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Tue 20 October 2020
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Peter Jukes with his personal tribute to Harry Evans, an advisor to Byline, who died last night at the age of 92

This morning I woke up to an email that put a lump in my throat.

My former editor Tina Brown wrote that her husband Harry Evans had died in the night “surrounded by his loving family”. She quoted the prologue to the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Henry V:

A largess universal, like the sun, His liberal eye doth give to everyone

And at that moment, instead of breaking with sadness and a sense of misfortune, another feeling entirely overwhelmed me. Joy. Celebration. We were so lucky to have ever had him.


A Miracle of Mobility

There’s nothing much more I can add to the many tributes today by others who knew Harry much better than I did, and worked with him through a career spanning 70 years. I only got to meet him a decade ago, and he became an advisor to Byline and opened our small New York festival.

But you didn’t have to meet Harry to feel his spirit and generosity. It infused everything he wrote and edited. He was everything a journalist should be: open, inquisitive, sceptical at times, but never cynical – always enthusiastic and positive. 

Maybe part of that generous energy was down to Harry’s background, which reads like a textbook lesson in all the possibilities of post-war British social mobility. The son of a railwayman from Eccles, he left school with no qualifications and started working in local journalism at the age of 16, rising to the pinnacle of the best British newspaper of the last century, the Sunday Times

No wonder, with this trajectory, Harry seemed to approach every day, and every person, with a sense of good fortune and mischief.

Whenever you met him, you felt a little miracle could be in the making. But he never forgot how lucky he was and how unfair his home country still is. Unlike others who have ascended the rungs of the British class system, he always pulled the ladder back down to help others – from the victims of Thalidomide, those targeted by the secret state or the Murdoch empire, to other journalists in need of support and advice.

Among the closed courtyards and fenced-off defensiveness of British journalism, he was a rare thing: not a gatekeeper but a gate-opener. 


On Paper

During his 14 years editing the Sunday Times, Harry opened the gates for so many people who probably will never even know his name.

I think particularly of one 14-year-old boy down on his luck in the 1970s. He’d moved three times in two years thanks to his bipolar father’s multiple bankruptcies. By 1974, the boy’s parents had separated, and he and his kid brother and sister had only been saved from homelessness because their mother had just trained as a social worker and obtained a job on a large, grim Victorian mental health facility, and had been given a council house in the grounds of the hospital. 

It was a lifeline of sorts. But that boy still started going off the rails in that tiny, pebble-dashed semi with no father around and a tired overworked mother. With the long commute to school and a broken family, he started drinking and smoking with other disaffected teenagers in his village. There were weekly school detentions for bad behaviour and threats of suspension. He veered from half-hearted suicide attempts to wild nights out and dropped from near top of his class to near the bottom.

But despite those straightened times – no holidays, one cheap pair of shoes a year, living off frozen hamburgers – every Sunday morning, Harry Evans’ Sunday Times dropped on the doormat.

Sir Harry Evans opening the Byline Festival in New York in November 2017. Photo: Stephen Colegrave

The paper under Harry’s editorship was a like window into another world. Though he didn’t read much, the teenage boy did love to draw in pencil, and he began to sketch the faces out of the ‘Review’ section: an old woman painting, a man fishing in a river, a 19th Century Frenchman with an amazing moustache and huge bags under his eyes. He didn’t recognise the names but started reading up about Jonathan Raban and Gustave Flaubert. He began to follow the television reviews by someone called Dennis Potter. 

Then the boy got interested in the news section, especially by the graphically narrated Insight team: stories of Israelis recovering their hostages in a raid on Entebbe and army shootings in Northern Ireland. Slowly his pebble-dashed prison fell away, and the boy’s mind was opened.

He started doing better at school. Within a few years, inspired by this panorama of culture, politics and international affairs that Harry Evans and his writers had revealed to him, the teenager won a scholarship to Cambridge University, started writing dramas, and appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times ‘Review’ section for one of his student plays. 

That boy was me. I still bear the scars on my left wrist of those dark days living in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, but the torch Harry passed over outshines them by megawatts. And I’m just one person inspired by his work: Harry touched the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. 


In Person

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good” goes the famous maxim, and from my personal experience of meeting Harry four decades later, he was a giant.

I was a nobody, but he wanted to meet me in 2012 because of my tentative first steps into journalism writing about Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal. Given his track record, I expected someone grand and difficult. But he spun into the hotel foyer with an elf-like magic: small and wiry but surrounded by an outsized electrical field of energy. There was no deference expected to his status, no long stories about past glories. He was curious and inquiring and fun on stilts.

Soon Harry introduced me to the Daily Beast, then edited by his partner Tina Brown. They both stood by my writings despite personal hit jobs against them in retaliation by editors working for Murdoch’s News Corp. But they also emphasised fairness and objectivity, even towards Murdoch, and every time Harry wrote for the publication, he extensively declared his interests – the kind of transparency so woefully lacking from British journalism today. 

It would be easy to say that Harry’s successors in the British press represent everything he was not: editors who punch down rather than up, monstering minorities, demonising the poor or disadvantaged; newspapers that sacrifice transparency and truth for the interests of a small clique of friends; journalists not speaking truth to power, but bending the truth for the powerful.

But that would be too cynical and despairing. All those cabals and cliques were there in newspapers long before Harry burst onto the scene. He showed us a different way, an example even more vivid in his absence, to be remembered long after the time servers, sycophants and stenographers have gone to their well-furnished oblivion. 

So that’s why my heart broke this morning, not with sadness but joy. We were so lucky to have him. And like that hushed moment in a theatre when the curtain falls on some tremendous, life-affirming drama, even though there are tears in your eyes because there will be no encore, you just have to stand and applaud until your hands hurt. 

Bravo, Harry. Bravo. And farewell.  


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