Nicholas Colchester obituary: A rare ability to make words dance
Nicholas Colchester, who died suddenly on Wednesday at the age of 49, left his mark on the Financial Times in three crucial areas.
First, he put the newspaper on the map in the international capital markets. The FT had been desperately slow to recognise the full importance of the euromarkets, both as a subject of great importance to its readers and as a source of advertising revenue. From 1977 onwards, Colchester made it his business to put this right.
As David Kynaston wrote in the company history: “At a critical juncture for the paper - as critical in its way as the need after the war to attain an authoritative industrial presence - it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Colchester ‘saved’ the FT.”
His second great achievement came when, as foreign editor between 1980 and 1986, he locked the newspaper’s international network into the heart of its business and economics coverage. Correspondents were still encouraged to write with style and elegance about international affairs, and to pursue headline making stories about the latest political drama or international conflict.
But they were also expected to be as interested in money supply as they were in Mitterrand. Cross fertilisation between the foreign department and other editorial sections was welcomed. This strategy provided an important part of the platform for the FT’s development as an international business newspaper.
In addition, Nico Colchester brought an intellectual rigour to the paper’s approach to Europe. He was deeply interested in, and committed to, the European idea, with an understanding based in part on his time as Bonn correspondent in the early 1970s, in part on the influence of his French wife, Laurence.
But he was not one of the if-it-comes-from-Brussels-sign-it school of Euro-enthusiasts. He was at least as concerned with the nitty gritty detail of how things actually worked as he was with the grand strategic vision, and he was ready to weigh in to attack the meretricious or the impractical.
His contribution to European journalism earned him the OBE in 1993.
Colchester joined the Economist in 1986, and became deputy editor three years later. He combined in his writing the best of the two publications: a solid basis of knowledge, intellectual excitement, flair, and a rare ability to make words dance.
He could make you think afresh about familiar subjects. He could pull together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle so that the big picture suddenly became clear. And he could make you laugh.
In a trade where the shelf life of the very best work can usually be measured in days, he wrote articles which can readily be recalled years later. There were the surveys written for the Economist about France, Germany and the single market. There was the short article published a full 15 years ago in the FT, in which he proposed the introduction of the Mars Bar as an alternative currency.
He was disappointed not to have been made editor of the Economist in 1993. But he was to find real enjoyment in his new role as editorial director of the Economist Intelligence Unit, where he became part of a small and successful management team.
Originally hired by the FT straight from university to write about technology, he loved anything technical, anything to do with his hands. He understood and cared about how things worked. Appropriately, he recently became chairman of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, a charity which aims to provide poor communities around the world with down-to-earth solutions to down-to-earth needs.
At the time of his death, he was in training to take part in the 100th anniversary of the original modern marathon to raise money for this cause.
If it were not for the fact that he was the least pompous of men, you might have said he was becoming one of the great and the good. Most recently, he was characteristically excited by his role as one of the team of experts brought together to assess plans for reforming the World Service of the BBC.
At a time when the debate about Britain’s role in Europe is becoming more emotional and less rational by the week, his voice will be badly missed. He leaves a gap for his friends that will not be filled.
Nico Colchester is survived by his wife and two young sons, to whom he was devoted.
The best of Nicholas Colchester