By John Samuel
Those of us in our mid and late 70s whose childhood and teens were much bound up with World War Two have suffered the loss of a trio of close colleagues in recent months.
Ian Wooldridge, so widely beloved and acclaimed, retained the hard-won values of that era. He knew about loyalty and, in some circumstances, how loyalty could be abused.. There have been others in our trade, more specialist perhaps, who were of similar disposition. I can think of few colleagues as like and yet unalike as David Frost of The Guardian and John Reason of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, both of them recently dying when aged 77. Both were highly esteemed rugby union writers. In different ways, both represented the style and mind of their era.
Neither was happy with the commercialisation of rugby union. Neither did they much care for the commercialism of newspapers. John Reason was aptly named. Long-term SJA member David Frost, â€œFrostyâ€ to his colleagues, was anything but, being variously chairman and president of the Rugby Writers’ Club of which Reason, also, was a founder member.
Reason, a technically accomplished sportsman at everything he undertook, loved to write and opinionate with a rare eye for detail. Unsurprisingly, he was at one with the iconoclastic Henry Cotton when they worked together on the News of the World. Any devil operating in the print world very much took the hindmost with these two..
A Chatsworth at Quinto do Lago
John, crinkly blond hair and direct blue eyes, saw himself first and foremost as an Englishman, a native of the bedrock county of Bedfordshire and needing no ID card to prove it. He began with the Dunstable Express, where he met Joan, his lifelong colleague, love, and whistleblower, herself a 1960s News Chronicle and Star columnist before concentration on the family. There was tragedy early on, with the loss of William, the youngest of their three sons, to leukaemia. He was my godson. Ross was to thrive as a banker and Mark to become the Sunday Telegraph‘s golf correspondent and rugby union writer.
From the outset of his career, John swore he would never be at the mercy of newspaper whims and fortune. He made his own out of property, a pile of sand constantly outside the front door, at Belsize Park, Quinta do Lago, Richmond, or wherever. Always his own manâ€™s man, he would trust no-one to rewire his Maigret Citroen Light 15. It had to be done himself. Thatching? â€œPiece of cake, John. I watched them. Anyone can do itâ€. He was probably a millionaire once or twice over when he sold the Quinta do Lago mansion he personally designed. â€œChatsworth!â€ exclaimed Joan when she first saw the plans.
The Daily and Sunday Telegraph over the decades could count on his straight rendition of events, smoke coming out of their sub-editorial ears when he sounded off on apartheid, All Black brutality and what makes a great rugby player. Or, just as often, what makes a poor one. â€œHe didnâ€™t think a lot of me in shorts,â€ said his Sunday Telegraph successor, Paul Ackford. Paul knew he was in good company.
John and I were linked by a Hampstead family base, by rugby and by music – myself a soccer-playing Daily Herald sub-editor doing Saturday duty as rugby correspondent (â€œOh John, you play a bit of cricket, go and cover the Ryder Cup”, and so on ). At Stade Colombe we would enjoy the companionship of the Liverpool Postâ€™s Derek Jewell (of Beatles and Sunday Times Magazine renown). Weâ€™d watch Ken Scotland booting Scotland to mild respectability at Stade Colombe, the French charming us with melodic Basque choruses at the banquet, spend half the night combing Paris dens for exiled American musicians like Rex Stewart or Mezz Mezzrow, then dawn drinks with Vivien Jenkins, Terry Oâ€™Connor, when he was still speaking to Reason, and what was left of the Scottish team.
Reasonâ€™s standards were exacting, but he was not without heroes. Few rugby publications are close to matching his 1972 compilations The Victorious Lions, then The Lions Speak, in which Mike Gibson on stand-off play, McLoughlin and McLachlan on front row, and Carwyn James on anything, were recorded by his priceless tape recorder as never before. Reason took the pictures, famously of the grotesque All Black injuries to Sandy Carmichael, and, naturally, published the books himself.
Calm and amiable in all he did
Carwynâ€™s literate thoughts much in mind, I took on the NUJ in all its closed-shop frenzy (honoured as I am, still, to be a life member) for the Welshman to start a rugby column with The Guardian. By todayâ€™s immigration standards, Reasonâ€™s strictures on Walesâ€™s rugby decline would have left him detained indefinitely in some castle dungeon across the Severn.
Not so with the studiously bespectacled David Frost, calm and amiable in all that he did.
A county stand-off half with Cornwall, he was worth an Oxford Greyhound place at Trinity College when a first-team place was an immediate passport to an international cap. Teaching in the south-west of France was his first choice, and Biarritz his rugby playground. No man, subsequently, wrote more knowledgably on French rugby and temperament.
Persuaded in to rugby writing, union and league, by Larry Montague, his Guardian prose was imperturbably that of the Guardian Corridor, the Manchester holy of holies trodden by the likes of the Scotts, the Montagues and Neville Cardus. A false attribution of a pass, or use of an adjectival noun, was enough for Denys Rowbotham, chief rugby union correspondent of the time, to disqualify a potential writer for the Guardian pages. Frost passed every test.
The Guardian was not so different from the Brighton Argus, my apprenticeship in 1944, or many another. Newspaper sub-editors of the time were frequently a breed with wartime service. Mistaken information cost menâ€™s lives. Perspective was crucial. â€œAn ambulance rushed him to hospitalâ€¦Rushed? What else, dear boy?â€ No jets, computers or telly. Frost and Reason were of this background.
As The Guardian changed with the rest, off-pitch stories multiplied. Frost himself suffered an element of ill health, and he good naturedly accepted a sub-editorial role. Not to be denied personal sport, he would play the occasional game of golf, ancient hickory clubs retrieved from under the stairs. More likely, perhaps, a hard game of rackets – the ancient game much suited his athleticism and style. A Renaissance man in many respects, he was much missed as a rugby colleague by Reason.
David Frost died in May 2006 after a short illness, and Barry Newcombe, the SJA chairman, helped celebrate his life at a memorial service at Kew church in the autumn, his tales of the tours much relished by Pandora, Davidâ€™s second wife. In the chat at Richmond Gate after John Reasonâ€™s funeral at Mortlake Cemetery in February, there were Mike Burton and Mike Gibson reminiscing, Nigel Horton advising Mark that M&S at last were selling shirts with 21-inch collars. John would have liked that.
His was a service for an agnostic. Markâ€™s eulogy relished his fatherâ€™s eccentricity and humours. Ross told his motherâ€™s tales of houses amid the bunkers. The service began with Elgarâ€™s Nimrod and ended with Basin Street Blues. The order of service was inset with a picture of John, captioned, â€œJohn Reason, Insufferable All-Rounder, 6.3.1929 – 9.2.2007â€. Brendan Gallagher affectionately noted his accomplishments and death in the Daily Telegraph sports pages. There was no formal obituary. For John, maybe, a final compliment.
SJA member John Samuel was sports editor at The Observer from 1960 to 1961 and sports editor of The Guardian from 1968 to 1986.
Read Paul Ackford’s tribute to John Reason by clicking here.