Obituary: James Rusbridger
Friday 18 February 1994
JAMES RUSBRIDGER was perhaps Britain's leading letter-writer. Hardly a day passed, it seemed, without his views on the costs of the monarchy, the morals of public figures or the accountability of the Intelligence Services appearing in one national paper or another. To his delight, so well-known was he to the Post Office that it was sufficient to put 'James Rusbridger, Cornwall' on the envelope for it to be safely delivered.
What distinguished his letters was not his opinions but the quality of his information. He owed this to his capacity for hard work in archives, his technical training as an engineer, his attention to detail and his extensive network of contacts.
Whether it was the exact cost and specifications of the new MI6 HQ, Japanese policing practice, or the intricacies of signals intelligence, a particular interest, James Rusbridger would be sure to know. He prided himself on being the voice of the common man and common sense speaking out against bureaucracy, secrecy or miscarriages of justice.
His letter-writing motives, like the man himself, were complex. Living alone in Cornwall he certainly relished the contact it brought him with people at the centre of events. Essentially a lonely man, he wanted to be liked and to be useful, with the ensuing result that the unscrupulous were sometimes inclined to take advantage of his generosity and his time.
It is true that there was a streak of mischief in his make-up and he enjoyed needling those in authority, long after any benefit could be achieved, but Rusbridger's principal motive was to discover the truth and expose hypocrisy and waste.
Rusbridger's own claims to have been a 'bagman', or courier, for MI6 have been disputed but he knew something of the world of intelligence through his cousin Peter Wright (whose biography he once proposed to write) and his older brother Charles Rusbridger, who was in Naval Intelligence.
The youngest of three children of a colonel in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, he was brought up in Jamaica, Malta and Aldershot. Educated at Dover College, he was destined to join the Army but his father's death in 1948 turned him first to a brief job with the Naval Design Office of Vickers Armstrong and then to a successful career as a sugar dealer.
In 1974 he retired to Cornwall but contributed to television programmes such as Timewatch and Panorama as well as assisting John Costello with his book on Pearl Harbor And I Was There (1985). It was the subject Rusbridger took for his first, and most successful, book after he discovered an Australian wartime code-breaker, Eric Nave, who claimed to have broken the Japanese codes and that the British knew of the impending attack on the American fleet.
Initially to have been published by Bodley Head in 1988, the book was withdrawn after pressure from the D Notice Committee. It finally appeared three years later in the United States and Japan, where it was a best-seller. Its British publication suffered from its poor critical reception from the Intelligence establishment.
Rusbridger's most important book was The Intelligence Game (1989), a witty and irreverent look at the world's intelligence services and their lack of effectiveness which has enjoyed a certain vogue recently in Central Europe.
Perhaps his best book, however, was Who Sank Surcouf? (1991), an account of the mysterious sinking of a Second World War submarine, most probably by the Americans.
At the time of Rusbridger's death he was completing a book on the Lusitania, a project which had been delayed by the distractions of appearing as an expert defence witness in the spy trial last summer of Michael Smith, a former electronics engineer of GEC.
In the early Sixties James Rusbridger had been the wealthy managing director of an international commodity trading company and he never quite came to terms with his changed financial position. He retained his expensive tastes and when he came to London liked to stay at the Kensington Hilton, where he negotiated a BBC discount, and would entertain friends at Rules Restaurant.
Though he had suffered from ill- health for some time and had financial worries his tragic and lonely death, apparently by suicide, belies his good, if sometimes cynical, nature and his passion for life and, in particular, Cornwall.
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