x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The editor who rewrote my life for me

Sir David English, the editor of the Daily Mail, saw something in me I never had before I met him.

I was 15 and possessed no educational qualifications, but who needed certificates when you wore a check Ben Sherman shirt, Levi sta-press and brown Dr Martens boots complemented by a No 1 skinhead haircut? I had just started my first job as a messenger boy on the Daily Mail newspaper and thought I was the bee's knees. My immediate boss, Sir David English, the then editor of the Daily Mail, took a different perspective to me. He liked me. He thought I made a first-class cup of tea and I always showed complete courtesy to all the important visitors he entertained in his huge office in Northcliffe House, Fleet Street, London. But he thought I was wasting my life. He saw something in me I never did.

Almost three years after I started working for him he took me to one side. "So, Charlie," asked Sir David, "what are you going to do with the rest of your life? Stay looking like a bother boy with not a thought to what lies ahead, or are you actually going to do something positive?" I hadn't given my future a single thought, but as I glanced around the newsroom, crowded with men and women bashing away at typewriters, I replied, in sarcastic fashion: "I wanna do what these blokes are doing. I wanna be a journalist."

To my utter amazement, Sir David smiled. "OK. If you come back to me in a year's time with an A-level in English to prove you are serious, I will do everything in my power to make that happen." A year later, my certificate held proudly in my hand and my hair an inch longer, Sir David was true to his word. Within a year I had been trained in shorthand and typing and had even secured my first byline for the Daily Mail.

It was Sir David who pulled strings to get me a job as a trainee reporter for a weekly newspaper in south London. And he wrote for me the most wonderful reference, one which I still treasure to this day, more than 30 years later. In two years Sir David had transformed me from a young tearaway going nowhere in life into a young man who, he told me, he was proud of. When Sir David died in the summer of 1998, aged 67, he was chairman and editor in chief of Associated Newspapers, and spoken of as the greatest editor of his time, if not one of the greatest of all time.

On hearing of his death I wrote a letter to his widow, Lady Irene, telling her how her husband had changed my life. She replied immediately; she told me how pleased and proud she was that Sir David had helped me on my career path. But, she continued, that was typical of a man who liked to see youth succeed. He was, she added, a wonderful man. Yes, Lady Irene, he was.