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Avoid exaggerated pronouncements


My appearance on Desert Island Discs was disappointing
Anthony Howard Writer
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I think I was a great disappointment with that, with Sue Lawley, because she was doing it when I was doing it. And I think I asked for… I suppose I was influenced by having been in the army, and I asked for a camp bed (officers for the use of), which is what you have in the army. And I thought that rather than lie on the ground, this camp bed, and I think I asked also for a mosquito net, because that came with the camp bed, or you could have it added. And I thought if I was on this desert island, that would do. But I think that was really the influence of national service. And I wouldn't have thought of it if I hadn't been a national serviceman. Otherwise, I can't remember much about the programme. What you have to do, I think, if you do it, is you have to pace yourself. You have to say, take bits of music that correspond with the periods of your life, and I think I managed to do that, otherwise I would… I'm not terribly musical, so I wasn't an ideal choice, and I had things, you know, rather hackneyed things like, well, I don't know, the opera with some drinking song from whatever it is. Can't even remember what opera it is. But my wife was some help with it. She's much more musical than I am. But it was pretty…

Oh, I had a lot of speech, including a Nye Bevan speech, which I was delighted to put in. And they thought it was too short, but they let me have it. And I think I had, I had that other American… When You Are Old And Grey. Dear, dear, what is his name? Plays the piano and twiddles, but that was almost speech. But it wasn't high classical music much, no. I mean, it had things even like Vivat Regina!, because having been at Westminster school, and that being the sort of coronation thing we sung, shouted out by the Queen's scholars. So we had all sorts of odd things. I enjoyed doing it. They were quite fun. I was quite old by the time I did it. I think I was… I'd certainly left The Times by the time I did it, I think. Not giving up the columns, I'd left The Times full-time, because I didn't spend.... you know, I spent six years in the Elysian Fields, rowing people across the Styx to their, sort of, obituary notices.

Odd job, that, but a job I quite enjoyed. Very much the hinge of journalism and history, being obits editor, and admittedly, it's an old man's job, because you… only if you're old can you, sort of, remember enough about the people who've died, but it was very much away from the mainstream of journalism, and I did it, I think, between 1993 and 1999, that's right. And a small staff, sort of three or four people, all, sort of, each day putting out the slab and laying out people on it. But I didn't find it unrewarding, and obits had a great vogue at one time. They suddenly became very fashionable. I think they've gone off a bit now, but for a period, mainly because of The Independent, I think, and because The Telegraph, under Montgomery Massinberd did, sort of, produce a new kind of art form, basically. He's dead now, poor chap. But I think we were fighting back against The Telegraph, that's one reason why I was hired to do it, because The Times realised that they were being left standing by these new witty, funny notices that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, which it used not to do obits at all.

And it's quite a feat to get them up to the standard they did, really, only starting in 1986, I think, whereas The Times has done them for… well, not as long as people think. I think The Times regular obits page started about 1920, so it hasn't even been going 100 years yet. But they did occasional pieces before, but that was sort of the death of the Duke of Wellingon, all that kind of thing, you know, the one-day specials.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Telegraph, Desert Island Discs, When You Are Old And Grey, Vivat Regina!, The Times, Elysian Fields, River Styx, Hugh John Massingberd, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh John Montgomery, Susan Lawley, Aneurin Bevan, Nye Bevan, Tom Lehrer, Thomas Andrew Lehre

Duration: 3 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018