In 1970, student editor Brian Mooney embarked on a mission to collect the memories of the first Cherwell hacks a half-century earlier. The resulting correspondence, now deposited at the Bodleian, tells a fascinating story. And so, here, does Mooney himself.
By Chris Baraniuk
The Cherwell board was preparing to tell Brian Mooney their decision. He had applied for the editorship of the paper — a student rag which by then, in 1970, had been running for 50 years. Mooney was up against a rival, Scott Donovon, who would in later years go on to become a successful barrister. Editing Cherwell had become something of a goal for Mooney (pictured above right with open collar). He had a strong interest in journalism and felt he knew a good story when he saw one, even then. The board called him in. ‘We’ve made Scott editor,’ they said. For a moment, disappointment. ‘But we’d like you to do something else.’
Instead of editing the full term’s paper, Mooney was handed the surprise responsibility of putting together a special 50th-anniversary edition to commemorate Cherwell’s already rich history. He gladly accepted: as a history student, the role appealed to his natural instincts. What’s more, when Cherwell began it wasn’t really a newspaper, more a literary journal. All the better: Mooney loved literature and some of the first writers for Cherwell had become famous for their literary work — Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Louis MacNeice, Francis King. . . . The list was certainly impressive and Mooney soon got stuck in to tracking as many of them down as he could.
Working from his Magdalen rooms, he and the 50th-anniversary team he assembled began writing to Cherwell veterans far and wide, to elicit short memoirs about their time as editors and writers. Even Mooney’s future wife, Gail Turner, got involved and helped prepare illustrations for the edition as well as writing the spread on women’s contributions to Cherwell over the years.
Mooney took it upon himself to try and retrieve messages from some of the best-known Cherwell alumni. He wrote letters to George Edinger, one of the paper’s founding editors, and Max Beloff. He tried Clive Labovitch and Gyles Brandreth — and John Mortimer. All were happy to oblige. ‘It was astonishing how cooperative everyone one was,’ recalls Mooney. ‘The affection and the loyalty to Cherwell stretched right back to the early days.’
But not every fish landed in Mooney’s net. ‘The only person I seem to recall that we never got hold of was John Betjeman, and I still have deep regrets about that. I wasn’t focused enough on finding a way to chase him,’ he says. Still, there were a couple of tantalising near-misses.
Jean-Paul Sartre had once been interviewed by Cherwell, so Mooney (below left, speechifying) tried to get in touch with him in order to procure some kind of valedictory missive. Sartre sent a note back, saying he would have done so ‘with pleasure’ — but was simply too busy. And then there was Princess Anne. Turner shared a birthday with the Princess and they had been at school together. Mooney nudged his girlfriend and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to get a message from her?’ Turner tried, but a message came back saying that although she would like to, one of her royal brothers might not approve.
‘If I’d been more ambitious I’d have got the President of the United States,’ jokes Mooney today. There was more than enough material in the end, though. The special edition is packed with amusing anecdotes and revelations. One editor remembers how he needed a photograph of the proctors out in force with their bulldogs, so tricked them into going on a patrol. This was achieved by pretending to be a policemen on the phone with news of student disturbances at the Randolph Hotel. Another editor, Lord Moyne, recalled misprinting Louis MacNiece’s name as ‘Louis MacPiece’. The young poet had subsequently stormed into the editor’s office demanding an explanation.
The whole issue of 11 November 1970 was given over to these memories — a first in Cherwell’s history at the time. There was only one page of contemporary news that week —the top headline alleging the discovery of a suspected rat bone in the stew at Oriel College.
Mooney always remembered it as a highlight of his student days. Upon leaving Oxford, he became a successful journalist with the Reuters news agency, covering revolutions from Chile to Poland in the latter half of the last century (and he’s pictured below on Concorde with Margaret Thatcher). ‘I’ve had a lot of sensational stories but I never went chasing them,’ he says, ‘To some extent I suppose you could say they chased me.’
Before he went down, though, Mooney took a big box of letters, manuscripts and other knick-knacks from the production of the 50th-anniversary edition with him. ‘I just felt so strongly that if I left it in the Cherwell offices as they were then, at the back of the Union, that they would have been put into a cardboard box and thrown away,’ he says. ‘I felt that was something I had to take charge of.’ For more than 40 years they lay undisturbed in an attic, until Mooney decided last year to have them deposited in the Bodleian library for posterity.
Future historians and editors compiling the 100th-anniversary edition will now be able to turn to these well-kept mementos for insight and inspiration. And if they turn to pages two and three of the special issue itself, they can read Mooney’s original write-up on the first 50 years of Cherwell. It’s a great summary of the period and, rather poignantly, it ends like this:
‘They of 2020, who, when scanning the wanderings of our mid-century minds, [will] find grotesque and witty mirrors of themselves, while we, remnants of an older humour, stagger up to news stands mumbling: ‘And I remember Cherwell.’
Photographs courtesy of Brian Mooney. Cherwell pages © Cherwell, reproduced with kind permission.