Anyone who thinks that a stable and loving family background is the key to a happy life had better read this book; for its protagonist, now 80 years old, was rejected as a baby by his unmarried mother, looked after by a doting and doted-on grandmother until he was four, and then, inexplicably (given that he had various relations who could have cared for him), consigned to an orphanage of Dickensian grimness from which he was finally discharged at the age of 14 with nothing but a Bible, a new suit, and a ten-shilling note. Yet Peter Paterson’s fascinating memoir shows him to have led a life of almost unnatural contentment. He has spent nearly 60 years of it in journalism, having drifted into it by accident and considered himself ever since the luckiest man alive.
There have been misfortunes and setbacks along the way — for example, his sacking in the 1970s as The Spectator’s political columnist for a lack of right-wing cojones, the failure of his cherished plan to start a new national newspaper free from the crippling ‘Spanish practices’ of the print unions, and his near-miraculous survival of the 1975 Moorgate underground train crash in which 43 people died — but none of these things affected his morale. ‘I do not experience anxiety or depression,’ he states categorically at one point; though he does, at the end of the book, confess to being ‘plunged into a state of misery’ by the financial crisis of the British press today.
Paterson’s emotional resilience is remarkable, as is his determination to see only the best in everyone and everything. Even of Spurgeon’s Orphans Home, where he was knifed and beaten and bullied and had his mouth washed out with soap, he writes with almost spooky generosity. He says he now believes that he was ‘foolish, ungrateful, unfair and snobbish’ to have resented his treatment there. ‘I belatedly realise I have a great deal to thank my carers for, whatever my feelings at the time,’ he writes. Few alumni of Britain’s great public schools would write so warmly of their alma mater.
The great array of characters in this book may include a few that Paterson doesn’t like, but for almost everyone he feels some degree of affection, even for the trade union leaders, the bogeymen of the 1970s widely blamed for the industrial disruption that plagued Britain at that time. Paterson, for several years a specialist in industrial relations for the Telegraph newspapers, says their power has been overestimated and that he was struck by ‘the essential likeability of most of the union leaders I came to know, their genuine commitment to their members, and — this was the downside — their lack of schooling’.
Paterson himself never went to university, but after the war, during the last year of which he was billeted on a Welsh mining family to escape Hitler’s V2 bombers (an ‘ecstatically happy’ time, of course), he enrolled as a student in the commerce department of the Wandsworth Technical Institute and there learnt to write shorthand. It was this accomplishment that determined his entire future, getting him hired for his first journalistic job as a reporter on the Fulham Gazette.
It was also because of his shorthand that he found himself taking dictation from Field Marshal Montgomery by securing a dream National Service posting as a clerk to the military in Paris. He had several encounters there with Montgomery’s boss, General Dwight Eisenhower,
who, in common with most of the American military, was impressively courteous: unlike any British army officer I’ve ever met, his first gesture on meeting ‘other ranks’ like myself, was to shake their hand.
As in many memoirs, his reminiscences of his childhood are the most interesting, for with adulthood often comes inhibition and enforced discretion. Paterson leaves us in no doubt about his fondness for women, but we are told nothing at all about his four marriages and why he needed to have quite so many. Could his life have been sometimes less blissful than he makes out? We cannot know, but it may be that even marital breakups could not unsettle a man so impervious to anxiety and depression.
Most of the book consists of loving memories of the old Fleet Street, its conviviality, its drunkenness, and its cheerful irresponsibility, all of which are compared favourably to the lonely, abstemious life of the contemporary journalist crouched over a computer all day. In fact, the only part of Paterson’s long career that he admits to not having enjoyed very much is the last one, in which he was working in monk-like solitude as television critic of the Daily Mail.
The book is a bit long. And just occasionally, as the anecdotes piled up, I would find myself asking ‘Much more of this, old boy?’ (the words in the title referring to the discouraging way in which old-time copytakers liked to interrupt reporters as they dictated their stories down the telephone). The book is riddled, too, with mispunctuations and misspellings (especially of people’s names). But it is very enjoyable, and also uplifting because of its author’s determination always to look on the bright side of life.
Another attractive aspect of Paterson’s character is his complete freedom from class envy. The marvellous thing about journalism, he writes, is ‘that, whatever your background, it is in almost every way egalitarian’. This wasn’t the view of the late Bill Grundy, famous television presenter and The Spectator’s press columnist, whom I sacked on my first day as editor in August 1975. He had welcomed me to the office by saying that he assumed I’d only got the job because of some sexual impropriety with its owner at Eton. Paterson, God bless him, writes very kindly about both of us.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 23, 2011Tags: Book review, Journalism, Memoirs