Three journalists died this week who deserve more than a passing mention. All of them, in fact, made one proud to be in the same profession, even though they served it in very different ways.
The most famous was PETER de VRIES, a Dutch investigative reporter who daringly – some would say recklessly – exposed big-time criminals in his country whom the police could never nail. One of them shot him dead in an Amsterdam street in broad daylight in what seemed like an TV episode in Van de Valk, but was only too real for his wife and two children.
His best-known case was the kidnapping of Freddy Heineken, the Dutch beer magnate, which resulted in two books and a film starring Anthony Hopkins. De Vries helped to track down the kidnapper, who was jailed but nonetheless got away with half of the record kidnap payment.
De Vries put corrupt policemen in jail and always followed the overseas murder of any Dutch victim and harried the local police into finding the culprit- so much so in Australia that the police once arrested him to keep him quiet. He had a TV programme which set records for audience figures.
He was killed at the age of 64, which made many people in Holland wonder how he had managed to stay alive for so long with such deadly enemies. Thousands of ordinary people paid tribute to him when he died in hospital, nine days after being shot.
JOHN WOODCOCK, who has died aged 94, was, in the words of Michael Atherton, “one of the finest cricket writers” Mike Selvey described him as “the finest of all cricket writers,” a judgement I would challenge, citing Neville Cardus, among a few others, as better than Woodcock.
Nevertheless, he was an excellent cricket writer over many decades, bringing the game to life on the page. He also held a remarkable store of cricketing knowledge, on which other writers drew. As Derek Pringle put it, “He was the kind of scribe we’d all like to be – informed, elegant and generous with a beautiful turn of phrase.”
He was born in a rectory in the village of Longparish in Hampshire and stayed there all this life. He never married. I had two doubts about Woodcock, although he was a most genial man. He steered clear of controversy, especially over the D’Oliveira affair in South Africa, during which he sometimes appeared to be pro-apartheid – or at least, he didn’t believe politics or colour, or anything else, should interfere with the cricket.
I once saw some old film of Harold Larwood, the Derbyshire miner whose pace and aggression stirred up the Bodyline crisis of 1933. It seemed to me that his action was suspect. I asked Woodcock about this when I saw him at Lord’s, suggesting that it just might be the jerkiness of the old film that gave that impression.
“Oh no, you’re right,” said the sage of Longparish. “Larwood was a chucker – people often said so at the time.” I asked him if he had written about this himself. “Oh no,” he replied. “I always kept out of those muddy waters.”
The third journalist to die this week was one who worked very close to me on The Observer. DAVID RANDALL, who died suddenly at 70, wrote a book – now a well-thumbed textbook for aspiring hacks – called “The Universal Journalist.” That is exactly what Randall was himself.
He could turn his hand to anything on a newspaper. He started on the Croydon Advertiser, rising to editor, then wrote captions for page three of the Sun, before becoming a general dogsbody for me, He could write, often very funnily, he could write brilliant headlines, he could lay out pages that won awards for design.
When he was between jobs he took on a role of raising £30 million funds to help the people of Rwanda after the genocide there. He also helped to raise standards on newspapers in various parts of the world, including Moscow.
He was one of the first of my generation to see the vital importance of technology and mastered it before any of us, learning in the United States. After I left The Observer in 1993, he spent time on the Guardian and The Independent, both of whom shared my high opinion of his many talents and his uniqueness as a human being.
Fingers crossed for the Lions
When I read Warren Gatland’s teamsheet for the British and Irish Lions for Saturday’s first Test against South Africa, I was surprised and delighted that he should have taken some risks, even though they were based of the good form of those selected,
I was reassured in my judgement when I saw that the rugby correspondent of the Sunday Times, Stephen Jones, had expressed grave doubts about some of them.
Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie surely chose themselves with their outstanding performances against the Stormers. Elliot Daly has clearly been groomed as an outside centre by Gatland throughout the tour and deserves the chance to see if he can bring it off at Test level.
It took courage to leave out Josh Adams, despite his eight tries on the tour, in favour of the burly Duhan van der Merwe on the left wing, where he has emerged as one of the Lions’ main attacking threats. Anthony Watson’s position on the right wing is surely unassailable.
There must have been close calls in all three back row positions: Courtney Lawes over Taghg Beirne, Tom Curry over Hamish Watson and Jack Conan over Taulupe Faletau. Both Lawes and Beirne are equipped to take over in the second row if Alan Wynn Jones breaks down after his miraculous recovery from a dislocated shoulder.
The match against the South Africa A team gave an idea of the physical strength and aggression the Lions will have to contend with against the world champions. Given the short time Gatland has had to try out some key combinations, and the setbacks caused by injuries and Covid restrictions, it would be remarkable if the Lions were to win the first Test.
Remarkable, but not impossible. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
BBC under fire – for 80 years
Once again the BBC is under fire, this time for appointing a known left-winger to a key role on the news desk. I was amused to discover that such charges against the BBC have a long history, much longer than I thought possible.
Then I found this entry in “Chips” Channon’s diary: “If ever there is a revolution or violent left swing over in this country, it will be partly due to the activities of the BBC, which is very red, or rather very pink, in its programmes and the propaganda it spreads.”
The date was February 7, 1937.