Obituary: Geoffrey Nicholson

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The Independent Culture
GEOFFREY NICHOLSON achieved many things in a bright patchwork of a literary career woven in and around journalism, sport and books and leaves behind a long trail of admiration not least in these pages which he helped see their first light of day in 1986 when he was The Independent's rugby correspondent.

Until his death on Monday, he was still on the strength of The Independent on Sunday which was only one of a myriad occupations and interests to which he clung. A former sports editor of The Observer, he will be best remembered as one of the few able to combine a passion for Welsh rugby and French cycling.

Nicholson was the son of a shoe salesman at Saxone who ended up as area manager of the firm. He was brought up in Mumbles, Swansea, in 1929, and attended the Bishop Gore Grammar School where he struck up life-long friendships with Paul Ferris (later the biographer of Dylan Thomas) and John Morgan, the future television journalist. He elected to do his national service - he was a lance-bombardier in the Royal Artillery - before going on to read English at University College, Swansea.

His first lecturer was Kingsley Amis, himself newly arrived from Oxford, who awarded Nicholson the Principal's prize for the best essay of the year and confessed that he hadn't expected to find such talent in his new post. This would have been the first important recognition of a relaxed but riveting writing style that retained its enviable clarity, uncluttered with undue fuss and elaboration, throughout Nicholson's career although, at the time, he was more impressed with the penny a line he received for contributing rugby reports to the South Wales Evening Post.

Amis also remained a friend but the most durable encounter of this part of Nicholson's life took place at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve 1949 when he kissed a fellow student named Mavis Mainwaring. They were to remain inseparable until his last breath and became a much-loved double-act. Amis did not always approve of their views and claimed to have invented the word "lefties" during one little set-to with them. While it was true that the Nicholsons didn't have dinner parties as such - they invited people for an argument and threw some food in - they were by no means belligerent but had in abundance the Welsh love of debate.

Their togetherness was helped by a strange coincidence at university. Mavis, who was a year ahead of Geoff because of his army service, won a scholarship put up by Edward Hulton for a small number of graduates to train as advertising copy-writers. Geoff thereupon won the same scholarship the following year, 1952, and joined Mavis in London where they promptly got married.

They spent almost five years in advertising. Then Mavis left to have their first baby and to branch out later as a television interviewer, author and columnist. In his time with the Crawford's advertising agency Geoff was highly regarded but he wasn't happy apart from the time he noticed a colleague had written an ad for Daks which read "The Trousers that Stand Out in Front". He neglected to draw attention to the possible misconstruction and it appeared in a newspaper.

During that time he was already tunnelling his way into journalism by continuing to report the odd rugby match plus moonlighting as a freelance book-reviewer for The Guardian and The Spectator.

Through Paul Ferris, he established a connection with The Observer sports desk. It is a measure of how fast sports coverage has grown in the quality newspapers that when he first began work for The Observer he answered to someone with the title of Sports and Religious Affairs Editor. It is not a coupling of responsibilities that could be envisaged today.

It was at this stage, around 1960, that he felt himself being tugged towards an office-bound, executive life he was eventually to cast aside for the freedom of writing and reporting. Firstly, he became deputy sports editor to Chris Brasher at The Observer and then moved to The Sunday Times as sports features editor. He was temporarily diverted by Fleetway to edit a new sports and leisure magazine but it was early days for that sort of concept and it was abandoned before birth.

Nicholson rejoined The Observer where, in 1976, he was appointed Sports Editor. Religious affairs had been dropped from the title by then but there was a devout cult following for the paper's sports-writers; a talented but generally untamed lot who included Hugh McIlvanney, Arthur Hopcraft, the aforementioned Brasher, Peter Dobereiner, Clem Thomas, Richard Baerlein . . . an impressive list of writers and characters who needed a strong force at their centre to organise and display their individualities. Nicholson did the job superbly but he never warmed to it. He preferred to be a member of the pack, not dealing it.

Nevertheless, his two years in the job were important because at that time The Sunday Times was flexing its muscles. Backed by far greater resources, The Observer's traditional rival was attempting to break new ground in the Sunday broadsheet battle. In sport, this amounted largely to a campaign aimed at whipping the nation into a keep-fit frenzy. They sponsored a national fun-run and almost every article exhorted readers to fling themselves into some activity or other.

This was in complete contrast to the image of The Observer sports department as a pub-loving, carousing bunch of laid-back troubadours. The difference in quality of the work they turned out hardly needed emphasising but Nicholson famously remarked: "What The Sunday Times could do with is a deep breath of foul air." He would have removed a smelly French cigarette from his mouth in order to make that statement. Recently, when his illness had taken a fatal grip, his doctor offered him the ironic consolation that his chest and lungs were as sound as a bell, which proved the benefits of not smoking. Nicholson couldn't disguise his delight in revealing that he'd smoked 60 Gauloises a day until four years ago.

His devotion to the Tour de France was not a product of his liking of French fags but of a chance exposure to cycling when The Observer sent him to cover a leg of the Tour of Britain in 1959. It was the stage that took the riders across the Pennines and he was absolutely transfixed by a race "that was a rounded, self-contained story with complex relationships, sudden shifts of action, identifiable heroes, a beginning, a middle and an end".

He graduated to the Tour de France which he covered for 19 years and about which he wrote two books. The Great Bike Race (1977) is regarded as a classic observation of an event he found compelling. He devoured the television reports of last month's Tour and enjoyed the victory of Lance Armstrong not least for the poignant fact that the American was a cancer sufferer.

The last of his 10 books was as co-author of Cliff Morgan's autobiography (Cliff Morgan: the autobiography - beyond the fields of play, 1997) and his appetite for work was not diminished by his long illness. He was recently honoured as Welsh Sports Journalist of the Year in April and last month insisted on leaving his sick-bed to produce the current issue of The Chronicle, a community newspaper that covers the Tanat and Cain valleys in the foothills of the Berwyn mountains, mid-Wales, where he and Mavis had converted an old farmhouse for their busy retirement. Apart from being Production Editor of the local paper he helped to found, he also contributed a gossip column entitled "Small Talk". It was often a waspish offering but far more likely to inspire than offend. To the end, Geoffrey Nicholson's life was incapable of anything else.

Geoffrey George Nicholson, journalist and writer: born Thornton Heath, Surrey 4 April 1929; Sports Editor, The Observer 1976-78; rugby correspondent, The Independent 1986-89; married 1952 Mavis Mainwaring (three sons); died Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochmant, Powys 2 August 1999.