Letters: the late David Astor

In the wholly unsympathetic political climate of the 1980s and 1990s, he prompted and funded a clutch of ground-breaking charities which have begun to transform the previously closed and bureaucratic world of our prisons.
Benedict Birnberg writes: The enthusiasms of David Astor (obituary, December 8) were catholic, encompassing such disparate subjects as organic farming, psychoanalysis, Ireland, South Africa, the Middle East, censorship and, above all in his last 30 years or so, penal reform. In the wholly unsympathetic political climate of the 1980s and 1990s, he prompted and funded a clutch of ground-breaking charities which have begun to transform the previously closed and bureaucratic world of our prisons.

From the day in 1981 when David presented himself unannounced in my high-street solicitor's office in Southwark, south London, I was privileged to be engaged in the formation of, in turn, the Prison Reform Trust, to campaign from more humane prison regimes; the Butler Trust, to make awards to prison officers for innovative work or ideas; the Prison Charity Shops Trust, to promote the sale of prisoners' works and the Prison Video Trust, to make education videos for prisons (and of which David remained a trustee until his death).

These initiatives succeeded the Koestler Trust, which is now renowned for stimulating the creative artistic talents of prisoners.

It was David's peculiar magic to draw into his projects coteries of people from various walks of life. To name but a few, a writer like Arthur Koestler, the architect Sir Hugh Casson, the Queen's private secretary Sir Arthur Ford, former home secretaries Lords Carr and Merlyn-Rees and Rab Butler's sons Sir Richard and James Butler, former prison governors like the Rev Peter Timms and Brendan O'Friel, judges like Lord Woolf, penal reform campaigners Ruth Runciman and Terry Waite, former high-ranking civil servants, fellow journalists like John Grigg, skilled organisers Veronica (now Baroness) Linklater and Dorothy Salmon, and old friends like Richard, Lord Attenborough.

Always in the background, there was David's quiet, but resolute, presence. Although he would have disowned any comparison with the 18th-century prison reform campaigners John Howard and General Oglethorpe, he deserves to share with them what Alexander Pope dubbed a "strong benevolence of soul".

Illytd Harrington writes: Among my most vivid memories of David Astor are scrubbing out a toilet with him in a battered wives' hostel, where hepatitis had broken out.

Later, David, as chairman of the Chiswick shelter, with myself as deputy leader of the Greater London Council and Lord (Arnold) Goodman, his solicitor and master of University College, Oxford, set off to persuade the London borough of Hounslow's planning committee to allow us to extend our residential premises. A large crowd of boisterous objectors and sundry other local residents greeted us with ripe and memorable abuse.

Goodman left with dignity intact; David and I endured - and, eventually, we won planning permission.

The GuardianTramp

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