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David Astor: “The editor’s indecision is final” (©Astor Family. Courtesy Vintage Publishing)

In the opening scene of Look Back in Anger, first staged in 1956, Jimmy Porter and his friend Cliff are reading the Sunday newspapers. “There are only two posh papers on a Sunday,” says Jimmy. The audience didn’t need to be told which ones they were: the Sunday Times and the Observer. “I’ve just read three whole columns on the English Novel,” Jimmy goes on. “Half of it’s in French. Do the Sunday papers make you feel ignorant?” It sounded as if Jimmy had been reading the Observer, rather than its great rival.

The Sunday Times has dominated the serious Sunday paper market for so long now that younger readers might be surprised to know that in 1956 the Observer was more popular and certainly more influential. Its foreign news and commentary were unparalleled, its leading articles and arts pages required reading. Indeed, Look Back in Anger’s huge success, after a rocky start, owed a great deal to Kenneth Tynan’s rave review in the Observer, in which in typically melodramatic style he announced he “could not love anybody” who did not like Osborne’s play. Even the paper’s sports pages included some of the leading writers of the era, reporting on Saturday’s football, rugby and cricket matches.

That Observer was the creation of one man: David Astor. His name would probably attract little or no recognition today from anybody under the age of 60. This is inevitable, given the transitory nature of the newspaper business, but a pity nonetheless, as Astor was one of the most interesting and influential editors of the postwar era. Jeremy Lewis’s biography is therefore all the more welcome and is, indeed, a model of its kind, painstakingly researched, accurate in its judgments, and well written, all qualities prized by Astor himself. His insistence on fairness in everything that went into his paper would doubtless be greeted with incredulity by many of today’s Fleet Street editors.

Lewis has written two fine biographies of important British 20th-century cultural figures, the critic and magazine editor Cyril Connolly, and Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, and he sees Astor as making a natural third leg of a trilogy. There was a link: Astor hired his fellow Etonian Connolly to be literary editor of the Observer in his early years on the paper before he became editor in 1948, an amusing episode which encapsulated Astor’s strengths and weaknesses. Always a brilliant talent spotter, he saw that Connolly would shake up the paper’s then dreary middlebrow literary section, which he immediately began to do. But Astor, in his habitually hesitant way, had failed to square the acting editor, Ivor Brown, who had previously been in charge of the pages and reasserted his control over them. Inevitably, the irascible Connolly walked out, going on to become the influential chief literary critic of the Sunday Times. As another Astor discovery (still happily writing for the Observer), Katharine Whitehorn later remarked: “The editor’s indecision is final.”

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