Murray Sayle

Australian journalist Murray Sayle managed to score the first interview with British spy and defector Kim Philby by waiting at the Moscow Post Office, the only place where it was possible to buy a copy of The Times, for Philby to come by in search of one to check the cricket scores. Sayle said journalists needed only some literary ability and “rat like cunning,” and I’m inspired by him.

I just finished reading his novel, A Crooked Sixpence. Sayle died in September, which is how I came to hear about him, from this unsigned obituary in the Daily Telegraph and later from this obituary by Godfrey Hodgson in The Guardian. Sayle wrote A Crooked Sixpence, the story of a young Australian journalist in London, in Paris in 1956, but it was banned for 50 years by a libel action and only recently became available. I’d recommend it as the exploration of a journalist’s motivations and character. From Hodgson’s obituary:

Down those mean Soho streets, in the best noir tradition, a young man went, easily identifiable as Murray, who was not himself mean, nor certainly – in Raymond Chandler’s words, “tarnished nor afraid”. In The Crooked Sixpence, he also laid out his personal theory of journalism. It was something less than idealistic. There were two kinds, he explained: one was public service journalism, useful but uninteresting; the other, the kind that interested Murray, was a branch of the entertainment industry.

From the Telgraph:

A colleague recalled an occasion when Sayle asked a British general why Australians made “such good war correspondents”. “Because, dear boy, they’re so very good at camping!” came the reply. There was always something of the rugged scoutmaster about Sayle.

Early in his career at The Sunday Times, he followed a golden eagle which had escaped from London Zoo round Regent’s Park on a bicycle. Later he took part in a bid to climb Everest and sailed single-handed across the Atlantic (entering a Sunday Times boat in a race sponsored by The Observer).

He not only reported the race for The Sunday Times and the BBC, he also made a film about it. Famous for his aphorism “There are only two stories in newspapers, ‘We name the guilty man’ and ‘Arrow points to defective part’,” as well as for his imaginative expense claims (for his transatlantic voyage he filed a claim for “old rope”), Sayle never acknowledged any boundaries to his journalism.

There are more fascinating tributes to Sayle by Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker, (where you can also read his controversial 1995 story about the Hiroshima bombing, arguing that Japanese fear of a Soviet invasion, and not the atom bomb, ended the war) and Peter Popham at The Independent.

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