Alexander Chancellor’s ‘Long Life’ is over; but it was not nearly long enough. I was feeling rather gloomy last Friday, having just had our old terrier put down, when I opened The Spectator and was immediately cheered up by the first paragraph of Alexander’s column.
It was so typical of the way that he often looked at the world, and of his delightfully quirky sense of humour, that he should relate a children’s song to the new President of the United States. Recalling Nellie the elephant and her trumpety-trump, he wrote: ‘I’m hoping against hope that Donald Trumpety-Trump will also say goodbye to the circus in Washington and return to the jungle whence he came.’ (A few weeks earlier, he had perceptively ridiculed Trump by comparing him to Liberace.)
One of the remarkable things about the last months of Alexander’s life was that, having had a brain haemorrhage, when he resumed his Spectator column it was as sparkling and readable as ever, and he never missed another week. At the same time he continued as the highly successful editor of the Oldie, but did not enjoy having to give up driving and drinking — though I was glad to hear from the magazine’s publisher, James Pembroke, that he had recently been enjoying an occasional glass of red wine.
It was thanks to Alexander’s endearing personality, his diffidence and his mastery of the art of gentle persuasion that he was able to attract so many outstanding writers to a magazine which, when he became editor in 1975, had a circulation of little more than 12,000. Several of them — Auberon Waugh, Murray Sayle, Christopher Hitchens, Richard West, Jeffrey Bernard — were seduced from the New Statesman, which then had a weekly sale of more than 40,000. They did not come for the money, of which there was little available, but because Alexander was establishing a congenial atmosphere at The Spectator: it was intellectually stimulating, civilised yet slightly anarchic and, as Stephen Glover once wrote, ‘above all else, fun’.
Within three years the editor of the Times, William Rees-Mogg, was writing in a leading article that The Spectator was playing an important part in the movement away from collectivism. It had an intellectual vitality which was lacking in the New Statesman, and its writers were ‘libertarian rather than hierarchical… from the tradition of Locke and Liberty rather than that of Burke and Community’.
When he became editor, having never voted Conservative, Alexander dreaded being asked about his ‘policy’. He insisted that The Spectator would not have a political line, and indeed he abolished the weekly leader for a while, because he did not think it should assume an authority and a certainty of opinion which he did not always possess. The magazine, he wrote, tends ‘to edit itself. It is the writers who collectively give The Spectator its identity without much assistance from the editor.’
This was modesty to the point of self-deprecation. And of course it wasn’t true: it was Alexander who, with his great editorial gifts, gave The Spectator its identity and set it on the path to commercial success. But the eclecticism which he encouraged in The Spectator’s pages was not always appreciated by some of its readers. An article by the Labour MP Eric Heffer, a week before the 1979 general election, was one example. A piece from the poet James Fenton in 1982, as the British task force was on its way to the Falklands, calling the government’s policy on the eve of battle ‘frivolous, murderous, wicked’, caused a bit of a stir. But the readers stayed and new ones arrived.
Alexander may have affected a hands-off attitude to editorship — he was the opposite of a headmaster editor — but he knew what he wanted from an article and he was very good at getting the best out of contributors. As deputy editor, I asked Rab Butler, not long before he died, to write a piece, the subject of which I no longer remember. When it came in, Alexander thought it needed some rewriting. I was somewhat embarrassed, as Rab was my godfather and had married twice into my family, but Alexander said he would deal with it. He persuaded Rab to make a number of amendments to his article which, because time was short, had to be written with his withered hand which he normally used only for signing his name.
On another occasion, when Mountbatten was murdered in 1979, Alexander prevailed upon a very reluctant General Sir John Hackett, the day before the magazine went to press, to write an appreciation. ‘Why should I put myself out for you and ruin my evening?’ the general asked. Employing all his famous charm, Alexander replied: ‘In order to save The Spectator.’ Long pause. ‘All right, fuck you, I’ll do it.’ It was a very good article, delivered on time for publication.
During his nine years as Spectator editor, Alexander wrote the weekly Notebook and became a master of this journalistic form, penning four or five sharply observed comments on matters of the day. But he never wrote the Notebook before Wednesday morning (press day) and would often bring it himself to the typesetters in Clerkenwell Green where Peter Ackroyd and I were passing the pages for the week’s issue. He would arrive clutching an armful of newspapers and a cigarette, and the layout of the page might show that he still had two or three hundred words to write. But there had to be time for a good lunch first at the Italian restaurant across the road. He always apologised profusely for his copy being late, usually with the comment, ‘I hope it’s not too boring.’ Which it never was.
Alexander leaves a great journalistic legacy. However, after 40 years of friendship I shall remember him above all as so very lovable. And he had an unforgettable laugh.