A mystery, like the rest of us: He wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to be a husband. Ian Jack on the Stephen Milligan he knew

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I DID not know Stephen Milligan very well. On the other hand, judging from the reports of the past week, I seem to have known him as well as most people who have been called on to judge his character, and perhaps better than some of them. We were colleagues on the same newspaper, and he was my immediate boss. I think we quite liked each other. I went to his house and he came to mine, the first more frequently than the last. He was more attentive to his friendships, I think; we met several times, at his suggestion, even when we were no longer colleagues and had little in common outside shared memories. He sent Christmas cards with a message as well as a signature. I never bothered to return the thought.

These are not guilty memories brought about by his death. I imagine Stephen bought a great many Christmas cards and had a great many friendships of approximately the same rank. Our occasional lunches and dinners ('suppers' were what Stephen would have called them) were not intimate, in the sense of personal disclosure. 'Z is a bastard' . . . 'I love Y' . . . 'I am very unhappy' . . . 'God, what are we going to do with our lives]' I can't recall any such sentiments erupting. Stephen wanted to be a regular kind of chap - a golfer, a skier, a sociable but sensible drinker, a bit of a thinker, with supper-table judgements that were quiet but wise. He wanted to be a politician - and a husband.

He was not, of course, a regular kind of chap - despite the ski-ing, the golfing, the suppers, the moderate drinking and the sensible thinking, the very presentable girlfriends. Or at least not the kind of regular chap he wanted to be. The news of his death last week shocked me and others who knew him from that time. But few of us were completely taken aback by the circumstances. There were little oddities in his behaviour that betrayed a facade, or at least one personality shielding another.

We met when he joined the Sunday Times as foreign editor in 1984. He was a friend of the then recently appointed editor, Andrew Neil - and a new kind of person on that newspaper. The appearance of most journalists there ran the gamut from dowdy to scruffy. Stephen was neat in suit and striped tie. Most of us were sceptical, cynical, liberal, sometimes lazy, often passionate and frantic, sometimes rude, and occasionally drunk - the late David Blundy, killed in El Salvador in 1989, took this style to its apogee. Stephen, by contrast, was perplexingly cool and polite. The 1960s, which had camouflaged the social origins of many of us, seemed to have left no mark on him. He was unabashed about his childhood in stockbroker Surrey, his boarding school, his presidency of the Oxford Union. He had worked previously on the Economist and he talked about 'intellectual rigour'. When someone wanted to write a story on a Third World dam which would displace thousands of peasants, Stephen wondered if, rather than siding with the peasants as usual, we should not be celebrating the benefits of electricity and irrigation that the dam would bring.

He had two striking personal characteristics. A weak left eye was hugely magnified by his spectacles - which is why, when being photographed, he often closed it - and he had a laugh which was all breath, like a dog panting. He was easy to like, partly because his sheen was flawed by an endearing ineptitude. He wanted to do the right thing, and to be seen to do the right thing. That was why he was upset - genuinely - by the divisions in the staff when the paper moved to Wapping; why he made awkward and unnecessary speeches at farewell parties; and why, I think, he talked about marriage so much, as though it were a socially enabling institution he should join, like the Reform Club.

Woman friends partnered him at his suppers, but it was hard to tell if they were any more than friends. There was a formality about the food, which came sometimes from professional caterers, and nothing that suggested familiarities (or arguments) in the kitchen. Eventually he met a woman he decided he wanted to marry, and she was introduced with fanfares. The three of us met for lunch at her house in north London just before Christmas, 1987. She had been married before, had children, wrote books, and her warmth and frankness seemed to have a relaxing effect on him. People said that she 'was good for Stephen'. Both of them looked happy over lunch that day. There was a teasing argument over where they should live: Stephen was a west London man who distrusted the social and political fashions of Islington.

A wedding date was fixed. Then, a few weeks before the ceremony was to take place, Stephen called it off. He had been uncertain and terrified. David Blundy and he were by then both based in Washington and reporting for rival newspapers, and it was to David that Stephen turned for advice. This became a comic story - the blind leading the blind, we said, because David's own private life was famous for its chaos. The high point came on the long flight from Washington to Helsinki, when Stephen poured out his troubles to David for hours, and in the end broke down and wept. In retrospect, none of this was comic at all, but it made wonderful gossip. No wonder then, that people like Stephen fear self-disclosure.

A great deal of rubbish has been written about him since he died a week ago. Andrew Neil's assessment that he was a potential prime minister and 'almost boringly normal' can be ascribed to generosity and a desire to preserve his dead friend's reputation. Richard Littlejohn's verdict that his death was pure selfishness can be excused because it appeared in the Sun. The least defensible piece was in the London Evening Standard, where Stephen Glover, who writes a humorous column for the paper, seemed to say that Milligan died because he lacked a sense of irony - that quality would have stopped him donning women's stockings and a plastic bag, because (Glover wrote) an ironic Milligan would have realised how ridiculous he looked. There's profundity for you.

But then so many of these comments came from two worlds, politics and journalism, which deal mainly in surfaces. Andrew Neil's promise that six Sunday Times reporters would be set loose on the case suggested that if Vienna had been lucky enough to have had six Sunday Times reporters in 1900, then Dr Freud could have hung up his couch. John Major's judgement that Stephen must have been 'pretty unhappy, pretty miserable' came from a limited idea of what makes people happy.

Personally, I hope Stephen Milligan died a happy man. There seems every possibility that he did.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments