Inside Story

Torn in two parts

On the anniversary of its publication, Bridget Griffen-Foley reviews John Douglas Pringle’s self-deprecating account of a much-admired career

Bridget Griffen-Foley 21 June 2013 1895 words

His own terms: writer and editor John Douglas Pringle. Canberra Times

Have Pen: Will Travel
By John Douglas Pringle | Published in 1973 by Chatto & Windus

“WHEN I joined the Manchester Guardian in August 1934,” writes John Douglas Pringle, “the Golden Age was over.” It’s an oddly refreshing admission from a journalist and editor. The memoirs of “media practitioners” (as journalists and broadcasters now tend to be known) are usually devoted to their central role in one or other of the “golden ages” of journalism, broadcasting or family media dynasties.

Yet most journalists would think of Pringle’s decades working on newspapers in Britain and Australia between 1934 and 1970 as some sort of golden age. There were newspapers aplenty, and jobs, and reporting rounds. I recall the late journalism professor Clem Lloyd once ruminating about why journalists, alone among professions, were invariably described as “working journalists.” Whatever the reason, many are now simply non-working.

Pringle’s Have Pen: Will Travel, published in London in 1973, is a book about… well, it’s not about several things. As we’re told in the foreword, it’s “not an autobiography” because the author is too reserved to write one, and considers himself probably not sufficiently interesting anyway. And it’s not about being a remarkable editor: as Pringle writes in his postscript, “I do not think I was a good editor…” Nor, as we’ll see, is it about Australia.

This diffident tone pervades a book which, ultimately, is about Pringle’s work on five very different broadsheet newspapers: the Manchester Guardian, the Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times and the Observer. By now you might not be surprised to learn that he turned to journalism as “a second best.” Born in Hawick, on the Scottish border, Pringle read classics at Lincoln College, Oxford, in the early 1930s “while Western civilisation was collapsing around me.” When neither Oxford nor Edinburgh offered him a job in philosophy, he joined the Guardian, soon after the death of its great editor and proprietor, C.P. Scott. Here Pringle discovered he had “no nose for news.” He tried but failed to learn shorthand, loathed hours spent on the telephone pursuing leads, and lacked the push and drive to get interviews out of pompous businessmen and other newsmakers. What he did have (the reader deduces) was a good education, a sharp intelligence and a lively interest in world affairs. Like any “reasonably intelligent graduate,” he was generally able to “write some sort of leader.” Always at hand was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Google (or Wikipedia) of its day.

Pringle’s job as leader-writer was a leisurely one, allowing him to spend hours in libraries learning how parliament and the law courts worked. Before he had to write an important leader for the Guardian, with its “intense preoccupation with style,” he would “spend half-an-hour reading one of the great prose writers whom I most admired – the essays of Hazlitt, the prefaces of Bernard Shaw…” Pringle also had time to write his first book: his expertise on the Far East was such that in 1938 Allen Lane asked him to write a book on China for a new publishing firm called Penguin. Time – for research, for crafting and for specialisation – is the key thing that journalists lack in this 24/7 media environment, where they are expected to file continuously throughout the day, for multiple platforms.

Pringle returned to the Guardian after serving as an officer in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers during the second world war – a war which was, for him, as might be expected, “safe” and “inglorious.” As assistant editor, Pringle continued to relish the banter, “intelligent but not serious, witty and well-informed which is, perhaps, the peculiar contribution of the English intellectual.” A good deal of his time was spent with academics from Victoria University of Manchester and other universities, especially historians, including A.J.P. Taylor and (later Sir) Lewis Namier. Not for Pringle the journalistic contempt for “elite” intellectuals and academics. Years later, at the Sydney Morning Herald, he would poach George Molnar from the Daily Telegraph, knowing full well that the cartoonist was also a lecturer in architecture at the University of Sydney.

Have Pen: Will Travel is aptly titled, for one of its threads is Pringle’s chronic restlessness, his “five-year itch.” He left the Guardian in good part because he felt “that since I had only one life, it was ridiculous to spend it in one room in Manchester especially when there were so many marvellous and interesting places to see.” In 1948 he joined the Times as a special writer, chiefly on foreign affairs. Freed from administrative duties, he often had nothing to do, which allowed him to enjoy the varied pleasures of London, including the Tuesday lunch club hosted by assistant editor Donald Tyerman, with guests including Barbara Ward, Isaac Deutscher and Guy Burgess. Pringle learned the importance of table manners, an unspoken selection criterion for Times editors.

There is a sense that Pringle felt an alien even in England, where he had lived since his teens; his Scottish nationalism would result in another book, The Last Shenachie (1973), about the Gaelic language. In 1952 he accepted an offer from Rupert Henderson, the managing director of John Fairfax & Sons, to edit the Sydney Morning Herald. Although Pringle had never seen or read the newspaper, the offer was not so exotic to a mid-twentieth-century Scot: he had an aunt and cousins in New South Wales, and an uncle and aunt in New Zealand. And the Herald was considered by those who knew such things “to be one of the wealthiest and most financially sound papers in the British Commonwealth.” (Here I, too, am becoming nostalgic for a golden age.)

Part of the reason Have Pen: Will Travel is “not about” Australia is that this was the subject of two of his other books, Australian Accent (1958), his best-known, and On Second Thoughts: Australian Essays (1971). But this beautifully written memoir is valuable to Australians for its observations of newspapers, politics, academe, art and speech in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s. His Australian character sketches are punchy and incisive: of Henderson (“who could not remark on the weather without making you feel that it was a matter of life and death”), R.G. Menzies (“Handsome though fleshy; like one of the better Roman Emperors. His obvious intellectual brilliance makes him outstanding in this country of second-rate minds and also unpopular”), W.M. Hughes (“a tiny, bright old man with a face like a lizard”), and Professor Harry Messel (“quite without grace, in fact uncouth. He does not speak, he shouts. He is clumsy, noisy, brash and very much of the New World”).

During this period, Pringle achieved the only scoop of his career: a series of articles about Catholic Action, the Industrial Groups and the Movement, which he had been researching for some time, published immediately after Dr H.V. Evatt’s explosive statement about “disloyal and subversive” elements within the Labor Party. Pringle’s preoccupation with the role of religion in the British press, and of sectarianism in Australia, might seem anachronistic to most readers of today.

Pringle’s chief difficulty in editing the Herald was not the management (“intelligent if unpredictable”) but the structure. The newspaper had long practised a division of powers, fairly common in the United States and not unknown in Britain, by which the news editor was responsible to the management and not to the editor. In fact, Pringle discovered that the news editor was more important than the editor and controlled considerably more staff, while Pringle himself really only had control of the leader (or editorial) page. In 1957 he accepted the position of deputy editor of the Observer for half the salary he was earning at Fairfax. “An editor’s power,” he wrote, “must always depend, to some extent, on his willingness to resign.” It was not just disillusionment with the Herald that compelled him to return to London; for all the “powerful, mysterious beauty of Australia,” he had found it difficult, as a middle-aged man with a wife and three children, to settle into a new country and feel at home.

On Pringle’s departure from Sydney, a friend, George Baker, summed up the more exciting points of his editorship:

One thing at least – you really can’t complain
Of dullness in your five Australian years.

Apart from foreign and atomic scares
What was the great event? Doc and the Groups?
The Studley-Ruxton case? The groans and whoops
When Fitz and Browne were gaoled for ninety days?
The Petrovs? Or the swelling roar of praise
That met the Queen in every Sydney Street?

Five years later, nostalgic for the “hot sun” and “brilliant light” of Australia, Pringle was back in Australia, with another book (Australian Painting Today, 1963) under his belt. Rupert Henderson had summoned him to a meeting in London to propose that he start a public affairs program on ATN7 and be involved with a weekly paper in Sydney or a national daily in Canberra. Pringle not only worked with inadequate equipment and resources on what became Seven Days (a kind of commercial counterpoint to Four Corners), but also discovered, slightly to his surprise, that he was no good on television.

In 1964–65 Pringle served as managing editor of the Canberra Times, helping to change it from a small country tabloid into a broadsheet with metropolitan standards, as it engaged in a battle for dominance in the federal capital against the new national daily, the Australian. In 1965, he was persuaded to resume editing the Sydney Morning Herald. This time Pringle negotiated his own terms, or so he thought, gaining control over all editorial departments. In a long letter to a Fairfax executive, he declared his intention to devote the rest of his working life to the paper.

The next three years of his working life were his happiest, but they did not last. Pringle was weary, and felt undermined by Sir Warwick Fairfax, now managing director as well as chairman of the board. In theory the two Oxford-educated, don-like figures should have gotten on, but perhaps they were too alike, both believing they were right in any argument. Pringle discovered that the agreement he had reached with Sir Warwick for independence from the board had no legal validity. (So far as I am aware, a later, more famous agreement – the Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence of 1988 – has not been tested legally.) In 1969 Pringle announced his intention to resign in December 1970, but this was brought forward to April after a disagreement over the Herald leader on Easter Saturday. An agnostic himself, Pringle had attempted to approach Easter in a humanist way, to Fairfax’s dismay.

Following his departure from daily journalism, Pringle wrote book reviews, more books of his own, and for Quadrant. He died in 1999. Reflecting on a career on two continents, his memoir concludes: “I realise that to readers who have never migrated, my swithering and dithering must seem insane or at least wildly irresponsible. My only excuse is that a man who has once left his native country for another is never afterwards quite whole; he is torn in two parts.”

Forty years after the publication of Have Pen: Will Travel, the last newspaper on which the author worked, the Sydney Morning Herald, is struggling to survive financially in print; and his first newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, has become simply the Guardian, with a new online edition, the Guardian Australia, competing for Fairfax eyeballs and revenue. •