David Astor by Jeremy Lewis
|David Astor by Jeremy Lewis|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A strong biography of the man who did much to make The Observer what it is today and who supported so many good causes with his extensive fortune. Recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 432||Date: March 2017|
The name 'David Astor' is familiar to a lot of people: some will remember him as being the middle child of Nancy and Waldorf Astor. Others will know of his family home, Cliveden, either from its influence in the second world war or its notoriety during the Profumo affair in the sixties. I remember him best for his work as the editor of The Observer, but despite being a quietly understated man many will remember the causes he espoused, not all of which, such as his support for the release of moors murderer Myra Hindley, brought him admiration.
The Observer was 'in the family', but David Astor, liberal minded and (at least in the early part of his life) liberal leaning converted the Conservative-supporting Sunday paper into well-respected, essential reading with quality writers and fair-minded views which were often ahead of their time. David was the fourth child of Conservative MP Nancy Astor, known for her outspoken and frequently politically-incorrect views. They had a troubled relationship which would affect David's attitudes to women throughout his life. The children, along with Nancy's son from her first marriage, were brought up at Cliveden, a country house on the Thames which his grandfather had bought after making his money in New York. (Think 'Waldorf' and 'Astor-ia'.)
Astor was educated at Eton and then Oxford University and it was there that he met the German Adam von Trott, one of the men who would have a great influence on his life: in the thirties both were involved in attempts to create a link between the British Government and the German opposition. Astor left Oxford before taking his degree, not least because he was suffering from one of the bouts of depression which would stay with him all his life, but a spell of manual work and then experience in provincial journalism brought him finally to The Observer, where he would eventually take over as editor.
In many ways the story of Astor's life is also the story of The Observer and Jeremy Lewis has done an excellent job of covering both threads without allowing one to dominate. In the early days Astor lacked experience but had an absolute determination to turn The Observer into a respected Sunday paper, and looked for 'writers' rather than 'journalists' to produce copy. The results were impressive, but Astor was also keen to pursue causes which were not popular with other papers. Nelson Mandela always acknowledged how much he owed to the paper's long-standing support, from the days before his imprisonment became an international scandal. Astor's great friend and mentor, George Orwell had successfully urged Astor to champion the decolonisation of Africa and later in his life Astor would help to set up Amnesty International. His financial support to causes which he favoured was extensive - running into many millions of pounds at a time when that meant a great deal more than it does today.
It's a brave biographer who takes an inherently decent and generous man as his subject: they can be so dull and the resulting book can read like hagiography. Lewis has avoided both pitfalls. Decent and generous as Astor was he had his blind spots: mortgages had to be explained to him and he was shocked to realise that most of his staff lived in debt. He was similarly cavalier about salaries, preferring to have people work for him because they admired what he was doing than because he rewarded them well - and he was of the opinion that they all had private incomes. He was averse too to female journalists, particularly when they had children which might well have harked back to his strained relations with his mother.
Lewis's research has obviously been extensive and his affection for his subject shines through. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
During the second world war David Astor was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work in occupied France. This part of the war is covered in more detail in Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory by Keggie Carew. A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson covers a similar period and way of life. For more about newspapers, have a look at There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press by Mick Hume. For more from Jeremy Lewis, we can recommend Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family. We can also recommend Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort.
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