BOOK REVIEW / Paper tiger; or mutton dressed as lamb: The History of the Times 1966-1981 - John Grigg: Times Books, pounds 25

THE TIMES may be a great newspaper, but it has not often in its history been a good one. The paper Northcliffe bought was hidebound and commercially moribund. The paper Geoffrey Dawson edited was journalistically disastrous. And the paper the Astors owned in the Fifties and Sixties missed every trick.

By the Sixties it was clear that something had to be done, and also that the Astors, their fortune crippled by an adverse tax ruling, were not the people to do it. In 1966 the paper was acquired by the Canadian entrepreneur, Roy Thomson. Even he was unprepared for the speed with which the paper could soak up the millions.

Grigg's lively, judicious and entertaining account weaves together, with exemplary craftsmanship, the external events of an exciting, if depressing, period in British history. The hero, or anti-hero, is a gifted, if eccentric editor, William Rees-Mogg; we see a man whose whole personality was instinctively opposed to modernity grappling with the task of modernising the newspaper.

There is a strong supporting cast. John Grigg sketches their characters deftly, only occasionally missing a nuance. We glimpse Roy Thomson and Denis Hamilton; Bernard Levin, Sancho Panza to Sir William of the dolorous countenance; the swashbuckling 'Duke' Hussey; and Jake Ecclestone, as much a caricature of the Left as Rees-Mogg was of the Establishment.

It was Ecclestone who administered the coup de grace to the Thomson Times, and delivered it trussed and gagged to Rupert Murdoch, by ramming through a strike for a pay increase of 21 per cent. But the performance of management recalls Wodehouse's classic description of the schoolmaster who, when one of his pupils was thrashing his bowling all over the field, decided to give up his slows and bowl fast. His approach to the wicket, wrote Wodehouse, was a cross between the Gollywog's cakewalk and the charge of a wounded buffalo. Not a bad description of the style in which Times Newspapers acknowledged the onrushing 20th century, then in its eighth decade.

In the British way, of course, Hussey and Rees-Mogg have been rewarded for their failure to modernise one great institution by being handed an even more important one to practise on. And it is Rees-Mogg, not Hussey, who dominates this volume. He appears as some richly comic invention in English literature, part hero, part pedant, part figure of fun, part Guy Crouchback, Evelyn Waugh's anachronistic Catholic aristocrat, and part Anthony Powell's Widmerpool, rising without trace through the moral chaos around him.

To one more puritan colleague, Innis Macbeath, he had 'a lazy and lordly amateurism'. Yet no man had a less pinstriped soul. He was sometimes downright eccentric. He embraced dotty theories such as monetarism and the return to the gold standard; he admired both George Brown and Richard Nixon.

He had an instinctive belief in liberty yet was, erratically, a sensationalist. He liked a scoop and occasionally embarrassed everyone except, perhaps, himself by announcing, for example, with no evidence to support him, that a long dead homosexual don at Cambridge was a master spy; or by going off to argue about modern youth with Mick Jagger. He was a Christian and a gentleman, but hardly the man you would choose to modernise a newspaper whose heart, like his, was still in the 19th century, if not the 18th.

Grigg sees the early Thomson years, before the struggle over new technology and over management control had exhausted the family's willingness to feed the hands that bit them, as a golden age. It will take more even than these civilised and entertaining pages to persuade me that it was ever in truth much more than mutton dressed as lamb.

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