It’s a cliché to say a great magazine ought to sparkle like a brilliant cocktail party. What’s even better is a magazine that’s more like the unofficial party after the party, an unplanned trip to a slightly seedy pub after the blabbers and bores have gone home, with mischief and rudeness hanging in the air. Everyone has had quite a lot to drink and quite little to eat. The diehards become partners in a shared project of wit, candor, and outlandishness. The Spectator is that pub free-for-all in magazine form, a weekly conspiracy to be interesting.
Happy 10,000th hebdomaversary to the first magazine ever to publish 10,000 issues, from 1828 to this week. The Spectator resembles a news weekly but really isn’t. It’s a right-leaning journal of culture and ideas with a thin wrapper of news around it: the opening “leader” (editorial) and the “Portrait of the Week,” a one-page backgrounder on what the writers will be arguing about over their pints throughout the course of the issue. You say you don’t really follow Britain? Have no fear. A few issues of The Spectator and you’ll be right up to speed. Once you’ve learned the cast of characters, you’ll share the little zing of delight I get each Thursday morning when the iPad brings me a fresh new issue.
The Speccie’s star columnist is the rudest man in Christendom, the Godzilla of contumely, an all-time non-sufferer of fools who horsewhips his targets the way Hunter S. Thompson and Christopher Hitchens once did. Rod Liddle’s favorite soccer team is Milwall, which in his youth was notorious for having fans who roamed the landscape stomping on supporters of rival teams, and that Liddle is slightly nostalgic for those days tells you all you need to know about his prose style. When he crafts a column, he rarely fails to put the boot in.
Liddle is the central character in his columns, a matey, cigarette-smoking, pint-liking bloke who was once a high-ranking BBC editor. A nearly lifelong Labour party voter, Liddle has nevertheless spent many years hilariously lampooning the cultural Left. According to his social-media haters, he is of course a racist, Islamophobic, misogynist troglodyte, but to be more accurate, he is a provocateur. He can’t say that, insist his red-faced detractors, and then he just . . . goes on saying it. In America, he’d have been fired 1,000 times by now. Just last week, he wrote a piece that could have been summarized as “Columnist Suggests Five-Year-Old Get Gored by a Bull,” and that was Rod on relatively good behavior, what with the pandemic and all. No, I don’t second everything he says. But I admire his willingness to say whatever he thinks, usually with acid wit, and this in a country where people can and do get sent to prison for being mean on Twitter.
The Spectator’s Deborah Ross may take the prize for being the most averse to bushwa of any movie critic in the language. After 15 years on the beat, I still have no idea why film critics mistake pretentiousness for mastery, but Ross goes the other way: She’s your chatty, amusing friend who happens to have just been to the pictures. She wrote so incisively about the sequel to Danny Boyle’s masterpiece Trainspotting that there was really no need for anyone in the world to comment further:
Danny Boyle introduced T2 Trainspotting at the screening I attended and said that, throughout filming, he’d seen the cast looking at him and what these looks were saying was: ‘It had better not be shite, Danny.’ This may sum up all our thinking, pretty much. It had better not be shite, Danny. Danny, do what you have to do but, we beg you, don’t make it shite. Once more, with extra feeling: don’t, don’t, don’t make it shite, Danny. And? I take no pleasure in saying it (seriously, hand on heart) but this sequel is, in fact, quite shite.
Like National Review, The Spectator takes on a kind of giddy momentum as it gallops into its unrestrained final pages. Lloyd Evans is the theater critic to read if you suspect all theater critics are wankers. The television critic and columnist James Delingpole, a sort of Gen-X Liddle, is a master putdown artist himself and once wrote delightfully about getting high with David Cameron while listening to Supertramp during their Oxford years. Delingpole even had freaky photographic evidence. (Yes, they all know one another, the Brits; they all live in the same Evelyn Waugh novel.) Columnist Mary Wakefield wrote a delightful piece about how her toddler mistook the dashing actor Benedict Cumberbatch for his daddy, which was forgivable since Cumberbatch, in tatty-jumper mode, was indistinguishable from her husband, Brexit whisperer Dominic Cummings, when he played him in the movie Brexit. Cummings, now a top adviser to the prime minister, once ran the online edition of The Spectator, which under his guidance was the only British magazine to run all of the Danish cartoons spoofing Muhammad that stirred so much rage in 2006. Another previous editor is currently the prime minister of Great Britain, and on the night he won a resounding victory for the Conservative party in December, he acknowledged the importance of his previous colleagues in the battle for Brexit by dashing off a lively diary column for The Spectator overnight.
Melissa Kite writes a chatty column about shambolic country living that’s a kind of English sequel to A Year in Provence. At the very back of the book, the genius ad man Rory Sutherland writes with a real-world shrewdness that rarely pops up in fancy magazines. Toby Young, who made his bones with his Trollopean social observation, remains a delightful comic writer but is today also a deeply committed educational reformer who writes seriously about conservative solutions to social problems.
As a group, the writers of The Spectator have two colossal strengths that happen to be the ones I value most in writing: clarity and wit. No word is wasted, no sentence needs to be re-read, no argument ever disappears in the mists of its own vagueness. Reader appreciation for the house style is evident. Giving the lie to the idea that print, or journalism, or cultural commentary are dead, The Spectator is doing better today than perhaps at any other time in its 192 years. Columnist Charles Moore reminds us that the magazine sold for 75,000 pounds in 1951, 1967, and again in 1975, its real value plummeting all the while, but today is thought to be worth some £20 million. All credit goes to its recent, glorious string of editors — Johnson and Cummings and today’s chief, Fraser Nelson, who not only publishes delightful writing each week but, equally important, is utterly indifferent to mob outrage. The merry pub banter goes on, everyone speaking his mind, no one except maybe the regrettable house liberal Matthew Parris inclined to “virtue signaling” (a phrase coined in the magazine in 2015). As Spectator and NR contributor Douglas Murray writes of his colleagues, “I love my strange, disagreeable tribe.”