After 159 years the Harrow Observer goes to the scaffold on 18 December: 'A world I knew is almost at an end'

To have one newspaper on the CV disappear may be accidental. To lose a second begins to seem like a trend. The Northern Echo, The Daily Telegraph and The National (Abu Dhabi) ought to look out before it becomes a problem.

In a grim statement announcing the closure of six of its titles, Trinity Mirror included the Harrow Observer, created by an estate agent called William Winkley Junior in 1855, in its death sentence. The paper goes to the scaffold on December 18.

My own sadness at the Harrow Observer’s demise is necessarily mitigated. Although it is one of the papers for which I have worked in a career stretching back nearly half a century, I was there for only six months in 1973.

I had more reason to grieve the disappearance of the Evening Despatch, Darlington, because that was the newspaper – then called the Northern Despatch – on which I had started as a trainee reporter.

But even my short period in Harrow was special. Firstly, it represented my reluctant move from the North East to London.

My French wife had little interest in making the region a permanent home and, as I looked around for possible opportunities, it felt like a big step down from the Northern Echo, the big morning newspaper I would have to leave.

By way of compensation, I was to be the chief reporter in a busy newsroom with bright, often highly ambitious reporters covering the borough of Harrow.

And it was quickly clear to me that the move took me a good deal closer to the big time of Fleet Street, and not just geographically.

In that newsroom were men like Brent Sadler and Rowan Dore, who covered their patches diligently but also seemed to have cornered the market in selling off stories to the London evening papers, the Standard and News, and the nationals.

After moving to the evening newspaper in Reading, Sadler would later join regional television and then ITN and CNN. He has a BAFTA award for Gulf War coverage and another from the Overseas Press Club of America for “meritorious reporting”.

Dore, a fine journalist as well as clever, amusing company, killed himself in 2005. It was a tragic end to a life that caused him to be remembered with admiration and affection by countless colleagues past and present. The  Brighton Evening Argus, where he worked before and after a long spell at the Press Association, described him as "one of the most respected and talented journalists in Sussex”.

There were others. Paul Harris, when not smeared with oil while tinkering with his motorbike, was a man with a compelling turn of phrase, as Daily Mail readers must know. John Moore was not only the staff photographer who won the heart of the editor’s gorgeous secretary, Jane, but had uncommon gifts that would one day lead him into an editor’s chair of his own, at the Ealing Gazette.

Les Jones, the grizzled old deputy editor, was a scholarly veteran and a man with whom I loved to share a lunchtime drink, even after I had left Harrow. He once told me of the pride he had taken, as a young local newspaperman, with even the shortest of fillers he would file for pin money to The Daily Telegraph, constructed with such care that sub-editors would struggle to change a single word.

Plenty of others, even if not recalled in quite the same detail, combined to make my brief time in their presence a happy one. They even indulged my eccentric musical tastes, clubbing together for an album by Steeleye Span among leaving presents. The card announcing “you’re over the hump” was an unkind reference to the slight stoop of the editor, a fussy, chess-playing taskmaster called Rowland Wilson. My relationship with the editor was businesslike rather than warm; I’ll never forget the blank expression on his face when, at interview, I mentioned that the advertised salary, all of about £42 a week, was barely more than I earned in the much cheaper North East and wondered whether the appointment offered any “career progression”.

Without great fondness, I recall the sports editor who was also my very noisy neighbour. He had a ground-floor flat and I was above him, both of us renting at staff-friendly rates from King and Hutchings, the branch of Westminster Press that owned our newspaper. The nightly blazing rows with his wife were bad enough; the broken promise to obtain me a ticket for my team Sunderland’s epic FA Cup final against then-mighty Leeds United in 1973 was unpardonable. The promises had persisted up to the eve of the final but his flat was deserted next morning.

Even so, it was my paper. It became part of my DNA and, as journalists often do, I loved it for what it was, in those days a trusted bi-weekly with a decent circulation and friendly, dedicated colleagues.

When I went out to the UAE in 2007, Martin Newland, the editor of our projected new daily, The National, as he had been at the Telegraph before new Barclay Brothers brooms started sweeping clean, would talk of our involvement in the last big newspaper launch the world would see.

How right he was. Now, the story is of retrenchment, “bold digital-only publishing transformations” to quote the Trinity Mirror statement and closures. A world I knew is almost at an end and the new one is not an improvement.

Colin Randall is a former Paris bureau chief of The Daily Telegraph and former executive editor of The National, Abu Dhabi, for which he still writes. His own website is at francesalut.com

 

 

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