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Deadlier than the Mail

This is an effervescent, elegantly written and faultlessly researched romp through the life and times of someone whose name in Britain was spoken with genuine fondness by an urbane few, with self-righteous anger by some and with disdain or fascination by almost everybody who can read — as, like it or not, very few people don’t enjoy gossip.

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

Nigel Dempster and the Death of Discretion Tim Willis

Short Books, pp.249, 16.99

This is an effervescent, elegantly written and faultlessly researched romp through the life and times of someone whose name in Britain was spoken with genuine fondness by an urbane few, with self-righteous anger by some and with disdain or fascination by almost everybody who can read — as, like it or not, very few people don’t enjoy gossip.

This is an effervescent, elegantly written and faultlessly researched romp through the life and times of someone whose name in Britain was spoken with genuine fondness by an urbane few, with self-righteous anger by some and with disdain or fascination by almost everybody who can read — as, like it or not, very few people don’t enjoy gossip.

Tim Willis has caught the atmosphere of the Dempster decades with uncanny precision. What now seems fascinating is that those not-far-off years, and whatever Nigel wrote all through them, suddenly seem so distant, archaic almost, and oddly innocent.

The title’s ‘Death of Discretion’ exactly sums it up. If the war and its aftermath removed the awe with which aristocrats and heroes were regarded, and the stifling of upper-class scandal by patrician press barons (it seems incredible, now, that the public were ignorant of Mrs Simpson and the King until a few days before he abdicated), it was the arrival of the Sixties that meant everything was up front and allowable. Circumspection went down the toilet with the pill, free love-making, stigma-less illegitimacy, Lady Chatterley and the end of censorship, leading to porn, drugs and the demise of our insularity.


Indiscretion, and the emerging spectre of instant celebrity, was the new tendency, though Dempster did not originate this. Rather, he realised that, to his readers, the formerly sacrosanct peccadilloes of elite and establishment figures were grist to a newspaper’s mill. After a network call to friends in his circle, ever ready to dish the dirt, he would hint at such indiscretions in his column.

Many people judged Dempster a monster for these ‘revelations’, but looking back, one has to admit that there really were very few historically memorable scoops — Harold and Antonia, obviously, the Goldsmith war, Roddy and Princess Margaret (with not a little help from the lady herself) — and that none of the ‘victims’ could really claim to be scarred by them. Not unlike like his American contemporary Dominick Dunne, Nigel absorbed all he was told, indiscreet or otherwise, and stored it. And like Dunne, he only chastised in print those he thought deserved it: the self-important, the vain, the twisters of truth, the blatant liars.

But generally Nigel wasn’t a thunderbolt-hurling Zeus of Fleet Street, passing judgment in the style of William Connor, who sensationally questioned Liberace’s sexuality in the Daily Mirror (Liberace sued and won, inventing the phrase ‘I cried all the way to the bank’). Many items in Dempster’s columns presented both sides with fairness, and were written genuinely to help a small business, or to show concern for people — the doomed Myna Bird, for example, or the tragic Kanga Tryon — down on their luck.

He often padded with pap on ‘the kinswoman of Lord Derby’ level, the staple fare of his predecessors, whose hands were tied when it came to real scandals. It is gripping to muse on what Nigel would have done with the real humdingers of previous epochs: Unity Mitford, the aforementioned Wallis, the expulsion, in her gold-plated sharkskin-upholstered Daimler, of Lady Docker from Monaco, for tearing up its flag (‘It’s a dump . . . we’re not going back to that dreary little country’); Christine Keeler; Margaret Duchess of Argyll and her photographs of headless naked men, and the long-running saga of Taylor going for a Burton.

During his decades in Fleet Street, Dempster came to learn almost everything about almost everybody — their beds of roses or their Achilles’ heels. More establishment figures than would care to be unmasked confided in him. But, apart from a few trusted cronies, he kept such information to himself. Unlike Truman Capote, he had the sense not to blow his cover, or his cred, or indeed his life, to smithereens with a Brit version of Capote’s disastrous Answered Prayers.

If the contents of his newspaper columns now seem ephemeral, it’s his marvellous mocking contributions to Private Eye that are surely his monument. He was, along with the equally belligerent, brilliant Peter McKay, the trouble-shooter in that nest of schoolboy-humoured vipers, led by his ‘hero’, Richard Ingrams. Willis describes this involvement with insight and hilarity, and it was for Lord Gnome that Dempster flung darts with much deadlier accuracy than anything he put in the Daily Mail, where other writers’ far unkinder, innuendo-ridden, wounding articles in the guise of investigative journalism were appearing with increasing frequency.

Willis’s book treats the many facets of Nigel Dempster, his braggadocio and his bonking, his snobbism, his swagger, his guile and his generosity, from his colonial childhood to his almost state funeral in 2007 with frankness and in fascinating detail. Who’d have imagined one of Nigel’s pre-prep school teachers was the father of the Countess of Wessex?


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