The Spectator of London is the oldest weekly of the Anglophone world, a jewel of a magazine as distinguished and respected as it is beautifully written. It was first published in 1828, just as modern Greece became a nation, and in a recent speech the sainted editor (as I refer to him) remarked that the Speccie, as it is affectionately known, was as old as its longest running columnist, which is yours truly.
Novelist Graham Greene 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, 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—which seemed to grate with our literary editor, Mark Amory, upon hearing the news. “I remember when our circulation was 12,000 and everybody used to read it.”
Actually, I joined the magazine as a columnist back in 1976, when it sold around 8,000 copies per week, but it seemed that everyone one knew did 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 money-maker, the Speccie’s sometime 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: the invention seemed likely to catch on.
Back in 1976, the Speccie’s headquarters were a Bloomsbury Georgian house next to the home of Charles Dickens. We have since moved to yet another grand house in a quiet street fifty yards as the crow flies from Parliament. As before, 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 character imaginable. Prime ministers, at least since I’ve been there, attend regularly, although royals are never invited. Except for lunch.
Lunches at The Spectator 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, and Dame Maggie Smith join in the frivolity. (I sat next to Dame Maggie a couple of years ago—her first words to me were “what in heavens is that pink thing you’re eating?”) Drink flows uninterruptedly, and when the legendary Village Voice editor Clay Felker came to lunch, he asked me how was it possible to produce the magazine after all the drinking. But produced the magazine has been, 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. Well, our answer is that there’s nothing wrong with elitism. I’ve served under seven editors, and only five of them had gone to Eton. The present editor, Fraser Nelson, 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.)
Needless to say, great names of literature and journalism have always gone hand in hand with the Speccie’s masthead: poet laureate John Betjeman, theatre producer Kenneth Tynan, playwright John Osborne, and novelists Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene were all contributors. Paul Johnson, the greatest living historian, was a columnist and now writes regularly about 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 the expert guidance of Fraser Nelson, Jeremy has reached super stardom as far as brilliant writing goes. The last “Low Life,” Jeff Bernard, had a play written about him and was portrayed by Peter O’Toole on stage. 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 thus was deprived of the spectacular obituaries he had announced on his deathbed.)
The genius of the weekly is a simple one. Its writers continue to believe that they are communicating with a smallish, 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 at age 16 and who now lives in a crumbling stately home owned by her half-witted brother. Long may the Speccie reign.