Rhyl Street flat blaze victim, Corinna Ascherson, an idealistic socialist once one half of ‘journalism’s golden couple’

Thursday, 15th March 2012


Published: 15 March, 2012

THE daughter of a writer killed in a fire at her Kentish Town home has paid tribute to her mother’s lifetime in journalism.

Corinna Ascherson, 75, died in a blaze at her home in Rhyl Street on Thursday. She had won admiration for a long career in journalism during which she worked for the New Statesman magazine and The Guardian newspaper.

Ex-Fleet Street colleagues referred to Ms Ascherson, the daughter of former BBC controller Kenneth Adam and feminist writer Ruth Adam, as “remarkable”, “high-minded” and “an ideal­istic socialist with the highest principles”.

Eight fire crews fought the blaze but were unable to save Ms Ascherson, the first wife of the writer Neal Ascherson.

London Fire Brigade is investigating the cause of the fire, although it is understood it may have been started by a lit cig­arette.

One of Ms Ascherson’s two daughters, ­Isobel Ascherson, 47, a criminal case barrister, said: “I remember her warm hugs and the vanilla- scented perfume she wore because it smelt like tea cakes.

“I will never forget the image of her in the garden throwing picnics for all her friends – a cigarette in one hand, glass of wine in the ­other, holding court.”

She added: “My mum had this extraordinary ability to charm everyone. She had the ability to talk to anyone. She would never sound posh or patronising, because she wanted everyone to feel they could access her. Some people would say that was an innately journalistic skill that she was born with.”

The writer had met Neal Ascherson at Cambridge University and later went on to work with him at The Guardian and The Observer.

After they had finished university they met again at a Suez crisis protest in Whitehall. “Mum’s boy­friend at the time was being attacked by the police horses, and my dad rescued him,” said Isobel. “He threw some marbles under the horses’ feet, and saved his life.”

The couple met again in Paris, where they finally got together before marrying in 1958. They went on to live in Bonn, Berlin and Bethnal Green but separated in 1974, and divorced 1984.

Isobel said of her mother: “She was horrified by the recent coalition government being voted in. She sort of lived in hope that there would be another election at any minute, and somehow it would all change. It never did. She was diehard Labour.

“She was a strong feminist, something she inherited from her mother, who was a feminist writer. She was writing about gay issues before anyone did. She was writing about how women in the Communist Party weren’t being treated fairly. She was a true egalitarian.”

At the New Statesman, her close friends were “the three Marys” – Mary Kenny, who later worked for the Evening Standard, feminist writer Mary Holland and Mary Morgan, wife of Panor­ama television journalist John Morgan.

“People were attracted to her intelligence,” said Isobel. “She was good company, never backwards in coming forwards – she could be acidic about people if she wanted to be – but even then it was thoroughly entertaining.”

The Private Eye euphemism “discussing Uganda” was said to have been coined after one of Corinna’s dinner parties. Her daughter said: “You see, two of the guests went missing. They had disappeared upstairs under the pretence that they were discussing Uganda. They were not.”

She added: “My mother loved 50s jazz, and I have a very clear mem­ory of my mum jiving with my dad in the front room in Bethnal Green. Dad was not as good as mum. She was leading, having a lot of fun and he was having fun but he was a little more stilted shall we say.”

But after her marriage broke up, Ms Ascherson became close to Anthony Howard, editor of the New Statesman magazine, where she was working as a journalist.

“It was sort of an open secret,” said Isobel. “I think Tony’s wife must have known at some point, or at least suspected. He was her lover for 30 years. Her relationship with Tony was so important to her. She knew he wouldn’t leave his wife, he told her that. But they talked endlessly on the phone. They connected on a very deep level, they’d often talk about politics in fact. Her and Tony’s relationship was stronger than most marriages.

“When he passed away she was incredibly rocked by his death. She didn’t attend the funeral out of respect for his wife, and also because she was unwell at the time. For decades he signed all his cards and letters to her with ‘lol’ at the end. That stood for ‘love or lust’, because he could never decide which it was that bound them so strongly together.”

Mary Kenny, 67, who worked alongside Ms Ascherson at the New Statesman in the 1970s, said: “She was a remarkable woman. Well read and brilliant. She went to Cambridge at a time when it was unusual for women to be studying there. She came from a secure middle-class family, but they weren’t rolling in money or anything like that at all.

“She became a very committed socialist, a high-minded socialist. She had very strong principles, especially around advancing education for everyone regardless of their background. She was what you would call an idealistic socialist with the highest prin­ciples.”

Ms Kenny added: “Her mother was a committed feminist, and both her grandparents were Anglican vicars, so the result was high-mindedness and a devout commitment to improving society. She was not materialistic at all. She had a great sense of humour, and was always very quick to make a joke. But she could be scalding when she wanted to be.

“Neal and her were the golden couple of journalism. He was so internationally admired, as was Corinna. She was so attractive that chaps would have done anything to have her on their arm. Men were very attracted to her not only for her beauty but because she had a spark about her, a real liveliness. She had a certain way of conversation, it would bring everyone in the room together. Maybe that’s why she was such a fantastic journalist.”

She added: “At first I was quite intimidated by her. She was so sophisticated and confident, and she knew everyone. I would see her byline a lot, so I was sort of in awe of her. But I soon discovered she was a sharp conversationalist, and turned out to be very nice.”

Due to Corinna’s ill health, Ms Kenny was last able to see her a year ago, but they made fortnightly phone calls.

“She felt so strongly about certain issues, and she thought they were worth campaigning for,” Ms Kenny said. “She believed that Thatcher’s politics were the politics of elitism, but she lacked confidence in herself. She always felt she couldn’t measure up to her mum. In some ways, she became so successful to make up for that, but she could have written books, and she didn’t because she had no confidence.”

Ms Kenny added: “Tony was a delicate area for her, he chose not to leave his wife, and that was awkward for her, but she didn’t want to embarrass him.”

Close friend Kate Bradbury, who lived in an upstairs flat and escaped the fire, said: “Whenever I went through difficult times she was always there. I lost my own son, and she had this knack of saying precisely the right thing without being ­intrusive or pushing too far. I will treasure those memories.”

A Fire Brigade spokesman said that the fire, brought under control within an hour, had severely damaged the ground floor of the house converted into flats.

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