Neal Ascherson: ‘I was right in the middle of the 1960s convulsions throughout Europe’

The Observer’s cold war-era foreign correspondent recalls his early days as Kim Philby’s gofer, and the giants who dominated the paper’s early postwar era
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I entered dark and gentlemanly Tudor Street in 1960. In the beginning, my duties consisted of small reporting jobs, helping older war-veteran colleagues out of the numerous pubs around us, or carrying Kim Philby’s heavy typewriter for him.

I was amazed by the absence of urgency and the awesome authority of the survivors of the central-European “professorate” who dominated the paper: giants like Sebastian Haffner, Rix Löwenthal or (at an earlier postwar time) Isaac Deutscher, extrapolating the destiny of Europe from ruined Berlin, or from the fringes of some Paris four-power conference on Indochina or Germany. Their technique was known as “bombinating from the field”.

The length and intellectual depth of the conferences, which could easily last two hours, staggered me. I was won over by David Astor’s gentle charm, his lopsided, shy smiles as he popped another peppermint into his mouth.

It took me time to see how tough he was in some of his cast-iron opinions about the recent past. His kindness to me I’ll never forget, but some of the staff took sadistic pleasure in throwing temperamental scenes at him. His Freudian view was that they were adolescents longing for paternal authority.

The best work I did for the Observer was as a foreign correspondent during the later cold war, based in Germany but covering all of central and eastern Europe. I was right in the middle of the 1960s convulsions throughout the continent.

I was given amazing freedom for my left-wing views. “We couldn’t understand what you were trying to say,” was code for “‘We did understand, and hated it”.

The Observer still has an important role to play – more important than ever in this dangerous and chaotic period. Above all, it needs to keep Britain’s windows to the world open with great foreign reporting.

Contributor

Neal Ascherson

The GuardianTramp

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