How it was done

ON SUNDAY  I intend publishing a piece  that may call for an explanation.What follows here today is by way of an introduction.

THE LAST SUNDAY IN JANUARY, 47 years ago,was a historic day for newspaper and magazine publishing. Five days before, Winston Churchill had died, and after three days of  lying in state in London’s Westminster Hall his funeral was to take place in St.Paul’s Cathedral.

The Berry family, proprietors of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, had long been devoted supporters of Churchill and now decided that no expense should be spared both to honour the great man’s passing and to outdo their Fleet Street rivals in coverage of the event by publishing a special edition of The Weekend Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph’s colour magazine. The consequence was Farewell to Greatness, the special supplement of which a million copies were distributed on January 31st, 1965, the day after the funeral.

The usual time require for producing an issue of the color magazine was 8 weeks. The special issue had to be produced in less than 24 hours; moreover, the colour magazine was printed in Germany, a circumstance which significantly complicated the hugely intricate organisation that would be required for the whole editorial and production undertaking.

The story is admirably told by George Harrison at

No fewer than 36 of the best photographers in the business were signed up to cover the event for the special supplement. To apply the same epithet to the 3 writers who were commissioned to supply the words that went with the pictures would be to verge on the immodest. One was the poet, Laurie Lee of Cider with Rosie fame, who observed the lying in state in London’s Westminster Hall. Second was Lady Asquith of Yarnbury, formerly Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Churchill‘s lifelong and closest female friend and the grandmother of actress Helena Bonham Carter, who was in St.Paul’s for the funeral service. The third writer, allotted a prime position on Tower Bridge, was myself. I offer the account which follows not to brag, but because I think it may interest others who aspire to earn a living or indulge a fancy by putting words togther for publication, and may even embrace a lesson or two.

Observers were obliged to be in their allotted positions long before the action was scheduled to begin. As I wrote in the piece itself, it was bitter cold on Tower Bridge. I don’t drink when I work, and seldom drink vodka at any time, but in one of the pockets of the naval duffle coat that I was wearing for this assignment I had a sandwich and in the other a flask of Stolichnaya from which I swigged when I started to feel too cold or restless, and now and again when almost overcome by emotion. By the time the funeral launches had pulled way towards Westminster pier the flask was not far from empty, yet I was sober enough to get to the waiting car and to my desk and  (another anomaly for me) without benefit of a preliminary longhand draft start putting words directly into the typewriter.

Writing for a newspaper or a magazine, one usually has a good idea of the number of words required and tries to work to it if only to lessen the need for a sub-editor to cut or otherwise tinker with one’s composition. On this occasion it was not only length that concerned me, but the indispensable necessity of achieving the emotional note that would suit the whole unique, meticulously planned and calculated publication; a necessity that could not admit the risk of editorial interference by another hand.

I happen to be a very slow writer. Normally, to produce about 600 thoughtful words on any given subject would take me at least several hours, even a whole day or more. For this assignment a finished piece had to be on the desk of the sub-editors within 2 hours of the event

Some days after publication I teased Laurie Lee with having drawn the longest straw with the luxury of three days (the duration of the lying in state) in which to write his composition. Not at all, he said. He always hated having to get down to a job of work whereas I had hugely benefited from the discipline of the deadline.

He had a point.

To be published on Sunday, Farewell to greatness.


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