Low life

Vodka, kaolin and morphine: my welcome drinks at The Spectator offices

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

In 2001, aged 44, I was hired to write a weekly column for this august paper, and for the first time in my life there was a London door on which I could knock or ring, at any time of the day or evening, and be welcomed in. And what a door! To walk along the Regency terrace sun trap of Doughty Street in Bloomsbury on a summer evening, then breeze through the open door of number 56, and to know that the people to be found inside were the funniest, cleverest, most unsnobbish collection of individuals, and that booze was the second language, was a dream come true.

I would trot up the steps beneath the stripy awning, enter the magic portal and turn left into a seedily ornate reception room. There I could take a running jump into secretary Ann Sindall’s ample bosom. Then I might step over the Dandie Dinmont belonging to raven-haired publisher Kimberly Fortier (who, it was said, had convinced home secretary David Blunkett that she was blonde) and mount the narrow carpeted staircase to the editorial floor above.

‘What about a drink?’ said Mary Wakefield on one of these early wide-eyed visits to Doughty Street, after I’d plonked myself down beside her workstation for a natter. She reached down and slid open the bottom drawer of her desk, showing about 100 vodka miniatures. I nodded complicity. She emptied four into two plastic water cups. ‘Have you got anything to go with it?’ I said, which wasn’t very Low Life-like of me. She reached down and pulled out the lower drawer of her neighbour’s desk and rummaged in it, emerging eventually with a medicine bottle of kaolin and morphine. Perfect! Don’t shake it! Cheers!

After we’d drunk vodka, kaolin and morphine for half an hour, she resumed her editing as little discommoded in mind and spirit as if we’d shared an afternoon pot of Darjeeling tea. I then crossed a corridor and passed through the permanently open door of the editor’s office, the grandest room in the house, with three sash windows overlooking Doughty Street, a chaise longue, some comfortable-looking country house armchairs, assorted busts and paintings, and numbered rows of claret-bound copies of The Spectator, possibly going back as far as the Venerable Bede and hand-written in Latin. Next to the farthest window was the magnificent editor’s desk. Slumped over it, his blond mane in his hands, was the editor, Boris, encountered for the first time.

He craned his head sideways, squinted, and greeted my entrance with a noise like the anguished groan of a mortally wounded water buffalo. ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘Hangover?’ He shook his head and groaned again. Now the elbows supporting the arms and head slid and splayed and his chin rested on the desk’s leather surface. Closing his eyes seemed to afford him a small measure of relief. ‘Drugs?’ I ventured. The head wobbled in a vehement negative. ‘Eaten too much?’ Another heartfelt groan. Naively imagining that with drink, drugs and food I had exhausted every likely cause of physical collapse due to excess, I explored other, more prosaic possibilities. ‘Are you unwell?’ To this he made no response, not even a groan. ‘Tired?’

I now considered whether this persistent, lower middle-class line of questioning wasn’t perhaps only deepening our great chief’s despair, no matter what the original cause. An unbridgeable silence had now fallen between us. The eyes remained closed. Perhaps he needed badly to sleep. It rather looked like it. I exited the room on the tips of my toes.

And the parties! My introduction to the phenomenon of The Spectator party was a Christmas lunch on a barge moored in the East India dock. We sat down ten to a table. I was placed next to Kimberly Fortier. She sat down, turned, took one look at me, then at my charity-shop suit, then at my name card, then she got up and went to search for a table with more congenial company. Everyone at the table laughed happily at this bravura display of social adroitness, me included. Then, without exception and with deadly purpose, everyone got insanely drunk and the lunch descended into a shouty sixth-form rout with the unlikeliest couples pairing off to passionately explore each others’ tonsils with the tips of their tongues. Forgetting her earlier peremptory assessment, or perhaps making determinedly for the last cab on the rank, the publisher now singled me out and cosied up in a sinuous and unmistakably provocative manner. Back then I couldn’t believe my good luck at falling among such a fun crowd. Twenty years on, I still can’t.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments