[The Independent] was patrician, humane, cosmopolitan and inspiring, and behind it lay the struggle of a very rich man to do good. In his role as owner-editor, David Astor had more freedom than any other journalist in London, but power made him bashful and uneasy. When, towards the end of Astor’s editing career, the South African journalist Donald Woods proposed a series of interviews with him, Astor suggested that the theme shouldn’t be ‘How did a rich boy come to be so idealistic?’ but ‘How did a cripple come to have some success?’ By ‘cripple’ he meant mental not physical damage. Only many years of psychoanalysis, he believed, had saved him from self-destruction through anxiety and depression. Most mornings, the car that took him from his home in St John’s Wood to the Observer offices near Fleet Street would divert to Sigmund Freud’s old house in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, where Freud’s daughter Anna still saw patients. There, Astor would spend a daily analytic hour on the couch attempting to understand his relationship with the woman who had ‘crippled’ him. This was his mother, the irrepressible Nancy Astor, a nightmare we would all want to be woken from.

    Rather than size, stunts or what he called journalistic ‘flapdoodle’, Astor persisted in believing that what mattered most was how intelligent his newspaper looked and read. He hired Ruari McLean, the typographer who had worked with Allen Lane to create the first Penguin paperbacks, to give the paper an elegant redesign, and McLean commissioned Edward Bawden to draw a new version of the royal coat of arms that sat with the masthead on the front page. (That later owners and editors junked these designs was, for anyone who cared about such things, an aesthetic crime.) The new look displayed the work of a new generation of writers. John Gale, Alan Ross, Eric Newby, Katharine Whitehorn, Michael Frayn, Gavin Young, Mark Frankland and Neal Ascherson were among the names Astor hired and promoted, resisting what he saw as ‘the general tendency towards brightness at the expense of intelligence, which follows fairly inevitably from the general office concern at the circulation advances made by the Sunday Times’.

    But these were minor flaws – perhaps even creative flaws – compared to his problem with money. Not, or not until the last days of his editorship, the lack of money; rather the difficulty, common to others who are self-consciously or guiltily rich, of getting him to notice the fact that money mattered. A famous anecdote concerns mortgages. The version I know is slightly different from the one recounted in Lewis’s book, but it goes like this. At an editorial meeting one day, the conversation turned to the likely impact of an interest rate rise on mortgages. Astor had listened to many similar discussions over the years and said nothing. Now he plucked up the courage to ask a question: ‘What is a mortgage?’ It was explained that people who owned houses mainly bought them on borrowed money. ‘Good heavens!’ Astor said, rubbing his brow. ‘You mean to tell me that most of my staff are in debt?’

posted by illu45: 965 days ago