Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, editor, author and columnist

Born: December 22, 1923

Died:October 4, 2020.

SIR Peregrine Worsthorne, who has died aged 96, was a journalist and polemicist, a one-time editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who began his journalistic career in 1946 at the Glasgow Herald.

A flamboyant figure whose tenure at the helm of the Sunday Telegraph was likened by one colleague to the court of the mad emperor, Worsthorne was a Conservative whose views for most of his life were unashamedly right wing and at times reactionary: he bemoaned immigration, wrote in favour of white minority rule in southern Africa and always loyally defended the aristocracy, monarchy and public school system.

In retirement he renounced racist and homophobic views, but what never changed was his desire always to surprise (he denied he wanted to shock), and it was this, his lively style and the arresting insights that liberally peppered even his most controversial writings, that made him a must-read columnist among his political enemies as well as his friends.

Worsthorne had a privileged but insecure childhood. His father was wealthy Belgian-born, Eton-educated Colonel Alexander Koch de Gooreynd; his mother Priscilla Reyntiens, who was half-Belgian, had aristocratic lineage. Koch de Gooreynd anglicised the family identity by taking the name of a village on land belonging to his wife’s family, Worsthorne.

Peregrine’s parents divorced when he was five and he did not see his father again until he was an adult. Priscilla, a founder of the WRVS, married the governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman, when her son was nine. Norman had limited interaction with his stepsons – Worsthorne wrote that he and his brother “kept out of his way during school holidays in a country cottage of our own, with our own butler and cook” – but Norman was nevertheless a big influence on Worsthorne’s political views. The need for a ruling class devoted to public service was a theme Worsthorne expounded repeatedly.

He was educated at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, followed by Peterhouse, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford. At school he was rather viciously bulled, not that it dimmed his regard for public schools and their history of producing what he called “authoritative leadership”.

During the war, he joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, before serving with Phantom, Montgomery’s reconnaissance unit.

Worsthorne began his journalistic career at the Glasgow Herald in 1946 as a sub-editor. Legend has it that he had thought when he took the position that sub-editor meant deputy editor.

Two years later, he went to The Times where he was a sub-editor and then Washington correspondent, becoming a flag waver for Senator Joe McCarthy. This proved too much for the Times and he moved to The Telegraph in 1953, remaining with that group of newspapers for the next 38 years. It was here that he built his reputation as a commentator. He became deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph in 1961 and editor in 1986 for a colourful three-year period, during which he was knighted by Mrs Thatcher, before being sacked from the job; he then spent an uneasy few years as comment editor before retiring in 1991.

“Perry”, as he was known, was a controversial figure not least because he embodied certain contradictions. A flag waver for gentlemanly behaviour, he famously said “f***” live on television in the 1970s (only the second person after Kenneth Tynan to do so). He sometimes expressed homophobic views but at the same time he let it be known he had had a homosexual encounter at school with George Melly, who became the famous jazz musician, and a passionate homosexual affair at Cambridge. However, he went on to have two long marriages. Post-retirement in his 70s he mused that, had he been born in an age of greater tolerance, he might have identified as gay.

As editor of the Sunday Telegraph, he made a very public attack on Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, and Donald Trelford of The Observer, for associating with young women in nightclubs; Neil sued and won.

Bohemian in lifestyle (and indeed dress – he favoured blue velvet jackets and red corduroys), he exalted monogamy and moral rectitude in his writing and was an unrepentant advocate for the old order. In 2004, at the height of the Blair years, he published an elegant defence of the aristocracy, preposterously complaining about discrimination against Old Etonians in public life; beneath the provocative headlines, however, was a typically well observed dissection of the modern political elite and their lack of devotion to public service.

Worsthorne’s first wife was French, Claudie de Colasse, whom he married in 1950. He remained with Claudie, who had a young son from a previous marriage and with whom he had a daughter, until her death in 1990. He was grief-stricken, but eight months later met the writer and architectural expert Lucinda Lambton. A Catholic in his childhood, he was drawn back towards the faith in old age. He lived out his retirement in an old rectory in Buckinghamshire, reading and entertaining reverent young interviewers with tales of a lost age of journalism. He is survived by Lambton, his daughter, stepson, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.