In early 1978, as the old New Statesman was trying to decide on a fresh occupant for its editorial chair, a telexed application for the post was received on the battered office machine. It had been handed in at some one-horse depot in the Shetlands, but it read as if newly printed and took the form of a long and closely-reasoned proposal. The magazine, said this prospectus, should become the voice of a Republican revolution, which broke with planning papers, party conference resolutions and the other suffocating staples of coverage and went after the embedded institutional character of 'British' conservatism. There wasn't a word or comma out of place, and one stipulation about the presentation of the case still lodges in the decaying attic of my memory. 'No ill-written articles', said this disembodied manifesto from the North, 'will appear in the New Statesman.'
The provenance and character of this telex hardly needed Neal Ascherson's signature to establish its authorship. A polymath and polyglot with a fluent and mordant style, he had already written amusing and instructive studies of Poland and (with the excellent title The King Incorporated) the Belgian Congo under Leopold. In