The Daily Telegraph
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne
Brilliant, restless, irreverent journalist who edited The Sunday Telegraph and strove in his articles to avoid ‘consensus opinion’
SIR PEREGRINE WORSTHORNE, who has died aged 96, was among the most unpredictable and provocative columnists of his generation, as well as the most stylish. Often, during his brief but brilliant editorship of The Sunday Telegraph in the late 1980s, “Perry”, as he was universally known, would tell his staff that unless they could make their readers splutter over their breakfast cereal the work was no good; and no one caused more splutterings, whether from the Left or the Right, than Worsthorne himself.
He had come to The Daily Telegraph from The Times as a leader writer in 1953, but he much preferred signed articles, in which he could go against the political grain of his paper when he felt like it.
“Nothing gives me more pleasure,” he wrote once, “than to come across a new argument … Having always been a Tory, there is no nook or cranny of Tory philosophy that I have not thoroughly explored … Nothing to excite me there.”
So he liked, as he put it, “from time to time to travel Leftwards” – and neither his readers, nor, one suspected, he himself, could be sure from week to week where these excursions would lead him. Excitement was what he was after.
His great value to the apparently conformist Telegraph was that he was not a party man. “A proper understanding of ideas,” he wrote in a 1980 piece on the business of being a columnist, “requires a willingness to search for affinities.” He told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that his aim was “to avoid anything that might be mistaken for consensus opinion” (he also told her that his luxury would be a limitless supply of hallucinogens).
In 1989, in an attack on The Guardian, he declared that it was the Left and not the Right that was “reactionary”, since the Left’s contempt for the institutions of authority would in the end lead back to tyranny. Such paradoxes delighted him.
Time and again he repudiated the conventional categorisations, such as that which made equality the ideal of the Left and freedom that of the Right. Of Margaret Thatcher, after a student demonstration against her, he wrote: “Not only has she trampled on genuine ideals with deep roots in our national history but enjoyed doing so … The Tory Party should take stock.”
And he questioned the “almost messianic bigotry” with which the Thatcherite revolution had been espoused by its supporters. She, nevertheless, knighted him in the resignation honours which followed her departure.
Worsthorne had wanted an editor’s chair since the 1950s. But when the chance came in 1960, from the board of the Yorkshire Post, he turned it down. It was a decision he would regret, for he was to be twice passed over as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, which he joined at its foundation in 1961.
Nor was he happy when the paper’s founding editor, Donald Mclachlan, ordered him to write high-level political exclusives, a task quite unsuited to his talents. Mclachlan in due course relented and allowed him the freewheeling opinion pieces which were to make his name.
It was not until more than a quarter of a century had passed, and his old master Lord Hartwell had resigned the editorship-in-chief, that he got the editorial chair he wanted. But then his new proprietor, Conrad Black, decided to merge the daily and Sunday papers, and he lost it again. His three years as editor of The Sunday Telegraph had been, he said, the best of his life.
The rumour was that his failure to get the editorship of The Sunday Telegraph under Hartwell was due to a television discussion in which he purposely let slip the F-word, infuriating not only Hartwell (and even more his wife), but also the then editor, Brian Roberts, who complained indignantly that this sort of thing had an adverse effect on a newspaper’s circulation.
Worsthorne afterwards expressed his contrition, first by word of mouth and, much later, in his own paper. But it was not the dread word that kept him out of the chair. The truth was that his views were too eccentric, even perhaps too smart, for his conventionally minded proprietor, who said he would rather have him as a columnist than directing editorial policy. In any case, Worsthorne’s dislike of writing leaders, and his obvious lack of interest in anything to do with the technicalities of newspaper production, made him an unlikely candidate.
But when, early in 1986, the Telegraph’s new Conrad Blackappointed chief executive, Andrew Knight, gave him the job, Worsthorne showed that he thoroughly understood the duty of a serious newspaper editor, and he attacked the task with a nervous energy which surprised those who had seen only the languid public figure. (On television he was not impressive, seeming not to worry if for a few seconds – a long time in television journalism – he found himself at a loss for a word.)
He quickly cut himself loose from the constraints of leader-writing by the device of the signed leader, a deft reversal of traditional Telegraph thinking, demolishing Hartwell’s old objections at a stroke. But it was his restless interest in the startling or the new which put zest into the paper.
An idea for an article, perhaps discussed enthusiastically over lunch with a like-minded friend, was unlikely to get into the paper if it turned out to be less than startling after all: the professional instincts usually prevailed in the end.
As editor, Worsthorne made some unwise appointments, since he was not always able to distinguish between friends and enemies, and he was a poor administrator. His frequent changes of mind infuriated his staff, as did his uncertain temper when things went wrong. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in a Guardian profile, described working for him as “like living in the court of the Mad Emperor, where no one ever knew what the next strange move would be or off with whose head it was that day”.
But the circulation rose, much to his personal credit, until Knight decided to support The Daily Telegraph by transferring the Sunday’s colour magazine to Saturday, a move which lost the Sunday an immediate 50,000 copies.
A few months later, at the merger of the two papers, Worsthorne found himself in charge of only four “Comment” pages, an enclave known in the office as “Worsthorne College”, where his distinctive voice could still be heard. The college’s most important alumnus was probably Frank Johnson, the dazzlingly witty parliamentary sketchwriter and much else besides.
Peregrine Gerard Worsthorne was born on December 22 1923. His father was a Belgian expatriate, Colonel Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, who had changed his name to Worsthorne (after the village in Lancashire) two years earlier.
Worsthorne recalled that at the family home in Cadogan Square he was taught by a governess from the age of six, and rooms allocated to his absent father remained untenanted. His father’s name was never mentioned, and his mother lived there alone, except for a large staff of servants.
But by the time Perry was 10 his mother, Priscilla (née Reyntiens), had left his father and married Montagu Norman (later, as Lord Norman, to be Governor of the Bank of England). His stepfather seemed not to be particularly interested in Perry, or in his brother Simon (many years later his mother wrote that “Perry was nearly always antagonistic, even at the breast”).
Much of his childhood was consequently spent in the company of his grandmother’s butler, James Burton, to whose “acute sense of hierarchy” Worsthorne was to pay tribute years later in an article in the Independent Magazine. Burton was a corporal in the Home Guard when the 16-year-old Perry was a private in the same corps, a reversal of roles which the butler carried off with aplomb. “He was an authentic hero of inequality,” Worsthorne concluded approvingly.
Young Perry was sent to a progressive prep school at Abinger in Surrey and thence to Stowe on the insistence of his mother, who had thought that Stowe was also a progressive school; he was said to be annoyed not to have been sent to Eton. Educational theories at Abinger had not taught him much, and it was some time before Stowe realised that it had a clever little boy on its hands and moved him up from the bottom form.
Already he showed immense style and elegance. Traditions differ as to the exact cut and colour of the tweed suit which he ordered for himself and for which, to the glee of schoolmates, he was discovered having himself fitted.
He kept his dignity when subjected to the usual brutal humiliations at the hands of the thugs of Grafton House, one of the more philistine houses at Stowe at that time; and by the end, partly because of a witty tongue, partly a natural presence, he had achieved complete mastery over them.
He later insisted, in a collection of essays about people’s schooldays, that when at Stowe he had been seduced on a sofa by George Melly, a story the jazz musician denied.
From Stowe he went to Peterhouse, Cambridge. One of his supervisors there was the historian Herbert Butterfield, whose famous distrust of political enthusiasms seems to have struck a chord in his pupil. At school and at Peterhouse he began a lifelong friendship with Colin Welch, who would be deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph from 1964 to 1980. The two of them were the brains in papers which were in some respects solid rather than brilliant.
At Cambridge he continued his career, begun at Stowe, as a bold, glamorous grandee with a flair for the unexpected. When war came he was turned down by the Coldstreams and found himself in the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, then joined Phantom, the Intelligence outfit attached to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. It was in Phantom that he met and was under the command of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who became an abiding influence on him.
Injured on an assault course while training, he was sent to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and spent six months recuperating, during which he became a temporary member of Magdalen College. He returned to Peterhouse after the war to finish his degree, then went to the Glasgow Herald as a sub-editor.
On his arrival there, much to his embarrassment and the contempt of the commissionaire, he found he had mistaken the humble post of subeditor for that of deputy editor, which suggests that what he lacked in experience he at least made up for in self-assurance.
Two years later he joined The Times and stayed there for five years, including a stint in Washington (though his pro-republican stance and his approval of Senator Joseph Mccarthy found little favour in Printing House Square), before joining The Daily Telegraph under Colin Coote.
Part of Worsthorne’s charm, which was almost formidable, came from his outrageous good looks: the bright blue eyes and – until they turned an elder-statesman silver – golden locks, slightly feminine mouth and penetrating drawl ensured that his entrance into most company was immediately noticed.
But it also came from an engaging frankness which could be positively foolhardy. His voice could often be heard, not merely at private dinner tables but also in more populous places such as the Beefsteak or the Garrick, giving his opinions of colleagues or reports of conversations with others.
He enjoyed telling stories against himself, such as his rebuff by a grim-faced Australian prime minister on one of those travels which, written up in the form of diaries, produced his best journalism; or his visit to Conrad Black in the latter’s Canadian demesne, when he failed to find the entrance: he had ignominiously to climb a wall, and arrived at the front door, as he told it, “looking like a drowned rat”.
The foreign diaries are a happy mixture of the grand and the selfdemeaning. In California he admits his annoyance at having to turn down an invitation to meet the film star Merle Oberon because of a previous engagement with an earnest political journalist. “An evening with Merle Oberon might have been more fun,” he writes, “but perhaps not so enlightening, at least about public affairs.” His colleague Alan Watkins of The Observer sagely described the itinerant Worsthorne as “a combination of Mr Pooter and Lord Curzon”.
When he complained in one of his Spectator diaries that The Times had failed to notice his birthday, readers were puzzled: could he possibly be serious – presumably not, or he would not have mentioned the subject? Friends put his frankness down to innate modesty, enemies to an unshakeable self-regard. The fact was that keeping his mouth shut was simply not in his nature.
He was by no means as conceited as he sometimes seemed. Only a few weeks before he lost his job as editor of The Sunday Telegraph he received written assurances from Andrew Knight that the paper’s identity was safe, which encouraged him to send a letter to all its journalists confidently denying rumours of a merger and attaching Knight’s letter to him. His subsequent unexpected dethronement made him, he wrote in The Spectator, “sick with indignation and shame”.
When Knight left to join Rupert Murdoch’s News International he wrote: “We all felt bitterly disillusioned about Mr Knight’s good faith; disillusion which would have been even greater if we had guessed at the time that Mr Knight was about to desert the ship that he had done so much to sink, and desert it, moreover, to take command of the enemy.”
Worsthorne wept when a junior colleague commiserated with him for his loss of the editorship: he had not realised how much his staff, or at least some of them, had liked him. These were not the tears of a complacent man.
It is true that he had always had an exhibitionist streak, evident in his sharp way of dressing (he liked scarlet socks and shirts with the broadest stripes). In Brighton during a Tory party conference in the early 1970s he swapped shirts with the then Mrs Nigel Lawson (the former Vanessa Salmon, a famous society beauty), an exchange which shocked some fellow diners at Wheeler’s restaurant; but this may have been due less to exhibitionism than to a simple desire to test the theory that some shirts, in the words of a well-known advertisement, Looked Even Better on a Man. It is not certain that he noticed that anyone else was present.
In the spring of 1989, in a high-flown Sunday Telegraph leader, he belaboured the editors of The Sunday Times and The Observer for irresponsibility and abuse of privilege. Both had been seen with a beautiful adventuress, Pamella Bordes: Andrew Neil, the Sunday Times editor, had met her in Tramp nightclub and had subsequently had an affair with her. This was not, said Worsthorne, the place for editors of responsible national newspapers, who ought to be testing the political temperature in less frivolous venues.
In a celebrated libel case, which was often written about as New Britain vs Old Britain (with Worsthorne happy to be the standard-bearer of Old Britain), Neil and The Sunday Times sued Worsthorne. Neil was awarded £1,000 and his paper an even more derisory 60p. In court Neil described Worsthorne as a member of “the Garrick Club mafia”, and some press comment suggested that he was a quaint survival from the past; but Worsthorne had meant that leader: he really did care about the duties of an editor.
Much of his thinking dated from the wartime meeting with Michael Oakeshott. It was Oakeshott who confirmed him in his habit of questioning accepted propositions. “At the risk of sounding pretentious,” Worsthorne wrote, “I would like to suggest that a political columnist’s approach to ideas ought to be more that of political philosopher – however unsuited to the task he may be – than that of practical politician.”
This was a typical Worsthorne sentence. He was always ready with a disclaimer if he foresaw that his readers might accuse him of being pompous or perverse.
It was Oakeshott again who, early in Worsthorne’s newspaper career, persuaded him to despise political ideologies and programmes of social reform. “Oakeshott had taught me,” he was to write in his memoirs, “how to feel superior not only to socialism, or even to what passed for Conservatism at that period, but, in effect, to the modern world.”
He was constantly misunderstood by the Left, which put him down as a knee-jerk Tory, a wildly inaccurate judgment. He had a certain sympathy, admittedly cerebral rather than emotional, for the Left wing of the Labour Party as it saw the ideal of a truly working-class government dissolve under the dominance of middle-class intellectuals.
His argument was that socialism, having begun as an attempt to politicise the labouring class, was bound to end with the workers seizing the chance to get out of it; and that since it required a “bossy” administration to make it work, it would inevitably spawn a new elite with powers never enjoyed under laissez-faire Conservatism.
The need for a strong ruling class was a recurring theme in his weekly columns and in his book The Socialist Myth (1971). For despite all the paradoxes and the eager search for something new, Worsthorne’s political stance showed a lifelong consistency. He yearned for a stable society in which the rights of the lower orders and the duties of the higher were clearly defined in a strong nexus of mutual regard.
His autobiography, Tricks of Memory, was published in 1993. In it he claimed that it was not until he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1953 that he began to think of journalism as a serious profession rather than as an agreeable hobby for a man about town with a taste for philandering.
But he never lost his taste for high living, for old silver, linen napery, cut glass and good champagne. His description of the meals he enjoyed with Lady Pamela Berry at the Berrys’ house in Cowley Street verges on the ecstatic. “Anybody’s spirit would rise,” he wrote, “at sitting down at such a lunch table and when the first course turned out to be eggs florentine, a favourite dish, mine almost exploded with pleasure and excitement.”
In a notable contribution to the Sunday Telegraph magazine in 1986, under the headline “My Country Right or Wrong?”, he wrote: “My patriotism owes more to the past than the present and smacks heavily of nostalgia.” He felt surrounded by aliens on the London Underground: “King’s Road, once my neighbourhood, is now like a nightmare vision of hell.” Punks made him feel sick; “Guardian women” disgusted him. And he deplored the “revisionist historians who tell us that all our British heroes had feet of clay”.
In 1950 he had married Claude Bertrand de Colasse (known affectionately as Claudie), who died in 1990, and to whom he soon afterwards paid an almost unbearably moving tribute in his weekly column for The Daily Telegraph.
He was knighted in 1991, and in the same year he married Lady Lucinda Lambton, one of the daughters of Lord Lambton, who survives him with his daughter, Dominique. He then gave up editing The Sunday Telegraph Comment section and settled down with his new wife at her house in Buckinghamshire, whence for several years he continued to send a weekly column to his old paper – not so much now about the affairs of the day as about his occasional travels or domestic doings. In 2004 he published In Defence of Aristocracy.
His marriage to Lucy Lambton was a great love match. Worsthorne spent the last five years frail and confined to bed, latterly suffering loss of mental sharpness, and she looked after him beautifully.
Whether the reader agreed with Peregrine Worsthorne or was maddened by him, his clear, relaxed, discursive style was always compelling; and whatever his disappointments he never lost sight of his aim – “genuinely original, iconoclastic, irreverent journalism”. It is for this, if for nothing else, that he will be remembered.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, born December 22 1923, died October 4 2020