Daddy, we hardly knew you

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Daily Express columnist Robert Pitman pictured working at home in 1963 
                                                                                                              (Photo by Kaye/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By ALICE PITMAN, writing in The Oldie about her father Robert Pitman, star columnist of the Daily Express in the 1960s.

‘Did you know that Daddy died 50 years ago today?’ my sister Kate texted back in February.

Which was funny as I was at that very moment sorting through one of the Aged P’s old papers. These included the many letters of condolence she received following his premature death in February 1969, aged 44, from leukaemia (I was four).

Robert Pitman was a household name in the 1960s, with his controversial Daily Express column and regular appearances on TV debating shows (he loved a good verbal punch-up). He was photographed by David Bailey and lampooned in Private Eye. But journalism is an ephemeral beast and, sadly, our dear old dad is almost completely forgotten today.

A few years ago I was delighted to discover he had made it into Who Was Who — although there were some inaccuracies. Such as the claim he didn’t like The Beatles. Not true. He loved their music but found their behaviour (along with a lot of 60s counterculture) frequently risible. He and my late brother Johnny (equally missed) used to play their songs together: Johnny on electric guitar, my father on flute. An amateur flautist, Daddy once wrote that his playing sounded like John Keats near death.

However, I have a whisper of a memory, sitting on the landing aged three and hearing him playing the flute solo from The Fool on the Hill. It was a lovely sound.

Among the letters of condolence are beige Post Office telegrams with their now faded white bands. And heartfelt missives from his many Fleet Street colleagues and beyond. A reminder of the lost art of letter writing — ink pen on embossed notepaper; the red masthead of the Sunday Times; the Beaverbrook Express logo; the salmon pink of their foreign desk; the green portcullis of the House of Commons…

Other letters come from his legion of loyal readers, who shared Bob’s disdain for what is now termed ‘the metropolitan elite’.

He had coined his own word for their equivalent in the Sixties — FORJ (the Friends of Roy Jenkins). His Times obituary noted he had little time for the consensus of intellectuals (Bob called them pale lilacs since they were neither true blue nor deep red) whose concern for criminals superseded their concern for their victims.

It is strange to think my father never lived to see the moon landings, own a colour television or tune into more than three channels. What a pity he never got to see The Muppet Show or buy a better cabin cruiser to sail on his beloved Thames (at least he was spared the Dubai-ification of the London skyline.) And how sad he never saw his four children become adults.

What would he made of Thatcher? (Initially pro, says the Aged P). Blair? (Anti). How brilliantly he would have skewered the current crop on both sides of the House. Not to mention the cultural pseuds and mediocre celebrities.

As another obituary noted, ‘he hated pomposity and the second-rate, which often disguises itself as real ability’. If he was alive today I am sure he would be sending the Twitterati apoplectic with its customary self-righteous indignation. And he would certainly be no-platformed at universities, wearing it as a badge of honour, while deploring the curtailment of free speech.

I’ve placed all the 50-year-old paperwork back in the box and returned it to the cupboard. I look forward to the day when his grandchildren take it out and read his old articles, and the letters with the Aged P’s notes. Such as the following from his Sunday Times colleague Geoffrey Smith: ‘He was one of those men who made life richer and better — not to mention funnier — whenever he touched it. During the 20 years I knew him, I never remember him doing anything that was not kind and generous. We shall all miss him very much.’


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre