveted concubine.”

Ode taken from A Christmas Carol, being a commonplace selection by John Julius Norwich, 1984.

Written by court poet of Fahd of Saudi Arabia, it appeared in the 1st edition of The Sunday Times but mysteriously not in the second.