In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a dedicated reader of the London Spectator, which has now launched an Australian version, the English magazine with a 12-page Australian supplement in the middle, edited by Oscar Humphries.
With a circulation of 77,000, according to The Australian‘s write-up of the magazine’s local launch, it sells many more copies than it used to. But the magazine seems to me to be much weaker than it was 20 years ago. A couple of regulars from that time are left – columnist Paul Johnson, and ‘high life’ columnist Taki – but the stars are long gone: writers such as Christopher Hitchens, who of course went on to much greater fame, Timothy Garton Ash who wrote superb articles from then communist central Europe, Jeffrey Bernard with his ‘low life’ column, Auberon Waugh with his weekly ‘Another Voice’ column (the latter two have since died), and many others. In more recent times Mark Steyn and Theodore Dalrymple made it worth reading occasionally, but Steyn has gone and Dalrymple appears infrequently.
It was always much lighter, more personal, and more opinionated than other news magazines, and still is – but this only works if the writers have the style, substance or humour to carry it off, and it is the lack of these that makes much of the current Spectator at best moderately interesting. Oscar Humphries is really only (slightly) famous for being his father’s son, so do we really care that he has a small art collection? But at least I know who Oscar Humphries is, which is at least the starting point for possibly being interested in what he has to say, if only in the hope that he tells us something interesting about his dad. Reading the magazine on a plane without Google I had no idea who the diarist Charles Waterstreet was, and even now that I do I don’t care that he had a mid-life crisis aged 12, or that he thinks that at 60th birthday parties the trouble is that there are too many candles and not enough cake.
Though I don’t think this is a particularly good time for the magazine, or that the Australian supplement will make it any more worth buying on a regular basis, it remains refreshingly free of respect for conventional wisdom and standards. I doubt there is any other magazine on sale in the news section of newsagents in which the subeditors would let this through:
Hadrian was a bisexual, it seems. He was married to a niece of Trajan’s wife, for reasons of power, but the love of his life was a dreadful youth called Antinous. The many images of ‘Tony-boy’ that survive testify to Hadrian’s bad taste. He was an upper-shoot rent boy, of the type which did in poor James Pope-Hennessy, whose house off Holland Park Road I never pass without a shudder. James had a dark saying, ‘An arse in the hand is worth two in Shepherd’s Bush’, which must have haunted him as he was being beaten to death. Hadrian, like many buggers, was interested in the arts…
The gratuitous reference to Pope-Hennessy is amazingly tasteless even by the standards of the paragraph, but Paul Johnson’s matter-of-fact tone lets him almost get away with it. This is just who Pope-Hennessy was and what happened to him, with no particular judgment being made. In the hands of someone like Auberon Waugh this kind of outrageous stuff was often hilarious. And more recently Dalrymple displayed superb control of tone; his tales of the British underclass were often very funny, but he did not lose sympathy for his subject. He was not judging the underclass from a distance, but as a doctor who spent many years trying to help.
This Tory sensibility is deeply out of step with most of the local intelligentsia and literati, so I predict the Australian Spectator will struggle. But it will be worth keeping an eye on its website for the occasional gem.