October 09, 2007
New York – Ain’t that a bitch! What else can one say? The way I figure it, it was 357 columns without a miss for the first seven years, then, after a Pentonville break, 1,275 straight until last week. The lawyers broke my streak, but then they would. And on my thirtieth year, too. Well, what the hell, all good things come to an end, but at least only Claus von Bulow rang to inquire whether I had dropped dead. Actually, I ran the offending piece on my Web site, www.takimag.com, so it did see the light of day. Some 100,000 visitors got to read it, so there.
What’s interesting is how things have changed in the last 30 years. Libel laws are supposedly not as strict as they used to be, but don’t you believe it. For example, and I will not mention politically incorrect things one was permitted to write in jest back then. When Liberace died of AIDS, I wrote “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and if you had liked pussy, you’d still be with us.” Charles Moore thought it in very bad taste, but too good to keep out. I suppose what I miss is the crummiest end of Grub Street. Now it’s all sex and celebrities; before it was a great emphasis on the bizarre. Hacks back then invented things. Not about brain-dead people like Britney or Paris, but stories which in their perversity and cruelty might as well have been true. One thing is for sure: The readers were amused. One person who was always in the news was prince Aly Khan, the father of the present Aga. Aly had the reputation of an indefatigable lover. He went on record saying about the English, and the upper crust English at that, “They called me a nigger, and I slept with their wives.” And he certainly did. By the time I got to Fleet Street, Aly was long gone—having died in a car crash crossing Le Pont de Saint Cloud on a May evening going to a ball—but hacks still asked me about his technique. Was it true he used to plunge his wrists in an ice bucket just before you-know-what? Of course, that was his trick, I’d say. His mystical prolongations went to his grave with him, but they sure made a good story.
Hacks used to be overworked and underpaid but in a strange way were hipsters, always in front of the curve. The idea of a Tara Palmer-Tomkinson posing as a writer was a no-no. Grub Street had pride. Columnists (and there were far fewer, especially gossip columnists) had an obsessive desire for revenge. Their readiness to injure anyone was in retaliation for the most ephemeral of slights. After all, when I began in this business there was something called the class system—fodder for those with a column to attack anyone, no matter how powerless, to stick the shiv in.
Ironically, there were gents of the old school who made their living in Grub Street, as I’m sure there still are. Second sons, failed priests, impoverished baronets, even shipowner heirs. I remember Tina Brown writing about yours truly that “there are a lot of hacks who would like to be shipowners, but there are no shipowners who would like to be hacks.” It was the nicest thing she ever wrote about me, and for once she got it right. My father used to laugh about it. “Don’t you realise that journalists make their living through blackmail?” he used to tell me. Mind you, he was judging by Greek standards of the Fifties and Sixties. I may sound melancholy and slightly ridiculous, but I loved the fact that I had never missed a column in the thirty years I’ve been writing it except for the force majeure of staying with the Queen.
Never mind. There are worse things, like a back operation I have to have in order to defend my title next year in Brussels. By that time, I hope, there will be an independent Flanders, and my friend Paul Belien will be foreign minister. Incidentally, another friend by the name of Paul, Gottfried, a prof and a hell of a writer, has just published the definitive book on conservatism in America. “Making sense of the American Right,” the subtitle, says it all. Paul Gottfried is no hack. A man of great dignity and as articulate as they come, he is of the Jewish faith but no Podhoretz he. He argues how modern conservatism’s roots are not very deep, and how the neo-cons have managed to belittle their predecessors on their way to power. I particularly liked a passage where he explains how misleading it is for present conservative leaders to pose as inheritors of Robert Taft in 1950, or Bill Buckley in 1955. It is all a power grab by narrow-minded ideologues who want to bring American democracy to other societies. I cannot recommend the book enough, because no matter what one’s politics are, after reading it one will understand what is really going on over here.
So there you have it. A new start, a new column, a new streak. Who was it that proposed to kill all the lawyers? Someone called Part Two, I believe. Finally, the only other thing I regret about the spike last week is that my buddy Oliver Gilmour did not get to read what I had to say about an old proprietor of ours and a wonderful man, Ian Gilmour.