The Agreeable World Of Arnold Wallace: A very special history built on lashings of corned beef

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The Independent Online
Have you read Simon Courtauld's new history of the Spectator, To Confound Intelligence? Nor have I. But I very much look forward to flicking through it in Heywood Hill. No other journal can match the extraordinary past and entertaining present of the Spectator. It has always obeyed the first rule of successful journalism: to read just like a marvellous conversation conducted over a bottle or two of brandy in the morning sun between two old friends, both clad in heavy tweeds, one of them still unmarried, t'other wishing he were.

It has long been the most prescient of journals. In 1939, just two months before Britain declared war on Herr Hitler, it was a Spectator editorial that warned, with uncanny foresight, that "before the next few years are out, there may well be a disagreeable set-to in foreign parts". It then sounded this grave warning: "So you are earnestly advised to order your Christmas and New Year clarets while stocks last (see coupon on back page)."

The Spectator's fears for the future have always been tempered by love of the past. If ever our enemies accuse us of nostalgia, we remind them that they wouldn't have spoken like that 30 years ago. In 1979, in a moving and lyrical article commemorating 30 years since the outbreak of the Second War, I wrote that "amidst the squalid pleasure-seeking of contemporary life, one's heart pines for the long-forgotten certainties of war: the width of the bomb crater, the gentle whizz-bang of the hand-grenade, the never-to-be-forgotten smells of corned beef and smoking rubble".

Of course, through thick and thin, we have managed to keep a hold on the past. Corned beef has long been the staple of the famous Spectator Luncheon: even now the set menu kicks off with a Corned Beef Terrine with Kiwi Fruit, followed by Corned Beef en Croute, and finishing with Fresh Fruit Salad with Corned Beef and Clotted Cream. No doubt those from more "with-it" circles (hairdressers, footballers, etc!) mutter that our meat should keep up with the times. What arrant nonsense! How much more healthy the times would be were they to keep up with our meat! (And, anyway, corned beef is a tremendously versatile comestible: o'er the years, I have enjoyed such excellent repasts as Fricassee of Corned Beef, Corned Beef Jelly and Custard, and Peach Melba Corned Beef at the Spectator table, and have arisen from the table feeling twice the man I was.)

Traditionally, editors of the Spectator have gone on to impressive things: both Iain Macleod (1951-54) and Nigel Lawson (1963-69) became Chancellor of the Exchequer, whilst Desmond O'Connor (1959-63) went on to enjoy great success as an all-round family entertainer, and is now hosting his own top-rated television chat show, Des O'Connor Tonight, on which he duetted with a leading Spectator contributor, J Enoch Powell, in a rendition of "New York, New York" on the Christmas Eve Special 1995. Sadly, Roderick Hull (1969-73), who co-edited the magazine with Emu, passed away a fortnight ago, but we are delighted that Emu has agreed to continue writing occasional pieces for the magazine, primarily of an anti-European nature.

It has always been a Conservative magazine, of course, but equally it has welcomed contributors of every political hue. People forget that for three months in 1977 the Spectator diary was penned by Idi Amin, who revealed an unexpected love and knowledge of British water-colourists of the 18th century, and was a keen advocate of a 20 per cent rise in the Arts Council grant, over and above the rate of inflation. "I wonder, perchance, if other readers of the Spectator are as infuriated as I am at the constant misuse of that wonderful old English word `gay'?" he asked in his diary of 19 February 1977. Over 200 letters from readers poured in, all of them supportive. Since then over 30 diarists have expressed the same sentiment, but none quite so pithily as ex-President Amin. Sadly, a quick skim through the index under A for Amin reveals that Mr Courtauld has overlooked a notable anecdote concerning his relationship with the magazine. When the editorship came up for grabs in '78, Amin mounted a full military coup of the Doughty Street premises, refusing to leave until Mr Godfrey Smith had contributed a light-hearted diary item in praise of the bow tie. The poor fellow had been led to believe that such a show of enthusiasm would guarantee him the editor's chair, but the then-proprietor judged Amin too flighty, preferring to award the post to Mr Kenneth Noye, who introduced the ever- popular bridge column, which still thrives today. Ah, I could go on and on - and will, next week.

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