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Front Pages - An Erratic Guide to History
Front Page History, Harold Evans
Collier Macmillan Canada Inc., 192 pages, $17.95

Reviewed By Ron Evans

"Newspaper editors," observed Adlai Stevenson, "are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff."

Recalling that Stevenson's 1952 campaign for the U.S. presidency was effectively wrecked by universal publication of a photo that revealed holes in his soles, you may dismiss that as nothing more than political sour grapes. But before you do, note that it was Stevenson, defeated by Eisenhower, who crafted the classic epigram: "Your public servants serve you right."

Harold Evans, ex-editor of The Times of London, has put his name to yet another journalistic book that seems to affirm Adlai.

Fiont Page History (Collier Macmillan Canada Inc., $17.95, 192 pages), attempts to catalogue the historic events of the 20th century, year by year, as they emerged in the headlines of the English-language press.

The dust jacket claims the selections are from the "international press" but that really means Britain and the United States (though 'The Globe and Mail slips in with its Aug. 21. 1968, banner line "Russians, Warsaw Pact Allies Cross Czechoslovakia Border.") The New York Times makes it three times, as does the Philadelphia Inquirer, other New York, Chicago and Los Angeles papers show up once each. But there are 15 front pages each for the Daily Mirror and the Evening Standard, 14 for the Daily Express. And so on, through the full list of 27 British papers, living and dead.

The book is a curiosity in several respects. The dust jacket squeals: "By choosing the shattering, the ecstatic, the bizarre, the amusing and the horrific headlines which screamed at us across the pages, the events of the past fall into place." But the book isn't really about headlines, front page or otherwise; it's about press photographs. The 115 front page reproductions are miniatures, often severely cropped and played so small that the body text can't be deciphered. The 375 separately-selected photographs are splayed out four or five times larger. (The book's pages, incidentally, are the same size as those of the telephone directory.)

So this is really a book about photojournalism, the third to Evans' credit (Pictures on a Page, 1978; Eyewitness, 1981).

And that raises another curious matter The jacket and title page identify Evans (in 72-point type!) as the sole author. But inside it turns out Evans has contributed 2,500 words — the preface. The other 30,000-or-so words are provided by Hugh Barty King, who gets a footnote credit for "event summaries and picture research.

Harold Evans has become something of a TV celebrity in Britain since he bolted The Times in 1982 (the departure being chronicled in his book, Good Times Bad Times last year). 1 suspect that's why this book exists. It recks of a "book packager."

Imagined conversation in a walk-up, closet office somewhere off the Strand:

"All right. Cyril, what's next on that list of possibles for the fall of "84?"

"Anything by Harold Evans."

"Fine. Such A.s?"

"How about 'Press Photos I Have Known and Loved?' "

"Give over, Cyril, he's already done two of those and besides they're getting down to the bottom of the barrel at the photo library."

"Well. . . what about something with words'.' Something like 'Historic Headlines'."

"Hmmm. Better. Who've we got to write it then?"

"There's Hugh King. He's finished that one on the Baltic Exchange. That's his 10th. I reckon."

"Good. Get him on the blower."

And another add-water-and-stir book is born, something for an hour or so of browsing.

The selected "events" are all you would expect in a strobe-lit sprint through the century: assorted wars (Boer, First, Second, Korea, Vietnam, Israel, Falklands); revolutions (Mexican, Russian. Chinese, Cuban,Iranian); rebellions (China, Spain, India, Egypt, Hungary, Congo, Czechoslovakia); disasters (San Francisco, Titanic, Hinden-burg, Wall Street, Jonestown, Munich, Belfast, KAL 707); assassinations (Ferdinand, the Kennedys, King, Verwoerd, Sadat); breakthroughs (Kittyhawk, Spirit of St. Louis, Sputnik); heroes (Amundsen, Selassie, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hillary, Bannister, Gagarin, Armstrong, Salk, Barnard and the Beatles) and rogues (Crippen. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, McCarthy, Farouk, Philby, Amin, Nixon and Khomeini).

Since this is primarily a book by Brits for Brits, there is a somewhat whimsical sprinkling of sporting entries (the first World Cup match at Wembley in 1929, Malcolm Campbell motoring at 300 m.p.h. in 1935, cricketer Len Hutton scoring 364 in the 1938 Test match).

And, of course, a generous dollop of royal doings ("FAIRY TALE WEDDING: World audience sees Palace kiss set the seal on day of pageantry and joy"), culminating in a final full-page shot of a toddling Prince William with the caption "1984 — and the footsteps lead to the future. . ."

But jingoism sees its finest hour in the Daily Express screamer of June 16, 1982: "The Falklands are once more under the Government desired by their inhabitants . . . GOD SAVE THE QUEEN."

Given the suspect parentage of this book (I haven't told you about George Freston, have I? George, identified as Photographic Director for Keystone, Fox Photos, Central Press and Colour Library International, gets his own one-page essay upfront under the title "HOLD THE FRONT PAGE"), it's difficult to know whom to credit or blame for the selection of these "historic" events.

It's tempting to suspect a committee at work here, slogging through the archives, culling the compelling photos year by year ("Wow . . . here's Mata Hari in braids and beaded bra"), and determining ad hoc that they represented the most significant incidents of the century.

Evans cops a supple plea in the preface.

"But, before we plunge in, it is as well to remind ourselves and Lord Macauley (here fingered for the silly claim that the only true history of a country is found in its newspapers) that newspapers have a very hard time focussing on history in the making ... A true history may be the history of the Idea. For the newspaper headline, Idea has to become Event if it is to qualify as front page news. It is a thought to carry through this apparently random sequence of photographs and newspaper front pages in this book." (My parentheses and emphasis added.)

Fair enough. But then what are we to make of the inclusion of the riotous audience response to the first performance in Paris of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" as the major event of 1913, with two pages of grainy 'studio shots of dancers in innocuous costume? No headlines there. In fact, no newspaper copy or photos at all. After all, 1913 was the year the Balkans blew up, Gandhi was first arrested, income tax was introduced in the U.S., Albert Schweitzer opened his hospital in Lambarene and Henry Ford set up the first auto assembly line.

Somebody, somewhere, wanted Stravinsky in, but net Bell, Edison, Einstein, Freud or Russell.

Should you buy this book? Only as a Christmas gift for some ill-favoured nephew who's already into bad habits.

Ron Evans is a director of the Ontario Arts Council. He was for 15 years a journalist with CP and The Toronto Telegram.


Published in Sources, Winter 1984.

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