12 JANUARY 1991, Page 24

Between the office and the garret

William Scammell


Heinemann, £18.50, pp. 311


Verso, £29.95, pp. 286

Like approximately a million other people, I was a friend of David Blundy', wrote Simon Hoggart after that journalist's tragic early death in San Salvador in November 1989. I was one of the million too, and for five or six years closer than most. We arrived at Bristol University together in 1964 to read English and Philosophy. Dave was impossible to miss, tall and shambling, an improbable mixture of Jacques Tati and James Dean, with something of the throwaway look on his face (who me?) later raised to an art form by a certain American politician. He never arrived anywhere on time, seldom knew where he was supposed to be, and ran out of cigarettes even more often than I did. Things fell out of his pockets. Beer glasses and coffee cups tipped themselves over at the slightest sign of his approach. Girls did too. (He was, as his editor nicely puts it, an homme fatal.) Essays were invariably writ- ten at the eleventh hour, often at 3 am sitting on the edge of my bed while my wife or his girl-friend Ruth made him more coffee. I had spent many years out in the big bad world earning my living before turning student, and hence regarded my- self as something of an authority on 'real- ity'. On the strength of this I informed him that after graduation, assuming he ever got that far, he would be unemployable. Whereupon he confounded us all by get- ting on to the Thomson journalists' train- ing scheme and racing up to the top of the ladder. In no time at all his expenses alone were about three times the size of my salary.

At the time of his death he was the Sunday Correspondent's chief newsman in America, following a stint on the Sunday Telegraph and a long and distinguished career on Harold Evans's Sunday Times, where he began as an assistant on Atticus and rose to become a brilliant foreign correspondent in Northern Ireland, Washington, and the Middle East. He was killed by a stray sniper's bullet, no one knows from which side, in El Salvador's nasty civil war. His last recorded words, as he lay wounded on the ground, could not have been more appropriate to his charac- ter — `Get me out of here!'

As everyone who knew him fondly recalled, he had the lowest boredom threshhold in the history of mankind, a comic sense that left all 24 ribs bruised, and sufficient generosity to light up the postal districts of London. The dust-jacket of this valuable memorial to his skills presents him as a hard-bitten, photo-fit, suitable case for treatment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately the contents show what an outstanding and self-effacing reporter he was, especially when untangling the labyrinth of Arab and Middle Eastern politics, and the PR luna- cies of modern America.

There's one small mistake in Anthony Holden's generous appreciation of his career. He wasn't 'editor of the student magazine' at Bristol, I was, and brought Dave in as assistant. It was called None- such Magazine and it ran more ,book reviews than any student magazine ever, chiefly because we had organised a sump- tuous flow of books from all the main publishers. Angela Carter, another con- temporary, contributed what must have been some of her earliest stories and poems. Together we made of it a highbrow literary ghetto, and bankrupted the thing for years to come.

The wake at the Reform Club, to which Harold Evans kindly invited many of us after the packed memorial service at St Martin's in the Fields, was like the funeral scene from Truffaut's film The Man Who Loved Women. The place was solid with David's intimates, of both sexes; women who'd adored his little-boy-lost innocence and good looks, men who similarly adored his honesty, his manic humour, his unfail- ing warmth of heart. It was this last characteristic, I think, that was the most important element in his appeal. It melted everyone in sight, from Israeli generals to — his natural friends and allies — the world's perennial drifters and outsiders. Washington and New York mourned him as frenziedly as did London. I still have his copy of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Inves- tigations, and can hear him now, putting on `Well, whatever it's paved with, it isn't gold.' the mockers at the sound of that porten- tous name. 'Is that one of the Elvis Wittgensteins, Billy?'

For a writer journalism is a halfway house between the garret and the office, sunk by relevance and redeemed by gre- gariousness. Blundy was healthily ambiva- lent about its tribal rites. Paul Foot, on the other hand, is a man assured of certain certainties, hence a strange mirror image of the politicians he loathes. English socie- ty is 'founded on exploitation'. We live in `the universal and catastrophic failure of the market system'. 'Social democracy and Stalinism have been exposed for the shams they were'. 'Every single one of the contra- dictions and nastinesses of capitalism which Marx predicted has come true'. `There is poverty, homelessness, sheer unadulterated misery of a kind which would not have been thought of, let alone tolerated, 20 or 30 years ago'. He lives in a world of witch-hunts, prevaricators, `Thatcherite guttersnipes', the 'stink of corruption', turncoat Labour politicians who ditch the 'moral crusade' in favour of `yet another cynical hunt for office', a world in which 'The rot can and must be stopped'. When he turns to literature, as he occasionally does, the life of the mind gets the same summary treatment. Red Shelley has been bowdlerised and traduced by the tame poodles of Oxbridge. Words- worth's and Coleridge's visionary pan- theism is 'introspective nonsense'.

The Introduction to this potpourri of Eighties journalism outlines his stations of the cross. He is one of those public-school revolutionaries who have seen the error of their parents' ways. As a cub reporter in Glasgow he read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky. 'It seemed suddenly clear from what I read and saw that society was cut into classes, and that the classes were forever at war with one another'. This conversion was sealed by the oratory of an early hero called Tony Cliff. 'He had the extraordinary gift of articulating in simple language and in effervescent style what seemed to be en- trenched in his listeners' minds' — a gift much prized by the Sun's leader-writers, one might think; but Foot is not much given to examining the mole-hills thrown up by his own trenching tools.

Gradually it came to him that 'socialists cannot take office under capitalism' with- out capitulating to its wickedness, so he became a member of International Social- ists and its successor the Socialist Workers Party, while drawing his pay from the Sun, the Sunday Telegraph, and eventually the Mirror. Nothing less than the millennium, it appears, will do. Marxism cannot be falsified, nor socialism besmirched, not because Popper said so but because any particular instantiation of it is by definition a fraud and a betrayal. As for America, that is a society governed by a military-industrial complex every bit as irresponsible as in

Russia . . .Cold War partisanship . . . is al- ways just as abject and degrading on one side as it is on the other.

I wonder if he sent a copy of this particular New Statesman piece to Solzhe- nitsyn, and to Mandelstam's widow, to help try and straighten the old folks' minds?

That such stuff should appear between hard covers 40 years on from Orwell, Koestler and Milosz is an eloquent com- ment on the state of the British left. Blake has a nice phrase, much quoted once upon a time by Malcolm Muggeridge, about `fearful symmetry'. I wonder too if Paul Foot and Norman Tebbit ever meet?