Observing David Astor (part two)

Writers
Writers

David extended his paper's influence through good writing, and The Observer was above all a school for writers. He had seen how intellectuals like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler could project their ideas, and he maintained his respect for creative people with all their egotism and neuroses. He saw talent-spotting as his metier. 'Writing talent will always be as rare as gold,' he wrote when he retired, 'and will always turn up in unlikely places. Finding it - and being allowed to employ it - doesn't become easier. It's to me the most thrilling part of the job.' He depicted himself as a head chef who knew how to find and mix ingredients, provide sauces and devise menus. But he could also sound like a racehorse-owner discussing form, and 'horses for courses'. He often discussed how to devise a new 'throne' for an ambitious journalist, giving him a high-sounding title such as Home Affairs Editor; or how to play 'musical chairs' while leaving no one without a chair.

David's respect for good writing infected the whole paper: he never really distinguished between writers and journalists: he liked to turn novelists, poets or academics into reporters or columnists. The weekly deadlines gave plenty of time to experiment: we could spend a whole afternoon discussing a metaphor or turn of phrase, or the merits of commas or colons, and we all watched each other's tricks of style. The anonymous profiles, which would often pass through several hands, were a special challenge to meet David's standards of critical candour. He would often insist: 'What's wrong with this guy?' And David was assiduous in sending congratulatory cables to exceptional reporters, particularly to isolated foreign correspondents.

I soon had my own chance to turn to writing. After two years David was clearly realising that I was not organising things as he had hoped. It was probably an impossible assignment anyway: I remembered how James Thurber had described Harold Ross, the founder-editor of the New Yorker, welcoming each new recruit as a master-manager who would bring order to the editorial chaos; and I was no great organiser. But David, like a hopeful father, believed that everyone must be good at something; and he began tactfully suggesting other jobs - sending me abroad as a roving foreign correspondent, or asking me to write profiles. I soon realised David's skills as a hands-on editor. He had an instinctive sense of communicating with readers; and he knew how readers could suddenly be persuaded to read about a subject that they had thought boring: 'A peg,' he explained to me, 'is just a curiosity in the mind of the reader.' He knew how to get the reader's attention, to avoid cliches, to cut out verbiage. When I wrote my first profile, of the mission-doctor Albert Schweitzer, I laboured for hours on the perfect opening . David congratulated me on the piece but said: 'Just leave out the first paragraph. It's like a cough at the beginning of a speech. You just have to get it over with.'

When he asked me to take over the gossip column 'Pendennis' he sounded apologetic about this side-show, while explaining that it was the most popular part of the paper. But I seized the chance to meet and interview anyone I wanted to, and sum them up in 200 words. The pseudonym allowed me to pick everyone's brains, and build up a fantasy-personality: a worldly know-all who picked up juicy titbits from London drawing-rooms. The anonymity also gave David the right to interfere, but I never resented that: the worst thing an editor can do to a journalist's copy, I realised, is to ignore it. David read Pendennis carefully every week, his fountain-pen poised over the high desk, sometimes grunting, laughing or suggesting another phrase - Roy Jenkins's 'clever grin' or Aidan Crawley's 'comic chin' - or protesting: 'a bit too cruel?' He enjoyed the irreverence and only occasionally complained if I mocked a friend: when I mentioned French jokes about the first name of Sir Con O'Neill, the diplomat who was negotiating in Paris; or criticised Anthony Armstrong-Jones who had become engaged to Princess Margaret. The column was only a side-dish in the paper, a salad in the editor's cuisine, dressed with oil and vinegar: the real plats du jour were the arguments about high diplomacy or human rights. But David provided both the kitchen and the table for aspiring writers - the context in which they could develop their skills. And like many other journalists, I doubt whether I would ever have found my talent without him.

I left The Observer for a year in 1961 to write my book Anatomy of Britain, and returned thereafter to work for it in various roles, including editing the magazine and serving as Washington correspondent. I continued to see much of David privately and professionally: he remained a wonderful friend and retained his passionate interest in Africa, and the rest of the world. But for me no experience would be as inspiring as the six years when I saw him at close quarters, and the paper was at its peak.

After the mid-Sixties The Observer was facing much fiercer competition from the Sunday Times, first under Roy Thomson, then under Murdoch; and from the new Sunday Telegraph. The competition stretched the financial resources even of the Astors, while the battles with the unions provided a constant strain for David. In 1975 he resigned as editor at the age of 63, to be succeeded by his deputy, Donald Trelford.

At the end of the year a small group of old friends gave him a farewell dinner at the Gay Hussar. He was more resilient than I had expected, and he accepted calmly that his own ideas of a newspaper clashed with the commercial imperatives. Afterwards he wrote a thank-you letter to Terry Kilmartin, the literary editor. He explained that his real interests - the ecology crisis, war-prevention, the limitations of the European Community and the misdeeds of India or Indonesia - were not popular with most readers: 'If I were to have gone on editing the paper, giving full rein to whatever were my strongest feelings, as I tended to do in our early days, and if the paper had consequently appealed to fewer and fewer readers, and had by now died, you would have given me no dinner.'

David continued to be a trustee of the paper, involved in its continuing commercial problems and losses; and he was delighted when The Observer was bought by Robert O. Anderson, the American owner of the oil company Atlantic Richfield. For some years Anderson appeared a benign proprietor - until he precipitately sold the paper to Tiny Rowland, the buccaneering entrepreneur who represented almost opposite ideas to David's, and wanted to exploit the paper's reputation in black Africa for his own commercial purposes. For David it was a bitter betrayal of the principles he had followed, and it was a huge relief to him when in 1993 The Observer was bought by the Guardian.

Anthony Sampson is a distinguished writer and broadcaster. He is the author of Anatomy of Britain and Mandela: The Authorised Biography, and was on the editorial staff of The Observer in several roles from 1955 to 1966 and from 1973-74 as Chief American Correspondent

Anthony Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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