The long view

Brief Lives, by WF Deedes, Macmillan, 212pp, £12.99

July 26 2004 / New Statesman

A couple of years ago, when I was editing these pages, I telephoned WF Deedes at the Daily Telegraph to ask if he would review Nicholas Bagnall’s memoir of a life in journalism. I had once been scornful of Deedes, whom I imagined to be the personification of Conservative Man, but of late I had begun to read his journalism—columns, despatches from sub-Saharan Africa, countryside diaries—with intensifying respect and admiration. Deedes agreed to review the book without hesitation, and delivered his neatly typed copy on time and at the agreed length. He never once asked how much he would be paid. His review, like most of this book’s 18 character studies of influential figures he has met during a long dual career in politics and newspapers, was concise, wise and compassionate.

To read Deedes, especially in the company of those who, like him, are regular contributors to the op-ed pages of the Telegraph—the pious Charles Moore, the strident and bellicose Barbara Amiel, the inane Mark Steyn—is to encounter an unexpectedly liberal voice amid so much complacency.

Informed by the long perspective of history yet alert to and curious about the present, his columns are like no other. You read Deedes to escape the hectic trivialities of so much contemporary journalism. You read him to be told what the weather was like during the first day of the Normandy landings, to be reminded to look out for the hawthorn this springtime or to find out how it felt to have lived through the General Strike or the Great Depression of the 1930s. And, in the summer of 2004, it is always reassuring to read a sentence that begins: “There had been an extraordinary by-election at East Fulham in 1933, where I was sent for a day or two as a reporter on the Morning Post ...”

Deedes is an instinctive conservative; he is acutely aware of the mutability of all things. Change is what he fears most, but change is what is most inevitable and irresistible in life. Like a true conservative, he believes in and accepts the fallen nature of man. Yet there is little that is sententious in his world-view: the purpose of this book, he writes in an engaging preface, is not to say whether someone was right or wrong, but rather to show how their life was a “guidepost” to the past and thus also to the present. He never condemns his subjects, not even the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. He seeks, instead, to remind us of the social and political context in which they acted.

There is an underlying tone of elegy to some of these essays—a melancholy recognition of mistakes made and wrong turns taken. Mosley, he writes, may have been destroyed by “impatience” and “incurable arrogance”, but he had many talents and “might have been a great prime minister”. Anthony Eden, who lost two brothers in the First World War and a son in the second, should be remembered chiefly not for the failure of Suez but as “someone who spent the best of himself in the nation’s service”. Diana, Princess of Wales, whom Deedes came to know well through their charity work in Africa, was driven by wild impulses and many of her “follies” were “inexplicable”. But had she lived and had more opportunity to display her “outstanding gift” for compassion, she “might just have turned out differently”.

Ian Smith, the former leader of Rhodesia who in 1965 declared unilateral independence from Britain, who did nothing to prepare the African majority for self-rule and who led his country into a murderous bush war, is also recalled fondly. Smith, a fighter pilot during the Second World War, had courage; he was uncompromising and loved his country. But he could not see “the changes taking place in the world that were rendering his position unstable”. So Smith, isolated by the South Africans, was left to “perish in the gale of the world”.

Deedes returns occasionally in this book and often in his journalism to the catastrophe that was the First World War, as if the ghosts of the fallen on the Western Front are with him for ever. What he seems to be saying in these essays, and elsewhere in his work, is that most of us, in the end, no matter how grand or noble our intentions, perish in the gale of the world. He is surely right. Who for instance could have foreseen, when Labour came to power in 1997 and announced that it would pursue an ethical foreign policy, that the country would soon be embarking on a war without end against an opaque and largely hidden enemy? Who could have foreseen such troubles ahead? Well, the humane and cautious WF Deedes, for one.