The seven ages of Richard Boston encompassed being a journalist, marathon runner, biographer, artist, movie extra, peacenik and all round eccentric. To this he himself added, in his entry for Debrett’s People of Today, soothsaying, shelling peas and embroidery. He was irascible, funny, intolerant and wonderfully good company.
Pretty well until the end, Boston, who has died aged 67, would regale the bi-monthly lunch of old Guardian hacks with amusing tales of his life, which were usually at least 75% true. He had a little place in Provence and it was his ambition to publish a book on Aix’s most celebrated son, Paul Cézanne. But that was like Arthur Sullivan wanting to write great music without realising he was already doing it, for D’Oyly Carte.
Anne Boston, his wife for a few years from 1968 until the mid-1970s, says he was the only man she ever knew to wake himself up laughing. He was not a natural joiner, but freelancing for the Guardian was home from home for him. In the early 1970s he and I sat one lunchtime in the Blue Lion opposite the then Guardian office in Grays Inn Road and cooked up the idea of a column on the Saturday features page. Or rather, the conversation went – Boston: “How would it be if I wrote a weekly column about beer?” The Guardian: “Good idea. Your round.”
It turned out to be one of his most productive ideas. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) had been going for a year or two, but it would be true to say that the consumer movement gained huge leverage because of the exposure, not just in convincing readers of the merits of real ale over the fizzy stuff in metal casks, but in helping the big brewers to see the light. Boston went on to write a book called Beer and Skittles (1976), which includes a recipe for the world’s most delicious oxtail stew.
He was not ashamed to admit that his writing on the drinks industry won him a Glenfiddich special award. His one failure was to take a cohort of Guardian staff one day to a Southwark pub he had already recommended highly in his column for its meatballs. A couple of weeks later the pub was heavily fined for its unhygienic kitchens. Boston remained shy about this memory and in any case his unvarying response later in his career whenever anybody asked him about beer was to say he couldn’t stand the stuff.
He was, in fact, the uncommon man’s common man. His parents sent him to Stowe and he rewarded them for this fine education by attending Regent Street Polytechnic in London to train as a painter. For some years, Richard Gott, the then Guardian features editor, brightened up the department with a Boston canvas. It was not very good, because in truth he was not a very good artist, but the poly gave him insights into art that added depth to his portfolio as a journalist.
From Regent Street he progressed to King’s College, Cambridge, and took an MA, before going to teach abroad and fetching up in Paris, where he wandered one day on to the location where Jacques Tati was filming Playtime (1967). Tati immediately recognised in Boston’s long, angular frame and well developed cranium his doppelgänger, and used him as a stand-in for certain long shots when he himself preferred to be behind the camera.
After spells with Peace News and New Society, Boston worked on the staff of the Times Literary Supplement, and one of his first major coups as a freelance was (again in the Guardian, again his idea) a series re-examining the reputation of books ranging from Germaine Greer’s The Naked Eunuch to Richard Adams’s Watership Down, in which, Boston wrote, the rabbits upheld the public school virtues of “getting up early, having cold showers, and going on very long runs”. These were pieces of great erudition and judgment – and utterly readable.
From 1977 to 1980 Boston set up and edited the Vole, a country magazine in which he anticipated the big issue of the environment. But it had all Boston’s quirkiness and very little money, which was the wrong combination to keep it afloat for more than two or three years. His own books included An Anatomy of Laughter (1974), Baldness Be My Friend (1977), and Starkness At Noon (1997), this last a collection of his short pieces, including the one about how he won 1,018 votes when he stood for the European parliament on the slogan: “It’s a big trough and I want to get my nose in it.”
Maybe the best was his biography of the Daily Express pocket cartoonist and set designer Osbert Lancaster, Boston’s kind of Englishman, irascible, funny, intolerant, good company, who was also a neighbour and friend of Boston’s at Aldworth in Berkshire – and of Richard Ingrams, a good friend with whom he walked the Ridgeway at night.
Oh, and the marathon. He ran it in the early days teaching abroad, in Sweden. And when marathon running became the occupation of everyman and his wife, he stopped talking about it.
Alan Rusbridger writes: Richard Boston was incapable of being serious about anything for very long. His love of literary practical jokes and puns concealed both an acute and erudite mind and a personality given to prolonged periods of melancholy.
His 1970s Guardian column on beer played an important role in sustaining small real-ale brewers and shaming the large drinks corporations – notably Watneys – which were trying to impose keg beer on a nation.
His magazine, the Vole, was ahead of its time in recognising the importance of the environment as a journalistic subject. The two magazines he helped launch and edit were stronger journalistically than they were financially, which at least meant he continued to concentrate on his Guardian writing.
His feature articles often placed himself at the centre of the subject. In 1994 he stood for election as an MEP, for the Boston Tea Party. He wrote a memorable piece for the first edition of Weekend Guardian about a nudist colony, posing naked for the cover and illustrating the piece with his own drawings.
Not a noted teetotaller, he also filed a dispatch from a Wee Free kirk in Scotland, accompanied by a Catholic skinhead he had met in the bar while fortifying himself for the experience. He was wonderfully sceptical, anarchic and perpetually amused.
· Richard Boston, journalist and author, born December 29 1938; died December 22 2006
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