David Astor

A great assembly of  well-known writers, artists, journalists and politicians gathered at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street to say farewell to that "quixotic" editor and man of conscience, David Astor, who died in December, aged 89.

 Donald Trelford, who took over from Astor as editor of The Observer, told the packed church that he was a great editor because he was a great man – the two did not always go together.

"There are highly successful editors who are not great men – and, if the truth be told, are not very good men either," said Trelford. "In David, the man and the journalist were of a piece.  If The Observer stood for important values and convictions, these came from him, dug painfully out from his own mind, heart and conscience."

He went on to describe Astor, who lived in St John’s Wood, as a man with a sense of perfectionism who believed it mattered that newspapers were fair to people in public life. "I once heard him say, ‘there are some problems in this life to which there are no answers’. "

Above all, he was a great talent spotter, attracting George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Sebastian Haffner, Kenneth Tynan, Gavin Young, Michael Frayn, Hugh McIlvanney and Edward Crankshaw to the paper.

He was like a circus master given the "wild and eccentric figures" he collected on The Observer.

They weren’t orthodox journalists.  Astor recruited one writer, Nigel Gosling, an old school friend, at a bus stop. A brilliant sports editor, Clifford Makins, was plucked from The Eagle, a children’s comic.

Astor was suspicious of so-called professional journalists whom he referred to as "plumbers". For him, a journalist should be someone who had something to say or who wanted something done in the world.

"I was asked by a colleague in my early days on The Observer: ‘Are you a plumber or a journalist?’ ‘What’s the difference,’ I asked?  ‘Well, are you here to help David save The Observer or to help him save the world?’ "

If he had to choose one word to describe Astor it would be "quixotic".

Trelford said that as a teenager, like many of his generation, he was given a political and moral education by The Observer that no school or university could provide.

He believed that the paper should always be better than the editor. An editor, who banned opinions he didn’t agree with and removed staff who disagreed with him, could only produce a paper as good as himself.

Astor’s son, Richard, described his father as his "greatest hero".

 

Eric Gordon

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