High life | 2 February 2017

He hired me and then was too well mannered to fire me

High life | 2 February 2017
Text settings

When I saw an email from Lucy, the lady who has the unenviable task of editing my copy each week, I knew something was wrong. And sure enough it was. The bad news was that my first editor at my beloved Spectator had died. Forty years, gone in a jiffy.

It was back in 1977, and I had gone to Turin to pick up a new car on my way to Paris. Back then one had to drive the first thousand miles slowly, while breaking in the engine. (Yes, I know: a bit like wearing spats and a monocle, but that’s how it was in those prehistoric days.) Driving a fast car slowly is like lying next to a beautiful girl but not being allowed to touch her: very frustrating. So to pass the time I thought up a story and memorised every word; it took about eight hours. I then typed it up and flew to London.

I had met Alexander Chancellor only once. I was introduced to him by the Speccie’s then deputy editor Simon Courtauld in the course of an unbelievably riotous summer party. (Everyone was drunk.) Over the telephone he told me to meet him at Brown’s hotel, where, I believe, he was having a drink with an MP, Norman Lamont, now Lord Lamont. I didn’t stay long. I handed him my copy, said I hoped that he could use ‘this fluff’, and left. The piece was about how one could immediately tell an Englishman abroad. (They had bright-red peeling noses, knees and elbows, used flashlights to go over the bill in dark French nightclubs infuriating the Algerian waiters, and danced in a spastic manner scaring nearby French couples.)

It was, as the saying goes, the start of a beautiful friendship. Alexander had the idea of pairing me off with Jeffrey Bernard, the notoriously alcoholic bohemian, who hung out in Soho with fellow drunks while I filed stories from my boat in the Greek islands, Gstaad and the south of France. He also brought in Auberon Waugh, Ferdinand Mount and Michael Heath, talents that other newspapers would pay far more to employ but would not grant the latitude that Alexander offered. For example, Waugh would write how disgusting it was to be poor, how smelly and unattractive to the eye, but with tongue deeply in cheek. The Speccie took off and has yet to look back.

Three or four years into his editorship, Alexander’s love life had a hiccup. I will not dwell on it because everyone involved is still alive and I don’t know the details in any case. I remember him coming to New York and during dinner at a very chic restaurant — having had much too much to drink —he revealed something important: his basic good manners and humanity. ‘The column was crap,’ he said. ‘It simply didn’t work.’ Well, why wasn’t I fired? I asked him. ‘You were never around, always flitting about Gstaad and Antibes, and I couldn’t fire you over the telephone.’

Once, driving him to a party in London, where a romantic debacle of his was going to be present, I deigned to suggest that where the fair sex was concerned he should confer with the likes of me. He laughed in that particular screeching way of his, ‘Maybe you should write an advice for lovers column.’ He then disappeared for a long time and the magazine was edited by Simon Courtauld, although none of us knew it. Alexander had gone to the Middle East in order to get over a romantic upheaval. We, the lowly scribes, heard nothing until one day a telegram arrived. It was from Egypt and it concerned yours truly. In it Alexander announced that the pillow used by extremely obese Arab women while making love in order to lift their nether regions was called a Taki. (Years later, Nicholas Soames made the same discovery, and sent a similar telegram, although to this day I believe that Nicholas bought a Taki for his own use.)

Alexander must have been the first-ever editor to run a major weekly by moving about in a leisurely manner and operating at a congenial, pre-digital pace. When Clay Felker, a legendary American editor, came over for lunch, he was incredulous. ‘How can this thing appear each week for 200 years? No one ever works, they’re always in the pub.’ Eventually, it caught up with him. Our benevolent proprietor Algy Cluff fired Alexander and named the then disgustingly young Charles Moore top banana. Alexander flew to New York and stayed with me. He accepted his fate with a shrug; not a word was said against Algy.

After Tina Brown hired him to write the Talk of the Town for the New Yorker, which she edited for a while, I saw quite a lot of him. Tina, an obsessive climber and go-getter, did not stick by him. He was surprised to discover a very large Christmas tree being raised in Rockefeller Centre and wrote about it, unaware that it was an annual event, as old as the building. Fellow hacks made fun of him, but they were basically anti-Alexander because he refused to take them — or himself — seriously, as grave a mistake to make among American journalists as plagiarism.

Towards the end of his life he seemed to have found peace. He smoked and drank less and the few times I ran into him at Speccie summer parties he warned me against exercise, ‘which will surely kill you’. He followed that remark with his characteristic screeching laughter. He was the first of my seven editors and I owe him, as well as the other six, the happiness that my 40 years writing for The Spectator have given me. Goodbye, sweet first editor. As we Greeks say, may the earth that covers you be soft.