June 17, 2009
The very first time I walked into the Spectator office was in 1975, taken there for the summer party by Simon Courtauld, the then managing editor, i.e., he dealt with the business side of the oldest English speaking magazine in the world. Mind you, as I was about to find out, Simon had very little to do. The Spectator was selling 6000 copies and had no advertising whatsoever.
Simon introduced me to the editor, Alexander Chancellor, who was friendly and quite drunk, dishevelled and quite handsome. As I was to discover, everyone working for the Speccie back then was an old Etonian, except for Simon, who—horrors of horrors—had gone to Winchester. Oh yes, there was also Claire Asquith, Lady Claire, in fact, who worked downstairs with Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the literary editor. Wheatie, as he was called, was known as the rigid man. The moment he had one too many he became rigid, like a German officer being inspected by the Kaiser, and then was known to pass out in a rigid state. Wheatcroft was very handsome, a woman chaser, and we became fast friends. Ditto with Chancellor. A secret womanizer. But more about this later.
My love affair with the Spectator was more of what the French call a “coup de foudre,” than a gradual affection. It was instant and obsessive. I loved its snobbishness, its literacy, its lack of fear to offend the lower classes, its independence, and, of course, its sense of humour. It was relaxed and anything went. As long as one wasn’t vulgar, or, far worse, common. This is the place for me, I told myself, but how? I had never written proper English before, just dispatches for Bill Buckley’s National Review from Vietnam and the Middle East, and for UPI, covering riots and fires in Athens.
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Then lightning struck. I went to Turin to buy a car for my soon to be wife, and stayed with the owner of Fiat Gianni Agnelli, who gave me a friendly price. “Drive it slowly for the first thousand miles,” said Gianni, “it’s a fast creature, but vulnerable, like a virgin, it needs gentleness while you’re breaking it in.” I followed his words to the letter, but got bored on the way to Paris and in order to alleviate the boredom I decided to write an article for the Speccie in my head about how one recognises Englishmen abroad circa 1976.
It was easy. They wore tweeds, checked their bill in dark French nightclubs and argued when overcharged, danced in a spastic manner, were always sunburnt around their elbows and knees, and wore shoes with laces at the beach. (Remember, this was the ‘70s.) I had Regine, then queen of the night in Paris and Monte Carlo, saying how much she loved “ze Englis, and Englis writers like Emingway and Fizgerald.” I memorised it, and when I finally got to Paris, sat down and typed it. Then I flew to London and rang Chancellor: “Can we have a drink?” “Well, I have to meet the most boring of men, an MP, why don’t you come along?” The boring one is now a Lord so I won’t embarrass him, but he sure was boring. Alexander took my copy, and said he’d call me. But he never did. Simon Courtauld did. “Why don’t you try a bi-weekly column, and try to keep it light and funny?” It was the start of a 33 year love affair, six editors, seven owners, and over 1700 columns.
What were some of the highlights throughout the years? Too many to list but a few come to mind. Alexander Chancellor, a married man falling in love with a book reviewer, Mary Furness, Suzy Chancellor slapping Mary in public and the Spectator losing its editor while he took a six week sabbatical in Cairo in order to recover from the ordeal. Yours truly getting busted at Heathrow for having cocaine in my pocket, ringing the Speccie in order to resign, and having Claire Asquith ask me whether I’d be filing copy from jail. Peregrine Worsthorne ringing the editor, Charles Moore, demanding he sack me, and Charles telling him that if “Taki were our religious correspondent, I’d sack him on the spot. In view of the fact he’s our high life writer, we expect him to be high at times.” Dominic Lawson receiving a call from the Israeli ambassador the first day as editor and being told in no uncertain terms he should fire me because I’m anti-Semitic. “He’s anti-Zionist,” said Dominic, “and his column is brilliant, and he’s staying. Finally, Frank Johnson warned by Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, to fire me because I had insulted the Puerto Rican community, and Frank telling the dago mayor he was thinking of naming me ambassador to the island.
What is the point of all this? Dunno, as they say, except that Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is to “portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times.” Looking back at the last thirty-three wonderful years the reflection gets kinder and kinder.