David Astor was in his mid-30s and recently demobbed when, in 1945, he began to work full time on his family newspaper. Although he had long been the heir-apparent, his father, Waldorf Astor, felt that he needed more experience before becoming the editor of the Observer: he was made the foreign editor, while Ivor Brown, an old-fashioned man of letters, given to writing books about cricket and the theatre, held the fort as acting editor.
Cyril Dunn, later to report for the paper from India and South Africa, joined the Observer in 1947 and quickly realised that “David Astor was in total control of what was going on and Ivor Brown was making no attempt to disguise his figurehead status” and that “what I witnessed were the birth pangs of an Observer sensationally different from anything in its own past and a paper unique and wonderful in western journalism as a whole”. Astor was singlemindedly converting a conservative, rather frowsty newspaper into a non-party paper of the centre-left, famed for the quality of its writers: it would combine support for the postwar welfare state with a belief in free enterprise and the mixed economy, anti-communism and Atlanticism with a fervent belief, inspired by his mentor, George Orwell, that, having given India its independence, Britain should shed its remaining colonies.
William Waldorf Astor had moved to England in 1890 from New York, where the family fortune had been made from property in Manhattan: among his many acquisitions were Cliveden, the palatial country house overlooking the Thames in which David grew up, and the Observer, which he bought from Northcliffe in 1911. His son Waldorf had become a liberal-minded Tory MP, but resigned when he inherited his father’s peerage and his seat was passed on to his forceful but infuriating wife, Nancy, the first woman to take her seat at Westminster. David was the second of their four sons; the gentle, kindly Waldorf instinctively felt that he and David were kindred spirits and that David should, in due course, become the Observer’s editor-cum-proprietor.
To his father’s dismay, David seemed a lost soul after Eton and Oxford, but with the outbreak of war he began to involve himself with the Observer. It had been edited since 1908 by JL Garvin, a garrulous Liverpudlian Irishman who worked from his home in Beaconsfield. David had joined up in 1939, but he combined his military duties with working part time on the paper: to Garvin’s annoyance, he began to contribute ideas to the paper, including a column called Forum in which young, left-leaning writers including Michael Foot, Richard Crossman and EF Schumacher discussed the issues of the day. He put pressure on his father to get rid of the “old megalomaniac”, who was finally retired in 1942. David Astor was the kindest of men, loved and admired for his diffidence, his modesty and his generosity, but, as Cyril Dunn put it, “behind that shy charm was solid steel, capable of being applied quite cruelly in what he believed to be (almost always correctly) the paper’s interests”.
One of Astor’s less successful wartime manoeuvres was to appoint Cyril Connolly the arts-cum-literary editor. The experiment ended in tears, but it was symptomatic of two qualities that would become still more apparent when he finally replaced the hapless Ivor Brown as editor in 1948. Though never a great reader, Astor greatly admired Connolly’s magazine, Horizon, with its ruminative, discursive essays on literary and political matters; he remained, instinctively, more like a magazine editor than a newspaper editor, far more interested in interpreting than breaking the news.
He also preferred employing writers rather than professional journalists, whom he referred to as “plumbers”, a proclivity that eventually brought him into conflict with the National Union of Journalists. Through Connolly, he met George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, who became regular contributors; in later years, he appointed Eric Newby as the travel editor, persuaded Alan Ross to write on cricket and employed Gavin Young and the brilliant but deeply troubled John Gale, whose Clean Young Englishman is one of the finest English autobiographies. “I had no interest in conventional journalism and don’t to this day,” Astor once declared: according to Observer journalist Michael Davie, “the governing principle was that it should be written by amateurs”, on the grounds that “journalism is too important to be left to journalists”.
He was also a brilliant talent spotter. He employed Patrick O’Donovan, a journalist he particularly admired, “on the basis of an essay he’d written on one of the Brontë sisters”, and replaced Ivor Brown as theatre critic with the peacock figure of Kenneth Tynan. Michael Davie, who later became deputy editor, was recommended to Astor while he was still at Oxford, and taken out to lunch. “David leaned forward, head on one side, and asked me, to my utter bewilderment, whether I would consider becoming the Observer’s diplomatic correspondent,” Davie recalled. He eventually joined as the religious correspondent, which involved playing golf with Waldorf and talking to Nancy Astor, “who complained about the number of communists recruited for the paper by her son”.
Like many of the best editors, Astor was not a natural writer, but he was an impeccable line-by-line editor, paying particular attention to the leader page, the Pendennis gossip column, and – his particular passion – the Profiles, a feature lifted from the New Yorker. Anthony Sampson, who joined the paper in 1955, recalled how, when he was struggling to write a profile of Albert Schweitzer, Astor put his blue pencil through his redundant opening paragraph, telling him: “It’s like a cough at the beginning of a speech. You just have to get it over with.”
Sampson was “amazed by the apparent casualness” of the rickety offices in Tudor Street, which “seemed more like a family charity or an eccentric college than a commercial newspaper”. Astor drank very little, but the boozing was prodigious: O’Donovan and Philip Toynbee led the pack, but even they were eventually out-drunk by Clifford Makins, the sports editor, who had earlier edited Eagle, the upmarket boys’ comic, and commissioned contributions from El Vino wine bar. According to Sampson, Astor “had a touch of the impresario”, but he saw himself as a chef, mixing the ingredients – including photographs by the incomparable Jane Bown.
Astor was famously vague about money. Jessica Mitford was outraged by “the meagreness of the loaf” received by Philip Toynbee; Astor tended to assume that his writers had private incomes and was amazed to learn that many of them were paying mortgages (“Do you mean to say that most of my staff are living in debt?”). Colleagues with personal problems – alcoholism, broken marriages – were invariably recommended to a psychoanalyst, while those whose faces didn’t fit were never sacked outright: according to Michael Frayn they were taken to lunch at the Waldorf hotel and left to wither on the vine.
What Astor enjoyed above all were the interminable editorial conferences, which were initially dominated by an argumentative group of German and Central European émigré writers, including Koestler, Isaac Deutscher and Sebastian Haffner. Deputy editor John Pringle remembered Astor “listening attentively with a smile on his handsome, boyish face, occasionally brushing his hair off his forehead with a characteristic gesture, and sometimes intervening shyly but effectively”. Pringle found these conferences “brilliant and often informative”, but “they used to drive me nearly frantic because of the difficulty of getting a decision.’ Katharine Whitehorn, the women’s page editor, famously declared that “the editor’s indecision is final”, but although Astor would sometimes allow his journalists to vent opposing views in print as well in person – Nora Beloff and Robert Stephens on Israel and Palestine, for example – he always had the final say.
“In the character of this paper, ethics matter more than politics. The particular ethics could be roughly defined as doing the opposite of what Hitler would have done,” Astor once declared. He liked to study both sides of every conflict and “perhaps because I admired two parents who had diametrically opposed characteristics, the theme of my journalism was often one of reconciliation or of synthesis or simply of relatedness.” He saw the paper as “an extended conversation with the readers, always intellectually lively but never snobbish, exclusive or insiderish”. He had no time for polls or reader surveys – “I edit the paper for myself and my friends.” He had a passion for fairness, but “my aim has been to be militant in fighting for tolerance, freedom of expression, non-prejudice – all causes of moderation – here and abroad. What’s wrong with moderates is that they lack militancy.”
Astor was “far too worldly, too steely, too tactful to hark back with nostalgia to the cosier heyday of the late 1940s and early 1950s,” recalled John Thompson, who joined the paper as its news editor in 1962, but he regarded the years between 1948 and Suez as the Observer’s golden age. He is best remembered for his denunciation of the Eden government’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 and its secret collusion with France and Israel – and that year was critical for the Observer in more ways than one. At 568,969, the paper’s circulation had recently overtaken that of its old rival, the Sunday Times: it’s not true that it plummeted after Suez as a result of the outrage caused by Astor adding the line: “We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness” to Dingle Foot’s leader – but well-heeled middle-class readers who cancelled their subscriptions were replaced by relatively impoverished students and leftwing intellectuals. As the advertising director put it: “We had readers who had gardens but switched to readers who had window boxes” and Jewish firms in particular cancelled their advertising.
Postwar paper rationing came to an end the following year; Harold Macmillan announced that we had never had it so good, the consumer boom of the late 1950s was well under way, and advertising agencies were splashing out to left and right. All this coincided with the arrival in this country of a small, heavily bespectacled Canadian called Roy Thomson. Thomson acquired the Sunday Times in 1959, installed Denis Hamilton as its editor and revolutionised the world of Sunday papers. More space was given to women’s pages, to consumer goods, to sport and to business. Hamilton introduced the “Big Read”, buying the serial rights in the memoirs of Field Marshals Montgomery and Alanbrooke, and the paper’s circulation soared; in 1964, the paper launched its colour supplement.
Astor had a soft spot for “my old pal Thomson”: it was said that over dinner Thomson quizzed him about the Observer’s circulation, to which he replied: “I’m not sure, but it isn’t as big as the Sunday Times.” Astor then asked what the Sunday Times’s policy was on Berlin, and the answer came: “I don’t know but I’m sure I could buy one.” None of Thomson’s innovations appealed to Astor, but he reluctantly followed his rival’s example, still more so after the arrival of the Sunday Telegraph in 1961. His own interest lay in foreign affairs: the decolonisation of Africa and campaigning against apartheid were particular enthusiasms – “I wonder whether you realise how much you and the Observer must be largely responsible for saving Nelson [Mandela]’s life?” the South African activist Mary Benson once asked him – and he was as proud of his much-mocked support for the Naga people of north-east India as he was of the incomparable books pages, edited by his wartime comrade-in-arms, Terence Kilmartin.
Competition from the Sunday Times intensified as it moved into the Observer’s centre-left terrain following the appointment of Harold Evans as editor in 1967, and whereas Roy Thomson could subsidise his paper from Yellow Pages and North Sea oil, the Observer stood alone. Astor’s support for America over Vietnam alienated many of his younger journalists; he devoted his later years to worrying over money, circulation and battling with print unions and the NUJ. He resigned in 1975 and the following year his beloved paper was sold to an American oil company.
The last word should go to a rival editor. Peregrine Worsthorne once wrote of David Astor’s Observer that “his paper was wrong on most of the major issues – absurdly unrealistic about the prospects for democracy in black Africa, about the blessings of permissiveness, about Suez and so on. But it was wrong with such intelligence, and such an abundance of seriousness and knowledge, that even those who disagreed preferred its freshly minted arguments on the wrong side to a routine repetition of truisms on their own.”
David Astor: A Life in Print by Jeremy Lewis will be published by Jonathan Cape on 3 March, £25. Click here to order it for £20
- Why my father David Astor was right to campaign for Myra Hindley
- Shocking As It Is to Believe, the Theater May Be in a New Golden Age
- Remembering one of the most gifted draftsmen from a golden age of comics
- HTLS 2019: India’s role in the golden age of entertainment
- Sex fixer to the stars lifts lid on scandal in Hollywood's golden age
- The Curse of King Tut
- THE CURSE OF KING TUT
- From Fair Isle and star prints to 'selfie elfies' and Disney's Frozen, ten Christmas bedding sets we're loving this festive season
- Mysterious 'hidden chamber' in King Tutankhamun's tomb could be final resting place of Queen Nefertiti
- The curse of King Tutankhamun: From fatal fevers to malicious murders
- Aging Kings look to contend in competitive Pacific
- Thank You, Golden Globes, for Recognizing How Great Aaron Taylor-Johnson Was in
- St. Vincent, No Age, and Yeasayer were the next wave of 2007
- Golden Globes: Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rosamund Pike and Emily Blunt lead the British stars on the 2019 red carpet
- Golden Globes 2019: Date, nominations and how to watch
- Pamela Anderson shows off her stunning figure in a sparkling mini dress alongside her photographer friend David LaChapelle
- Kaley Cuoco reveals she's emotional about The Big Bang Theory coming to an end as she hits Golden Globes
- David Cameron 'saddened' by Saudi king Abdullah's death
David Astor: a king in the golden age of print have 2378 words, post on www.theguardian.com at February 7, 2016. This is cached page on Auto News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.