Perry Worsthorne: a man incapable of dullness

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

I had known Perry Worsthorne for several years before I went to work for him in 1986 (horrifying how time passes). Then again, everybody knew Perry. He was one of the most colourful figures in London. Elegant, silver-haired, always amusing, regularly original and frequently provocative, he was a triumphant refutation of the idea that conservatism is a dull creed, based on worship of the Gods of the Copybook Headings. Perry was incapable of dullness.

He also felt ambivalent about Margaret Thatcher. At moments, he would acknowledge that she had saved the country from decline. But on one famous occasion, he accused her of ‘bourgeois triumphalism’. I remember arguing that to revive the animal spirits of the middle classes — an essential component of national recovery — a certain amount of that was essential. Better bourgeois triumphalism than bourgeois defeatism. He was unconvinced. Perry was too much of a romantic, too much indeed of a Tory anarchist, to be at ease with Thatcher’s people, except on certain occasions. I remember once running into him after a lunch at which Ian McGregor, the head of the National Coal Board, had been the guest of honour, not long after the defeat of Scargill and the militant miners. But at the end, Sir Ian was left on his own. No one rushed up to congratulate him and shake his hand. A furious Perry thought that this was hideous hypocrisy on the part of people who would have had so much to lose if the strikers had prevailed.

Apropos Mrs Thatcher, Perry was an early recipient of a handbagging, though he barely noticed. It was at a meeting of the Conservative Philosophy Group. She had only recently become leader of the opposition. Although she was the first Tory leader to use the word ‘-intellectual’ as a term of unqualified approval, she was not at ease in that group. She would have preferred intellectuals, and ideas, to be on parade, ready to be ordered into action. Those Tory philosophers thought of ‘orders’ either as holy orders or as something you gave to summon another drink, and they expected any discussion of ideas to be enlivened by wit. They would generally have agreed that life was far too important to be taken seriously. She once rebuked Enoch Powell: ‘Oh Enoch, stop being so negative.’ While he might have replied that in a fallen world, a capacity for the negative was an indispensable part of a Tory’s intellectual armour, his only rejoinder was a wintry smile.

But Mrs T took everything seriously. She even took notes: unheard of at those gatherings. On another occasion, Perry described something or other as ‘balls’. There was a frisson. Had Perry noticed there was a lady present and a pretty special one at that? If he had, he did not care. He repeated the word and was clearly warming to his theme. She picked up her handbag and dropped it. Perry took no notice. A third ‘balls’ was followed by a second handbag dropping, from a greater height. I seem to remember that this disconcerted him. But only for a moment. He then continued: ‘Margaret, I’m sure you would agree.’

She and Perry did have one taste in common. Neither took much interest in wine. Perry would just about notice if a good bottle was put in front of him, but he rarely stopped to sip and savour. His preferred drinks were champagne and whisky. For Mrs T, a residual Grantham puritanism may have inhibited her from giving way to champagne and anyway, it was French. (She had to be gently dissuaded from serving English wine at state banquets.) She did enjoy whisky, without perhaps ever realising quite how strong it was. As for Perry, on a Friday evening when the paper was coming together, he delighted in whisky-fuelled joshing. I shall always remember those early evenings, which were such fun. He was a wonderful man and a fine editor.

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