Short Books, £16.99, 249pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nigel Dempster and the Death of Discretion, By Tim Willis

To Private Eye he was "GLE" – Greatest Living Englishman – and after their row he was sneered at as "Humpty-Dumpster". To a subordinate on his column he was "Caligula". One of his wives named a python after him – and that was before the divorce.

To himself, he was "the greatest columnist in the world". To Princess Margaret's lover Roddy Llewellyn he was "charming" because "no one can resist a cad." To Tim Willis, he was "both snob and iconoclast", which is restrained, as he once "came on pretty strong" to Mrs Willis when they had him round for dinner.

The late Nigel Dempster was for three decades our best-known gossip columnist. His page appeared every day in the Daily Mail. Even the resignation of his deputy after 16 years was heralded on the front page of the Mirror, though naturally their public fist-fight helped put it there.

He was the hack who pointed the flying fickle finger of fame at the upper classes: one of the first to hint at trouble in the Charles-Di marriage and at the friendship between Al Fayed and the royal family. He was the first to print the story about (the married) Norman Lamont, MP and soon-to-be Chancellor of the Exchequer, receiving a black eye from a rival for a lady – a Lady with a capital L, like so many in his column.

His columns made up a kind of newsletter for minor aristocracy and for readers fascinated by folk with double-barrelled names. Fortunately, this biography is far more interesting than practically anything written by the great columnist himself. Or, indeed, not written.

A Punch article of mine once revealed (as Dempster would have put it) that during his lengthy absences his column was put together by his long-suffering team of under-hacks. He came round with a letter which tortuously explained that he was pretty hands-on. It gratifies me to learn that Dempster did indeed work for the Mail a mere 32 weeks a year, for what was said to be £300,000.

Private Eye paid a only tiny fraction of that sum for his contributions to its "Grovel" slot, but for him this was a useful way of testing the waters anonymously with iffy stories, such as rude items about his own proprietor. This sounds like living dangerously but, as his colleague Peter McKay put it, "Dempster would stab himself in the back for the sake of a good story."

The account of the booze-fuelled feud with the Eye is less convincing than that given in Harry Thompson's biography of Richard Ingrams, but still highly entertaining. However, sticklers for royal protocol will wince when they read that Lord Gnome's nickname for Her Majesty is "Glenda". It is of course "Brenda".

Drink was blamed for Dempster's appalling behaviour, but Willis attributes at least some of it PSP, the progressive supranuclear palsy from which he suffered. "Nigel may spend a million years in purgatory," declared the Catholic priest at his funeral. It was meant kindly, since this is a short time compared to eternity, but it seems a bit hard, even if you don't like gossip columnists much.

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