Rod was such a vital, energetic and larger-thanlife character in every sense, that it is almost impossible to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer with us.
There had been absolutely no warning of any health problem, so the news that he had suddenly collapsed and died at his home, minutes after watching the England v Turkey soccer match on television on the evening of Saturday, 11 October, was greeted with stunned disbelief by the extensive worldwide network of friends and contacts that he had built up over the years, many of them in high places, the closest of them simply old mates from way back. He was just 60.
I first got to know him in the mid-Sixties when, as graduate trainees, we followed exactly the same path, a year or so apart, from the Daily Mail in Manchester, via the Newcastle district office, to Fleet Street.
Here, Rod first started to make a name for himself when, as an ambitious young education correspondent, he secured an exclusive interview with the then minister of education, Margaret Thatcher.
The future Prime Minister was so impressed with the resulting full-page feature that she rang Rod at home at 6.30 on the morning that it appeared and invited him to pop round to her place for breakfast to talk further about education policy. This they did for two hours, while she cooked bacon and eggs.
It was the start of a special relationship. When Mrs Thatcher decided to stand for the leadership of the Tory Party, Rod was one of the people she consulted and, at his suggestion, she agreed to let him take away the family photo album that helped to persuade David English to swing the might of the Daily Mail behind her bid.
Rod went on to write some of her speeches – including the famous “Me? The Iron Lady?” – and was also brought in by her PR adviser, Tim Bell, now Lord Bell, to help with strategy sessions.
Later, he was to write an acclaimed book, Campaign, which told the inside story of her successful 1987 election campaign.
In the meantime, he had risen to become deputy features editor of the Mail, only to fall out of favour with David English, who sacked him in 1976, a setback that Rod came to regard philosophically. “David English, who was the greatest journalist I have ever worked with, used to sack one executive a year to keep the rest on their toes,” he reflected. “That year, it just happened to be my turn.”
After freelancing for a while, he landed a job as assistant editor at the News of the World where, among other duties, he took charge of the ‘Grope Squad’, as the paper’s investigation team was known. His greatest coup, however, was to sign up Joan Collins for the serialisation of the sensational autobiography Past Imperfect that did so much to resurrect her career, as well as boosting circulation with its kiss and tell revelations.
Rod personally took on the job of preparing the book for serialisation and, as a result, Joan became a lifelong friend to him and his wife, Maggie, and godmother to their daughter, Rachel. Joan was one of the first to call Maggie when news of Rod’s death began to spread.
Back in 1982, a change of editor at the News of the World prompted Rod to resign and to go back on the road as a freelance. Things were tough for a while, but as well as his journalistic work he was then asked to ghost former National Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor’s best-selling autobiography, which included his account of the miners’ strike of 1984.
This was followed a couple of years later by the book Campaign, high-class political reportage that was effectively written “on the hoof”. Another bestseller, it impressed David English so much that he invited Rod to lunch, admitted that firing him had been one of his bigger mistakes and asked him what job he would like on any of his papers. Rod politely declined the offer, preferring to carry on as a freelance rather than take another staff job, but added that he would welcome the chance to write for the Associated Newspapers titles.
There followed a very happy and rewarding eight-year period as senior feature writer for the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine, during which he was virtually given carte blanche to roam the world in search of colourful and offbeat feature material, often in the company of photographer Gerry Davis.
One of the highlights of this period was a rare interview with the Sultan of Brunei, who later commissioned Rod to write a book, entitled Brunei Darussalam – The Making of a Modern Nation. As he was led into a room at the palace to meet the Sultan for the first time, Rod followed the example of the courtier who was escorting him and removed his shoes, revealing bright red socks. The Sultan was most amused by this, explaining that, as an honoured guest, Rod was not required to take off his shoes. Some weeks later, Rod was equally amused to learn that the Sultan immediately dispatched an aide to Harrods with orders to buy a dozen pairs of identical red socks for himself.
As well as his freelance journalism, Rod became involved in various projects to do with political research and writing. These included working for FW de Klerk for six months in the run-up to South Africa’s first free, post-apartheid election, helping to write his speeches throughout the campaign. “It was a magical time to be in a magical country,” he recalled later. “I cried when I left to come home.”
In the mid-Nineties, You was relaunched as a lifestyle supplement rather than a general interest magazine, much to Rod’s disgust. “It became more important to know if Cherie Blair had an Aga in the kitchen rather than to find out what she thought or how her beliefs had been forged,” he snorted.
Totally disillusioned and unable to make a living out of political work alone, he decided on a drastic change of direction when an American friend, who was running a hugely successful website design agency in the US, asked him if he would be interested in setting up a UK franchise.
With financial backing from Tim Bell, he duly became CEO of Interactive Bureau London and with characteristic drive and relentless hard work, he soon built the company up to the point where it had 27 employees and a string of bigname clients. But then the recession bit and the whole market collapsed virtually overnight.
Unable to sustain further losses, Lord Bell’s Chime Communications sold the company to Rod and the four other remaining members of staff for a nominal £1. Refusing to compromise the very high standards of design they had set for themselves, they had been struggling ever since to keep it going and were just beginning to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
But for Rod, in particular, the stress must have been taking its toll, even though he made a typically determined effort to remain positive at all times.
At the same time, he had been tempted back into writing when the opportunity arose to ghost the autobiography of his old friend Angelo Mauresco, the former maÃ®tre d’ of the Savoy Grill. Telling friends how thrilled he was to be writing again and how excited he was about the project, he had got as far as writing the first chapter.
Renowned for their hospitality, he and Maggie virtually kept open house at their home in North London, where you could never be quite sure who you might find passing through.
Maggie, a superb cook, always found the time to entertain tirelessly, despite a demanding fulltime job as a fundraiser with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Rod was immensely proud of their daughter, Rachel, who, at just 23, is the licensee of a country hotel and restaurant in Staffordshire.
Their many friends, including the movers and shakers in whose influential and wellinformed circles Rod loved to move, have been rallying round to help Maggie and Rachel through the shock of an event that was so completely unexpected.
The funeral will take place at 10.30am on Tuesday, October 28, at St James’s Church in Piccadilly.
Mike Cable, freelance journalist and author
Mike Cable, freelance journalist and author