This month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Nigel Dempster, once the world’s best-known gossip columnist. For three decades he was paid a fortune by the Daily Mail to provide juicy tittle-tattle about the royal family (he was a close friend of Princess Margaret), the aristocracy (particularly priapic minor baronet Dai Llewellyn), tycoons including Jimmy Goldsmith and racing figures such as Robert Sangster, as well as mainstream TV stars like David Frost and Robin Day.
Alas, by the time of Nigel’s death (from the awful effects of progressive supranuclear palsy) his Diary page was already an anachronism. His brand of gossip was in its death throes. His cast of characters had already been ousted by reality TV nonentities all desperate for their 15 minutes of fame. Mannequins Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell used their scrawny elbows to gain column inches, ‘artists’ like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin shocked their way into the new encyclopedia of tittle-tattle.
By the time of his death, gossip had spread its wings from Diary pages. In his last years, the dapper, marathon-running, permanently thirsty Nigel increasingly bewailed the poaching of his stories for the news pages. But his principal gripe was the phenomenon of nobodies elevated to instant fame via shows like Big Brother.
A good gossip columnist, back in the day, was the keeper of a menagerie of half-invented creatures. He picked characters and followed them week after week, drawing a reader into what was a sort of drawn-out soap opera with its own regular villains and heroes.
Perhaps mercifully, Nigel had gone to the celestial cocktail party by the time the Kardashians exploded on to the public conscious. Singlehandedly, the large-bottomed bling princesses have become the staple of the modern gossip pages, and Dempster’s forte, the sexual shenanigans of the landed gentry, is passé. Nigel and I were friends before we went head to head on rival newspapers, I was the last William Hickey on the Daily Express. Because Hickey had been an 18th-century character with a manservant called Munnoo, an inamorata called Charlotte and a dog called Caesar, I populated the column with characters from Hickey’s household, and he became an ancient fuddy-duddy who relied on Munnoo and others to keep him abreast of modern life. One fictitious character was Nigel the oily under-butler. The real Nigel never took offence.
We lunched regularly, mostly at the River Room at the Savoy. Once, Nigel had booked the table for 1 p.m. I arrived at ten past and he offered me a drink from the chilled Chablis at his elbow. The waiter lifted the bottle from the ice bucket and declared: ‘Meeester Dempstur, de bottle eet is empty.’ We had another two. He barely nibbled at his Dover sole.
Our friendship hit the buffers three years later after Nigel devoted a quarter-page in his Mail column to the death of Tulip, his Pekinese. Including a photo of the dog, he wrote: ‘The Dempster household is in mourning… Christmas will never be the same again.’ (Some months later the death of his mother rated fewer column inches.) The following morning I wrote: ‘The Diary is in mourning. Nigel my pet ferret has passed away after 25 years of faithful service. I shall miss his little nose sticking out of the bars of his bespoke cage. We shall not see his like again.’ At about 11 a.m., the Diary secretary Catherine took a call and, cupping her hand over the receiver, said that Nigel Dempster wanted to speak to me. I was not prepared for the verbal onslaught. ‘You Irish turd,’ he screamed. As I tried to get a word in edgeways, Nigel told me that he was writing letters of complaint to Rosie Boycott, my editor, and Lord Hollick, proprietor of the Express.
‘My dog isn’t even buried yet,’ he added in a voice that suggested he was on the verge of tears. ‘And I’m reporting you to the RSPCA for keeping a wild animal indoors. I shall never speak to you again.’
He then hung up. He did indeed write letters of complaint and did cut me at events. I was sad, but thought Nigel had overreacted. Curiously, the Express was inundated with letters, calls and emails expressing sympathy on the death of my pet ferret. So it wasn’t just the world’s greatest gossip columnist who believed I actually did have a ferret.
Some years later, as I was about to join the Mail, Nigel and I had an opportunity to be friends again. We were both invited to one of Richard Shepherd’s splendid luncheons at Langan’s. Other guests included the great sports writer Ian Wooldridge, raconteur Ned Sherrin and the up-and-coming Sam Leith from the Telegraph. Nigel arrived late and sat in the vacant chair next to me. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ he snapped. ‘I was invited,’ I replied. Nigel then flexed his cuffs, exposing a chunky gold cufflink embossed with a rampant dog. Pointing to it, Nigel said: ‘That’s the dog you killed.’ It was indeed a gold memorial to Tulip. I protested: ‘I didn’t kill your dog. I mocked its death and for that I am sorry. I underestimated how upset you would be. Will you accept my apology?’ He did. We shook hands and the subject was never mentioned again.
I didn’t realise then that Nigel’s behaviour was caused by his illness, undiagnosed. His initial falling over was put down to his alcohol intake. But it became worse. In desperation he converted to Roman Catholicism and made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. It didn’t work.
I often wonder what Nigel, dubbed ‘the Greatest Living Englishman’ by Private Eye, would make of today’s gossip columns. In his day, gossip was satire too. We made fun of celebrity. I suspect the humourless stream of Instagram selfies from the likes of Kim Kardashian would have Nigel feverishly slaking what the Telegraph obituarist described as his ‘camel’s thirst’ for Chablis.
John McEntee and Sam Leith reminisce on the golden age of gossip.