Laughing Cavalier in an age of Roundheads: Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, painted in 2012 by Celia Montague © Celia Montague

Elegant defender of lost causes

Daniel Johnson recalls the colourful life of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne

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Perry Worsthorne was my fairy godfather. By this I do not mean to allude to his exuberant manner and dandified dress — a taste which occasionally bordered on camp, but which he had in common with other colourful (but heterosexual) characters of the age, from Ken Tynan to Barry Humphries. Having been an exhibitioner at Peterhouse, Cambridge, during the war, Perry went on to be the leading journalistic exhibitionist of his generation.

No, Perry really was my godfather. I still have his confirmation present, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Evidently he already had me lined up for a future in the press. But he was a fairy godfather on account of his presence on the night when my parents first encountered one another.

According to his autobiography, Tricks of Memory, it was his first wife, Claudie, who had insisted on bringing a new friend for drinks at the sumptuous Belgravia flat of their barrister friend Billy Hughes. This “marvellous girl” from Methuen, the publishers, was my mother, Marigold Hunt. Claudie, who then worked for a travel magazine, needed female companionship to endure an outing with her husband’s “gang”.

On this occasion the gang comprised the journalists George Gale, Henry Fairlie, John Raymond and my father, Paul Johnson. All were boozers except Perry. Copiously refreshed by Hughes, they went on to a bistro, where Raymond caused a scene. He first accused the Italian waiters of having supported Mussolini, then delivered a Churchillian oration, standing on the table, denouncing not only the staff but other diners as war criminals.

The proprietor, who had belonged to the Free French in exile during the war, not unreasonably objected to this behaviour and, despite Fairlie’s bad-tempered plea for magnanimity in victory, kicked the whole raucous crowd out. At this point, my father (“who had been uncharacteristically well behaved throughout”) invited them to come to his nearby flat in Chelsea — against the advice of Claudie, who had guessed what would happen. “No sooner had the bell rung than a long, freckled arm shot out, seized Paul by his red hair and pulled him inside, before slamming the door in Marigold’s face.” This was my father’s American girlfriend, who had not been included in the outing — or, perhaps, mentioned at all to the “marvellous girl”.

But it all ended happily, as Perry explains: “Marigold was amused, as she had every right to be. For what we did not know was that taking advantage of all that restaurant tumult Paul had made an assignation for lunch the following day at the Ritz; an assignation which led swiftly on to marriage. So she at least could afford to be magnanimous in victory, the fruits of which have gone on giving pleasure ever since to their many friends.” The “assignation” at the Ritz did indeed lead swiftly on to marriage, not least because I, though as yet unborn, was present at the wedding. However embroidered Perry’s anecdote may be, it shows his genius and his gallantry.

The key to understanding the life of Peregrine Worsthorne is what I shall call “Perry’s Uncertainty Principle”. It meant that for the nearly four decades during which he wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph, nobody could predict on whose side he would come down on the issue of the day. Every week he longed for “that indispensable flash of intuition” which was his life and his livelihood.

Worsthorne has been described as a High Tory, a reactionary, even (by the Times journalist Oliver Kamm) as “xenophobic and sinister”. A “High Tory” is really just a Tory who is unapologetic about his beliefs. Perry himself thought the Guardian left was far more reactionary than he was; it certainly defended the status quo to the death during the Thatcher revolution.

The last time we had lunch he told me that he now believed that the Cold War had been a colossal mistake

Perry’s defence of lost causes was not sinister but quixotic; and it was precisely because nobody could be less xenophobic — his heritage wasn’t English, but Belgian — that he could understand why, for example, a Frenchman might have supported the Vichy regime. Those of us born long after the war should beware of attributing dishonourable motives to those who lived through and even fought in it.

Perry fussed about whether he was déclassé because his progressive mother sent him to Stowe, not Eton, or whether his regiment was smart enough. Yet he was neither a snob nor a coward, but had served under Montgomery; his commanding officer, and lifelong political guide, was Michael Oakeshott. The latter’s invocation of “the voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind” appealed to the romantic in Perry: he wanted to be that voice.

The Times obituary declared that he was no intellectual. That is unfair and would have wounded Perry, who thrived on the company of hommes (and femmes) serieux. They might be the curmudgeonly Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling, who lived in a ménage à trois with George and Pat Gale at Wivenhoe, where Perry also had a cottage, or the transatlantic intelligentsia — Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb — or their British counterparts, the Letwins, whose soirées he entertained.

Perry’s political peregrinations could be unfathomable. The last time we had lunch at the Garrick, he told me that he now believed that the Cold War had been a colossal mistake: the Soviet Union had never posed a threat to the West. Coming from the man who had once got himself recalled from Washington by The Times because his enthusiasm for McCarthyism was distasteful to the editor, Sir William Haley, this was quite a bouleversement.

For Perry, though, it was axiomatic that once past positions had been adopted by the establishment, they must be jettisoned. No sooner had Margaret Thatcher won her epic battles, than Perry castigated the “bourgeois triumphalism” of her followers. Though too polite to say so to the Iron Lady herself, he considered her a crashing bore. But she knighted him anyway.

Perry believed to his dying day that he had been denied his just deserts on account of a televised profanity

Thanks to his contrarian columns, magnified by frequent appearances on television, Perry was by the 1970s one of the best-known, most envied and most satirised journalists in Britain. On one of these occasions, he let slip an Anglo-Saxon word that was ubiquitous in his worldly milieu, but which people at both extremities of society still found shocking. In particular, Pamela Berry, Lady Hartwell, took a dim view of Perry’s throwaway line — that ordinary people did not “give a fuck” what Lord Lambton, the disgraced Tory minister, had got up to in bed. The incident did the Worsthorne brand no harm at all, but the Hartwells maintained that respectability, not notoriety, sold newspapers.

It was this compulsion to play the Harlequin that had denied Perry his life’s ambition — to be the editor of the Sunday Telegraph — until it was almost too late. Twice during the long years before his eventual elevation in 1986, he had considered himself papabile. The proprietor of the Telegraph — Michael Berry, Lord Hartwell — had other ideas.

In 1976, Perry was confident that he would be promoted. Instead, Hartwell appointed J.W.M. Thompson, whom he had poached from the Spectator for this purpose. Hartwell was proved right: for the next decade, the Worsthorne-Thompson combination of flamboyance and competence proved to be a dream team and, despite the worst efforts of the militant and greedy printers’ unions, the paper attained its highest-ever circulation.

But Perry could not bear being passed over. He believed to his dying day that he had been denied his just deserts on account of a televised profanity. When Hartwell, brought to his knees by union intransigence, lost control of the titles to Conrad Black, a Canadian in a hurry, Perry’s time had come. It was all too brief, but for three years he caused mischief with a scratch team of gifted, energetic and irreverent journalists. Outstanding among them was Graham Paterson, who generated front-page exclusives with next to no resources. When the bien pensants lined up recently to heap praise on the late Harry Evans for his investigative journalism, they forgot that the Sunday Times was incomparably better funded and staffed than its Telegraph rival. The latter’s entire staff easily fitted onto the balcony of the glorious old Fleet Street building for a farewell photograph in 1987.

The best years of my life,” as Perry described his spell in the editor’s chair, came to an abrupt end in 1989. He had not seen it coming. My father had warned him, “privately and publicly”, that he should resist, if necessary by threatening to resign, the decision by Andrew Knight, Conrad Black’s chief executive, to rob the Sunday Telegraph of its colour supplement to bolster the Saturday paper. Nor did it occur to him to ask advice from an even wiser source: his predecessor, John Thompson, who was by now my father-in-law. Unlike countless other sackings of editors, Perry’s expulsion from Paradise was immortalised by his own evocation of the moment when the blow fell over breakfast at Claridge’s, almost Miltonian in its pathos: “It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast — a dish of which I am inordinately and insatiably fond. In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was paralysingly painful; pretty well a professional death sentence.” It was only later, however, that Perry wept — not, he insisted, because of his demotion, but prompted by the sympathy of a colleague who owed him no favours. “I did not weep out of hurt at the nastiness of the world but out of wonder at its niceness.”

In his final incarnation, Perry bore a slight physical resemblance to Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Perry was left in charge of the Sunday comment pages, ably assisted by Frank Johnson and Bruce Anderson. Their corner of the office acquired its own mythology as “Worsthorne College”; the inner circle did indeed cultivate a good many donnish intrigues and idiosyncrasies. For a few weeks, a refugee from the daily, I briefly joined this convivial camarilla, before The Times persuaded me to jump ship. I did not require much persuasion: no cavalier or Jacobite had ever championed more lost causes.

Yet I recall being grateful for permission to write about how the fall of the Berlin Wall, on which I had reported only a few weeks before, would inevitably result in a resurgence of nationalism in Central Europe, along with the reopening of old wounds. Perry was no prophet, but he encouraged anything that subverted the zeitgeist, then full of “end of history” euphoria.

When Andrew Neil, then still Murdoch’s loyal lieutenant at the Sunday Times, sued Perry for libel in 1990, he was awarded derisory damages — though the Telegraph was saddled with £200,000 legal costs that it could ill afford. Perry had accused Neil and Donald Trelford of the Observer (who wisely did not sue) of frequenting nightclubs in the company of young ladies — conduct unbecoming of editors, who supposedly belonged at Oxbridge high tables.

Perry himself had been no stranger to female company and was pained to discover that his moralising led to unwelcome scrutiny of his own private life. Shortly afterwards, Claudie died of cancer. Though Perry had not always been the most faithful of husbands, his grief was sincere; hitherto blessed with youthful good looks and energy, for the first time he began to look and feel his age. A year later he married and was rejuvenated by Lucinda Lambton, architectural historian, television personality and aristocratic eccentric. It was the perfect love match and the happiness she gave him went far to make up for his professional and political disillusionments.

For by now Perry was playing the part of the grand old man. He retired from London to a rectory in Buckinghamshire and hardly seemed surprised when his last connection to the Sunday Telegraph was severed by Dominic Lawson. Perry no longer felt the need for the consolations of a weekly column; the “sweet venom of vituperation” had relinquished possession of his soul.

In his final incarnation, Perry bore a slight physical resemblance to Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a bearded sage with intimations of immortality. Our last few encounters were unavoidably poignant, but he was if anything more affectionate than ever. I was, after all, not only his godson, but the son of his oldest surviving friends, son-in-law of his former editor, and had worked for the Telegraph in its Fleet Street glory days. Perry had no valedictory message to impart; his life is his legacy.

And what a swashbuckling, surprising, improbable, counter-intuitive life he had — the life of a laughing cavalier in an age of roundheads. “Journalists are born to incite,” he wrote. Most aren’t, actually — but he was. He incited love, too, among those who knew him well. I can’t quite imagine Perry resting in peace, but wherever he is, I am sure that they serve perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast — and nobody ever gets the sack.

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