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Ascherson was born in Edinburgh and educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he read history and graduated with a starred first. He was described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as "perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had. I didn't really teach him much, I just let him get on with it."
After graduating he declined offers to pursue an academic career. Instead, he chose a career in journalism, first at The Manchester Guardian and then at The Scotsman (1959–1960), The Observer (1960–1990) and The Independent on Sunday (1990–1998). He contributed scripts for the documentary series The World at War (1973–74) and the The Cold War (1998) series. He has also been a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.
As of 2008[update] Ascherson is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has been editor of Public Archaeology, an academic journal associated with UCL devoted to CRM and public archaeology issues and developments, since its inception in 1999.
In 1991 Ascherson was awarded an honorary degree from the Open University as Doctor of the University. On St Andrew's Day 2011 at their Anniversary Meeting the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland elected Ascherson an Honorary Fellow.
Neal Ascherson's first wife was Corrina Adam; the couple first met at Cambridge University and eventually married in 1958. They had two daughters together before separating in 1974 and later gaining a divorce. Corinna Ascherson, also a journalist, died in March 2012. In 1984, he married his second wife, Isabel Hilton, also a journalist. The couple currently live in London and also have two (now adult) children, Iona and Alexander.