Anthony Holden in 1985

Golden boy turned starstruck rube

The self-justifying self-portrait of a journalist who never made it


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I don’t know who tagged Anthony Holden “Golden Holden”— perhaps Holden himself — but it turned out to be not so much an admiring portent of his career as a savagely ironic joke. I first met Holden in his golden phase when, in 1981, his mentor Harold (Harry) Evans was made Editor of The Times by the paper’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch.

What Harry might have guessed, and the small gaggle of loyal sidekicks he brought over from the Sunday Times might have better served him by working out, was that the great campaigning editor, famous for championing the limbless thalidomide children in their legal battle against the drug’s manufacturer, had been coaxed out of his redoubt at the Sunday paper by the lure of becoming editor of the “top people’s paper”.

Based on a True Story: A Writer’s Life, Anthony Holden (Simon & Schuster, £20)

Murdoch had bought both daily and Sunday papers from the Canadian, Ken Thomson, son of Roy, Lord Thomson of Fleet, for a relative song. The big prize was the Sunday broadsheet, minting more than a million pounds a week; more troublesome was what to do with The Times.

In 1967, Thomson had charged Harry’s predecessor, William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob, with making the paper more popular, which he did. For all his double-breasted chalk-stripe suits and faux aristocratic drawl, William — like a social climbing Thackeray hero, a nineteenth-century gentleman posing as an eighteenth-century toff — had a knack for the sort of publicity stunt that would sell papers. To that end he approved a full-page advert from the fertilizer firm Fisons featuring the glamour model, Vivien Neves, kneeling, stark naked, her nipples lifted high as she tended to her long blond hair.

But advertisers complained about the sudden rise in circulation and the cheeky tone of Mogg’s Times. Where are all the top people we are paying to reach? they asked. Thomson blinked and Mogg was told to return the paper to the status quo ante. So long as the Sunday paper prospered, the company could carry the small losses at The Times.

Then along came Murdoch. Now deeply in debt from the Times deal, he needed to maximize revenue from the Sunday paper and stem the bleeding from the daily. Making the bluff Northerner Evans the Times editor could have been a daring masterstroke, or a ruse to winkle him out of the safe haven of the Sunday paper with a view to expunging him altogether.

While Harry’s heroic reputation was among journalists as the master of quali-pop journalism, with fine writing on edgy topics run alongside lively graphics and great photographs, newspaper owners thought of him as a noisy spendthrift. As Conrad Black once said, woe betide an editor who overspends when his proprietor is up to his neck in debt.

The period surrounding Harry’s fall was Holden’s finest hour

Harry couldn’t find many among the Sunday Times editorial top brass to join him in his new task: switching The Times from a stuffy, complacent, Oxford college of a paper into a singing and dancing daily accessible to all. In the end he only managed to persuade his chief designer Edwin Taylor, who was largely responsible for Evans’s design manual Pictures on a Page; Bernard Donoughue, who had been James Callaghan’s political adviser in Downing Street, to watch his back; and Holden, who was promised the earth if he would take charge of features department.

At the Sunday Times, Holden had been an inventive and amusing Atticus diarist, as Mogg had been before him, but his life was blown apart by writing a best-selling pre-Diana biography of the Prince of Wales. To keep some of this Charles windfall from the Inland Revenue, it suited Holden to work abroad for a while. He set his sights on becoming a Washington correspondent.

Harry was not prepared to fire the Sunday Times grandee in DC, Henry Brandon, but as soon as Thomson closed the two Times titles in what turned out to be a year-long failed bid to impose new technology on the print unions, Donald Trelford, editor of the Observer, pounced, offering Holden the paper’s top slot in America’s capital, which was quickly accepted, despite Harry’s increasingly extravagant blandishments.

When Harry switched to The Times, he needed the energetic 32-year-old Holden to execute his cultural revolution. So to woo him back he told him, “I’m 52. I’ve told Rupert I’ll do this job for eight years. Then you can take over. Think of it, lad — editor of The Times at 40. I’ll groom you.” As Holden knew, Harry, for all his genuine genius, floated on a sea of flattery and false promises. The helm of The Times was not his to give away and the hard-nosed Murdoch had other plans, as would soon become clear.

As events quickly began to unfold in the Gray’s Inn Road, Holden’s dream of inheriting The Times seemed increasingly unlikely. Within a year, Harry had been unceremoniously defenestrated and Holden, volubly protesting at his mentor’s shabby ousting, resigned too (That’ll show ’em!). Harry received a generous severance package from Rupert; Holden got nothing.

What went wrong at The Times? Harry, an old man in a hurry, felt that almost all the incumbent Times journos were smug, lazy, and beyond re-education. He and Holden relished harassing and humiliating old Times hands and they conspicuously recruited fresh faces at inflated salaries even before the old faces had been asked to clear their desks.

And Harry spent money like a lottery winner. At the Sunday Times, as publication day loomed, heads of department had learned to ignore Harry’s endless fiddling and simply get on with getting the paper out. At the Times, there was no one to check Harry’s relentless changes of heart — we used to joke, “The editor’s indecision is final” — and the old printers, fresh from breaking the Thomson management, were happy to accede to his last minute changes, even if it meant working overtime at treble the usual rate.

Holden mistook the wailing in response to Harry’s chaotic management style as treachery and thought Murdoch’s impatience watching his money squandered was due to a political vendetta. He still appears to believe the same today. But Holden’s inability to notice the dark clouds forming over Harry’s desk and his failure to urge his Northern hero to trim his sails before he hit the rocks at speed only confirmed that he lacked the seriousness of intent, calculating mind, and rat-like cunning essential to prosper at the top flight in journalism.

The period surrounding Harry’s fall was, however, Holden’s finest hour. After that, the soubriquet “Golden Holden” was quietly dropped and he has spent the remainder of his career out of the limelight writing spicy biographies, including two more lives of Prince Charles, translating opera libretti into English, and playing hold ’em poker. Harry stood by him, ensuring that the American publishing houses he headed would always offer the generous advances Holden demanded.

Holden so enjoyed the glamorous, he came to believe he belonged among them

Could Holden’s life have been any different? Well, yes. He might have not gone all in on his pact with Harry to win a Fleet Street editorship. He might have remained at the Observer, though his conspicuous lack of a serious interest in — rather than a tribal devotion to — progressive politics would likely have kept him from the editor’s chair. And Trelford was far more wily and worldly than Harry and successfully saw off coup attempts and management shenanigans to remain editing the Observer until it was sold to the Guardian in 1992.

And Holden might have approached journalism in a different way. The backbone of his memoir is a string of parties and meetings with famous — and some not so famous — people, in which Holden reveals himself to be a starstruck rube. He describes one such beano thus: “I was standing in one of the most galactical circles I have ever graced — the Styrons, Katharine Graham, Art Buchwald, Lillian Hellman and others — as [Teddy] Kennedy strolled up the lawn.”

Note the phrase “I have ever graced”, which betrays the Stockholm Syndrome at work. Holden so enjoyed mixing with the glamorous rich and famous, he somehow came to believe he belonged among them.

It is hard not to conclude that Holden takes himself a little more seriously than he might. This slender self-justifying self-portrait follows — by nearly 40 years — a collection of his journalism, titled, as if we hadn’t grasped his preferred peer group, Of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Princes. For all his intimacy with glamorous, powerful people, Holden’s memoir echoes the pathos of Budd Schulberg’s self-pitying line in On the Waterfront, delivered perfectly by Brando, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”

But perhaps Holden’s epitaph is to be found in the astute summary of David Frost’s television career made by the otherwise uncatty Kitty Muggeridge: “He rose without a trace.”

Nicholas Wapshott’s latest book is Samuelson Friedman: The Battle Over the Free Market (W.W. Norton).

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