Ain’t that a bitch! What else can one say? The way I figure it, it was 357 columns without a miss for the first seven years, then, after a Pentonville break, 1,275 straight until last week. The lawyers broke my streak, but then they would. And in my 30th year, too. Well, what the hell, all good things come to an end, but at least only Claus von Bulow rang to inquire whether I had dropped dead. Actually, I ran the offending piece on my website, www.takimag.com, so it did see the light of day, and 100,000 visitors got to read it, so there.
What’s interesting is how things have changed in the past 30 years. Libel laws are supposedly not as strict as they used to be, but don’t you believe it. For example, I will not mention politically incorrect things one was permitted to write in jest back then. When Liberace died of Aids, I wrote: ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and if you had liked pussy, you’d still be with us.’ Charles Moore thought it in very bad taste, but too good to keep out.
I suppose what I miss is the crummiest end of Grub Street. Now it’s all sex and celebrities; before there was a great emphasis on the bizarre. Hacks back then invented things. Not about brain-dead people like Britney or Paris, but stories which in their perversity and cruelty might as well have been true. One thing is for sure: the readers were amused. One person who was always in the news was Prince Aly Khan, the father of the present Aga. Aly had a reputation as an indefatigable lover. He went on record saying about the English, and the upper-crust English at that, ‘They called me a nigger, and I slept with their wives.’ And he certainly did. By the time I got to Fleet Street, Aly was long gone — having died in a car crash crossing Le Pont de Saint-Cloud going to a ball on a May evening — but hacks still asked me about his technique. Was it true he used to plunge his wrists in an ice bucket just before you-know-what? Of course, that was his trick, I’d say. His mystical prolongations went to his grave with him, but they sure made a good story.
Hacks used to be overworked and underpaid but in a strange way they were hipsters, always in front of the curve. The idea of a Tara Palmer-Tomkinson posing as a writer was a no-no. Grub Street had pride. Columnists, and there were far fewer, especially gossip columnists, had an obsessive desire for revenge. They were ready to injure anyone in retaliation for the most ephemeral of slights. After all, when I began in this business there was something called the class system, fodder for those with a column to attack anyone, no matter how powerless, to stick the shiv in.
Ironically, there were gents of the old school who made their living in Grub Street, as I’m sure there still are. Second sons, failed priests, impoverished baronets, even ship-owner heirs. I remember Tina Brown writing about yours truly that ‘there are a lot of hacks who would like to be ship-owners, but there are no ship-owners who would like to be hacks’. It was the nicest thing she ever wrote about me, and for once she got it right. My father used to laugh about it. ‘Don’t you realise that journalists make their living through blackmail?’ he used to tell me. Mind you, he was judging by Greek standards of the Fifties and Sixties. I may sound melancholy and slightly ridiculous, but I loved the fact that I had never missed a column in the 30 years I’d been writing it except for the force majeure of staying with the Queen.
Never mind. There are worse things, like a back operation I have to have in order to defend my title next year in Brussels. By that time, I hope, there will be a Flanders, and my friend Paul Belien will be foreign minister. Incidentally, another friend by the name of Paul Gottfried, a prof. and a hell of a writer, has just published the definitive book on Conservatism in America. Making Sense of the American Right, the subtitle, tells it all. Paul Gottfried is no hack. A man of great dignity and as articulate as they come, he is of the Jewish faith but no Podhoretz he. He argues that modern conservatism’s roots are not very deep, and that the neocons have managed to belittle their predecessors on their way to power. I particularly liked a passage where he explains how misleading it is for present conservative leaders to pose as inheritors of Robert Taft in 1950, or Bill Buckley in 1955. It is all a power-grab by people who wish to share power only with those who agree with them and who want to bring American democracy to other societies. I cannot recommend the book enough because, no matter what one’s politics are, after reading it one will understand what is really going on over here.
So there you have it. A new start, a new column, a new streak. Who was it that proposed killing all the lawyers? Someone called part two, I believe. Finally, the only other thing I regret about the spike last week is that my buddy Oliver Gilmour did not get to read what I had to say about an old proprietor of ours and a wonderful man, Ian Gilmour.