David Astor and the Observer was published in 1991. The book is a hybrid, part newspaper history, part biography – but then David Astor and the Observer were so closely entwined that it was impossible to separate them. The son of Nancy Astor and millionaire American immigrant Viscount William Waldorf Astor, David started working for the family-owned newspaper in his later twenties, and edited it from 1948 to 1976. This was the golden age of this venerable old Sunday, when it came to be the most respected and widely read voice of the liberal post-war establishment that held sway in Britain until the ascent of the Thatcherites in the mid-1970s.
David was too modest to write his own autobiography, which would have required him to blow his own trumpet, so he invited me to do the job for him. I was happy to do so. I spent many hours interviewing the man himself, and I also talked at length to many of his Observer journalist as well as his many other friends such as Lords Longford and Goodman. David was undoubtedly one of the two or three most influential and innovative newspapermen of post-war Britain, on a par with Harold Evans of The Sunday Times, David English of the David Mail and Alastair Hetherington of The Guardian.
Here are what some of the reviews said:
“Fleet Street’, as I suppose it can be called for a little longer, will, I fear, never again see that combination of proprietor/editor willing to pour tranche after douche of the family fortune into a newspaper calculated to cause offence in just about every citadel of what was then called ‘the Establishment’. Nor will Fleet Street see again a talent spotter to match David Astor. He was prepared to put up with temperament for the sake of brilliance. Thinkers and writers were what he was after, not human word-processors”.
– Peter Hennessy, History Today
“[Few] …can remember the great days of The Observer. By the early Sixties it was already a shadow of the paper it had been a few years earlier. It still retained a mildly leftish slant and a slightly annoying air of moral superiority, but it was essentially just a thinner, paler comparison of The Sunday Times, still distinguished by some good writers but overall no less trite than its rival. The great achievement of Richard Cockett’s scholarly buy beautifully written book is to demonstrate what that aura of moral superiority rested on.”
– John Campbell, The Times, December 28th, 1991
“Although The Observer was a consistently liberal newspaper, all educated conservatives, of which in those days there were quite a few in number, enjoyed reading it much more than they enjoyed reading the conservative Sunday Times. This was simply because it was more interesting and rewarding to disagree with first-class writing than to agree with second-class writing. This book is the history of David Astor and his Observer, and I can think of no greater compliment than to say that it is worthy of both subjects.”
– Peregrine Worsthorne, Sunday Telegraph, October 6th, 1991
“Few people have done so many good things in a lifetime as David Astor… There is a temptation to think of the old Observer of the first post-war decades as his monument. But many of the buildings, lawns and streetlights around that monument are David Astor’s work too. Without his ideas, discreet arm-twisting and often money, there would have been no Amnesty International, no Index on Censorship, no Africa Bureau and no Minority Rights Group – to mention only the best-known projects…
This is a careful book, for the most part well-researched. However, Mr Cockett was essentially selected as its writer by David Astor himself, and, while it is in no way a hagiography, this does mean that the perspective is close to Astor’s own…”
– Neal Ascherson, Independent on Sunday, November 17th, 1991
“Looking back from today’s competitive and money-conscious journalism, it is hard to visualise the Observer in its heyday in the fifties. How could such an amateurish and eccentric paper have led the field? How did its owner-editor, David Astor, defy the normal rules of commerce and discipline?
Anyone who was part of it is inclined to see it through the mists of nostalgia or clouds of doubt. So it may be just as well that David Astor’s story should be told by a more detached young historian, Richard Cockett, with access to letters and interviews, including long talks with his subject, who tells it briskly, without sentimentality… It is an even odder story than many of the actors realised at the time; for the paper was an outward extension of a family melodrama.”
– Anthony Sampson, The Spectator, October 12th, 1991