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

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 ??  ?? Worsthorne, bot­tom, circa 1970, and be­low, with his sec­ond wife Lucinda Lambton, who looked af­ter him de­vot­edly in his years of frailty
Worsthorne, bot­tom, circa 1970, and be­low, with his sec­ond wife Lucinda Lambton, who looked af­ter him de­vot­edly in his years of frailty

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