Sir Alastair Burnet, journalist, broadcaster and editor of The Economist from 1965-74, died on July 20th, aged 84
Jul 28th 2012 | from the print edition
Although he sometimes worked for the BBC, he preferred the more lowbrow independent television. He was interested, he said, in presenting news that the “plain folk” would talk about the next day. So perhaps it was no surprise that the most obvious way in which he changed The Economist was to make its appearance less austere, its headlines and captions more chatty and its style more punchy.
Some considered this commercial, and they were partly right: the circulation rose by 60% during Alastair’s tenure, to 123,000 in 1974. A few considered it vulgar, and thought it reflected a lack of seriousness on the part of the editor. They were reinforced in this view by Alastair’s jocular banter, his easy resort to mimicry and his habit of taking the Monday morning editorial meeting with a gin and tonic in his hand. Worse, he commissioned regular articles on golf, and had an undisguised interest in football (this was before every intellectual affected a fascination for Aston Villa) and an even greater love for the turf. To his evident pleasure, The Economist bought a racehorse, which once appeared, beribboned in its owner’s colours, at the foot of the new skyscraper in St James’s Street that by then housed the newspaper. Anyone expecting of this Scot a high-minded, humourless Puritan would have been surprised.
And also deceived. Alastair was a confident public performer but fundamentally a shy man, often ill-at-ease with others, especially women. The banter and facetiae were devices to keep at an amiable arm’s length anyone not in his close coterie. Those who considered him lightweight misjudged him. He had turned down his second-class history degree from Oxford because, in his opinion, he deserved a first. Only occasionally did he show his learning—as when he was heard on air to describe as “very Voltairean” a politician who spoke of going off to do some gardening—but he was a fluent writer, well read, well informed, numerate and immensely hard-working.
He was also principled. He was loyal to his staff, quite ready to defend them before an overbearing chairman. Never was he grasping. He refused a golden, or perhaps silver, handshake after 18 not-very-successful months editing the middle-market Daily Express, to which he had inexplicably gone after The Economist.
The cross of Vietnam
His economic views were less pronounced than his political ones, possibly explaining why he was the first editor of The Economist to appoint an economics editor. In politics his sympathies were with Conservatism, albeit of a leftish sort. This put him firmly behind the forlorn attempts of Edward Heath’s government to reform Britain’s trade unions. He also readily supported Britain’s entry into the European common market, which he saw as posing no threat to an even more important attachment, the Atlantic alliance.
That attachment was surely deepened by, if not born of, Alastair’s year in America as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow in 1956-57. Whether, but for this, the most controversial policy of his editorship—the paper’s enduring support for the Vietnam war—would have been any different cannot be known. Most of the leaders on this subject were written by the foreign editor, Brian Beedham, but Alastair never seemed unhappy with their line.
He also trenchantly defended immigration. When, in 1968, the Labour government decided to deny Asians in east Africa who had British passports the right to settle in the United Kingdom, he ran a cover portraying a British passport lying among rubbish beneath the words, “If that’s what it’s worth”. When, in 1972, Uganda’s Asians were expelled, he put on the cover a picture of an airport arrivals door with a sign reading, “Welcome, British Passport Holders”. The use of covers to make a telling editorial point may have been his most lasting legacy at The Economist.
Alastair was not of analytical bent, nor was his mind notably original; he was impelled above all by the news and a desire to present it well. Appointed to the editorship at the age of 37, he could easily have had a second career in business or politics, but eschewed them for a very public role in journalism that somehow showed little of his character. Utterly unassuming, he listed his home address and telephone number in “Who’s Who” and, at the height of his televisual renown, spent each morning answering the cascade of letters brought by every post. Despite such openness, his was a very private public face.
Roger Payne, alpinist and avalanche expert, died on July 12th, aged 55
Jul 21st 2012 | from the print edition
He went lightly and purposefully, but with great care. The mountains he loved so passionately were fickle, and demanded vigilance. Lithe and smiling, proud of his “boot-shaped” and blister-proof feet, he moved on exposed rock faces with the grace of a dancer and the fearlessness of a boy. He did things right: tents were dug in with proper snow-walls, supplies stored in well-marked snow-holes, attempts quickly abandoned if tiredness or bad weather struck. He would never push his luck on mountains, though he himself was never tired, leaping up from a schnapps-heavy evening to pull on his head-torch for a 1am start, and in booming cockney (“Are you climbing, or what?”) encouraging laggards onwards and upwards.
As he went, despite the stream of merry chatter about the relative merits of waterproof fabrics, or the perfect pH of beer, he was on the watch. For snow that was fresh and powdery, or piled into a cornice; for slopes that were too steep; for debris of fallen rocks, or the mid-morning heat of the sun. All these were omens of avalanches. He was expert on them, teaching climbers and students—especially in the Alps, where he lived later on—to recognise the warning signs, and developing a safety code that came to be used across Europe.
He knew avalanches at close quarters—at times, way too close. On Pumari Chhish in Pakistan in 1999 he and Julie-Ann had spent five nights trapped on an icefield, with avalanches breaking over their tent. On Nanda Devi East in 1994 they had to descend an avalanche, and just made it; but he had taken the precaution of appeasing the mountain gods with a prayer-flag planted at the summit. Like the Romantic poets (like Byron’s Childe Harold, which he would quote in reams, word-perfect, as he climbed), he believed that mountains were sublime. He had a special love for the compactness of Sikkim, squeezed between Tibet and India, whose elegant, shining peaks he helped open again to mountaineering. A camera went with him always, strapped tight against his sternum, to record for others the beauty he saw. But some of his favourite quotations weighed up the beauty against the risk.
Diplomacy at 7,000 metres
Down at sea-level, he was a tireless organiser. Everything to do with mountains demanded his attention and his infectious energy. He didn’t belong behind a desk, and at Sunderland Poly, where he took a teaching degree in 1983, he bunked off lectures to go climbing. But if he had to protect and promote the peaks by doing paperwork, he would.
For 12 years he took charge at the British Mountaineering Council, swelling both membership and revenues, arranging competitions and writing memos late and long, until he would bolt from the Manchester office to scale the nearest crags. He brought mountaineering to schoolchildren (remembering how he had discovered it in the Scouts in Hammersmith), and to the disabled. He also took his expertise abroad, teaching young Iranians to climb and Sikkimese to become guides like himself; and he became a diplomat of the Greater Ranges, urging Indian and Pakistani climbers to forget their countries’ long rivalry over the Siachen glacier.
The people of the mountains he remembered, too. On his ascent of K2 he took a pair of micro-hydroelectric systems to give non-smoky light and heat to two remote villages. This made the trip for him, though he never reached the top. He kept a watch on how climate change was affecting both the Himalayas and the Alps. But he never wanted to be part of any large and overstuffed expedition. Nor did he seek out the celebrity peaks, or brag about “conquering” the unsung 6,000-7,000-metre peaks he preferred.
For that reason, he was not among the best-known mountaineers. The first many people had heard of him was when, in early July, an avalanche caused by a toppling ice-block swept him away, with eight others, on Mont Maudit, beside Mont Blanc. He was guiding two clients along a popular route; the way and the weather looked safe. He was travelling light, on what he liked to call “another day in the office”. As no one knew better than himself, there was no perfect safety in mountains. But he would not have been in any other place, for, in Byron’s words, “Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends”.
Canto the Third
XII But soon he knew himself the most unfit 100 Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held Little in common; untaught to submit His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell'd In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell'd, He would not yield dominion of his mind To spirits against whom his own rebell'd; Proud though in desolation; which could find A life within itself, to breathe without mankind.