Obituary: Colin Welch
Wednesday 29 January 1997
Welch was born in 1924 at Ickleton Abbey, Cambridgeshire, and educated at Stowe, where he first met his lifelong friend Peregrine Worsthorne. They were lucky enough to have as one of their teachers the Soho litterateur John Davenport, who encouraged their love of history, and took them out to dinner at the White Hart in Buckingham, with the boys footing the bill.
Worsthorne says in his autobiography, Tricks of Memory (1993), that, when the time came to go to Cambridge before joining the forces, Welch persuaded him to apply for Peterhouse, rather than one of the grander colleges. Not only was it the smallest and oldest college in Oxford or Cambridge, but it had the best historians, in Herbert Butterfield and Denis Brogan.
However, when the time came for the two young men to join the Army, Worsthorne persuaded Welch, against his better judgement, to try for a commission in the Coldstream Guards, rather than a more modest infantry regiment. They were both given a miserable time at their officer training, and failed to make it into the Guards, so Welch took a commission in the Warwickshire Regiment. He fought in France and was twice wounded.
Returning to Peterhouse after the Second World War, Welch rebelled against the bleakness which had descended on the university, as on the whole country under its Labour government. When the new Bursar tried to enforce some fresh austerity on the undergraduates, Welch retorted: "Don't you know there's not a war on?" However, at Peterhouse Welch made friends with some of the dons who later made the college a power-house of the intellectual Right. He also got to know the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who, with Friedrich Hayek, was to be one of Welch's mentors.
One evening, Welch was whooping it up in a London night-club with two sympathetic Peterhouse dons when they thought it a good idea to send a bomb-scare threat to the hated Bursar. This was duly carried out by one of the dons, Desmond Williams, exaggerating his Irish accent. This was long before bomb warnings became deadly serious. The Bursar rang the Cambridge police, who had the call traced to the night- club, where all three were arrested. Colin Welch, as the only undergraduate, was promptly sent down from Cambridge.
Undaunted by this setback, Welch in 1948 took a job as sub-editor on the Glasgow Herald, adding a range of Scotch accents to his enormous repertoire of mimicry. Because he could hit off the thought process as well as the voice of the person he mimicked, Welch was as brilliant in his way as the late Peter Cook. While in Glasgow, he met the beautiful and witty Sybil Russell, to whom he was married in 1950. In the same year he joined the Daily Telegraph, which in those days was the most Conservative newspaper in Fleet Street, with Malcolm Muggeridge its most famous "Cold Warrior", as people were called who warned against trusting Stalin's Russia.
Colin Welch served the Daily Telegraph variously as a leader writer, parliamentary correspondent, columnist and, for a time, deputy editor. During the 1950s he came to know American writers and academics of similar inclination, and wrote many articles for the monthly Encounter. He was an economic liberal, though not a supporter of Britain's Liberal Party, and what would come to be known as a monetarist.
Although Welch felt strongly on politics, he was never solemn. Always a pub, more than a club man, he loved to get involved in uproarious arguments, once loudly proclaiming in a Geneva bar, "Switzerland, per capita, is the poorest country in Europe", before falling off his stool. He developed a passion for high-powered motorbikes, and would bomb down the M1, bellowing out Wagner, of which he could sing prodigiously long passages, sometimes in pubs.
Peregrine Worsthorne observed that Welch "had only to go into a pub or get on a bus for the company, however uninspiring, to spark him off into the most marvellous flights of fancy or speculation about what might lie behind those unremarkable exteriors". It was perhaps this love of fantasy that led him in 1955 to start the Daily Telegraph's "Way of the World" column under the pseudonym of "Peter Simple".
The name of "Peter Simple's" most famous character, Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the rich fellow traveller and fount of left-wing prejudice, from adulation of Stalinism to hatred of white South Africans, was a combination of Palme Dutt, the Suedo-Bengali theorist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Anna Pauker, the post-war Romanian Communist leader who once complained, "Not nearly enough middle-class people are committing suicide."
After two years as "Peter Simple", Welch took on as an assistant Michael Wharton, who eventually turned the column into a vehicle for his own comic genius, and writes it still for the Sunday Telegraph.
Wharton has given us a pen-portrait of Welch in 1957:
He was . . . a compact, strongly built man with thick dark curly hair and an exceptionally fine set of teeth, enabling him to smile more often than I, though he would almost certainly have done so, whatever his teeth had been like. He wore spectacles and his face belonged to a certain unmistakably English type which can be found in all classes anywhere, any day of the week. But this man could not be found any day of the week in any class.
From the 1950s, the "Peter Simple" column mocked and abused the "Permissive Movement", which has developed into the liberal tyranny of Political Correctness. Increasingly Welch and his friends felt like Royalists living in Oliver Cromwell's England. As the new Roundheads preached against "racism", "homophobia", "male chauvinism", smoking tobacco and drinking more than a few "units" of alcohol, so Welch and his kind demonstrated defiance by the Bohemian life. The Kings and Keys public house next to the Daily Telegraph became a rallying point for dissent in a now puritan Fleet Street. Whisky, laughter, learned discussion, fantasy and above all irreverence for the country's nomenklatura, made the Kings and Keys a pub in the great tradition of Dr Johnson's "Cheshire Cheese", next door.
Michael Wharton has told in his autobiography A Dubious Codicil (1991) some of the tragicomic story of Welch's turbulent private life. Once, after a stormy lunch with a woman friend, Welch went in to chair the Daily Telegraph editorial conference with unmistakable signs of spaghetti on his suit. "Careless waiter," he murmured by way of explanation.
Welch's Bohemian ways partly explained why the Daily Telegraph's proprietor Lord Hartwell told him one day in the lift that he would never be editor, as he was too old- fashioned. "Perhaps, my Lord, you would prefer to appoint Mr Kenneth Tynan," said Welch, with mock unction. He left the paper to edit a business magazine, then worked for the Daily Mail as a parliamentary sketchwriter, and for a time wrote a column on the Independent. He wrote regular book reviews for the Spectator, full of wit, erudition and originality.
Colin Welch spent his retirement with Sybil at their home in Wiltshire. By her he left a son and a daughter, Frances, who brought great joy to Colin when she married the comic writer and parodist Craig Brown, a young man after his own heart.
James Colin Ross Welch, journalist: born Ickleton, Cambridgeshire 23 April 1924; staff, Daily Telegraph 1950-80, Deputy Editor 1964-80; Editor- in-Chief, Chief Executive magazine 1980-82; married 1950 Sybil Russell (one son, one daughter; and one son, one daughter by Kate Wharton); died Froxfield, Wiltshire 28 January 1997.
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