Friends of Paxos

News: Mark Ottaway, 1939 - 2016

Mark Ottaway in the 1960s - Mark Ottaway was an integral part of The Sunday Times Insight team that exposed the great British wine-labelling scam.

Dear friends,

Mark Ottaway, celebrated Times journalist, great lover of Greece, long time Paxos resident and dear friend to many of us died in England on 22 December 2016, aged 77.

He will be immensely regretted by all his friends on the island.

Please find below the very moving obituary published in the London Times on 6 January 2017.

Mark at Orkos Estate, August 2013 and on his terrace overlooking Lakka bay.

Slight of stature, inevitably tieless, tousled and with a fondness for sleeveless Fair Isle jumpers, Mark Ottaway did not look like a ferocious investigative journalist. Yet in the 1960s he added forensic skill to The Sunday Times’s fabled Insight team. Later in life, his integrity as a reporter was combined with a literary gift, rare among newsmen, to make him one of the finest travel writers.

Mark Christopher Cosway Ottaway was born at Dunmow, Essex, in 1939. From Bristol Grammar School he went on to the University of Bristol, where his father was professor of veterinary anatomy. He read economics and philosophy, graduating with a 2:1 in 1961. While at university he devised the wheeze (a favourite word) of writing vivid accounts of his summer holidays in Paris and selling them to the Bristol Evening Post. Thus encouraged, and with a bit of money in his pocket, he did a master’s in journalism at the University of Illinois. Next came The People, where, for reasons unexplained, he shared an office with Jimmy Savile. Here he sharpened his skills as a reporter and, with guidance from Savile, who was respectable at the time, developed what would become a lifelong passion for loud music. From there he headed to The Sunday Times. Its editor, Harold Evans, liked initiative and flair, and understood the value of a talented maverick. Ottaway fitted the blueprint. By 1966 he was an integral part of the Insight team that exposed the great British wine-labelling scam: more beaujolais was being sold in Britain than was being made in France. In a gloriously improbable twist, and to much Gallic rage, the flood of phoney wine was traced to the viticultural heartland of Ipswich.

In 1968 Ottaway reported on the Greek resistance networks who were circulating underground newspapers in defiance of the military junta and got a whiff of authoritarianism when he was gassed while covering the student riots in Paris. His most memorable dispatch from France came after an unidentified aircraft had aroused a fever of speculation by crashing and scattering grenades across the runway at Orly. For whom was this deadly cargo intended? Ottaway was sent to investigate, and came back with a crisp one-line telegram: “Grenade is French for pomegranate.”

Ottaway’s rapid rise was then cruelly interrupted, at the age of 29, by a brain tumour that required emergency surgery. His recovery would lead to a creative change of direction. To speed his convalescence, Evans sent him on a jaunt to the Caribbean, which inspired one of British journalism’s most illustrious travel-writing careers. The word “travel” here is paramount. Ottaway had no liking for the organised press trip or the packaged holiday, and would disregard any attempt by tourist boards to persuade him of the best sights to see or best restaurants to eat in. He treated countries as he treated people, as individuals to be interrogated with curiosity and treated with respect. He hated the way packaged holidays were consuming the world, and despised the lists of “top ten” best beaches, best hotels and best places to eat paella.

One of his wheezes was to trade pay increases for extra weeks of holiday

In 1977 he travelled to Gambia during the touristic frenzy that had resulted from Alex Haley’s bestseller, Roots, which purported to trace the history of the author’s Gambian ancestors. Book in hand, Ottaway began to notice discrepancies. The geography was not as described. His sources were neither authoritative nor reliable. “Tangled Roots”, which was published across two pages in The Sunday Times in 1977, was a piece of work that earned almost as much abuse as admiration, but it stands as a model of investigative journalism.

Ottaway wore uneasily the title of travel editor at The Sunday Times, where he seemed almost allergic to his desk. His idea of editorship was to send himself to as many countries as he had time to visit, and to translate his experiences vividly into prose. As well as a journalist, he was also an author.

There were two great loves in Ottaway’s life: his wife, Clovis, and Greece. His 50-year relationship with Clovis, which latterly included 25 years of marriage before her death in 2010, was occasionally turbulent, but ultimately and indestructibly loving. Their retirement was nothing but sunshine; by dividing their years between homes in Australia and Greece they abolished winter entirely.

Another of Ottaway’s wheezes had been to trade pay increases for extra weeks of holiday, which he would spend on the island of Paxos. He and Clovis bought a piece of land and built a house overlooking the bay. He sealed his love by learning the Greek language, although he seemed to provoke more hilarity than comprehension whenever he tried it on the locals. They were even more amused by his habit, after a pleasurable lunch at a harbourside taverna, of tipping himself backwards, chair and all, into the sea.

The early brain tumour was not the end of his struggles with ill health; a catalogue of unpleasant illnesses culminated in recurring bouts of cancer. There was no drama in his decision to take his own life, just his customary forethought, careful preparation and generosity to his friends, to whom he left a large sum of money for a party at the Chelsea Arts Club.

Mark Ottaway, journalist, was born on May 10, 1939. He died on December 22, 2016, aged 77