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The gifted amateur

Books | By Stephen Glover | May 2016

Stephen Glover on David Astor

The gifted amateur

Stephen Glover

David Astor

by Jeremy Lewis

Jonathan Cape £25

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Jeremy Lewis ends his marvellous biography of David Astor with the words: ‘he deserves to be better remembered.’ It’s true. A third-rate novelist or poet may linger longer in the consciousness. Astor, who effectively owned and edited the Observer for nearly thirty years and was responsible for turning it into a great liberal newspaper, is mostly forgotten. I wonder how many young journalists have even heard of him.

Few people may also realise that the Observer has not always been of the Left. Between 1908 and 1942 it was edited by J L Garvin, the autodidact son of a washerwoman and an Irish labourer, and a man of the Right who became more so with the passing years. Garvin built up the Sunday paper’s circulation, and made it required reading. He was nonetheless eventually sacked by David Astor’s father, Waldorf, the second Viscount and fabulously rich owner of Cliveden, whose family had acquired the Observer from Lord Northcliffe in 1911. 

Waldorf had been a Tory MP in his younger days, and was married to the long-serving Tory MP and fellow-American Nancy Astor, who became extremely reactionary. Both were Christian Scientists. It was an eccentric and not very enlightened stable in which to be born. David Astor reacted against it. At Balliol (which he left without taking a degree) he was vaguely of the Left without being especially political. As a young officer during the war years he often moonlighted at the Observer, where he made his progressive ideas felt. After the war he became an increasingly dominant presence at the paper, and in 1948 his father finally gave him the editor’s chair.

Lewis portrays Astor as a gifted amateur, serious-minded without being either bookish or notably intellectual. We are told that he combined kindness and generosity (he was always helping out staff and friends with loans and gifts, though he didn’t pay journalists particularly well) with a kind of shy steeliness. Liberal causes such as African decolonisation were enthusiastically embraced. His greatest forte was spotting and attracting talented writers. He hired a young hard-drinking Irishman called Patrick O’Donovan with no journalistic experience on the basis of an essay about one of the Brontë sisters. The new recruit turned out to be an exceptional reporter.

There was a crew of intellectual central Europeans at the Observer ranging from the Right-wing Sebastian Haffner to the Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher. Cyril Connolly was temporarily on board until he fell out with Astor. Kenneth Tynan was hired as theatre critic. Arthur Koestler was a frequent contributor, as was George Orwell, who became the editor’s friend and mentor. Astor obtained new-fangled antibiotics from America when Orwell was dying from tuberculosis, but to no avail. After the great writer’s death, and in accordance with his wishes, Astor arranged for the body to be buried in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire near his own country house.

The paper’s halcyon days were before Suez, which defined the Observer’s values. Having initially demonised Colonel Nasser, it bitterly criticised Anthony Eden, whom it rightly suspected of hatching a secret deal with the French and the Israelis. Some older readers from the Garvin era dumped the paper in disgust, but Lewis explodes the common Fleet Street myth that circulation fell, arguing that new younger readers more than made up the loss. What harmed the Observer was the rise of the Sunday Times, which after its acquisition by the Canadian businessman Roy Thomson in 1959 had much deeper pockets. Harried by rapacious print unions, the paper began to lose enormous sums of money, and was bought by an American oil company in 1975. 

David Astor’s Observer would seem absurdly high-minded to modern eyes. No doubt I would have been irritated by some of its progressive causes. But because it was so intellectually ambitious one could have forgiven it much. Lewis quotes Peregrine Worsthorne, who wrote: ‘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.’ This meticulously researched book takes us back to a lost age when newspapers, and the debates in which they engaged, were still central to most people’s lives. 

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now