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Obituary: Nico Colchester

Not many people manage to be both quintessentially English and thoroughly cosmopolitan. Nico Colchester was that rare combination, and the Nico (never Nicholas) cleverly made the point. With his death, sudden and far too early, many people in many countries will feel that some of the spark has gone out of their own lives too.

Nico was the child of a Foreign Office family, with schools to match: the Dragon School in Oxford, then Radley. By the time he was set to go to Oxford, he could have read virtually any subject, for he was as happy in the lab as with literature and Latin. He gave the fashionable courses a miss, and chose Engineering, to which he later added Economics. But he spread himself across a much wider canvas, in drama and music and sport. He learnt to fly. He had the curiosity of most undergraduates, which usually then deserts them. In Nico Colchester's case, it never did.

He wanted to know about things, so he was drawn to journalism. In the spring of 1968 he had an interview with Gordon Newton, the Financial Times editor who had an extraordinary gift for spotting and recruiting young stars. Newton asked him to sit outside his office and write an article on the current state of British Leyland. Colchester did the piece and got the job.

He stayed with the FT for 18 years, and loved it. He had postings abroad, in New York and Bonn, covering business and politics with equal ease. He made lots of friends, and met and married Laurence Schloesing. Through her he came to know France properly, and to treat it as his second home. The August holiday became sacrosanct in the Colchester calendar - ideally four weeks, never less than three. Colchester was fundamentally a happy man, and their two young sons gave him an extra layer of happiness.

On the FT Nico Colchester was marked out for big things, so nobody was surprised when he became Foreign Editor in 1981. He made many changes there. The paper's finances were not healthy, and the foreign department was seen as a source of high costs and high living. He did a lot to put this right, and some of the old guard did not like it. But he was much more than a cost-cutter; the paper's political business coverage of other countries improved enormously during his time.

He even found time to write quite a bit. In one memorable article he announced the discovery of the modern version of the gold standard. Over years of rapid inflation, he proved that Mars Bars had kept their real value. Even changes in their size and weight had matched the twists and turns of prices. It was the kind of idea that every journalist wishes he had thought of first.

He had long set his heart on the editorship of the FT. By strong FT tradition, that meant that he should be the Deputy Editor first. It was not to be. When Fredy Fisher retired and Geoffrey Owen became Editor, there were two candidates for the deputy's slot - Nico Colchester and Richard Lambert. The two were close friends, but that was little consolation for Colchester when Lambert got the job.

After that, for the first time in his career, he was willing to look outside the FT. In 1986, as soon as I became Editor of the Economist, I started talking to him about joining us. He came, on the understanding that (if all went well) he would become Deputy Editor when Norman Macrae retired: and so he did, three years later.

It is not easy to move from one strong newspaper culture to another. Colchester managed the change with great skill and authority. He may sometimes have missed the adrenalin of a daily paper, but he had time to write much more. He was happy with the market economics of his new home, and he kept the paper more or less true to its pro-European roots. Only in Britain would that combination be regarded as odd; the British division between -sceptics and -philes irritated him greatly.

Years before he had taken the trouble to understand the Continent, and he kept his contacts and knowledge very fresh. That often gave him an edge in seeing the future. In 1989 he persuaded me to run a cover entitled "Eine Deutschland?". Many readers thought we were mad. Six months later the wall came down.

When I decided to leave the Economist several years ahead of schedule, Colchester was convinced that this time the editor's chair would not elude him. It did, and it hurt him dreadfully. He took many months to recover, eventually leaving the paper to become editorial director of the Economist Intelligence Unit. He was predictably good at the job and, rather to his surprise, he enjoyed it. He was dealing with virtually every country in the world and with politics as well as business. He was full of ideas for improving the EIU, he travelled widely, and he developed a new sideline on the lecture circuit.

Nico Colchester spent many weeks abroad and that was where he died. He had just been out running in New York, training for another marathon. He always loved a challenge.

Nicholas Benedick Sparrowe Colchester, journalist: born 30 December 1946; staff, Financial Times 1968-86, New York correspondent 1970-73, Bonn correspondent 1974-77, Foreign Editor 1981-86; staff, Economist 1986- 93, Deputy Editor 1989-93; OBE 1993; Editorial Director, Economist Intelligence Unit 1993-96; married 1976 Laurence Schloesing (two sons); died New York 25 September 1996.