Saturday, March 18, 2023

A tribute to Neal Ascherson on his 90th birthday

Last October one of my favourite journalists, Neal Ascherson, turned 90. To mark the occasion, he was interviewed by Tim Adams in the Observer:

There are certain writers who seem singled out to bear witness to their times. Neal Ascherson first had a graphic inkling of that fate when he was a small boy in Peterborough, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed at a factory making torpedoes. 

"It would have been the summer of 1940," Ascherson says, "and I was coming back to the village where we lived, from school, on the bus. I must have been seven. This aircraft appeared as I was walking back to our house. Like all small boys I knew my bomber planes and I recognised it as a German Dornier, flying low. I didn’t hear it firing, but my mother did. She was watching for me from a window and almost died of horror. 

"Some fucker in the belly turret of the plane let off some machine gun rounds at me. I was the only person in the whole landscape, a little boy with a school bag. The noise of the engine was so loud I didn’t hear anything, and obviously he missed, but afterwards the trees all along the road had these white scars where the bullets had gone in."

Ascherson is telling me this story, with a characteristic twinkling smile, from his sofa in the tall terrace house near Highbury Fields in north London where he has lived for 40 years with his second wife and fellow journalist, Isabel Hilton. 

The previous night he had celebrated his 90th birthday at the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington where his old friend, the playwright Michael Frayn, a youthful 89, had toasted him as a man of “rare charisma, like a 19th-century romantic hero, with a kind of nobility that has always seemed a kind of human gold standard”. 

Ascherson wears those traits lightly, but you glimpse them all the same. In some ways, that near-miss from the Luftwaffe established the pattern of his life: if European history was happening, he was never far away.

And my graphic? Yes, it was Neal Ascherson who said that and not Tony Benn.

1 comment:

Kiron Reid said...

It was reading Neal Ascherson writing about Poland and Solidarity in the late '80s, in the Observer, that got me interested in Eastern Europe. And I got to spend time in Eastern Europe much later, and work in south east Europe for significant periods much later, and returned to Neal Ascherson's writing on Poland, Ukraine and the Black Sea. Thanks for posting this tribute Jon. I am right now reading his excellent article on Poland and Ukraine relations and Russia's war in the current Prospect Magazine.