In Pyjamas

R.W. Johnson

  • Dear Bill: A Memoir by W.F. Deedes
    Macmillan, 451 pp, £14.99, July 2005, ISBN 1 4050 5266 X

Bill Deedes is justly celebrated as a nice man and an English archetype, the sort of character Ian Carmichael used to play in Ealing comedies: Woosterish, emollient, never standing on his rank, always accepting Tory family values – usually expressed more forcefully by a fearsome, chauffeur-driven auntie figure, as played by Margaret Rutherford, or, in Deedes’s own life, by Margaret Thatcher. Journalists love him – always have loved him – because he is so much one of them. When editor of the Daily Telegraph he horrified the paper’s hierarchy by drinking regularly in the pub next door with fellow hacks. He tried, he says, to turn down his peerage, but was told by Thatcher’s office that this was bad behaviour. So he accepted it but goes to the Lords as little as possible and refuses to take the daily allowance.

Although he is the only man ever to have been both a cabinet minister and the editor of a major national daily, he plays down his role as a de facto minister of information in the Macmillan government by saying that in a democracy no such job should exist and that he was happy to give it up. He also makes it clear that for him journalism is about writing – ‘you are as good as, and no better than, the last piece you wrote’ – and he prides himself on his ability to turn out a thousand good words in no time and under pressure: the reason Max Hastings, who followed him as editor of the Telegraph, and his successors always wanted to keep him on as a writer. He can be cutting about journalists whose main ambition is to rise to an executive level where they only boss around those who write – and particularly about Andrew Knight, the former Economist editor brought in as chief executive of the Telegraph by Conrad Black. Part of the deal was that Hastings should replace Deedes as editor, a changing of the guard that led Thatcher to throw a party for him at Number Ten. Knight phoned to let him know and to say he should choose who he wanted to invite:

It was very early in the morning. I had not entirely thrown off my jet-lag. I was in pyjamas, which creates an inferiority complex when you know the man on the other end of the telephone is fully dressed. This plan, I told myself unworthily, had more to do with the social aspirations of Andrew Knight than anything else. I became unreasonable and obstructive. There was an argument on the telephone, which I lost. At that stage, Andrew Knight was riding high. Most people lost their arguments with him.

The key weapon here is self-deprecation. Deedes’s account of Conrad Black is somewhat similar, although written before he knew that the FBI had seized all Black’s hard disks: Deedes, indeed, is a bit like Robert Graves’s Claudius, surviving every situation while more powerful figures are pole-axed all around him because he plays the buffoon so successfully that no one can see in him a future emperor.

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