David Leitch

Pre-eminent reporter and author of 'God Stand Up For Bastards'
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The Independent Online

David Paul Leitch (né Chester), journalist: born London 27 October 1937; (one daughter with Barbara Pollock), married 1970 Jill Neville (one son; marriage dissolved 1981), 1983 Rosie Boycott (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1998); died London 24 November 2004.

One hears sometimes a discussion about whether this or that person was supreme in some arduous craft: jazz musician, perhaps, political orator, or reporter. But, if it takes place among people who know the business, it will come down to identifying a handful, pre-eminent within a generation, amongst whom it is pointless to make distinctions. David Leitch was a reporter of that quality. When you saw his best writing, you forgot comparisons.

He was one of a certain few writers whose dispatches from Vietnam, 30-plus years ago, brought that conflict vividly to the British public - and indeed to the world, because some of their work is properly remembered as ranking with that of the best Americans. Leitch's account of the siege of Khe Sanh, and the pointless ordeal of US Marines encircled there, is classic in the same way as the photographs of David Douglas Duncan. A grasp of Vietnam's tragic folly - the gift of David Leitch and his colleague-competitors - clearly remains well-diffused in Britain, even among people who never felt the original witness. Only the Government, that incurious enterprise, seems fully unaware.

Though many of the matters he reported were melodramatic, his own style was essentially restrained and transparent - the more remarkable in that his life-experience was, as he confessed, implausible. The title of his best-known book, God Stand Up For Bastards (1973), reflected the notion that, as an adopted child, he had been illegitimate. It turned out that his natural mother and father, Truda and John Chester, were married. But Truda gave the unnamed boy away at seven days old, to a prosperous couple who saw her advertisement in the Daily Express. Though known as Mr and Mrs Leitch they were unmarried.

David was their one adoptive child, and it seems that Ivy Leitch never established any close relationship with him. But David Leitch senior made a warm and supportive parent: sending the boy to his own old school, Merchant Taylors', and taking great pleasure in the subsequent scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge, where he took a First in History. David grew up not knowing that he had two siblings: a sister, Margaret, whom Truda only raised in part, and another sister who also was given away. Some of this troubling story he told in another book, Family Secrets (1984). As a precociously talented journalist, he displayed a great self-assurance (properly short of brash). But any friend soon sensed an essential melancholy.

He went from Cambridge to the (Manchester) Guardian, and from there to The Times. Leitch's much- envied interview with Nikita Khrushchev was a rare Times coup in its last, faltering, period of independence. He moved to the Sunday Times in 1963: I recall admiring in 1965 the skill with which he weaved between the grandees at Winston Churchill's funeral, where no reporter was supposedly allowed. He had all the arts of intrusion, but never used them against the vulnerable.

It was shortly afterwards that David Leitch and I, along with Phillip Knightley and the late Hugo Young, began investigating Kim Philby and the "Cambridge spies". Although we thought ourselves experienced, we had not fully sampled the clandestine arrogance of Whitehall. As our editor Harold Evans said, there could be no security issue, as Philby had long since joined Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in Moscow. Doubtless the new, open-minded Labour government would assist discreetly, in the interests of accuracy?

Lord (Alun) Chalfont dispensed instant disillusion on behalf of the Foreign Office. No official person could possibly discuss the Philby matter: although trivial, it remained deeply sensitive. Given official hostility it would be impossible for us to discover anything, and anyway impossible to write about it. His advice - he called himself a fellow journalist - was to forget it.

If Leitch was cast down, nothing betrayed it. He took Chalfont's lecture as proof of an immense story, and set off immediately to excavate clues in Cambridge. Leitch always believed there was a room somewhere with God drinking whisky from the bottle, and that it could be penetrated with a little intelligence: usually he was right. It was a great pleasure for him that, when his daughter Miranda arrived at St John's to read History, the "impossible" book about Philby which he wrote (together with Phillip Knightley and me: Philby: the spy who betrayed a generation, 1968) became one of her texts.

After Vietnam, the extraordinary politics of late-Sixties America and the Middle East conflicts of the 1970s, his work was of a less dramatic order, although he found good opportunities in the New Statesman and had a rewarding period in Australia with the short-lived National Times. Without doubt the dangerous years took a price in terms of mental poise, for the myth of the hard-boiled reporter applies properly to no one, and to David Leitch least of all. He said of Khe Sanh years later:

It was beyond human endurance . . . It was like being in one of those medieval sieges where you knew you actually had to lose because you didn't have water, or whatever it was, and they were going to get you and cut your throat. Meanwhile, you had a day or two to live, and you had to live like a man. It's a very difficult thing to do. Someone, a Native American Marine, said to me, "It's a beautiful day to die."

At the time he said there was a sense of guilt in describing the ordeal of others who never left the place, and he thought it would never disappear.

Leitch was married twice, to the writer Jill Neville, whose obituary he wrote for The Independent, and to Rosie Boycott, sometime Editor of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. Both marriages ended in divorce.

Bruce Page