‘A unique opportunity to purchase the home of a famous weekly magazine.’ Thus might an estate agent market No. 56 Doughty Street, London WC1, now up for sale after more than 30 years as the offices of The Spectator. But an estate agent cannot know how des a res is this early-19th-century house in Bloomsbury. It should be sold not so much for its fabric — handsome as it is, if slightly worn — as for its recent history, for the rich variety of people who have passed through its doors and the voices which may come out of the now possibly rotting woodwork. As someone associated with The Spectator for most of its time in Doughty Street, I offer an insider’s guide for prospective buyers, confident that the building will be bought, whether for a business enterprise or to return it to private use (for which listed-building consent has been given), by a discerning Spectator reader.
As a private house — on four floors, plus basement and garden — in this wide, quiet Georgian street, No. 56 was only a few doors down from Charles Dickens (whose biographer, Peter Ackroyd, also historian of London, worked at The Spectator for several years). When Laurence Turner, sculptor and carver, lived here in the first part of the 20th century, he modelled the decorative plaster ceilings and cornices on the ground and first floors. The publishing firm of Blond Briggs was here in 1975 when The Spectator, having just been bought by Henry Keswick, had to move from its home in Gower Street and find new premises at very short notice. Anthony Blond obliged and moved out.
For the first ten years the basement remained uninhabitable, used as a storeroom and dump. From 1985 it housed the advertising department, and is now, in estate agents’ jargon, suitable for further modernisation and refurbishment. However, as an expectant new owner you will want to enter the building by the imposing front door, under the striped awning if it is pulled out, and turn left into the reception room. Associations with past Spectator contributors and friends, and in particular memories of their voices, begin here.
Graham Greene came to lunch one day, put his head round the door and was asked by the receptionist if he had come about the carpet. (On another occasion, in front of a senior Tory politician, he produced from his jacket pocket a postcard he had just received from Kim Philby in Moscow.) A visitor might be greeted by the braying voice of Jennifer Paterson, then The Spectator’s weekly cook and later a television star as one of the Two Fat Ladies, with her motorcycle helmet under her arm. She was holding forth one morning when the late Duke of Devonshire came diffidently through the door and asked if he could possible buy, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, a back issue containing an article on his racehorse Park Top.
The name-dropping drawl of Alastair Forbes could sometimes be heard, as he tried to cajole the literary editor into letting him review a biography of someone — European princeling, Bloomsberry, American politician — who had, inevitably, been a close friend. And in the afternoon the infectious, slightly hysterical laugh of Shiva Naipaul would alert his wife Jenny, working on the first floor as editor’s secretary, to the fact that he had returned from a three-hour lunch.
The sash-windowed editor’s office, originally the drawing-room of the house, had two sofas during The Spectator’s tenure, and you may want to keep to that tradition if you buy the property.
The publisher’s office was on the next floor up, where a steeper staircase then leads to the top of the house, to two more offices and the all-important dining-room. It was a pity that The Spectator did not keep a guestlist of those who lunched there over the years. You would be amazed at the galère of names who climbed those stairs for food and drink every Thursday: absent friends such as Auberon Waugh, Jeffrey Bernard, George Gale, Sam White; an occasional communist (Jessica Mitford, Alger Hiss); the Prince of Wales; even showbiz celebs (Ruby Wax, Elizabeth Hurley).
David Stirling, founder of the SAS, threw hand grenades (actually, bread rolls) round the dining-room one day. On another occasion Beryl Bainbridge spent most of lunch under, rather than at, the table. And then there was the time that Spiro Agnew, former US vice-president who had recently had to resign because of alleged tax evasion, came to lunch on the same day as Barry Humphries. After they had engaged in serious conversation about the future of Nato, Humphries went next door to change (appropriately in the office of Peter Ackroyd, who had just published a history of transvestism) and returned as Dame Edna. Agnew was bewildered and became very bothered when Dame Edna cosied up to him and asked the Greek immigrant grocer’s son if they could share a glass of ouzo. The tax evader decided on evasive action and fled downstairs.
Remember the history you would be buying in this dining-room. But it has to be said that you would be buying a very small kitchen, from which, because a junior member of staff got in her way, Jennifer Paterson one day threw plates out of the window, which landed in the terraced garden below. More than 70 feet long according to the sale particulars, the garden was always a feature of Spectator life, whether for quiet contemplation, doing interviews, correcting proofs or, most importantly, because it had to accommodate the vast majority of the guests at the magazine’s annual summer party.
You enter the garden through the French windows of what used to be the literary editor’s office and under a vine (if it’s still there). At the party the crush and press of people was such that it might take ten minutes to get from one end of the garden to the other, while literally rubbing shoulders with, as it might be, Enoch Powell, Jonathan Dimbleby, Nigel Dempster, David Trimble. The weather was critical: it would have been impossible to accommodate all the guests in the main rooms of the house.
In 30 years no rain fell on The Spectator’s annual party. There was one year when Alexander Chancellor and I were in the Duke of York across the road in early afternoon, gloomily watching the rain come down in stair-rods, and hearing that Euston station had been closed because of flooding. But by six o’clock the sun had come out and all was well. Don’t forget, when you give your summer party in the Doughty Street garden, to pick a date in the first week of July.
Offers for the freehold of 56 Doughty Street should be received by 20 April. Contact Hurford Salvi Carr: 020 7250 1012.