Farewell, Alexan­der

The ed­i­tor of The Oldie, Alexan­der Chan­cel­lor, died on 28th Jan­uary. Craig Brown pays tribute to his great friend, the nat­u­ral jour­nal­ist who re­tained a child’s sense of mis­chief

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

No more that laugh, that won­der­ful, in­fec­tious laugh, that laugh that told you that life was es­sen­tially a com­edy, and noth­ing mat­tered quite as much as peo­ple thought it did.

Peo­ple keep call­ing it inim­itable, but that never stops them try­ing to im­i­tate it. Gyles Bran­dreth de­scribed it as a gig­gle, Taki as a screech. Charles Moore thought it was like a school­boy im­i­tat­ing a ma­chine­gun, the jour­nal­ist Jemima Lewis like a duck be­ing tick­led. It re­minded the Oldie publisher, James Pem­broke, of Mut­t­ley’s laugh from Wacky Races.

It was al­ways un­wise to take Alexan­der at his own es­ti­ma­tion – he was al­most clin­i­cally self-dep­re­cat­ing – but, if it’s true that he never quite grew up, then the rest of us were the ben­e­fi­cia­ries. And, to the very last day of his life, Alexan­der re­tained a child’s ca­pac­ity for de­light, a child’s sense of mis­chief, a child’s cu­rios­ity.

There has been a lot of talk since his death about what made him such a great ed­i­tor, but I think those three qual­i­ties lay at its heart. And, like a child, he had a rest­less need to be en­ter­tained, a dread of be­ing bored.

‘I hope this isn’t too bor­ing,’ he would say to Si­mon Cour­tauld as he handed in his own piece for that week’s Spec­ta­tor, usu­ally a se­cond be­fore the print­ing presses were due to roll.

And, of course, it was never bor­ing. He had a beau­ti­ful style, re­laxed and mel­liflu­ous, yet also taut, so that, for all its easy-go­ing, con­ver­sa­tional feel, there was never a word wasted.

He also pos­sessed that God-given gift, rare in any­one, let alone a writer, a gift that can’t be taught: the gift of charm.

With­out mak­ing a song and dance about it, Alexan­der was a con­trar­ian – per­haps even the con­trar­ian’s con­trar­ian. Has there ever been an­other Spec­ta­tor ed­i­tor, in re­cent times, who was happy to ad­mit that he had never once voted Con­ser­va­tive? And he em­ployed vague­ness as oth­ers might em­ploy a rapier.

‘Re­mem­ber­ing names is one of the great Amer­i­can achieve­ments,’ he wrote re­cently. ‘I still don’t know how Amer­i­cans do it, or, in­deed, why.’

He went into jour­nal­ism be­cause, he said, it was ‘the ideal pro­fes­sion for the lazy per­son’. But was Alexan­der re­ally lazy? He cer­tainly liked to be thought so, be­cause he never shed that school­boy ter­ror of be­ing con­sid­ered ‘too keen’.

So, dreary qual­i­ties like hard work and dili­gence that lesser writ­ers and ed­i­tors pa­rade, he kept hid­den, like a guilty se­cret. His con­tem­po­raries were happy to go along with this ruse. Richard West once wrote a par­ody of Alexan­der’s timetable: 10.55am: Ar­rive at Spec­ta­tor of­fice. 11am: Lose ar­ti­cle by Solzhen­it­syn. 11.05am: To Duke of York for vodka and tonic.

And there is the fa­mous story of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor com­ing over to Eng­land to study the mag­a­zine’s work­ing meth­ods. Af­ter a week’s hard study, they told Alexan­der how amazed they were at the ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of time ev­ery­one spent at lunch.

‘But how else could you fill the day?’ Alexan­der replied.

This re­ply would, of course, have been ac­com­pa­nied by his usual cho­rus of laugh­ter. But the lunches, the en­joy­ment, the fun, were all part of his ar­moury. Be­neath it all, that bril­liant mind never stopped whirring. More pu­ri­tan­i­cal ed­i­tors, prig­gishly in­su­lated from the world out­side, had noth­ing of Alexan­der’s verve and ex­cite­ment.

Who else, in the en­tire his­tory of jour­nal­ism, would have in­vited Kings­ley Amis, Peter Ack­royd, Barry Humphries and the for­mer Amer­i­can vice-pres­i­dent Spiro Agnew to the same of­fice lunch, cooked and served by the re­doubtable ‘Fat Lady’, Jen­nifer Pater­son?

As Si­mon Cour­tauld, an eye-wit­ness to the great event, re­calls it, Barry Humphries nipped out to­wards the end and reap­peared as Dame Edna Ever­age.

‘From that mo­ment, Agnew lost his ap­petite. We could see that he was in­wardly trou­bled: who IS this wo­man? What’s hap­pened to the Aus­tralian guy sit­ting here just now? Yet this wo­man seems some­how to BE the Aus­tralian guy. Yet how could this be?’

‘ “We should be hav­ing a glass of ouzo to­gether, Spiro!” Dame Edna cooed, putting a bare arm around his shoul­der. “I would like to de­scribe our meet­ing today as the Agnew and the Ec­stasy...”

‘The great tax-evader knew it was time to take eva­sive ac­tion. He mum­bled his thanks and made off down the stairs at an im­pres­sive pace. Dame Edna fol­lowed, wav­ing her hand­bag and call­ing lustily for Spiro to wait for her.’

From the fun and mis­chief sprang by far the most in­ter­est­ing and en­joy­able mag­a­zine of its day, and Alexan­der con­tin­ued with his own le­gacy when he took over the wheel at The Oldie.

Gra­ham Greene called him the best ed­i­tor he had ever worked for, and hun­dreds of other writ­ers would agree. ‘What made him a good ed­i­tor?’ asked Ian Jack in the Guardian. ‘Partly a knack for find­ing good writ­ers and recog­nis­ing in­ter­est­ing ideas; partly his tex­tual skill – con­trary to the dilet­tante image, fos­tered by three-bot­tle lunches and sixty Roth­mans a day, he could of­ten be found late at night chang­ing cap­tions and rewrit­ing head­lines, but mainly he was good be­cause he won loy­alty from his staff and con­trib­u­tors.’

‘He was a com­pletely won­der­ful ed­i­tor’, says the jour­nal­ist Ge­of­frey Wheatcroft, ‘even if we couldn’t al­ways un­der­stand why he was. We loved him.’

As ed­i­tor of The Oldie, he was loved and re­spected – two words that don’t al­ways go to­gether – as much as ever. He en­joyed heated po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with his sub-ed­i­tor, Deb­o­rah Maby – well, not heated ex­actly, be­cause Alexan­der was a stranger to heat – but in­tense po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with Deb­o­rah, who is, by

na­ture, more rad­i­cal than Alexan­der. In one of th­ese dis­cus­sions, Deb­o­rah protested that The Oldie couldn’t just stand by dur­ing the Is­raeli bom­bard­ment of Gaza.

‘I don’t agree,’ said Alexan­der. ‘Stand­ing by is ex­actly what The Oldie does best.’

Deb­o­rah loved work­ing for Alexan­der. She says: ‘What I re­ally loved about him was that he never stood on cer­e­mony. I could say what­ever I liked to him and he never took the at­ti­tude that so many news­pa­per sec­tion ed­i­tors would, i.e., who do you think you are hav­ing opin­ions; you’re just a sub. He was gen­uinely in­ter­ested in things and ideas – so he wouldn’t care about who you were; he was in­ter­ested in what you had to say. He was com­pletely with­out snob­bery in that way. And he was never, ever once cross with me about any­thing. If a mis­take went in, I would apol­o­gise and he would in­sist it wasn’t my fault. “You can’t be ex­pected to check ev­ery­thing,” he would say.’

Liz An­der­son, who worked for him on the Spec­ta­tor and The Oldie, had the same ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘I never saw him in a grumpy mood – ever.’

On be­ing ap­pointed ed­i­tor of The Oldie at the age of 74, Alexan­der had writ­ten, ‘Here was one job – pos­si­bly the only job in the world – for which at my age I felt I could pos­si­bly ap­ply. I look for­ward to think­ing once more about things other than poul­try [Alexan­der kept ducks and chick­ens at his Northamp­ton­shire home].’

Yet, once again, this was his self­dep­re­ca­tion at play. In truth, Alexan­der was a lot closer to Cincin­na­tus than Old Un­cle Tom Cob­ley. I re­mem­ber him com­ing back from Amer­ica a year or two ago, buzzing with hav­ing mas­ter­minded some deal or other to boost The Oldie cir­cu­la­tion over there. This was not the at­ti­tude of an am­a­teur or a faint­heart.

Over the past few days, I’ve been look­ing through my emails from Alexan­der, go­ing back seven years. They are all so char­ac­ter­is­tic: he was al­ways, de­light­fully, him­self. Most of them are about lunch. The first, from years ago, named a time and a res­tau­rant and ended, ‘Be there or be square.’

He sent the last at 8.50pm on the evening of 27th Jan­uary. I had heard that he was in hos­pi­tal, and had sug­gested drop­ping round, or, if he wasn’t up to it, send­ing some flow­ers.

‘Dear Craig,’ it be­gins. ‘Are there any of the Oldie of the Year win­ners you might care to write about? Am in Chelsea and West­min­ster. Not too se­ri­ous, they don’t think, but might need an op. Wouldn’t visit, if I were you, though it’s a v kind of­fer. Flow­ers might make me look too swank in the ward. What made Alex Shul­man leave Vogue? Got bored, I would guess. Love to you both. Alexan­der.’

It’s a typ­i­cal Alexan­der email: a lit­tle bit of work, no self-pity, a funny, self­dep­re­cat­ing joke (‘Flow­ers might make me look too swank in the ward’), the gos­sip about the com­ings and go­ings of the world and the sug­ges­tion that all sane peo­ple are in flight from bore­dom.

He died the next morn­ing, aged 77, still at the top of his game. He will be missed dread­fully by his fam­ily and his friends, but, un­der Harry Mount, his spirit of mis­chief, in­tel­li­gence and bon­homie will live on in The Oldie. This is an edited ver­sion of the eu­logy at Alexan­der Chan­cel­lor’s funeral at the Church of St Mary the Vir­gin in Stoke Bruerne on 10th Fe­bru­ary.

Alexan­der Chan­cel­lor in 1982

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