Richard West: journalist and author who chronicled the last days of Empire
By TREVOR GRUNDY
Soon after the quintessentially English journalist Richard West married the quintessentially Irish journalist Mary Kenny in 1974, he visited South Africa during the build-up to the Soweto uprising and the final days of apartheid, which he wrote about so well.
During a drink-in with colleagues at the Hotel Elizabeth opposite The Star in Sauer Street, Johannesburg, a pretty, young, liberal South African girl with shoulder length hair and skin-tight blue jeans asked in a soft and seductive voice if he’d like to attend a party to be held in Hillbrow, the city’s answer to Soho, two days later on April 20.
He could, she explained, meet some white members of the banned ANC and write (for the New Statesman or some other left-leaning British magazine or newspaper) about this top-secret gathering to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s famous speech from the dock in 1964.
West had downed several large whiskies with liberal-minded reporters from The Star, the Rand Daily Mail and the Financial Mail. Perhaps because of jet lag, or the high altitude, West wrote down the wrong address.
On 20 April he knocked on the door of a seedy flat on the top floor of a building overlooking a night club frequented by members of the city’s mixed-race community and multiculturally-minded whites. The door was opened by a huge, sweaty and very drunk man who greeted him in Afrikaans after punching the air with a Nazi salute.
Instead of attending an ANC gathering to honour the long-imprisoned Mandela, West spent the evening downing steins of beer with members of the small but noisy South African Nazi Party who were marking another momentous 20 April occasion – Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Later, at my rented cottage in Henley-on-Klip, far away from the greediest and most loathsome city in Africa at that time, West said it might make a line or two in a book he was writing about the end of white rule in southern Africa. I’ve read all his books and can’t find the story anywhere. Did it register with him as one of the best? It’s hard to say. There were so many.
Legend has it that when he was a young reporter on the Manchester Guardian after attending Marlborough as a boy and Magdalene College, Cambridge, he was asked by his news editor to cover a shepherding competition somewhere in Yorkshire. He did so but wrote the story as seen through the eyes of a sheep. Seeing the world through the eyes of those about to be slaughtered made him special.
Richard Leaf West was born in Chelsea in 1930. His was a wealthy but unconventional family. His maternal great-grandfather was a Victorian man of letters, John Addington Symonds. His maternal grandfather was Walter Leaf, the Chairman of NatWest, and his first cousin was the actor Timothy West. His father had been literary editor of the Daily Mail. Ink was in West’s veins.
After leaving Cambridge where he studied history, West spent his National Service years in Trieste. He learned Serbo-Croat and so began a long love affair with Yugoslavia. His job as an NCO in the Intelligence Corps was to listen, take notes and report back. Inevitably, the next stop was journalism.
An interview he conducted with the surviving members of the Black Hand Gang that planned the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was published in the New Statesman on the 40th anniversary of the duke’s death, and that earned him a job with The Guardian in Yorkshire.
He had a spell at the Daily Mirror as letters editor – he is said to have written many himself, including one demanding a teenage pope, and to have placed an advert in the paper saying beaters were needed for a budgie shoot in the West Midlands. He then returned to Sarajevo just as Tito’s break from Stalin was in full swing.
West went freelance, writing a book with the late Anthony Howard about Harold Wilson, The Making of the Prime Minister (1965). It was his most successful book and the money he earned from it enabled him to pay frequent visits to Vietnam, a country he came to respect.
His knack – his genius, rather – was to tell stories that were unpalatable to the American Army’s PR people. That won him few friends in Washington but many in Britain, where he was seen as a fine example of the men and women of the postwar middle class media who sided with the wretched, rather than the rich, of the earth. His swing towards the right in later years surprised most of his contemporaries.
Beginning as one of the idealistic Oxbridge graduates who mocked and giggled their way through the final days of white rule in Africa and American domination in Vietnam, West went on to stand at a slightly odd angle to the rest of the British media – a former self-avowed Young Marxist turned ageing rightist.
But more than most of his privileged university contemporaries he had grasped the consequences of Britain’s speedy withdrawal from Empire and the insanely fast departure by the French and Belgians. He threw a verbal fist at Africa’s new and often corrupt leaders as he had once used his talent to undermine and denounce corrupt white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa.
And he wrote some truly great books, including Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia, The White Tribes of Africa (later re-issued as The White Tribes Revisited) Hurricane in Nicaragua, and a book which he considered his best, about Daniel Defoe. In 1974 he married Mary Kenny, the Irish journalist who in her younger days was also a well-known Fleet Street hell-raiser. Both settled down and it was a good marriage. They had two sons, Edward (features editor of the Catholic Herald) and Patrick (freelance and contributor to The Times).
Fellow journalists who worked alongside him in Africa and South-east Asia will remember Richard West with huge affection. And a lot of the world’s largely ignored sheep will go into mourning, too.
Richard West, journalist and author: born Chelsea 18 July 1930; married Mary Kenny (two sons); died Deal, Kent 25 April 2015.