Press & media
Whittam Smith, Andreas (1 of 4). Oral History of the British Press
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2007-02-07, 2007-03-05, 2007-03-22
Whittam Smith, Andreas, 1937- (speaker, male)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 1: Andreas Whittam Smith [AWS] was born in Macclesfield in 1937 and his father was a clergyman. In 1940 they moved to a parish in Birkenhead, close to the docks where there was heavy bombing. AWS's father, born in 1892 was from a working class background in Manchester, and AWS's mother was his second wife. Somehow he had attended Durham university, St John's College which had only opened a few years earlier. AWS's mother was middle class, and adventurous. It was a happy marriage. Music was her deep interest. Religion was the family business for AWS, he has no strong belief, but loves the music, even the hymns. [7:30] He hardly knew his grandparents, slightly remembering his mother's father who was a mill owner. His sister was born in 1940 and they got on pretty well together. AWS attended Birkenhead school, which was a grammar school in disguise. Its job was to get boys scholarships to Oxbridge. AWS started at its junior school, aged 3, because it had one of the early air raid shelters! The 1950s was a time of narrow horizons and rationing. AWS's parents were tied up with their congregation, who were involved with the shipyards. A proud day was when the Ark Royal was launched. Then there were all the industries around, refineries and factories. As a student AWS worked for Vim at Port Sunlight. [16:46] Liverpool was like Paris would be now for AWS. It had theatres, a fine library, an art gallery, orchestra and football teams. At school he liked history and maths where you could get a definite answer. From an early age he wanted to know how business worked. He was not gifted at sport [21:16] The school had decided that he was not Oxbridge material, but he discovered that Oxford university took commoners, and applied without them or his parents knowing. Keble college had a clerical background so he applied there. He remembers a sympathetic interview, and was accepted. However it is a bit of a blur as his father had died a month before. He had been ill with cancer for a year and AWS regrets teenage arguments, since he did not know how ill his father really was. His mother now had no money and nowhere to live. She was given a cottage to rent at 10/6 a week at Thornton Hough and taught the piano for a small income, till she moved to Bromley to a home for clergy widows. [30:24] Cheshire County Council gave AWS a full grant for Oxford for 3 years. AWS had only had parish friends, but didn't feel lonely. For holidays they swapped vicarages with other clergymen. He remembers Gloucester, Shipston and Brighton. He was teased at school for his father's vocation, and assaulted for going to a posh school. AWS had also been accepted at the London School of Economics for immediate entrance, but thought he should get national service out of the way first, and then go to Oxford university [40:20] Doing national service, (with the first battalion of the Cheshire regiment) he went for the War Office Selection Board, completed the initiative test well, then hung back with the result that he failed. So, one of his rules for life was, if you can't be top, then be bottom. He plodded along for two years of boredom. There were two pluses, the other lads were fun (story of the train engine expert) and going to Berlin. There was no wall then in 1956, nightclubs were romantic, he heard Fischer Diskau, and it was all so different, a continental city. [49:47] The one thing you could not do was to fall asleep on the tram and end up in East Germany in plain clothes, as you would be taken for a spy. AWS was unhappy enough during this period to think of running away. Only the thought of military jail stopped him. The army was just like prison anyway. [55:56] It was a big shock in 1957 to get to Oxford and find the class system at the top end, exactly like Brideshead Revisited, dances, parties and moneyed debutantes. AWS was reading politics, philosophy and economics and when he got the reading list he found he could not understand a word of the philosophy books. It was an intellectual nightmare for him. However they started the course with formal logic, which was just like algebra, and he could do that. [1:00:56] Towards the end of the first term he also acquired a girl friend who was socially adept, and made it a wonderful place for entertainment. At the end of his time at university, he was given only a third, which was a life changing experience for him. He decided that he would work hard from then on. It was such a shock, and he still has nightmares around this subject. His time at Oxford had been full of parties, and the girl remained a friend, in spite of the relationship breaking up as they left university.[1:09:47] AWS had been right at the end of an era, national service finished just after he did his time, and Oxbridge changed totally in the 1960s. He knew he wanted to go into the City and wrote to all 17 of those in the Accepting Houses Committee, the top of the tree. Five wrote back with job offers and he went to Rothschilds bank on a traineeship as a clerk in 1960. He had a humdrum job, every evening physically counting the face value of the pieces of paper the discount houses sent in. But he learnt the principles of borrowing and lending, about margin and quality. You need 107% of the money lent, and need good security for it. [1:17:36] He had to wear a stiff white collar with studs. It felt like a private house. The Rothschilds had taste. Leopold was a musician and gentle; Edmond had his rhododendrons; Evelyn was a cunning bully. Jacob was the enfant terrible, with whom AWS had a lot to do later on. All others were their servants, of different ranks. [1:21:42] AWS lived in Bayswater for a while, then Chelsea. He worked out exactly how much he needed to live on, which he was not getting. He took a night job as a barman in a low life bar, till the chef drew a knife on him, then became a night porter at a hotel in South Kensington. When his work was finished he could eat and sleep there. [1:28:21] A guest suggested that he could do better by lecturing junior bankers at night school, which he did satisfactorily. Then at a party, he met a financial journalist who asked him to write an article on stock exchange investments, tobacco shares. He went off to the Financial Times library and persuaded the old Polish librarian to allow him to look up what he needed. They accepted the piece, and others, and he was given a name, Prospero, when he was a fixture there. [1:35:38] In 1962 he saw an advertisement for a job with the magazine the Stock Exchange Gazette and got it due to his Rothschilds background. The advantage of small magazines is that you do everything straight away. He learnt on the job and remembers being sent, very nav̐e, to interview two Canadian sophisticated semi crooks. He learnt to ask what would ruin the company, not just the positives about it. This was his first job in newspapers and his mindset was settled. He was numerate, and looked at the systems. In 1985 when preparing the Independent and looking for printers, he could quickly find the right person.
Life story interview with journalist Andreas Whittam Smith