Published: 9:30AM BST 07 Jun 2010
I was a fugitive when I landed in New York in 1984. The print unions, in full war cry, had wrecked the newspaper I edited in London. Rupert Murdoch took over; and a year later I was an ex-editor looking for work. America was the obvious place to look – they spoke the language, didn’t they?
I’d been coming to America off and on since I was a Harkness Fellow at the universities of Chicago and Stanford in 1956-7. In the Seventies, I’d visited publishers to acquire books for Sunday Times serialisation, taken part in professional seminars, been asked to advise American newspapers on design and even been invited to utter words on the freedom of the press at the conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, sharing the platform with the Chief Justice no less.
The editor of a metropolitan daily in the audience, who claimed with merit to know the country better than I did, kindly put me on notice: “They only invited you because they’re snobs in DC; they like the English accent.” In London, another friend cautioned: “There’s a number against your name.” He was referring to the number of years (54) I’d managed to stay alive.
The advantage I had was that I knew a few people. Like Gatsby I had “gonnections”. But mine were better than his and the something that turned up in the form of a letter to my London home was unsolicited and unexpected – a suggestion that I might like to pop over to North Carolina and teach for a term at Duke University on the press and the law – some of the trouble I got into in UK courts having been observed from afar.
I was newly married to Tina Brown who’d given up editing (and reviving) Tatler magazine and she looked forward to taking a course in American Literature at Duke – only for something to turn up for her before she got there – the editorship of Vanity Fair in New York. It meant we had to endure a North Carolina-New York commuter marriage for six months but it seemed worth it to get a foothold in the New World, and it was. That was 1984. How come we’re still here 26 years later?
I thought at first that my exhilaration about working in America was mainly relief in escaping from the iron grip of restrictive unions and the nasty aftermath of the disruptions of the winter of discontent. The euphoria, not much diminished, endured for other reasons I will mention, but it was certainly marvellous to arrive at the news magazine US News & World in Washington as editorial director, after I left Duke. I found I could, without hindrance, do the things that journalists do: write a column straight on to the computer, crop photographs on the screen and fuss about with the layouts of the pages without someone threatening a walk-out. Until Rupert Murdoch won his battles with the unions in London, my former colleagues there were still forbidden to work the way I was able to in Washington.
Access to the technology would not have been as liberating as I found if I’d been resented as a foreigner. Resentment would have been natural. After all, I’d leapfrogged into a top job in Washington, thanks to Mort Zuckerman, the US News owner who asked me to take the helm. Apparently, he’d forgiven me for not accepting the editorship of The Atlantic some years before and for subjecting him to a horrible breakfast at a London club.
I had the experience for the job, but I had to find my way round Reagan’s capital, adjust to new production systems and acclimatise to a different social environment. The work was intensely competitive within the office and against other news sources. There may well have been a “Mack the Knife” in the outfit, awaiting some blunder, but he kept his shark’s teeth well hidden. Maybe the British accent, even a Northern one, connoted authority. But when my duties required me to write editorials on hot American political issues, I tip-toed through the minefields. I was very conscious that, as the holder of a green card permitting me to work, subject to US taxes, I was not allowed to vote.
I demurred on some subjects. I know I’d have resented it if some immigrant American editor had landed in London and straight away banged on about lazy British socialists, stuck-up Tories, etc. Besides, there were gaps in my knowledge of America. I resolved to remedy them; anyone contemplating or living in the US is well advised to do that if they don’t want to feel isolated from the American conversation (political personalities more than political principles, property prices, movies, gossip and baseball).
The excitement of being free of the particular restrictions in London was revitalising, but would not have been enough to keep both of us in the US. The city was in a bad way when we arrived. Drug-pushers were everywhere in Times Square, bad enough, but also operating round the Public Library on Fifth. Water cooler chat in the office was about who’d just been mugged. I got my five gossip minutes in 1990. I stood in sunshine at noon on a Long Island railway platform with a heavy bag of books, waiting for a train. It never came. What did was a guy in a hood with a gun and urgent desire for me to subsidise his drug habit. The city has been transformed since then; thanks to a couple of innovative police commissioners (including the current Harvard-educated former Marine, Ray Kelly) and the managerial brilliance of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, it’s the safest city in the US. Finding the right affordable place to live took a few years of dodgy rentals, but we’ve been settled for 12 years in a quiet co-op apartment with a doorman and a delightful ivied garden that feels like Pimlico on the East River; don’t stop me now to explain co-ops. I’m in a New York hurry to tell you why we enjoy living in Manhattan.
The cultural and intellectual life may be no better than London and you don’t get as much chance to rag members of the Cabinet as you do in London. But the topography is so compressed, everything and everyone is so much more accessible by comparison with London. We like the impromptu life. If seized with the impulse, as I write, I can walk out now and within three minutes be in a diner or pizza parlour or an Afghan, French, Italian or Mexican restaurant or in 20 be at the Lincoln Center for the opera. The point is there’s always somewhere, day or night, where you can get whatever you want. Of course, you can forget about Los Angeles where you spend much of your life fuming on a highway. I don’t know anyone in Manhattan who bothers with having a car in the city.
We don’t seek out other expats. I can talk football with ex-Congressman Joe Scarborough, the host of the hot show Morning Joe who assumes I’m an authority on Manchester United because I grew up in Newton Heath, the birthplace of the club. Tina is happy to host book-launches for writers on the wing – Ian McEwan, Frances Osborne, Andrew Roberts, Christopher Hitchens and Simon Sebag Montefiore. On the Sundays when our son and daughter are home from college we take a 10-minute taxi to reach the only joint in the whole of the United States of America where breakfast comes with real tea, expat Nicky Perry’s Tea & Sympathy café on Greenwich Avenue at 13th street. There you might bump into other expats like Rupert Everett repelled by the dishwater served elsewhere. Oh, yes, and the work that brought us here. Doors kept opening for us, but that’s not exceptional. They do for many in a fiercely competitive business culture that changes so very rapidly and is extraordinarily receptive to strangers. Everyone’s a stranger for five minutes, then they’re your best friend Tom, Dick and Mary. That’s one reason why the city attracts so many immigrants; I can’t prove it but I guess most of the people thronging Manhattan were born somewhere else, in America or overseas. It’s a pity that anxiety since 9/11 means entry is harder and some very bright graduates have to take their inventiveness and energies back home. I wrote a book on the history of innovation and was stunned to find how many of the elements of modern life were seeded here, not just the iPod.
I sniffed as much as anyone at the boosterism satirised by Sinclair Lewis in his novel, Babbitt but I have grown to admire the can-do attitude and the habits of enterprise, openness, freedom and generosity. Philanthropy flourishes in hundreds of fund-raisers large and small and newcomers are expected to join in or be thought as cheap. It’s an agreeable way to widen one’s circle. Tina and I have made countless friends in the course of organising fund raisers for Phoenix House drug rehab; PEN; the Children’s Blood Foundation; the American Institute for Stuttering and Job Path.
The spirit of enterprise is manifest in how many people run or want to run something of their own. Our beach cottage on Long Island is cleaned by a limited corporation, which is only to say that the woman who does it has incorporated herself. Ownership comes naturally to Americans, and with it an absence of that animosity to ownership that was marked when I was in Britain. Everywhere you go in America you will at some stage of the week find yourself dealing with an owner, and the adventure bug will bite you. Many small businesses are started out by a couple maxing out on their credit cards. Of course many fail, but failure is by no means the question mark it is elsewhere.
Recently I attended a conference of innovators cheering each other on. Most had stories to tell of failing, and getting up again; they were there to be honoured with Edison awards for enterprise. Nowadays, even after the burst of one dot-com bubble and the financial crash, the elevators (not lifts) in every city skyscraper invariably yield enticing fragments of cyber gossip (“Mary has an idea for a new website, keeping it quiet”).
Having succeeded in getting Vanity Fair into the black and reviving The New Yorker, Tina herself two years ago started an online news magazine, the dailybeast, which already has 4.8 million unique visitors monthly and just won the Min award as the best new site.
As for me, at the age of 81. I am still being set to work – lecturing, moderating debates, and helping to create an exhibition on innovation.Am I to be denied the benefits of ageism, left to recede over a book and a bottle of the wine?
We’re American citizens now with a son of 24 and a daughter of 19, but happy we’re able to remain British subjects. We miss many things we left behind – the still teeming literary culture, the vigour and variety of the newspapers, the BBC on its good days, the minor courtesies of daily life, and irony, incomprehensible to American ears. And yes, we cheer when Britain does well. Did I tell you, I’ll say, I was there when England won the World Cup?
Harold Evans’ autobiography, My Paper Chase, is published in paperback this month by Little Brown.