In the summer of 1974, Alexander Chancellor gave Antony Mason and his friends a gift he has never forgotten
Forty-eight years ago, I was a long-haired student living in the kind of chaotic shared house that might, some years later, have inspired the TV series The Young Ones.
In spring 1974, taking time off from listening to Bob Dylan’s new Planet Waves album, I fell upon a two-line notice in Private Eye: ‘To rent: Tuscan farmhouse between Arezzo and Siena, with pool. Sleeps 18. £120 per week.’
I rang the number, and the owner invited me up to London to meet him. He took me to lunch in a trendy hamburger joint in the King’s Road, along with his wife and two angelic daughters. This was Alexander Chancellor (1940-2017) – editor of The Oldie from 2014 to 2017.
I must have passed muster, because I and the full capacity of friends spent the summer deep in the Tuscan countryside. It was a beautiful, large, robust old farmhouse, tenderly restored, with living space and bedrooms on the first floor, a huge loggia overlooking the garden, dormitory accommodation under the roof, wonky, tiled floors, rafters and no electricity.
We gloried in the local food, markets, paintings, the Palio in Siena, our sun-burnished bodies and far too much wine. Even with that casual nonchalance of youth, we knew our luck. Many of that same group have been renting summer houses in Italy ever since.
Years later, in 2005, I read Alexander’s ‘A to Z’ column in the Guardian magazine. He wrote how he, as a 19-year-old new driver in London, had knocked down an elderly woman who had walked out in front of his Mini, attracting an angry crowd of passers-by who wanted to see him arrested.
But the woman, not badly hurt, vigorously defended Alexander, declaring that it had been her own fault, and the ‘lynch mob’ dispersed. She had been willing to give youth the benefit of the doubt. ‘Nearly half a century later,’ he wrote, ‘I still think of her fondly from time to time.’
I always wondered if this incident had in some way influenced Alexander in entrusting his precious Tuscan farmhouse to a rabble of students – a gift that changed the course of our lives. I meant to write to him to ask, but never did, and now that he is no longer with us, I can’t – an eternal regret. But nearly half a century later I still think of him fondly from time to time.