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The passing of a magnificent contrarian

26 April 2015

11:28 PM

26 April 2015

11:28 PM

I see my Spectator colleagues have beaten me to it and republished a 1989 profile of Richard West, one of the finest foreign correspondents of the 20th century, who has died aged 84. Never mind. I’m determined to write about him.

Annoyingly, I couldn’t find a single picture of him on Google (I borrowed the one above from his Telegraph obit). That wouldn’t have bothered him in the least. Dick, almost uniquely among Fleet Street legends, wasn’t an egomaniac. He waded into war zones out of intense curiosity, not for byline glory. He once told me that he was about to be shot to pieces in Vietnam and it occurred to him that the only publication with whom he had a contract at the time was The Listener, a long-defunct and rather genteel BBC periodical. He loved the idea of a headline saying ‘Listener correspondent killed in jungle battle’.

It is outrageous, however, that his magnificent books (especially River of Tears, about Rio Tinto-Zinc, and the sarcastically entitled Victory in Vietnam) are out of print. This is the price you pay for not giving a toss what other people think – though Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly greatly esteemed him. Dick, however, was not a lefty like Greene – he just couldn’t stand America. Or liberals. His book The Diamond and the Necklace was pro-Afrikaner (up to a point – he was no racist) and anti-ANC. I don’t think he ever met an unfashionable cause he didn’t like. The Serbs, especially, could do no wrong – he spoke Serbo-Croat, a typically idiosyncratic choice of foreign language to master.

Dick’s finest journalism appeared in The Spectator. He visited Nicaragua in the late 1980s and discovered – to his delight – that the Sandinistas were loathed. Sure enough they went on to lose the next election, much to the distress of Glenys Kinnock et al who had booked a victory party in Islington Town Hall.

We weren’t close friends, but we did a lot of drinking together. Therefore my memories of him are a little hazy, but I couldn’t match this (from the Telegraph obit – I don’t know who wrote it but my old paper’s obituaries are going through a golden age at the moment):

Years later he went on a bender in Saigon and woke up the next day in a ditch outside a tropical city. Only when he had walked some way into it did he discover on inquiry that the city was Singapore. How he had got there was never explained.

Not only did Dick not care about fame, he was also uninterested in making money. He loathed the taxman and the banks. I remember him snorting: ‘We’re supposed to admire John Major because he was a bank manager. I can’t think of anything more shameful.’

Dick was married to Mary Kenny, a sparkling writer also with contrarian views, though they didn’t always coincide with her husband’s. She sacrificed many professional opportunities to become his carer during the long years of decline after his first stroke – and, miraculously, produced the best journalism of her career and a terrific autobiography in the middle of this ordeal. Her Catholic Herald column is glorious (but not online). Dick and Mary’s older son Patrick is a taboo-breaking writer in the finest West tradition and their younger son – well, I don’t need to introduce Speccie readers to my brilliant friend Ed West, as stubbornly free-thinking as his father.

Dick was an Anglican who revered the Book of Common Prayer. He liked Catholics (so long as they weren’t Croatian) and would be happy if we prayed for the repose of his soul. But it would please him far more, I suspect, if his books could be republished to offend a new generation of liberals.

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