The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes by Stephen Robinson
|The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes by Stephen Robinson|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the journalist, editor, MP and cabinet minister who became a close observer of several world issues, from the Abyssinian war in the 1930s to the Darfur crisis of the 21st century.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 496||Date: May 2009|
Bill Deedes holds the distinction of being, so far, the only person in Britain to be at different times both a cabinet minister and editor of a national newspaper. A remarkably packed life as a journalist – it is that career, rather than his political one, for which he will be remembered most – saw him as a close observer of several world issues, from the Abyssinian war in the 1930s to the Darfur crisis of the 21st century.
Deedes came into his own when he joined the ailing Morning Post in 1931, shortly to be merged with the Daily Telegraph. As an army officer during the Second World War, he was awarded the MC, but like many others who saw action at that time the experience left him profoundly disillusioned with the damned papers, pretending most of the time for propaganda reasons that the war was as good as won, and saddened by the futility of lots of 16-year-olds keen to die for Hitler. Elected Conservative MP for Ashford in 1950, his outlook could be at times rather snobbish, Edwardian and reactionary in some respects (pro-hanging, anti-drugs), but modern in others (broadly pro-European and easy-going about gay rights). On the political scale, he was seen as a one-nation Conservative or 'Tory wet'. Ever loyal to his village store and Post Office, he passionately loathed Tesco for the usual monopolistic reasons, but he loved modern technology, mastering computers and e-mail in his old age.
The son of a difficult, irascible father, he never became a good family man. His wife Juliet's world was based around her children and animals, his basically around his work. She felt uncomfortable with life as an MP's wife, and many of his Westminster colleagues were unaware that he was married. He seems to have been much happier at the offices of the Telegraph, which he edited for several years, than at home. His children found him remote, untactile and emotionally frozen, and he was at a loss as to how to deal with his second son Julius, whose bone marrow disorder was diagnosed in infancy and who was clearly destined for a short life (he died at 23).
Though he may have been a bit of a snob, Deedes had a sense of humour, and it's particularly illuminating to learn that he made a creditable job of his appearance on Have I Got News For You at the age of 86.
The last few pages of this book inevitably make harrowing reading. Old age is an undignified business at the best of times, and the picture of Deedes doggedly sitting up in bed working on his laptop, still determined to keep writing his columns to the end when he knew he was dying, is a sad one. His final piece in August 2007, on Darfur, was widely acknowledged at the time to be a masterful piece of writing. Robinson makes it clear that the 94-year-old journalist put every effort into what he knew would be his swan song. A few days later he was dead.
This is a long book, but well worth the read. Deedes had his faults, but he comes across as a likeable man who lived through interesting times. It's significant that this book tells us much more about the world of journalism, particularly the boardroom battles and cut-throat newspaper wars of the 1980s in the age of Murdoch and others, than about politics. Of the latter there is little, beyond his equivocal feelings about Thatcherism. As for Denis Thatcher, both men were friends, though Deedes found him heavy-going, even exhausting.
Moreover, I can't conclude this review without a reference to the author's lively and very funny description of the Fleet Street men's pub culture and their favourite drinking dens. Allow me to leave you with the story of a scribe in the Cheshire Cheese pub one lunchtime, banging the table as he declared, We can't just sit around here all day drinking. Let's go to El Vino's.
Our thanks to Little, Brown for sending a review copy to Bookbag.
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Iain Stewart said:
A splendid review - and just the inspiration I was looking for. At 77, I have been prevented from continued employment by 'HR' Department dummies and have been told to 'put my feet up'.
The remark about keeling over on a golf course is just the sort of rejoinder I was looking for.
I shall now confirm an offer to go to Ghana and Sierra Leone as a roving Resident Engineer.
Thank you very much indeedes.
Iain S. Stewart