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June 4, 2013

Harry Whewell: We shall not see his like again

Harry Whewell's Old Man was a dust man. As a child on Friday nights Harry sat round the kitchen table with the family, sorting through the likely rubbish brought home by his father, searching for valuables.

Later in life from his mansion flat he toured the great universities as news editor, then editor of the Manchester Guardian, searching for literary talent.  Michael Frayn, Jonathan Steele, Benedict Nightingale, Simon Hoggart were among the many he discovered. He was part of the team of Immortals – Alastair Cooke, Neville Cardus, Howard Spring among others – which made The Guardian by a mile the world's greatest newspaper.

Earlier this month he died at the age of 90 which came as a surprise to those of us who believed him eternal.

He was small, saturnine, with an impish grin like a devil on holiday and he could ruin a suit by standing next to it. His cap was his badge of office and he had a genius for conversation.

 Oddity in Harry was brought to a fine art. Respected and enjoyed he could only have found a home in the Manchester Guardian, which for him never became The Guardian.

He was discovered and encouraged by the empire-building Alastair Hetherington, an unlikely pairing.

Harry was amiable and curiously domestic in his ways. Though obdurate, Hetherington's grand ideas were achieved round him, rather than through him.

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His Guardian did not encourage change. He refused to have telephones in the newsroom because they disrupted his writers and was overheard telling a correspondent: “The Manchester Guardian does not take murders over the telephone".

For years I have been telling the story of the Guardian news editor who counseled me never to learn shorthand if I wished to succeed as a newspaper reporter. Harry's death frees me of the obligation.

It was he who gave me that gem of advice which characteristically flew in the face of received wisdom. Harry was right, of course. He said news editors needed reporters who wrote shorthand to cover courts, councils, and all the dross that made up an edition. Others would be chosen for those chores until I, without a Pitman stroke to my name, was the only one in the office.

"And that," said Harry "is when the plane will crash".

A year later, on the Yorkshire Evening News, a jet fighter crashed at RAF Finningley. I was the only reporter so I was sent and got my first byline.

For me Harry reached his apogee in the battle of the news editor’s desk. To Harry's horror Hetherington announced the Guardian was moving to new offices in Deansgate, sharing with the Daily Mail.

Harry refused to go. They showed him his new state of the art office. He was unimpressed. They offered him suites of executive furniture. He spurned them.

He pointed out that the great CP Scott had sat at his desk, to abandon it would be blasphemy. We could all see the point.

Harry's desk was bigger than some sporting estates. It had drawers unopened for years and candle sconces like the old pianos. It was more than wood. It was history and Harry was adamant. The problem was its size. The impasse continued for weeks.

Both sides came to see the desk as a symbol of everything The Manchester Guardian represented. To the management it was clumsy, fusty and out of date. To Harry it was A Noble Tradition. Our money was on Harry.

Finally management caved in. They agreed to move the desk. When it arrived at its destination doors had to be widened but by this time management’s nerve had been shattered.

Harry pronounced himself pleased and went back to the old building to collect the canary in a cage, his office companion over many years. 

Every holiday he took the bird home with him so that it would not be lonely. Seeing him one December a printer said "Where you going with that" "I am taking it home for Christmas" said Harry.

"Are you," said the printer "We're having turkey" 

We shall not see his like again

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