David Astor: transformative Observer editor and founder of Amnesty International

David Astor: transformative Observer editor and founder of Amnesty International

David Astor couldn’t help being born rich any more than most of the rest of us can help being coming into this world on the other side of the tracks. What made him different from most of the kidnapable classes was that he did some worthwhile things with his life. His good works ranged from transforming the Observer into one of the most influential English language newspapers in the world, helping to found Amnesty and Index on Censorship, and supporting a London refuge for battered women.

One would have thought the Guardian, present owners of the Observer, might have treated Jeremy Lewis’s superb biography of Astor with the respect it deserves. Instead we got Roger Lewis’s mean-spirited and error-strewn review (David Astor by Jeremy Lewis – how the Observer’s celebrated owner-editor coped with being so rich, 18 February).

For instance, William Waldorf Astor didn’t build Cliveden, he bought it. Nor when he acquired the Observer in 1911 did he sack JL Garvin, who remained editor for the next 30 years. The man he fired for rejecting his articles was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, a much smaller publication. And he certainly wasn’t named after a hotel. Waldorf is the family’s native Rhineland village.

But these errors pale into insignificance compared to the way he traduced David Astor’s war record. “During the war, Astor joined the Royal Marines and guarded Deal,” he writes. “He met a Resistance leader in France but ‘a mild attack of dysentery’ put paid to any heroics. While in a field hospital he met a ‘bibulous’ Terence Kilmartin, so later made him literary editor of the Observer.”

Astor, having transferred from the Royal Marines to Special Operations’ Executive after a spell on Mountbatten’s staff, was in a field hospital because he had been wounded in action during a German ambush in the Ardennes. Kilmartin, also in SOE, was with him and was among those who dragged the next editor of the Observer into a ditch. His biographer makes no mention of him ever visiting Astor in a field hospital but without doubt both men were at the heroic end of things.

After this shared peril Kilmartin, who after the war was in Jerusalem for the Foreign Office, was eventually appointed the Observer’s literary editor. Those of us who knew him on the Observer remember the excellence of his book pages and a wry, amusing man who never let on that in his spare time he was engaged in the mammoth task of updating Scott Moncrief’s translation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He usually had a kind word for the younger members of the editorial staff and I think most of us regarded him as the embodiment of all that was best about David Astor’s Observer.

Colin Smith

Nicosia

The GuardianTramp

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