The gifted am­a­teur


The Oldie - - BOOKS - by Jeremy Lewis

Jeremy Lewis ends his mar­vel­lous biog­ra­phy of David As­tor with the words: ‘he de­serves to be bet­ter re­mem­bered.’ It’s true. A third-rate nov­el­ist or poet may linger longer in the con­scious­ness. As­tor, who ef­fec­tively owned and edited the

Ob­server for nearly thirty years and was re­spon­si­ble for turn­ing it into a great lib­eral news­pa­per, is mostly for­got­ten. I won­der how many young jour­nal­ists have even heard of him. Few peo­ple may also re­alise that the

Ob­server has not al­ways been of the Left. Be­tween 1908 and 1942 it was edited by J L Garvin, the au­to­di­dact son of a wash­er­woman and an Irish labourer, and a man of the Right who be­came more so with the pass­ing years. Garvin built up the Sun­day pa­per’s cir­cu­la­tion, and made it re­quired read­ing. He was none­the­less even­tu­ally sacked by David As­tor’s fa­ther, Wal­dorf, the sec­ond Vis­count and fab­u­lously rich owner of Clive­den, whose fam­ily had ac­quired the Ob­server from Lord North­cliffe in 1911.

Wal­dorf had been a Tory MP in his younger days, and was mar­ried to the long-serv­ing Tory MP and fel­lowAmer­i­can Nancy As­tor, who be­came ex­tremely re­ac­tionary. Both were Chris­tian Sci­en­tists. It was an ec­cen­tric and not very en­light­ened sta­ble in which to be born. David As­tor re­acted against it. At Bal­liol (which he left with­out tak­ing a de­gree) he was vaguely of the Left with­out be­ing es­pe­cially po­lit­i­cal. As a young of­fi­cer dur­ing the war years he of­ten moon­lighted at the Ob­server, where he made his pro­gres­sive ideas felt. Af­ter the war he be­came an in­creas­ingly dom­i­nant pres­ence at the pa­per, and in 1948 his fa­ther fi­nally gave him the edi­tor’s chair.

Lewis por­trays As­tor as a gifted am­a­teur, se­ri­ous-minded with­out be­ing ei­ther book­ish or no­tably in­tel­lec­tual. We are told that he com­bined kind­ness and gen­eros­ity (he was al­ways help­ing out staff and friends with loans and gifts, though he didn’t pay jour­nal­ists par­tic­u­larly well) with a kind of shy stee­li­ness. Lib­eral causes such as African de­coloni­sa­tion were en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced. His great­est forte was spot­ting and at­tract­ing tal­ented writ­ers. He hired a young hard-drink­ing Ir­ish­man called Pa­trick O’dono­van with no jour­nal­is­tic ex­pe­ri­ence on the ba­sis of an es­say about one of the Brontë sis­ters. The new re­cruit turned out to be an ex­cep­tional re­porter.

There was a crew of in­tel­lec­tual cen­tral Euro­peans at the Ob­server rang­ing from the Right-wing Se­bas­tian Haffner to the Trot­sky­ist Isaac Deutscher. Cyril Con­nolly was tem­po­rar­ily on board un­til he fell out with As­tor. Kenneth Tynan was hired as the­atre critic. Arthur Koestler was a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor, as was Ge­orge Or­well, who be­came the edi­tor’s friend and men­tor. As­tor ob­tained new-fan­gled an­tibi­otics from America when Or­well was dy­ing from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, but to no avail. Af­ter the great writer’s death, and in ac­cor­dance with his wishes, As­tor ar­ranged for the body to be buried in the church­yard at Sut­ton Courte­nay in Ox­ford­shire near his own coun­try house.

The pa­per’s hal­cyon days were be­fore Suez, which de­fined the Ob­server’s val­ues. Hav­ing ini­tially de­monised Colonel Nasser, it bit­terly crit­i­cised An­thony Eden, whom it rightly sus­pected of hatch­ing a se­cret deal with the French and the Is­raelis. Some older read­ers from the Garvin era dumped the pa­per in dis­gust, but Lewis ex­plodes the com­mon Fleet Street myth that cir­cu­la­tion fell, ar­gu­ing that new younger read­ers more than made up the loss. What harmed the

Ob­server was the rise of the Sun­day Times, which af­ter its ac­qui­si­tion by the Cana­dian busi­ness­man Roy Thom­son in 1959 had much deeper pock­ets. Har­ried by ra­pa­cious print unions, the pa­per be­gan to lose enor­mous sums of money, ‘Ac­tions speak louder than words, Ron. And any­thing di­a­mond en­crusted is par­tic­u­larly au­di­ble’ and was bought by an Amer­i­can oil com­pany in 1975.

David As­tor’s Ob­server would seem ab­surdly high-minded to mod­ern eyes. No doubt I would have been ir­ri­tated by some of its pro­gres­sive causes. But be­cause it was so in­tel­lec­tu­ally am­bi­tious one could have for­given it much. Lewis quotes Pere­grine Worsthorne, who wrote: ‘It was wrong with such in­tel­li­gence, and such an abun­dance of se­ri­ous­ness and knowl­edge, that even those who dis­agreed pre­ferred its freshly minted ar­gu­ments on the wrong side to a rou­tine rep­e­ti­tion of tru­isms on their own.’ This metic­u­lously re­searched book takes us back to a lost age when news­pa­pers, and the de­bates in which they en­gaged, were still cen­tral to most peo­ple’s lives.

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