Peter Hoskin: Where politics meets culture in The Spectator’s rich archives
By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
During my time at The Spectator, where I edited the Coffee House blog, there were few things I enjoyed more than a trip to the basement. There, spread across two rooms and collected in doorstop leather books, was every single back issue of the magazine. 185 years-worth of fine thought, and even finer prose, to dip into when the blogging became less urgent.
But now, as befits the openness of the Internet Age, this is a privilege available to all. The Spectator has just made its entire archive available online, and for free. There are still some gaps and technical snags – which is why it’s presented as a ‘Beta’ – but it’s already wonderful overall. As my former colleague Sebastian Payne puts it in his blog post introducing the whole endeavour, “The archive is a treasure trove”.
So, to mark the release of The Spectator’s archive, a change of pace for this week’s Culture Column. Here are some of the pieces I discovered during my forays to the print archives, and which overlap politics and culture, and which can now be read online. The excerpts below are just that: excerpts. You can click on the links for the full version.
“Take Mr Cameron’s formative musical years, which could come from any self-respecting leftie’s record collection: ‘“Going Underground”, “Eton Rifles” — inevitably, I was one — in the corps — it meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t see why the Left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.’ Is there nothing safe from the expansionist New Tories? Cameron loves Kirsty MacColl’s ‘New England’ and adds, ‘I’ve got dozens of Bob Dylan albums. Some of his lyrics you can agree with . . .’ Not ‘Blowing in the Wind’, I take it.”
As for other serving Cabinet members, Michael Gove is one who has written for The Spectator on numerous occasions, during his time as a journalist. I always liked his brief tribute to Christopher Lee, calling for a knighthood that has since been given – and not least because, as it notes, Mr Gove featured in a film, A Feast at Midnight, with Mr Lee:
“On New Year’s Eve I spent five hours in the presence of genius. A delicious Hogmanay supper with friends was sandwiched between a matinee performance of The Lord of the Rings and a late-night viewing of the Robin Hardy classic The Wicker Man. The undisputed star of both, whose brilliance never fades, is the wonderful Christopher Lee. The pleasure of watching two great movies illuminated by his presence was diminished only by the publication that same day of an Honours List in which his name, once again, inexplicably failed to appear among the list of Knights Bachelor. Lee is now in his seventies, and following the death of Sir Alec Guinness he is easily our most distinguished actor, as worthy to enjoy a knighthood alongside Sir Ian McKellen as his Saruman is to do battle with the latter’s Gandalf. I cannot help but fear that it is his association with Hammer’s House of Horror that leads Her Majesty’s advisers to conclude that the dark lord of schlock should not be favoured with a knighthood. But not only was Hammer a significant export earner when the rest of the British film industry was mired in introspective mediocrity; Lee himself has come a long way from Transylvania. Having acted alongside him during my own brief film career, I can attest not just to the majesty of his craft, but also to the grace of his person. He helped calm my butterflies and those of other inexperienced performers with impromptu digressions on all manner of subjects including his favourite cuisine — Danish. It was impossible to feel nervous when listening to Lee explain, ‘There are no end to the pleasures one can derive from a herring.’ Or indeed from a prime old English ham.”
Like Mr Gove, George Osborne has also written for The Spectator, although more often in the books section, reviewing works on American politics. As I remember it, those reviews rather dried up after a column by Fraser Nelson contained the line, “A senior financier told me over lunch last month that he lost faith in the shadow chancellor when he found that Osborne had reviewed a book about the Nixon presidency for The Spectator in August last year.” Here’s part of that offending review:
“No one doubts the cultural or political significance of the period, but the flowerpower generation is now starting to collect its pension. As its places in politics, academia, business and the media are taken by the generations who came after, the debate has moved on. We talk now not of a permissive society but of a broken one, of crack cocaine not purple haze.”
Speaking of haze, in 2000 Jasper Gerard looked into Tony Blair’s time in a band:
“Another describes Blair and the band as ‘weekend hippies who were all clearly going to be quite successful’. And yet, says James Moon (no relation to Keith), the drummer in Blair's Oxford band, Ugly Rumours, ‘I never saw him with any drugs whatsoever. Which I must say is more journalistically interesting than if he had — particularly with that lot in the band.’ (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.) Another Oxford contemporary says, ‘His hair was virtually down to his waist but I have no idea whether he took drugs. He was certainly into his band, but I don't know whether he was interested in anything other than the music.’”
Of course, there’s a good helping of Boris in the Spectator archives, including his defence of P.G. Wodehouse against those who accuse the author of Nazi sympathies…
“If anyone thinks P.G. Wodehouse was a Nazi collaborator or, as the Independent described him last Friday, ‘a sinister character with extreme right-wing views and even Nazi sympathies’, then that is a comment on the catastrophic illiteracy of the age. There can scarcely have been a more devastating portrait of a fascist than in Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters. You will recall the figure of Spode, the would-be dictator, whose eye could open an oyster at 50 paces, and whose followers went around in black shorts (‘You mean footer bags?’ cried Bertie. ‘How perfectly foul’).
In the magnificent climax of this work, Bertie rounds on Spode, who has been behaving in an overweening fashion in the matter of the silver cow-creamer. Yes, for once in his career of masterly inactivity, Bertie Wooster lets another man have a piece of his mind. ‘The trouble with you, Spode,’ he says, ‘is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone.
‘You hear them shouting “Heil Spode!”, and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”’”
“‘What is your best physical asset?’ the compere asked mother no. 5.
Mother no. 5 had no doubt.
‘My best physical asset ees my arse.’ And how! I said, and nudged my 12 year-old. ‘She said her best physical assets were her eyes,’ said my daughter, bleakly. But now mum 5 was leaving the stage to generous acclaim, and mother no. 6 tottered on.”
…and Douglas Hurd’s review of Boris’s dimly-remembered novel Seventy Two Virgins:
“I have read somewhere that the friends of this author are worried. Apparently he is an MP, a shadow minister, a performer on chat shows, editor of a weekly magazine, the next prime minister but three — and now out pops a novel. How can he manage it all? They need not worry. On the evidence I would guess that he wrote this in three days, flat out day and night, finishing with the arrival on the fourth morning of what with his Homeric education he would call the rosy-fingered dawn.”
When it comes to older politicians, it’s rather more difficult to find them mentioned in connection with the arts, although there is this note, from 1948, on one of Winston Churchill’s books about painting:
“The main contention is engaging, but I am afraid illusory. Painting is the ideal distraction from worry and corrective of fatigue according to Mr. Churchill. Everyone should try it; almost everyone could do it. I wonder. If so; almost anyone could lay bricks or write Marlborough or, for that matter, govern Great Britain. However, Mr. Churchill says ‘Difficult? Fascinating!’ And who am I to gainsay him?”
Anyway, I shall leave you to snuffle around the Spectator archives for yourself. Please do mention any discoveries in the comments section, below.