Richard Boston

Journalist and founder of 'The Vole'


Richard Boston, writer and journalist: born London 29 December 1938; married 1968 Anne Caulkin (marriage dissolved 1976), 2004 Marie-Claude Chapuis; died Reading 22 December 2006.

Richard Boston, the writer and journalist, was a most original and delightful mixture of a man. He combined intellect, integrity and considerable learning with an almost child-like sense of fun and humour. His was, in many ways, a life lived through jokes. He pursued jokes like some men pursue women.

The practical joke had an especial appeal to him, particularly when it had a good target, usually an official, powerful or petty. He was once a regular presenter of the television programme What The Papers Say, a task for which he and his producer had to travel from London to Granada's Manchester studios. On the early Euston train, their enjoyment of the breakfast was spoiled regularly by an officious and bossy chief steward. One day, Boston slipped onto his plate, among the rashers and sausages, a plastic fried egg. He then complained about his inedible egg. The steward, puzzled and poking at the inert egg, was for once on the defensive. When he had suffered enough, Boston picked up the egg off his plate and calmly folded it into his wallet.

Humour permeated his life and achievements - much of his journalism, his campaigns, his books and biographies, even originated in his appreciation of a joke. His home, in the Berkshire village of Aldworth, was mined with jokes: notices saying "Beware of the Cat"; mugs with little frogs concealed in the bottom of them.

He became nationally known, a celebrity for a period, when he wrote a weekly column in The Guardian on beer, a campaign against gassy, pressurised beer that the big brewers, Watneys especially, were trying to force on pubs and public. Boston, together with the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), beat the brewers and cask-conditioned ale was saved. He was a hero among beer drinkers, often to his embarrassment. When real beer enthusiasts would press him to try a pint of "Old Sweated Waistcoats", he used to dismay them by saying "Mine's a gin and tonic."

His humour, his campaigning, his writing had roots in specific beliefs, notably in the verities of anarchism. A man of considerable moral courage, he had an ingrained distrust of all attempts by one group of people to organise and control the lives of others. It was typical of him that the only time he ever stood for an elected office, to become a Member of the European Parliament, his sole platform was cornering the perks. His slogan: "It's a big trough and I want to get my nose in it."

Richard Boston was born in 1938 into a farming family and educated at Stowe before a year at the Regent Street Polytechnic studying art. This gave him a passion for painting and no little skill at drawing himself. Then came King's College, Cambridge, where he read English. His first job revealed that Boston's life was not to be conventional - he joined the staff of Peace News and quickly had an MI5 file devoted to him.

He then became books editor of New Society and irritated the management by exposing the different pay rates among the staff. He pinned to the office notice board details of his wages, inviting other staff members to do the same. In time he wrote regularly for The Guardian as a feature writer and created some of its most colourful long-length journalism at that time - not least an investigation of a nudist colony in the south of France, for which he poed naked for a photograph with his typewriter conveniently placed.

His greatest journalistic achievement was the founding in 1977 of one of the first environmental magazines in Britain, The Vole. Like its founder, it was an eclectic mix - acute understandings of threats to the environment, fine writing and of course humour used for a serious purpose. Boston himself wrote a very funny column under the alias of C.O. Jones (cojones = testicles, Sp.) The Vole was far ahead of its time, on issues from sustainability to greenhouses gases.

Running a small magazine was a huge strain and especially when he chose to start another one, the literary magazine Quarto, in 1979. Not long after he had handed The Vole into other hands, he had a stroke of personal fortune. He attended a book fair and noted a young French woman running the Hachette stall. He asked for her telephone number and when she gave it, upbraided her: "Do you give your phone number to anyone?" Marie-Claude Chapuis proved to be the perfect match for the eccentric sometimes tetchy Englishman and two years ago they married after 21 years of rich partnership.

He wrote good biographies. His first, The Admirable Urquhart (1975), was of the translator of Rabelais, Sir Thomas Urquhart, to whom he may have been attracted when he became aware that Urquhart died of uncontrollable laughter on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II. Boston used to like to quote Rabelais: "One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;/Because to laugh is proper to the man."

A second biography, Osbert (1989), was devoted to the cartoonist and designer Osbert Lancaster, and he was working on a third on Cézanne and Zola, being much taken with his discovery that while the two were at the same school in Aix, Zola won the top prize for painting while Cézanne won the prize for literature. There were further books, An Anatomy of Laughter (1974), and collections.

To the end Boston maintained his life-long search for a joke. A few days before he died, a friend visited him in hospital and brought him the papers. Boston said "I had better look at the obituaries pages. I might be in them."

Jeremy Bugler

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