I’ve never worked out how so many Swedes can be atheists when the Stockholm archipelago is prima facie proof of God’s existence. For years I have been coming to worship and this summer I rented a house by the water. It is my idea of paradise: a week of forest walks, saunas and — last Saturday — dinner for 20 to celebrate my wife Linda’s birthday. As we shop for it on the Friday, in a supermarket with separate sections for herring and cuts of reindeer, my mobile phone starts to erupt. Back in London, I have just been named the next editor of The Spectator and am sent texts and emails by everyone I have ever met. I make a mental note to save all the messages — especially the flattering ones — on paper. Some day, when I need cheering up, I might read them again. I may even be foolish enough to believe some of them.
I’ll say this for David Cameron: he is quick on the draw. Within the first few minutes I received a text asking me to promise that Tamzin Lightwater is safe. A few hours later, a holidaying George Osborne texts his congratulations and says he intends to remove two high-ranking Scots from public office in the next nine months. I reply that he should not be so hard on Liam Fox and Michael Gove: he will need all the hawks he can find in government. Yet nothing at all from 10 Downing Street. Not all Scots, you see, stick together.
I was once introduced to Baroness Thatcher as a ‘Scottish Conservative’. She looked at me with surprise as if this were the political equivalent of a barking cat. ‘Why are so many of you down here?’ she asked. ‘We need you up there, voting Tory.’ I bet she didn’t say that to Willie Whitelaw. We are both from Nairn, a town in the Highlands that rivals Sweden for heavenliness and boasts the most days of sunshine in Scotland.
Back in London, I arrange to have dinner with Peter Oborne, who is from a school of journalism where one orders a glass of wine while surveying the menu. We once lunched at Wiltons, where I found him with a glass in hand, and we kept the same wine flowing all afternoon and ran up a bill equivalent to Estonia’s national debt. But it was worth it. Peter was then giving me advice to succeed him — and a list of books which he said a political editor of The Spectator ought to know backwards. Naively, I expected Blair biographies and the like. Instead, Peter listed Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Macaulay’s History of England. This, he told me, is what The Spectator is all about. He also gave me a quote from James Fenton, the poet, writing 28 years ago about the magazine. ‘The writer uses the freedom he enjoys in order to present his subject from an unusual point of view, like those photographs of familiar objects from unfamiliar angles. It is this creative obliquity which enlivens the weekly essay. It is difficult to reproduce in a large daily paper, because of the pressure there to produce an immediately recognisable type of article.’ A wonderful definition.
After my first proper day in the job, I meet a shadow cabinet member in a Mexican bar overlooking the Thames on a warm evening. A reminder that London has its own beauty. News of Alan Duncan’s demotion breaks as we order more mojitos. I speak, briefly, to the former shadow Leader of the Commons himself and actually believe him when he says he is relieved to be in his new job. The diminutive chap had become a lightning conductor, and ergo was much valued by his colleagues. So regret at his departure is genuine.
As the magazine goes to bed, the first kerfuffle of my editorship stirs. Last week, I reported how a Spectator-reading financier was alarmed to see that Mr Osborne had reviewed an 880-page biography of Nixon for our books section last summer. Shouldn’t the shadow chancellor have spent some time reading up on the financial crisis, he wondered? It was, as I said in my piece, an unfair allegation. But Mr Osborne, I learn, is in a huff anyway and has decided not to review the Kissinger biography which he had previously agreed to do. He told the Evening Standard that he won’t review books for us again, in fact, and they call for a comment. I am tempted to say that as an editor I am upset — but as a taxpayer, relieved. But I refrain. No need to inflame things any further. Perhaps we can reach détente? I am reading economics texts that demonstrate how high tax rates on the richest actually mean less tax revenue in this new globalised world of ours. I shall ask Mark Amory, our brilliant literary editor, to commission Osborne for a review. Given that he seems to believe the 50p tax on the richest will actually raise revenue, I am sure Spectator readers would be thrilled to read his critique.
Linda’s birthday, incidentally, went brilliantly. I served my twin Scandi specialities: toast skagen and beef Lindström. My cooking is rather better than my Swedish — we’re trying to raise our son in Linda’s mother tongue and I am still speaking it like the English policeman in ’Allo ’Allo. The party guests find this hilarious. One Swede was a Spectator subscriber and had strong advice for me: don’t change a single thing. Least of all Taki.
Ah, Taki. For decades it has been traditional for a new Spectator editor to be inundated with calls to show his commitment to civility by hiring a new High Life columnist. But this time, not a soul has asked for him to be sacked. All I hear is how the old rogue has never been in better form. This won’t please him much, as he prides himself on calls for his resignation. But it’s not that Taki is conforming to the world. The world, I think, is finally conforming to him.