Thanks to my older brother, I was an Observer reader as a schoolboy. On most Sundays in the year or two either side of 1960 he would take the bus six miles to our nearest town and return with a paper that augmented the Sunday Post – delivered to the door that morning by the village newsagent – and its claustrophobic worldview formed fifty years before in Presbyterian Dundee. Where the Observer’s wider and obviously more up-to-date perspective came from I had no idea; the kind of smart remark that said it was a paper ‘written by Central European Jews for Central African blacks’ would have flown straight over my head. I didn’t know that it had championed the decolonisation of Africa or opposed the Suez invasion in a famous editorial that described Britain and France as gangsters. What I remember were the things that made us laugh: the column by Paul Jennings that had a tongue-twister about ‘tuskless rustics eating crustless Ruskets’; the strip cartoon by Jules Feiffer; the witty reviews by Kenneth Tynan of plays that we had next to no chance of seeing; the house adverts by the subversive estate agent Roy Brooks that my brother read aloud (‘The décor is revolting … rain drips sadly onto the oilcloth … sacrifice £3500’).
As Jeremy Lewis observes, it was a remarkably handsome newspaper, much more spacious in its page layouts and crisper in its black/white contrasts than its rival, the Sunday Times, which looked untidy and grey by comparison. Throughout the 1950s it was the dominant ‘quality’ Sunday paper, certainly in its cultural and political influence among the young if not always in terms of its circulation. It belonged to the era of what Lewis calls the ‘benign monopolies of English life’ – the BBC, the NHS, Penguin paperbacks – as yet unconcerned about ‘low-grade competition from upstart rivals’. The Observer published what it considered to be important and interesting, Lewis says, ‘without having to worry too much about the opposition, let alone about colour magazines, women’s pages, consumerism and popular culture’.
It was patrician, humane, cosmopolitan and inspiring, and behind it lay the struggle of a very rich man to do good. In his role as owner-editor, David Astor had more freedom than any other journalist in London, but power made him bashful and uneasy. When, towards the end of Astor’s editing career, the South African journalist Donald Woods proposed a series of interviews with him, Astor suggested that the theme shouldn’t be ‘How did a rich boy come to be so idealistic?’ but ‘How did a cripple come to have some success?’ By ‘cripple’ he meant mental not physical damage. Only many years of psychoanalysis, he believed, had saved him from self-destruction through anxiety and depression. Most mornings, the car that took him from his home in St John’s Wood to the Observer offices near Fleet Street would divert to Sigmund Freud’s old house in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, where Freud’s daughter Anna still saw patients. There, Astor would spend a daily analytic hour on the couch attempting to understand his relationship with the woman who had ‘crippled’ him. This was his mother, the irrepressible Nancy Astor, a nightmare we would all want to be woken from.
Too much money and too much mother; small wonder that Isaiah Berlin decided David Astor was ‘a neurotic, muddled, complicated, politically irresponsible, unhappy adventurer, permanently resentful of somebody or something … a typical poor little American rich boy’. But on the evidence of Lewis’s perceptive and absorbing biography, that verdict falls wide of the mark.
‘Oh my sweet , how glad I am that we are not rich,’ Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, after a visit to Cliveden in 1936, complaining about the ‘ghastly unreality about it all … like living on the stage of the Scala theatre in Milan’. The Nicolsons were hardly impoverished – they’d moved into Sissinghurst Castle a few years before – but the Astors were something else again. As well as Cliveden, a mansion so large that meals proceeded from kitchen to dining room by miniature railway, they owned a London house in St James’s Square, a Highland estate on the island of Jura, and a 16-bedroom seaside ‘cottage’ at Sandwich in Kent. Waldorf and Nancy Astor and their five children somehow found the time to live in all four; worried about the safety of Jura milk, Nancy had her own cow dispatched to the island every season by train and steamer. But it was Cliveden, perched above a bend of the Thames near Maidenhead, that established the Astors’ reputation as society hosts and entertainers. After dinner the histrionic Nancy would put on a wig and insert a pair of theatrical false teeth and do her impersonations, making the fastidious Nicolson wish he were elsewhere.
The Astor fortune had its origins in the fur trade monopoly that John Jacob Astor established in New York after migrating there from Walldorf in the Rhineland in the late 18th century. The profits went into buying up large tracts of Manhattan when it was still mainly farmland and scrub; later, when the fields grew into streets and buildings, many of them held on Astor leases, the investment reaped a prodigious annual return. H.G. Wells said of one of John Jacob’s great-grandchildren, William Waldorf Astor, that he extracted rents ‘as effectively as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit’, though by Wells’s day spending rather than getting had become the most visible Astor occupation. With an exaggerated version of the anglophilia common to his age and class, William Waldorf declared America unfit to be the home of a gentleman and bought Cliveden from the Duke of Westminster for $1.25 million in 1893, later adding Hever Castle in Kent to his country addresses and dividing his London time between a magnificent house in Carlton House Terrace and a fantastical Gothic villa on the Embankment (now a gallery, 2 Temple Place) that he had built as an office.
Owning a newspaper brought a newcomer influence and attention. William Waldorf bought the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892 – firing the editor when he refused to publish his contributions – and then in 1911 paid £5000 to take the Observer off Lord Northcliffe's hands, Northcliffe having fallen out with the paper’s bright-spark editor, James Louis Garvin, over the question of imperial trade preference. Buying the Observer had really been the idea of William Waldorf’s son, also called Waldorf (the Astors had a confusing paucity of first names), and four years later he made him the owner, one of a series of paternal gifts that included the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York (a birthday present) and Cliveden itself (a wedding present when he married Nancy Langhorne in 1906). Waldorf had been put through Eton and Oxford to become an English gentleman, ‘modest, selfless, wise, prompting quietly in the wings rather than acting on the stage’ in the description of the political contacts-man and Astor consigliere Tom Jones, using words of the sort that later stuck like labels to Waldorf’s son David wherever he went.
Waldorf’s wife, whom he met on an Atlantic crossing, was the opposite. Variously compared to a gnat, a grasshopper and a Chinese cracker, Nancy Langhorne was the small and domineering daughter of a hard-drinking Virginian, who made his fortune in railroad construction. David was the third of their five children, born in 1912 the month before the Titanic sank, drowning one of his American relatives, the fourth John Jacob Astor, the ship’s richest passenger and one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Waldorf was by now Tory MP for Plymouth and had high hopes of political advancement, but these came crashing down when in 1916 Lloyd George’s coalition offered his father a peerage to reward his philanthropy and his newspapers’ longstanding support of the Conservative cause. Waldorf was furious when his father accepted, because he would have to succeed him as the second Baron Astor, which would mean resigning from the Commons and ending his political career. Father and son never spoke to each other again in the three years William Waldorf had left to live.
The episode had important consequences for the family and added a footnote to political history. By changing his will in favour of his grandchildren rather than his son, William Waldorf made his grandson David rich when he was still very young; even as a student he was giving money to good causes. And Nancy, by contesting and winning the Plymouth constituency that her husband had had to forfeit, became the first woman to take her seat in Parliament.
Bolstered by a public role that made her more than just a châtelaine, she made her Cliveden house parties into starry events. All sorts of people turned up for the weekend; the guest list in the interwar years included George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, H.G. Wells, Mary Pickford, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin – even Gandhi. David’s prolonged exposure to celebrities in his childhood meant that they held no fear for him as an adult. Sometimes, when Nancy got unusually loud or agitated, her husband would squeeze the back of her neck and murmur ‘Easy, steady,’ a calming movement that Lewis compares to the action of ‘a groom with a recalcitrant mare’. David found his mother ‘the funniest and most compelling entertainer’ in the Astor family, but others’ judgments were less generous. Chips Channon, an American social climber who knew another when he saw one, found her ‘dynamic, unbalanced and foolish’. In the opinion of her biographer, John Grigg, she lacked ‘the two qualities most desirable in a parent … calm and the readiness to praise’. In David’s life, she seems to have been at first too absent and then far too present.
He was a pretty boy, ‘an extraordinarily attractive little creature’ according to his prep school headmaster, but not scholarly or perceptibly clever. He preferred talking to reading – an Astor trait – and kept a beagle pack and a polo pony. In his last year at Eton winning the hurdles was his only distinction, and he dropped out of Balliol after two years of PPE. Overwhelmed by the combination of recrimination and possessiveness that became the hallmark of his mother’s correspondence, he developed what he later described as ‘a kind of self-contempt’ which he supposed came out of the struggle between his desire to be loyal and loving and his need to get away. ‘I wish you’d been born an ugly girl, then you couldn’t leave me,’ Nancy told him. They quarrelled about the Christian Science that she and then Waldorf had adopted and which David was the first of her children to renounce. (‘He thinks Christian Science has failed him,’ Nancy said. ‘Needless to say, it never occurs to him that he has failed Christian Science.’) In a torment of loneliness and suicidal depression, he wrote dozens of letters – sometimes twenty or thirty a day – to his close friends and family, until some relief arrived in the form of an early encounter with psychoanalysis. Lewis suggests that analysis filled the vacuum that Christian Science had left – as a belief system that offered explanation and comfort. Certainly he never stopped believing in it or proselytising its good effects, either by personal testimony or in the funding of charities or clinics – a psychiatric unit at Guy’s Hospital was one.
Complicating his feelings about himself was the noblesse oblige that had become the code of the Astors. ‘You are lucky enough to be rich; that gives you a profound responsibility towards those who are not so lucky,’ was Waldorf’s wisdom to his sons. ‘Nobility’, David wrote to his mother, consisted of ‘an appreciation of the common good and the unselfishness and ability to administer it’. An Eton teacher, ‘Red Robert’ Birley, had encouraged him to read the Marxist economist Harold Laski and to visit the school’s ‘mission’ in London’s East End, which David had found ‘very useful as it gives me an opportunity of becoming acquainted with members of the middle and lower classes (I hate the word!) in an unofficial and convenient way even if at first it is a little forced’. But the role of the Good King soon began to pall. At Oxford, he wrote to a friend: ‘I wish to God I’d been brought up in an intelligent, sane (but not too stiff and British) middle-class family with a close connection with some kind of work – productive, necessary, sobering, enlightening and respectable work. (The parasitic element running our family life is most unpleasing.)’
He inherited his share of his grandfather’s legacy when he was 21 and almost immediately set up a charitable trust, stipulating in a newly drawn-up will that any money left in the trust should be given to causes that would improve ‘the condition of the wage-earning class so as to bring about greater economic and social equality’. A different kind of nobility – the nobility of labour – now appealed. He could hardly pass a farmworker, a trawlerman or a Glasgow engine-fitter without wishing to be him, up to a point. Tom Jones, the ever ready family adviser, fixed him up with what would now be called internships in a Rhondda colliery and a Glasgow engineering firm, places where David found a kind of knowledge and experience that in his view was ‘far more accurate and significant to the life of this animal, man, than most of the gup talked by the greybeards and warty-faced youths of Oxford University’.
By this time, he felt himself to be ‘a sort of refugee from my family’, but this was a romantic illusion: his family had simply given him a long length of line, which they soon proceeded to reel in without the catch putting up too much of a struggle. After his eldest son, Bill, had become a Tory MP, Waldorf began to see the Observer as David’s inheritance and Tom Jones was commissioned to sound out publishers and newspaper executives for advice on how he might be trained as an editor. His uncle, the fifth John Jacob Astor, owned the Times, and David spent some time in its offices; but he served most of his apprenticeship, such as it was, on the Yorkshire Post, where he wrote a charming little series on North Country foxhunts and quickly got bored. Waldorf, meanwhile, prepared his son’s entry to the Observer by suggesting to its editor, who was still J.L. Garvin, that David attend directors’ meetings and editorial lunches, a prelude to the shareholding and the seat on the board that soon came his way. ‘He has been a slow developer,’ Waldorf wrote to Garvin, ‘but he is getting keener on the Observer.’ David then submitted a piece on circus folk that Garvin displayed prominently, only to receive a letter from the novice author thanking him for the article’s ‘exalted position’ on the page but finding fault with the editing. Then he began to bombard Garvin with the things old editors hate most: ‘new ideas’.
Garvin’s life now took a turn for the worse. He was an autodidact born in Birkenhead to a washerwoman and an Irish labourer who died when his son was two. He left school aged 13, though by that time he had already consumed Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and after several years as an office messenger and clerk eventually got a start in the newspaper business as a proofreader on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. In his teens, he wrote pieces advocating Irish Home Rule, but when he moved to London and a leader-writer’s job on the Daily Telegraph he turned a political somersault, embraced Unionism and became a confidant of imperial figures such as Jackie Fisher, the first sea lord, whose ambitious battleship-building programme Garvin publicised and encouraged. His greatest achievement was to transform the venerable (founded 1791) and loss-making Observer into the prototype of the modern ‘quality’ Sunday newspaper by combining news with books and arts coverage – ‘half a newspaper; half a magazine’ in his own description. When Northcliffe made him editor in 1908, its circulation had fallen below five thousand a week; by the early 1930s it was selling more than forty times that figure.
In 1938, Garvin turned seventy but showed no desire to retire. He came to the office from his Beaconsfield villa only one day a week, to attend the staff lunch that allowed him to behave as ‘an encyclopedic egoist’, in his colleague Ivor Brown’s phrase, who drank large brandies and smoked big cigars and entertained a loyal audience that included the proprietor, the courtly Waldorf, and writers such as C.A. Lejeune, hired as film critic from the Manchester Guardian, and Joyce Grenfell, who as David’s cousin had presumably been taken on as the paper’s radio critic at her uncle’s suggestion. Waldorf wanted Garvin to like David, and Garvin did his best, but any warmth he managed to manufacture was never returned. ‘One of the days I’ll murder Garvin,’ David wrote to his father. He was ‘out of date, pompous, dangerous, wrong-headed, hypocritical … a bulgy-eyed old maniac’.
There were other things wrong with Garvin: as David pointed out, what kind of editor came into the office for a few hours once a week and did the rest of his editing by telephone? But he stuck to the job like a limpet, confident that he was too grand and too good at what he did to be replaced by a young man whose experience of journalism consisted of a few pieces about foxhunts and circuses, even if the young man in question was the owner’s son. By now the Second World War was underway; as it progressed, the Astor family’s connections gave David the ready access to politicians and intellectuals that not many of his rank (temporary second lieutenant, Royal Marines) enjoyed. It made him ambitious and as grand, in his own way, as Garvin. Put in charge of an army camp on Hayling Island, he complained to his mother that ‘a simpleton straight from a lesser public school’ would be adequate to the job. Another time, mourning the end of his leave, he wrote that he ‘must go back to my rows of dumb contented little middle-class officers … and find in them something I can love’. Unlike the workers, the middle classes didn’t pull the Astor heartstrings. And if Waldorf was David’s moral exemplar, Nancy was often his tongue.
He wanted a cleverer kind of work, something in intelligence or ‘political warfare’, which was the term he preferred for anti-Nazi propaganda. As he reminded his mother in a letter written in November 1940, his credentials were sound. He’d been right about Hitler ‘since 1931 when I saw what sort of man he was from what he did in Germany itself’. At Cliveden, which had acquired a reputation as the Appeasers’ HQ, he’d argued with Chamberlain while ‘being smiled on reprovingly’ by the other guests. He was the only person who’d failed to find von Ribbentrop ‘charming’ when the German foreign minister came to lunch at St James’s Square. ‘The oracle is now telling you,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘that we must organise the country on a military-socialist basis (rather like Nazism) but with higher ideals than anyone has dared to proclaim – such as a Federation for Europe, a more egalitarian economy, rapid advance towards equality of responsibility in the empire.’ The ‘elderly men’ who ran Britain didn’t understand that ‘our cause is so much more than the Union Jack and the White Cliffs of Dover, which is all that Winston really represents.’ Hitler had to be fought with ideas.
He was far from alone in this thinking, which grew in popularity and influence as the conflict progressed, culminating in Churchill’s defeat and Attlee’s postwar government. The identity of the Observer, as David Astor was to refashion it, grew from similar roots. From his military camp on Hayling Island, he would travel up to London whenever he could to attend meetings of kindred spirits, including journalists and writers such as Michael Foot, Tom Hopkinson (of Picture Post), Tom Harrisson (of Mass Observation), Alastair Forbes and Stephen King-Hall, some of whom became Observer contributors when Astor took charge. But that was years away. In the meantime he started to work for Louis Mountbatten in Combined Operations during the week and for the family newspaper in the evenings and at weekends. Garvin continued to be a block and an irritant – ‘the old ogre of Beaconsfield’, David called him – but nevertheless agreed to publish (how could he not?) a sprawling piece by David on the use of propaganda and sabotage in modern warfare, though only after Waldorf and the paper’s deputy editor had spent a night knocking it into publishable shape.
The first real sign of change came when Garvin, after pressure from Waldorf, agreed to give David control of a 900-word slot in the middle of the paper, where young writers who shared his views about the conduct and aims of the war could have their say under the rubric ‘Forum’. As well as Foot, Harrisson and King-Hall, they included Richard Crossman, George Orwell and E.F. Schumacher. Garvin, who was fiercely pro-Churchill, wrote in his diary that these unwelcome contributors were ‘carpers, crabbers, grousers, disappointed prigs, pedants, muddlers, moonstruck dreamers … the people who don’t lift a finger to fight the war but are really skulkers in uniform’. But to Waldorf he said that David had ‘the makings of a remarkable man’ and that he wouldn’t ‘displace it [Forum] for all the world’. David’s hypocrisy was no better, though his livelihood didn’t depend on it (Garvin’s salary came to £3500 a year, which in the early 1940s was roughly ten times the average wage). To Garvin he said: ‘I always find talks with you stimulate and delight me.’ To his mother he wrote: ‘I almost believe I will be able to tame the old dinosaur.’
Lewis says of the younger Astor’s contribution to ‘the slow erosion of Garvin’s position’ that it was an early glimpse of an unexpected ruthless streak; certainly his role, then and later, as his father’s office spy doesn’t seem to figure among his wide-ranging self-doubts. But in the end, it was Garvin’s stubborn loyalty to Churchill that did for him. The Astors had never liked Churchill – they found his drinking and war talk offensive and his patriotism blinkered – and when in 1942, a year of British military disaster, Garvin wrote a leader supporting Churchill’s dual role as prime minister and defence minister, Waldorf finally summoned up the courage to fire him. There was injustice to this. As the resentful Garvin pointed out, he had raised the Observer ‘from nothingness’, he was ‘the creator and organiser of the whole show’. And it would be impossible to describe Waldorf’s plan for his son to succeed Garvin as editor as anything other than nepotism – risky nepotism at that, because who could tell how good or bad he would be? But as the eventual result was one of the best newspapers Britain has ever produced – and now, given the dark future of the trade, will ever produce – the nepotism is forgiven and forgotten. Life is unfair.
David Astor became the Observer’s editor in 1948, appointed by the trust his father had set up so that, in Lewis’s words, he could ‘disguise or make more palatable the hard realities of power and ownership … some kind of velvet glove for the iron fist’. Waldorf and David transferred their shares to the trustees, who were required to be Protestants and to use the paper to promote good relations between the English-speaking peoples, freedom of the press and the independence of writers. In theory, the trustees owned the paper and the editor was answerable to them; if a dispute arose between them, it could be referred to a tribunal that comprised the warden of All Souls, the master of Trinity College, Cambridge and the master of the Inner Temple. These finest of English gloves dressed the hard fact that David Astor both owned the paper and edited it.
His promotion had taken time. During his years in the Marines – usually spent in England though he was wounded in 1944 during an SAS mission in France – his father replaced Garvin with a series of acting editors. The last of them, Ivor Brown, an old-fashioned book-lover and bellettrist, was nominally in charge when at the war’s end Astor arrived as the foreign editor. Brown’s was a humiliating position – ‘exalted but frustrating’ in his words – because there was no concealing from the staff that Astor had the real power in the office and that he was impatient to formalise it, seething at Brown’s antipathy to the new writers he was keen to employ. An instrumental figure here was Cyril Connolly, who had been hired over the objections of both Brown and Waldorf as the paper’s arts and books editor and quickly replaced the Observer’s old-guard reviewers, ‘bookmen’ like Brown, with fashionable names that Waldorf didn’t know (‘I do like to feel that I have at least heard of the man who is writing the review!’). Out went Frank Swinnerton, Edmund Blunden, L.A.G. Strong and Arthur Bryant; in came A.L. Rowse, Maurice Richardson, Peter Quennell and Nancy Mitford. More important, it was Connolly who introduced Astor to Orwell, who became his friend and mentor, and whose literary style he so admired that new arrivals on the paper were greeted by a circular on green paper setting out Orwell’s advice on how to write. Orwell’s experience as a contributor to the paper wasn’t particularly happy: Ivor Brown took him on as a reviewer very reluctantly and treated him like a novice, frowning at his copy and wondering if he couldn’t add ‘a bit more colour’. But when Orwell urged David to interest himself in the decolonisation of Africa – to make sure ‘we didn’t make the same mistakes we’d made in India’ – he gave advice that, when later heeded, made the Observer’s reputation as a campaigning newspaper.
In Garvin’s last years, the Observer had pretty well gone to sleep. News replaced classified advertising on the front page only in 1942. That same year it became the only Sunday newspaper not to cover the Allied landings in French North Africa; when the news broke, David rang the paper at 2.30 on a Sunday morning to find that practically everyone had gone home. There was a lot to change. In 1945, when he first began to work full-time for the paper, he told his mother that once newsprint was more available the Observer should aim for a circulation of 500,000 by publishing ‘the best stuff, aesthetically and intellectually, that appears in any paper … Its political opinions must be taken seriously by the serious minded, its facts accepted as gilt-edged, and its literary and artistic patronage must be ever more valued.’
Statements of intent of this kind are both uninformative (‘the best stuff’?) and hard to fulfil. The personality of the successful paper that emerged under Astor’s leadership had more interesting origins than a straightforward need to excel. Later, in an undated ‘Memo on the Soul of the Paper’, he reflected that ethics had mattered more than politics in forming the Observer’s character. ‘The particular ethics,’ he wrote, ‘could be roughly defined as trying to do the opposite of what Hitler would have done.’ He was ‘haunted by what Hitler showed to exist in all us ordinary people’ and sought an antidote in what he called ‘contra-Hitler attitudes’, which included:
treating opponents respectfully; opposing those who work up hatreds, but doing so non-violently; trying to understand people and to explain them to each other; valuing differences; not exaggerating your own case; avoiding over-dramatisation or enjoyment of the sensational; practising moral courage, particularly daring to stand up to ridicule, and showing respect for that in others; discouraging herd thinking, particularly among those ‘on our side’; religiously, pedantically respecting truth; honouring reason and its extension to the study of the overwhelmingly irrational in all of us; challenging taboos and legends, particularly those our sort of reader usually accepts; avoiding the cheap and the spurious … deliberately cultivating doubt and scepticism, but not cynicism; practising self-criticism – as liberals, as internationalists, as journalists – as well as dishing it out to everyone else.
There is, of course, a Scouting for Boys aspect to these values, an uncommon code in newspaper offices then as now, but they infused the atmosphere at the Observer throughout the long course of his editorship, which lasted nearly thirty years. They had several sources. Some were inherited from his father and others obtained during sessions with Anna Freud; but perhaps the biggest inspiration was the young German aristocrat Adam von Trott, who was a Rhodes scholar when Astor met him at Balliol in the early 1930s and formed what Lewis describes as an ‘extremely potent friendship’ with him. Von Trott enchanted everyone he met at Oxford – Isaiah Berlin was ‘completely captivated’ by his good looks, charm, wit and scholarship – though his intense German patriotism (to which a duelling scar gave physical emphasis) led eventually to the general suspicion that he was a Nazi sympathiser and perhaps even a Nazi agent. But Astor always believed the opposite story, that von Trott was secretly working with the opponents of Nazism, and through his family connections helped him meet British political leaders, including Chamberlain. In 1944, von Trott was executed by slow strangulation with piano wire for his part in the July Plot to kill Hitler; even so, many of his former Oxford friends went on believing that there had been no smoke without fire and were slow to credit his heroism. Berlin believed Astor had been ‘besotted’ with von Trott, and perhaps he had been. ‘He was the greatest member of my generation in any country that I have ever met,’ he told von Trott’s widow. ‘I was very attracted by … his extraordinary historical perception, and by his obvious goodness.’
The first big changes to the Observer came from a similar generation of European anti-Nazi intellectuals, known to some on the staff as the ‘German exotics’. In fact, only Sebastian Haffner and E.F. Schumacher were German; Isaac Deutscher, Arthur Koestler and Jon Kimche came respectively from Poland, Hungary and Switzerland. Several were Jews; another new recruit, the reporter Cyril Dunn, wrote that Astor had an ‘indestructible respect for the brilliance of the Jewish mind’. Their foreignness made a startling difference to the Observer and to the way it was perceived; no other British paper gave pride of place on its opinion pages to so many émigrés. But they were freelance essayists rather than the reporters that a newspaper ultimately relies on. He found the latter in all kinds of places, often preferring writers to professional journalists. It gave him pleasure to take risks with stylish young writers and give them, as he said, ‘a very free hand and encourage the news editor and the managing editor to treat them deferentially because a good writer is more important than the man who’s editing him’. Perhaps remembering the way he himself got into the business, he strongly opposed that idea that journalism was a skill like plumbing that needed an apprenticeship – ‘plumbers’ was the way he once referred to members of his editorial staff whom, for one reason or another, he didn’t find gifted or amusing enough.
Among the first of the non-plumbers to arrive was Patrick O’Donovan, a red-faced, hard-living Irishman (Ampleforth, Christ Church and war service with the Irish Guards) who came on the recommendation of the diplomat Nico Henderson. He had never published a word in his life, but within a few years had acquired the reputation as the finest writer on the paper, a reporter who could be sent anywhere – wars, state funerals, village fêtes – to file a piece that somebody in the office would be sure to declare ‘pure poetry’. Isaiah Berlin, then attached to the British embassy in Washington, recommended another recruit, William Clark, who despite only a small experience of journalism turned out to be a brilliant acquisition as a writer on economics and world affairs, and as an editor too, persuading Astor, for example, to follow the New Yorker’s lead and devote most of a single issue to John Hersey’s revelatory book on Hiroshima. (Clark was ebullient, camp and a shameless name-dropper. When at an editorial conference somebody suggested he write a profile of the young queen, Astor replied, ‘Oh, no, he’s much too close to her.’)
Astor’s instinct found several others who were crucial to the paper’s success. Terence Kilmartin, first encountered by Astor during his wartime adventure in France, was made literary editor (Connolly had long gone) after a spell as a radio journalist in Jerusalem. Michael Davie was first offered a job over lunch with Astor at Boodle's club when he was still at Oxford. Anthony Sampson came from Drum magazine in South Africa. Philip Toynbee arrived after his father, the historian Arnold Toynbee, called to wonder if Astor could rescue his son from drink, depression and riotous behaviour. Colin Legum, expelled from his native South Africa, joined the paper after working as a psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic, becoming the writer who did most to identify the paper with the anti-colonial cause in Africa. Kenneth Tynan replaced Ivor Brown as drama critic after he wrote to inquire whether he might be Brown’s second or third string; Astor thought appointing Tynan was ‘the bravest thing I ever did, and one of the most important’.
Life in the Observer’s offices was consequently fairly chaotic, with alcohol no less a feature than it was in the rest of Fleet Street. Toynbee spent his afternoons in post-lunch slumbers; O’Donovan went on self-destructive binges; Alastair Buchan, the novelist’s son, combined a barking, military voice with bouts of drunken violence. Meanwhile, the editor (the proprietor of ‘Dr Astor’s clinic’ as some knew it) sipped a modest glass of white wine or Mateus rosé. Michael Davie recalled that the paper’s governing principle was ‘that it should be written by amateurs’, who would be more or less in command until Saturday arrived and the ‘harsh mechanics’ of newspaper production took over. Professionals from daily newspapers – sub-editors mainly – would turn up to do a shift and get the paper out, supervised by the production editor, Ken Obank, who was the only member of staff with experience of a big Fleet Street daily. According to Davie, Obank’s politics grew increasingly right-wing in reaction to the opinions he heard expressed at office conferences, where ‘the rambling and abstract nature’ of the conversation was a sore trial for a man whose mind ‘dwelt on the prospect of late copy and missed trains’.
Obank, however, would have had to make a much longer journey to the right before he met the views of his editor’s mother. Nancy Astor fretted that her son was turning her husband’s legacy into a ‘socialist’ paper (socialism figured along with Roman Catholicism, psychiatry, the Jews and the Latins in the list her youngest son, Jakie, compiled of her bêtes noires). A war of attrition began that she kept up until her death in 1964, which turned Observer staff outings to Cliveden into fraught excursions. ‘So you work for my son with all those niggers and communists?’ she asked Sampson. ‘So this is the man you have hired to turn our paper into a coon gazette?’ she asked her son, on being introduced to Colin Legum.
But the Observer had found its audience: a post-imperial generation, who, as Sampson later wrote, were detached from industry and finance (and Britain’s declining economic power) and ‘more concerned with inequalities and injustices, and with creating a fairer world’. A weekly sale of 360,000 copies in 1947 climbed steadily to pass the half-million mark, until in September 1956 the paper overtook its old rival, the Sunday Times. British, French and Israeli troops invaded Egyptian territory a few weeks later, an act that from the beginning smelt of collusion between the three governments, and the Observer published its celebrated editorial calling on the prime minister, Anthony Eden, to resign. Dingle Foot QC, a former chair of the Observer Trust, was the writer, but it was Astor who added the memorable words ‘we had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.’
Two myths have grown around this episode: that the Observer stood bravely alone among newspapers in opposing Suez and that its opposition angered many of its readers and led to a collapse in circulation from which the paper never recovered. In fact, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Herald and, most fiercely, the Manchester Guardian were also anti-Suez. (By setting the pace, Lewis writes, the Guardian lost some readers in the North but gained many more in London and the South, which may have played a part in its decision to drop Manchester from its title in 1959 and move its headquarters to London five years later.) The Observer didn’t lose readers; its pre-Suez peak sale of nearly 569,000 copies had increased to a weekly average of 633,000 by the second half of the following year. Unfortunately, in terms of advertising revenue, they were the wrong kind of reader: young, idealistic and relatively poor compared to the middle-aged generation they replaced. In the words of the paper’s advertising director, Bill Smart: ‘We had readers who had gardens but switched to readers who had window boxes.’
Smart’s troubles didn’t end there. Among the companies that withdrew their advertising on political grounds were firms owned or run by Jews who were upset by the Observer’s criticism of Israel’s role. In exchanges with Astor, Marcus Sieff of Marks & Spencer wrote to say that ‘the reputation of your great paper has been lowered,’ and, though Astor replied robustly, the damaged relationship with Sieff and people such as Max Rayne hurt him and he tried for years to repair it. Astor sometimes said that he wished he’d been born a Jew; as it was, he was born into a family that considered itself part and parcel of the political establishment: he first met Eden in the 1930s at a Cliveden house party and Eden had taken a friendly interest in his wartime career. For every person who saw Astor as an anti-Zionist, hundreds more saw him as a traitor to his class and his country. The Observer received 866 letters of protest and three of its trustees resigned. Astor’s attitude to Suez brought him increasing esteem as the years wore on, but at the time it was a traumatic event.
When I started work in the Sunday Times newsroom in 1970, my colleagues would sometimes describe the Observer half-admiringly as ‘a writers’ paper’, to be enjoyed for the quality of its prose rather than the level of its information. The Sunday Times tended to display the opposite qualities: in its news and news features pages, it ranked the story above the writer. In the Observer office, several writers and reporters could turn in pieces that their friendlier colleagues might describe as ‘poetic’, but that was much less likely on a newspaper that had made the anonymous Insight team one of its star attractions. Around 7 or 8 p.m. every Saturday night, after our first edition had gone to press, messengers would deliver the first editions of our Sunday rivals to the news editor’s desk, where the night staff would go through them to see what they had that we hadn’t in the way of stories, and, where necessary, follow them up and prepare versions for our later editions. ‘That’s a lovely piece,’ somebody might say of a report by X or Y in the Observer. ‘Yes,’ someone else might drily add, ‘his usual thing – think of a metaphor and then double it.’
By this time, the Observer had fallen well behind the Sunday Times in sales. Neck and neck in the mid-1950s, a distance opened up when the Sunday Times serialised Montgomery’s war memoirs over 14 weeks in the autumn of 1958, spending £100,000 on promotion (free ‘Monty’ Toby jugs were given away by newsagents) and adding the same number to the circulation. Newsprint rationing had ended in 1957 and consumer advertising had started to boom, allowing both papers dramatically to increase their size and follow the American practice of dividing their larger paginations into sections. Denis Hamilton, then the editor of the Sunday Times, devised what he called his ‘Big Read’ policy by devoting the early pages of the new second section (‘to be kept for leisure reading’) to expensive book serialisations, mainly the stories of famous men such as Montgomery. Hamilton came to believe that this was the ‘secret weapon’ that had ‘blasted the Observer out of the water’, but the Observer lost the race (by the mid-1970s, the Sunday Times was selling nearly twice as many copies) for many other reasons, including the mismatch of its editor/owner’s personality to a brasher new age.
Rather than size, stunts or what he called journalistic ‘flapdoodle’, Astor persisted in believing that what mattered most was how intelligent his newspaper looked and read. He hired Ruari McLean, the typographer who had worked with Allen Lane to create the first Penguin paperbacks, to give the paper an elegant redesign, and McLean commissioned Edward Bawden to draw a new version of the royal coat of arms that sat with the masthead on the front page. (That later owners and editors junked these designs was, for anyone who cared about such things, an aesthetic crime.) The new look displayed the work of a new generation of writers. John Gale, Alan Ross, Eric Newby, Katharine Whitehorn, Michael Frayn, Gavin Young, Mark Frankland and Neal Ascherson were among the names Astor hired and promoted, resisting what he saw as ‘the general tendency towards brightness at the expense of intelligence, which follows fairly inevitably from the general office concern at the circulation advances made by the Sunday Times’.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the quality press, who thought of themselves as thinkers rather than technicians, Astor was a much better copy-editor and headline-writer than he was a writer. He was kind, and well liked in his roles as the compiler of congratulatory messages to his reporters at home and abroad, and as the tolerant chairman of the fortnightly meetings where the whole staff would gather to express their opinions, and the twice weekly editorial conferences where, as a colleague remembered, he would sit ‘listening attentively with a smile on his handsome, boyish face, occasionally brushing his fair hair off his forehead with a characteristic gesture, and sometimes intervening shyly but effectively’. His character had its drawbacks. Rather than firing or talking directly with members of staff he didn’t like but had somehow acquired, he froze them out – a slow torture for the victim. The interminable discussions that drove the production editor crazy never got any shorter, partly because Astor was an admirable listener but also because he couldn't bear to delegate decisions. More than one witness shared Anthony Sampson’s amazement that the atmosphere could be so casual, ‘like a family charity or an eccentric college’, with Astor’s conversation peppered with schoolboy words such as ‘hols’, ‘chums’ and ‘okey-dokey’. Neal Ascherson, reflecting on his time at the paper, tells Lewis that his colleagues were like a ‘brilliant dysfunctional family’ led by a man whose ‘enduring qualities were kindness and courage’. ‘David fed them,’ Ascherson added, ‘and his feeding hand was sometimes sharply bitten. It was a frightfully emotional paper.’
But these were minor flaws – perhaps even creative flaws – compared to his problem with money. Not, or not until the last days of his editorship, the lack of money; rather the difficulty, common to others who are self-consciously or guiltily rich, of getting him to notice the fact that money mattered. A famous anecdote concerns mortgages. The version I know is slightly different from the one recounted in Lewis’s book, but it goes like this. At an editorial meeting one day, the conversation turned to the likely impact of an interest rate rise on mortgages. Astor had listened to many similar discussions over the years and said nothing. Now he plucked up the courage to ask a question: ‘What is a mortgage?’ It was explained that people who owned houses mainly bought them on borrowed money. ‘Good heavens!’ Astor said, rubbing his brow. ‘You mean to tell me that most of my staff are in debt?’
Money really began to matter when the Canadian newspaper publisher Roy Thomson bought the Sunday Times in 1959. Astor commissioned a profile of Thomson, which shocked him by its unfairness when he read it on holiday on Jura; he was always immensely proud of the Observer’s profiles and their Solomon-like judgments of people. He wrote Thomson a letter of apology and then, to welcome him to Fleet Street, invited him to meet the Observer’s senior staff over dinner at the Savoy, where Thomson asked how much money the Observer was making. ‘I don’t deal with that side of the paper, you will have to ask the general manager,’ Astor replied. Thomson then wondered about the circulation – how big was it? ‘I’m not sure but it isn’t as big as the Sunday Times,’ Astor said, and then, anxious to leave commerce behind, asked Thomson what his policy was on Berlin. To which the Canadian magnate is said to have answered, ‘I don’t know, but I am sure I could buy one.’
For a while, Astor sailed blithely on, believing that his newspaper was immune to the vulgarities of profit and loss. He predicted to a friend that ‘our worthy friend Roy’ would beat the Observer commercially ‘without noticing that we will have won in the competition for which paper is most heeded – which suits us fine, as we have no shareholders, being owned by a trust which is a legal charity.’ What he meant was that the Observer would continue to command the greater respect and influence, no matter how much more money the Sunday Times made – not understanding that the Observer’s revenue might be badly affected by how much market share (not an Astorian concept) its rival could grab. The arrival of the Sunday Telegraph in 1961 made the competition even fiercer, while the Sunday Times’s colour magazine, launched the following year, began to attract profitable colour advertising as well as a new generation of readers. The Observer played catch-up. It too went for ‘Big Reads’ on its second-section front and it too eventually launched a colour magazine; but they seemed pale copies of the originals, outbid by the Sunday Times for first serial rights in big-name biographies and glamorous photography. Astor could comfort himself with the thought that razzmatazz and consumerism weren’t the reason he was in newspapers. But after the Sunday Times appointed Harold Evans as editor in 1967, the Observer lost its place as the only Sunday paper with a radical conscience. A greater contrast to Astor would be hard to imagine: Evans was the son of a Manchester engine driver and got his first job as a reporter on a Lancashire weekly at the age of 16. Now, as editor, he led lively and sustained campaigns to rectify perceived injustices (thalidomide was the most famous) and funded reporting teams that could spend weeks, or even months, inquiring into the causes of plane crashes or failed government policy. He hired staff from a wider demographic: I have no statistics to prove this, but when Auberon Waugh described the Sunday Times as a paper ‘run by grammar school boys’ he was on to something. Despite the Jews and Central Europeans who survived at the Observer, its staff in general seemed public school and Oxbridge by comparison. On those Saturday evenings in the newsroom when we turned our rival’s pages, publicly scornful and sometimes privately admiring, we were looking at something rather beautiful that was beginning to die. Or so it strikes me now.
Astor quit as editor in 1975 and in 1977 the trustees sold the paper to an American oil firm, Atlantic Richfield. His last years had been hard. The paper had shared presses with the Times in New Printing House Square until 1973, when the Times decamped to join its Sunday sister paper in Gray’s Inn Road. This was a disaster for the Observer, which found itself with enough workers and machinery to produce a daily paper when it needed to produce only a weekly one. Suddenly, labour costs accounted for 36 per cent of turnover. Family money helped keep the paper afloat, but Astor and his managers had a long hard battle with the print unions – then at their most bloody-minded – before (under threat of closure) they agreed to job cuts of 25 per cent. A similar percentage of journalists took voluntary redundancy. Astor resigned feeling that his paper had been saved.
He devoted the rest of his life to many acts of public philanthropy and private kindness. After Lord Longford desisted, he became Myra Hindley’s most prominent champion and prison visitor. In South Africa, he paid a regular allowance to Winnie Mandela, sent books to her husband on Robben Island, and in 1978 covered the travel costs of ANC delegates from Africa to a London conference. Domestically, his politics were hardly left-wing and, thanks partly to the print unions and the agitation for a closed shop from his journalists, he made a sharp turn right in the 1970s. ‘Good luck in the strenuous and brave cause you are pursuing,’ he wrote to Ted Heath in 1974, when the Tory government was struggling with the miners’ strike. ‘The fact that the idle rich are socially indefensible does not mean that they are fair game for use as entertainment,’ he reproved an editor who had praised a Sunday Times piece satirising the friends of Lord Lucan. The Code of the Astors demanded fairness to all.