The Indestructible Journos

As the prospect looms of working well past the present retirement age, Ciar Byrne celebrates the great names of journalism who already are

Monday 12 June 2006 00:00

Peregrine Worsthorne, 82

Educated at Stowe and Peterhouse, Cambridge, Worsthorne saw active service in Italy and Hamburg in the Second World War. His first job in journalism was as a sub-editor on The Glasgow Herald. From there he went to The Times, where he became Washington correspondent and in 1954 joined The Daily Telegraph. He spent most of his subsequent career at the Telegraph group, becoming editor of The Sunday Telegraph from 1986 to 1989. He retired in 1997, but still contributes to various publications.

"My longevity as a journalist is due entirely to the fact that for the first two years of my working life, which began in 1947 as an apprentice sub- editor on The Glasgow Herald, I was not allowed to write a single word except in headlines on the writing of others. Then, during the next six years on The Times, I was allowed to write the occasional piece, but there were no by-lines. Everything was strictly anonymous. So it was not until 1961, almost 14 years later, with the launch of The Sunday Telegraph, that I became a signed columnist, free to express my own prejudices and eccentricities and to become a journalistic character in my own right.

"How different it is today when the bright ones, straight down from university, are encouraged to become a character journalist far too young - grumpy reactionary, sentimental crusader, liberal prig, worldly cynic or sprightly joker, according to taste. Once that mask is on, however, there is no way of escaping from it; and all too soon it palls.

"Don't peak too early, that is my tip for longevity."

Hunter Davies, 70

Born in Renfrew, Scotland, after attending school in Carlisle and Durham University, Davies started out as a reporter on the Manchester Chronicle. He has written for The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard, The Mail on Sunday, The Independent, Punch and the New Statesman, where he now has a column on sport. Currently ghost-writing Wayne Rooney's autobiography, he is best known for his books about the Beatles and the Lake District.

"My secret is having varied interests, but writing in the same old style I've been using for decades. I've written columns on a wide range of things. I did a column for 10 years on stamps and a column on football for nearly 10 years. To get readers from the first sentence to the last, you need to make it amusing and informative, and to give a shape to the column.

"I've been sacked lots of times as a columnist. Each time I've been sacked, my reaction was, 'Why have they taken so long to sack me?' A column is a matter of opinion whether you like it or not, and editors come and go and say, 'I want shot of that person.'

"One of the highlights was, I had a column in Punch for 10 years called 'Father's Day', which was turned into a TV series that ran for two years. I thought it was such a stupid idea when they first did it that I turned down the chance of doing the script."

Joan Bakewell, 73

Best known as a broadcaster, Bakewell has written newspaper columns since the early 1970s, when she contributed to the Manchester Evening News. Educated at Stockport High School for Girls and Newnham College, Cambridge, she has made numerous arts programmes, mainly for the BBC, but also for ITV. These include The Second Sex (1964), Holiday from 1974 to 1978 and Heart of the Matter from 1988 to 2000. For much of the Eighties, she was BBC arts correspondent, before becoming a columnist in The Sunday Times. She has also written for The Guardian and is now a columnist for The Independent.

"I have been an intermittent columnist. You need to stay alert to a wide range of things in the world around you. I wrote about the arts in The Sunday Times, my age in The Guardian and now I write about all sorts of issues, so I'm broadening my spectrum. The way in is to have a speciality. At The Sunday Times, I'd just finished being the BBC's only arts correspondent. Before that I had a column in the Manchester Evening News. That's a good place to get your writing muscle going. You understand the length and rhythm of a short article. That was in 1973-74 under Brian Redhead, who was a friend of mine. I've written for The Independent since January. I do like it very much and people comment on it to me."

Taki Theodoracopulos, 69

Greek-born Theodoracopulos has written the "High Life" column in The Spectator for 29 years. The son of a shipping magnate, educated at the University of Virginia and with homes in Switzerland, London and New York, his lifestyle is far removed from most of his journalistic peers. His views, particularly on ethnic minorities, have often been controversial, although his adherents prefer to view him as hailing from the old-fashioned school of manners. In 1984, he was arrested for cocaine possession at Heathrow Airport and was imprisoned for three months.

He has also written for The Sunday Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, New York Press and Quest magazine.

"I've been at The Spectator 29 years, I think basically because of the uniqueness of The Spectator that would accept a voice like mine. When I started in 1977, they were surprised at the writing I did, because it was bad writing but straight to the point. In those days British journalism was kinder, not as visceral as it has become. I did it in the Greek way.

"It was touch and go for a while. It helped enormously that I worked in tandem with Jeffrey Bernard. He did nothing all day, just sat in the pub and yet his writing was wonderful and all I did was move around from night-clubs to women.

"I love a hectic life, there's always something happening. Recently, I had to charter a plane to fly to Athens for a funeral, so I wrote about a ship owner that died. Normally, it would be a bore to read about someone nobody knows, but he was one of the few ship owners who cared about literature."

Alan Watkins, 73

Born to teachers in Carmarthenshire, Watkins studied law at Queen's College, Cambridge. After national service, he was called to the bar. In 1959, he joined The Express on Sunday. Now a columnist for The Independent on Sunday, he spent much of his career writing for The Observer and has also written for The Spectator, the New Statesman, the Sunday Mirror and the Evening Standard. He has written about rugby for The Field and The Independent, and about drink for The Observer Magazine. He is the author of A Short Walk Down Fleet Street, The Road To Number 10 and A Conservative Coup. "I would say it's keeping at it, if it's a wet Wednesday you've still got to turn out. You've got to get it done. That's me, but other people are different. You can't wait for inspiration. I just sit down and do it and then have a drink.

"My main interest is in libertarian or what are called Home Office issues. You've got to watch these people. It used to be more of a minority interest of political columnists. The late Hugo Young was very good on this. It's not that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, rather that the material is there to hand, in successive governments since 1971.

"I certainly remember getting into trouble with the D-Notice system. I published them in 1967 in The Spectator, when Nigel Lawson was editor. I took the view that these were matters in what was later known as the public domain."

Bill Deedes, 93

Considered by many to be the inspiration for William Boot, the young journalist in Evelyn Waugh's classic novel, Scoop, Deedes was educated at Harrow before becoming a journalist with the Morning Post and reporting on the war in Abyssinia. After serving in the Second World War, he became the Conservative MP for Ashford and served as a junior minister under Churchill and in Harold Macmillan's Cabinet. From 1974 to 1986, he edited The Daily Telegraph, for which he still writes.

"When I began in journalism in the 1930s, hardly any journalists had been to university. It's a lot harder to sell newspapers [now], but the people who write them are far better qualified than they were. A great number of people, including me, are holding forth in columns about what they think.

"I think we may be giving the readers less than they ought to have with which to make up their own minds. Part of our job is to keep people informed.

"I lived in a different age. I learnt about journalism in the 1930s when the great issue was whether or not we were going to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini. A lot of my journalism was involved with what we now call appeasement.

"What has changed for newspapers is there are many other forms of communication. When I began, there was no television, none of these modern devices. Now we have a multitude of channels of communication and it's only natural that newspapers should feel the pressure.

"All I know is if I had my life again, I'd do exactly the same thing. I regard myself as a servant of the Telegraph. I've been there for a great number of years and I'm devoted to it."

Gillian Reynolds, 70

Born to Liverpool market traders, Reynolds went to St Anne's College, Oxford and to graduate college in America, then embarked on a television career. From 1967 to 1974, she was The Guardian's radio critic. Practising what she preached, she became the founding programme controller of Radio City Liverpool. Since 1975, she has been The Daily Telegraph's radio critic.

"I've been fortunate. I started writing about radio just as it was going through this massive phase of change. Now radio is about to enter a completely new age. I write about it because I listen to it. I love it - even when it drives me mad. "Next year I'll have been writing about radio for 40 years. Everybody keeps sounding the death knell for radio, but it was still there during the great growth of television. What has kept it there is it has a particular power as a medium. It seems to speak to you personally. There's no other medium apart from a book that does it that well.

"I go everywhere on the bus, so I have a great big bag filled with discs to listen to. In the summer I quite often go to the Chelsea Physic Garden and listen to my week's homework.

"When I got my MBE the Queen said, 'What do you do?' I said, 'Your Majesty, I'm the luckiest woman in the world. I get to do what I like', and she roared with laughter. I do get paid for doing what I like. Everyone wants my job."

Richard Ingrams, 68

Educated at Shrewsbury and University College, Oxford, Ingrams formed the satirical fortnightly Private Eye with a group of school friends, including Christopher Booker and the late Willie Rushton, in 1962. The following year, he took over from Booker as editor, a post he held for the next 23 years until handing over to Ian Hislop in 1986. In 1992, he founded The Oldie magazine, a humorous publication for the older generation. He has written a column for The Observer and now writes for The Independent. He wrote the authorised biography of Malcolm Muggeridge, as well as numerous publications in conjunction with his Private Eye colleagues, and is a regular guest on BBC Radio 4's News Quiz.

"I think the good thing is that people don't remember what you have written, and I don't either. I often meet people who say, 'I so enjoyed what you wrote yesterday', and they can't remember what it was and I can't remember either. All that means is you go on saying the same thing, time and time again.

"For a long time, I used to write a lot about Ireland. I've been accused of being anti-Semitic - that's another subject that people don't like to write about.

"I do try to think about things that nobody else is writing about, because there are so many columnists. If there's something like John Prescott going on, I try to avoid that because I know that everybody's going to be going on about that, particularly the Glenda Slaggs."

Ann Leslie, 65

Born in Pakistan and educated at convent school in Derbyshire and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Leslie joined the Daily Express in 1962. From 1967, she has worked for the Daily Mail, where she has written about everything from beauty contests to genocide, winning numerous awards along the way.

In The Great Reporters, David Randall recalls how Leslie wangled her way on to Death Row, tracked down Fidel Castro's daughter, wore a burkha to interview dissidents in Tehran, questioned a feared Russian businessman on a contract killing and crossed the North Korean border to talk to victims.

"The secret of longevity is an almost childish sense of curiosity. You have a licence to ask questions which might, in normal life, earn you a punch on the nose, or worse. I tend to get on very well with war criminals who, among other things, are usually deeply vain; they're flattered to find a woman batting her eyelashes coyly at them and asking, 'What really matters to you in your spiritual life?' You get to the mass-murder section later in the interview.

"If you don't have a strong sense of the black comedy behind even the most deadly experiences, you'd long ago have lost your marbles and settled for weaving macramé pot-holders instead.

"If you've been around as long as I have - though not yet as long as Bill Deedes - you acquire an invaluable ability to cross-reference everything from your own past experience. And you never get bored."

Anthony Howard, 72

One of the most distinguished political commentators of his generation, Howard attended Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. He joined Reynolds News in 1958 and the Manchester Guardian the following year. A former editor of the New Statesman, he has written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Times, where he was obituaries editor until 1999 and wrote a political column until last year. He now writes regular book reviews and appears on television and radio.

"It's jolly nearly 50 years, which is a terribly long time. I started off in journalism in 1958. I still wake up wanting to know what happened next. It's the curiosity that keeps you going. There's never a morning I don't get up intrigued by turning on the radio or padding downstairs to pick up the papers.

"As you get old, you become less news-conscious and more commentary-conscious. I look back with pride on a piece I wrote for The Observer in 1983 warning readers of the self-indulgence of voting for the SDP, which would divert the cause of the underprivileged.

"I strongly believe that people should have the right to elect their own rulers and for a long time I was deeply affronted by what the Conservative Party did and never more affronted than when Alec Douglas-Home became leader of the Conservative Party. That seemed to me to be an Etonian fix organised by Harold Macmillan.

"I now write on an ad-hoc basis - book reviewing and political commentary when asked, and broadcasting. I do anything I'm asked within reason. I'm not snooty. I'll play all provincial halls."

William Rees-Mogg, 77

After Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford, Lord Rees-Mogg joined the Financial Times in 1952, rising to become chief leader writer and assistant editor before joining The Sunday Times in 1960. From 1967 to 1981, he was editor of The Times, where he still has a column. He also writes for The Mail on Sunday.

"I think there's been a big change in journalism. People now realise that the audience for journalism is influenced by its own experience of life and that newspapers want to retain their older readers at the same time as they want to get younger readers and therefore, you get a great demand for old journalists to write.

"You're writing for people with a similar life experience to your own. There are more and more old journalists and I think that's a natural trend. You do establish a strong relationship with your readership.

"I've got two areas which I've written about for most of my life. One is politics. I was the FT's lobby correspondent for six months in the 1950s. The other is economics and financial journalism. I tend to go back to those as the core of what I write about.

"I was on two papers in succession which were very much on the up - the FT in the 1950s when the modern FT was created, and The Sunday Times in the 1960s, when it became the dominant broadsheet Sunday paper.

"At The Times, my earliest years were years of opportunity, but in the 1970s a lot of work was basically defensive, trying to keep the paper going despite interruptions in production. My advice to young journalists? Never retire."

Ian Wooldridge, 74

Leaving Brockenhurst Grammar School with just two O-levels, Wooldridge worked on the New Milton Advertiser, the Bournemouth Times and the now defunct News Chronicle and Sunday Dispatch before joining the Daily Mail 45 years ago.

Last month he won the London Press Club's Edgar Wallace award for outstanding reporting. Press Club chairman Donald Trelford said Wooldridge was "more than just a sports writer, he is a journalist of the highest calibre and a master of the written word". Playwright Tom Stoppard revealed that his Czech mother learnt English by reading Wooldridge's column.

"I started, aged 16, on the New Milton Advertiser with two O-levels in English and art. It has gone in a flash. At the Mail I was a dogsbody for quite a while, then cricket correspondent for eight years and then I took over the column. I don't have a secret at all. The Mail have been tremendous employers. I've had some great editors and great sports editors. It's just been such an enjoyable life. The whole thing has been great fun. Journalism has changed a lot. I was brought up in an era when we worked on dry martinis and long lunches and the friendship of great mates. We had a wonderful time and we never broke a confidence.

"There's been a low and it's been the last couple of years. I've had bad health and I'm in a wheelchair. That has curtailed the travelling, but the Mail have been so supportive and good."

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