The Spectator's Notes

How I became editor of The Spectator - aged 27

Plus: R.S. Surtees, and the first person to give Archduke Franz Ferdinand both barrels

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

Thirty years ago this Saturday, I became editor of this magazine. In the same month, the miners’ strike began, Anthony Wedgwood Benn (as the right-wing press still insisted on calling him) won the Chesterfield by-election, the FT index rose above 900 for the first time and the mortgage rate fell to 10.5 per cent. Mark Thatcher was reported to be leaving the country to sell Lotus cars in America for £45,000 a year. Although she now tells me she has no memory of it, Wendy Cope wrote a poem entitled ‘The Editor of The Spectator is 27 Years Old’. Because I was young, the events are vivid in my mind, but in fact a greater gap separates then and now than separated then from the Suez crisis. I remember thinking that people who could remember Suez seemed very old and to be speaking of a different world. The same presumably applies to 27-year-olds today when they hear archaic expressions like ‘the Soviet Union’ or ‘Arthur Scargill’.

Certainly, in journalism, the difference is enormous. Print union tyranny had not yet been broken by Mrs Thatcher’s reforms. The Spectator had no daytime lock, no passes, no emails, no mobile telephones, and no editorial computers. The paper cost 75p (£3.75 today) and lost £300,000 a year, and although Alexander Chancellor, its best editor of modern times, had almost doubled the circulation, it stood at less than 20,000 (60,000 today). Its character was completely personal and non-corporate. Henry Keswick had bought the paper as part of his then political ambitions, and had appointed Chancellor because, it was alleged, he was the only journalist he knew. He eventually sold it to his friend Algy Cluff. Algy grew tired of Alexander as editor, as proprietors tend to with editors they have not chosen. Alexander heard his job had been offered first to Germaine Greer and then to Richard Ingrams, his television critic. At lunch with Algy, he brought matters to a head and Algy half-indicated that the story might be true. A severance resulted. Auberon Waugh, Richard Ingrams, the literary editor, Ferdinand Mount, and others, resigned in protest. Surprised by the speed of events, Algy did not know whom to appoint, having failed to snare Germaine Greer or Ingrams, and eventually turned to his political columnist — me — for which I shall always be grateful. One bone of contention had concerned the company car. Algy told Alexander he must have a British model, but Alexander preferred a foreign one. The problem was solved: I was not offered a car. However, my salary was £27,000 (with no pension), which seemed a fortune. Digging out the first issue that I edited, I see that the only weekly columnists then who feature today are Chancellor (whom I made television critic in Ingrams’s place), Raymond Keene (chess), Taki and I. Only Keene and Taki are continuous.

Lots of things did not work in those days. Budgets, for example. Change reached the Daily Telegraph and its editor, Bill Deedes, rang up and asked whether I had an editorial budget. I said I did. ‘What is it?’ he asked. I thought he meant ‘How much is it?’ but soon I realised he meant ‘What is an editorial budget?’ One can’t defend such a culture, but the world of journalism was more enjoyable when independence of mind and character mattered more than the bottom line.

I spent the weekend in Co. Durham, marking the 150th anniversary of the death of R.S. Surtees, the nation’s greatest hunting novelist, and a forerunner — darker and less sentimental — of Dickens. (Alexander Chancellor, by the way, is his kinsman: his second name is Surtees.) The R.S. Surtees Society was able to join the Braes of Derwent meet at the great man’s house, Hamsterley Hall. And thanks to Jonathan Ruffer, the saviour of the Auckland Castle, we were permitted to eat a Surtees ‘goose and dumpling’ dinner beneath the gaze of the castle’s famous Zurburans. Everything was delightful, especially the wind in the whins (gorse, to southerners) and the Geordie welcome. The only drawback was that the north-east takes Saturday nights so seriously. Most of our party stayed in a nice hotel in the market square of Bishop Auckland. We went to bed by midnight. But the music thumped, car horns tooted and voices echoed round the streets until four. Dazed with lack of sleep, I took an early train south on Sunday. After a bit, I detected a marked smell. Someone had been sick under my seat the night before.

Past bishops of Durham include Cosin, Butler the philosopher, Hensley Henson, Michael Ramsey and Cardinal Wolsey. Most of their portraits — though not Wolsey, of whom no painting from the life survives — hang in the castle. Now Jonathan Ruffer has commissioned a portrait of the latest occupant, Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury. It is by Roger Wagner, the best religious painter in Britain today, and will soon be unveiled. The episcopal portrait can be a dull or complacent form, but this one, in which Welby holds his pectoral cross in his right hand, has real contemplative power. A tradition has been renewed and made more interesting.

Latest startling fact about the Great War: Archduke Franz Ferdinand was lucky to make it to Sarajevo. In November 1913, he was a guest of the Duke of Portland, shooting at Welbeck, in the company of Arthur Balfour, the Devonshires and the Salisburys. According to Portland, a loader fell down in the snow, discharging both barrels of his gun, and narrowly missed the Archduke. My informant, however, says this was a polite fiction: it was a fellow guest who nearly shot the heir presumptive. If he had killed him, would war have been averted, or simply have started earlier?

A fortnight ago, I wrote ‘Patricia Hodge’. I meant ‘Patricia Hewitt’. I apologise for my slip. While Patricia Hewitt was letting the Paedophile Information Exchange affiliate to the National Council for Civil Liberties, the blameless and lovely actress was starring in Hair and Rumpole of the Bailey.

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  • John Hawkins Totnes

    I have been a Spectator subscriber since before your time Charles and have seen the magazine change. In your day the articles dominated. Now its mainly about religiion and arts. And of this week’s 80 pages 22 are full page adverts. When I say religion I mean the God of money who is worshipped most fervently as Harry Mount points out and many of your adverts show.

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    I began reading the Speccie soon after this. It was more controversial than it is today. And, of course, it no longer publishes Jeffrey Bernard.