It’s a bit of a late entry for phrase of the year, but the term ‘nepo babies’ has captured attention this week. It was first used in this article in New York magazine to describe the children of celebrities cushioned by their parents’ famous name. Lucy Fisher, chief political commentator for Times Radio, has also pointed out how many ‘nepo babies’ there are in Westminster. I was reading her article while trying to make sense of Jamie Oliver’s guest editorship of the Today programme this morning: he is also a ‘nepo baby’ insofar as he learned to cook by helping out in his parents’ pub. But was that nepotism? Or just human nature in following the family trade?
I tried to be a ‘nepo baby’ and follow my dad into the RAF but, luckily for our national security, I failed the tests. But was it so odd for me to try? Following a family career pattern has long been done by accountants, chefs, doctors, musicians, actors – and, most certainly, writers. People are more inclined to do what they know, or what they see. Often, they do it well. J.C. Bach followed J.S.; Martin Amis followed Kingsley, Mary Shelley learnt from Mary Wollstonecraft, David Updike from John. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll see the family factor at work: Giles Coren after Alan, Tom Utley after Peter. All first-rate writers. A family link isn’t always nepotism.
Since becoming an editor, and entering the business of hiring writers, I’ve seen how prejudice works both ways. I’ll get the odd email from a parent (or grandparent) advocating a young talent. It tends not to work. The Spectator hires via a no-CV policy for most posts. Not all: when we hired a Steerpike reporter, it was a senior job and we wanted someone with years of Westminster experience – we hired James Heale.