Tony, who died today after a short illness, edited the NS between 1972 and 1978, one of the most fertile periods in the magazine’s history, during which he helped to launch the careers of several of this country’s leading writers, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens notable among them. He went on to become deputy editor of the Observer and was also a regular contributor to the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama programmes.
Tony continued to work as a freelance commentator and book reviewer, not least for the NS, almost until the end of his life. I had the privilege of working with him after joining the NS as culture editor in 2009. His book reviews – mostly of political memoirs and biographies, often heavy with anecdote and frequently enlivened, though never compromised, by personal acquaintance with either the author or the subject – would arrive, always ahead of the deadline and always within the word limit I’d set, not by email nor even by fax, but by letter, a familiarly spidery scrawl on the envelope alerting me to the presence of the precious cargo contained within.
Tony’s last contribution to the magazine was not a review, however, but a selection of books of the year, which he dictated to me down the phone. His choices were entirely characteristic – two political biographies and a journalist’s memoir:
There were two fine political biographies published this year: Roy Hattersley’s David Lloyd George (Little, Brown, £25) and D R Thorpe’s Supermac (Chatto & Windus, £25). Equally engaging, if at a slightly more flippant level, is Simon Hoggart’s A Long Lunch: My Stories and I’m Sticking to Them (John Murray, £20). Described by its author as “in no way a life of me”, it is still the best journalistic memoir since the late Alan Watkins’s A Short Walk Down Fleet Street of a decade ago.
In the current issue of the NS, the editor, Jason Cowley, who was unaware of Tony’s illness when he was writing, devotes one of the items in his First Thoughts column to this recollection of a communication from his venerable predecessor:
When I became editor of the New Statesman in October 2008, I received a handwritten letter from Anthony Howard, who was editor of this “paper”, as he prefers to call it, from 1972 to 1978. Being editor of the NS would be “hard”, he said, but I had to stick it out until the centenary in 2013. To me, that seemed a long way off and not something I should think about. But this is my third Christmas double issue as editor. In a few weeks, as we celebrate the arrival of another year, the centenary will not seem that far away at all. Tony: what shall we do?
Tony, of course, would have known exactly what we should do. We shall miss him.
Jason Cowley adds:
I first met Tony Howard when I joined the Times in the mid-1990s – I was a staff writer and he was obituaries editor. But of course I already knew him through his journalism and work for the BBC. Tony was an inspiration: an old-style, scholarly, gentleman journalist, who had a wonderfully encyclopaedic knowledge of British politics. Above all, he was a good and generous man, and was especially supportive of younger journalists. I feel profoundly sad that he will not be here to celebrate the centenary of the New Statesman, which he edited with such distinction from 1972-78. Tony: we’ll miss you so much.
UPDATE: Obituaries for Tony Howard continue to appear in all the major news outlets, most of them eulogies for, as Jason puts it, a gentleman-journalist of the old school. Over at Our Kingdom, however, Anthony Barnett strikes a somewhat discordant note.
Ian Hargreaves, New Statesman editor from 1996-1998, writes:
Tony Howard was the ultimate political insider – in Peter Kellner’s words, “the people’s spy inside the corridors of power”. But Tony was always more fascinated with the corridors of politics than the think tanks of policy or the worlds beyond both. His confident eloquence sprang from his learning and love of politicians and of the arts of political rhetoric; his opinions were always crafted to ricochet around a circle of people known to him by name.
As a radio broadcaster, I, like hundreds of others, always knew that I could go to Tony for a well-judged insight or a commonplace, one more adroitly worded than the competition. In my time as successor to him as editor of the New Statesman, he was part of the huddle of opinion which could affect the local weather. He was fond of conspiracy – something which, for Tony, was anything but a spectator sport.
It is right that his finest legacy is the Crossman Diaries. The positioning of Crossman at the then unfulfilled centre of Labour politics and the fact that his diaries were the WikiLeaks of their day speak to Tony’s values, to his eye for a drama and to the courage it takes to exploit one. Don’t be fooled by your memories of those silken, jowly tones: Tony Howard was a fighter and a mischief-maker – a journalist.
Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman between 1998 and 2005, writes:
When I left the Observer in 1975, aged 30, I heard that the New Statesman was looking for an education correspondent. I rang Tony Howard, whom I had not then met. He came straight to the point. “Are you leaving the Observer or is the Observer leaving you?” he demanded. When I replied that the former was the case, he asked for cuttings. After perusing these and making “inquiries”, he expressed the broad opinion that I would be “OK”. But, he added, he had seen only rare signs of the flashy, reader-gripping phrase. On this, he insisted, I must up my game.
After this rigorous examination (more rigorous than I experienced for some full-time staff jobs), I expected at least a retainer. But, no, he would pay me £40 for each 1,000-word piece (not a princely sum, even in those days) or £60 for 2,000 words. If nothing was published, I would receive nothing. I could expect to get in “the paper” roughly once every two or three weeks, and he “hoped” I would attend weekly editorial conferences. He recognised that I might need to supplement this uncertain income (about five times over, on my conservative estimate) but, if I wrote regularly about education for national dailies or Sundays, our “arrangement” would be “less attractive” to him. On this unpromising basis, our association began and, despite the lack of any increased payments even in a period of rampant inflation, it continued for two happy years.
Tony regarded writing for the NS as an honour and imposed the most exacting standards. His judgements were speedy and precise and could rarely be altered. He could convey, in just a few words, exactly what he wanted, a talent more rare than it ought to be among editors. Over two years, he spiked, I think, one piece and made me rewrite two others. Otherwise, I apparently met his standards, always receiving a congratulatory phone call or written note. He gave me something priceless, which I had previously lacked: a belief that I could not just hack a career in journalism but could, in time, reach its highest levels.
I left the NS to join the Sunday Times, a newspaper of which he disapproved. But we parted on good terms and my career thereafter was punctuated by occasional messages of encouragement and praise. When I became NS editor in 1998, he said that, after an interval of 20 years and six editors since his own departure, “the apostolic succession” had been restored. By that, he meant (I think) that he could count on me to uphold the values and standards of writing that he established during his own editorship, and which were only erratically continued by his successors. Thereafter, his support, though he sometimes offered private criticism, was warm and consistent, through good times and bad.