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Author Tom Mangold's Fast Career Start From Fleet Street

July 25, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

It was the best of times, Tom Mangold knows, and it was the greatest of times. It was formal education that ended with high school and writing careers that began with the whisky wisdom of some faded chief reporter on a weekly newspaper. It was brazen, roisterous Fleet Street in the '50s when British newspapering was more of an indentured trade than a lettered profession. . . .

"All the great journalists went to grammar school," journalist Mangold says. He was in Los Angeles recently, body jet-lagged by a London flight and spirits flagged by a multicity book tour. "What great journalists? My mates. They all failed to become officers during their (military draft) national service. They all failed to go to university."

Yet they succeeded despite these curious credentials and by a common career route; from bare schooling through raucous British reportage to international authorship. By Mangold's description: "Writing by some instinct . . . without knowing the difference between syntax and tin tacks."

Such as . . . David English, who chose Fleet Street over college after high school. He's now Sir David English, editor of the London Daily Mail and author of "Divided They Stand," an Englishman's examination of the 1968 presidential election. Michael Kennedy began working for the London Daily Telegraph at 15. He now is its northern editor, music critic and author of 13 volumes profiling Elgar, Halle, Barbirolli, Vaughan Williams and Strauss.

Of earlier eras (and somewhat higher acclaim) were Charles Dickens, Edgar Wallace and Rudyard Kipling. Not Mangold's mates, exactly. But certainly authors from his school of newspapering; and he of theirs.

Left School Early

"I actually ran away from school (Dorking Grammar) at 17 to work for the Cobham Record, carrying the chief reporter's pencil box, fetching tea," said Mangold. "At 12 I was writing letters about flooding to the editor of the Leatherhead and Dorking Advertiser. Just to see my name in print. At 15 I stole the guts of someone else's piece, a really feeble satire on Christmas that had appeared in my sister's school paper, rewrote it enough to save my skin and had it published under my name in my school paper.

"Then it was Gunner Mangold of the Royal Artillery for two (national service) years . . . the Croydon Advertiser for 17 shillings a week in 1954 . . . and then Fleet Street with the Sunday Pictorial and the Daily Express. . . ."

But by 1976, two decades later, Mangold and friend Anthony Summers (also a Fleet Street graduate but one who rather let the self-made image down by studying languages at Oxford) had co-authored "The File on the Tsar: The Fate of the Romanovs." It was an international best seller. It adjusted history and remains unchallenged.

This year, again working in tandem but with John Penycate, a television journalist and another Oxford scholar ("Look at our descriptions on the dust jacket . . . one says: 'I'm proud to be a hack' and the other says: 'I'm an academic.' "), Mangold finished "The Tunnels of Cu Chi; The Untold Story of Vietnam."

A Battle Underfoot

The tunnels were a 200-mile spiderweb stretching from Saigon to Cambodia; a Watership Down of barracks, hospitals, conference chambers, air raid shelters, theaters and mess halls for Vietcong guerrillas. To counter the enemy beneath its feet (and in one instance, beneath the headquarters of the 25th Division) the U.S. Army formed an elite team of human ferrets to flush the enemy by knife, pistol and flashlight. The underground duels between Tunnel Rats and Vietcong moles are a terrifying strength of the book.

Mangold's transition from reporter to author wasn't much more than a gentle extension. Because, he said, he remains a reporter.

Both book ideas were his as enlargements of stories encountered during his continuing career as a television reporter with the British Broadcasting Corp. His Fleet Street background prepared him to handle the preparation and interview phases of the books. Then Mangold added the scholarship of Penycate and Summers.

"I've always handled the people and the academics have handled the research, the organization, the paper work and all the (research) book reading," Mangold explained. Again the sly grin. "You see, all academics want to be hacks and all hacks want to be academics."

An Early Ambition

From the age of 3, Mangold said, he wanted to be a Fleet Street hack. It was considered (especially by Mangold's solicitor father) to be a somewhat disreputable job, with tabloid journalism one grubby level lower. Its dubious rewards were participation in stories that hounded and judged homosexual vicars, eloping aldermen, mass murderers and the Irish Republican Army. Its definite casualties were divorced, alcoholic, deadbeat reporters.

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