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50 years a peripatetic journalist


Fifty years ago I sat down before an old Remington typewriter and typed the phrase: “News in Brief.” It was my first day on the job as a cub reporter.

Six years later after an obligatory stint in the Royal Air Force, I arrived in America with $58, no return ticket and no job. A 14-hour transatlantic turbo-prop flight brought me to Ildewilde Airport (now JFK). No Ellis Island for me.

The airport was beautiful. Everything, from the sweep of Idlewilde’s façade to the design of its swan’s neck streetlamps presented a unified architectural vision of welcome hard to duplicate. I’d come to visit my pen pal, Bobby Hopp. We’d corresponded for 11 years.

By nightfall I was asleep in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Apartments, from where -- with the windows open -- one could hear the rattle of the Myrtle Avenue El (elevated line).

Next day I job-hunted. But this was America. My clips, competently enough written, spoke another language -- engines, lines, points and guard’s van for locomotive, tracks, switches and caboose.

Plus, I had far too much experience for my age. I was 22.

I came out of an education system now vanished even in Europe. My generation was the last to obtain its professional and craft qualifications under the old medieval “City and Guilds” method.

In the England of 1952, to become a reporter or a lawyer, a baker or a chartered accountant, one had to find a firm to take one on as an apprentice.

Formal indenture papers were signed. I was indentured to the firm of Mackie & Co., publisher of a dozen newspapers. A three-year apprenticeship -- modified if conscripted into the military. My high school, which had awakened in me a love of history, particularly economic history, and very little else except open rebellion, was certain it could function better in my absence. Point made, I signed the apprenticeship papers. I was 16. And a very cheerful chap.

The apprentice pay was miniscule, all income depended on one’s skill as a freelance. It’s why Brit journalists of my generation always write for more outlets than just their employer -- habit born of economic necessity.

Education was Wednesday at the “Institute” for one’s profession or craft. (In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore,” the man who polished up the apple on the big front door has “a pass examination from the Institute.”) Other than Wednesday, one worked.

I was thrown straight in.

College was for later -- after one had qualified as a reporter -- common law, libel law, 75 words a minute typing, 125 words a minute shorthand. I always knew I’d go to Ruskin College in Oxford. To be a Ruskin Fellow, where I grew up, carried cache. I waited until after the RAF and my first visit to America.

It’s the only college in Oxford founded by an American. Students had to be over 21, and activist in some way. Radical? Oh my dears, you have no idea. Anti-apartheid practically started there. We had so many African students that if a student from Worcester College next door popped his head over the wall and saw a white Ruskinite, he’d shout: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

To be a socialist at Ruskin was to be middle-of-the-road.

By Ruskin I was considered slightly right-of-center, and far left-of-center by my parents who presumed I was a changeling.

To America I’d brought a ready wit, a decent vocabulary. I was a cradle Catholic and had very disciplined work habits -- when at work. What more could an editor want? Alfred J. Ball of the Woodhaven (in Queens) Leader-Observer wanted it for five weeks, then canned me for absenting myself on New Year’s Eve.

I opened 1953 out of work again.

But I had my American vocabulary by then, jumped twice and landed on Gannett (publisher of USA Today) in Plainfield, N.J.

All that needs to be added to get where we’re going here is that most of my reporting and writing since then (overlapping with NCR) has been for New York magazines, or for the readers of several London papers. My American wife, Margie, our children and I have lived in Europe three times.

I know what I brought to America. What did I get? Ah!

I met the Americans who’d gone through the Depression. We clicked.

I’ve watched generations of Americans arrive. I’ve chronicled refugees and who’s new in print. Sometimes I’ve simply noted which ethnic group was currently driving New York cabs or staffing the newsstands. I love the coming-to-America stories and watch with admiration those newcomers who start all over and build something.

I’ve been bolstered in many ways by my 40-or-so American years. I’m a better writer, though obliged to use a smaller vocabulary, because of American editors. I’m a more imaginative thinker because of American stimulation and open exchange. Better informed culturally by the great gifts to U.S. life, arts and music, essentially by American Jews, particularly in New York. And acutely aware of Catholicism’s great social justice traditions because of the stature of the Catholics I’ve met in every walk of life.

No group has shaped my Catholicism more than America’s black Catholics, whose story remains unrealized and whose strengths and joys remain outside the mainstream church.

In America in 1958 I’d met racism. I came from a white country. All the English had was anti-Irishism and anti-Semitism. They didn’t have any blacks to practice that brand of bigotry on until the 1960s. Then they caught up quickly and for the most part became quite good at it.

I brought with me my concern for the poor and the role of women, but the reasons for that must wait for another time. However, the exposure to racial bigotry in the first six months of my initial one-year sojourn in America has shaped my social views and writing more than any other single factor.

And I’m telling you all these things for a reason. Bigotry -- against whomever directed -- is cancerous. And ever-present.

So, if you get sick of me writing, for example, on the bigotry meted out to Arabs, “Middle-Easterners” or Muslims simply because they are Arabs, “Middle-Easterners” or Muslims, you’ll know why.

You Americans, you strong, good, solid, sensible Americans, who for 40 years have encouraged me in these things -- blame yourselves, you’re the reason. And you Catholics and other believers I meet along the way, you and my faith continue to bolster my resolve.

I thank you for that.

It’s because of you I can say “God, bless America.”

Often enough it’s “God, bless the America-to-be.” But there’s plenty of thanks for the America that is.

Fifty years along, that’s my news in brief.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002