Politico's £19.99 (416pp) £17.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

The Anatomist, By Anthony Sampson

As a student at Oxford, Anthony Sampson was taught by JRR Tolkien, not yet famous as the creator of The Lord of the Rings; he was tutored by the detective writer Michael Innes; he went to seminars given by Lord David Cecil and John Bayley; and he attended lectures delivered by Wallace Robson, Nevill Coghill, Kenneth Clark and CS Lewis. It is difficult to match that in today's Oxford, or indeed any seat of modern learning in the world.

It was a splendid grounding for a man who was to develop into one of the more thoughtful and intellectually gifted British journalists of the past 50 years. Sampson's seminal Anatomy of Britain, written when he was only 33, had a major impact on a generation; his newspaper reports, columns and books set agendas and influenced the decision-makers – particularly on apartheid South Africa, perhaps the major theme of his life.

Anatomy made his name (and gives a title to this autobiography, written before he died two years ago and finished by his wife, Sally). He was to return to it again and again, but by the 1980s he was, as he acknowledges, anatomied-out. He had said most of what there was to say in the first book.

Anatomy was, in retrospect, a remarkably precocious and daring exercise for a young writer. Sampson's inquiring mind had become intrigued with the mysterious and shadowy way decisions in Britain were taken. So he set out to answer the question: who runs Britain? The Establishment, of course. But who exactly was the Establishment, and how did it work?

In a remarkable bit of investigative journalism, Sampson decided to find out. He wrote to 200 top people, from Cabinet ministers to bank chairmen, industrialists, scientists, academics and tycoons, expecting not even to get a reply. It was the story of the emperor's clothes. The supposedly closed world of Whitehall civil servants, the City, the BBC, the Bar and the universities almost fell over themselves to talk to him, astonished that anyone should even think of them as secretive or shadowy – or even powerful. They were as interested in the question Sampson posed as he was. Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, who "provided a kind of caricature of the establishment as a network of interlocking institutions and families", immediately responded with an invitation for a drink and a chat.

The result, written for young people who "wanted to understand the strange world they were entering", appealed as much to a sophisticated, professional audience, and features on reading lists today. It was a book of its time – the Establishment never survived Thatcher's Britain – but reads as freshly today as 40 years ago.

Sampson's interest in South Africa had begun much earlier, sparked by one of those odd little accidents of history Sampson recorded in a charming little book, Drum, which was published in the mid-Fifties and became a cult book for aspiring journalists (including me) in the Sixties. An oddball fellow-student at Oxford, Jim Bailey, the wealthy son of a South African Randlord, started a "new Negro periodical". Drum was intended to provide an alternative African voice and a bit of black culture in the increasing darkness of apartheid. It might have remained an eccentric's dream if Bailey had not offered his old Oxford mate £50 a month to come out and edit it.

Over three years Sampson turned Drum into a real voice of opposition, building a legendary team of young journalists and photographers who set the tone for black journalism in South Africa to the present day. He commissioned Nelson Mandela's first serious political writing, but remained sceptical of him: "he seemed to me too flashy and vain", his rhetoric "too formal and stilted, full of anti-colonial clichés". He only changed his mind some years later when he covered the famous "treason trial". Mandela waved at him from the dock and Sampson, without thinking, replied with the ANC clenched-fist salute. There were always rumours that Sampson was the secret author of Mandela's historic trial speech, but he insists his contribution was no more than "a few suggestions about the style and presentation, which were mostly ignored". At least one myth is intact.

Sampson wrote about many other things, including excellent books on the oil industry, the arms trade and even his gypsy grandfather. He served his time as a gossip writer, became a prolific columnist and polemicist, and even served on the North-South Brandt Commission as editorial advisor. He was still writing when he died of a heart attack at 78, and still with a great deal to say.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before