Peace in his time

Book review first published on the (now defunct) Gentlemen Ranters website in 2007

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By Tim Walker

At Nigel Dempster’s memorial service, I mentioned to an old hand from the glory days of the Daily Express that I was reading Arthur Christiansen’s memoirs. ‘At the end, they just couldn’t get rid of him, you know,’ the journalist, who knew him very well, told me. ‘They kept sending him off on cruises. The moment he got back from one, they’d send him off on another.’

I didn’t discern any trace of affection in his voice for this legendary figure. Picking up Headlines All My Life, first published in 1961, one is struck above all by its certainty, its author’s sureness of his place in the scheme of things. If the old boy had wondered about all those cruises he had to undertake in his twilight years, there is no soul-searching about them here. Christiansen was clearly not a man given to introspection.

It is hard to warm to a man who hasn’t any sense of his own fallibility and certainly this inability ever to see himself the ways that others see him makes for a turgid memoir.

What this book lacks above all is charm to the extent that it reminded me of Piers Morgan’s The Insider. As Morgan’s book had pictures of him beside Diana, Princess of Wales and Claudia Schiffer, Christiansen’s has him hobnobbing with Spencer Tracy and the Crazy Gang.

And if Piers had his faked photo front page of British soldiers abusing their Iraqi captors, then Christiansen had his own notorious splash that he ran the day after Chamberlain’s return from the Munich Conference of 1938. Here Christiansen, the great newspaper technician, cannot help but explain how it was done, quite oblivious to how he incriminates himself with every word. ‘PEACE! was set in the biggest type available, one inch deep. Then a block was made by the photographic press department.

‘ “Make it five columns wide and we’ll see how deep it comes,” I said; and to my delight it was more than two inches deep, including the exclamation mark called a “striker” by printers, and it really did look quite striking! Above this gigantic word, the biggest type ever used in an English newspaper up to that time, appeared the words: “The Daily Express declares that Britain will not be involved in a European War this year, or next year either”.’

A copy of that front page was seen floating in the water in the 1942 film In Which We Serve after the Nazi dive bombers had strafed a British battleship. The damage that this single front page did to the reputation of the Express is all but incalculable. Of his newspaper’s policy of appeasement in the years running up to the beginning of the Second World War, his mantra throughout the book is that policy was always the preserve of his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook. ‘If hindsight had been granted to us, would we have acted differently? I don’t know,’ he writes, reluctant, still, to breathe a word of criticism of a man he clearly came to love.

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According to David Dutton in his biography of Chamberlain, the affair was even more craven that it appears here: Beaverbrook subsequently admitted that every one of the words on that front page had actually been composed by the government.

The newspaper and how it looked and how it sold were the things that mattered to Christiansen, pictured left. And, above even these things, keeping the Beaver happy. In the early chapters of his book he relates with amused detachment how a sub editor named Tim Healey had once declared, while working on the Sunday Express: ‘I cannot conscientiously handle this copy.’ Christiansen notes that the story was spiked and the man remained employed, but, characteristically, couldn’t actually remember what the story was about.

‘I often wonder whether I spent my first ten years in Fleet Street being scared of people,’ Christiansen writes in a rare moment of self-criticism. All too often in the book he comes across as just another office politician. When the Beaver had asked him, as a rising executive on the Daily Express, to conduct an inquiry into how a false report of a plot to assassinate Lord Trenchard, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had been published, he says he recognised it was ‘one of those freaks of bad judgment which no amount of organisation can overcome,’ but goes on to say how he recommended that two reporters be sacked. ‘And I should have cleared out some of the executive staff as well, and would have done so if I could have proved what I suspected: that, it being a Friday night, they were nipping out for quick ones…’

Three pages earlier he had talked of how he had himself liked to pop out for a quick one every now and again with the leader writer Frank Owen.

Otherwise the book recalls a kinder, gentler age in our industry. ‘I never – hand on heart – sacked anyone to save money,’ Christiansen writes. ‘I summed up my approach to the financial side of editorship in the phrase: CALCULATED EXTRAVAGANCE. Lord Beaverbrook never looked particularly excited, happy or even interested when I talked money.’ These days it’s DVDs that are given out to boost circulations, but in his it was coloured comics. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Other things now seem quite topsy turvy. Christiansen writes with amused detachment about the mess that the Daily Mail had got itself into during his period in charge at the Black Lubyanka. ‘The Mail has had a dozen editors since the great Tom Marlowe’s partnership with Northcliffe ended, whereas the Daily Express has had only four in 60 years.’ One hates to think what Christiansen would make of his beloved newspaper now, after a succession of managements have done their worst and Richard Desmond presides over its nadir.

Appeasement is, however, the word that hangs around Christiansen’s neck. He recalls how, when he appeared on the television programme Press Conference in January 1990, Francis Williams had asked him, after he had explained once again that Beaverbrook had always been in charge of policy: ‘You don’t feel the need to have a chat with Beaverbrook to decide what you should think.’ Injured, Christiansen had replied: ‘That is a pretty offensive thing to say, if I may say so.’ 

There was something about Mr Stevens in Remains of the Day about Christiansen – unable or unwilling until the very end to see the bigger picture. When, finally, Christiansen did announce his retirement, one wag ventured that there will be no memoirs ‘this year… or next year either.’

The Christiansen Chronicles

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre