Sunday, 26 September 2010

Murray Sayle

January 1,1926 to September 18, 2010

Aw fuck it. More death. Another friend.

Like most people, I read about the great Australian journalist Murray Sayle’s death on the obituaries pages. I knew he was ill, of course. He had Parkinson’s. His wife Jenny had let me know and told me he was no longer at home but a little way away, in a nursing home.

Even the giants stumble and fall.

We worked together in the 1990s, when I commissioned and edited him for Night & Day, a Sunday supplement for the Mail on Sunday which was intended as an upmarket alternative to YOU Magazine — which, in going downmarket, had lost its lucrative, uptown advertisers.

I think Phillip Knightley* introduced him to us. Or rather us to him. We paid well — very well. And smart, fast, elegant and entertaining magazine writers are always much harder to find than all but those who’ve had to find them realise. I spent my days (and nights) making pig’s ears into, well . . . something better than dog’s dinners. (A good deal of editing time is spent unravelling and mercy-killing bad writers’ cliches and incomprehensible, mixed analogies.)

Murray was — with Phillip — one of the best. Although I knew the name and work, I didn’t know the breadth and range of his interests, life and appetites. He was a delight to work with. I loved his enthusiasm — not just for his own stories but for other people’s, too, and for technology. He was the first person I knew with a portable hard drive. On visits to the office, he’d plug it into a spare computer in the subs’ room and away he’d go, working his copy over and over. The subs considered and treated him like some kind of eccentric uncle. For me, he was one of those substitute fathers you pick up along the way — someone you can learn new stuff from.

I can’t remember all the stories he did for us but I remember a piece about female priests and several book reviews which weren’t really reviews but wonderful, brief essays.

In particular, I recall working with him on a shortened version of his New Yorker piece about the atom bombing of Japan. The original was, according to The Australian, his ‘greatest piece of sustained reporting’. Like all his work, it was full of odd but resonant details. I learned so much from him. He turned journalism into something approaching a sensory experience.

And I remember our lunches, of course. Not particularly alcoholic by Fleet St standards but certainly long. Murray liked to talk. God did Murray like to talk. Theories, observations, anecdotes, thoughts, gags spieled out of him. No quiet mouse myself, I think I may have contributed the odd question.

Gradually, through his spieling, I found out more about him. About his early years, working on a Murdoch paper. He was assigned to looking after the young Rupert when he first arrived in the office — or maybe that was Phillip Knightley’s job. I met his wife, Jenny — and spoke to her a lot on the phone when Murray was out and about somewhere.

I learned about his years in Japan. I’d been there, on a job, a few years earlier and had been told to look him up as he was the one who would make sense of it for me. I didn’t — too unconfident, I guess. I should have. Always generous with his opinions, he gave me answers to all the questions I’d had in my head ever since my visit.

Why, for example, do the concierges at Japanese hotels persist in giving you directions to places when they clearly have no idea where they are? A simple matter of face, explained Murray. That was the answer to a lot of my questions — though his answers were longer, far more detailed and always entertaining.

I learned about the wonderful documentaries he made with the photographer Elliot Erwitt — I’ve still got the wobble-colour VHS copies he made for me somewhere. I heard about his famous expenses claim, for a piece of sailing equipment — ‘money for old rope’.

I didn’t learn, though, that he’d also climbed Everest, crossed the Atlantic single-handed, unearthed Philby in Moscow and found Che Guevara in the jungle, like some modern day Stanley.

When I left the magazine, we kept in touch, via email, card and even the occasional phone call. He came over to give evidence at the Bloody Sunday enquiry. He’d written a report about it for the Sunday Times, claiming it was a deliberate assault by the British army. It was spiked and he resigned from the paper. You can find the piece and his later reflections on it for the London Review of Books. It’s worth reading — as is everything he ever wrote. (Though I’m not as keen as others on his Fleet St novel, The Crooked Sixpence. He told me it wasn’t very good and I think he was being as honest as ever.)

Annually, for the Chinese (Japanese?) New Year, a special Murray postcard would arrive. The format was always the same but it was a wonderful format. There would be Murray and his family — who, judging by their expressions, were actually fond of their father — posed, artlessly, in front of some object or place that he’d chosen to represent that year. If I remember right, for the year of the rat, the Japanese family Sayle shared the frame with Mickey Mouse. For the year of the cock, they were sat in front of a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I looked forward to them and wished I could think of something similarly witty to send in return. I kept them all — though I can’t put my hand to any of them right now. Then one year, the card didn’t come. I guessed, correctly, that he was ill. Then he was dead. I’m not the only one that will miss him.

* Phillip and Murray went way back. They were at school together, I think, in Sydney. Murray came to London first and when Phillip followed, he got him a job. They worked together at the Sunday Times. Phillip’s wife, though, was not so keen on Murray and the way he dominated any conversation. He was barred from their house. I think someone told me that Murray was the model for ‘the great bore of far-eastern journalism’ in John LeCarre’s Honourable Schoolboy. It might have been Phillip.

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