`I think he has suffered enough'
These are the words we once thought Richard Ingrams would never say about a public figure caught with trousers down. But he says it now. At 60 he has not lost his sting but he has grown a heart.
"I was quite relieved to hear he had died," says Ingrams, over a cappuccino in Soho, his natural habitat. "I always had the feeling about him that he was lurking."
Tomorrow Ingrams celebrates his 60th birthday with a huge party in west London. Admirers will be there to celebrate the man who gave us the Street of Shame, Glenda Slag and Pseud's Corner, the man under whose aegis we learnt about life inside Number 10, with Dear Bill, the secret diary of John Major aged 473/4 and, most recently, St Albion Parish News, the parochial musings the Rev ARP Blair.
Ingrams still works at Private Eye, though he celebrates his own maturity in The Oldie, the magazine he edits, which has zimmer-framed its way through the past five years from one financial crisis to another. Now a monthly, it is making money, with stylishly written reminiscences and blimpish attacks on the pretensions of the dominant youth culture, all written on the back of ads for Saga holidays, retirement homes and cures for impotence.
Age does not, however, seem to have removed Ingrams' appetite for mockery. Take his views on the Prime Minister: "When I saw Blair greeting Oasis, I just thought, `what an arsehole'. He's trying to impress people, trying to say, `Look at me, I'm appealing to young people. I like Oasis.' I'll bet he never listens to them. He looked even more ridiculous because the day before he met Noel Gallagher he said he was going to wage a campaign against drugs."
Ingrams particularly despises the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. "He's regarded as pretty much a dunce figure in the legal world. I've asked lawyers. And he made such a song and dance about fat cats of the profession, when he is the supreme fat cat himself."
Then, there is Ingrams talking about the Observer, where he writes a weekly column. He hates its cheerleading for Blairism. "I wrote to the editor, Will Hutton, after they ran that front page headline `Goodbye to Xenophobia' when Labour was elected. I thought it was absurd. I said, `I hope your euphoria is getting better'."
Nor was he too happy about finding tucked away on page five the revelations about the love life of Robin Cook, a politician who might well, he says, have been prime minister. "I made a reference in my column to it. But they rang up and said it was a cock-up by the night staff, so I was wrong to make the point." As a result, in his column last Sunday, the paper escaped his vitriol. But not for long. "The next thing I find on the front page of the Observer is a rave review by the rock critic of the new Oasis album. I nearly wrote in and said is that a cock-up as well?"
Vintage Ingrams. But then you get him talking about Robin Cook and you wonder, is the man who brought you the gory details of Cecil Parkinson's love life going soft? "When I went in to Private Eye to do the cover, Ian [Hislop, Ingrams' successor as editor] was saying `Let's get the bugger. Let's put him on the cover.' But I wasn't sure, whereas in the old days I would have gone for him and put him on the cover." The edition went ahead, above the headline of "New Labour New Legover," with a photo of Cook saying "I'm sleeping with my secretary," and an observer commenting "Oh no! Another idea they've copied from the Tories."
So should Cook have resigned? Ingrams, the great moraliser, is flummoxed. "I find that hard," he says. "Probably not." Then, after some consideration, "Maybe, he should." But he's still wavering. "Perhaps, it's to do with being an oldie. You become more aware of the difficulties most people have. When I was young I was incredibly intolerant of this sort of thing. But I've changed. I have a catch phrase: `I think he has suffered enough.' It's part of the reason I gave up being editor of the Eye."
This new sympathetic attitude can be found in Ingrams' writings. Last week, he made an impassioned and deeply unfashionable attack on the press coverage that led a young public school music master, Adrian Stark, to throw himself off Beachy Head after being charged with possessing child pornography. "This anti-paedophile campaign in the press has got out of hand," he says. "This man had done nothing apart from collect porn. He had not interfered with the boys.
"I think there is a lot of humbug among journalists who make out that they're not interested in porn or having affairs. The hypocrisy of the media about sex is a worrying development. It means either we have to say our lives are deeply conventional or that people like politicians and schoolmasters are required to lead respectable lives while we, the press, are under no such obligation.
"I associate current attitudes in the press with the fact that newspapers are produced in Canary Wharf, by people who are literally in an Ivory Tower. In the days when we worked in the Street of Shame, journalists were in the thick of things and we were more adjusted to real life."
The new word-factories are, he believes, destroying journalism, which, in his charmed existence always within a few streets in Soho, involves a bunch of chaps, feet up on the table, swapping stories and dreaming up gags. "You go into a newspaper office today and everyone is hooked on staring at screens. They look around, say hello and then their eyes go back to the screen.
"Journalism today, including my own, seems to ignore anything important that is going on. People often say what would happen if Jesus came again? The truth is that no one would hear about him, any more than they did before."
Part of Ingrams' new-found feeling for people, which will cut little ice with the many victims of Private Eye, springs from the complexity of his own private life. His wife, Mary left him in 1991 and their 30- year marriage collapsed. A year later he moved in with Deborah Bosley, who is also a writer and 28 years his junior, producing much smirking among the gossip columnists. "Ingrams fighting off the groupies" announced The Sun. More recently they also split and by the time they got back together again she was pregnant by another man. The baby is due in December. "We are together, though we don't live together. The fact that we are not living together doesn't mean we have split up. People find that hard to understand. But Peter Cook [who owned Private Eye] didn't live with his wife." As for taking on the role of parent? "I've mixed feelings. I'm a bit too old for all that sort of thing. I've already got five grandchildren."
Deborah Bosley is, he says, currently being hounded by a Sunday paper. "Once I ceased to be editor of Private Eye," he says, "they were all out to get me. I didn't have my old defences. I'm not complaining but you get the feeling that some people are desperate to get anything in their paper."
These days, Ingrams says he prefers The Oldie to Private Eye, because it is more about real life, written largely by the readers. But he's not convincing. His face only really lights up, when he is asked about pranks on the Eye. "Michael Foot's wife still blames me for losing the 1983 election after I called him Worzel Gummidge," he smirks. "She's very curt when I ring up. The best thing about the Eye was thinking up the nicknames. If I'm feeling low, I just think of someone like Brillo Pad [Andrew Neil] and I laugh"
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