I meet Lord Deedes - Dear Bill, one-time government minister, journalist and all-round total legend, basically - at the London offices of The Daily Telegraph. He has come, he says, straight from the dentist, "so I'm rather low in the water. The dentist handed me over to the hygienist. They're the new thing now, hygienists." Everybody loves Bill Deedes. How, in fact, could you not love someone who uses "low in the water" at the off and, because of his famed "shome mishtake shurley"' lisp, pronounces hygienist as "hygienisht". I believe I could happily listen to him saying "low in the water" and "hygienisht" all day but, alas, we must press on. He sits on the sofa and invites me to do similarly. "Look here, you must sit down. I can't bear to be sitting down when women are standing up. It upsets me." I duly sit. "Now," he says, "confidentially, and not on the record, I feel responsible for your existence."
"Yes, without me you wouldn't be here."
"Bloody hell, Bill, you slept with my mother?"
He giggles. His giggle is a delight; high-pitched; furious; childlike; although I'm not sure how my mother will feel about the idea appearing so ridiculous. "No, no, no, no," he protests. "In 1985, Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds got so fed up with my editing of this paper (he was editor of The Daily Telegraph for 12 years from 1974) and Lord Hartwell's ownership they hived off and invented The Independent. They got so browned off with me they decided that anywhere else would be better. Ha! All power to them, but I do consider myself your founding father."
Good job I didn't throw my arms round his neck and shout "Daddy!". That would have been hellishly embarrassing all round.
He is 91 and looks wonderfully 91, with skin like softly draped, crumpled material, and eyebrows with hair going this way and that way and every way but flat. I ask him if it ever comes as a shock to him, being 91. "The only thing I resent is the fact that my son, Jeremy, in theory retired last November. He retired, at the age of 60! But then he had to come back to do you-know-what." Jeremy Deedes is chief executive of the Telegraph, and came back to oversee the sale of the newspaper to the Barclay Brothers. I ask Bill how he now feels about Lord and Lady Black. "No comment there, except when you get old you get sad about anybody's downfall. Full stop. End of quote."
So, 91, but such astonishing energy, such a passion to observe, learn, communicate. It is truly shaming. He is a columnist, yes, but also an international aid worker, Unicef ambassador - "me and that Moore man... Roger!" - and a brilliantly humane reporter, whose dispatches from the front line of wars and disasters are always written sparely but with great compassion. I wonder if anything has ever stopped him working over the years. "Um... ah... only for a short time. I went to do the Indian earthquake in 2001 and we had quite a strenuous time and we flew round in a helicopter and we had a tiny minor stroke - tiny, minor - and I was brilliantly looked after in a private nursing home. They took one look at me and said: 'You're OK, nothing wrong with your heart, you'll be back on your feet in 10 days time', which I was, and now I take pills that reduce my blood pressure but make me feel cold even on a summer's day which is why I wear this jersey. But we got over that, we got over that..."
He is wearing, today, a cricket tie - "I'm in protest at all the football which has been hogging the sports pages and BBC" - and the jersey, which is a navy cardigan with a symbol on it which has something to do with St Andrews Golf Club. "Both Denis and I were made members," he says. Of course, his famous golfing friendship with Denis Thatcher inspired Private Eye's '"Dear Bill" column, which Bill didn't mind at all. "Such social cachet!" He misses Denis greatly, I think. "I'm very lucky," he says. "I have a big two-acre paddock behind my house in Kent which I keep mown and there, most mornings of my life, I go out and hit 20, 30, 40, 50 golfballs, depending on how I feel, and this takes my liver by surprise and sends me up to London in a better state of mind than I would otherwise be, and also keeps me in readiness for a game of golf if anyone is silly enough to play with me." Who do you play with these days? "I did find golf with Denis very attractive. We were both about the same standard and his company was fun, and since then, well, I haven't really had a companion. A guy I used to play a lot of golf with has died. There are penalties in getting to 91, you know, and one of those is losing your golfing pals."
I say I was very sorry to hear about Lady Deedes, Hilary, his wife of 62 years - 62 years! - who died just recently. "Ah," he says. "She had an operation for cancer seven years ago. Then she went up to Scotland because of the hunting and my daughter was up there. She had a very happy seven years, extended. And all my daughters came in for this - one from Australia, one from America and the one in Scotland. And they hadn't all been together for I don't know how long. So the sadness about my wife dying was offset by the joy of the three sisters meeting together for the first time in donkey's years, and which was also very nice for me."
I wonder how he manages alone. Can you cook? "Not a thing! Well, a boiled egg, so I always have a boiled egg. If you offered me an ideal supper, I would say cold meat and salad. My daughters have installed a series of minders. I think they are a bit disappointed in me because most of them look after older people who are handicapped and I'm neither handicapped nor... well, I am old... but I'm not particularly invalided, so they have a slightly disappointing life but they bear with me."
He is not one to bare his own heart. Men of his time and class simply aren't. I start to say I can't imagine what it is like to lose someone after 62 years, but he's really not having it. "Now look here, darling, we must have a word about this book."
The book is Weekenders: Adventures in Calcutta, a collection of short stories, sold to raise funds for Unicef's child-protection work in India, and based on a trip to Calcutta undertaken by 11 of our finest writers, including Monica Ali, Irvine Welsh, Colm Toibin and, of course, Deedes. "My little story is around a family that seeks life in the city and gets caught up in the slum. My story is not important, you've got some very good authors in this book, all distinguished writers, except for me."
He appears to not just be modest to the point of self-disparagement, but to have an actual horror of any show of ego. He tells me that, at the dentist, he has to have every jab going because "I'm a terrible coward, you shee", and yet he had a heroic Second World War and won the Military Cross. He describes Margaret Thatcher as "quite out of my intellectual reach", which is fair enough, but why make a point of it? Was he really the bad editor of the Telegraph he says he was? Yes, he insists, he absolutely was. "I wasn't really an editor. Hartwell was the main brains of the place and in a sense I was chief steward to him. But don't forget, darling, because I was an indifferent editor you got your job." Cheers, mate.
How best to convey the sheer longevity of his career? That he first joined the Morning Post in 1931? That, alongside Evelyn Waugh (who later used Deedes as the model for William Boot in his comic masterpiece Scoop) he covered Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia? That he served as a cabinet minister in the Macmillan government? Or that he has met every prime minister of the last 75 years? Who, I ask, has been the least impressive? "Ah," he says. "You are aiming for me to say John Major." I am not, I say, although of course I am, but he's outwitted me, the crafty old devil. "John had a very difficult role and so I'm not going to say him. I'm going to cheat you because I'm old enough to remember the PM before Stanley Baldwin and he wasn't impressive. Can't recall his name. Look him up." I do. It is Andrew Bonar Law, possibly the one PM of the last 85 years that no one has ever heard of. Crafty old devil.
I ask what his earliest memory might be. He says he grew up in Saltwood Castle, "where Alan Clark finished up", and he can remember "being on the roof, and watching two German war planes caught in the arc of the searchlights. Must have been five. Bits of the First World War are among my earliest memories. My nanny used to hum all the current soldier songs like 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' and I learnt all those." Did you always have the same nanny? "Now, you mustn't put this in. It'll sound as if I was a nob. But I had a nanny and the nanny had a nanny's maid." So hard to get these days, nanny maids. "Yes, yes. My nanny was Ethel. Ethel was booked three months before I was born and remained in my life till the end of her days. She only died a few years ago at 102, so I can't have been that bad, can I? My father had an income of £900 a year from the estate and on that he could afford to have a nanny and a nanny's maid, cook, two maids, and two in the garden. How's that? Those were the days, dear, those were the days. No, they weren't the days. Things were very unequal. There were a lot of poor people. None the less, if you lived at that end, it was nice."
Do you think society is more equal now? "Oh, a lot has been done to level things up, for goodness sake. Every now and again without buying anything - or I buy something small so as not to look a thief - I go into Tesco and look around at the barrows and the rest of it and then I think back to... I can remember Liverpool in '37 just after the whole cotton industry collapsed, and in those days a child was lucky to go to school with a slice of bread and jam on it."
His father, William, was an eccentric landowner and socialist who gave away much of his land and then went bust with the Wall Street crash of 1929. This meant Bill had to leave Harrow a year early. "The housemaster summoned me and said: 'I understand you are leaving at the end of term', so I said, 'News to me, sir'." He says, now, he is glad he left when he did. "I missed university, but the Morning Post was a marvellous university for me. By the time I would have been due to leave Oxford with a bad third I was really not a bad reporter."
I think, though, the experience might have affected him more than even he supposes. When I later say he strikes me as an unlikely Tory, in some ways, and an even less likely Thatcherite, what with his obvious concerns for humankind, he says: "Oh, I think my father got that [socialism] out the family system." Saltwood was sold for £12,000. Did you ever return when Alan lived there? "Alan would ring me up and say: 'Bill, what are you doing tonight? Cancel it all. Come here, there's a crisis.' The crisis was always Alan's suspicion that Heseltine was about to ditch Mrs T."
Does he still see Margaret? Sometimes, he says, in the House of Lords. She, too, misses Denis greatly, and is possibly quite lonely. "You have to remember that both her children live overseas. If you say anything about this, put it gently, but I always feel that Margaret is sadly without some of the compensations which, when you get older, you enjoy through your children and grandchildren." Do you ever feel lonely? "Do I ever...?" Feel lonely? "...feel lonely?" He is astonished by the question. "Never. Gracious me! Now, what's the time? Golly, my secretary is going to be on my tail."
I doubt he ever does feel lonely. Or bored. So much to do. So much to see. Too many golfballs to hit in his garden. He's not only a first-rate writer, but also someone who has somehow never lost their sense of wonderment or curiosity or even innocence, in a way. He may be rather like me. [Shome mishtake shurley, if not shertainly... Ed]
'Weekenders: Adventures in Calcutta' is published by Ebury at £7.99Reuse content