Sunday 11 December 2016

Harry Coen

Published 05/02/2012 | 05:00

Journalist whose career path took him from Gay News to the editorship of The Catholic Herald

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Harry Coen, who died on January 23, his 67th birthday, was a journalist whose unique career trajectory took him from the news desk of Gay News to the editor's chair of The Catholic Herald.

Many found the latter appointment all the more remarkable because they wrongly assumed, owing to his last name, that he was Jewish. In fact, he was a convinced mystical humanist and lapsed Roman Catholic who had profound disagreements with nearly all aspects of Church doctrine.

This proved no barrier to his promotion when the then Herald editor Cristina Odone took extended leave. Stepping in temporarily to smooth the transition, Coen ended up as editor for two years, striving despite his theological misgivings to produce a paper of the highest quality.

Harry Peter Raymond Coen was born in Dublin on January 23, 1945 to William and Kathleen Gray. Kathleen died when Harry was three, shortly after giving birth to his twin siblings Tom and Anne, and it was decided to farm the children out to different wings of the family. Harry was taken in by cousins, Maureen and Patrick Coen, whom he regarded throughout his life as his parents.

The Coens moved to Birmingham when Harry was 10 and he was educated at a Catholic grammar school in the city before taking a degree at Durham University. It was a holiday job on the now defunct Consett Guardian that led him into a life of journalism. He became a district reporter for the Northern Echo, and in 1970, while running its Redcar office, he met David Thornton, with whom he was to share the rest of his life.

Coen and Thornton moved to London, where in 1979 Coen became news editor on Gay News. A tireless campaigner for gay rights, he happily appeared on a BBC news programme in the early Eighties when hysteria over Aids was at its height. By that time he had moved to a sub-editing job at The Sunday Times. Coen's appearance on the BBC led to him making contact with his long-lost brother Tom, who saw the broadcast and traced Harry. The two were devoted to one another ever after.

Shifts at The Sunday Times led to a lengthy career in Fleet Street. Stints followed on The Observer, The Daily and The Sunday Telegraphs, and the Daily and Sunday Express.

His time on The Sunday Telegraph is famous for the manner in which it ended.

Shortly after becoming editor, Dominic Lawson gave a party for staff at his home. There were two instructions: do not bring anyone and do not smoke.

Coen arrived very drunk with a busty barmaid from Canary Wharf on his arm and proceeded to drop ash all over the carpets. When fish and chips was served, wrapped in copies of The Sunday Telegraph, Coen lurched up to Lawson, jabbed him in the chest and said: "You are now the editor of The Sunday Telegraph. You should be able to do better than this." Lawson told him to leave.

He did, and moved to The Daily Telegraph, where he became famous as a "rewrite man" -- a desk editor who could take the copy of the hurried, the inexperienced or the prosaic and make it sing.

His talents made him a vital resource for editors. But by his own admission he was not always able to work miracles. When once working with the printers on a story that was far too long, Coen was frantically trimming the excess as a deadline loomed.

"Come on, Harry," the compositor yelled. "Get on with it." Coen, stepping back with the outraged grimace of a sitcom queen, responded: "I may be a fairy, but I haven't got a ******* wand."

Beyond journalism, Coen loved Burgundy and its wines. His broad face would often break into a smile that revealed gappy, uneven teeth, the grey hair of his beard was yellowed by cigarette smoke and his love for wine and food added progressively to his girth.

Harry Coen and David Thornton, himself a sub on various titles, retired to the Cote d'Or region of Burgundy in 2005.

Harry Coen died of cancer in Beaune. At his adoptive village of La Rochepot, the 11th Century church tolled its passing bell three times each day in the week leading up to his funeral. David Thornton survives him.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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