As someone who worked for both the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mail during the early part of the 20th Century, Basil Clarke worked for two of the truly great figures of British journalism in C.P. Scott and Lord Northcliffe.
Clarke set out his thoughts about both men in an autobiography he wrote but never published.
I included some of Clarke memories of them in my biography of Clarke, but given their importance to newspaper history I thought it would be worth blogging the bits about Scott and Northcliffe that didn’t make the final cut.
The picture of C.P. Scott, the owner and editor of the Manchester Guardian, that emerges from Clarke’s autobiography is of an intimidating man with exactingly high standards.
“He was a formidable and rather terrifying personality,” Clarke wrote. “He had not the habit that most people have of smiling a little at times as they talk to you. His face remained set, and from under his grey bushy eyebrows his keen blue eyes watched you searchingly with that suggestion of fierceness which blue eyes sometimes do convey.”
When he was still a sub-editor at the Manchester Guardian, Clarke passed some copy that described a recently purchased mechanical street sweeper as being economical and effective.
“Dear Mr Clarke,” Scott wrote to him the next day, “I think you mean ‘effectual’ rather than ‘effective’. A lady’s ball dress, you know, may be ‘effective’ without being ‘effectual’.”
“There wasn’t much that escaped C.P.’s eye,” Clarke wrote.
On another occasion, Scott wrote to Clarke to admonish him for having passed some Press Association copy about the death of William H Rattery that referred to Rattery as “the deceased politician”.
“He must have waded through all the 80 or 90 columns of that night’s copy to discover who had passed that offending phrase,” Clarke wrote.
As forbidding a figure as Scott might have been, he could, though, still be a source of humour. Clarke’s autobiography included the following, admittedly “perhaps apocryphal”, anecdote:
He [Scott] was cycling home to Fallowfield as usual in the early hours of the morning when his bicycle lamp went out and, having no matches (being a non-smoker), he asked a street sweeper for a light. This the street sweeper himself applied to the extinguished lamp as the following dialogue took place:
Street Sweeper: I often see you riding home about this time, Mister.
C.P. Yes, I usually get away from work about now.
S.S. Where do you work?
C.P. At the ‘Guardian’ office.
S.S That’s the Scotts’ paper, isn’t it?
C.P. Yes, it is.
S.S. Well, will you tell ’em summat from me, Mister?
C.P. What can I tell them from you?
S.S. You can tell ’em that I think it’s a bloody shame to keep an old feller like you out till this time of a night!
Clarke had a much closer relationship with Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron who founded the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror and owned The Times and The Observer.
As I relate in my book, Northcliffe liked Clarke’s combative nature and was impressed with the quality of his work. And for Clarke’s part, a signed photograph of Northcliffe was one of his more precious possessions.
But Northcliffe was a much more controversial figure than Scott, and this was a subject Clarke touched on in his autobiography. Writing over a decade after Northcliffe’s death, Clarke wrote:
One heard, and still hears, conflicting estimates of him, the less kind of them attributing to him a sort of ruthlessness closely akin to that grim, brutal quality which the Prussians so highly venerate and esteem under its stark, back-to-front German name of “Rücksichtslosigkeit”, or, crudely translated, back-sight-less-ness.
For my own part I liked him. He was always good to me, unusually appreciative for a boss, very human, and extremely generous; and, if it be my lot to have any more bosses in this life I hope I may not ask for better or fairer than that. What if he did like to dramatise things a bit at times? That’s harmless enough. In the following sort of thing, for example, is there ground for anything beyond a tolerant smile?
Northcliffe: (Calling me back sharply after I had passed him in the office corridor): Who am I?
Clarke: Why, ‘the Chief’, of course.
Northcliffe: What’s my name?
Clarke: Lord Northcliffe.
Northcliffe: What am I on this paper?
Clarke: You are the owner and Editor-in-Chief, of course.
Northcliffe: Oh! So you do know who I am, do you? Then why did you just cut me just now?
Clarke: I’m sorry, Chief, you looked so preoccupied and worried as you walked along that I didn’t like to butt-in on your thoughts.
Northcliffe: Well, remember this, young man: any time you meet me in the corridor I expect a small smile. Don’t forget it.
A little stagey, perhaps, but not unlikeable.