As he left the editorship of The Spectator in March 1984, Alexander Chancellor wrote in this space: ‘When I joined the paper as editor in 1975, people were in the habit of asking me what my “policy” was going to be… How desperately uneasy this question made me. If there was a lavatory in the vicinity, I would lock myself inside it. I was sure I ought to have a “policy”… but I most certainly hadn’t got one.’ As his assistant editor, I witnessed the dismay on the faces of proprietors, advertisers and various big shots at Alexander’s answers to this sort of question. He would say, ‘Well, we should publish some good articles, I suppose,’ and then give his distinctive laugh, which sounded like a schoolboy imitating a machine-gun.
Alexander felt genuinely insecure at not being able to come up with a ‘policy’: it was to do with his lack of intellectual self-confidence. But I gradually realised that this failure to satisfy the boss class was also something that he was proud of. He was sacked from editing The Spectator, Time and Tide and the Sunday Telegraph magazine, and from his columns in the New Yorker, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. (He strongly believed he was about to be sacked from his last post, the editorship of the Oldie, although there was no evidence for this.) Given his talent, this record is remarkable. It was a reflection of his resistance to control. He was often lazy and chaotic. Sometimes he was simply absent and sometimes — because he was never full of his own opinions — he simply couldn’t think of anything to write about. His copy was horrendously late, worse than anyone except Boris Johnson. Alexander was rarely downright rude to his bosses, and he was a man of immense charm, but I think they sensed — and resented — that he would never implement their ideas. For all his humility, he thought he knew better. He was right: he did.
As his assistant, I shared his Doughty Street office. He was then in his mid-forties and very dashing — the more so for his unkempt, bohemian air (he mistrusted neatness, complaining in print about Jonathan Aitken’s ‘horribly well-tailored suit’), the smoking and drinking, and his physical restlessness which meant that he walked up and down the same patch of the valuable rug — stolen from Ian Gilmour, a previous proprietor — for hours each day, talking on the telephone. He had large, dark, expressive eyes, which would flash humour and desperation (often both at once). He never held a regular editorial meeting. He hardly ever closed his office door. He loved mischief. He was touched when, after his sacking, Richard Ingrams resigned as television critic in solidarity; but he also accepted with glee when I offered the vacancy to him.
The Alexander technique of editing exemplified this unusual combination of pride and humility: he hated being told what to do, so he didn’t tell others. He nurtured talent gently. He invented the contrasting columns of Taki and the late Jeffrey Bernard, but he did not contrive the High Life/Low Life idea and then find people to fill it. He originally hired Taki to write occasional pieces but found his stuff on Greek politics tedious and suggested he write about his playboy life instead. He originally retained Bernard as racing correspondent, but then realised that the romance of the barfly was more interesting. Thus the double act emerged. In foreign coverage, Alexander found the right person in the right place at the right time — Timothy Garton Ash in early 1980s Poland, Murray Sayle in Japan, Xan Smiley in southern Africa, Charles Glass in Beirut. His reading of any article was honest and unprejudiced. He rarely rewrote anyone’s copy, but when he did he always improved it, because he had purity of style and clarity of mind. He taught me more about editing than anyone else, by seeming not to teach.
In the farewell piece I mention above, Alexander came nearest to explaining his non-‘policy’: ‘The good thing about The Spectator, as I think I have discovered, is that unlike most papers it actually benefits from a lack of editorial direction of the sort implied by the word “policy”.’ The paper couldn’t pay its writers much, so they could be drawn to it only ‘as a haven in which freedom of expression suffers from the minimum of restrictions and taboos’. That’s what we all loved, and the readers loved it too. He restored The Spectator’s greatness.
We also loved Alexander himself — his light hidden under a bushel (his great musical accomplishment, for example), his kindness, his absurdist anecdotes about the complications of human relationships, his gift for happiness and unhappiness. At the dinner when we sent Taki off to prison, I remember Alexander sliding down the wall at the end of the evening, saying, ‘I’m 45 and I’ve had enough.’ We knew that his marriage to Susie was what newspapers call ‘tempestuous’, but they seemed devoted as well as, sometimes, estranged. Once, in the 1980s, we had them to dinner at home. After everyone had left, I went out to put rubbish in the dustbins. There were Susie and Alexander kissing and cuddling in the street like 18-year-olds.
Alexander’s last journalistic achievement was his Long Life column for this paper, about growing old. It showed his light touch and humanity to best advantage. Two weeks ago (21 January), he described how the nightmares of his boyhood had moved through the adult ones of public embarrassment or thwarted ambition to the unsettling, anxious ones of age. ‘To dream of dying is one of the more disconcerting experiences, for you can’t be sure that you haven’t really died until you have pinched yourself a number of times after waking up.’ I sent him an email praising the column as ‘really a poem’. ‘Thank you,’ replied Alexander. ‘Much more praise than I deserve, but all the more welcome for that.’ He died five days later.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.