Crossing the Boundaries, Murray Sayle
One day in 1975 a very tall Australian man of late middle age and a young blonde Englishwoman wandered through the alley of the Jakarta kampong where I lived and plonked themselves down in my living room.
They left three days later. In between, I got my first exposure to what has been called the "Niagara" of Murray Sayle's conversation, as he expounded on what he had learned about the Suharto regime in the few days since landing.
On the afternoon of the third day, I think, I managed to get in a few observations and comments, which he duly asked his companion, Jenny Phillips, to note down.
There were to be many more sessions over the following 35 years, as I, along with others, played Boswell to Murray's Dr. Johnson. "As he wrestled with what can be called 'the story of the story,' he ruthlessly enlisted fellow reporters as sparring partners," wrote another impromptu Boswell, Martin Woollacott of the Guardian. "He could lecture and argue for hours on end, essentially putting forth his theories about the story in question for analysis and opposition."
The technique, and the purpose, set Murray apart from the usual hairy-chested foreign correspondents that pop up in the obits with details of their scoops, exclusive interviews, and presence as the bullets flew in battles and coups.
Murray had plenty of those, though. He'd tracked Che Guevara down in the Bolivian jungle for The Sunday Times. He'd followed Kim Philby's subscription to the London Times to a Moscow post office box and clinched the first interview with the great Cambridge spy. He'd been at Khe Sanh and the war in Bangladesh. He'd sailed the Atlantic single-handed and got 23,000 feet up Mount Everest.
He'd also done the picaresque side of journalism, on an earlier stint with a popular Sunday newspaper in London, exposing a sad procession of pimps, petty scamsters and naughty vicars as amusingly told in a novel, A Crooked Sixpence, that was pulped because of a threatened libel action at the time but revived two years back.
Three years before the Jakarta encounter Murray broke with all this, resigning from The Sunday Times, the paper where he'd made his reputation. The cause was the canning of his report on the Bloody Sunday massacre at Bogside, Derry, in North Ireland in 1972.
Within a week, he'd written that the shooting of Catholic protesters had resulted from an ill-conceived army operation to draw out IRA gunmen, and that the British paratroopers had not come under fire themselves. Three months before Murray died in Sydney – aged 84 and wracked by Parkinson's disease – London's Saville Inquiry vindicated him at last.
Murray set out to probe behind the media consensus on what the story was and root out the real tale. When Newsweek magazine grew restive at his approach, however, he moved to Japan with Jenny Phillips, by now his wife, to explore what seemed the biggest shift in global power, the rise of Japan.
THE JAPAN PEREGRINATIONS
After the Sydney Morning Herald posted me to Tokyo, my role as Murray's Boswell resumed. While most of us were paying rents that made our editors wince, he and Jenny found free accommodation – an old traditional house in Aikawa, just outside the Tokyo commuting belt, that its owners had abandoned in favor of a modern house in the village.
This allowed Murray to spend what he earned on things that mattered: piles of books on eclectic subjects, subscriptions to distant magazines, camping gear, collapsible bikes, and an amazing inflatable sailing catamaran.
Guests dossed down on the tatami mats. A Tibetan terrier named Chomo jumped in and out of holes in the paper shoji walls. Jenny gave birth to three children, but never let this stop her involvement with their explorations, becoming an English teacher at the local school and eventually getting elected to Aikawa's town council.
Aikawa became Murray's field test. On our walks around town he would point out the local yakuza, introduce the declining silk producers – most opening factories in China – show the empty houses of a falling population, the new shops for the Brazilian-Japanese coming to work at car plants, and, triumphantly, the unnecessary $6 billion dam at the head of the local valley that was part of the failed effort to lift Japan out of economic stagnation.
At the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, most of us would keep our stories close till published. Not Murray. As writing deadlines drew near, Murray would install himself in the bar, taking his ideas out for a test run with other journalists and sparring partners like "Kuraku-sensei," as he called Australian academic, former diplomat and journalist Greg Clark.
There was no risk of someone stealing his story. No one could write it like Murray. Few editors would welcome stories measured in thousands, not hundreds, of words. He followed editors that did, at The Spectator, The New Yorker, and latterly, The Griffith Review.
John Menadue, the Australian ambassador, brought Murray in to talk to his diplomats about Japan. The Chinese military attaché, a PLA general, came out to Aikawa to get Murray's take on Japan, duly followed by a massive scrum of undercover Japanese security agents.
THE LONG CONVERSATION ENDS
Sometimes Murray talked too long before getting down to writing. The American academic Chalmers Johnson, beat him to the book-length story of how Japan's wartime munitions and Manchurian masterminds refashioned themselves into postwar mercantilists under cover of the American anti-communist alliance.
Other times he didn't. His article on the 50th anniversary of the atom bombing, "The Myth of Hiroshima," filled the entire issue of The New Yorker and challenged the premise that the detonation ended the war. Murray argued that it was the Soviet entry into the war that broke the neutrality pact with Tokyo and forced Japan's leaders to capitulate rather than see the country divided like Germany.
Deeper forms of journalism always have had a precarious support base. Journalism like this crosses the boundaries of what we regard as "the media." Murray's estrangement happened before the Internet really affected newspapers. It's a comforting thought that while he loved newspapers, he didn't need them.
Murray continued to talk to the end. Pulling back to Sydney, he and Jenny set up home in a little semi-detached cottage in Sydenham, close by the railway yards where his father and grandfather had once worked. The tiny kitchen became the antipodean Aikawa.
Then the shakes started. Murray's last years were grim as the disease robbed him of motor control. He dwelt largely within himself, but perked up when visitors came. Then the talk started up again. The global financial crisis was just fodder to his grand theories of history.
Now he is gone. But whenever I'm writing something long and complicated, I still find Murray talking in my head, suggesting a small joke or an intriguing fact or surprising reference, to keep the reader amused and interested.
Hamish McDonald is the Asia-Pacific Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has been a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New Delhi and Beijing. The author of books on Indonesia and India, he was editor of Number One Shimbun during his Tokyo posting.
Memories of Murray
I WENT ALONG WITH MURRAY ON NUMEROUS STORIES OUT OF SAIGON. He wrote around 2,000 words every Friday for the Sunday Times of London, and loved to talk to anyone and everyone, exchanging tales and information.
For a brief period while he was based in Hong Kong, Murray held the august title of "Asia editor" of Newsweek, which he totally hated. Murray complained about "21-year-olds from Brooklyn" rewriting his florid copy. Maynard Parker, who had either hired him or recommended him highly, concluded that Newsweek and Murray "were not made for each other."
Those who worked on stories with Murray may remember his interviewing style – he did most of the talking, telling garrulous stories interspersed with caustic remarks, occasionally letting the interviewee interrupt with a comment. Over the years he was an enduring friend in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan, and friend to numerous others whom he had down to his farmhouse for great conversations and storytelling – Murray telling the stories, everyone else listening. Unique, unforgettable, fun loving, and a thoroughly kind and decent individual – that was Murray. RIP, friend.
Don Kirk, Seoul-based foreign correspondent
A Crooked Sixpence
Published in 1960, Sayle's novel A Crooked Sixpence was based on his experiences working for a racy mass-circulation scandal sheet in the 1950s. The book was an instant hit, but was withdrawn from print after only a few days and pulped following a threatened lawsuit.
Ironically, one of Sayle's acquaintances started the lawsuit because he thought he was recognizable as a particularly seedy character. Hoping to get a wad of cash to settle the alleged libel, he ended up with nothing – and Sayle's masterpiece disappeared from view for nearly five decades.
Sixpence was republished in 2008 to great acclaim. Sayle's former Sunday Times colleague and longtime friend, writer Phillip Knightley, said at the time that it was "the best book about journalism – ever."
Two Memorable Coups
The Daily Telegraph's obit referred to what it called Sayle's two most memorable coups. In April 1967, intrigued by reports that a Bolivian army patrol had recently encountered a guerrilla group led by a Cuban named "Ramon," Sayle picked his way through an abandoned guerrilla camp in the Andes foothills and came across a photograph of Che Guevara together with a prescription for the revolutionary's asthma – evidence that allowed him to break the news that Che had left Cuba to foment revolution in South America.
Later the same year he waited patiently outside Moscow's foreign post office – the only place where one could buy a copy of The Times – hoping that Kim Philby might come by to read the cricket scores. "After a few days, I forget how many exactly, I saw a man looking like an intellectual of the 1930s, all leather patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket," Sayle recalled. "I walked up to him and said, 'Mr. Philby?' "
Sayle found the traitor "a courteous" man with an "iron head" for drink, who appeared to be enjoying his new life and who denied treachery: "To betray, you must first belong," Philby told him. "I never belonged."
GENTLEMAN IN THE BUFF
Murray was a giant of a man in every respect. When we decided to do a ladies' version of the No. 1 Shimbun, he was naturally our prime choice for male nude centerfold. With characteristic bravado, Murray agreed. Club photographer Happy Mayger took the shots, behind closed doors on the 19th floor, only to discover that he had no film in the camera, so Murray had to strip off again. News spread, and as I recall we sent photos of our statuesque member to sister clubs in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Roslyn Hayman, Number One Shimbun editor in 1983