The last dance

For once Nigel Dempster is the subject, not the source, of newspaper gossip. The diarist beloved of dukes, debs and divorcees is bowing out after 30 years. Terry Kirby looks back on his social whirl

If he were to write it himself, the story might read something like this:

"Twice married and still debonair man about town Nigel Dempster is, I was told yesterday by authoritative sources close to the Daily Mail's Kensington High Street fortress, about to hang up his pen as the country's most famous and long-standing diary columnist, just as he nears his 30th year in the post.

At 61, Dempster, newly single again after being divorced last year from Lady Camilla Osborne, the only daughter of the 11th Duke of Leeds, is believed to have finally decided that it is time to seek pastures new, although he has not disclosed what they might be.

I am told that Dempster, who still believes his driving ban earlier this year to have been a gross miscarriage of justice, has decided first that a long holiday in the South of France, where he is hoping to spend time with his great friend Joan Collins at Cap Ferrat, will be just the tonic he needs to recuperate from the horrors of Fleet Street before he returns once again to the fray.

Rumours that his column, still adored by the cognoscenti, is to be replaced by some- thing called Celebrity Scoops!!!, to be staffed by a cohort of attractive young fillies culled from the more downmarket prints, have been firmly rejected by his masters at the Mail."

So, it's finally happened then. After several years of speculation, the one-time king of the gossip column is about to lose his crown, finally leaving the Daily Mail after 30 years, to general relief all round. Those who have always hankered after his job can now get on with the real business of gossip - what the latest cast of Big Brother are up to.

Well, as they said in Evelyn Waugh's great Fleet Street fiction, Scoop, up to a point, Lord Copper. The above spoof is, of course, a mixture of familiar Dempster themes - out and out snobbery, the obsessions with minor aristocracy, the marital status of everyone in those circles, a largely sympathetic treatment of the subject and a certain economy when it comes to other facts. Discerning what it is actually all about is another matter.

What we know is this: yesterday, The Daily Telegraph reported that Dempster, who is said to be suffering from Parkinson's disease, has decided to quit. But while there has been no confirmation from Daily Mail towers, Fleet Street was talking about little else yesterday. Forget Hutton, Gilligan and whether the BBC got it wrong - there's nothing like gossip, particularly when it's about a gossip columnist.

And of course, being gossip about colleagues, "off the record" was the preferred means of discourse. "Well, we've heard nothing official, of course," said one long-serving corridor colleague yesterday, who preferred to remain anonymous. "It is the end of an era, of course, if it's true. He's an institution. I mean, if you stopped somebody in the street and asked who are the most famous journalists in the land, then Dempster would have to be among them. I think he will be missed by readers, who, unlike journalists who like to keep changing things, like the familiarity."

While there was an air of warm tributes to a long-serving Fleet Street character - part of the old-school, long-lunching, pre-hi-tech era of journalism - there was also a general recognition that Dempster himself, and his style of diary column, had just about run their course.

Dempster's diary page - for anyone unfamiliar with its contents - is often concerned with the comings and goings of a largely irrelevant group of people - part perma-tanned Eurotrash, part luvvie nobility (Roger Moore and Sir John Mills are staples) and the minor aristocracy normally only seen inside the pages of Harpers & Queen and Tatler. Ascot, Henley, Wimbledon and other highlights of the season are meat and drink to Dempster.

Yesterday's diary - not edited by Dempster, although his 20-year-old photograph appeared as always on the masthead - featured a lead story on Christine Hamilton's success in selling the family home in Cheshire, together with items about the 40th birthday party of Annabel's nightclub (very much a Dempster kind of place), the London mayoral candidate Steve Norris and the actress Cate Blanchett. "I think he just slipped into PR for these people. It's very tempting never to write anything bad about people, and it allows you a very easy life. But it's a trap that you fall into," said another former colleague.

"Dempster has failed to re-invent himself, as so many of us need to. Gossip has moved on and it's about all kinds of things, not just the ageing aristocracy. It's about politics and celebrities as well," said another Daily Mail insider.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the ruthless executives at the Mail, where the editor-in-chief Paul Dacre must have agonised long and hard about the gains and losses from ending the Dempster era, while watching the success of the celebrity- and showbiz-filled, gossip-driven pages of the red tops, particularly The Sun's Bizarre and the Mirror's 3am Girls.

What the Mail has done is to try to have it both ways. Several years ago, it employed Dempster's old friend and rival, Peter McKay, to create the Ephraim Hardcastle diary, which has gone for the politics and cultural end of the market, while more recently starting a 3am Girls-style slot, Wicked Whispers, aimed at the showbiz market.

Significantly, both of these columns are further forward in the Mail - Dempster yesterday was on page 47. The man himself cannot have failed to see the writing on the wall. Additionally, four years ago he lost his long-serving deputy Adam Helliker, to The Sunday Telegraph, which led to a reported bout of corridor fisticuffs. (He also cost the Mail £12,000 in damages after throwing a copy of Who's Who at an underling).

On top of that, it's not been a good time for him personally. As well as his divorce - his second - he was fined £1,500 and banned from driving earlier this year after drinking a bottle of wine and then overturning his car when it hit a lamppost on a pedestrian crossing.

Four years ago, he had an earlier driving ban overturned when a judge accepted his fear of needles was responsible for his failure to take a blood test. And, on top, has come the reported Parkinson's disease.

Many see this as a tragic end to the career of the man who practically invented high-society gossip as a newspaper staple and had many notable scoops to his name: Diana, Princess of Wales's bulimia, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser's relationship and Margaret Thatcher to be a grandmother among them. He is reported to have said: "There is a holiday in my heart when I discover another marriage break-up.''

Although Dempster moved easily among the people he wrote about, he was not, by birth at least, one of them, being born in Bombay in 1941, the son of an Australian mining engineer. "In this job, you have to be a foreigner really," he is reported to have said. But he had the right education, Sherborne in Dorset, a spell as a doorman in New York, a Lloyd's broker and then - the greatest diary school of all - the William Hickey column on the Express.

The Mail, under his own name, followed in the early 1970s. But it was his period writing the scurrilous Grovel column for Private Eye, alongside McKay, during the late 1970s and early 1980s that most were citing yesterday as his greatest contribution to journalism. Richard Ingrams, his editor then, said: "In the old days, when he was writing about the Lucan set and the Goldsmiths and all those kind of people, he was very very good indeed and people would read Grovel because they knew he was writing it. He would often try out stories in the Eye, where you could get away with more, before putting them in the Mail. He had a good eye for a target and he knew who to go for."

Under pressure from the then editor of the Daily Mail, Sir David English, Dempster fell out with Private Eye and, it is widely believed, never quite recovered his style.

From then on, many see a long slow decline and an obsession with the daughters of property developers and society figures such as "Bungalow" Bill Wiggins and the activities of the Duchess of York. As Ingrams said: "He got left behind by the celebrity thing."

So, although it is not quite farewell then Nigel Dempster, the man Private Eye once dubbed "the greatest living Englishman" - before inventing a new nickname "Dumpster" - may be about to move on. Somehow one doesn't think the editor of Heat magazine will be seeking his services.

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