A health warning greeted me: ‘LIBEL. Mr Christopher Fildes and Mr Auberon Waugh have today joined the staff of The Spectator. As from today, The Spectator is no longer insured against libel. Gatley’s Libel and Slander (sixth and seventh edition) may be consulted in my office. Nigel Lawson, Editor.’ Times were hard. I had come to write a City Notebook and found myself in the attic of a tall, narrow, messy townhouse. The bicycle in the hall was Jock Bruce-Gardyne’s. Lovely girls climbed the stairs in short skirts. Writing was done at the last frantic minute. This still seems to be how The Spectator works best. Bron Waugh and I managed not to libel anybody, although he tinkered with the contents page and varied George Gale’s name to Lunchtime O’Gale. Nigel sacked him, he sued for wrongful dismissal and won, but in the end he could not keep away, any more than I could. At the time my City Notebook had caught Patrick Sergeant’s eye and he had no trouble in outbidding The Spectator for my services. I looked on as the times became harder. The editor’s secretary had put all her friends on the free list for Christmas, and when their names were crossed off the circulation collapsed. The proprietor stripped out the assets (including the lease on the townhouse) and passed the title on to Henry Keswick, just back from Hong Kong. May his shadow never grow less, for The Spectator revived.
Martini, kir, negroni
It was Algy Cluff, Henry’s successor, who explained to me why owners came and went so regularly. ‘After four years,’ he said, ‘you get a letter from your inspector of taxes. It says: is this investment of yours supposed to be a business, or is it just a hobby? You then have to sell it to someone with a different inspector of taxes.’ It was Algy, too, who suggested to me that I should come back and write a City column. By that time my former editor had become chancellor of the exchequer. He gave me plenty to write about. I used to defend him against girthist criticism — until his own shadow suddenly grew less — and cite his laws: bad figures take longer to add up than good ones, taxes should be low and simple and compulsory. I quarrelled with the received opinion — his included — that swept us into Europe’s exchange rate mechanism, and with the second wave of enthusiasm wafting us toward the euro. I monitored the exchange rates that mattered: the two-dollar martini, the ten-franc kir and the negroni index. Project Rubicon, my plan to bid for Italy and break it up, restoring such historic currencies as the Venetian ducat and the Papal scudo, is looking better by the moment.
For my column I borrowed the name of a long-established race at Epsom: City and Suburban. I had forgotten that John Betjeman was there first, and had used it for his own Spectator column. There was nothing for me to do but blame Captain Threadneedle, my racing correspondent. It was a proud day for him and for me when Huntingdon racecourse staged the Captain Threadneedle Selling Hurdle, won, appropriately enough, by Tax the Devil. I was encouraged to build up a stable of specialists, headed by I.K. Gricer, my railway correspondent. Readers were swift to infer that he had been named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but his surname perplexed them. Was he, I was asked, one of the Somerset Gricers? Some light has now been cast on this by Jackson’s Railway Dictionary (fourth edition, 2006): ‘GRICER: The most fanatical and extreme type of railway enthusiast. Often used in a derogatory sense to denote the notebook-carrying railway voyeur and collector of useless information.’ My correspondent is thinking of suing.
A patch of blue
When he sold The Spectator, Algy Cluff stayed on as chairman, serving for 24 years and asking me to join the board. He had collected such heavyweight directors as John King (British Airways) and Patrick Sheehy (BAT) and offered them, in lieu of fees, a quarterly dinner. The business was still losing money, and I knew what the law said about directors of companies which traded while insolvent. ‘Don’t worry’, said Anthony Rentoul, the secretary. ‘Whenever that looks like happening, we revalue the title.’ Then came the meeting when the accounts showed a tiny profit, like a patch of blue sky after the storm. ‘The contributors must not find out,’ said the editor, Nigel’s son, Dominic. The directors wondered how to spend these new-found riches. ‘I think,’ Pat Sheehy rumbled, ‘that we should begin to repay the deficit on the profit and loss account.’ For all that, the blue patch was an omen of better weather, and The Spectator went on to find itself in profit and in cash, and able to buy its own townhouse. When, eighteen months ago, the new owners wound the board up, I was able to claim that since I had become a director, the company’s finances had been transformed — although I hesitated to suggest that the relationship was causal.
Hong Kong West
Luck and timing go together, and I count myself lucky to have come to The Spectator when I did. I had arrived, all those years ago, in a City which had lost an empire and was looking for a role. It found one. I have watched with fascination as it transformed itself, sometimes accidentally, into Hong Kong West — a model of globalisation in action, now happily prepared to entertain bids for its own Stock Exchange. I have been able to follow the whole market cycle from confidence to enthusiasm to panic to funk, and round again, more than once. If you believe, as I do, that finance is human nature in action, you can count on these moods to recur and will always be tempted to see what happens next. My sainted predecessor, Nicholas Davenport, was still writing vigorously at the age of 86, and the last that the editor heard from him was a demand for more space. I could try to match his record, or hang on for another Lawson as editor, or even hope to outlast the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. Timing is all, though, and with a well-timed run City and Suburban has now reached the finishing post. Writing a column like this, I maintain, is like writing letters to be posted in a hollow tree. If you have retrieved them and enjoyed them, let me thank you. Floreat Spectator.
A City Spectator, Christopher Fildes’s book based on his City and Suburban columns, is published by Nicholas Brealey at £12.99 (or check the negroni index for euro equivalent).