BOOK REVIEW / Leader of a tiny, respectable gang: 'Richard Ingrams Lord of the Gnomes' - Harry Thompson: Heinemann, 17.50

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:28

It would be easy to be rude about Harry Thompson's book. Rudeness is easier -and quite often funnier - than accuracy, but it's not always fair. Harry Thompson is certainly rude when it comes to anybody who does not share his devotion to his hero. He will defend Richard Ingrams by all the means learnt at his master's feet - particularly ridicule, exaggeration and repeated insult. He will even use his interjections: his text is dotted with such Eye comments as '(yawn)', '(geddit?)', and '(that's quite enough - Ed)'. The problem is that Thompson simply worships Ingrams, and his biography melts steadily into hagiography.

So here are the biographical facts, as they have been winnowed out. Richard Ingrams is the second son of a clever, rich and cunning financier. He was miserable at prep school, slighty less so at Shrewsbury School and happy at Oxford. By the time he graduated, he had been involved in three satirical magazines and made lasting friends of Paul Foot and Willie Rushton.

Thereafter, he took over the editorship of Private Eye from Christopher Booker and carried the magazine through many storms and libel actions, bravely exposing the scurrilous activities of innumerable powerful crooks and seriously upsetting a number of innocents.

When he left, he wrote a few slightish books, did quite a lot of radio and then founded The Oldie. He had three children, one of whom was seriously brain-damaged and died at the age of seven. His marriage ended bitterly and he now lives happily with Deborah Bosley. He is a doting grandfather and, despite his elderly image, is still only 57.

Mary Ingrams did not help with this book. Though her ex-husband is admirably discreet about what went wrong with their marriage, others are not, and the impression given is that she was largely to blame for its collapse. When she first appears, Thompson describes her dismissively as 'a reliable, thickset girl with strong features', though, judging by her photograph, she was ravishing. Rushton did help, and he is enormously quoted. Risking Pseuds' Corner, as he often does, Thompson writes of their schooldays: 'Richard wrapped himself in his friend's company like a comforting blanket.' They came from the same 'patrician' class, which, we are told, makes all the difference.

John Wells, whose background seems remarkably similar, describes him as respecting only a 'little tiny, rather respectable, gang of people who wear quite expensive suits and have their shoes made, who are like his father.

It's a thin layer of society.' Ah, but Wells, though an old friend, is not a full-time worshipper, so his evidence is suspect. Thompson comments: 'A thin but intractable layer, as Wells found out in trying to leapfrog it.' So perish all the king's enemies - and many of his friends.

These friends have a lot to say. Although they know each other well, says Thompson, Ingrams 'turns a different aspect of his personality towards each one. In some cases they come away knowing a different man from the one perceived by the others.' A little later, Rushton is saying 'Richard's the same to everyone. It's one of his strengths.' Richard? On the very next page Thompson tells us that Andrew Osmond and Paul Foot 'are alone among the gang in calling their friend Richard and not Ingrams'. Which of all these remarks is true? Who cares?

Ruthless, gentle, patrician, irresistible to women and 'a true nostalgist, one of those people who suffers from a wistful, aching nostalgia for times past, even those he has never experienced', Thompson's Sir Richard canters on, resisting the seductive charms of Jilly Cooper and Germaine Greer, shrugging off the buckets of filth poured on him by Nigel Dempster and Peter McKay, hero to the end. Finishing this overlong panegyric to an often decent chap, it is instructive to return to the prologue, where Alan Coren offers sound advice and Ingrams confirms it: ' 'You'll never get to the bottom of Ingrams,' said Coren, taking me to one side. 'There isn't a bottom to get to,' smiled Ingrams.'

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