And Howe!

With every editorship there’s a clock ticking. When you work at News Ltd, the clock ticks a lot faster. —Senior News Ltd source

As chief of Victoria’s Sunday Herald Sun for thirteen years and Rupert Murdoch’s longest-serving editor, Alan Howe’s clock must be Kevlar-coated. As John Cameron Swayze said in those classic 1960s Timex wristwatch commercials, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.

From 1993 to 2005, the Sunday Herald Sun, under Howe’s leadership, increased its circulation to unprecedented levels—gaining more than 30 per cent and achieving the greatest sales margin over a competitor in Australian publishing history—more than 400,000 copies. It was the best-performing metropolitan newspaper in the country, and the Australian described Howe as Australia’s most successful editor.

Howe’s long-time friend Mike Brady, who wrote and sang the iconic Australian hit “Up There Cazaly”, agrees: “Not many journos go the distance with News Corp. He is considered by many to be the best weekend news editor of all time in Australia.”

This profile appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Andrew Bolt, who has worked for News Corp’s Herald and Herald Sun, and for Sky News’ s The Bolt Report, adds, “Alan [is] probably our leading writer on music. I have never known someone with such encyclopaedic knowledge.” 

In 2005, Howe was unexpectedly fired as editor but has only good words to say about Rupert Murdoch, who he describes as a “good knock-about bloke”. Brady says, “I think Rupert Murdoch must have had a warm spot for him, as he ended up continuing in a new role and a good deal.” 

Alan Christopher Howe was born on December 15, 1956, in Farnborough, Hampshire, the descendant of miners from north-east England. His parents had met on a blind date while serving in the RAF in Singapore. His mother, Pat, had joined the women’s RAF but they only accepted single women, so when they married she had to return to England. His father, Jack, played drums for the Air Force band and stayed on until he was able to return to the UK.

In 1958, aged two, Howe arrived in Fremantle on a “Ten-Pound Pom” passage with his parents, brother and sister, after six weeks at sea on the migrant ship, the Fairsea. The family’s personal effects were contained in wooden boxes his father built. They included a drum kit and two Benny Goodman records from a 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall, but no means to play them. On the dock, a man with a portable loudspeaker asked, “Who is disembarking without a job?” His dad put his hand up. “There’s a recession in Perth and throughout Western Australia. But you can choose to go to Melbourne instead where there will be work.” They didn’t know anybody in either state and Howe’s mother wanted to stay in Western Australia but his father argued that, with three kids to feed, they would have to go where the work was: Victoria. 

They lodged at the Nunawading migrant hostel, on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, which was part of the government’s assisted migration scheme, and lived in one-half of a Nissen hut, for sixteen months until they saved enough money to start purchasing a house. 

Howe’s father quickly got work as a carpenter and played drums in a local jazz trio. While on the roof at his first job, he encountered a possum for the first time. Thinking it was dangerous, he lost his balance and fell off. Later, he attended night school and became a packing engineer at Massey Ferguson, designing crates to transport farm machinery.

Jack was a hard taskmaster but nothing like the teachers at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Box Hill, where an exasperated nun called Howe into her office and asked why he couldn’t be more like his brother and sister. He snapped back the worst thing he could think of: “You’re a bugger!” The nun belted him so hard across the face with a leather strap she kept up her sleeve that her glasses fell off. 

Howe was expelled. When he told his mother she was upset, but his father just said, “Stupid old Irish bitch.” After that, he attended St John’s in Mitcham. Like his father, he loved Benny Goodman from an early age and was obsessed with Gene Krupa, one of the first drummers who played in front of the band. 

Howe went to London in the late 1970s but returned to Adelaide, working, in his own words, as a “minion” for News Ltd. In 1981, when Rupert Murdoch bought the Times, Howe moved back to London as a senior journalist and stayed until 1985, when he came back to Australia as news editor of the Australian

Roger Franklin, who now edits Quadrant Online, another long-time friend, met Howe in New York in 1990, when both were working at Murdoch’s recently re-acquired New York Post, which he had been forced to sell several years earlier by Ted Kennedy’s sly addition to a US Senate spending bill which banned anyone owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market. The paper passed through a series of hands over the next two years, being run into the ground by a dilettante real estate mogul, Peter Kalikow, who shortly after went bankrupt. It then passed to an eccentric parking-garage millionaire and, after that, to a ponzi-scheme swindler who would soon spend 12 years in prison. After a staff revolt in which reporters and editors brought out three rebel editions attacking their various proprietors, Congress repealed the Kennedy prohibition and Murdoch reclaimed the Post, summoning Howe and other editors from various parts of his empire to get the paper back on its feet. Franklin, who was deputy chief sub and one of the players in the revolt, described the paper during the non-Murdoch years as “a nest of backstabbing and bitching”.

Brady first met Howe twenty-five years ago at a Mike Rudd/Bill Putt gig at the old Trades Hall in Carlton. He recalls, “He could really put away the beers. I thought he had a tube running out of his trouser leg into a drain on the floor. But I never saw him drunk.”

In 1993, Howe became editor of the Sunday Herald Sun, a position he held for the next thirteen years. Despite the abrupt end to an extraordinarily successful editorial tenure, Howe has nothing but praise for Murdoch saying, ‘He’s very personable. He’s very amusing. He’s very worldly. This is a bloke who as a youngster in Washington with his father met Harry Truman. A bloke who had been in the Oval Office with President Kennedy. Imagine living that life. Imagine the span of that life.” Bolt explains: “Rupert Murdoch usually tends to look after former editors who have been loyal and good, even after they no longer have a role as editor. Piers Akerman and Ian Moore are just two other examples.” 

I first met Alan Howe when he was “Pete Best”, the music reviewer for the Herald. I had no idea that he was also the editor. He once called Cliff Richard “the Prancing Prince of Pap” but he gave me some of the best reviews I’ve had for my albums Freelovedays (2004) and Wind Cries Mary (2007).

When I asked him why he chose as his pseudonym the name of the Beatles’ first drummer, who was replaced by Ringo Starr, he replied, “We failed drummers have to stick together.”

Howe has a full set of electronic drums in the front room of his Castlemaine home with a panoramic view of the bush. He can play as loud as he wants and the neighbours can’t hear him. He has a massive CD and vinyl record collection that was once housed in a special building on his property but now is stored in boxes and Woolies bags in an alcove.

Howe is married to Carmel Egan, an extraordinarily beautiful and astute businesswoman. Egan grew up on a farm in Victoria’s King Valley. She has worked as a speechwriter in Treasury, as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, and was Melbourne bureau chief of the Australian

Both of them feature in Bill Bryson’s 2000 best-seller, In a Sunburned Country. Bryson writes of Howe: “[His] idea of a whole-body workout was to drink standing up.” There is also a charming exchange between Egan and Bryson about Jim Cairns, Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam government who, later in life, used to sell his books at the Sunday Camberwell Market on a small card table:

“I suppose it’s a way for him to make a little pocket money,” she added. 

This was a man, you understand, who had not so long ago held the second highest office in the land. The equivalent in America, I suppose, would be to find Walter Mondale sitting at a card table in a mall in Minneapolis selling White House coasters and other memorabilia. 

Howe invited me to their home to interview him, a splendid bush retreat made of grey-hewed timber with hand-crafted hardwood kitchen benches and cupboards, creative ironwork and free-standing fireplaces. Loads of light and space and quiet. Ideal for writing. He made a delicious lunch of stir-fried quail and fresh basil, with braised sugar peas and rice, while his wife attended to the garden on the veranda. 

Egan has an infectious, energising personality. A remarkable listener, she doesn’t hesitate to fine-tune Howe’s stories. When he tells me that he met all the original Doors (except singer Jim Morrison), she reminds him of what their daughter Alice (also a vast repository of musical knowledge) would have said, “Yes, but you didn’t meet the important one!” Howe has however visited Jim Morrison’s grave. Twice.

Narrating another colourful story, he gesticulates toward the east. Carmel asks what he is pointing at. There is nothing there. 

I do something similar when I sing without holding my guitar; my left hand automatically points to the audience. Many pop singers do. What we are pointing at? I have no idea. It’s a kind of “follow me and ye shall be free” thing.

Howe first saw the Beatles when he was nine. Tony Jones, at 3AW, says, “I don’t know of anyone who has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Beatles.” Howe has interviewed Ringo Starr five times. He said:

The only time I’ve ever been struck dumb is when we went to see Paul McCartney at this small press conference in Melbourne at the MCG in 1993 and I just couldn’t talk. I stood up to ask this question—the question was going to be about “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “At what point did you realise that a cottage on the Isle of Wight would not be beyond your reach?”

The lyrics to the bridge are:

Every summer we can rent a cottage

in the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear.

We shall scrimp and save, 

grandchildren on your knee,

Vera, Chuck and Dave.

Howe stood up to speak but not a word came out.

Something similar happened to me. In Germany in 1981, when I saw Chubby Checker across a room, the man who had “introduced” me to my first dance steps—the Twist—I couldn’t move. Experiencing a fantasy in the flesh can paralyse you.

Howe brought out two of his most treasured albums: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with a personal inscription to his two daughters by the LP’s producer, George Martin, and Meet the Beatles, with autographs by all four band members—a valuable collector’s item.

I recalled seeing the Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Howe interjected that Sullivan started his career as a sports reporter!) I had heard about the Beatles from my schoolmates but I had this picture in my mind of a girl trio, like the Supremes, with oval-shaped black beehive hairdos (or rather “beetle-hive” hairdos!). When the four pudding-bowl-headed boys, in sharkskin suits, came on the screen, playing their own instruments (unheard of!) and singing “She Loves You”, in three-part harmony, it was love at first sound. My mother said, “My God, Joey, they can’t even sing.” My father added, “They’ll last a week.”

After lunch, Howe recounted how Dragon’s hit song “April Sun in Cuba” was written. According to a band member they had been in Cuba watching two locals play chess. One complained he couldn’t see the board because the April sun was in his eyes. Voilà—a song was born. 

Dragon had another song about chess, called “The Maróczy Bind” after a chess opening that for decades was considered a positional error but that modern chess theory has found ways to counter. I wonder which member of Dragon was the chess enthusiast?

“Alan is not a good driver by his own admission,” Brady says:

Akin to Mr Magoo and the fire engine driver from the Keystone Kops. Short, with his nose sticking up over the steering wheel. He brought his brand spanking new Herald-Sun company car home to his beautiful regional home and leapt out to show the family. He had parked on a steep track by the front door. His wife looked past him to see the shiny status symbol beginning to roll down the track which led to a precipice above a rocky valley. “Howie!!” she yelled and Al took after the recalcitrant car at full speed. He caught up but was lucky he couldn’t get the door open. The car was totalled and to my knowledge, he has never been offered another.

I had a similar experience. My five-year-old son was sitting in the front seat of my 1975 Holden sedan (before seat belts). I had parked the car on the steep driveway next to my Kew house. The emergency brake was set but as I was just about to go inside, I noticed the back end of the car sliding past the house. My little son had somehow disengaged the brake. I ran after the car and dived through the open window, reaching with both hands for the brake on the floor. I was able to depress it enough to slow the momentum but the car still ran into the garage. My son fell onto the front seat floor but he was uninjured and the car had minimal damage. It happens.

Howe lives five minutes from Castlemaine station. I took the train there to interview him and he picked me up. I was wary and was ready to grab the wheel if necessary but he was a remarkably conscientious driver. Even after a couple of glasses of wine, he reversed in his narrow driveway, a very tight turnaround with a sheer drop on one side of the road and no guard-rail.

Howe is a first-class journalist. Keith Windschuttle, long-time editor of Quadrant, is a fan and reads everything Howe writes, citing Howe’s brilliant article on Gaza that was published in the Weekend Australian on December 16-17 as an example. When I asked Howe about it, he said it took six weeks to write. He considers former Israeli Prime Minister and now Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, the most inspiring person he has ever met. The former elite commando is Israel’s most decorated soldier and has a Bachelor of Science, majoring in physics and mathematics, and a Master of Science from Stanford, majoring in systems analysis. He is also a highly skilled musician who sacrificed his dream of becoming a concert pianist to concentrate on his military career. Howe wrote of him:

In 1973, [Barak] led an undercover mission in a rubber dinghy to Beirut, where his team killed three Palestinians involved in the planning of the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. His crew donned various disguises, Mr Barak wearing the clothes of an Arab woman … He also was the architect of the raid at Entebbe airport that freed the hostages on that hijacked Air France jet in 1976.

Howe once said the central plank of his editorship had been to give “voiceless” Melburnians a voice. While he was editor, in 2000, he initiated the Australian Organ Donor Register, a government register that records people who have agreed to donate organs and tissues when they die. Before this, the only way patients could access transplants was from a small network of doctors who rang each other informally. The register is operated by the Organ and Tissue Authority and Services Australia through Medicare. 

He sat on the Victoria Police Ethical Standards Department committee for several years from its inception, was a founding board member of the People and Parks Foundation, and is a former chairman of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. He came up with the idea for Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, drove the project to completion, and sat on its board for a decade. His parents attended the opening in 1998.

Recently, he joined the board of Project Rozana, a not-for-profit Australian-based charity that secures high-level medical treatment in Israel for Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian children. It was founded in 2013 by Hadassah Australia and its president, Ron Finkle, and seeks to build connections between Palestinian and Israeli citizens.

No matter what we begin discussing, the conversation invariably returns to music, something we both love passionately. He met the Australian singer Russell Morris in 1971, when Howe was hitchhiking and Morris picked him up. Morris had an Australian number-one hit in 1969, “The Real Thing”, written by Johnny Young and produced by Molly Meldrum. Howe and Morris even wrote a song together, “The Bridge”, that was included on Morris’s album Sharkmouth, which won a 2013 Aria Award for Best Blues and Roots Album. If that had been me, I would have asked Howe to play drums on it as well! He told Errol Simper, “If you ask me what my biggest single achievement was I think it was getting Daddy Cool to reunite [after about 30 years] for a tsunami fund-raiser.”

Brady says, “Music is a staple of [Alan’s] life. He knows trivial and obscure details about even more trivial and obscure tracks.” Example? Howe: “Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song was ‘Telstar’.” One of my favourites, too! 

Alan Howe is the history and obituaries editor at the Australian. Joe Dolce is Quadrant’s film and television editor.


4 thoughts on “And Howe!

  • Tony Tea says:

    Good stuff, Joe. I always read Alan’s articles and enjoy it when he pops up on AW. Howe-ver, the less said about Collingwood, the better.

    • Tony Tea says:

      Mind you, I also live in Castlemaine, so if Alan ever sees a tall bloke in a Demons cap walk up to him in the street, it won’t be to give him the rounds of the kitchen, it will just be to say g’day.

  • lbloveday says:

    Quote: My five-year-old son was sitting in the front seat of my 1975 Holden sedan (before seat belts)
    Seat belts were widely fitted in the 1960s (I had them in a 1964 Holden EH), and were made compulsory in Victoria in 1970, followed soon afterwards by the other states.

  • norsaint says:

    I used to work at News Corp. Didn’t ever know Howe but he did stop in front of our desk one day to chat to one of the subs he knew, and the thing I remember was his language. He was a world class swearer, to put it mildly. Eloquence isn’t a word I’d have associated with him on first impressions.

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