Lord Rees-Mogg – William to everyone who worked with him on The Times – died over Xmas as the papers have reported very fully. He was my first national newspaper editor when somehow I managed to claw my way onto the paper at the then tender age of twenty five.
Before making my way to New Printing House Square I’d done a few shifts in other places, notably the Sun, which was not my cup of tea even if I hadn’t witnessed the figure of Kelvin Mackenzie ranting and raving on the back bench at night.
The Times could not have been more different, largely thanks to William, a man of extraordinary courtesy and gentleness as the obits have correctly recorded. Newspaper offices were back then notorious for outbursts of anger, sometimes, though not always, alcohol-fuelled. I can’t imagine William ever losing his temper. For reasons of good luck, a little talent and some native cunning I found myself working in the Business News section to begin with and would, from time to time, have to go into the editorial conferences at which he would hear the day’s news lists and how we planned to handle events.
More conventional editors used these to stamp their identity on the paper. Not William. Though no more than fifty he cut a distinctly avuncular and elderly figure reclining in a rocking chair, going backwards and forwards, listening to each department read out their stories for the day. He rarely gave much in the way of guidance from what I recall. The attitude of the paper then – this was when it was owned by Thomson, just before the Murdoch takeover – seemed to be that if you were good enough to work there, you were good enough to know what to do.
Occasionally we’d get Oxford tutorial-style lectures; I well remember one that seemed to be a prolonged explanation of one of his pet subjects, the gold standard. Then we all walked out, went back to our departments, and the editorial heads there took over. It was a lovely place to work I must say, though a little baffling at times.
William rarely wandered much beyond the executive rooms and when he did he usually only knew the names of the senior people in control, most of them from the same public school backgrounds (Etonians versus Wykehamists seemed to be the running battle of the day, which was a bit remote for someone like me who left Bridlington School at the age of seventeen). This led to one of the more bizarre office jokes I remember (in an office that was notorious for them).
Several member of staff were – how shall I put this? – very good at absenting themselves from the premises. A couple would disappear for weeks or even months on end, filing copy from obscure locations on obscure subjects from time to time to remind us they were still on duty (usually on a freebie somewhere). Since there was no email or easy international phone calls in many places, only the expensive and crude medium of telex, it was possible to collect your salary and barely appear in New Printing House Square at all.
So good was one of the specialist writers at this that a couple of wags (not me, honest) brought in an old suit one day, stuffed it with newspaper, put a mask over the ‘head’ and sat it at the chap’s desk, ‘arms’ on the typewriter. This happened to be one of the few members of the troops that William did know by name. A couple of weeks later the absent reporter still hadn’t showed up. Then William paid us a rare visit. As he came through the door he turned briefly to the stuffed dummy at the typewriter, nodded and said in his customary polite tones, ‘Good morning, Ken.’ Then went off to talk to the economics editor for a discussion about European monetary union or something.
To this day I don’t know if he realised it was a suit filled with newspaper or not.
I was very lucky to get that break on such a great paper, surrounded by a very mixed bunch of highly talented people. They were odd times. Not long after I joined the paper closed for a year in a row over new technology. When it returned the unions remained as bolshy as ever, eventually persuading Thomson to sell everything to Rupert Murdoch.
As you may imagine life was somewhat different after that.