The old masters: how well they understood. John Betjeman’s architecture column ran for just over three years in the mid-1950s. Yet during that short run he experienced the moment that comes, sooner or later, to every regular writer in The Spectator’s arts pages. ‘It is maddening the way people corner one and make one discuss politics at the moment,’ he wrote on 23 November 1956, clearly as bored of the Suez crisis as the rest of us were, until recently, by Brexit:
Because I write in this paper, people assume that I share its Editor’s views about Suez… But I don’t know what the views of this paper about Suez are, because I never read the political stuff in front. I take the Spectator to see whether there are any misprints in this column and for the book reviews and for dear old Strix and the angry letters. I have always imagined that most readers of periodicals like this and the New Statesman subscribe for literary rather than political reasons, and that the politics are in the nature of topical photographs designed to lighten and heighten the rest.
He’s right, though, isn’t he? The magazine’s priorities are blazoned on the title page of the second collected volume, in January 1829: A Weekly Journal of News, Politics, Literature and Science. But leaf through the archives and be honest: which would you rather read now? Decade-long discussions of Irish home rule? The progress of the Scotch Promissory Notes bill? Or a really epic takedown of Charles Dickens?
Posterity has a way of winnowing out the good stuff, and The Spectator has spent 10,000 issues identifying the dominant cultural phenomena of the day and being difficult about them. ‘We cannot congratulate ourselves upon the progress of the musical art in London. The same routine of sinfonias by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Spohr; the same overtures by Cherubini, Weber, and Romberg… are gone through, and the aggregate of taste remains pretty equal,’ begins the first ever arts column on 5 July 1828.