I was the editor, he was the writer: but who was the boss?

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The Independent Online

I had been well briefed by my predecessor, the inimitable Clifford Makins, in the arts of conversation and confrontation with Chris Brasher when I became sports editor of The Observer in 1972.

When Makins himself had replaced Brasher as sports editor in the early Sixties, days when the paper dwelt in an excessively cramped building in Tudor Street, he simply moved Brasher's desk into the corridor. It was the sort of gesture Chris understood and acknowledged – head-on, in-your-face.

Still, the first run-in with him shook me. It was the Munich Olympics, the year of Olga Korbut, and I rang to get him to do a piece on the gymnast British viewers were raving about. He refused. No interest, he said. When I persisted, he demanded to talk to the editor, David Astor. Brasher certainly had the ear, if not perhaps the heart and mind, of Astor and the gentle suggestion eventually wafted down from the top floor that perhaps another one of the paper's Olympic team might undertake the Korbut story.

Munich was also the Games of Death, when Israeli athletes were assassinated, and in Brasher and our chief sports writer, Hugh McIlvanney, The Observer was fortunate to have two brilliant operators on the spot.

But as those Games came to an end we collided again. Why not, I ventured, head off to East Germany and undertake an investigation into whether all the gold medals they had won were down to skill or steroids. No can do, said Brasher. He was, he informed me, off to participate in one of his pet sports, orienteering, and intended to file a piece on it in due course. All this came as news to me.

Such was working life with someone who was a maverick, even by the relaxed standards of The Observer. In this respect, he had laid down an early marker, surviving an appeal alleging barging tactics to win the steeplechase gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The best occasions for peace on the desk were Brasher's periodic departures to some remote part of the Highlands to do one of his "Breath of air" columns, filed by candlelight from a bothy or snowhole, too far away to cavil about cuts in copy.