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22 December 2023

The maverick of Fleet Street

Peregrine Worsthorne’s provocativeness, eccentricity and stylishness kept high Toryism alive in the 20th century.

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

In the good old days, Tory sex scandals came at regular decennial intervals. In 1963 it was the Profumo affair, and in 1983 Cecil Parkinson resigned from the cabinet when his former secretary revealed that she was expecting his child. Between the two, in 1973, two ministers in Edward Heath’s Tory government resigned. A tabloid entrapped George Jellicoe, the Lord Privy Seal, and Antony Lambton, an under-secretary responsible for the Royal Air Force, frequenting an upmarket brothel in Maida Vale. Lambton gave a memorable television interview accompanied by his young son in which he described the flat where he was caught as “the scene of a great deal of debauchery”, having already told MI5 that he had turned to this relaxation (three in a bed, according to the paper, smoking spliffs at that), because he was oppressed by the “futility” of his job.

If anything was yet more memorable than Jellicoe’s and Lambton’s downfall, it was the appearance on a television programme of one of the best-known Tory journalists in Fleet Street. Peregrine Worsthorne was then the deputy editor and chief columnist of the Sunday Telegraph, conspicuous for his languid manner, dandyish clothes, and mane of swept-back hair. He was famous or notorious as well for his provocatively reactionary opinions, although his response was never predictable, as this TV appearance showed. Asked how he supposed the British public would react to the scandal, he said, “I don’t think they give a f***.”

This made him the second person after Kenneth Tynan to use that once taboo word on television, and it nearly ended his career. The Daily Telegraph had been owned since the 1920s by the Berry family, headed by Viscount Camrose until his death in 1954. His elder son Seymour inherited the title but not responsibility for the newspaper, understandably enough if Evelyn Waugh could describe visiting White’s club in Mayfair to find “Seymour Camrose helplessly drunk before lunch”. Instead, the younger brother Michael Berry took charge of the paper and added the Sunday Telegraph, founded in 1960. He was a shy and reserved man who continued his father’s tradition of critical support for the Conservatives along with scrupulous journalistic honesty, and he hated any form of publicity or scandal. Worsthorne was suspended from the paper for some weeks after his comment, and his colleagues cold-shouldered him.

It was one of the many scrapes that Perry Worsthorne, who was born on 22 December 1923, got into over the years. To think of Perry’s centenary seems odd for those of us who remember him so vividly, and for whom it doesn’t seem so long since we last saw him. Which it isn’t really, since he died little more than three years ago in his 97th year. Three dozen face-masked mourners were at his funeral in the parish church at Hedgerley in Buckinghamshire to hear the writer Craig Brown’s droll and touching elegy. If Worsthorne’s name now means little to younger readers, that shows again the transience of journalistic fame.

His story was as unlikely as his name. The writer Auberon Waugh teasingly demanded that Worsthorne should receive a knighthood, asking: “Why did his parents call him Peregrine if it was not that he should end as Sir Peregrine? Why indeed did they call him Worsthorne?” It was certainly unusual for a father, a mother and their two sons each to have a different surname. His father was Colonel Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, who had served in the Irish Guards but came from a Belgian banking family. They were sometimes described as aristocratic, although Worsthorne once asked Alexander Chancellor loudly as they were travelling on the Underground, “Do you think I might be Jewish?”

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When Koch de Gooreynd was standing as a Conservative candidate in 1924, he understandably thought his name might be a handicap. So he added “Worsthorne”, a village on a Lancashire estate to which he had a family connection. After failing to be elected, the colonel changed his name back again, leaving his two sons with Worsthorne. His marriage to Priscilla Cecilia Maria Reyntiens was very short-lived, and Perry’s mother subsequently married Montagu Norman, the implacably orthodox governor of the Bank of England, a marriage that Perry learned about from a newspaper placard. It only remained for Perry’s brother Simon to change his name to Towneley when he inherited that Lancashire estate, leaving just the single Worsthorne.

By whatever name, the two boys had an unlikely upbringing. The father was not only absent but completely unmentioned, and the boys lived in a separate establishment with their own servants. In his memoir Tricks of Memory (1993), Perry wrote about his boyhood with a characteristic mixture of pomposity, mild irony and self-mockery, telling a tale of disappointment. Many years later he said to me, “I’m completely declassed.” But as a younger man he was highly class conscious, and acutely aware of minor distinctions and disappointments, of a kind that might not mean much to most people.

Unlike his father, who went to Eton, Perry was sent to Stowe, the public school founded just a few years before by JF Roxburgh in a Palladian country house in Buckinghamshire, where he found it distasteful to live alongside vulgar boys from newly rich families. He wanted to go to King’s College, Cambridge, but in 1942 went to Peterhouse instead. During the Second World War he hoped to join the Coldstream Guards but was commissioned in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, before transferring Phantom, a reconnaissance unit.

About 30 years’ ago I was sitting in El Vino on Fleet Street with two old – and older – friends, Perry and Milton Shulman, who for many decades was the theatre critic of the Evening Standard, famous for almost never liking a new play. As old geezers will, they reminisced about where they had first met, which in their case was an army tent in Normandy in 1944. It’s possible to wax sentimental about “the greatest generation” who served in that war, but it’s impossible, or at least so I find, not to feel some degree of awe in the presence of people who experienced something beyond the imagination of those of us born after the war and who didn’t live up to them.

When I first knew Fleet Street in the 1970s it was still full of men who had heard the proverbial shots fired in anger, Louis Heren of the Times, Bill Deedes, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, who won a military cross in the last stages of the war in Europe, or Colin Welch, who had commanded an infantry platoon from Normandy to the Rhine, and was Perry’s lifelong friend, from school to Cambridge to the Telegraph. After the war, Perry left Cambridge without finishing his degree in history to start his first job in journalism, at the Glasgow Herald. This began with a characteristic misunderstanding. Perry thought that “sub-editor” meant deputy editor and had to be told that his job was humbler.

After two years there he joined the Times but was then introduced to the Daily Telegraph by Welch, where he found his home for the next 40 years. When the Sunday Telegraph was launched, Perry became deputy editor and chief columnist. He longed to be the editor, as Welch did of the Daily Telegraph, where he was stuck as deputy for years. But the owner Michael Berry – Lord Hartwell from 1968 – while admiring both men as writers, to the limited extent that he liked any “viewy” journalists at all, thought they both lacked the gravitas necessary for editorship.

His suspicions would have increased if he had known more about Perry’s personal life, which the latter described with unusual candour in his memoir. After early amorous adventures with both sexes, he met a French woman, Claude Bertrand de Colasse, or Baynham, the name of the RAF pilot who had married and then abandoned her with a baby son. Perry and Claudie became lovers, then she became pregnant and had an abortion that went wrong and nearly killed her. But she survived and they married and had a daughter, Dominique.

Not that marriage cramped Perry’s style. After an interlude living with a rich woman in New York, he returned to London and acquired a circle of friends, George Gale and Paul Johnson, and the brilliant and utterly self-destructive Henry Fairlie, who might have been called Tory bohemians. (Johnson was still a fiery radical, and then editor of the New Statesman, before his own drastic turn to the right.) Together they enjoyed what Perry called “one long drunken party”. Perry himself wasn’t a serious drinker, at least by the high standards of his friends, but they certainly confuted anyone who still believes that sexual intercourse began in 1963, with their mixture of conviviality and adultery.

After the “don’t give a f***” episode, Perry’s chances of becoming editor were even slimmer as long as Hartwell was the owner. But in 1986 the Canadian entrepreneur Conrad Black stealthily acquired the Telegraph papers and installed Max Hastings as editor of the Daily and Perry of the Sunday. Even then Perry managed to find comedy in the story, describing how he had been bidden to Black’s mansion in Canada but had been unable to get in without climbing over a gate. This was written in the same tone as his longer pieces about his travels and adventures, in which, as another journalist Alan Watkins once put it, he appeared as a mixture of Lord Curzon and Mr Pooter.

But Hartwell had been right. All the qualities that made Perry such a readable journalist – his saltiness, his solipsism, his love of outrageous paradox, his recklessness or irresponsibility – were drawbacks when it came to editing, which requires some degree of nurturing self-effacement, and of caution. His own column remained entertaining, outrageous and sometimes repellent, as when his love of tweaking bien pensant noses led him to defend apartheid and capital punishment, although he delighted the left by describing the vulgar get-rich-quick tone of Thatcher’s England as “bourgeois triumphalism”.

There was also another series of scrapes, in the form of absurd journalistic misjudgements. When Kingsley Amis gave Perry a copy of a cantankerous letter he had written, thinking it might make a short diary item, it was plastered over the front page with Perry’s absurd claim that it ranked with Dr Johnson’s letter to Lord Chesterfield. And a photograph of Antonia Fraser (one of Perry’s numerous old enemies) was printed, also on the front page, with a caption that a novice reporter would have recognised as grossly defamatory. There was also a richly comical episode in March 1989 when Perry wrote a column headed “Playboys as editors” attacking Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times, for enjoying female companionship and nightclubs, although Perry himself had notably shared that enjoyment when young. Neil sued for libel and won modest damages after a delirious few days in the High Court.

Having briefly had a formal connection with the Sunday Telegraph, which ended disastrously for me, I remained a semi-detached part of Perry’s court, always amused by his quirky obsessions, and his curious areas of ignorance. He used the paper to settle scores, however old, getting me to write a mildly sarcastic profile of Lucian Freud, before I realised that Lucian had pinched a girl off Perry in 1944, a mere 46 years before. And after the cricketer Graham Gooch had scored his historic 333 against India at Lord’s in 1990, Perry said to me, “Have you seen that the British cricket team are doing well?” to which I replied that only a Belgian could have said that.

All this couldn’t last. First Perry was demoted to being comment editor, responsible only for the middle pages of the Sunday paper, and his embattled, quixotic figure stalked about this little domain with Frank Johnson as his Sancho Panza and Bruce Anderson his Rosinante. He continued to pick fights with those who were now his nominal superiors, particularly Hastings. This came to a head in November 1990 after the defenestration of Thatcher. Her nemesis, and one of the contenders for the succession, was Michael Heseltine, yet another of Perry’s enemies. He wrote a leader denouncing Heseltine and implying that he led an irregular private life. A colleague bravely reminded Worsthorne of his own long liaison with Moyra Fraser, the charming and amusing actress, to which he replied, “Nobody knows about that.” After a brisk exchange of views, Hastings told Worsthorne that he could print this “leader” but only with his initials affixed. That was the last straw, and Perry’s connection with the Telegraph ended the following year.

With awful poignancy, Perry’s complicated marriage ended at the same time, with Claudie’s death from cancer. He was cast down, but rescued by meeting Lucinda Lambton, the writer and television presenter (and daughter of the man who provoked Perry’s untoward phrase in 1973). His mellow last years were spent at her house in Buckinghamshire, where I regularly visited him. In September 2019, I drove from Bath where I live to Eastbury in Berkshire to have lunch with Michael Howard, the great historian, and his partner Mark James, having taken with me half a bottle of champagne so that we could drink perdition to Boris Johnson. Then I drove on to Hedgerley to see Perry, who wasn’t speaking much but smiling and looking beatific with long white hair and beard.

As I drove home I mused about seeing these two men, who had been friends at prep school 85 years earlier. Both had served in the war, Michael winning a military cross leading his platoon of the Coldstream Guards at Salerno, and both were filled with revulsion for Brexit and “Boris”. As Michael observed on his deathbed to his great friend Max Hastings, there was a terrible bathos about such a remarkable life ending amid that squalor. And Perry could have said the same.

[See also: Arno J Mayer’s 20th century]

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