Alex Massie

Bill Deedes: off-stone for good now

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Few journalists merit memorials; Bill Deedes, who died today aged 94, is an exception to that general rule. Most famously, he was the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh's William Boot in Scoop*, but Lord Deedes was more than that. A Telegraph institution, editor of the paper, former cabinet minister, roving reporter, winner of the Military Cross, Denis Thatcher's golf partner, and one hell of a journalist to, er, boot.

He wrote about every Prime Minister from Ramsay Macdonald(!) to Tony Blair and continued to report until the end. Three years ago, aged 91, he was still on the road, travelling to Darfur - the subject of his final column for the paper, published just ten days ago. 

And so another piece of Fleet Street history is gone. The Telegraph's obituary is properly affectionate. Here's the Boot bit:

As chance had it, the ultra-conservative Morning Post [from whom Deedes had received his first break] proved to be the trump card. Deedes immediately showed his talent for journalism. By 1935 he had proved himself sufficiently as a reporter to be sent out to cover Mussolini’s imminent attack on Abyssinia. In Addis Ababa he discovered Evelyn Waugh, employed on the same mission by the Daily Mail.

Waugh, already disenchanted with his own failure in this role, fell delightedly on Deedes’s luggage, which weighed a quarter of a ton, and included a cedar wood chest lined with zinc to repel ants, and all manner of equestrian equipment. (Deedes did not ride, a failing Waugh sought to rectify).

The Morning Post’s correspondent also possessed three tropical outfits from Austin Reed. Since, however, Addis Ababa, 8,000 feet above sea level, was cold and damp, he was obliged to spend all his time wearing the tweed suit in which he had left London.

Thus did William Boot, the protagonist of the novel Scoop, begin to take shape in Evelyn Waugh’s mind, which duly added to Boot’s effects some cleft sticks for sending messages by native runners. It is noteworthy, however, that William Boot finally triumphs as a journalist, almost in spite of himself.

The obituary concludes:

No one could have better earned the right to quote Housman’s lines: “Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover/ Breath’s a ware that will not keep,/ Up, lad, when the journey’s over,/ There’ll be time enough to sleep.”

Charles Moore also has a lovely tribute to the Grand Old Man of British journalism.

*Still the greatest novel about journalism ever written; it should be a sackable offence for any hack not to have read it

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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