Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The man who knew ‘everyone’

Geoffrey Wheatcroft recalls Alastair Forbes

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Not long after Alexander Chancellor had been appointed editor of The Spectator in 1975, and had then lightheartedly or pluckily taken me on to his small crew at Doughty Street, we had lunch at Bertorelli’s with David McEwen and a great friend of his: a man once met not easily forgotten. He was imposing or even overbearing; loud, handsome in a rather blatant way, charming in intermittent flashes, much given to malicious anecdote and reminiscence. This was my first encounter with Alastair Forbes, who has died at 87, and is still remembered by staff as well as readers of The Spectator with a mixture of amusement, irritation and awe.

In his late fifties at the time, Ali was kicking his heels; and although I might not have met him before, almost everyone else apparently had. His life had been unusual, if less so than it would be now, the transplanted American, the rentier, and the courtier having all once been less exotic species than they have since become. Although Ali was born and educated in England, he was pure Yankee, from the heart of the old Back Bay elite of Boston. He made much of having FDR as a cousin, but then, in person and in print, Ali turned name-dropping into a higher art form. In his eighties he grew frail, and a friend said drily last year how sad it was that Ali couldn’t make more of having a nephew, Senator John Forbes Kerry, as the Democratic presidential candidate.

The curious effect of this background and upbringing was to leave him more English than any Englishman could be. His great enemy Evelyn Waugh wrongly attributed Ali’s ‘hot-potato’ drawl to his having been taught by J.F. Roxburgh at Stowe (he went to Winchester) while the publisher Roger Machell (who really was an English gentleman) once said that Ali was the sort of parodic compatriot you shied away from in a New York restaurant: he’s nothing to do with me.

After Cambridge and exiguous military service, Ali enjoyed the first electrically successful phase of his social career during the war, when he befriended the royal family and the Churchills and in fact just about everyone. ‘Pretty little Ali Forbes’ became something of an obsession for Waugh, who at intervals irritably reported that London was ‘infested’ by Ali, or that he was ‘literally everywhere’. This playboy side of his life was what Kitty Muggeridge had in mind when she used to call him ‘the Ali Khan’. But if he was a courtier, Ali could not have been called merely obsequious.

He was in some ways notably attractive. Ali was twice married and a considerable coureur des femmes (as he might have said). He had an enormously wide acquaintance, but he led his life in a series of quarrels and vendettas. Parties would be broken up and country-house weekends would end prematurely. I seem to remember Andrew Devonshire saying that Ali had finally been banned from Chatsworth, for all I know occasioning one of the notorious ‘Aligrams’, those immensely long letters of scurrilous gossip or bantering abuse. On another occasion, while staying with Lord Lambton at Cetinale, Ann Fleming treated him with a disdain he found intolerable, until Ali departed early one morning leaving behind an appallingly offensive letter, including one sentence so horrible I cannot quote it even now.

To the extent that Ali ever had a trade, he was a journalist, but his career petered out by the late 1950s after he had bitten every hand that fed him, and been hired and fired by a succession of papers: the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and the Sunday Despatch. The last two were owned by his friend Esmond Rothermere, who was prevailed upon to give Ali one last chance, improbably on the Daily Sketch, then the lowest-brow of the tabloids. His column ran for a while, although the increasingly baffled hobnails on the backbench were at one point reduced to publishing an adjacent glossary.

Then in the 1970s Ali’s second spring as a book reviewer began in a roundabout way. He buttered up David Astor at the Observer, who asked Terence Kilmartin to let him review Frances Donaldson’s biography of the Duke of Windsor. Terry had already given it to someone else, but suggested him to John Gross, newly installed as editor of the TLS, who was startled but rather impressed by the result. When I took over as literary editor at The Spectator we began to use him, with predictable pleasure to some readers, and with equally predictable disaster.

The manner of his reviews was inimitable, mercifully so, some might add. Richard Cobb’s wonderful essays arrived badly typed in single spacing on filing cards, Ali’s arrived in a longhand scrawl on yellow foolscap. They then had to be transcribed by Clare Asquith and edited by me; or at least I would chop up those sentences which appeared to last more than a hundred words, delete the more impossibly arcane constructions, and trim the foreign vocabulary for which even Spectator readers might have required a glossary (John Gross says he imposed a rule that Ali could only use the word ‘hochgeboren’ three times in a piece). His prose style was unique, but then so was his knowledge, at least within his own confines; he appeared to have a range of intimate social reference going back to Saint-Simon.

But with Ali the affair was never cloudless. A distant warning had reached me from Ann Fleming: ‘Use Ali Forbes, he’ll land you in a libel action.’ And so he did. His most entertaining pieces usually skirted the edge of defamation, and Ali had once been ordered to the office of the TLS and made almost under physical duress to sign a contrite letter to Jock Colville (drafted of course by the editor, since Ali’s own apologies were often more insulting than the original piece). After he had written something contemptuous and possibly actionable about Dame Rebecca West, we received a vast letter ostensibly from her lawyer though plainly dictated by the Dame herself. Alexander managed tactfully to head off legal proceedings. We even asked Dame Rebecca to lunch, and a terrifying experience it was, while Ali was told he must in future not mention her.

Some time later I sat early one morning trying with bleary eyes to make sense of one of his pieces, or at least to turn parts of it into something vaguely resembling declarative English, but my attention wandered. A few days later, reading that week’s newly-arrived issue, I ran through Ali’s effusion again, reached the reference to an absurd so-called woman historian and her ‘tarradiddling opus’ about the Balkans, and realised with horror what I had failed to spot before, that he plainly intended Dame Rebecca. When the next ferocious lawyer’s letter arrived there was nothing we could do except grovel and pay up, an experience not made more enjoyable by Ali’s schoolboy glee at having played such a naughty prank.

We later bumped into each other now and again, less often as the years went by. Occasionally the telephone would ring from Ch