Mark Amory's diary: Confessions of a literary editor

Most editors had at least one person they couldn't bear, and one banned poems

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Until recently I used to claim that I had been literary editor of The Spectator for over 25 years; now I say almost 30. The trouble is I am not quite sure and it is curiously difficult to find out. Dot Wordsworth arrived on the same day as me but she cannot remember either. Each of us assumed that the other was an established figure and so our superior. A similar imprecision may undermine other memories.

In the early Eighties then, when Alexander Chancellor had reinvented the magazine after a bad patch, and it seemed daring, anarchic and slightly amateurish, I wrote theatre reviews and one late afternoon went round to Doughty Street, where The Spectator then was. I could find no one sober in the building. How did it manage to come out so promptly each week? Charles Moore, the next editor, aged a mere 27, brought a certain coherence. Though Thursday lunches were still jolly and full of incident — Kingsley Amis never really got used to having his stories interrupted by Jennifer Paterson, the cook, and used to wave a fork in the air to convey that he still had the floor — sometimes cabinet ministers would attend and be asked serious questions. Margaret Thatcher came to the summer party. There was, however, a stretch when Moore had to be away and perhaps Dominic Lawson had not yet arrived, so there was no one to edit. For three weeks the editor’s secretary and the literary editor were put in control. Luckily Julia Mount was the editor’s secretary. The first week was fine — enough had been commissioned already to see us through. In the third week, help was going to return soon enough to stave off disaster. The second week presented problems. Unknown journalists, perhaps scenting weakness, rang up and proposed stories about which we knew nothing. One I remember was about a crucial European election, perhaps in Denmark? I stalled and asked Julia, ‘What shall we say?’ ‘I’ll ask Ferdy,’ she said (her husband who knew a lot). ‘No we can’t,’ I bravely replied, ‘We have asked him two things already today.’ I turned the story down. An hour later Julia reported, ‘Ferdy said it was of no importance at all.’ Thank heavens.

The years passed. The Spectator prospered. One day we were told that we had made a profit. ‘Very bad news,’ said the ancient librarian. ‘They’ll expect us to do it always now.’ Auberon Waugh did not welcome success either. His view was that ‘There are only nineteen thousand agreeable people in Britain and they all read The Spectator already.’ I had found something similar, that too many people wanted to write or be written about, so the largest part of the job was repulsing unwanted reviewers and subjects. Enthusiasm was sometimes difficult to resist. I rang up the distinguished poet and scholar Peter Levi and asked him if he was interested in whales. ‘Lived there for years,’ he replied, ‘couldn’t know it better.’ ‘No, no,’ I interrupted, ‘I mean the large mammals that live in the sea.’ ‘Fascinating creatures,’ he went on seamlessly. There was an excellent deaf poet who used to come into my room and simply make off with something he fancied. Perhaps genuinely unaware of my cries of protest, he would slip through the door without turning round and make his getaway. Almost everyone wrote best when off their familiar subjects. My favourite review was by Roy Jenkins, on croquet. I knew he was keen because I had watched him play, though not with success. He simply could not get through the first hoop. The onlookers jeered, he grew a little red. When I was putting the equipment away, I found that it was not his fault: his ball was larger than the others and could only be hammered through with great force.

Now I have decided I must retire. I have always hated people who say that it has been a privilege to be allowed do their job and am not keen on those who remember how much they used to laugh, but it has been and we did. I wouldn’t have stayed so long if I didn’t like it, would I? It seems safe to admit now that I would not have lasted a week without Clare Asquith as deputy editor.

Most new editors had one person they could not bear to see sullying the pages of their magazine, and one banned poems, but two such exiles have returned to favour and poems are back. Otherwise there has been no pressure from above, even when I insulted their friends. It seemed a nice idea to get all former literary editors to contribute to my last books issue — they are necessarily of a certain age. Peter Ackroyd said that he had written so many reviews when he was young that he could not be expected to write another but he had a book coming out, as he so often has, so he is reviewed instead. The others rallied round so you will find Karl Miller, Hilary Spurling, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Patrick Marnham, A.N. Wilson and Ferdinand Mount in the books pages.

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Mark Amory has been literary editor of The Spectator since approximately 1985.

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  • cjcjc

    What a wonderful job to have had!
    (And what an excellent job you did.)

    • little islander

      any job could be wonderful. it’s he/she who made it so.

  • Sean L

    The books pages have consistently been the best part of the paper, at least in my time reading it since the early eighties, which more or less coincides with your tenure. Thank you and all the best.

  • Fare well, Mark. Thanks for your support during my tenure and your encouragement of my Bridge dabblings!

  • workingclasslad

    At last you’ll be able to admit your Union affiliation, well done brother