‘Chieftain among journalists’: Ian Aitken remembered by his daughter

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN - Credit: Archant

Ian Aitken, the distinguished former political editor of the Guardian who lived most of his life in Highgate, has died aged 90.

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN - Credit: Archant

Aitken started what he described as a “gloriously enjoyable lifetime in journalism” on the left wing newspaper Tribune in 1953, moving on to the Daily Express and thence to the Guardian, where he stayed for 30 years.

Retirement took him on to the New Statesman for a few years and finally back to Tribune, where he wrote a column entitled Rattling the Bars.

As a foreign correspondent for the Express - then in its heyday under Lord Beaverbrook - Aitken lived in Paris, New York and Washington.

He covered JFK’s inauguration and viewed the glamorous young president with deep suspicion.

Earlier, as one of only two foreign journalists in Cuba during the revolution, he had interviewed Fidel Castro on his victory march into Havana in 1959, taking photographs of the new leader, complete with his signature cigar, which remain in the family album today.

They would have sat alongside others of Che Guevara, had the notoriously impractical Aitken not forgotten to remove the lens cap on his camera at the critical moment.

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN

Guardian journalist Ian Aitken. Picture: SUSIE AITKEN - Credit: Archant

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After a six-month spell covering the Algerian civil war in the early 60s, he returned to Britain where he settled into a long and highly successful career as a political journalist and editor of the Daily Express and then the Guardian.

Aitken’s roots were uncompromisingly left-wing. He was conceived in Moscow in post revolutionary Russia where his parents, George and Agnes, had gone to support the cause.

A member of the Communist party of Great Britain, George Aitken was later to join the International Brigade fighting in Spain, a role of which his only surviving son remained inordinately proud.

Although Scottish and born in Airdrie, Aitken was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb at a time when its residents tended towards vegetarianism, Fabian pamphlets and open-toed sandals.

As a pupil at the progressive King Alfred School, he met a future editor of Tribune, Dick Clements, who was to become a life long friend and whose mother, an American Tolstoyan anarchist, provided a hub for budding politicos including Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed.

He went on to do his national service in the Fleet Air Arm, although he was never actually to see the sea.

While Aitken’s own politics were not as radical as those of his parents, he was a life-long member of the Labour Party and was active for many years in its Hornsey branch.

In 1957 He married Dr Catherine Mackie, from a large Scottish political and farming family, whom he met - sitting on his parents’ sunlit lawn in Highgate Avenue - on the day he came down from Lincoln College, Oxford.

It was to be a wonderfully successful partnership and a life-long love story. When she succumbed to alzheimer’s in her 70s he cared for her devotedly until her death in 2006.

Catherine, journalism and politics were what inspired Aitken and he found his spiritual home on the Guardian to which he remained fiercely loyal.

He broke the story of John Profumo’s resignation, in what became known as the Profumo affair while still on the Express and went on to cover for the Guardian an era that spanned from the fall of Ted Heath, via the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, to Margaret Thatcher’s long domination of British politics.

Aitken’s writing style was a model of clarity. While he fine-tuned his opening paragraphs, which he made into his own art form, he would dictate the rest of his articles without notes down the telephone from a wooden booth in the House of Commons press gallery.

Aitken was mentor and close friend to a string of Guardian reporters at Westminster who referred to him affectionately as “uncle” and who included Simon Hoggart, Michael White and James Naughtie – the latter of whom described him this week as a “chieftain amongst journalists… entirely decent, and humane and most of all just great fun”.

He was in many ways gloriously impractical and unworldly, caring little for money and regarding WD40 and superglue as the answer to all DIY problems (including, on one famous occasion, the need to reattach a heavy doorknob).

He and Catherine had a wide circle of friends, which - to his own surprise - came to include some Tories. He became the official biographer of one of them, Willie Whitelaw.

He was also an enthusiastic member of the “Two Ians Club”, which met at the Gay Hussar in Soho for “gossip and goulash”. The founding members were Sir Ian Gilmour, a former Tory secretary of state for defence and Aitken’s old friend Michael Foot with whom he had worked on Tribune and the Daily Express.

In retirement Aitken recreated his own lobby in the pubs of his beloved Highgate, where was at the centre of a group of chums which included journalists, an actor, a policeman and an architect.

His whereabouts could always be traced by the telltale sign of his bicycle chained up outside that day’s choice of watering hole.

Even at 90 and with failing health, Aitken was full of zest for life and interest in people, opting for champagne rather than morphine during his final illness so as to remain alert and engaged until the last possible moment.

He is survived by two daughters, Susie and Jane - and four grandchildren of whom he was very proud.

Ian Levack Aitken born September 19 1927, died February 21 2018.