Brian James, an outstanding sports and feature writer from the early 1960s through to the turn of the century, has died of heart failure at the age of 87 on his birthday.
He was a football writer for the Daily Mail – notably at the time of England’s World Cup victory – and the Sunday Times, then a sports feature writer and news feature writer on his return to the Mail and a feature writer of The Times before retiring to write for history journals and take a masters degree in maritime history at Greenwich University.
Tom Clarke, his sports editor at the Mail from 1975 to 1986, said: “Brian was one of the few people who re-imagined sports writing. He moved us from the days of heavyweight and rather pompous writing into pieces that read easily – although sometimes they were anything but easy for him to write.”
‘He moved us from the days of heavyweight and rather pompous writing into pieces that read easily’
Brian had a journalistic pedigree. His father, Edward C James, was founder and managing editor of The Credit World – “a monthly review of the instalment and allied trades”. He died when Brian was two years old. It took 14 years and an itinerant childhood with his mother and sister (and rejection by the Sutton and Cheam Advertiser’s editor, who proclaimed: “You can’t spell. You’ll never be a journalist”) for him to reach Fleet Street, as an office boy with the Murdoch Australian group, owned by Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert.
The downside was that Brian had to give up his post-war sweet allowance to Rupert whenever he visited London. The upside was to meet Don Bradman, Keith Miller and other Australian sportspeople as they called into the Murdoch office for news from home.
After two years in the Army and a “sorry but there’s no job for you now” from the Murdoch office, Brian was taken on by the Walthamstow Guardian, a fertile breeding ground for sports journalists (including Jeff Powell, who was to follow Brian as Guardian sports editor and then chief football writer for the Mail).
Brian’s coverage of Leyton Orient and West Ham United and his match reports for Reynolds News caught the eye of J L Manning, sports editor of the Daily Mail, who offered him a job in Fleet Street. In 1962, at the age of 32, Brian became northern sports editor of the Mail.
Back in London the following year, he was appointed chief football writer and he was one of the few (David Miller and Clive Toye were the others) who forecast Alf Ramsey’s England as World Cup winners. Legend has it that Mike Randall, editor of the Mail, warned: “James had better be right. If not, he’s fired.”
Brian James was not only right. His coverage of the World Cup lifted him to the highest levels in sports journalism and lifelong friendships with football people, especially Sir Geoff Hurst.
But it was an event three months later that transformed Brian’s way of work. He was on a football story in Belfast when he heard of the Aberfan disaster in south Wales that resulted in the death of 116 children and 28 adults. “Sports writing is no job for a grown man,” he said. “I’ve got to get out.”
‘Sports writing is no job for a grown man. I’ve got to get out’
In fact, it took him five years – when the Mail merged with the Daily Sketch – before he did escape from the back pages, even if only temporarily. He returned to sports writing with the Sunday Times until he was lured back to the Mail as sports feature writer in 1975. He later moved on to news feature writing and then joined Tom Clarke and others in moving to The Times in 1986 shortly after the move to Wapping.
During his second term at the Mail, he wrote (with contributions from Peter Johnson) a seminal series – Tividale to Wembley – which charted the 1976-77 FA Cup from the preliminary qualifying round right the way through to Manchester United’s success. This later became a best-selling book Journey to Wembley.
Charles Wilson, then editor of The Times, recalled: “Brian was a towering writer both in sport and later in features. As sports editor of the Daily Mail I was privileged to have him as chief soccer writer when England won the World Cup.
Some years later as editor of The Times I was again fortunate to be able to engage him as a feature writer and he was the editor’s dream – the guy who could turn his pen to any subject, anywhere, and always produce riveting copy that forced its way into the paper.”
Brian James leaves Elinor, his second wife who cared lovingly for him during his illnesses in the last three years, three children – Andrew, Alison and Claire – by his first wife, Mary, and three grandchildren.
The funeral will be on Monday, July 24 (2pm) at the South Chapel, City of London Crematorium, Alderbrook Road, Manor Park, London E12 5DQ. Afterwards at Wanstead Golf Club, Overton Drive, Wanstead, London E11 2LW.
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