Inside Story

Anthony Sampson, the inside-outsider

The anatomist of Britain and ally of South African freedom, born ninety years ago, was a pioneer in journalism, says David Hayes

David Hayes 29 July 2016 3368 words

On the side of light: Anthony Sampson at his home in London in August 1995. David Levenson/Getty Images

In any reckoning of great journalists in Britain since 1945, the name of Anthony Sampson would come very high. Two of many achievements stand out. The first is a four-year sojourn, in his mid twenties, in the racially divided but not yet full-on apartheid South Africa of the early 1950s, where he edited a dynamic Johannesburg magazine, Drum. That liberating period ended with a return to London and a job at the Observer under the gifted, eccentric editorship of David Astor. Ensconced as the paper’s social diarist, Pendennis, for what proved another four-year stint, re-encountering his homeland with the eyes of a semi-outsider, he had the brilliant idea of mapping an already much-discussed though nebulous thing: Britain’s “establishment.”

Sampson secured a contract with the publishers Hodder & Stoughton, where a friend from schooldays, Robin Denniston, was a senior editor. What followed was The Anatomy of Britain, published in 1962, a pioneering study of leading institutions – monarchy, parliament, government, church, judiciary, industry, financiers, business, trade unions, diplomats, universities, scientists, press, gentlemen’s clubs – in which background detail was skilfully interwoven with the experience of those at the helm. Before embarking on the work, Sampson had written to “200 top people” requesting an interview, only three of whom declined, all of them with extravagant apologies. (“Most did not want to be left out: usually the more important the person, the sooner he could see me,” he recalled.) That all the book’s interlocutors were white males tells its own story of Britain in these times.

The Anatomy of Britain was an instant hit, more than fulfilling the author’s resolution of 1959:

On my thirty-third birthday I was still a bachelor journalist, pursuing both news and women. I had a sudden moment of truth: most of the journalists in their mid-life were already in decline as they lost their first curiosity and enthusiasm and were challenged by younger rivals. I made a vow: by the time I was thirty-five I must have an alternative livelihood. I must try and write a bestselling book.

In a constipated society straining for new air, Anatomy’s information was enthralling enough, but its very clarity of form and directness of method was as much a revelation. Sampson’s single-handed charting of a firmament of power – “the institutions, companies and departments of Britain, who runs them, how they work, how they are changing” – itself nurtured a generation of journalists and acted as a handbook for civil servants, overseas diplomats, confused students and bemused citizens alike.

The foreign correspondent Neal Ascherson, an Observer colleague, evoked Sampson’s interviewing style:

Questioner? I never knew such an artist at questioning. Anthony was the most skilful, relentless listener in the world. Sometimes I watched him at it. He hardly seemed to speak himself: just the odd, interrogative mutter. And the subject would grow trusting. And do the talking. “Yerss,” Anthony would murmur, and nod in apparent sympathy. But he always kept that direct gaze trained into the other’s eyes. Irresistible!

Anatomy was part of an explosion in “state of the nation” writing, film and drama that characterised the 1958–64 period. Michael Shanks’s The Stagnant Society, for instance, which blamed class barriers for Britain’s economic weakness, had been published the year before. By contrast, Sampson’s book might itself have looked insiderish, clubbable, top-down. Yet by inviting the reader into those parliamentary chambers, oak-panelled boardrooms, and smoky offices to share his gaze, Sampson did more to demystify power and its hierarchies than any activist with a loudhailer. And the bold intersecting circles on the endpapers – the design of Len Deighton, whose terrific spy novel The IPCRESS File, also curated by Denniston, was just out – had a thrill of their own.

Even as the Penguin Special became the currency of the time, fitting snugly into a jeans’ back pocket, the doorstopper Anatomy inaugurated an equally potent one-man brand. It ran to five more versions over forty years, each rewritten and updated as new or reformed power centres grew while others decayed. The titles mark Sampson’s perception of a darkening public climate and the increasing diffusion of his subject: from the neutral The Anatomy of Britain Today, The New Anatomy of Britain and The Changing Anatomy of Britain (1965–82) to The Essential Anatomy of Britain: Democracy in Crisis, published in 1993, and Who Runs This Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century, published in 2004, the year before Sampson died.

There were some continuities. All, Denniston observed in an affectionate late memoir, had “the same apparently affable but often barbed concentration on the powerful in public life, fleshed out with acute personal observation, homework done, up-to-the-minute, mostly accurate.” A motif of the later volumes is accretions of power by international bodies such as the European Community (later, Union), whose corollary is the need for democratic reinvigoration at home. Peter Hennessy, an erudite chronicler of Britain’s governance and himself no Pollyanna, even describes the series as “becoming ever more preoccupied with the theme of Britain as a latter-day Imperial Spain locked into an irreversible decline, trapped by its ancient institutions.” A more pointed critique contends that Sampson never quite accommodated Britain’s diverse political geographies and their ability to drag, spur or thwart the centre.

Sampson’s move towards a more programmatic register in the Anatomy sequence reflected unwelcome changes in Britain’s political direction. By the 1970s, the shelves were refilling with studies of Britain’s “ungovernability.” Robert Moss’s The Collapse of Democracy was a right hook, Tariq Ali’s The Coming British Revolution a left, Tom Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain a Scots radical’s blow, Samuel Beer’s Britain Against Itself a jab from a centrist American scholar. Margaret Thatcher dissolved that problematic – suddenly there was too bloody much governability – only to create fresh worries over centralisation, lack of accountability, and first-past-the-post. These drove interest in party realignment and constitutional reform, causes that Sampson came to champion more vocally. When the Labour Party split in 1981 over far-left infiltration, he backed the nascent Social Democratic Party, even serving on its national committee.

A singular mix of aptitude, education, connections, initiative and luck – plus the alchemical element of personality – had brought Sampson, who was born on 3 August 1926, to outstanding professional success. Before South Africa, the Oxford graduate was being nudged by his father, chief scientist at the British chemicals giant ICI, along the same path. (His mother, too, had a strong scientific lineage as the daughter of a famous botanist and geologist, Albert Seward.) He was reluctant: “I had no idea where I belonged. I was restless, rebellious, unqualified for any structural career. I did not realise those were in fact ideal qualifications for journalism.” The fortuitous invitation to Drum (originally African Drum) came from Jim Bailey, an older university pal and the magazine’s founder. Bailey, a wartime pilot, was a passionate Africanist from a Randlord family: his own father had known Cecil Rhodes and funded Winston Churchill, his mother was a bravura aviatrix who in 1928 flew solo from London to Cape Town.

This life-embracing magazine, funded by a diamond millionaire, had a compulsive fix of exclusives and scandals, glamour and jazz sounds, fiction and sport, shebeen queens and township gangsters, all injected by a stellar generation of black journalists, with Jürgen Schadeberg’s luminous photographs sprinkling unique style. Drum resonated far beyond its golden era of 1951–58, ever more symbolising the transient free zone of urban optimism it captured. Many books were devoted to it, beginning with Sampson’s Drum: A Venture into the New Africa, in 1956, dedicated to Jim Bailey. It was republished with new material as Drum: The Making of a Magazine, in 2005.

After four years, a homeward hop and Astor’s shambolically inspired patronage – well evoked in Jeremy Lewis’s biography, David Astor: A Life in Print – brought Sampson to the Observer, another cherished outpost of enlightenment, with teeming Fleet Street pubs for shebeens and the inimitable Jane Bown for Schadeberg.

Pendennis, he said, “gave me a precious education: it taught me how to describe people and places succinctly, to make facts readable and difficult subjects comprehensible. I loved the easy access which the paper gave me to all kinds of worlds.” The combined experiences of Johannesburg and London forged his outlook as at once a principled liberal ally of South African freedom and racial equality, an exacting scrutineer of the shifting constellations of power, and a matchless networker who combined urbanity with steeliness of judgement.

Robin Denniston, the outstanding and devout Scottish editor, recorded at the time a vivid impression of his friend:

He lives in a comfortable but terribly untidy flat in Kensington, surrounded with drink bottles, cigarette ends, papers, books, glasses, records and a fairly constant stream of visitors. In the middle of this he seems to be extraordinarily disorganised, but this is only a superficial impression. He uses the floor for his filing system, but in fact, he knows exactly what he wants, where everything is, and he works with a single-minded eye on the final result…

These formative experiences were a constant resource in the decades ahead. The demand for periodic reassessment of Anatomy’s interlocking never faded. His engagement with South Africa included hosting discreet talks between leading members of the African National Congress, or ANC, and senior business, political and legal figures as an opening appeared in the 1980s. A half-century after The Treason Cage: The Opposition on Trial in South Africa appeared in 1958, Sampson was to publish the authorised biography of his great friend Nelson Mandela.

Sampson’s credentials for the task were impeccable. He had attended the ANC conference in 1952, witnessed the destruction of Sophiatown in 1954, and returned to report the treason trial of 1957, the Sharpeville crisis in 1960, and the Rivonia trial in 1964, even having a hand in Mandela’s famous speech from the dock. His biography, which tracks its subject to near the climax of his five-year presidency in 1999, draws on the cooperation of close allies as well as Mandela himself. Sampson observes that “behind all his gregariousness he still maintains an impenetrable reserve, defending his private hinterland, which seems much deeper than that of other politicians.”

Their first encounter in a shebeen was a source of later joshing, though the confessions – Sampson’s “I was probably drunk and don’t remember much” and Mandela’s “I’m no angel” – bespeak a certain mutual reticence. It has been left to the late Stephen Ellis, Irina Filatova, Tom Lodge, Rian Malan and other writers to explore such matters as Mandela’s links with (and indeed membership of) the Communist Party of South Africa, amid wider debate on the complex legacies of the apartheid and liberation years.

Sampson’s hunger was always to examine power up close, to understand it and to see it made accountable. In this sense his work was all of a piece. As Britain’s global footprint continued its retreat in the 1960s–70s, and as intergovernmental bodies and corporations acquired new agency, Sampson pursued the trail. He left the Observer in 1966 to write The New Europeans: A Guide to the Workings, Institutions and Character of Contemporary Western Europe, published in 1968, just after Britain’s attempt to join the then European Economic Community had been rebuffed by France’s Charles de Gaulle for a second time.

He would return to the paper in 1973–74 in the role of chief American correspondent, in time to report the tumultuous Watergate scandal, which climaxed with Richard Nixon’s resignation. “Not the Anthony Sampson,” quipped Henry Kissinger on being introduced. Sampson exerted his own form of influence: recognition. “Who didn’t know him? Everyone knew him,” says Ascherson. In turn he was, as the Observer’s associate editor Robert McCrum says in a fine overview, “the man who knew everyone,” possessed of “a talent for professional intimacy that would define his life’s work.”

His broadening range continued with five searching, often prescient investigations of international business between 1973 and 1984: The Sovereign State: The Secret History of ITT, The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Made, The Arms Bazaar: The Companies, the Dealers, the Bribes from Lebanon to Lockheed, The Money Lenders: Bankers in a Dangerous World, and Empires of the Sky: The Politics, Contests and Cartels of World Airlines. A late coda to this series was the social history Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life, published in 1995.

Sampson’s desire to bend the world in a more liberal and equitable direction found an appropriately global channel in 1979–80, the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and the dawn of a new economic era whose ideological instincts were far from Sampson’s own. He served then as editorial adviser to the commission on international development notionally headed by West Germany’s former chancellor Willy Brandt. The commission’s report focused on the global north–south wealth divide and how “to shape the world’s future, in peace and welfare, in solidarity and dignity.” Among its members was Thatcher’s adversary Edward Heath, whom she had ousted as Conservative Party leader. Sampson credited him and Commonwealth head Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal with saving the exercise, and later helped complete Heath’s biography.

At the same time, Sampson was giving serious thought to the longstanding idea – broached as long ago as 1959 with Christopher Chancellor, the departing head of Reuters – of founding a new periodical “with an emphasis on intelligent business journalism.” In 1983 he wrote to Katharine (Kay) Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, which had led the exposure of Watergate, who was also a member of the Brandt commission: “What I would most like to see is a more vivid way of trying to put together the world problems, to give overviews and connections, to try to make greater sense of the cross-currents between continents and between money and politics.”

His own efforts in this direction took shape in 1984 as The Sampson Letter, a self-financed fortnightly newsletter on “world politics and finance” aiming to “uncover the real forces and issues behind the news” and “to point to the crucial connections between finance and politics and between different parts of the world.” It lasted for an impressive two years before being incorporated into the newly launching Africa Analysis.

Neal Ascherson well expresses the dual impulses of Sampson’s modus operandi: “If you could find those who mattered and break them down by merciless listening, then you would understand how a nation, industry or world worked and where to apply the pressure for change. If you could connect up good people whose interests converged, you could create world-changing energy.” Sampson was close to the establishment, became a critic, felt an outsider, stayed a radical, was forever absorbed by what he wanted to change. And if there are ambivalences here, they also belong to the country he anatomised.

A prodigious life held much more, from a forgettable attempt to become Observer editor after Astor’s retirement in 1975 to a hard period from 1993–96 as a trustee of the Scott Trust, owner of the Guardian, which had just bought the Observer in a whirlwind of angst and acrimony. (The relevant file is withheld in Sampson’s archive at Oxford’s Bodleian library, under the skilled curation of Chrissie Webb and Catherine Parker.) A longer spell from 1995 on the international advisory board of the Independent, for which he wrote regularly, was less fraught: its owner during those nine years, Tony O’Reilly, described his contributions at board meetings as “crystalline.” His last column for the paper was published on the day he died, 18 December 2004, notes the paper’s then obituaries editor James Fergusson, its subject the wrongs of indefinite detention of terrorist suspects.

Much more happiness came from union in 1965 with Sally Bentlif, a literary agent, and from their two children. That had ended a restless phase marked by psychoanalysis (though not to Astor’s dedicated extent). Sally edited his autobiography, The Anatomist, published in 2008, excising a pre-marriage episode involving the novelist Doris Lessing but allowing a denial that he and another Nobel literature laureate, Nadine Gordimer – whom Sampson described as his “oldest and most valued white South African friend” – had ever been lovers. Toby Hood, the Sampsonite hero of Gordimer’s first novel, A World of Strangers, published in 1958, had evidently set a false trail, as had the chivalrous toast to Sampson (“the runner-up”) offered by the groom Reinhold Cassirer at their wedding in 1954.

Sampson would never complete the novels he began, leaving readers to muse on what might have become of the cinematic Soweto vignette in his autobiography, with its distant flavour of The Quiet American: “One morning I was woken up by a sexy black woman, saying ‘Sampson, can you buy me some beers.’” Or of the Scoop-like memory shared by Neal Ascherson of “just how he could laugh – like on that early morning in Namibia when we were passengers on the only plane I have had to get out of and push.”

But there was a late work with all the compulsion and surprise of a good novel. The Scholar Gypsy: The Quest for a Family Secret, published in 1997, excavates a forgotten archive in the basement of Liverpool University where his Irish-born paternal grandfather, John Sampson, had been professor of philology from 1892 to 1928, venturing from the busy Victorian port city to its mountainous hinterland of north Wales to collect words, songs and stories from a Romany band who made a living among horses, caravans, metal and music.

The recurrent visits, including in the company of fellow exoticists such as the painter Augustus John, earned the professor the honorary title of the “Rai” and offered more than intellectual enticement. John entered a bigamous marriage and fathered a girl who, by the time Anthony was growing up in smoky Billingham, the ICI town in England’s northeast, was the mysterious Aunt Mary, by then a Scots-accented teacher. The book, enriched but not overshadowed by that wonderful, long-neglected cache of documents, is a careful and acute reconstruction of a fascinating social history, as well as a poignant human tale.

I met Anthony Sampson twice, the first time at his Kensington home. When I praised The Scholar Gypsy, he replied: “One has to face these things.” The purpose of the visit was to seek advice about a journalistic project. He gave me a pearl: “Never underestimate the power of a well-chosen fact.” Richard Reeves, writing weeks before Sampson’s death, also notes his “knack for the killer fact, the one which illuminates the broader point,” and makes a contrast with Tony Benn, the left-wing Labour preacher who, inevitably, was at school with Sampson. “While Benn will offer an opinion on almost every subject imaginable, and solutions to most problems, Sampson is ultra-cautious. In this sense, he is indeed an anatomist rather than a doctor. He does not prescribe.”

That difference of vocation is profound, however narrow it can seem from a distance. Anthony Sampson was always an inside-outsider, on the line between journalism and politics, clear where he stood. Even when most engaged, he inhabited a space of freedom. The curiosity, the mischief, the stories, the people, the anger, the fun: he made a life on the side of light. And it shines still. •