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Sunday 3 September 2006

I feel too old, take heart from words and Deedes

IT'S the title of the year as far as I'm concerned: Words and Deedes: Selected Journalism 1931-2006. Yep, my favourite famous oldie, Bill Deedes, has been a journalist for 75 years and he's still at it.

There he was on Friday in his regular Daily Telegraph column responding to a debate raging in some of the English media about whether it was the RAF or the Royal Navy that averted a German invasion of Britain in 1940.

Deedes declined to take sides and instead told of the occasion in the Thirties when he covered a royal review of the Fleet. Like Deedes, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe, the BBC correspondent, took advantage of the privilege of buying gin at the naval price of tuppence a measure. "As darkness fell," wrote Deedes, "much of England was startled to hear his account, which, to the best of my recollection, began something like this: 'The Fleet's lit up! There are thousands and thousands of li'l twinkling lights. The whole Fleet's lit up.' Poor chap, he was lit up himself. They had put him in a ship, so it was said, with some of his old shipmates. What would have been 'an episode'," added Deedes, was turned into "a sensation", because someone in the BBC pulled the plug.

That's classic Deedes. At 93, he's aware of the issues of the day but happy to reminisce in an understated sort of way (I found the interview on the web* and it's even better than he says), his take on human failings is always benign and he often offers commonsensical advice based on experience.

Deedes is the Telegraph readers' favourite columnist, an example to everyone of how to maintain purpose and grace in old age. He is of a generation whose values of stoicism, courage and sheer doggedness are often undervalued in these confessional and self-indulgent times. When at 87 he had a mild stroke during a five-hour helicopter ride in India when covering the aftermath of an earthquake, he finished his report in his hospital bed.

A young Bill Deedes pictured on assignment in Addis Ababa
Bill Deedes in 1935, foreign correspondent, Addis Ababa

His hero - who is also one of mine - was Denis Thatcher: "In a world in which so many figures in the public eye strive to make themselves bigger than they are," he wrote after Thatcher's death in 2003, "Denis Thatcher set about doing the reverse, which made him a difficult character to read." He was not a man "in awe of his wife, but [one] who so admired her that much of his own life became dedicated to her best interests". His great qualities, said Deedes, included commonsense and being "a sound judge of men"; he was invariably right when pointing out to his wife that someone on the political stage was a "wrong 'un".

Active service during the Second World War taught people like Thatcher and Deedes a great deal about human nature: would that our rulers these days understood half as much.

I was trying to analyse Deedes's appeal with friends and we agreed that a major component is his lack of cynicism. He gets up in the morning with hope and purpose and sheer joy in living, and a sense of the future as well as the past. In 2000, in an assessment of the Queen Mother ("a bit of a wag") on her 100th birthday, he paid full tribute to her many qualities, suggested that no one sensible would grudge her her extravagances, yet gently suggested that her formidable will had been a barrier to change in the Royal Family, who felt they "'mustn't upset granny'. And granny, in common with many grannies, likes things as they were."

Still, though accepting that change is inevitable and often right, writing of the Queen, Deedes defended her against the "itch for change" in some parts of society that is "feverish and destabilising".

Another magic component is his sympathy with the young. In an article on alcohol in 1989, he pointed out that young drank more than in the past not because they were depraved but because they have more money.

"A friend and I, disgracefully, left a London nightclub early one summer morning, discovered that our golf clubs were in the dicky of his car, and drove unsteadily in tails and white tie to a golf club near London, where we played in boiled shirts, wing collars and evening shoes. It was a salutary as well as unique experience. I call it to mind when tempted to condemn the irresponsibility of the young in 1989."

Then there is the simple humanity. Deedes was a friend to Princess Diana, with whom he went to Bosnia in 1997 to meet landmine victims three weeks before she was killed.

"This was a human being," he wrote later, "with all the faults of most of us, but also with a bigger heart than most of us. Recognising her own frailty, she was the better able to understand and to sympathise with the frailty of others". Deedes became an ambassador for UNICEF the following year, fronting anti-landmine campaigns.

But perhaps it's his humility that has made Deedes so beloved and so worthy of emulation. A peer who writes as W.F. Deedes and likes to be called Bill, he has been a Cabinet Minister (1962-4) and edited from 1974-86 the newspaper for which he continues to write as an ordinary journalist, giving advice to his successors only if asked, and then sparingly. His sheer bloody-minded action-packed longevity delights the public, who revelled in his self-deprecating performance on Have I Got News for You.

A cheer went up when it became known that though Jeremy Deedes was stepping down as managing director of the Telegraph group on reaching the age of 65, his father would be carrying on. Think of him when you next feel tempted by retirement.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards