Dhaka, Bangladesh
My dad showed me how to be a journalist, a Jew and a man

My dad showed me how to be a journalist, a Jew and a man

If it were up to me, I'd write this piece next week or perhaps the week after. Let the dust settle a bit. But I have my father's voice in my head, and he's insistent: the story is now, so you write it now. No one wants to read last week's news. I'm listening to that voice because my father, Michael, died unexpectedly this week. He was a journalist to his core. He started at age 16, straight out of school in 1951, on his local paper, the Luton News - and once he'd started, he never stopped. After nine years on the Luton paper, he graduated to Fleet Street and the Daily Sketch before embarking on a six-decade freelance career that saw him write more than 40 biographies of Hollywood stars and spend a quarter-century presenting a weekly radio show, to say nothing of a brief stint as PR man for Bertrand Russell and a day in court being sued by James Cagney. (Happily, that was one shootout the gangster-movie legend lost.) He was working to the very end. He died after suffering a heart attack in the tiny, faraway town of Aberdeen, South Dakota, researching the birthplace of his latest biographical subject - a Hollywood lawyer called Charles "Chuck" Levy. That's right: at age 83, notebook in hand, my father was on a story. Which meant he died doing what he loved. As fate would have it, the day after his death this newspaper carried an article written by him a few months earlier: an obituary of Charles Aznavour, who, like him, died on Monday. So Michael Freedland went out the way he would have wanted - with a byline. Over the last few days, in between calls to the county coroner in South Dakota - which sounds like a plotline from one of the 1940s movies he loved - I've been thinking of all my father taught me. To state the obvious, I got an early education in old-school journalism. He used to joke that I learned the trade through osmosis, and there's something to that. To reach my childhood bedroom, you had to go through his study: I would fall asleep to the clack-clack-clack of his typewriter or his voice dictating copy. During school holidays, I would sit and watch him through the glass of the radio studio, smiling and laughing as his guests talked, ensuring they were relaxed enough to open up. And when I edited my university newspaper, it was my dad I went to, looking on as he, pencil in hand, sketched out a blueprint for what would become a wholesale redesign. I learned about deadlines and accuracy, though my shorthand never matched his: it was his notebook that recorded Harold Macmillan declaring during a 1957 speech in Bedfordshire that Britons had "never had it so good". (The young Luton News man was the only reporter present, promptly filing those words from a nearby phone box.) I imbibed his rule about professional clothing, one he had been taught by his first boss. "A reporter should dress so that he's ready to interview either a coalminer or the archbishop of Canterbury at a moment's notice." Even when he was working at home, my father would follow that rule: shirt and tie, every day. A dapper dresser to the last, he never so much as owned a pair of jeans. But there were there other, less obvious lessons. The first is about identity. For my father followed two careers simultaneously. On the one hand, he wrote books and feature stories about Hollywood stars, from Fred Astaire to Judy Garland. On the other, he was a lead chronicler of Jewish life in Britain, producing and presenting from 1971 to 1994 a programme for BBC Radio London and later LBC called You Don't Have to be Jewish. Plenty of people would have seen that as an either/or choice: you take the Jewish path or you enter the mainstream. But my dad was determined to do both. In that insistence on a hybrid, hyphenated identity - familiar to Americans but much rarer in the Britain of 50 years ago - my father was, I now realise, something of a pioneer. While other Jews whispered their identity, my dad was out and proud. (Young and desperate to get to Fleet Street, he was once offered a job on the Daily Herald - with one condition: that he write under a pseudonym. They already had a couple of Jewish-sounding names and thought they'd reached their limit. He refused.) But that never stopped him feeling proudly, fully British. He was a political junkie, permanently glued to the radio news and seizing on polls for any sign of encouragement for his team - Labour, naturally. He was Labour the same way he was Jewish: as a matter of commitment and tradition. Every election day he wore a red tie, for good luck. In recent months, when I wrote about those lifelong Jewish Labour voters who had always regarded the party as their home, and who were now heartbroken by its failures on antisemitism, it was my father I had in mind. A second lesson was about masculinity. My father never took me to the football or taught me to change a tyre. In a pub, he might manage half a lager, but his prime focus would usually be the food menu. He was a model of a different kind of maleness. Driven, competitive and no new man - he was not present for the birth of any of his three children, though he was proud of having done nightly bottle feeds for my sister Dani - he was nevertheless tender and, for a man of his generation, unusually demonstrative. Even as adults, he and I never met without a hug and a kiss. He was the very model of a loving, faithful husband to my mother, Sara, during their 52 years of marriage. They had a goodnight song, which he sang to her each night, even when she lay on her deathbed. Channelling Bing Crosby, he would croon, "I've waited all my life / To give you all my love." But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from him was about tenacity and resilience. He sustained deep blows, losing both his wife and firstborn child, my sister Fiona, within two years of each other. And yet, somehow, he got back up again. He taught himself to cook and, of course, he wrote about it. He continued to dress nattily, picking out a bright blazer or jacket that ensured he stood out in a room. He found love again. And he would meet commissioning editors a third his age and pitch stories with the same hunger he had 65 years earlier. Younger colleagues keep using the same word about him: charming. I will need some of his resilience now. I hope I learned it from him, the way I learned about being a journalist, a Jew, a man. People keep telling me that my father was proud of me; and while that's a great comfort, the truth is I was proud of him. Raised in a hard-up corner of wartime England, he went off to see the world - and he never stopped looking forward and upward, gazing at the stars.

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