Category Archive 'Sir Peregrine Worsthorne'

10 Oct 2020

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (22 December 1923 – 4 October 2020)

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For once the Times outdoes the Telegraph in its obituary of a colorful British figure.

If you have to die, it’s nice to have so as to be memorialized like Peregrine Worsthorne.

It was said of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne that he wrote as he dressed, with style and flamboyance. His bow ties, spongebag trousers and Leander socks were combined with wavy, collar-length silver hair, giving him the appearance of an aesthete on his way to the Athenaeum Club. To complement his exhibitionist tendencies he had an amused, fluting voice and, unusually for a High Tory Fleet Street editor, he was considered something of a flaneur and a bohemian. He was also a man whose engaging recklessness was, on occasion, his undoing.

As a commentator he could be salty, moralistic, reactionary, contrary and even, on occasion, self-contradictory, but he was rarely, if ever, boring or predictable. On Desert Island Discs in 1992 he chose as his luxury item a lifetime supply of LSD. His columns, meanwhile, were less formal argument than a series of assertions, often enough strikingly original and elegantly expressed, but sometimes merely silly, or so outrageous as to disturb even his most unflinchingly right-wing readers. For much of his career he longed for an editorial chair as well as a polemicist’s pulpit; when it finally came, its sweets were short-lived. …

In 1961 he became deputy editor of the newly founded Sunday Telegraph, a post he was to hold for the next 15 years (complementing Welch, who was deputy editor of the daily from 1964 to 1980). He was then associate editor until 1986.

He wrote in the first edition of the paper and, in some ways, thereafter became its personification. The values he was to espouse in his political columns for the next 36 years were not for the faint of heart: they were to include an argument that voluntary repatriation was the answer to Britain’s supposed immigration problems, for example, as well as a vigorous defence of Ian Smith’s white minority government in Rhodesia. His views on homosexualists, as he was wont to call them, could seem especially unpalatable. Despite his experience at his public school, Worsthorne castigated Roy Jenkins in one editorial for his tolerance of “queers”.

It became clear that the editorship he was waiting for would never come as long as Lord Hartwell was proprietor. Hartwell admired Worsthorne as a controversialist but did not think him staid or reliable enough for the editorial chair. There was some evidence for this view, in his professional and also in his private life. He had married in 1950 Claudia Bertrand de Colasse, a Frenchwoman previously married to an RAF officer. Yet, as he described with remarkable candour in his 1993 autobiography Tricks of Memory, it was far from a conventional marriage, and he was far from a faithful husband, with many liaisons, prolonged or casual. They had a daughter, Dominique, who is married to the potter Jim Keeling.

The Worsthornes mixed in a notably raffish set, including the journalists Henry Fairlie, George Gale and Paul Johnson and the dons Michael Oakeshott and Maurice Cowling. By some of these friends’ standards Worsthorne was temperate — an early bout of jaundice made heavy drinking impossible — but his life was chequered with comically untoward incidents. Over dinner in a Brighton restaurant, he and the late Vanessa Lawson, then the wife of Nigel Lawson, later of AJ Ayer, decided to exchange shirt and blouse while sitting at their table, an episode reported back to the proprietor by a mauvaise langue among his colleagues.

When appearing on an early-evening programme in 1973 to discuss the abrupt resignation of Lord Lambton from the government, he became the second man, after Kenneth Tynan, to use a well-known monosyllable on television, lightly remarking that the public did not “give a f***” about the affair. This brought a period of suspension from the paper’s pages.

In print, Worsthorne was almost as unpredictable. He was no dialectician, no scholar, indeed, and (despite his aspirations) no intellectual. His attempts at serious political thought were repetitious but persuasive even at column length, still more so in his one book in this vein, The Socialist Myth (1971).

But he was a wonderfully readable columnist, with a feline knack of puncturing specious arguments, of seeing through humbug with a single memorable phrase. He once argued ingeniously that the advertisements in newspapers were in a sense more truthful than the news pages. In the news, houses burn down and aircraft crash, killing and bereaving. In the ads, families live securely and happily in their homes, while flights land on time reuniting loved ones, a far more accurate reflection of everyday life. And it was Worsthorne who described the mood of the Thatcherite 1980s as “bourgeois triumphalism”, a phrase which has lasted longer than most coined by the left.

His leaders apart, Worsthorne was at his best writing Spectator diaries where he could be as irresponsible and malicious as he chose.

RTWT


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