George Bull OBE 1929 - 2001

John Walsh The Independent April 10th 2001

What he would have wanted.

"The concept of the mentor (Chambers Dictionary: "A wise counsellor; a tutor; a trainer; a more senior colleague appointed to help and advise a junior employee.") has rather slipped out of our culture, along with the maiden aunt and the under-house parlour maid. But if ever a man had a mentor to steer his faltering childish steps and introduce him to the world's hidden levers, I had one until Friday night, and his name was George Bull.

He was my first editor, my first encounter with the axis of power and money, my first proxy brush with the rich and famous, the first Who's Who entry I'd ever met in the flesh, the best-ever tutor and life-guide since the original Mentor guided Telemachus, the son of Ulysses.

Except that the things George taught his proteges, and the places he took them were weirdly eclectic. It was by his side that I first discovered Pall Mall clubs, and watched in fascination the chortling, dark-suited men, joshing and chattering on the stairs and bumping elbows at the long luncheon tables like whiskery schoolboys. But George was just as likely to take you to Soho for lunch at Bianchi's in the glory days of Elena Salvoni, and later introduce you (wide-eyed at 22) to the shocking, sour-smelling Hell's Kitchen of the Colony Room and the drinking clubs of Dean Street.

Between these extremes, you might find yourself among the top echelons of English Catholicism - the Longfords, the Norfolks, the Keegans - as they met, with George in secret enclaves; or at a private meeting of industry captains discussing trade restrictions with (before they were famous) Jack Straw, Norman Lamont, Neil Hamilton. . . George moved through it all with fantastic aplomb, wholly unawed by big reputations or bothered by disreputable soaks who wanted to prey on his generosity. I, on the other hand, stood around in amazement. "Good God," I'd tell myself, "I've just met Robin Day". Ditto Anthony Burgess. And Kingsley Amis.

"Ah, there's Alec Guiness," George would say in the hall of the Garrick, "Just finished playing Hitler, I believe. Shall I introduce you? You could ask him if he's actually read Mein Kampf..." I would quake like an ingenue actress during all these confrontations, hopelessly out of my depth - I mean, what do you say, aged 22, to the Minister for Defence Procurement at the Savile Club bar, or to Basil Hume, the future cardinal, at the Cardinal Pub in Victoria, or to the second secretary of the Japanese High Commission at one of George's bizarrely multifarious parties? (I still remember the host's thumbnail sketch of a very elderly man: "That chap was a pilot in the Japanese Air Force. It's not every day you meet someone you can describe as "the former kamikaze", is it?") He believed in going straight to the top. When I was going off, at 25, to Johannesburg, to write about the controversial Sun City complex, George invited the South African ambassador to lunch a trio, to brief me about the verligte and verkrampte strains of the National Party - and incidentally to listen to what an aggrieved Afrikaner sounds like in full flood. George was a brilliant impresario of other people's passions, as good mentors should be.

He could be wonderfully unworldly. Once in the Garrick Club, he was describing a recent trip to New York where he had stayed at the Players Club in Gramercy Park, a favourite haunt whose virtues he was itemising. Hearing an American voice ordering drinks at the bar, he greeted the newcomer (who was then one of the most famous actors in the world) and insisted that he join us, so as not to feel left out. "So" asked George, "What are you doing now?"

"Oh, the usual thing", said the actor. "I'm working in this area." (It was true, he had just opened as the lead in The Caine Mutiny at the Queens.) "And, er, do you live in New York?" pressed George, "Myself, I've just got back from Gramercy Park ...". "Beverley Hills, actually" said the actor, presumably tickled to find the only person in London who didn't recognise him. George tried in his friendly way to find a subject of mutual interest - the role of the presidency, the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, the perfect Martini - and when inspiration flagged, he said "Do you know my young friend John?" The actor turned his Mount Rushmore face to mine. "Nice to meet you Mr Heston", I stammered.

As the obituaries will show, he covered not just the waterfront but several waterfronts at once. A Renaissance scholar and translator (his versions of Vasari's Lives of the Artists and Machiavelli's The Prince, first published in the Sixties, are still the standard texts in Penguin Classics) he was just as at home in modern boardrooms and ambassadorial fete-champetres as in wine bars and pubs with his mates from the Financial Times. He switched from running a glossy business magazine to running the Anglo-Japanese Economic Institute, and could be found alternately writing a thriller, starting a company, flying to Osaka, knocking off a book about the Vatican, establishing the New Fiction Society, writing obituaries for The Times, lecturing in Venice on the heyday of the Serenissima and dandling his grandchildren on his knee.

George was my editor for four years, my first years in journalism, in which time he showed me how to write with at least a show of panache; how to avoid boring the reader and how to not embarrass yourself when out of your depth ("If you're in a foreign city surrounded by businessmen, remember to say, 'So - what's the hot new exhibition in town?'")

He insisted on the importance of structured belief, the sanctity of human life (he was a very bells-and-smells Papist) and the need always to keep "a pilot-light burning under your friendships". He taught you to be socially flexible and never to be afraid of powerful people, because there was "an outside chance they were human too". He had a Forsterian passion for making connections between disparate people, East and West, and a surer gift for friendship than anyone I've ever met. It seems entireIy appropriate that he ended his life sitting at home with a glass of Chardonnay in his hand, talking to his wife, Dido, his friend Godfrey Smith, the bon viveur, and a pal from Westminster Cathedral. It's what, as they say, he would have wanted.