A DEFEATIST SURVIVOR
Stephen Glover reports with
fondness on the twists and turns of Lord Deedes' first 80 years
WHEN THE Falklands were invaded one Friday in April 1982, Bill Deedes, editor of the Daily Telegraph, thought we should do nothing. At that afternoon's leader confer- ence, he described them as 'a few islands a very long way away'. This was, of course, an accurate statement. The Telegraph's defence correspondent was summoned, and gave the opinion that the Falklands could not be recovered by any means. A few of the wilder young leader writers (including myself) expressed dissent, but Bill, who having fought in the war could represent himself as a bit of a military man, agreed that nothing could be done.
By Monday afternoon all had changed. During its debate on Saturday morning the House of Commons had been surprisingly bellicose. Even Mr Michael Foot had wanted to give General Galtieri a bloody nose. So the Telegraph joined the war party — indeed in some respects led the war party. 'War,' said one leader writer, 'is man's natural estate.' We all agreed and Bill did not dissent.
There was later, however, a hiccup around the time that the perfidious Peru- vian peace plan was being touted. Lord Hartwell, the newspaper's proprietor, was worried about the impending conflict, partly because he had an Argentinian son- in-law and could see both sides of the argument. Our man in Buenos Aires hap- pened then to file a pro-Argentine article which Bill proposed to publish. The leader writers, foremost among them T.E. Utley, protested, and the piece was dropped.
I thought then, and I think now, that Bill's instinctive opposition to military action was not a matter of moral cow- ardice. Bill simply expected to lose. Since 1945 we always had, and the precedent of the Suez crisis (when he had been a junior Tory minister) hung heavily on his mind. Moreover, loss and decline were not only to be expected in politics. The Daily Tele- graph, with its rapacious unions, weak management and constant strikes must have been for him a perfect paradigm of his world view.
And then there was the question of his own background. When Bill was 18 his father lost a lot of money in the Wall Street crash and went bust. The ancestral home called Saltwood Castle, with its estate of 'five or ten thousand acres', as Bill now rather vaguely computes its size, had to be sold. It was, he says, perhaps try- ing to make light of it all, a auritanian estate' and the castle was 'in total disre- pair'. (Restored to its original glory, it is now owned by Alan Clark, the celebrated political diarist.) Bill had to leave Harrow early and couldn't go to Oxford or Cam- bridge. 'It was as simple as that really.' Through a family connection he got a job in 1931 on the Morning Post, which was 'a sort of university with a number of remarkable literary types'. As it happened, the paper was in a shaky financial state in a word, declining.
On arrival at the Telegraph in 1978 I was told that Evelyn Waugh had based the character of William Boot on the young Bill Deedes. When Deedes of the Morning Post arrived in Abyssinia some time in 1935 he was met by the great novelist on the platform at Addis Ababa. Waugh set himself up as his protector, and seems to have seen into the young journalist very well. William Boot was the ingerzu mistak- enly despatched to Ishmaelia — i.e., Abyssinia — in place of his fashionable dis- tant cousin, John Boot.
Young Deedes had already been working for the Morning Post for four years and was far from being a journalistic novice. But his background was not dissimilar to that of his fictional alter ego. William Boot's country house had not been sold, but it was visibly declining and full of eccentric aged rela- tives and retainers. 'Change and decay in all around I see,' sings Boot's Uncle Theodore, as he gazes out of the morning- room window.
Though he is 80 on 1 June, and recover- ing from a minor operation, Bill has altered very little in manner or appearance since I worked for him at the Telegraph. A few minutes late for lunch, he bounds into the basement of the Paradiso e Inferno, a murky restaurant in the Strand, more hellish than heavenly, which used to serve as the canteen of the top editorial brass of the Telegraph in the old days. 'Glover!' he cries. He is a small, wiry man, wearing, as he used to do, trousers which are too short for him and which reveal familiar white socks. He is obviously thriving in his new life. And indeed it is scarcely possible to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph nowa- days without seeing some sprightly column or article by Bill, occasionally written from his old stamping ground of Africa.
If anything, his mind seems more acute than it did during his editorship, when he would take refuge in vagueness if he wished to miss the point. As editor, Bill's writ did not run over the whole paper. He inherited a divided kingdom, the great part of which was ruled by Peter Eastwood, the Stalinist managing editor. Bill accepted this flawed legacy because it reflected the way he thought the world had become. He was a better journalist than Eastwood, courte- ous and well-liked, yet he usually let the lesser man have his way. And then this divi- sion of power was what Lord Hartwell wanted, and Bill was not going to have a row with his proprietor. He says that he was in the habit of treating 'Lord H' as though he were 'a sort of colonel. I have always been rather cagey about going to my boss and saying, "What you are doing Is fine but I would rather do it this way or that way." ' Bill's disinclination to fight Eastwood, or to rebel in any way against the slow and inexorable decline of the Telegraph, could be very irritating. Once, when I was trying to goad him into action over some minor matter, he said to me almost tartly, `Stephen, I have never given an order on this newspaper and I'm not going to start now.' But at the same time he did create for the leader writers an enchanted and comic world which was for a time insulated from all the turbulent pressures that swirled around it. Seven or eight of us would gather in his room at 3.45 p.m. --- the time had been chosen so that we need not hurry back from lunch — and discuss the problems of the day in a leisurely man- ner.
Bill had cheerfully spent two years in the Cabinet when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, and though he describes Lady Thatcher as a 'lifelong friend' and has played golf with her husband Denis for many years, he was no fledgling Thatcherite. There were, however, such people among the leader writers whom he inherited: Frank Johnson, John O'Sullivan and Colin Welch, the deputy editor. Alfred Sherman, later an adviser to Lady Thatch- er, was an occasional and even more radi- cal participant. Bill was on the whole happy to swim with the Thatcherite cur- rent which these people helped to create. He now says that 'the Daily Telegraph did a bit of pathfinding for Thatcher'. His job was to adjudicate. 'If you could hold the ring between Sir Alfred Sherman and Lord Hartwell you earned your pay for a week.'
One of the joys of those leader confer- ences was Bill's ability to mix his metaphors. 'Carrington carries a lot of ice,' he said once, in his inimitable lisping way. (This lisp, someone once suggested to me, was a deliberate caricature of Churchillian delivery.) 'Callaghan has got to get all the feathers in the air' was another contribu- tion, carrying, it seemed, almost a surreal- ist significance. 'You can't make an omelette without scrambling eggs,' was perhaps my favourite, though others pre- ferred, 'I've told the Tories to pull their trousers up.' Charles Moore, who as a leader writer on the Telegraph collected these metaphors in almost a professional way, recalls perhaps the most surrealist: `The Government must nail their match- box to the mast on this one.'
In this idyllic world one leader writer was occasionally given to tantrums. He was no admirer of Bill's emollience. Once, when he was cursing Bill, he dug deep into his pocket, and for a ghastly moment we thought that he was going to let fly with a pen-knife or maybe a piece of rock. Bill was as usual tilted back on his chair, with his legs on his desk, peering through his bi- focals at the news list in hope of enlighten- ment. He went a bit pale, but he need not have worried. The projectile turned out to be a handkerchief which fluttered down harmlessly on his desk. On another occa- sion, the same irate leader writer picked up Bill's heavy onyx ashtray, and there seemed to be a sporting chance that he would throw it at his editor, but he did not. Bill reacted with indulgence and good humour to these assaults upon his dignity. However irritating Bill's evasiveness could be, this lack of side was admirable. He had, after all, been a cabinet minister, and he was editor of a great national news- paper, but he was wholly without any sense of his own importance. Some people accused him of playing to the gallery when they saw him waiting at a bus-stop in Fleet street at 10.30 at night to catch a 12 or 15 bus to Charing Cross, but I am sure he was not acting a part. He would not have dreamt of asking Lord Hartwell for a car, still less a chauffeur, and saw nothing very odd in having to wait for a bus. He is the same at lunch at the Paradiso when I ask him about his Military Cross. Did he win it at Arnhem? 'I really don't know where it was. It came up.' On to the next subject.
Bill's conversation is littered with phras- es which give the impression that life has been one long obstacle course, as though he has been crossing a partly unfrozen river, jumping from one block of ice to another. 'We got through that all right,' he says on a couple of occasions. Talking about the end of the war, he says, 'Anyway we steered through that lot all right.' Nothing which has happened seems to matter very much now, and perhaps he has always had this ability to shuffle off the past like some discarded skin. Tomorrow is always more interesting than yesterday because it carries an unknown mystery. `I'm far more interested in what's going to happen tomorrow in Zimbabwe than in what happened when Soames handed over Rhodesia.'
He says that it is largely for this reason that he will not write his memoirs, though he could no doubt produce a fascinating book because he has seen so much and is a wonderfully observant writer. But the past is a duller country, and a less important one. I ask him whether the collapse of Lord Hartwell's regime was inevitable. Could it miraculously have been saved and the advent of the new proprietor, Conrad Black, somehow averted? 'I've always thought the odds were very heavily against . . . The [Berry] family were never good at sharing their hearts with anyone.' They tended to deal with editors and others on a one-to-one basis 'without revealing their hand to anyone'. But he adds that he respects 'people who treasure their priva- cy'. And does he feel any sense of nostal- gia for the old regime? For the old eccentricities? 'I can assure you, Stephen, that there is still plenty of eccentricity around the office . . . No, I don't. Because of the printing nightmare, the end of Fleet Street was a very dark chapter indeed.' He seems genuinely to admire Max Hastings, his successor, and to have had little diffi- culty in adapting to the new editor's anti- Thatcherite inclinations.
Bill Deedes is the only practising jour- nalist who has worked in Fleet Street since before the war. He joined the Morning Post before the National Government of 1931 was elected. He is a great survivor, the greatest survivor. And in this too Eve- lyn Waugh was right, for William Boot, the ingenu countryman, learns how to adapt and indeed flourish in a decaying and a changing world. Which is exactly what Bill Deedes has done.
Stephen Glover is associate editor of the Evening Standard.