David Hughes

Not a hanging judge

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Brief Lives

W. F. Deedes

Macmillan, pp. 212, £

Welcome a volume that in all ways lives up to its title, even at a pinch a comparison with John Aubrey. The 18 characters who receive at the hands of this gentleman of the press a good-natured hearing make a great celebrity list for a party. As guests we the readers are no longer bored by Rhodesia’s Ian Smith; he springs alive in light prose. Mary Whitehouse has hidden depths. The Deedes version of Montgomery’s table talk makes the mouth water for more of the ‘idiosyncratic, dogmatic, tactless, quarrelsome’ Field Marshal. Lord Hartwell, Deedes’s former boss at the Daily Telegraph, might also be quite fun. Of Lord Spencer’s speech at Diana’s funeral, he muttered, ‘Bit over the top, I thought.’

Deedes has a similar sensitivity to cant, as we discover on joining him at Buckingham Palace in 1981. Along with other editors when he occupied the Telegraph chair, our now nonagenarian hero of the higher reportage heard the Queen complain gently that poor Princess Diana was unable even to pop into a sweet-shop without being besieged by photographers. The editor of the News of the World ‘plaintively’ asked why she couldn’t send out a footman for her sweets. ‘I think,’ said the Queen, ‘that is the most pompous remark I ever heard in my life.’

Over the decades Dear Bill’s ear has been at the world’s keyhole. It is the nature of his eye to see things in perspective, from foreign parts (like the Philippines when Imelda Marcos held sway) to such home events as the more comprehensible than reprehensible rise of Oswald Mosley, which he treats almost with tenderness. Directly he never says much for himself; the nearest he gets to the personal is catching the 5pm to his Ashford constituency with No