Not even the most desperate and corrupt poulterer could these days describe me as a spring chicken, so there is, on the face of it, nothing extraordinary about my having once worked with the great Bill Deedes, who died last Saturday at the age of 94. In fact if I had pursued a more conventional career, and joined the Telegraph straight out of Oxford, he would have been my first editor.
What is extraordinary is that it happened only two years ago; and my choice of the words "worked with" rather than "worked for" reflects his humility rather than my hubris. I was doing a freelance day writing leaders — a menial role — when Lord Deedes popped into conference for fun, and took what would for me have been a rather difficult piece about Northern Ireland off my hands. I pathetically cherish the fact that he borrowed my pen that morning (I cherish the pen, too); but there was also present a trainee fresh from Cambridge, who was understandably awed to be sharing a discussion with a legend 70 years his senior, whose portrait dominated the office in which we were all convened. That really is something to tell the grandchildren.
Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a lot of people working in journalism of great charm and urbanity. There are some, though, for whom the genial persona is maintained at the cost of much effort, and who consequently drop it as soon as they're senior enough, and of course there are plenty of others who can't manage it in the first place. But Deedes was a natural gentleman, and at 92 unfailingly courteous and wryly indulgent of all the young and youngish drips who were charged with managing his legacy.
Bill Deedes was a Fleet Street original, to whom I was first introduced by my dear colleague Mary Kenny, all of 20 years ago at an Oxford Union debate. Mary was already, of course, a wellknown and highly regarded journalist, and I still feel like a novice in her company; but Bill was something else, a former government minister, as well as editor of the Telegraph, who had been the model for one of the most famous characters in 20thcentury fiction, that of William Boot in Scoop, before World War II, having reported, with Evelyn Waugh, from Abyssinia.
That had been a time when Britain was still the one and only world power, and British style and British manners ruled the earth, though Britain's effective power over it had long since become a gentlemanly pretence, maintained only by the reluctance of the United States to emerge from isolation. What a world!
Men of my generation romanticise it, sweeping aside the dreadful prejudices and hypocrisy of the period with the handy swat of relativism, merely yearning for the formality and the grandeur of it. Waugh, too, enjoyed all of that even as he satirised it, and lamented its passing, which is why Brideshead Revisited now seems so dated. But Deedes had been part of that British cultural ascendancy in a way Waugh had not, truly upper-crust, an ambassador wherever he went — which is why he saw through it without rancour but pragmatically, able both to convince the Tory old guard of the upstart Margaret Thatcher's virtues in the 1970s, and to see, in the 21st century, the enduring problems of Africa with the perspective of 70 years. He had the understated confidence of the posh imperial Englishman, but also the circumspection and scepticism of the natural journalist. It was a magnificent combination. Aidan Barclay, top dog at Telegraph Media Group, said that we shall not see his like again; David Cameron, covering his intellectual back, observed that this was a cliche, but said it anyway. And it is impossible to find, as we look around even at people in their 70s who have worked in both politics and journalism, anybody who might inspire as much respect as Bill Deedes when the time comes to write their obituaries.
There are many people who disliked him for his politics, for he was never afraid to take sides, but those who denigrate him now demean themselves, for he was one of those great souls (and, by the way, the Left has had some too) whose humanity and dedication expose the petty arguments over ways and means for the ephemera they are.
Now that he is no longer with us, the example of his long life of service should inspire anybody who reads about it; but it is a meagre journalist indeed who does not regard him as a hero.