Eric Clark obituary

Other lives: Consummate newspaperman and a fine writer with an immense range

My friend and former colleague Eric Clark, who has died aged 81, was both a consummate newspaperman and a fine writer with an immense range.

In the 1960s a Clark series in the Observer on mafia infiltration of London’s casinos led the home secretary, Roy Jenkins, to introduce swingeing new controls that cleaned up the British gaming scene and sent many American “businessmen” scurrying home. Towards the end of Eric’s career, his book The Real Toy Story (2007) exposed Chinese sweatshops turning out tat for western consumers.

Born in Moseley, Birmingham, to Horace, a television engineer, and Hilda (nee Mitchley), Eric had a desire to write from a young age – he wrote his first (unpublished) novel before he was 17.

The Want Makers, 1988, looked into the sometimes murky world of advertising. ‘Adland emerges as part fun house and part chamber of horrors,’ wrote the Washington Post
The Want Makers, 1988, looked into the sometimes murky world of advertising. ‘Adland emerges as part fun house and part chamber of horrors,’ wrote the Washington Post Photograph: None

After Handsworth grammar school, Eric worked for local papers, including Erdington News and the Birmingham Post, before moving to the Daily Mail, and then, in 1958, the Guardian, where he wrote authoritative backgrounders to such major events of the time as the Great Train Robbery. His last newspaper job was at the Observer (1964-72), where we met, and where he headed a small investigative unit.

In the early 70s, he and his wife, Marcelle Bernstein, whom he married in 1972 after his first marriage, to Frances Grant, ended in divorce, took the plunge and became freelance writers. One of his first, and strangest, prospective commissions was to write a life of Enoch Powell. At the meeting, Powell expressed surprise that Eric was married to someone Jewish. Eric naturally turned down the assignment.

Eric wrote thrillers, including Black Gambit (1978) and Hide and Seek (1994), compared by the Bookseller to the books of Len Deighton and John le Carré, as well as investigative non-fiction such as The Real Toy Story. The Want Makers (1988), a clear-eyed account of advertising practices, is still recommended reading on university marketing courses. “Adland emerges as part fun house and part chamber of horrors,” wrote the Washington Post.

One of Eric’s books – he wrote 10 – was a guide to survival, including how to escape from a submerged car. The TV personality Dave Allen decided to take the plunge – literally – with Eric on his show, Tonight with Dave Allen, in 1968. A tank was rigged up in the studio car park: the about-to-be-submerged pair discovered to their horror that the car, an old banger, leaked like a sieve.

“If things go wrong we’ll smash the tank,” the director assured them. “Do that and you’ll kill us both,” said Eric. He and Allen were nevertheless lowered in – and survived.

Eric worked well into his 70s, undertaking demanding magazine assignments – out with frontline police and the flying ambulance service, for instance – that proved his appetite for adventure and journalism never waned.

He is survived by Marcelle, their children, Rachael, Charlotte and Daniel, and grandchildren, Madeleine, Cecilia, Tabitha and Iris.


Robert Chesshyre

The GuardianTramp

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