The way we were

Telegraph letters, the nation, & David Twiston Davies, 1945-2020

Artillery Row

Working in a newspaper office 20 or 30 years ago was like going to the theatre – a rowdy and passionate performance. A show with triumph and disaster, farce and anger, treachery and camaraderie, romance and heroism. And all, or most of it, never too far from the West End. It was wonderful to behold – albeit not suitable for all the family. That was the era before the prigs took control.

When I was on the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary I had a front row seat for the explosions of rage from the art critic Brian Sewell, known for “sounding posher than The Queen”. The most sustained rage from him took place on the day that Prue Leith has been asked by the Government to decide what to put on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It seemed to me a pretty mundane announcement. But Sewell screeched:” Why should we be dictated by a cook?” He spent much of the day ringing people up and repeating this objection.

On another occasion, I recall going to the lavatory and then Sewell briefly joined me standing at the adjoining urinal. Perhaps he sensed I was starstruck. After a few seconds, he stormed out declaring: “I can’t do it if you look at me.”

During these heady days I had divided loyalties. I was also a shift worker on the Peterborough column of the Daily Telegraph. Incongruously those forces of reaction were based in Canary Wharf. A soulless building amidst an inhuman glass jungle. Yet such was the resilience of the personalities of the Telegraph journalists that they flourished despite the unpromising terrain. Before the Jubilee Line Extension, it was a rather inconvenient journey involving the Docklands Light Railway. A couple of times I sat next to Bill Deedes who was to me – as I think he was to all journalists – very friendly and considerate.

There were many extraordinary characters working at the Telegraph then. Boris Johnson was an assistant editor. Charles Moore was the Editor. It felt to me that the team of Telegraph leader writers provided the only really serious opposition to Tony Blair and his smiling, adulating army during the height of his popularity. There was Dan Hannan. There was Paul Goodman, now my boss on Conservative Home. His great friend Dean Godson, longtime special assistant to Conrad Black, now running the Policy Exchange think tank.

The prevailing mood in the media class of a quarter century ago was to be swept along by power, worshipping modernity as one went. So many intelligent journalists would pretend to themselves as well as their readers that the vacuous New Labour soundbites of the era were terribly profound. The Conservative leadership failed to provide an inspiring challenge. But, like the village of Gauls where Asterix and Obelix held out against the Roman legionaries,  the  indomitable Telegraph would not conform. This was the centre of the resistance. The Tory anarchists. The Conservative subversives. They were erudite but good-humoured and unpompous. While open-minded, the mood was confident and unapologetic.

No lost cause was not worth fighting for with relish. Hunting. Hereditary peers. Northern Ireland was a great interest. There was great support for the Unionist cause. Childish squabbles would break out over who should attend the Ulster Unionists annual party conference. “You can’t all go,” the Managing Editor would tell them firmly. Some might have been puzzled that this allegiance was combined with many senior figures on the paper being staunch Roman Catholics.

Obituaries were also given great importance. A large team toiled away. The highest profile being a young Scotsman called Andrew McKie who I seldom had trouble persuading to join me for a drink. His boss was Christopher Howse, then as now known for his beard and expertise on the history of Soho.

The Peterborough column had been run by Quentin Letts, his team known as the “fat boys” – Julian Large, Henry Dimbleby and Philip Delves Broughton. But I started to bob in a bit after that. There was Sam Leith, who is now the Literary Editor of The Spectator. Also, Sinclair McKay, who later wrote an acclaimed volume about Bletchley Park. David Rennie, whose family connections to the Foreign Office meant he was regarded with deep suspicion – doubts which were vindicated when he subsequently got a job at The Economist.

Yet amidst this extraordinary cast there was one character who stood out above all others, and quite differently to, say, a Sewell rising above his peers. That was the great David Twiston Davies, the Letters Editor. He was devoted to the readers. Frequently he would recite a choice missive – often one putting forward a remedy for some national predicament with an outspoken and mischievous flourish. “Twisters” would bellow across the editorial floor.

David would spend much of the day on the phone to readers to agree edits to their letters. Often the sentiments expressed were already pretty ferocious. But rather than seeking agreement to tone them down, he would urge his correspondents to toughen up the message.His secretary, Dorothy Brown, provided the perfect foil. She would accuse him of being drunk, or rile him in some other way. The indignant scenes made for vintage comic performances.

So discovering that David Twiston Davies has died has prompted great sadness combined with many happy memories. His old paper did him justice with an excellent obituary. It reminded us that in his entry in Debrett’s he listed his recreation as “defending the reputation of the British Empire”. It added that he wore “a sombre suit and tie (or corduroys and cravat at the weekend),” and would be seen “clutching an ancient leather briefcase full of papers and coming apart at the seams.”

I only worked for a day in Fleet Street. (That was in December 1988 for the Evening Standard when it shared offices with the Daily Express in the art deco building dubbed the Black Lubyanka. The next month it moved to High Street Kensington.) But for some years while Fleet Street ceased to be the location the attitude of mind continued.

During my rare visits to newspaper offices now I find little sign of pulses racing. The laughter, swearing and shouting has gone. There would be more buzz in many public libraries. Expense accounts are meagre. The Human Resources Departments instil a climate of fear at any “inappropriate” conduct.

I think back on my good fortune to have had the chance to work in newspaper offices during the time I did but pity those depleted ranks of my joyless successors who have missed that era. As the replicant Roy Batty in Bladerunnner concludes: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

So I mourn not only the death of David Twiston Davies but the death of that age of defiant zeal in our trade which he so magnificently encapsulated.

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