March 30, 2012 10:01 pm

The Diary: Sarah Sands

The editor of the Evening Standard on her memories with the newspaper, solecisms in Norfolk and the best daffodils in spring

Careers are romances, and I would describe one newspaper as the love of my life. Aged 25, and with a baby in my arms, I stared at the Evening Standard offices in Fleet Street and wondered what it must be like to work there.

This was pre-Harriet Harman and European employment legislation, so the departmental editor to whom I was applying was unconstrained in expressing his concern that a single mother was unsuited to a full-time job.

Once I joined, the relationship was one of warmth, drama and, over the years, bereavement. I remember the newspaper’s glamorous deputy editor Genevieve Cooper laughingly chiding me for treating her like a headmistress. She wanted to ask me a personal question: what was it like to have a child? I blushed because for the first time I did not have to mitigate the answer with urgent assurances that it would not interfere with my work. Soon after, Genevieve became pregnant and gave birth to a handsome son, who went on to lose his mother to cancer.

Other heroines and heroes, other ghosts. The gruff but indulgent editor, the late John Leese, who congratulated us on Londoner’s Diary for getting a “better class of writ”. The newspaper colossus Paul Dacre, who soon disappeared to the Mail. My mentor, the late Stewart Steven, with his untiring sense of mischief and wonder: “I’ve just heard the most extraordinary thing ... ”

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I left the paper for more than a decade, until a new editor, Geordie Greig, invited me back as his deputy under the benign proprietorship of Evgeny Lebedev. It was as if I had never left. Different faces, same carpets, same character. The spirit of London is in this newspaper: ambitious and compassionate, easily bored, quick to laughter. Last week, I was appointed editor. Seasoned by the intervening years around Fleet Street – by which I mean a good deal older – I recall a gallery of newspaper characters who hold no meaning for the young staff. As in all great romances, everything turns to memories. Yet, for all that has happened, I am not so different from that hopeful young woman nursing a baby and longing to work for the Evening Standard. I can’t wait to get started.

. . .

I am a Londoner, so my attempts to embrace country life are full of solecisms and misunderstandings. Fortunately, my brother and his wife have lived in Norfolk long enough to correct me. I know, for example, that the “humorous” shooting socks I sent my nephew were not funny, and that invitations are a formal affair.

At my house in Norfolk, the interior decoration has been pronounced “rather Soho House” and the box hedge I am planting at the front dismissed as hopelessly faux Kensington. My natural impulse to convert half of the bedrooms into bathrooms has caused further hilarity but my futuristic electric Aga, which can be turned on via an iPad, elicits genuine respect.

Our first (and possibly only) dinner party was stressful. The simple, wholesome dishes I was told they prefer in the country – Stilton soup, pigeon casserole, rhubarb crumble, etc – struck me as unbelievably complicated. The demands of the placement were severe. I regret that the conversation became excitable and shouty rather than pleasant and diverse.

I was painfully aware that a prolonged and singular talk about intervention in Syria at our end of the table was somehow wrong. Plus, without rugs or curtains (the London way) the acoustics were challenging. My lessons: serving salad with cheese is a little continental for the English country; hiring waitresses is not considered pretentious but an honourable contribution to local employment; place names must be written on torn pieces of scrap paper.

Finally, my Cambridge don guest noticed at breakfast next morning that London dressed-down was not the same as country casual. It is more high-street teenager than Boden. He, meanwhile, was in magnificent tweeds, and said everyone over 50 should follow his example.

. . .

I am mentoring a young man from a youth club in London and find that he teaches me as much as I can pass on to him. What I admire is his resilience. He navigates obstacles with patience and wit. When the funding for his project is cut, he looks, without self-pity, for another route. He is also a refreshingly truthful counter to my liberal angst. When I shake my head over the closing of job centres, he shrugs that in his experience they are packed with drug addicts who just want benefits. He is more impressed by places such as Westfield, which he says offer genuine opportunities. He is a bright boy who understands horizons. His dream is a good job and a trip to Paris. Give the young a ladder and they will climb it.

. . .

What the young cannot conceive of is that life can change direction and good things can come from bad.On Budget day, ahead of Newsnight, I was squashed into a BBC green room with business leaders, political commentators and the editor of this newspaper. Suddenly, the triumphantly successful comedian Jimmy Carr poked his head into the room to see what the commotion was. Naturally, comedy outranks talking heads and he surveyed the room with gracious disdain. Then he peered closer at one of the guests: “Are you Martin Sorrell? I applied for a job once.” Sorrell smiled and shrugged, “So you failed.” Carr studied him, dangerously. “Oh I think it worked out in the end,” he said. “Enjoy your bore-athon.” Then he vanished.

. . .

Hasn’t this been a wonderful spring for daffodils? They make us so happy – though there is not much to say beyond drinking them in. China has blossom, we have daffs.

A garden aesthete asked me where the best place to see daffodils was in England. I stoutly raised the case for Hyde Park or St James’s. The cleverness of London is that it does everything first, even daffodils. Beyond that there is the obvious display of Sissinghurst in Kent and the rest of the south – Wisley, perhaps, or Dunsford.

In Norfolk, it is generally chillier and the flowers come later. As I look out of the window, many are still to bloom. To be geographically impartial, so far as daffs are concerned, it is still the last that are best: Yorkshire and the Lake District. I check with fellow newspaper columnist Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, for a definitive answer. He is clear: the winner of the best daffodils is Swaledale.

Sarah Sands is editor of the Evening Standard

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