Welcome to Doughty Street
Boris takes his successor on a guided tour of the Spectator offices
It is an eternal and reassuring fact of human nature that when an editor announces that he is stepping down from a great publication, there is not the slightest interest in what he plans to do with his life, or even who he was.
I have received many phone calls from friends and colleagues since announcing last Friday that this would be my last edition, and they only want to know one thing. ‘Who is taking over?’
I wish I knew myself. But since the white smoke has yet to go up, I thought I had better write a general welcome to whoever you are out there. I propose to open the door of 56 Doughty Street and show you — not so much how it’s done — but where it’s done.
You arrive at a big black door in Holborn with a brass plaque, and after you have gained admission, you find a scene of domestic chaos, with dog leads, umbrellas, champagne and other impedimenta. Immediately beneath a sign saying ‘No Bicycles’ you will notice several bicycles.
You will dimly glimpse other offices ahead and to your left, the Books and Arts and Cartoon departments, bulging with the greatest talents in journalism. But if you are like me, you will be overcome with nerves and scoot straight upstairs for your office, on the first floor. As soon as you walk in, your heart will lift.
It is a magnificent room, a huge Victorian drawing-room with a chandelier and three sash windows looking out on the street where Charles Dickens lived, with an assortment of furniture both distinguished and distressed.
As you walk to your desk you cross Ian Gilmour’s (editor 1954-59) carpet, a large, fine and extremely valuable Turkish rug. Occasionally in the last 50 years there have been peeps from Isleworth suggesting this carpet might be returned. You will find these suggestions increasingly easy to ignore.
You sit down at the colossal desk. You find a Black Museum of Spectator history. There is a fragment of red telephone box, rescued by Charles Moore (editor 1984-1990). There is a big yellow molar in a plastic thimble, apparently wrenched from the merry chaps of Frank Johnson (editor 1995-1999). There is a silver-plated statuette of a miner with pick and shovel, presented to ‘The Spectator’ by the townsfolk of Aberdare in 1929. ‘In grateful recognition,’ says the plaque, adding, ‘the greatest of these is love.’
Hear, hear, you say, and try the drawers. You will find the handles mainly broken, but in the bottom left is a fabulous cache of letters congratulating Dominic Lawson (editor 1990-1995) on acceding to your chair. You will by now be blizzarded with your own letters of congratulation, and in some cases you will have received the same letters, from the same people, offering the same columns!
Before you have time to recover, your hugely efficient PA will be patching you through to Downing Street, because the Prime Minister wants to congratulate you in person. You leave instantly, and have half an hour in the sofa room with Tony, during which he will extol the magazine and (quite properly) the genius of Paul Johnson.
If you do the job in the way that we all hope, that will be the last friendly contact you have with the regime. In due course, when Downing Street takes you to the Press Complaints Commission over a story that turns out to be 100 per cent right, you will have to keep your nerve. Old chums will turn up in your office, urging you to capitulate. Don’t.
The Spectator surrenders to no one. The Spectator is always right.
When you return from your audience you may be tired and cold, and I recommend that you light the gas fire. There are few sights more cheering than that fire on a winter’s day, though you should not forget to turn it off when you leave. I did, and the Nigerian security guy put it out with the fire extinguisher.
Once the fire is going well, you may find your eyes drifting to the lovely striped chesterfield across the room. Is it the right size, you wonder, for a snooze…? You come round in a panic, to find a lustrous pair of black eyes staring down at you.
Relax. It’s only Kimberly, with some helpful suggestions for boosting circulation. Just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way. Whatever you do, don’t get depressed if she starts saying ‘noos-stand is sawft this week, Booriss’ (she is American) or that she doesn’t like your cover.
That’s her job, and if you put your back into yours you’ll find that news-stand has a way of gently recovering.
Just as you’re drifting off again, the phone goes. There are two phones on the desk, white and black. If it is the white phone, on your first day in the job, I would say it is a dime to a dollar that the caller is Bruce Anderson.
Now Bruce is a wonderful fellow and an excellent writer, but if you happen to tell him, after lunch, that you do not have space for a piece, he is apt to get morbid. ‘I will destroy you,’ he starts saying. ‘I will destroy you and your reputation for ever.’ Do not on any account take fright. He doesn’t mean it. The best thing is to blow kisses down the phone and commission a piece for the following week.
And then the phone goes again, and this time I would wager it is Taki, calling from Gstaad, full of good cheer and anxious to find out whether or not you are going to sack him. At this stage in your editorship the sacking or keeping of Taki is likely to be turned into a culture war of Dreyfus-like proportions.
The Guardian and other papers will start a horrible drumming roar for his dismissal. It is time, they say, that The Spectator showed it has moved on. Soon the whole of civilised London has joined in. Sack Taki! Sack Taki!
Faced with that overwhelming consensus, you have only one choice, though it is of course entirely up to you to decide what that is.
By now the day is drawing to an end, and it is time to see how everyone else is getting on. You stick your head round the next-door office, about a third of the size of yours, and occupied by three people and….Is that a dog? It is Harry, a highly intelligent and handsome Jack Russell, and certainly no smellier than anyone else in the building.
You go upstairs, past girlish giggles and shrieks emanating from the publisher’s office, and you pass other tiny offices, full of editors and computers and industry of all kinds, until you reach the dining-room.
Here you will pass many happy hours, some of them conscious. These are the very windows through which the magazine’s famous cook, Jennifer Paterson, threw the crockery into the garden of the National Association of Funeral Directors next door. This is the table where most of the copy-editing is done on Mondays and Tuesdays, expert hands and eyes buffing and polishing the contributions with the care of Amsterdam jewellers.
And then, last but not least, you go downstairs to pay homage to the advertising and production teams, who keep The Spectator awash with ads for handbags and help to pay your mortgage. Over time you will find that it pays to listen carefully to what they say, and oblige them as far as you can.
So ends the tour of the ancient distillery. The big black door slams behind you for the first time, as it slammed behind me for the last time this week. Thanks to the exertions of the brilliant team you inherit, the magazine is in the pink of financial health with circulation at an all-time high.
You will be urged to drag it ‘kicking and screaming into the 21st century’. But as editor of The Spectator you should not be tied to any particular decade, century, or even millennium.
You are a Time Lord, and your readers expect you to take them to all parts of the human experience, and to remember that the Bible and Homer are far more interesting and important, sub specie aeternitatis, than the price of oil or Tory prospects.
You will be told that the magazine is elitist, and you should take that as a compliment. Every society that we know of has been run by an elite, and every elite needs elucidation.
Every industry or profession needs an angel at the top of their Christmas tree, and in the case of journalism you hold that angel in your hands.
You will receive threatening letters from female journalists, urging you to have more female bylines, starting with their own, and I would not dream of advising you there.
You will find that our proprietors are little short of superb. They are cheerful, tolerant, wise, and eager to develop and improve the magazine.
I have a feeling that they are bluff enough not to mind the occasional laugh at their own expense, but I confess I have not had the nerve to find out.
Like everyone in a new post, you will probably have a tough first six months. You will then discover that you have, by some margin, the best job in London, and I have no doubt that you will have fun to a degree that is almost improper.