Obituary: Writer, Richard West
Richard West - Writer, born July 18, 1930, died April 25, 2015.
Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30
Richard West, who has died aged 84, was a reporter and essayist, a man of considerable learning, and a gifted writer who might have been better-known and more successful if he had chosen.
In the 1960s he was a highly paid freelance who could write his own ticket to the ends of the earth and whose books were well praised. But both his views and his behaviour became increasingly idiosyncratic. He wrote for smaller papers which paid less well than the nationals but where he was free to write as he liked.
He was married for over 40 years to journalist Mary Kenny, a long-time columnist with the Irish Independent.
Richard Leaf West was born in Chelsea on July 18, 1930, the son of a publisher and sometime journalist who was once the literary editor of the Daily Mail. The family were bohemian and peripatetic. West was educated at Marlborough and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read history.
After Cambridge he went to Yugoslavia to teach at Sarajevo university. He was sacked after one day - a brief encounter even by his standards - on party orders. But he stayed to study the language and to fall in love with the country. He then reckoned himself a Marxist and remained a man of the Left until the 1970s. But even at that time, what appealed to him about Tito's republic was its bloody-mindedness, standing out against both the West and Soviet Russia.
His first newspaper job was on the Manchester Guardian. He was a reporter and then Yorkshire correspondent. He did not fit in to the austere high-mindedness of the old Guardian; his friends and his way of life were already unpredictable, and his conduct sometimes eccentric.
A contemporary on the Guardian, Michael Frayn, was to remember West being sent to cover a sheep-dog trial - a regular feature of North England country life - and filing a report of the event as seen through the eyes of a sheep.
Before long West, moved to London and joined the Daily Mirror. He did not remain a newspaper staffer for long, preferring, for the rest of his career, the freedom and insecurity of freelancing. In the 1960s he covered British politics for a time, writing with Anthony Howard The Making of a Prime Minister about Harold Wilson's victory in 1964.
He was happier as a travelling reporter, rather than a foreign correspondent in the strict sense, spending much time in Africa, in Latin America and inevitably in South-East Asia. Apart from magazines such as the Sunday Times, he wrote usually for the weekly New Statesman and later The Spectator, where his individual and impressionistic style of reporting worked best.
West wrote numerous books. The Gringo in Latin America was a travelogue using as its peg the awkward relations between the blundering Americans of the United States and their southern neighbours. In the following year, 1968, he published Sketches from Vietnam, an acidulated commentary on that unhappy conflict.
He was always something of an anti-American, whether from the Left or, later, from the Right. He was an admirer of Graham Greene, who reciprocated, writing to The Spectator once in these terms: "I must thank Mr Richard West for his understanding notice… No critic before, that I can remember, has thus pinpointed my abhorrence of the American liberal conscience." For both of them, Greene, the old Lefty, and West, the neo-reactionary as he became, "liberal" was the final term of abuse.
Along with his reporter's eye, West had a true historical sense. Brazza of the Congo (1972), warmly praised by Cyril Connolly and perhaps West's best book, tells the story of one of the most attractive of Europeans in Africa. That continent perennially interested West. He spent a good deal of time in "UDI" Rhodesia, which he condemned politically, at least while it lasted, but whose raffishness he liked. He wrote The White Tribes of Africa (1965), later updated as The White Tribes Revisited.
His book Victory in Vietnam, published in 1974, took its title ironically from the tale Victory by Joseph Conrad, one of West's favourite writers.
Its publication saw a most unusual legal action, not for libel but brought in the Family Division of the High Court on behalf of the child of an old friend of West's whose reckless life and death he had described in the book.
The action failed in the end, and the book may have marked a stage in West's own development. He could now see the results of the war after the Communists won in 1975 and, for all his anti-Americanism, looked back on the conflict in South-East Asia with very mixed feelings.
He returned to South Africa to write a revisionist account, The Diamonds and the Necklace, hostile to black nationalism and sympathetic to the Afrikaners; and to Latin America to write Hurricane in Nicaragua (both 1989), which, not surprisingly by then, as his views had developed, was critical of the Sandinistas. Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia (1994) was a life of Yugoslavia's patriarch combined with an account of his country's demise. In 1997 he published a biography of Daniel Defoe.
At one time, Dick West's way of life seemed too erratic for domestic happiness, but he found it with Dubliner Mary Kenny, a Fleet Street columnist with The Sunday Telegraph and other titles. She currently writes a weekly column for Weekend magazine, a sister publication to the Review. They were married in 1974 and had two sons, Ed and Patrick, who are also journalists.
West was a journalist of unusual intelligence and literary skill. "I like the way he writes," Cyril Connolly said. "I like what he has to say. He is a humanist who does not accept facile solutions, a judge of character."
In fact, it was always character which fascinated West. His books, like his articles, were partly about himself and partly about other people who caught his attention: the Afrikaner writer Herman Bosman, for example, or the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. If he had applied himself to the grind of ordinary newspaper life he could have earned a steady salary, and if he had tried, he could have doubtless have written bestselling books.
But he was driven always by a demon of perversity or contrariness, which marked him as much as Bosman or Darío: like them he was quirky, salty, offbeat and entirely individual.
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