at his best
Seeing as how man didn’t emerge from the caves until something like 6,000 years ago, thirty-five years is a mere bagatelle in the grand scheme of things. Still, man’s day-to-day folly is always more fun than grand schemes.
In September 1976 I went to Torino to buy a Fiat car for my daughter’s mother straight from Fiat’s principal shareholder Gianni Agnelli. He not only gave me a very good price but also had me stay in his house along with his then-driver for Ferrari, Niki Lauda. The Austrian driver had recently been horribly burnt at Nürburgring but recovered enough to win the Formula One title in 1977. The next day, I took possession of the Fiat and motored toward Paris. I was advised to drive slowly for the first thousand kilometers.
Boredom on the motorway brought on the muse. I memorized close to 1,000 words—a word per kilometer—on how one can spot an Englishman in a European nightclub. (They scrutinize the bill and argue about it with the waiters, never have the right currency, wear thick tweeds that smell of horses and dogs, dance without rhythm, and scare the Arabs with their red complexions.) When I eventually got to London I rang The Spectator’s then-editor Alexander Chancellor and proposed the piece. For any of you unfamiliar with The Spectator, it is one of the English-speaking world’s oldest magazines, running close to 200 years and over nine thousand issues. Graham Greene has called it the world’s best written and most elegant weekly.
As luck would have it, Chancellor wanted to lighten the magazine up a bit, and he welcomed my proposal. I wrote 1,500 words in half an hour, adding a French accent to it: ze for “the” and zut alors after every expostulation. It ran the next week and Alexander asked me if I wished to contribute regularly. I jumped at the chance, as until then I had been traveling around the world’s trouble spots reporting dry facts for wire services. My column went in the back of the book, as it’s called, and it was supposed to be funny—harder to do than it sounds.
Jet-setters did not read The Spectator 35 years ago. Politicians, literary people, Oxford and Cambridge dons, and clubmen did, but not jet-setters. So I invented the quintessential English jet-set couple, Mark and Lola Winters, based on Martin and Nona Summers, a real twosome I ran into everywhere I went. I began chronicling their life. The trick worked. The story of their egregious social climbing made the rounds after gossip columnists picked it up and people from all walks of life started to read the column. I wrote amazing things about Mark and Lola: their social climbing with real people, many of whom were close friends of mine, the tricks they pulled to get invited to chic parties, their efforts to attract celebrities to their Eaton Square flat, the presents they sent to certain Greek shipowners whom they hardly knew, the children they rented to pose as their own when they managed to have “proper” people as their guests, and finally, their desperation to get third-rate royals, any royals, to attend their bashes.
The column became required reading by those who found the Winters ridiculous and savored the humiliation I heaped on them week in, week out. When The Spectator conducted a poll to see who was reading us, it was revealed that Oxford dons were reading my column en masse and discussing the state of English social climbing at the High Table after work. Dons are notorious gossips. I also reported on the parties I attended—where I invariably ran into the notorious couple—and about my first love, politics. One thing that everyone at The Spectator could never figure out was why no one realized the couple was fictitious. I think it was because I mixed them up with real people who were mostly vague and aristocratic and who could never remember anyone’s name.
It was from New York’s glamorous Studio 54 where I first reported about widespread cocaine use:
No sane person goes into the lavatory of Studio without a surgical mask as if in an asbestos plant during an explosion. Masses of humanity sniff, snort, sneeze, cough and expectorate. Steve Rubell, the owner, is seriously thinking of taking out the toilet bowls as redundant.
But soon it was my turn. On July 24, 1984, a customs officer at Heathrow Airport told me an envelope in my rear pocket was about to fall out. “Oh, thanks,” I wisecracked. “If only you knew what was in it!” He crooked his finger and I ended up spending four months in the pokey for possessing two grams of cocaine. I used my one telephone call to ring The Spectator’s office and got Claire Asquith, granddaughter of WWI-era Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, on the telephone. I told her to notify the new editor, Charles Moore, that I was resigning forthwith, whereupon she asked me whether I would be filing my column from jail.
In my 35 years of being a columnist at The Spectator, I have served under seven editors, five of whom are old Etonians, all of whom have edited a weekly staffed by probably as effortlessly elegant and professional a crew as could exist in Evelyn Waugh’s fevered imagination of the illusory upper classes. An example of this nonchalance was Charles Moore’s reaction when I resigned after being busted: “Were you our religious correspondent, I’d immediately accept it. But you are our high-life writer, so we expect you to be high at times.”
Now that’s what I call noblesse oblige. After paying my debt to society, the new editor, Dominic Lawson, son of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested I write more about politics and life in general rather than the lighthearted stuff I had been doing. I was thrilled. The first thing I did was spill the beans about Mark and Lola. Some wrote that they were canceling their subscriptions because I had misled them. Lawson thought it hilarious.
When I reported about New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, writing that Puerto Ricans were useless, foul-mouthed thieves, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to boycott all of Conrad Black’s newspapers—he owned many in America—and to deport me. The Spectator not only refused to fire me, but then-editor Frank Johnson introduced me to the American ambassador in London as the Puerto Rican ambassador. Lord Black eventually lost the Telegraph group, to which The Spectator belongs, and our present owners, Sir David Barclay and his brother, have been extremely supportive of my antics.
About 15 years ago, I wrote how Osama bin Laden, known as Harry Laden to his friends, was a very popular member of White’s Club, held court at the bar daily, and had been made a member by the Duke of Beaufort and Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames. Neither the Duke nor Soames, both good friends of mine, said a word. American newspapers went wild and Vanity Fair sent its best reporters to interview me. I had made the whole thing up but told them I was too scared to give any more details. After September 11, 2001, some Americans stopped speaking to me, calling me a traitor for fraternizing with a mass murderer. A member of White’s, insurance broker David Metcalfe, sued me because I had included him in my group with Harry. I had to give him an apology and took the opportunity to reveal that this story, too, was a hoax. The Spectator’s staff enjoyed it greatly despite the hate letters we received.
When Boris Johnson took over as editor he was already a Member of Parliament, but when he became London’s mayor, he had to give up the editor’s chair. But before he did, he fought tooth and nail on my behalf when the Israeli embassy decided I was “worse than Goebbels” in criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank. When the Israelis demanded he fire me, Boris answered that he would if they evacuated the occupied territories and apologized for 45 years of oppression. Again, noblesse oblige.
Which brings me to the present. It might sound corny, but writing for The Spectator has been my life’s one wonderful constant. I have been given columns the world over—the Sunday Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, the New York Post, Tatler—all because of the Speccie. When I first began 35 years ago it sold 8,000 copies. Now we sell close to 100,000 each week and are read by close to a million. I plan to retire in five years if I live that long, forty being a nice round number, then write books. I have nothing to say except superlatives about my fellow scribes and the people who produce the magazine weekly without fail. Every week we have grand lunches at the magazine, which is housed in a very grand house next to Parliament. We have famous guests whose brains we pick and whose legs we pull. Once a year, the first Thursday in July, we give our summer party where every prime minister has attended since I’ve been there. If ever I am fired I shall certainly miss the place. In fact, I am already thinking how empty my life will be in five years. Long live the Speccie.