What is the golden thread that links today’s Guardian journalists with those of the 1820s? It takes imagination to summon up the atmosphere of the paper’s beginnings, a small-scale but bold enterprise upon which “Tory journalists looked with contempt”, as a contemporary onlooker recalled. John Edward Taylor was the paper’s proprietor, founder, leader writer and reporter. He would typeset his own articles directly from his shorthand notes, recalled his partner, the reporter Jeremiah Garnett. Then he’d help with the manual labour of the press, and lend a hand with distribution.
Garnett himself was richly embroiled in Mancunian politics, and would report both his own oratory in meetings and that of his opponent, occasionally inserting a parenthesis to the effect that if his antagonist chose to speak unreasonably quickly then he couldn’t possibly be expected to take it all down.
Once, Garnett was challenged to a duel by Thomas Sowler, the editor of a rival Tory paper, the Manchester Courier. Garnett declined to give satisfaction. When the two met in the street, Sowler set about him with a horsewhip. “I defended myself with my umbrella as best I could, and broke it over [his] head,” Garnett told the court. Editors were a tough lot, from day one.
In the years since, dazzling creatures have passed through the doors of the Guardian, sometimes passing straight back out again, such as John Masefield, later poet laureate, who was offered a job in 1904 as a leader writer and stayed for five months. “The work was too awful and the town wasn’t possible as a residence,” he wrote to a friend. Ah well: it must be acknowledged that neither the Guardian, nor Manchester, is for everyone.
This was in the age before bylines, though the “back page” essay, a prestige slot, carried sets of initials, sometimes GKC (Chesterton), AB (Arnold Bennett), or GBS (Shaw). Neville Cardus, the brilliant writer on music and cricket, who joined the paper in 1917 and wrote for it until his death in 1975, recalled asking the editor CP Scott’s advice when, as a young back-page editor, he felt a certain piece wasn’t up to scratch. “‘If you don’t regard it good enough,’ [Scott] told me, not even looking at the article, ‘send it back with the editor’s compliments’.” The essay in question was to be bylined “JC” – the initials of the regular contributor Joseph Conrad.
Cardus records too that Scott, who was editor of the paper between 1872 and 1929, banned the word “commence” from the pages of the Manchester Guardian. This was not the only such prohibition. When the women’s page was launched in 1922 by Madeline Linford, a secretary who rose to become the sole woman on the editorial staff, Scott proscribed the unacceptable slang “pram”, “chic”, “modish” and “ensemble”.
Miss Linford, as she was known to all, paved the way for such trailblazing writers as Jill Tweedie, who brought the women’s movement down to earth with her witty, sparkling columns in the 1970s and 80s. The former women’s editor and Scott Trust chair Liz Forgan remembered that Tweedie “was parodied, ridiculed and attacked. Mostly, though, she became a focal voice of women all over Britain who wrote to her in their thousands and took courage from her”.
Linford had been a brave correspondent, who headed to typhus-ridden Poland in 1919 to report on the postwar humanitarian crisis; she also pioneered cinema criticism. Or “kinema”, as Scott insisted it was spelled.
In the early 1930s, Cardus recruited CLR James to the Guardian as his number two on cricket. James would go on to a prodigious career as a pan-Africanist, thinker on the left and author. Both Cardus and James, who was the Guardian’s first regular Black writer, treated the sport as an art, and as a philosophy.
“It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance,” wrote James, who had grown up with a view from a bedroom window on to the cricket ground in Port of Spain, and infused his reports with Shakespeare and Aeschylus. James was a keen schoolboy cricketer, too, but the laurels for the most successful Guardian reporter/sportsman must go to the pioneering vegetarian Emil Voigt, who reported for the paper from Europe in 1905-06 and competed in the 1908 London Olympics, winning gold in the five-mile race. His Olympic record of 25 minutes, 11.2 seconds, still stands – perhaps, in all honesty, because the event was dropped in favour of the 5,000m and 10,000m.
Other writers more famed in different spheres have included Friedrich Engels, who, while working for his family’s thread-manufacturing business in Salford, both contributed to the paper and used its wider reporting to help build up evidence for The Condition of the Working Class in England; JM Synge, who wrote a series of reports from Ireland in 1905, illustrated by Jack Yeats; and Arthur Evans, famous for revealing the Minoan civilisation in his excavations at Knossos. In the 1880s, as a special correspondent in the Balkans, his reports on the oppressive treatment of the Bosnians got him incarcerated by the Austro-Hungarians. He smuggled a letter out of prison written, melodramatically, in his own blood.
An even more intriguing figure was Arthur Ransome, the Guardian’s correspondent in Russia after the revolution, whose lover was Trotsky’s secretary. “Practically a Bolshevik himself,” wrote a concerned Ministry of Information functionary at the time, though Ransome was playing both sides: he had, it was revealed recently, secretly been recruited by MI6.
He worked for the paper for more than a decade, finally extracting himself after CP Scott asked him to become a permanent incumbent of “the Corridor” – that is, a leader writer. (The Manchester Guardian’s two inalienable units in its Cross Street premises were “the Corridor”, the leader writers’ lair, and “the Room”, the reporters’ den.) “He has some stupid notion of a personal career,” wrote Scott to a colleague. Ransome duly produced the Swallows and Amazons books.
Until Mary Crozier joined the Corridor in 1944, and Nesta Roberts the Room in 1947, these domains were exclusively male – though Rachel Scott, CP Scott’s wife, was rumoured by the Room to write leaders. (She certainly took down CP’s dictation and one can surely imagine this founding student of Girton, Cambridge, an intellectual fully committed on Guardian issues such as home rule and women’s suffrage, might herself have drafted pieces.)
In 1961 Roberts was promoted to news editor, based in the London office – the first woman to occupy such a role on Fleet Street. Later she reported on the événements in Paris in 1968; emerging on to streets full of clouds of teargas was a pursuit she found “rather jolly”.
Also reporting from Paris at that dramatic moment was Hella Pick, who’d been a Kindertransport refugee; in a long and distinguished Guardian career she reported on the assassination of Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, among many other stories.
As news editor, Roberts was succeeded by John Cole and then, for much of the 1970s, the former reporter Jean Stead, another pioneer who, with Cole, made it her business to straighten up a sometimes flabby Guardian news style. Recalling her recruitment to the Guardian, Stead, who died in 2016, said she had instantly felt – as many other staffers have done before and since – that “this is a fantastic place, these are the people I want to be with, this is where I belong”.
Another doyenne of the mid 20th century was Clare Hollingworth, who died in 2017 aged 105. She had, for the Telegraph, broken the news of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 when, near the border, she’d seen the wind blowing back camouflage screens, revealing lines of tanks. After the war she worked for the Guardian for 17 years, becoming defence correspondent. Her biggest Guardian coup – achieved, as these things so often are, by a combination of luck, instinct, expertise and cunning – was the defection of the KGB agent Kim Philby to the Soviet Union.
It was 1963, and Hollingworth had been dispatched to Baghdad to cover the assassination of the dictator Karim Kassem. But the Iraqi airports were quickly closed and she was stuck in Beirut – where Philby was writing for the Observer. He’d left his senior role at MI6 amid rumours, denied by Harold Macmillan, that he was the “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring. Since she was hanging about, Hollingworth rang Philby, to be told by his wife that he was “with the tribes in Saudi Arabia” – which seemed odd “because by this time he could not live without his whisky”, she recalled in her memoir. On the diplomatic grapevine she heard that he had been expected at a dinner party the previous night, but hadn’t shown up. Working on a hunch, she looked up the shipping lists and discovered that a freighter had left Beirut the previous night for Odessa – minus one crew member, it transpired. She wrote up her suspicions for the paper, but was surprised to find, on her return to London, that the editor, Alastair Hetherington, fearing legal repercussions, had not run the piece. It was only three months later, on a quiet news day, that she persuaded his deputy to publish it: and she had her scoop. Three months after that, the Soviets confirmed they had given Philby asylum.
Resourcefulness and bloody-mindedness, qualities then as now invaluable to the journalist, were perhaps most movingly personified by the Cornwall-born rector’s daughter Emily Hobhouse, who revealed in a series of Guardian pieces the horrific conditions – filth, disease, starvation, death – endured by Boer women and children under Kitchener’s inhumane scorched earth policy. In the teeth of England’s jingoistic fervour, investigating the abuses, not least as a lone woman, required astonishing strength of mind. The British soldiers, she wrote in a letter home, regarded her as “a fool, an idiot and a traitor combined”. It was, she said, “like being in continual disgrace or banishment or imprisonment. Some days I think I must cut and run”. She did not – though when she got back to London she found herself shunned, a pariah. “Still, I survived to tell the tale. Lived also to sum up governments as poor things more careful of their own prestige than of justice and right.” Attempting to return to Cape Town, she was arrested and deported – trussed up with her own shawl, tied to a stretcher, and deposited on a ship full of belligerent British troops. On one occasion in South Africa, she used a rolled-up copy of the Manchester Guardian to dispatch a snake: print has its uses.
Another who risked much for the sake of the story was the Manchester Guardian art critic GT Robinson, who covered the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Hearing the English correspondents had been thrown out of Metz, “that decided the question … my wavering mind was made up. Go I must”. He sat out the Prussian siege, the only journalist in the city, until the bitter end when there was nothing to eat but the French cavalry horses that had starved to death by the hundred. Getting copy out was a deadly business – some letters “were buried in the clothes of the messenger, who was killed in endeavouring to try to get through”. Eventually he built a series of hot air balloons, experimenting with fabrics gleaned from about the city (including, he was careful to specify, Manchester cotton). Even when the balloons went off, a miscalculation about the wind might mean they’d drift into the Prussian lines and the letters be lost for ever. Thus the perils of a spotty internet connection are put firmly into perspective.
A slightly younger contemporary of Hobhouse’s, born in 1869, was Evelyn Sharp – another highly intelligent young woman who found herself an outsider when it was not “considered usual for a middle-class girl to have any other ambition in life than to sit at home and wait for a problematic husband”, as she recalled in her autobiography. In the teeth of family opposition she left home in 1894 and, like Hobhouse, endured that obscure and heavy feeling of going against the grain – “I was oppressed by a sensation of being in disgrace.” She earned her keep by writing; though never a staff writer for the Guardian, she wrote: “I have always felt it a source both of pride and of wonder that … I have continued, for nearly 30 years, to be a contributor to its columns.”
Her second assignment, in 1905, was to cover the centenary of Nelson’s death in his Norfolk birthplace. Had she been called on to attend celebrations in Trafalgar Square, “I might have found it difficult, believing neither in empires nor in wars, to feel inspired”, she recalled. But she rather enjoyed the charms of the sleepy village of Burnham Thorpe.
She was radicalised to the militant suffragist cause in the unlikely locus of Tunbridge Wells, when reporting on a meeting at which the actor Elizabeth Robins gave a speech describing the complete misrepresentation of suffragettes in the press. “From that moment I was not to know again for 12 years, if indeed ever again, what it meant to cease from mental strife; and I soon came to see with a horrible clarity why I had always hitherto shunned causes,” she recalled. Sharp was honest about how frightening it was to be the butt of insults and loathing; candid too about how much she hated being in prison: “I am not a good prisoner … 14 days seemed like 14 weeks.”
What drove her to militancy was this: “Either you saw the vote as a political influence, or as a symbol of freedom … Reforms can always wait a little longer, but freedom, directly you discover you haven’t got it, will not wait another minute.”In 1911 she wrote a letter to CP Scott – who did not support militancy – from Bow Street police court: “If I am in prison you will understand why I cannot send you any articles for the present: I think you have one in hand.”
In the years before the first world war, the Guardian was richly peopled with great writers and great intellects. William Thomas Arnold, the grandson of Arnold of Rugby, worked for the Manchester Guardian from 1879-98, latterly as chief leader writer, taking up the unpopular cause of Irish home rule. He was also extraordinarily learned: his mornings were devoted to the study of Roman provincial history. He would devote months to reading Goethe, or 17th-century French verse, and would write to his colleagues with his views on Euripides.
The scholarship would feed into the journalism, and vice versa: Arnold had a “two-gear speed of the pen” and wrote well on a tight deadline, “with the printer’s ink to go to his head”, according to his successor, CE Montague, an even more gifted stylist. His other, slower, more considered mode would enhance the swifter style “as recoil puts pace into spring”. He invented a system of pigeonholes – a kind of analogue version of an online encyclopaedia – where he would store articles and papers on all kinds of different topics, ready to be swooped on as deadlines approached. Like a lot of these Manchester men, he had a special love for the countryside of the Peaks and of Cheshire: he could look at a map “and see a whole shire lie there like an unrolled scroll. Cycling with him you felt wide tracts of country coming out in their relief, vertebrate with water-sheds, the streams searching out into the heads of all the valleys, almost visibly, as hyacinth roots grope out into the end of a glass-jar”.
Montague, who wrote those words, was one of the Manchester Guardian’s most fluid writers, along with his younger colleague, the chief reporter Haslam Mills, a producer of sinuous, witty prose. From this tradition surely sprang, consciously or otherwise, an atmosphere in which more recent brilliant stylists have thrived, such as the mid-century parliamentary correspondent Norman Shrapnel – painfully shy in person, dashing in his prose – or Jan Morris, who reported on the Suez crisis and the trial of Adolf Eichmann, or the peerless Nancy Banks-Smith. (Shrapnel died at 91 in 2004; one of his predecessors had passed away while actually seated in the Commons press gallery. “Yes, yes,” the subeditor was reputed to have said. “But where’s his copy?”)
Montague was the son of an Irish priest who had lost his faith, married and moved to England; he grew up poor and socially secluded. In 1914, aged 47, to the dismay of friends, he dyed his white hair black and enlisted. As a journalist, recalled the literary scholar Oliver Elton, he was “never more lively than when he had his back to the wall” – which is to say, a Guardian person to the core.
In 1923, Montague published an essay on journalism in which he tried to anatomise its appeal, getting at something that is, I think, still true for his Guardian descendants a century on. What is it, he asked, that makes the work so addictive?
“You might suppose the thrill of hearing things a few hours sooner than your fellows would soon pass away. Some of us never find it has passed,” he wrote.
“We always seem, at our work, to be closer up against the life of our time than anywhere else, nearer its centre and more in its confidence. With all that is setting people agog in cities all over the world clicking and humming in on your ears ... it needs little effort of fancy to feel as if you were hearing the actual stir of existence, the unconscious breath of life itself; and the beat of its pulse seems to set your own going better. Perhaps it is this.”