In the confected pantheon of Fleet Street legends, Bill Deedes undoubtedly stands at the temple mount. For those who swallow their myths whole, his 70 years in journalism provides a feast of bold stories, tales of derring do and a seemingly effortless journey from one triumph to another.
He did play out a number of starring roles, as journalist, MC-winning soldier, MP and member of the MacMillan Cabinet, editor of the Daily Telegraph and, finally, veteran, globe-trotting correspondent.
But this, the only authorised and complete portrait of the man behind the CV, betrays some less comfortable truths. The author, a former colleague, who admits to revering and treasuring his subject, is forced to confront a different character from the avuncular, gin-soaked old toff with not a bad word for anyone, who didn’t play with a full deck and had a harmless line in old fogery immortalised in Private Eye’s Dear Bill columns.
It’s when it comes to the legends of Bill Deedes the book comes into its own. From his first days at the Morning Post (a newspaper that was a prime mover in the dissemination of that toxic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and his adventures as its special correspondent in the Abyssinian War, to his move to the Telegraph when the Post folded.
Then to the Second World War, where he discovered courage and a reborn love of the officer class, plus his 25 years as an MP and brief stint in the Cabinet.
It’s a great read, including his return to and tenure at the helm of the paper where he worked for the best part of his life and his last years as a roving reporter.
It’s Deedes as the young war correspondent sent to report on Fascist Italy’s attempt to incorporate Abyssinia into its worthless African empire that is the source of his most enduring myth, that he was Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the character William Boot in the novel, Scoop.
While Boot was an amalgam of characters Waugh came across among those in the trade he detested during that adventure, Deedes was certainly one of them. With his safari suits, camp bed, riding breeches, double-brimmed sun hat, sola topi and long boots and nets to deter mosquitoes…….all on expenses, of course. Bill cut a dash and Waugh shaped a character.
Stuck in Addis Ababa , far from the action, Deedes and others filed from what seasoned war correspondents call ‘Mahogany Ridge’. But that aside, there he made his name and the legend was born.
When the Post folded, he moved to his spiritual home, the Daily Telegraph, where his career is lionised as much for its longevity as its achievement. He served as an MP in Kent for 25 years and his time in the Cabinet, which he joined in 1962, saw him involved in, among other scandals, the Profumo Affair.
In this book, which is well-written, often funny and revealing and which gives a sharp, insightful look into Fleet Street’s often wicked ways and some of the cartoonish characters who worked and drank – and drank again – there, there is the feeling some punches are pulled. But when it does shine its pained light into shady corners it is generally even-handed.
There are some great stories, including from “that theatre of the absurd”, the King and Keys pub, frequented by Telegraph hacks, “the ghastliest…in Fleet Street”, according to the author.
In one, then deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Peregrine Worsthorne, was reduced to tears by a crapulous leader writer who yelled at him: “You’re a phoney, you’re a hollow man. You’re a tinsel king on a hollow throne.” Worsthorne’s then French wife later put it: “Poor Perry, he was crying cats and dogs.”
It was a cutting barb that could have been aimed with some precision at Deedes.
The single condition imposed on author, Stephen Robinson, was that the book appear after his subject’s death. And in this we find the kernel of the man. His wish was based on an unwillingness to have personal and family matters aired when he was around.
Deedes found disagreeable things most disagreeable indeed. He possessed, according to the author, a “lifelong ability for blocking unhappy memories from his compartmentalised life” and was often accused of having a “subaltern’s mind”, one of credulity, reluctance to question and deference towards authority and a wish to avoid a scene, characteristics that are comprehensively underlined as the book traces his life from his unhappy childhood to his death at the age of 94.
While editor, he failed to confront some of the more sulphurous elements in the paper, shying away, as always, from confrontation. His relationship with the chairman, Lord Hartwell, was characteristically obsequious. Just after six every evening Deedes would pick up the phone to the owner and ask: “Are you free if I come up now?” to which the good lord would reply: “Would you?” and they would then discuss the next day’s offerings.
The book is eloquent on his emotional dislocation from his wife and five children, one of whom, Julius, died of aplastic anaemia aged just 23. We all know gregarious characters who are funny in the office and the bar, who always stand their round and love a laugh and a joke, but whose home and personal lives are derelict and untended.
His son, Jeremy, describing his father’s ability to display extreme kindness to other people and their children, in contrast to his own family, once said: “He’s like the man who always does the washing up in other people’s houses but never in his own home.”
His own childhood was blighted by a father deeply affected by the First World War and whose emotional distance touched him deeply. His father’s increasing mental instability saw the family fortune squandered and his own war experiences undoubtedly added to his inability and unwillingness to engage with his own wife and children.
His later journalistic travels with a younger colleague, Victoria Combe, finally proved too much for his wife, who left him after 55 years. He had arguably never been there for her at all.
In this paperback edition, the author feels the need to add an afterword, outlining some of the fallout from the revelations made in the book, saying that for those who loved Deedes it confirmed those feelings and the same for those who thought of him as a man with ‘feet of clay’.
It is the story of a deeply flawed and, in many ways, repulsive man, privileged enough to have been involved in extraordinary events in tumultuous times, who cultivated an image of agreeable conviviality that masked an altogether darker reality.
Joe Owens is a journalist and writer.
The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes, The Authorised Biography, by Stephen Robinson, is published by Abacus. ISBN: 978 0 349 11896 3. Price: £10.99.