Harry Mount

The unlikely oilman

The oilman and former Spectator owner shows little sign of slowing down at 76

Algy Cluff is the longest-serving oilman in the North Sea. He was one of the first to drill for oil there, in 1972, and at the last government handout of drilling licences, two years ago, there he was again, making a handsome gas discovery.

Now 76, he’s also the least likely oilman you can imagine. Tall, rangy, dressed in Savile Row pinstripes; he is no J.R. Ewing. His diffident, patrician voice is so gentle that I have to turn my tape recorder up to transcribe this interview.

Cluff’s Who’s Who entry lists membership of 11 clubs. But there is no clubman stuffiness about him. He’s full of wonderful anecdotes, many of them involving The Spectator, which he owned from 1981 to 1985, before he became chairman for 20 years. Cluff largely tells stories against himself, such as the time he wrote a memorandum to the then editor, Alexander Chancellor, proposing more coverage of the Far East. ‘He printed the memorandum as if it were a letter from a reader,’ says Cluff. ‘I realised I had met my match.’

If John Aspinall, the gaming tycoon, had had his way, Cluff would never have bought The Spectator in the first place. One day in 1980, Cluff was lunching with Henry Keswick, then The Spectator’s owner, at Aspinall’s gaming club off Sloane Street. Aspinall, sitting at another table, guessing they were discussing The Spectator, shouted across the room, ‘Don’t sell it to him, Henry. He’s too left-wing.’

But he was commercially minded enough to bring about the magazine’s recovery. As editor, Alexander Chancellor had already transformed its tone and layout. Cluff replaced him with Charles Moore, then only 27, who proceeded to double sales. Circulation had leapt 45 per cent, to 23,185, by the time Cluff sold the magazine in 1985. His proprietorship confirmed The Spectator as Britain’s foremost political weekly.

Cluff was also an old friend of Margaret Thatcher.

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