Rosie Boycott hugs me: "Everything you write is complete ****," she says, "but I like you"
For the past five years, I have had the best view in Europe from my desk at the Daily Express. I can look up at any time and see St Paul's cathedral across the Thames, barges struggling against the tide and men in yellow safety helmets standing glumly on the Millennium Bridge, wondering if they will ever get it to stop wobbling. The prospect is especially lovely after dark, when Christopher Wren's domes and spires are floodlit and the ugly modern City disappears into the night.
On the evening of 21 November, I am looking at this view when a well-informed colleague comes to tell me that the Daily Express is on the point of being sold to the owner of a string of smutty top-shelf magazines. I have long believed that Evelyn Waugh's Scoop is not a novel but a valuable practical manual for journalists, so this news doesn't - to begin with - seem as frightful as it really is. In between the crisis and the catastrophe, I may as well have a drink.
By the time I get to Another Magazine's political awards lunch the next day, it is clear that the crisis has become a catastrophe. Richard Desmond, of Nude Readers' Wives, etc, has bought Lord Beaverbrook's inheritance. As the lunch breaks up, an editor asks me if I will write him an article describing my feelings about this news. "You must be joking," I reply, thinking of my mortgage, as one does at these elevated moments. "I thought you were a man of principle," he says. "Not that much principle," I reply, wishing it were otherwise.
Long ago, on a cold morning in Romania when I first heard the sound of real gunfire, I discovered without any great sense of surprise that I wasn't a hero. I am still not one. As for martyrdom, it has its good points but, as the sole breadwinner in my unfashionable household, I don't particularly want to martyr my family.
For a few hours, I try to tell myself and others that may- be we can live with this. Newspaper barons often aren't respectable, let's wait and see what he actually does, and so on. I fail to convince myself or anyone else.
I go down to Deal in Kent to speak at a Tory dinner, and begin to get the measure of the effect of the sale on the reputation of the newspaper. Everyone there knows about the new owner. They laugh, but they are also concerned and dismayed that such a thing can have happened to a paper they still regard as a national institution.
I stay the night in Deal with Mary Kenny, a fellow Express writer, and her husband Dick West. We all hope that Desmond will just sell the paper to someone else, and quickly. But, later that weekend, Mary calls me to tell me she will resign. She's obviously right to do so. Tony Bevins, an old adversary with whom I used to swap insults at every opportunity, also quits. He is obviously right to do so. I meet Tony at a Tube station soon afterwards, and shake him warmly by the hand.
Desmond pays a state visit to the Express offices. He comes into my small room. The body language, if that is the right phrase, is stiff. I tentatively shake his hand (yes, I wish I hadn't now, but I did) and mutter a "how d'ye do". He gazes past me at the dome of St Paul's and remarks that it is "inspirational", which is more than I can say for him.
After this encounter, I know instinctively that I have to go, with how and when the only questions to be settled. I consider several ways of departing. I both know and hope that fairly soon, on radio or television, I will be asked what I think of pornography. I will say what I think and Desmond will sack me. If I fail to say what I think, I won't have any purpose any more. Somehow we'll cope. It is after this that the Mail on Sunday offers me a job, liberating me from these horrid dilemmas.
Advent Sunday arrives, a time of new beginnings. I clear my desk and take my books home, not knowing how long it will be before I am offered the ritual bin-bags, but knowing that there is too much here to get into a couple of plastic sacks.
People in the office tactfully say nothing as I march backwards and forwards across the newsroom with suitcases full of heavy volumes. Afterwards, I attend the astonishing Anglo-German Advent service held each year at the church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, my home town. Hymns, prayers and scripture alternate between German and English. German cakes and English tea are served afterwards.
This has been going on since German Protestant refugees fleeing from Hitler came here in the Thirties. Thomas Cranmer was tried for his life in this church, so it is particularly powerful to hear his great Advent prayer, urging us to "cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light", spoken perfectly but with a German accent by a Lutheran pastor.
After 24 years, eight editors and six proprietors, I resign. The final scene, perhaps most unlikely of all, finds me and Rosie Boycott united in a fond farewell embrace. "Everything you write is complete ****," she says, "but I like you."
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis