St Bride’s Church, 17 March 2022
One day in the early 1980s the Observer Magazine sent round a memo to all the staff proudly announcing a new Consumer Section, which was going to do all manner of marvellous things, campaigning for consumer rights and so on. Our science correspondent Nigel Hawkes studied it carefully in that rather donnish manner of his before pronouncing his verdict. “Ah yes,” he said, “the faulty toasters department” before dropping the memo in the bin.
That was typical of Nigels’s dry wit and I am honoured to be here this morning to pay tribute to him — a brilliant journalist, a devoted family man and a very good friend to all of us here today. It is very appropriate that we are gathered here in St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, for Nigel worked for many years for The Observer within a stone’s throw of this beautiful and historic building. Indeed, the last time I saw him was in the St Bride’s Tavern, a few yards away from here at Christmas get-together of FOBS, the dwindling band of Observer staffers from its pre-Guardian days.
Allow me a brief historical digression to explain how I first came to know about Nigel – back to September 1970 in Santiago, capital of Chile, where I had just arrived to teach in a small northern university as a member of the British Volunteer Programme after graduating from university. At lunch in the home of the local representative of the British Council, I met Jo Beresford, deputy Latin American correspondent of the Financial Times, who was in Chile to report on the forthcoming presidential election.
The other FT correspondent in Latin America was Hugh O’Shaughnessy, who moved on to The Observer where he worked with Nigel and me. Hugh died a couple of weeks ago and I know all his former colleagues would wish to join me in sending his family our condolences.
I had journalistic ambitions myself one day and Jo became a mentor on my occasional trips down to Santiago. One day she confided in me that she was thinking of getting married when she eventually returned home to a fellow journalist called Nigel Hawkes.
Jo by the way was so impressed by Salvador Allende’s Marxist revolution that she returned home and became a Conservative county councillor. And she and Nigel celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year before his untimely death.
When I got back to London two years later, Jo encouraged me to get a proper training in the provinces. I eventually did so and I will always be grateful for her advice.
Five years later I pitched up at The Observer’s office in St Andrew’s Hill, just the other side of New Bridge Street, having to my surprise got a job as the staff sub-editor – and the first person to welcome me in the newsroom was Nigel Hawkes, who was the paper’s science correspondent. It had taken seven years since I’d first heard his name. He could not have been more helpful or friendly, and helped me to settle in which set the tone for my sixteen years on the paper.
I was quite surprised to find that some of the Observer’s great names didn’t actually write very well and towards the end of my first week as the stories started to roll in I found I had my hands full with subbing and rewriting copy. Until I came to Nigel’s copy: it was beautifully presented and written, and clear as a bell. Even a scientific illiterate like me could understand every word. All I had to do was mark it up and dispatch it to the printers. And it was the same every week. Nigel was a superb journalist, with an enviable capacity to make difficult notions and concepts totally intelligible. Only the finest writers have this quality and Nigel had it in bucketloads. And as a trained scientist with an Oxford degree he subjected every story to rigorous scientific analysis. If he couldn’t stand it up, he wouldn’t write it.
He was a natural journalist too, with a terrific nose for a story, burrowing through obscure scientific journals to find a learned paper or article which turned out to be a front-page exclusive after Nigel had translated it into grammatical English. He was always scrupulously fair, and modest with it. He took his work very seriously but never took himself seriously. He was always calm, unhurried and unflappable. He was liked by everybody in the office and hugely respected by the wider scientific community upon which he reported.
These qualities did not go unnoticed at the paper. Nigel was promoted to foreign news editor – that is, foreign editor – an important post on a newspaper famous for its foreign coverage. His coolness and organisational ability were vital assets, particularly in directing the paper’s coverage of huge stories like the Falklands War.
I asked Donald Trelford, who was editor of the paper then, for his thoughts on Nigel. Donald sends his apologies for not being here today as he would have wished but he is not in the best of health.
He writes: The thing about Nigel is that he was so straight: great clarity of mind, reflected in his writing, a conscientious worker whose judgement was wholly reliable, a patient man who never seemed to lose his temper (maybe that was because he didn’t drink as much as the rest of us). He did three jobs on the paper, all of them very well: as science correspondent, probably the best in Fleet Street: as foreign news editor; and as diplomatic correspondent who wrote many of the foreign leaders.
Donald might have mentioned that Nigel resigned from the post of foreign news editor on a matter of principle: he could not stomach the thought of a foreign correspondent in Africa being imposed on the paper by our proprietor Tiny Rowland. Donald did not want to lose him so he moved to being diplomatic editor, a job he performed with great distinction.
As foreign editor he was a terrific editor to work for, as I know from personal experience. One day he just said to me, “You speak Spanish, how would you like to cover Spain for us?” Spain’s return to democracy after the long Franco years was a great story to cover. I leapt at the chance and Nigel was a dream to work for, always supportive, looking after your copy and never querying your expenses. I know everybody else who worked under him felt the same.
He left the Observer in 1990 after 16 years’ service to join The Times and return to his former speciality as science correspondent. The Observer’s loss was the Times’ gain. Helen Rumbelow will speak about that equally distinguished period of his life.
I was very proud to be asked to be godfather to his and Jo’s son Will. As he grew up we bonded over a mutual love of cricket and I invited him to a Lord’s Test match, a tradition we have maintained ever since. Even in his early teens Will showed an impressive appetite and knowledge about beer as well as cricket. I never dreamt he’d make a career out of them.
Their younger son Alexander also followed Nigel and Jo into journalism, which was the ultimate tribute to their parents, and Georgina apparently nearly did too before deciding that banking was a better paid option so she could afford to buy smart clothes rather than write about them. Nigel was very proud of them and of his and Jo’s nine grandchildren: it is very touching to see some of them here today. I too was proud to have been his colleague and honoured to be his friend. May his memory be a blessing.