Front Pages - An Erratic Guide
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
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
"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
"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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