David Blackburn

The passing of a quiet great

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Hunter S Thompson’s dispatches from Vietnam have entered legend. Murray Sayle is less well known, but he too was in Vietnam as the war degenerated into bloody catastrophe, and he described it with award-winning panache for Harold Evans’ Sunday Times.

Sayle, who died recently aged 84, was an inveterate adventurer and mild Quixotic. Born in Australia, he sailed to Britain in 1952 to save a doomed romance. Having failed to keep his woman, he found work as a leg-runner for the crime correspondent at The People. He published a cult autobiographical novel, A Crooked Sixpence, based on the experience in 1960.

This was Fleet Street’s happy hour – that brief post-war period of carefree expenditure and extensive foreign reports. Sayle covered intrigue, coups and conflict from Bolivia to Saigon, as the developing world adjusted to or fought for independence and economic growth.

The fraying vestiges of British imperialism took him frequently to Ulster, as the civil rights movement gave way to armed protest. He was sent to Londonderry in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday. Together with Derek Humphries, he wrote a piece that damned the army and the British government; they hoped it limit future bloodshed. He resigned when The Sunday Times refused to print it. He thought the article lost, but here, in the London Review of Books, he describes its rediscovery, prints the original article and explains its significance to the Savile Inquiry. No need to read Lord Savile’s findings after having read this.