The London Spectator is the oldest weekly magazine of the English-speaking world, a jewel of a magazine as distinguished and respected as it is elegantly written. It was first published in 1828, just as modern Greece became a nation, and in a recent speech the sainted editor remarked that the Speccie was as old as its longest-running columnist, which is yours truly.
Graham Greene, no slouch where writing is concerned, called the Spectator “by far the most elegantly written weekly in the English-speaking world” and went as far as to invite one of the most notorious drunks of London’s bohemia, our “Low Life” columnist Jeffrey Bernard, to stay with him in Antibes. Both Greene and Bernard are now gone, but the Speccie has recently reached an all-time high in circulation—over 85,000 copies—a fact which seemed to grate with our literary editor, Mark Amory: “I remember when our circulation was 12,000 and EVERYBODY used to read it.”
I joined the magazine as a columnist back in 1976, when it sold around 8,000 copies per week but it seemed that everyone you knew read it. Everyone, that is, at Oxford and Cambridge, in Westminster, in Kensington and Belgravia, as well as in London’s St. James’s clubland. Now at 85,000 copies, owned by the Daily Telegraph group, and a big moneymaker, the Speccie’s sometimes reactionary ethos is not as profound as it once was—who can forget its early support of the postage stamp and its prophetic thoughts on the motor carriage?
Back in 1976, the Speccie’s headquarters were a Georgian house on a leafy Bloomsbury street next to the house of Charles Dickens. We have since moved to yet another grand house in a quiet street fifty yards from Parliament. There is a large garden in the back where our annual summer party takes place on the first Thursday of July. These parties are notorious for the scrum they produce, an overflow of every writer, hack, politician, and London characters imaginable. All prime ministers, at least since I’ve been there, attend regularly, although royals are never invited. Except for lunch. The Spectator’s lunches used to be notorious for the mix they produced. They are held in the elegant dining room and such diverse characters as Spiro Agnew, Prince Charles, Dame Edna Everage, Alger Hiss, Albert Speer, Dame Maggie Smith (whom I sat next to a couple of years ago and her first words to me were, “What in heavens is that pink thing you’re eating?”) join in the frivolity. Drink flows uninterruptedly, and when the legendary editor Clay Felker came over for lunch—he was looking for writers as he had just taken over Esquire—he asked me how was it possible for anyone to produce the magazine after all the drinking. (After lunch we took him across the street where the Speccie pub did a roaring business.) But despite all the drinking, the magazine has been produced for more than 9,000 consecutive issues and running.
The Spectator’s detractors—there are very few—complain that it’s elitist and edited only by old Etonians. Our answer is that there’s nothing wrong with elitism and as far as old Etonian editors are concerned, I’ve served under seven, and only five of them had gone to Eton. The present editor, Fraser Nelson, is a very good-looking young man who was the first to ring me when he was appointed. “I’m sorry to tell you that I haven’t received a single call asking me to fire you” was his opening. (Most past editors had received such requests, especially from the Israeli Embassy.)
Great names of literature and journalism have always graced the Speccie’s masthead. John Betjeman, poet laureate, wrote on architectural topics; theater producer Kenneth Tynan was the drama critic; playwright John Osborne was a diarist; novelists Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene were contributors; Auberon Waugh was a long-time columnist, to name just a few past greats. Paul Johnson, the greatest living historian, now writes regularly on religion, gardens, fashion, and, of course, history. Former editor Boris Johnson is now the Mayor of London and tipped to be the next prime minister “if he can keep his pants on,” as a recent Speccie article warned. A recent arrival—it was ten years ago, which is recent by Speccie standards—is Jeremy Clarke, who writes the low life to my high life. Under Fraser Nelson’s expert guidance, Jeremy has reached superstardom with his brilliant writing. The last low life, Jeff Bernard, had a play written about him and was portrayed by Peter O’Toole onstage. The play was a runaway success under the euphemism the magazine used when Jeff was too drunk to file copy: Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. (Bernard died the same day as Princess Diana and was thus deprived of the spectacular obituaries he had announced in his deathbed.)
The Spectator’s genius is a simple one. Its writers continue to believe they are communicating with a smallish and highly educated and sophisticated audience. They write as if they were addressing their aunt Agatha, their eccentric and terrifying relation who got a 1st at Oxford age 16 and who now lives in a crumbling stately home owned by her half-witted brother. Long may the Speccie reign.
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