A review in the Guardian of Jeremy Lewis's biography of David Astor contained an extraordinary number of errors
To its credit, the was the first British national newspaper to introduce a Corrections and Clarifications column in response to the growing demand for newspapers to admit their mistakes quickly and prominently. Last month it outdid itself, with a lengthy correction of no fewer than seven major errors in one book review. What made the entry particularly piquant was the fact the review in question was of Jeremy Lewis’s widely-acclaimed new biography of David Astor, who was for 27 years the proprietor and editor of the Observer, which has since 1993 belonged to the Guardian Media Group.
We have insufficient space, alas, to reproduce the whole thing but one item captures its spirit: “During the war, David Astor didn’t merely suffer ‘a mild attack of dysentery’ as suggested in the review. In fact he was wounded in action during a German ambush in the Ardennes . . . Astor was awarded the Croix de Guerre.”
The review was written by Roger Lewis, author of one of the funniest books of recent years, Seasonal Suicide Notes, a mordant commentary on his own failings and (many) hatreds. Lewis is a biographer himself, describing as “the best thing I’ve ever done, my biography of my hero Anthony Burgess”. In the end, he added, it wasn’t really a biography of Burgess (incidentally, once a stalwart of the Observer’s book pages) but “a satire of the biographical form, full of Burgess’s own grotesqueries and operatic or bombastic effects, with hundreds of mock-scholarly footnotes and elements of his Manchester music hall flamboyance”.
A half-awake literary editor, one might think, would deem Lewis as perhaps not quite the right person to review a biography of a hugely influential editor of her own paper’s sister Sunday, or might at least have got someone to check the review before publication. The saddest aspect of this farcical episode, however, is that no one else on the Guardian realised the review was stuffed full of mistakes; they were probably too busy sending desperately amusing and important Tweets. Most newspapers used to have a few old hands around the office who would make sure such mistakes never made it into print. They served as a paper’s collective memory but they’ve probably all been dispatched by now in Fleet Street’s constant round of redundancies. They were the main reason David Astor’s Observer didn’t need a Corrections and Clarifications column.