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17 December 2001

“Do you mean to say that you are all in debt?“

Robert Chesshyre on the late David Astor, the Observer editor who asked his staff what a mo

By Robert Chesshyre

With his head cocked to one side and his characteristic lopsided smile, the editor advanced across the newsroom floor with hand outstretched. I had been a relief reporter on the Observer for three months, and the previous night the news editor had told me regretfully that there was to be no full-time job for me and that I should look elsewhere.

I assumed that the editor (whom I had not met during those three months) was going to add his commiserations. “I’m David Astor,” he said. “Yes I know,” I replied. “I’m Robert Chesshyre.” There was a pause while he sought the right words. “I’d just like to welcome you aboard.” I like to fancy that, a few feet away, the tips of the ears of the man who had “let me go” 12 hours earlier turned a pleasing pink.

This was about the time that Michael Frayn, then an Observer columnist, was writing Towards the End of the Morning, the second funniest book about Fleet Street (after Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop). All Frayn had to do was write down what he saw and heard. In Astor’s Observer, being told that I was no longer wanted didn’t actually mean that I had to go; a few weeks later, I was given my much-wanted job.

I, therefore, had a humble role in Astor’s last seven years as Observer editor. His most compelling quality was his innate sense of democracy. He was both editor and proprietor, yet he was more modest and decent than the pimply assistant news editors I knew in the provinces. Editorial conferences were open; anyone could offer views, and you went on assignment at complete liberty to decide the merits of the issue you were covering.

Astor’s Observer has been well compared to a senior common room. There were even high-table occasions of a sort – dinners to which the staff were invited in rotation. Desperately nervous at my first – I sat next to Lord Goodman, then an Observer trustee – I drank more than was wise, and awoke the next morning fearful that now I would really be shown the door by Astor himself.

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I crept to work and hid myself in my room (I think Astor would have felt that open plan was undignified). Des Wilson, then an Observer columnist, looked in. He had just seen Astor. “Did he say anything about last night?” I asked anxiously. Astor, as Wilson told it, had raised a hand to the level of his throat: “Young Chesshyre had port up to here.” Astor reconsidered, and raised his hand higher, to the level of his eyebrows. “No, he had port up to here.”

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He never said a word about it to me. I had joined an organisation that floated on alcohol. There was Kim Philby, whom Astor admitted he had never seen sober; Patrick O’Donovan, whose face glowed like a setting sun; Clifford Makins, the sports editor, the original “legend in his own lunchtime”. (Cliff was at an office lunch when word came that the guest had cancelled. “I think,” said Astor, “we will do without the drink. It will be good for us.” “It might be good for you, David,” said Makins, “but seriously harmful to me.” And he departed for his familiar seat at El Vino’s.)

In the early 1970s, I became the paper’s Northern Ireland correspondent. Shortly afterwards, I was offered a trip to New Mexico for the magazine. The night before I was due to leave, Astor sent for me. “Belfast is getting interesting. I want you to cancel the US, and fly back.” In most newspapers, that would have been that. The editor’s dictum would have been final. Not at Astor’s Observer. I protested, and our “discussion” lasted an hour.

Instead of an ultimatum, he offered me a deal. If I went to Belfast rather than Albuquerque, he would put what I wrote each week on what was called the right-hand leader page, where the serious reporting and analysis went. Moreover, he would sub-edit it himself. Each Saturday for five weeks, I spent an hour on the phone, explaining to Astor about emerging loyalist paramilitarism and the mood in the clubs of west Belfast.

There was an Astorian footnote. He promised me the next available trip to the States. Ulster done and dusted, his attention moved elsewhere and that part of our deal slipped from his mind. I didn’t get to America for the paper until after he stepped down as editor.

When that happened, I was the Father of the National Union of Journalists chapel (office branch). He called me in Blackpool (where I was covering the Labour conference) and asked me to return. He was announcing his resignation and, despite his antagonism to unions, he allowed the NUJ to organise what amounted to an unofficial election to choose his successor. Astor trusted his journalists in a way that a Murdoch or Black never would.

By Astor’s last years, his social agenda – the abolition of capital punishment, reform of the law on homosexuality and so forth – had largely been fulfilled, and his interests (abuse of union power apart) were mainly in foreign affairs. He was famously out of touch with ordinary concerns. A story was widely retailed (it had many versions) that he had asked a staff conference or lunch what a mortgage was. On being told, he asked what sort of people had these mortgages. “Everyone round the table, David, except you,” said the business editor. “Do you mean to say that you are all in debt?” asked an astonished and obviously perturbed editor. (Astor’s discovery didn’t, alas, mean pay rises all round. Partly because Astor paid himself a minuscule salary, journalists were not well rewarded financially.) He stood down largely because he knew that he was out of touch with the rising issues in British politics and that his unworldly ways gave a commercial advantage to the Sunday Times and its in-touch editor, Harry Evans.

I missed Astor’s and the Observer‘s heyday, but Astor taught me that great editors not only have vision and courage and an appetite for the fine writing of an Orwell or a Tynan, but also an appreciation for clear prose and a respect for the intelligence and views of those he called his colleagues (“hack” was not a term that could have been properly applied to Astor’s reporters). Focus groups lay in the future. For all sorts of reasons, there will be no more editors like David Astor.

David Astor, editor of the Observer 1948-75, died on 7 December at 89. Robert Chesshyre was on the paper’s staff, 1967-88