Graham Lord: Journalist and biographer admired for distilling the essence of subjects like Joan Collins and Jeffrey Bernard

Lord brought his unique combination of research and off-the-wall anecdotes to create his detailed portraits of his subjects, warts and all

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The Independent Online

Graham Lord was a journalist and biographer who excelled at distilling the essence of his subjects, bringing his unique combination of research and off-the-wall anecdotes to create his detailed portraits of his subjects, warts and all. Richard Ingrams, former editor of Private Eye and professional pseud-spotter, described Lord as "a voice of sanity in a world of pseuds."

Lord was born in 1943 in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to Harold Lord and Ida McDowall. He attended what he remembered as a "very English prep school" in eastern Rhodesia's Vumba mountains.

"I loved words and the smell of new paper and ink," he recalled. "By the time I was nine I'd written my first short novel and I was soon producing a weekly as well as a monthly magazine. By the age of 12 I was writing a daily newspaper that I reproduced on the headmaster's Banda copying machine early every morning."

He spent his later childhood in Beira, Mozambique, before reading History at Cambridge, where he also edited the university newspaper, Varsity. Favouring a provocative and controversial style, he noted, "I was gratified that the university proctors were sufficiently provoked by my revolutionary editorials to threaten twice to close the paper down, and we increased our circulation by 20 per cent in eight weeks."

Lord owed his first job to the Sunday Express editor, John Junor, who struck up conversation after eyeing up his then wife, Jane: "I landed my first job in Fleet Street thanks to my wife's lovely long legs. She was 22, very pretty, wearing a tiny miniskirt (it was 1964) and we were sitting in the bar of the Cambridge Union just before a debate. Sitting opposite, mesmerised, was the notoriously randy 45-year-old Scottish editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, 'JJ', whose goggle eyes boggled as they feasted on her pins."

He joined the paper in 1965, becoming its literary editor after three years, when the incumbent, Bob Pitman, died. "I was 26," he later wrote, "and could barely believe that after just four years in Fleet Street I'd more than quadrupled my salary, landed a dream job that allowed me to read and keep the pick of the 200-400 new books that arrived for review every week..." For the next quarter of a century he interviewed dozens of authors, actors and political figures.

His favourite subject was Graham Greene: "Of all the novelists I met during my years in Fleet Street I wish I could have written half as well as Graham Greene." Greene's books, Lord wrote, had "... a philosophical depth and emotional power rare in a writer who tried so hard to entertain as well as to make you think." It was on a trip to Antibes to visit Greene in 1988 that he met Juliet Lewis, an artist. They moved in to his London flat two months later.

During his tenure he launched the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award with a £20,000 prize – then the most lucrative – awarded in its first year, 1987, to The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore. His key criteria in choosing entries, in a deliberate push against the Booker, was that winners should not only be well-written but readable, too.

Lord left the paper five years later to concentrate on biography. He had already written six novels, with varying degrees of success, by the time he published his first biography, Just The One: The Wives and Times of Jeffrey Bernard (1992), about the legendary journalist, alcoholic and author of the Low Life column in The Spectator. The attention given to the intimate personal details of Bernard's life did not please all readers. Christopher Howse, writing Bernard's obituary for this newspaper, noted that the book was "...a negative study, seeming cruel in exposing every incident of spitefulness, questioning his virility and clothing all in a cloud of misery."

Lord's break as an author came with James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet (1996). "I suggested to my literary agent, Giles Gordon, that I should write a biography of James Herriot...", he recalled, "Giles sold the idea to Headline Books, who paid me such a generous advance that I was able at last to fulfil the dream I had nurtured for more than a quarter of a century..." The dream was to move to the South of France, where he had first interviewed the author Paul Galllico in 1970. He and Juliet sold their house and hopped on a plane to Nice with just three suitcases.

He followed the success of the Herriot book with works on Dick Francis, David Niven and Joan Collins. But his proudest achievement, he said, was to have been cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, as the author of the line, "what the fuck do you think you're doing?", taken from his novel Marshmallow Pie, in the entry for the F-word.

MARCUS WILLIAMSON

Graham Lord, journalist and author: born Southern Rhodesia 16 February 1943; married firstly Jane (two daughters), secondly Juliet Lewis; died 13 June 2015.

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