Michael Davie

Pillar of David Astor's 'Observer' and editor of the Melbourne 'Age'


Michael Davie, journalist and writer: born Cranleigh, Surrey 15 January 1924; staff, The Observer 1950-77, 1981-88; Associate Editor, The Age 1977-79, Editor 1979-81; married 1954 Robin Atherton (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1975 Anne Chisholm (one adopted son deceased); died Ewelme, Oxfordshire 6 December 2005.

Michael Davie had the good fortune to join The Observer in 1950, on the brink of the venerable Sunday newspaper's golden age as the leading political, cultural and intellectual organ of Britain's liberal left. One of a group of talented young journalists recruited by David Astor, the paper's editor and later its proprietor, he did much to establish and secure that reputation. He stayed with The Observer for 27 years, holding a number of senior editorial positions, then returned for a further eight years in the 1980s, after a stint as Editor of the Melbourne Age.

Born in Cranleigh, Surrey, in 1924, he was educated at Haileybury, where he caught the eye of one of his teachers, Martin Wight, a prominent pacifist and a friend of Astor. In 1942 he went up to Merton College, Oxford, to read English under Edmund Blunden; but after a year he was conscripted into the Royal Navy. Returning to Merton after the Second World War, he decided to switch courses and read History, as being more relevant at a time of international turmoil.

When Astor became Editor of The Observer in 1948 he was looking for a diplomatic correspondent, and Wight suggested Davie. Asked to prove that he could write, the undergraduate submitted a travel article, which was published. But he was unable to accept Astor's job offer immediately because he had yet to sit his final exams; and by the time he graduated, the position was filled.

However, the encounter with Astor had persuaded him that journalism was to be his calling, and he briefly took a job as a reporter on the Manchester Evening News. In 1950 Astor found him a place on The Observer, covering religion. One of his principal tasks, he said, was to visit Cliveden, the Astors' stately home, to be harangued by Nancy Astor, the Editor's mother, on Christian Science.

He was then appointed to his first executive post, as sports editor. He found it immensely enjoyable, for he was keen on sport, especially cricket. At Haileybury he had been in the first XI and one of his team mates was Alan Ross, later a notable poet. Determined to improve the standard of writing on the sports pages, he hired Ross to report on cricket, which he did with distinction for a number of years.

Many other surprising names found their way on to the sports pages during his tenure. The philosopher A.J. Ayer, the lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper and John Sparrow of All Souls wrote about football, and Clement Freud had a brief innings on cricket. Among specialist sports writers he nurtured were Chris Brasher on athletics, Richard Baerlein and Jack Leach on horse racing and Hugh McIlvanney, still regarded as one of the finest all-round reporters of his generation. Between them they created a new literary style of sports journalism that has since become widely accepted.

Davie contrived to assign himself to England's controversial cricket tour of Australia in 1958-59, but was eventually persuaded to leave the sports desk. He did some foreign reporting before being appointed as news editor and, in 1964, the launch editor of The Observer's colour magazine. Then Astor made him Deputy Editor; but although he enjoyed editing - especially when it involved discovering and developing new journalistic talent - he was keen to continue writing as well. His first book, LBJ (1966), was a biography of the US President Lyndon Johnson, and his second, In the Future Now (1972), was about the developing high-tech industries of California.

In 1968 Donald Trelford took over as Astor's deputy and from then on Davie became a columnist and star writer, tackling many of the major international stories. He also found time to edit Evelyn Waugh's diaries (The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, 1976). His most admired work was on the Notebook feature on The Observer's back page, featuring an in-depth report on a major issue of the day. On the strength of this he was made Journalist of the Year in the What the Papers Say awards for 1976.

By this time Astor had stood down as Editor in favour of Trelford and The Observer, which had never recovered from the loss of advertising and readership caused by the its opposition to the Government over the 1956 Suez crisis, was about to be sold to an American oil company, Atlantic Richfield. It was a very different paper from the one he had joined - and then helped to create - in the 1950s, alongside such distinguished colleagues as Anthony Sampson, Patrick O'Donovan, John Pringle, Kenneth Tynan, Colin Legum, Robert Stephens and Cyril Dunn.

That was one reason why he accepted an invitation in 1977 to go to Australia as associate editor of The Age in Melbourne. Personal factors came into it as well. Davie had married Robin Atherton in 1954, and they had three children. They were divorced and in 1975 he married Anne Chisholm, his assistant when he was writing The Observer's Pendennis diary.

Australia therefore represented a new life in more ways than one. He was liked and admired there and was made Editor of The Age in 1979 - the last British editor of a major Australian newspaper. But he never really wanted to settle there and he returned to Britain, and to The Observer, in 1981.

In 1986 he wrote a book about the Titanic disaster, The Titanic: the full story of a tragedy, and the following year was joint editor, with his son Simon, of The Faber Book of Cricket. In 1988 he retired from The Observer - although he contributed to it occasionally - in order to write his most successful book, Beaverbrook: a life, a biography of Lord Beaverbrook co-authored by his wife Anne. To document the wide-ranging life of Beaverbrook, the founder of the Daily Express and a member of Winston Churchill's war cabinet, was an immense challenge, but the critics concurred that the two authors had produced "a biography on a grand scale".

Davie's last book, Anglo-Australian Attitudes (2000), was about the often fraught relationship between Britain and Australia. He had begun work on another book, a life of Maurice Bowra, but 18 months ago he became ill and was unable to complete it.

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