Media families: 2. The Nicolsons

Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West begat Nigel Nicolson who begat Adam and Rebecca Nicolson
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The Independent Online
It is now apparent that the Clan Nicolson is taking over The Sunday Telegraph, lock, stock and colour magazine. Adam Nicolson arrived first, hired by the magazine's founding editor Alexander Chancellor to write a back-of-the-book column called Rural Ride. Chancellor has made a speciality over the years of thinking up inspired concepts for columns, including High Life and Low Life in The Spectator and Up and Down the City Road (now The Weasel) in our own Saturday Magazine. Rural Ride was another hit.

Nicolson, now in his late thirties, is a long, lean, languid character who in his youth wrote The National Trust Book of Long Walks, none of which was less than 80 miles and some as long as 500. He is only an adoptive countryman, however, as some of his truly rustic readers discovered to their annoyance. "We of the countryside are not interested in the slush turned out by charlatans such as Adam Nicolson," one wrote to the editor (Nicolson quoted the letter at length in his column), "destroying our rural heritage and everything we hold dear." But whatever Rural Ride may lack in detailed familiarity with the countryside, it makes up for in a descriptive bravura that only occasionally gets out of hand.

Then Dominic Lawson replaced Charles Moore as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, and brought in Adam's sister Rebecca, formerly Lawson's right-hand woman on The Spectator, to edit the paper's Review section. With the no-nonsense favouritism that comes naturally to them, she was soon running feature articles by her father, Nigel Nicolson, the author and partner in the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson, on topics such as the benefits of extreme old age (Nigel recently turned 80). "If one hears less well," he wrote, "one can talk more; sleep less, read more; eat less, stay slim ..." And Adam's second wife, Sarah Raven, began writing a gardening column for the Daily Telegraph. Only Adam and Rebecca's older sister, Juliet, who runs her own literary agency, remains unrecruited.

Now Adam has cemented the family's grip on the Telegraph by taking over the space on the Sunday's comment pages vacated so precipitately last month by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, whom Lawson fired at the climax of a long-running feud.

One hopes Lawson knew what he was doing by bringing in Nicolson, for the tone of the comment section has taken a reckless lurch to the left. Targets have included the American notion of "zero tolerance" when applied to beggars, the Falklands War, the notion that sovereignty matters, and Britain's tenancy of Gibraltar. The man is a dripping-wet liberal.

Perhaps, though, the magic of breeding is considered adequate compensation. "As any fule no" (as Molesworth would put it), Adam is not only the son of Nigel but also the grandson of Sir Harold Nicolson, the diplomat, politician and journalist, and the novelist Vita Sackville-West; the story of their sexual infidelities was published by Nigel Nicolson under the title Portrait of a Marriage in 1973. It was a best-seller, and is still in print.

Neither can it entirely escape our attention that Sir Harold's father, Sir Arthur, was the 11th baronet, and first Baron Carnock; that Nigel is heir presumptive, and that in time Adam, as Nigel's only son, is likely to bear the title.

No one could accuse the Nicolsons of being freeloaders; they are annoyingly good writers, Adam in particular, and they do little to draw attention to their inherited wealth and status. Rebecca once went so far as to describe herself as middle-class (the College of Heralds was up in arms at the idea), and Adam grinds out the columns and feature articles with a fair imitation of meritocratic avidity.

But everyone loves a lord. And while most of the time they may write about indifferent matters - the pleasures of age, the smell of hops, the various approaches to bearing children - once in a while, with a show of reluctance, they will follow the precedent their father set when he exposed the family's scandals for all to see; they will throw open the gates of their glittering history. And like the tourists we are, we will cough up our quids and troop in