Few who have worked for The Economist can match the 28 years that Peter David gave so outstandingly to that magazine – and fewer still could match the range of his interests or the breadth of what he wrote about.
He wrote on everything from UK domestic politics to the Middle East; from book reviews to special reports that ranged from Islam to international banking. The anonymity of the magazine's writers suited his self-effacing character, yet he was central in shaping The Economist's influential view of the world.
David, who has died at the age of 60 in a road accident in Virginia, was a writer of great skill who had an intimidatingly formidable knowledge; he was a generalist who could match any specialist. He joined The Economist in 1984 and was sometime editor of the business, foreign and Middle East sections, and, as political editor, wrote the Bagehot column. He had been the Washington, DC bureau chief since 2009; characteristically, he played down the importance of the post.
An element of chance, which was embedded in his family's fortunes, had brought him to where he was. His ancestors were Lithuanian Jews who had fled to South Africa in the 19th century. David was born in Johannesburg, but his early years were interrupted when his parents left with their three children to settle in Liverpool, when his mother, Ruth, a member of the banned Liberal Party, appeared to be threatened with arrest. Sonny, his lawyer father, unable to practice in England, went into business and became managing director of a lingerie company.
David was educated at Liverpool College and then read sociology at Bedford College, London. His first proper journalistic job was with the now-defunct Municipal Review, and he graduated to The Teacher and then the THES. He was the latter's US correspondent in the early 1980s when industrial convulsions at Thomson's Times newspapers left him stranded and jobless – but he slipped into a post with Nature. While there, he was recruited as a science writer by The Economist and returned home. He travelled extensively for the magazine and seemed to have met everyone from Yasser Arafat to Barack Obama, always having some anecdote or perceptive observation to relate.
He was a true friend of Israel, but was sharply critical of her policies. In 2009 he wrote that the argument could not be seen as a conflict between, on the one hand, "terrorism", or on the other, "colonialism". This was mere prejudice, the worst kind of sloppy thinking – something which David's intellectual rigour abhorred. "At heart," he said, "this is a struggle of two peoples for the same patch of land." Nearly two years before the Arab Spring, he wrote: "In reviewing this litany of troubles, it is necessary to remember that what people call 'the Arab world' is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably not one thing at all."
He strongly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but deplored the "criminal negligence" of the Bush administration. David loved and admired America, even if he deplored the way its political culture had developed. But sharing the optimism typical of that country, in one of his last despatches he wrote that whatever its troubles, "America of all countries still has plenty of grounds to hope for a better future, despite its underperforming politics, and no matter who triumphs in November."
In argument, he allied reason, liberal instincts and an inability to take anything on trust. But gentle style could not mask righteous indignation when required, even if that came clothed in an effortlessly elegant, dry prose shot through with irony and wit.
David had an utterly unaffected charm and a self-deprecating humour; he embodied kindness and gentleness; and he was enormously sociable. He loved food and wine. His attraction to his wife, Celia, with whom he enjoyed a long and obviously loving marriage, must, in part, have been because she was a superb cook. (A former caterer, she then trained as a social worker and is now a talented potter.)
He took a quiet delight in Ian and Tessa, their children. Just before he was off on what was to be his fateful trip, he told me that he had a "fantasy retirement" – he would read in the mornings (no doubt while checking his emails) and then stroll over Hampstead Heath to meet his brother, Alan, or his sister, Jenny, for coffee.
The Davids lived in a beautiful, large house in Georgetown, in which you didn't so much stay with the family as share their home with them.
Peter Howard David, journalist: born Johannesburg 7 September 1951; married Celia (one son, one daughter); died Charlottesville, Virginia 10 May 2012.
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