Bill Millinship: 'Observer' stalwart during the paper's golden age

Bill Millinship spent almost all his distinguished career in journalism on the staff of The Observer. He was a key figure in the world's oldest Sunday newspaper in its golden age, which began when it published Khrushchev's "secret speech" of 1956, opposed the government during the Suez crisis and continued with its splendid coverage of the Hungarian uprising, its denunciation of apartheid in South Africa and its support for the ANC, and which lasted for a brief time after David Astor stepped down as its editor in 1975. Trevor Grove, editor of The Observer Magazine and later of the Sunday Telegraph said, "When I joined in 1980 Bill seemed to represent, along with a small band of colleagues like Terry Kilmartin and Michael Davie, the very soul of the old Observer, the keepers of the flame."

Like Kilmartin and Davie, Millinship not only embodied the institutional memory of the paper, but also was one of the guarantors of its integrity. "In those days the leader conference," Grove remembered, "was a cockpit of strong views, strongly held, as you might expect from a gathering of intellects that typically included Conor Cruise O'Brien, John Cole, Colin Legum, Neal Ascherson, Bill Keegan, Mary Holland and Katharine Whitehorn... and Tony Howard. Arguments could be long and fierce. Bill was a quietly stabilising and cohesive influence in these debates, for whose presence the editor, Donald Trelford, must have been deeply grateful." Bill was a taciturn man, with a flinty humour, and wry, smiling eyes that often betrayed his attempts to frown, but were capable of turning steely if someone was failing to do the right thing.

William Henry George Millinship was born in 1929 in Newport, South Wales, one of two children of a working class family. His father was a shipwright, and expected his son to join him working in the Newport shipyards, while his mother also worked. At St Julian's High School Bill played rugby (and was a member of what people still remember as "the invincible team"), went to concerts (he taught himself to play the piano) and acted (he was notable in Peer Gynt.) Millinship's younger sister Joyce, who survives him, said about him as a schoolboy that "he was like an alien, so brilliant and so intelligent."

His headmaster took an interest in this talented boy and had a word with a don at Keble College, Oxford, where Bill got a place on a State Scholarship. But first he did his National Service from 1947-49 in the RAF as a pilot (in later life he used these skills in gliding). At Keble he read English, ending up with a 2.1, and acted. A tutor at Keble told him that he thought there was a job available in Paris with the RTF, and Bill bravely packed his bag and went.

There he was befriended and mentored by Sturge Moore (son of the poet T. Sturge Moore and nephew of the philosopher G.E. Moore), who asked the young man if he could type. When Bill said no, Moore told him to "come back in six weeks when you can." He did – and got the job.

He had met Vera Zeale at a youth club in Newport when he was 14 and she a year younger, and in 1953 they married in Newport, but lived in Paris. Vera returned to Wales to have their eldest child, Julia, but their other three children were born in France. When taking her French driving test, Vera mentioned to the examiner that her husband was away, interviewing Brigitte Bardot. She was always convinced that she passed only because the examiner was so impressed.

Bill then worked in Paris for the BBC and stayed in France until 1964, reporting the Algerian War for the Observer as a colleague of Nora Beloff, and later as its Paris correspondent. Julia remembers him being away so frequently when they were children in Paris that they seldom saw him.

In 1964 the Millinships went to London and moved their four more or less French children into a house in Dulwich. (One son now is French, married to a French woman, and living in the Dordogne, near the house Bill converted for himself and Vera from an old barn.) Bill had returned to be news editor of the paper until, in 1969, he was sent to Washington.

It was a family joke that the biggest story happened when Bill was on holiday. He had to rush back to the office when the Watergate story broke in 1972 and when Nixon resigned in 1974. Returning to London, Millinship was foreign news editor, and was managing editor when I joined. He called me into his office at the end of 1980 when my column had won several prizes, and tried to look dour as he said, "I expect you'll want a rise, so I suppose we'd better put you on staff."

It was a slight surprise when, aged 59, Bill learnt Russian and he and Vera went to Moscow in late 1988. He retired from The Observer from Moscow in 1992, sending some of their household furniture to the Dordogne. In 1993 he published Frontline: Women of the New Russia, for which he had conducted extensive interviews with 31 women, some of whom had been privileged during the Soviet era. The blurb said: "this volume records the Neo-Stalinist who wants a return to the good old days, the apparatchik who has had 11 abortions, the seamstress who made Lenin's corpse a new suit every 18 months - women who have experienced great privilege and endured harsh living conditions, who witnessed great cruelty, and were fed colossal lies."

Many of the reviews were by academics, but even the most critical acknowledged the real value of the book in presenting, as one reviewer wrote, "a rich and interesting complement to qualitative studies of women in the new Russia." Bill's feminist sympathies were not surprising to those who knew how much he liked women and enjoyed their company. He began, but did not quite finish, work on another book, about Kate Marsden, an English nurse disliked by the nursing profession who travelled to a leper colony in Siberia in 1891.

Bill was interested in food, keen on and knowledgeable about wine, relished the theatre – and, said Julia, "many French artistes such as Piaf, Brel, Brassens, and Aznavour, whom he often saw perform in Paris. I remember him coming back from the Grand Old Opry, when he was Washington correspondent, with country music records including Crystal Gayle."

A rare disease, at first misdiagnosed at its onset in 2003, when Vera also learned she had breast cancer, marred Bill's last years. It turned out to be progressive supernuclear palsy (PSP), and meant he suffered from something like locked-in syndrome, able to communicate only by moving his hand, which meant he missed out being an active grandfather to his nine accomplished grandchildren.

Still he managed to indicate that he wanted to be taken back to France in October 2007; and also that he had wanted to attend the last hurrah of FObs – Friends of the Observer, an organisation of the paper's old guard, survivors of its golden age, scheduled to take place on 24 March.

Paul Levy

William Henry George Millinship, journalist and author: born Newport, South Wales 11 September 1929; Paris correspondent, Algerian War correspondent, Observer, to 1964; news editor, 1964-69; Washington correspondent, 1969-73; foreign news editor, 1973-1980; managing editor, 1980-1988; Moscow correspondent 1988-1992; married 1953 Vera Zeale (died 2008; two daughters, two sons); died Danbury, Essex 16 January 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Manager - R&D - Paint

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This growing successful busines...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Advisor - Automotive Parts

£16400 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading online E-commerce ...

Recruitment Genius: Automotive Parts Manager

£27300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a leading...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Customer Service Advisor

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading boiler ...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea