I finally saw the first episode of Any Human Heart last night. And I was shocked, shocked I tell you.
By the level of journalists’ pay.
In the early 30s, Logan Mountstuart was offered five guineas per 1000 words for some features on Spanish cities. This is equivalent to over £1000 today, measured by the rise in average earnings. Most freelance journalists nowadays would be happy to get half this - though as a popular author Mountstuart could command a premium.
He’s later offered $50 per day, plus expenses, to report on the Spanish civil war - equivalent to £1900 in today’s money. This is six times as much as a broadsheet columnist would earn today.
This is comparable to what the Daily Beast offered William Boot to report on the war in Ishmaelia. He got £50 a week (the exchange rate in the 30s was just under 5$/£1) plus expenses. And in those days, expenses were in their pomp:
“And think what you can make on your expenses” urged Mr Salter. “At least another twenty. I happened to see Hitchcock’s expense sheet when he was working for us in Shanghai. He charged three hundred pounds for camels alone.”*
This would take Boot’s weekly wage to £12,600 in today‘s money.
Of course, we shouldn’t regard this as corroboration of the accuracy of Mountstuart’s wage: it is almost certainly Boyd’s source.
I’ve two other data points here, though. One is that George Orwell hints that a book reviewer got two guineas per 800 words in 1946. This is equivalent to just over £200 in today’s money. This is not far shy of what many magazines pay today. Orwell’s description of the writer fearing “the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs” isn’t too far from Laurie’s “things I can't afford include meat to stop me getting anaemic, bedsheets without holes, a place to keep my clothes that isn't the floor, and any sort of holiday.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Kenneth Morgan tells us that Michael Foot was offered £450 a year in 1938, “soon to rise higher”, to be a features writer on the Evening Standard. This is over £81,000 in today’s money.
With this income, he rented a flat in Mayfair at 30 shillings a week. That’s £55 in today’s money deflated by the RPI and £190 deflated by average earnings. Today, the cheapest flat in the area goes for £295 per week.
The picture here seems to be that journalists’ pay has barely kept up with average earnings generally since the 1930s, and has almost certainly fallen relative to housing costs.
Which shouldn’t be surprising. Although demand for journalism probably hasn’t risen much since the 30s - newspaper sales then were huge - the supply of potential journalists has increased. Which could be one adverse but unintended effect of the expansion of universities.
* Hitchcock’s trick was repeated:
A nosy accountant writes to a well-known Daily Mail correspondent about a charge he made some months earlier, when confronted with a desert transportation problem, which read: ’To purchase of camel - 25 pounds’. The accountant asked: ‘I assume when you left North Africa you sold the camel. What did it fetch?’ To which the newsman (I think it was Ralph Izzard) replied: ‘Thanks for the reminder. To my last month's expenses please add: ‘Camel died... to burial of camel.. . Five pounds.’