Will the Australian Spectator succeed?

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.

7 Responses to “Will the Australian Spectator succeed?

  • 1
    Russell
    October 6th, 2008 22:13

    $6.95 I paid for that rubbish. I too loved the Spectator in the ’80s, but surely it was more intelligent and witty than this wretched rag. My expectations sank when the first article I read explained how the current financial crisis was actually caused by a left-wing lesbian employed by Bill Clinton – even Rafe would have given us better.

  • 2
    Harry_Palmer
    October 7th, 2008 02:31

    I am a long time reader of the Speccie and enjoy reading something that is confident enough to ignore most conventional wisdom and blithely give it’s own take on things.

    However, it does seem to have lost some sparkle over the last few years, the lose of writers like Mark Steyn and the withering away of Dalrymple has left it duller, less engaging and maybe a little less ready to be so boldly contrarian and richly engaging.

  • 3
    Simon
    October 7th, 2008 14:54

    It was very lively in the early naughties – Dalrymple and Boris Johnson always write well and Steyn was in a feud with other staff writers – great fun.

    Liddle and Hugo Young are fine but they’re unlikely to get people to shell out $7.

    The articles on Medjugorje and the financial crisis should have been fascinating but they were very mediocre.

    As for the Australian section – anyone that watched Q&A last week could see that Switzer is neither insighful nor entertaining and isn’t likely to contribute anything of value. I don’t know anything about Dame Edna’s son.

    It’d be good if they could cast the net a bit wider for interesting articles – the Manhattan City Journal is often excellent.

  • 4
    TimT
    October 7th, 2008 15:48

    I hope it does succeed and I hope it doesn’t succeed, for different reasons. Obviously it would be nice for it to provide some kind of default competition in the Aussie market, and the chatty style of British journalism you get in the Spectator is eminently readable.

    At the same time, what they’ve got on offer is rather depressing. A diary by Bruce Beresford? I suppose that will pull in a few readers who know his name, but that’s not saying too much. And there’s already a diarist in the main (non Australian) section, why duplicate resources like this?

    So far, Oscar Humphries hasn’t even updated the Australian blog. And the iconography they’re using is hideously out of date. (A kangaroo on the cover???? An Australian blog called BILLABONG??? Give me a bloody break, it’s like a return to 1980s Hawke-style jingoism.) But I did like Charles Waterstreet’s closing line (‘the past is another country boy’).

    I just hope the standard Spectator (British) content isn’t compromised or lessened by the Australian insert. It would be bad if all the editors and publishers had in mind was an Australian replacement of the magazine.

  • 5
    Geoff
    October 8th, 2008 08:38

    I note that the introduction to the first edition starts off, “In 1828, just 50 years after Arthur Philip’s 11 ships sailed into Port Jackson…”. The editor needs a lesson in either history arithmetic .

  • 6
    Rococo Liberal
    October 8th, 2008 10:14

    Andrew you lost me when you got all priggish about Paul Johnson’s comments on Pope-Hennessy. I’ve been reading the Speccie since 1985 and I can’t say that it has deteriorated in that time, but the world of journalism around it has.

  • 7
    mercia deane-johns
    November 10th, 2008 10:46

    Please can someone send me the contact details of the australian spectator? I need an address and phone number.
    Thanks, mercia deane-Johns