Tony Howard: establishment radical
Roy Hattersley remembers a complex man, willing to promote and enjoy the success of others.
An obituary – as Anthony Howard, who has died aged 76, himself would sternly remind me – should be an objective assessment of the subject's life and achievements, not a highly personal description of the author's sense of loss. But, for me, it is impossible to write about Tony's death without acknowledging the debt that I owe to him. For more than 40 years he was the ungrudging source of help and advice – professional, political and personal. And throughout that time his company never failed to delight me. With the exception of sport – at the mention of which he would go into a trance – he had something interesting and informative to say on every subject. It was the breadth of his knowledge, combined with an unassuming, though unquestionable authority, which made him such a compelling broadcaster. It also made him as entertaining a companion as he was a true friend.
The obituaries quite rightly wrote of Tony as a journalist of genius. Had he chosen another trade – he would not allow his vocation to be called a profession – he would have done just as well. Perhaps he would have done even better. Stubborn integrity and an endearing inclination to give gratuitously frank opinions of his superiors were not traits that guaranteed success in what used to be called Fleet Street.
There were occasions when he was reckless in expressing what he saw as the truth. Because I was writing for the paper that weekend, I was present when Howard, then deputy editor of the Observer, made a presentation to the editor, Donald Trelford – theoretically to mark ten years of service. It turned into a not very thinly disguised explanation of why the recipient was not up to the job – illustrated by the gift of a billiard cue that was intended to indicate the paper's increasing triviality. Had Howard waited, the top job at the Observer would have fallen into his lap. As it was, he lost his last chance to lead a national newspaper and a great editor was lost to British journalism.
Tony Howard was a complex man. Indeed, complexity was an important ingredient of his charm. He fitted as snugly into the metropolitan establishment as his background – Westminster School, Christ Church, Oxford, and the Royal Fusiliers, with a slightly irregular allegiance to the Church of England – suggested. But he was also a genuine radical. It was the bullying of Jewish boys at Westminster, 60 years ago, that made him a socialist who believed in the need to create a society free from prejudice and privilege. It was his opposition to the Suez conspiracy and invasion that made him a journalist. Second Lieutenant Howard kept and sent to the New Statesman a diary of the invasion's folly. After its publication, he was spared a court martial because the general staff sensibly assumed that Howard in the witness box would only add to the damage he had done in print. From then on, although he had been called to the Bar and there were two brief flirtations with Labour politics, he was a journalist in his heart and in his head.
At Reynolds News, the long-forgotten Co-operative movement's Sunday paper, he made his name by exposing the fascist connections of Conservative constituency parties. As a result, he was offered a job on the (then Manchester) Guardian, and worked in the northern newsroom with Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson. After a spell in America, he joined the New Statesman as political correspondent; he returned as editor between 1972 and 1978, after an unsuccessful attempt to expose the secrets of Whitehall for the Sunday Times and a joyous stint in Washington as correspondent for the Observer. It was there that I discovered his secret fault – highly selective hero worship. Robert McNamara lived close by. Whenever they met in the street, the usually composed Tony Howard radiated boyish delight. And for years he spoke of Richard Crossman in hushed tones of admiration.
After editing the Listener and his turbulent years at the Observer, Howard was appointed obituaries editor of the Times – a job with which, he announced, he had always wanted to end his career. Sceptics were confounded to discover that, when interviewing the young Peter Stothard 30 years earlier, he had told the future editor of the Times that he hoped that the obits page of the "Thunderer" would be his final destination.
Those of us who knew him understood why. Accuracy, a passion that often took the form of punctuating book reviews with the correction of minor errors, was essential. Good – plain rather than ostentatious – writing fitted the task exactly. The end result was a personalised form of contemporary history that allowed Howard to indulge his interest in obscure bishops and equally obscure politicians. Above all else, the quality of the result was determined by its integrity.
In print, Tony Howard was a hard man. In the rest of his life he was gentle, considerate and wonderfully willing to promote and enjoy the success of others.
He took great pride in encouraging young writers. Martin Amis, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, Robert Harris and Jonathan Dimbleby were all Howard protégés. Bel Mooney wrote that she learned most of what she knew about writing from him. His affection for his discoveries endured.
At his 70th birthday party, it was neither Michael Heseltine nor Jeremy Isaacs – friends of 50 years from his Oxford days – who was invited to make the speech, but Harris. The gallery of talent that Tony nurtured remains part of his lasting memorial.
Roy Hattersley's most recent book is "David Lloyd George: the Great Outsider" (Little, Brown, £25).