Sunday 26 May 1996
Neal Ascherson writes: Laurence was the acknowledged master, the Vermeer, of the Sunday newspaper profile. With silent alacrity, often at a couple of days' notice or even less, he would deliver the portrait of a human being to which the career, the skill, the current episode which made his subject famous or notorious, formed a rich background. Not all of his subjects liked what he found in them. Most, all the same, were amazed at how accurate his sense of character was after so brief an encounter.
He wrote fastidiously, often beautifully. He never ranted or mocked; that was not in the style of this courteous, self-effacing man. But his sky-blue eyes, his long silent gazes, could intimidate. In a Laurence profile, there was never any doubt whether he approved or disapproved of his target, although he never spelt his feelings out.
Most of his profiles, in his Observer years, were anonymous. This allowed him to lift the whole genre onto a higher level. Profiles ceased to be pseudo-factual, with a few forecasts about the subject thrown in. Laurence raised them to literature, a family of biographical miniatures which did not conceal the personal taste and art which had gone into their composition. After the eclipse of the great Times leader-writers, Laurence became the most influential of all nameless journalists, his identity known to only a handful of people. When he worked for this newspaper, he agreed, reluctantly, to write under his own name. The authority of his profiles did not diminish at all.
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