The following is taken from my book, Singular Encounters.
You were born in India, bet left when you were six. Do you remember anything of that life?
I remember everything because it’s almost as if it were yesterday. There was sunshine and jungles and the sorts of things you can’t believe a child had: elephants and tigers in the garden, pythons and boa-constrictors. We literally lived in the jungle, 133 miles south of Calcutta. I know the distance because when you buy a ticket in India it tells you exactly how long the train journey is. I’ve got a very clear memory from the age of two. I can say that because we had a dog that I remember dying when I was two. The whole joy of being born in India was there ther4e were no guide-lines. You never felt that you had to do anything; you never felt you had to get up in the morning. I had no form of discipline. I learned Hindustani since that was the only language my ayah spoke, it never occurred to me that there was any world outside. My ayah would sleep at the end of my bed, guarding me from the world. She was a wonderful person.
My father ws managing director of the Indian Copper Corporation, and we lived where we did because the mine was nearby – about the third largest copper mine in what used to be the Commonwealth. He employed something like 12,00 miners and was a tremendously hard-working man with no interests in life except mining. His whole joy was his work. He certainly had no interest in women or children, but would work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, and all his people remembered him for that. When he married my mother he told her, ‘All right, you can have children, but don’t expect me to have anything to do with them.’ A great treat for me was, he thought to take me down the mind, so instead of being taken out to the zoo or to a film, as would have happened in England, my entertainment was to be taken down the mine. I can remember at the very early age of about four, descending 4000 feet into the bowels of the earth an seeing all the miners. It’s an extraordinary memory I have of watching people knocking things out of rock deep underground.
My memory of India is one of total joy. We never wore shoes, we had a swimming pool, a tennis court and a staff of about fifteen. We even had what was called a sepoy, who, rather like the guards at Buckingham Palace, stood in a guard-box at the entrance to the house to make sure no one came in who shouldn’t. There was no one who wanted to come in, so it was quite ridiculous. But it was an idyllic childhood, and so privileged, though everyone lived like that as far as I was concerned. I was born when the war was on, not that I knew about it. The only thing to occur to me as strange was having two airfields within about ten miles, one a US airbase and the other RAF.
The officers used our swimming pool and tennis court, and I charged them gum in the case of the Americans and I can’t remember what in the case of the British – whatever was going probably. It was a wonderful life, without responsibility, without care.
In later years, I went back several times. At thirteen it was difficult, because although I had only been away six years, everyone was speaking to me in Hindustani and I couldn’t understand. I was there for the summer holidays for two months, and was glad to be back, but by then I’d become English, having been at an English boarding school in the meantime.
When the time came for me to leave for England in 1947, it never occurred to me that anything different was going to happen because my mother had explained that this was where I’d have to go to school, even though my father came from Australia. My father was forty-seven years older than me, and his father fifty-seven years older than him, so the Australian connection had vanished and my parents looked towards Britain as a place to educate their children. I saw nothing wrong with it, but what happened was a tremendous shock because I couldn’t read or write and was coming up to my sixth birthday. The reason why I couldn’t read or write was that I hadn’t wanted to. In India I had spent most of my time in the servants’ quarters, learning wonderful folklore and hearing stories of their lives.
The first thing that sticks in my mind about England was the cold from the beginning of the winter of 1947, which was the coldest winter until 1963. My clothes were totally inadequate. I’d never known such numbing, freezing cold, and in those days, of course, schools didn’t have central heating. Also, I had never had to live in a disciplined society, but had always done exactly what I wanted. If I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t eat; if I didn’t like the food I used to throw it about. The only discipline had been provided by my father, who sometimes used to beat the hell out of me with his belt, but that was fair enough.
The next thing about England was the austerity, because in India we had everything: milk, butter, animals we could kill. One of the great delights of my childhood in India was the cook’s compound, where I watched him behead chickens. In England, where there was very little food, the fact came as a jolt, and certainly food has been something uppermost in my mind ever since. I wake up every day looking forward to meals, and I’m sure that’s something to do with that period of my life. My prep school was very small. There were thirty boarders, and I was the youngest by far. It was an extraordinary life, and I almost forgot the previous life in India, because I realized that you had to adapt, and if you didn’t adapt you were dead. You knew, if you didn’t get on, awful things were going to happen to you – you would be put in Coventry, people wouldn’t speak to you. You could literally not be spoken to because you had body odour. I remember boys at school and how awful calamitous things which they had nothing to do with haunted them for the rest of their lives. ‘
But the first person who influenced my life was my English master there – a man called Michael Gardiner, who was a bachelor, I suspect an eternal bachelor. He was enormously interested in the English language and made me interested too. He was also a Catholic, and I remember our having a spirited discussion about Jimmy Goldsmith, of all people. I must have been twelve at the time, and the news was that Jimmy Goldsmith’s wife, Isobel, had died in childbirth producing a daughter, also called Isobel. I started discussing this because the papers, which were rather blurred in those days, made it look as if Goldsmith had said, ‘Save the daughter but let my wife die,’ In fact, if you read up the story, you discover that what happened was that his wife had a brain haemorrhage that virtually killed her, then the child was born, and after that his wife died. Michael Gardiner told me that the Catholic ethic was that you save the child rather than the mother, and over that we had a tremendously spirited discussion. It’s curious that it should have been about Jimmy Goldsmith, who now lives a couple of hundred yards from me. After prep school I went on to public school.
Would you send a child of your own to Sherborne?
The extraordinary thing about Sherborne is that it’s become a much better school than when I was there. The only reason why I went there was that my mother, who came from the Dartmoor area, remembered it as the best school in the West Country, the West Country starting, I suppose, somewhere near Salisbury and running through to Cornwall. When I went there in April 1955, it was a good, modest, second-rank public school. It goes back a thousand years, and Sherborne Abbey apparently has the remains of Alfred the Great who was said to have been educated there. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and my mother was entranced with its beauty. It’s a much better school today; it’s got tremendous endowments. If I had a son, which I never will, and he wanted to go to boarding school, I can’t actually think of a better one. It’s academically very sound, its sporting record is tremendous and it produces rather nice boys. Having said that, there are only about five of my contemporaries whom I still see out of, I suppose, a thousand boys I knew in my day.
Why do you say you’ll never have a son?
Well, unless I marry again. Certainly my wife doesn’t want to have another child. We had a daughter in 1979, and that seems to be it. I also feel that people have children for all the wrong reasons. We had a child for the right reason. We wanted a child and we got a daughter, whom I dote on, adore. I think people who go on having children till they have a son do it for all the wrong reasons. Many do it for reasons of inheritance, and it’s a crazy motive. Why not just stop when you’ve got what you want; why buck fate? Anyone is lucky to have children that are normal, happy and healthy. One in ten children in Britain is born with some abnormality. I know enough people, like Jocelyn Stephens, who have suffered that way.
When you left school at sixteen, did you have any idea at all what you were going to do in life?
In those days, the whole public school careers system wanted to put you into the established trades, and in 1958, when I left, that meant the City, which meant stock broking, Lloyd’s of London, merchant not commercial banking, or chartered accountancy. There were other professions which you positively did not enter, journalism being one. You could just about go into advertising, which was a coming thing in those days, a fledgling industry. But everyone who left Sherborne went into either the industries, which people thought would give them a leg up into the future, or into the army, the navy or the air force. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, and leaving was a terrible shock to me, because I hadn’t meant to leave so early. But I had been at boarding school ten years, and it was far too long. I had become rebellious and achieved a certain notoriety at the school. Everything that went wrong was blamed on me. I’d started people drinking, smoking, and talking to girls, which was not allowed. You actually used to get beaten at Sherborne if you talked to a girl. In the summer of 1958, I was booked to go to Davies’s, a tutorial establishment in Addison Road, Holland Park, but the first thing I did when I came to London was to get a job as a porter at the Westminster Hospital. The money was good – something like £8 or £9 a week – and if you worked the night shift you had to wheel bodies out and put them in the mortuary. I discovered more in those two months than I would ever have known otherwise. I saw bodies having their heads cut off at post mortems; I had to put stiffs into fridges at three in the morning. It was a quick growing-up process.
Then I did go to Davies’s, the reason being that at .Sherborne I was top of the class in English and history, for which I would win prizes, but bottom of the class in my other six subjects. The other people who were trying to get their exams were Etonians thrown out of Eton, Harrovians thrown out of Harrow. We all realized that the last thing we wanted to do was pass exams, so we’d go and have lunch in different places. Suddenly we learned that there was another life, and no one I met at Davies’s ever achieved what they went there for. I realized I must have a new life, and one of the people at Davies’s, whose father was a broker, said, ‘Go and see my father’, and so I got a job as a broker at Lloyd’s, literally on my seventeenth birthday, and entered a new world. Suddenly in Lloyd’s there were people from Eton, Winchester and Harrow, and I discovered the extraordinary life of debutante parties in the late 1950s, at the time when Harold Macmillan was telling us we’d never had it so good.
You could go about London and be wined and dined for nothing, though there wasn’t much sex around in those days. In the late 1950s, perhaps 5 per cent of the girls went to bed with men; in the late 1960s, perhaps 5 per cent didn’t. It never occurred to the people whose parties I went to that I was any different from those who introduced me. I got into that stream and stayed there simply by being amusing, charming and nice to the girls and their parents. There was an enormous amount of snobbishness. I’m sure you’ll find hundreds of people out in the shires, thirty years on from the deb season of 1959, who will say, ‘What a filthy little yob Nigel Dempster was. I always knew he was a parvenu. He gatecrashed my sister’s party’ – that sort of thing. So what? It doesn’t worry me.
I don’t think they gave a thought to me being Australian. They might even have thought it slightly romantic. All people really cared about in those days was that you didn’t sleep with their daughter, and very few did. The deb parties were proliferating. In 1959, every day from the beginning of May till the end of July, there were at least two cocktail parties, and each weekend there were at least three dances. You could choose which county you wanted to go to dance in. All it required was a white tie and tails. My first weekly pay cheque was £6, plus 2s. 6d. (12 ½ p) a day in luncheon vouchers. I also got an allowance of £200 a year from my father, and on that one could live very well. I shared a flat in Lennox Gardens, which cost £2 10s. (£2.50) a week and was a good address. The rest was free, except for the cleaning of your clothes.
I don’t think money made much difference. Girls liked men because they liked men. A girl who liked a man with a car was a girl who had a different view on life. But in those days we were all children. We fumbled each other occasionally; we made love if we were lucky. Very few girls were overtly after men with money, and I think it went on personality, I was still only seventeen, and it was amazing, because I was younger than the girls, and at seventeen or eighteen girls are much more mature than boys the same age. I simply don’t know how I did it. It must have been with gritted teeth and perseverance, because I was very much a baby, though I had been seduced very young. In Devon, my home was with my grandparents, and about three miles up the road in Budleigh Salterton I had a friend with a large house who used to give parties in the basement. We’d fumble around with girls and, without knowing what we were doing, used to get laid. That would have been when I was fourteen or fifteen. It wasn’t a satisfactory experience, but it wasn’t terribly unsatisfactory either.
What sort of qualities do you need for work as a gossip writer?
First, a phenomenal memory. Secondly, an acquaintanceship with a wide section of society. No one could have invented a better gossip columnist than me because, by a quirk of fate – my upbringing – and luck I managed to meet an awful lot of people. I remember having dinner at No. 11 Downing Street, because Reggie Maudling’s daughter was there and there you were, right in the midst of the government. From seventeen onwards I met all the children and grandchildren of the people who were Establishment Britain. That’s why, to this day, they can say, ‘God, that creep, that bastard,’ but we knew each other, and because I had an innate interest in other people, I’m able to remember how, where and why I met them, what their ages were and who they were with. I have that sort of encyclopaedic memory and can recall things you can’t get in cuttings. It’s having a vast log-jam of past memories – that’s the gossip columnist’s art. By some fluke I managed to acquire it.
It never occurred to me that I’d become a journalist. In those years being a journalist was a very grubby profession; journalists were grammar school boys who wore dirty macs, behaved badly and worked in an appalling part of London called Fleet Street, which was somewhere you never went. Those of us in the City used to look west towards Fleet Street as if it was a sort of nuclear rubbish tip.
How do you check the information that comes your way? There must surely be lots of people who try to exploit your column for their own interests.
None whatsoever. If people were to ring up saying, ‘Would you write about me?’ you’d make them look so ridiculous. It’s rather like a man asking a woman, ‘Would you make love to me?’ He fears rejection. Similarly, no first-person attempt to infiltrate is ever made because people fear being humiliated. My view has always been that if you don’t want to get into a column then, like the Aga Khan, you surely will. I’ve been in gossip columns now for twenty-seven years, and I’ve never known anyone get a story beneficial to themselves into -the columns I’ve worked on.
As for checking information, the information these days comes first hand. Part of the deal has to be that informants get paid for what they tell. Every part of the newspaper, from front page to back, is marked up every morning for payment. Sometimes we have seven or eight items a day. Sometimes our bill for payment to informants is as little as £50, sometimes as much as £500.
Everyone believes that gossip column stories are about marriage break-ups. It’s absolutely untrue. The number of stories about marriage break-ups come to perhaps one every two or three weeks, and when they happen they are of historical importance. It needs to be noted that the Duke of X has left his wife because it’s something to go into a book, a part of history. The idea of Fleet Street gossip columns being grubby little areas where we expose the seamy side of people’s lives is wrong. Most of the stories are about money, privilege and power, and the other area is basically the historical aspect of Britain – births, marriages and deaths, with divorces obviously included.
A gossip column has got to be scandalous in terms of raising an eyebrow because you can’t have a column which simply massages the back. There are two sides to every great person: the public side – the approbation of the masses – and the private side. That’s life. If you get into some sort of dialogue with a journalist, as people in public life want to do, then the journalist enters into a pact with them. They get publicity for what they’re doing, but as soon as things go wrong in their life, it would be foolish to have these rich, powerful and privileged people believing they can then pull the shutters down and say, ‘Look, don’t write about me anymore.’ They’ve incited the public’s interest, and I’m afraid they’ve got to realize that once you’re started on the treadmill, you keep going.
What sort of editorial freedom do you have?
When I went to the Daily Mail in August 1971, the paper had just merged with the Daily Sketch and something like 300 people had lost their jobs. Paul Callan and I were the first two signings to the new Mail to start columns, and I can honestly say that, from that day to this, I have never suffered any form of interference from anyone. I can assume that is a sign of great success, because you only interfere ‘something that’s going wrong. I’ve never been asked by the editor or the proprietor to put in a story. I’ve never been asked to take one out. The measure of Lord Rothermere’s urbanity is that, when I came back from the United States in 1973 and went to work on the Diary, my very first story on 8 October was that Ladv Annabel Birlev, who was married to Mark Birlev and after whom Annabel’s in Berkeley Square was named, was having another baby. She’d already had three, and this was her fourth, and the story went that Mark Birlev was not the father but Jimmy Goldsmith was.
I rang up Jimmy, whom I knew even in those days, and said. ‘There’s a story that you’re the father of the baby Lady Annabel Birley is expecting in Januarv 1974,’ and he laughed and joked but I wrote the story just the same. It appeared on the Monday, and on Monday evening Lord and Lady Rothermere went into Annabel’s to be met by Mark Birley in a high fury. I think Lady Rothermere was allowed to stay but Lord Rothermere was thrown out, and the measure of my esteem for Lord Rothermere was that I never heard a whisper about the story at the time. Five or six years later, someone asked did I know that my very first column as Nigel Dempster on the Diarv my proprietor was thrown out of Annabel’s? My response came close to worship Anyone else would have had me fired, but I never even heard about it.
If the trade of the gossip columnist is trivial, I think that all of life is trivial. Kierkegaard said all life will be gossip, and I suspect that trade gives a far greater insight into the workings of those people that are above us in terms of power and privilege, position and money. People aren’t that interested in the pronouncements from the pulpit or what’s happening in the House of Commons, because the British are very cynical race. No one cares what politicians say. We know they are all liars, cheats and fools. What we want to know is what’s going on in their backgrounds, why they’re saving whatever, why a certain minister does this, a politician that. The answer invariably lies in their personal life, and this is why the gossip columnist is as invaluable now as he was two hundred years ago, for the only way the British public knew King George III was mad was through gossip. The reason why the serfs, the ordinary working people of Britain, realized things were going wrong was through gossip, because there weren’t any newspapers in their time.
What we do today is an advanced, streamlined version of village gossip, and we provide a fantastic service. People want to know if those who are rich, powerful and privileged are having a better life than they are. They’re having a better life materially maybe, but things are going horrifically wrong for them too. Cecil Parkinson’s daughter is a drug addict; the Duke of Marlborough’s heir is a drug addict; the Marquis of Bristol, with 4,000 acres and £20 million, is a drug addict who has been in prison. It gives people a sort of comfort.
Investigative journalism can be defended as part of a free society. If a minister, for example, has a liaison with a foreign embassy official, or shares a prostitute with one, it might well be in the public interest to reveal it. But if someone’s husband or wife leaves, or takes to adultery, doesn’t broadcasting it merely compound the misery?
Gossip columnists only print stories long after they’ve happened. Rarely do you write in the middle of a story. What you’re doing is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. People go off with other people, people have hiccups in their marriages. By the time it gets into a gossip column, it’s history. The people involved have explained it all to their children, they’ve moved out, moved into other houses, and it comes as something of a merciful release to see it written in a decent newspaper like the Daily Mail because then they don’t need to answer any questions any more.
The profession can’t be called intrusive because the people who are written about on the whole welcome journalistic attention. In this day and age, it’s not enough to exist. You have to be seen to exist. People enjoy publicity and realize that if you are in the spotlight for whatever reason – birth or ancestry, accumulation of wealth, inheritance – it’s a two-edged sword.
If you ask me whether we need a right to privacy in this country, I say absolutely not. The only reason anyone wants a right to privacy is if they’ve got to hide something. The privacy bill in France was introduced by a libidinous premier with a saucy wife. Pompidou didn’t want the French papers writing about him or his saucy wife. Pompidou’s personal life was a sorry mess, and so he passed an Invasion of Privacy Act, which means that in France you cannot write about any aspect of the private life of a public person. It also means that there are all known forms of chicanery going on. The French public have no idea whether their peers are murderers, rapists, finaglers, thieves or liars, and that’s very sad.
Over the years there has been a call for a privacy bill here, but it’s always come from members of parliament who have been exposed. In the 1970s, I exposed Maureen Colquhoun, who was Labour MP for Northampton and a lesbian. Many of the voters in Northampton may well not have known about her lesbian tendencies, but they certainly did when she and her girlfriend, Babs Todd, sent out change-of-address cards with a Sappho motif. I got hold of one of the cards and exposed her in the Daily Mail as a lesbian. All I was doing was bringing to a wider public what she herself had advertised, but all hell broke loose.
I was reported to the Press Council. I was this and that and all the rest of it. Meanwhile Maureen Colquhoun’s leftist friends in Parliament -including one Arnold Latham, who was MP for Paddington, I think, and a particularly unattractive little man – tried to bring in a privacy bill.
Every time you hit the raw nerve of an MP – and the most recent is this one called John Browne, the MP for Winchester, who has caused his ex-wife great financial hardship – they start a rumble for a privacy bill. I never see the decent MPs who have their lives rent asunder, like Cecil Parkinson or Roy Hattersley, calling for privacy legislation, because they understand the rules of the game. And the rules are very simple: if you behave yourself, you won’t be written about, and if you don’t it’s no good hiding behind a cloak of privacy.
I started off in this business with an enormous number of friends and ended up with very few, but the few I’ve ended up with are the same friends I’ve had for thirty years. All the people I’ve known for a long time understand that, if they do something horrible or heinous, it’s going to end up in a column, and they’d rather have it in my column. They know it’s a decent newspaper it’s going into, and they know I’m not going to twist the quotes. The whole point about being British is that you realize that, if you’ve done wrong, you put your hands up and say, ‘Got me!’
As far as outside pressures go, people realize that they’ll get nowhere trying to put pressure on a journalist, at least one of my standing. Therefore the pressure comes in lesser ways, such as, ‘What do you want to know? Can we do a deal? Could you perhaps say this rather than that?’ People know that they can only put pressure on someone if they’ve got a lever, and no one has a lever on me. I don’t need the money, I don’t lead a salacious private life, so I can’t be blackmailed on either count. No one can say, ‘Look here, you’ve committed adultery with my sister, how dare you write that story.’ I’m not saying I lead an unblemished life, but I am saying there are no areas of my life about which I can be pressured. The only pressure is internal pressure. If I write something, how is it going to affect my future?
I’m also helped by not leading a social life myself, which is a great joy. I belong to the most egalitarian club in the world, the RAC, which is full of very middle-class people, and our common delight is playing squash and running. I run marathons, the most egalitarian form of sport on earth. People who stop being friends with me I don’t regard as friends anyway, because they can’t expect a journalist to behave other than the way he does. You can’t give a party at which something extraordinary happens and not expect a journalist who is there to write about it. Certainly people like Peregrine Worsthorne can’t resist it. For example, we were all invited to a party at Jimmy Goldsmith’s on what happened to be a General Election night, and Jimmy had said to everyone that they could either come and not write about it or write about it but not come. So I said, all right, I’d come but I wouldn’t write about it. Then I was furious the next morning to find that Peregrine Worsthorne, who had been there, had gone and written about it. The thing that makes me angry is that journalists should be viewed in this curious way. I don’t know whether Jimmy will ever invite Worsthorne again, but the point for me was that I stood by my word. Nevertheless journalists are journalists and people must realise that occasionally they break every rule because the urge to tell overcomes the need for discretion.
Finding myself the occasional butt of other gossip columnists has, in fact, only reinforced my views about accuracy, because what I’ve discovered in ninety-nine percent of items written about me is there inaccuracy- dates and places wrong, names and people wrong. All that has done is convince me to tighten guidelines to staff even further, so we check everything not once, not twice, but three times. We make the most ludicrous checks. Sometimes we spend two days ringing up to make sure ‘Susue’ is not spelt ‘Suzy’, because once you get one thing wrong, people doubt the veracity of the rest. I was brought up in the Fleet Street of the old days. I joined the Daily Express in 1953, when Lord Beaverbrook was at the helm and you used to get sacked if you spelt a name incorrectly or got someone’s age wrong. Nowadays journalism is so sloppy. There’s no form to it. I despair. The last redoubt of accurate journalism is in the gossip column.
Have you ever had information which you did not print for non-journalistic reasons?
I’ve always printed everything I’ve ever known, because for a start, I work on the assumption that, if I don’t print it, someone else will; and if someone else ill print it, then I should have printed it in the first place. I must qualify that, on the other hand, by saying that I don’t write homosexual stories. The Daily Express column has gone markedly downhill over the past eight or nine years simply because of its preponderance of homosexual stories. They seem to find homosexuals intriguing. Why I don’t know. Certainly the editors have never been homosexual. Homosexual stories have never been part of my diet, and the reason I wouldn’t print them is simply because I find them tasteless and not because they impinge on my relationships with other people.
Once you said in defence of your profession: ‘It is not the exposure of an indiscretion but rather the indiscretion itself which causes hurt.’ Isn’t that special pleading?
No. I know a lot of people who are privileged, who have ancient titles, a lot of people who have money and who are never written about. I could name you two or three dozen who live in houses filled with Reubens paintings and Chippendale furniture, Louis Seize this and Louis Quinze that, but these people are never written about because they’ve never done anything. They’ve led blameless lives, quiet, happy existences. Their children live likewise and the public and gossip columnists are unaware of their existence. If everyone lived that sort of life, then gossip columnists would obviously not have subjects for gossip.
You can very much lead your own life and avoid the press and public censure simply by leading a blameless, boring life. As soon as you start mixing it, you’re going to be caught out, especially in this day and age. And once you’re caught out, you’ve got to come to a decision. I don’t lead a stainless life. I gamble, I drink a lot. But what I do doesn’t affect my ability to write and comment. Once you lose that ability, then you’ve had it.
The kind of thing you’re looking for in a gossip column has got to be financial or sexual or anything aberrant to the mind of the normal person who lives in Bootle or Chipping Norton, Budleigh Salterton or Bideford – people who lead Christian lives and have decent relations with their neighbours. Where I come into it is that I’m very much middle class, middle Britain. My background is not the rarified ionosphere of social life. I take a middle-class view, much like that of the Daily Mail itself. And I’m shocked by what people do and how they behave, and the stories that appear in my column are very much there because of my shock at what goes on. Richard Ingrams is the same, another middle- class moralist. We’re helped by the fact that we lead fairly humdrum lives. I’m not an adulterer, not an alcoholic, not a thief, not a finagler, and anyone who is any of those things tends to jar on me, because I think this is not how one was brought up to behave. Basically the gossip column is a pulpit from which you’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t be doing all this, but you’ve done it and now you’re paying for it.’ In the old days, they would have been put in the stocks and had eggs thrown at them.
I don’t think we can ever be accused of causing hurt for the simple reason that any hurt and harm have already been occasioned by the people themselves. All we do is report what’s happened. If you murder your wife, you end up in court and it’s going to be written about. If you do something of an unworthy nature and you’re a great, powerful or privileged person, one day it will come out. All we do is follow the age-old journalistic practice of producing for the public stories of interest about the people in positions of power and privilege. I don’t incite people to leave their wives or to leave their husbands. I don’t incite them to become heroin addicts. I can’t see how I can be blamed for the original act.
Which stories have you been most proud of?
I think there are very few stories in our world in the last twenty years that I haven’t started. The best story of the last half century, the one story that got away, that I was never offered, was that madman Fagin sitting on the Queen’s bed in Buckingham Palace. But apart from that, just about all the stories which have enlivened gossip life in the past twenty years have started in the Daily Mail diary. It’s been a fantastic achievement, but one that was only realizable because it had at the heart of it The Daily Mail, a very good newspaper with a highly regarded patrician chairman, Lord Rothermere, and the best editor in the business, David English.
I have always had a very clear idea of my position. I work extremely hard six days a week. I’m the only journalist in the history of Fleet Street to have a column on both a daily newspaper and a Sunday newspaper, and on top of that I have various other outside interests. I’m contracted to TV-am to appear fifty-two times a year, to ABC in the States and so on. My reward for hard work is that I shouldn’t be criticized. When I’ve been subjected to criticism in the past, I’ve always felt that if I’m going to be criticized, I’m not appreciated, and if I’m not appreciated, I’m going to leave. It’s as simple as that. I’m awfully confident of my ability to find another role in the market place, and I’ve always felt that the best way of doing anything is to do it in public, which is what I exhort the people I write about to do. I’ve always had very public rows with editors and with my proprietor, and he with me. And it’s always helped to clear the air. It’s never been for financial gain, but entirely to preserve my professional integrity. The fact that I could run my column from Mars if I wanted, and no one would interfere, shows I’ve taken the right track.
You have regularly condemned the way some of the royal family are harassed by reporters and photographers, but where do you draw the line where they are concerned? Couldn’t it be said that you simply want them to be harassed to the point that suits your own purposes.
By great fortune I’ve never needed to harass the royal family. Contrary to speculation, I rarely see the royal family. It just so happens that last night I went to a cocktail party which Prince Charles also attended, but that is another matter. What we have is confrontational journalism, a form of journalism usually exercised by photographers who harass not just the royal family but film stars and whoever – pushing up against them, knocking them to the pavement and then photographing them; and there you have the story the next day – members of royal family or Robert Redford jostled to pavement, shouting and screaming. ‘You fucking photographers!’ That’s not my tiling. Our stories about the royal family are done at a remove. We don’t get within miles of them.
They never see us, we never see them. Our stories come from friends and, l dare say so, even relations. I’ve never harassed any member of the royal family. I’ve never had a conversation with any of them, except at dinner. Our stories of the royal family are intimate stories about their personal lives, and I say personal rather than private because I don’t think they have a private life. Obviously they do have personal lives, and the royal family, like anyone else, could have a private life simply by being private.
But weren’t yon once very critical of a certain member of the royal family on a chat show in the United States, culling Primess Diana ‘a fiend’ and a ‘little monster’ and saying that Princess .Margaret was ‘obsessed with bisexuals’ I never regretted that because all that I said was true. I told the American television show about Princess Diana’s behaviour towards diaries, and it wasn’t I who invented the words ‘fiend and monster’. They came from a high-up member of the staff, not just a butler, valet or chauffeur. The Anthony Holden book on Charles and Diana totally vindicate what I said, which was that the marriage was going through a very bad period and she was behaving as she did because she was furious with Charles for neglecting her. A wife who is neglected behaves like a fiend and a monster, that is to say, she was being what Charles thought of as selfish. In fact I saw my remarks as a fine piece of journalism because they showed I was in the middle of a family row, and what better gossip can you have than that?
I was hardly the first person to draw attention to the fact that Princes Margaret liked bisexuals. In my own book on Princess Margaret, I pointed out that the man who became her escort for almost eight years, Roddv Llewellvn, had previously shared a double bed with Nicky Haslam, an interior decorator, and lived with him for at least six months. However, I never said what they did in that double bed. Every time I’ve been asked to go on television to explain something during the last sixteen or seventeen years, everything I’ve said has been borne out later in a book or a biography.
For the future, I cannot see the royal family lasting beyond the death of the Queen. The Queen is sixty-four this April, the Queen Mother ninety this August. The Queen, I would have thought, has a life expectancy of at least another twenty-five years, by which time Prince Charles will be sixty-six. I do not believe that the forces Mrs Thatcher unleashed – the yobs, the lager louts, the young who don’t really have any feeling of history – will be royalists. You can only be a royalist if you have a knowledge of history, if you understand what the royal family’s contribution to this country has been over the last thousand years. The lager louts of today are the parents of tomorrow, and I do not believe that their children will feel any empathy towards the royal family or think that Prince Charles is a good egg. The people who think Prince Charles a good egg are those around at the moment, and the only reason why the royal family is in favour is because Princess Diana is a pin-up, a jolly good pin-up too. In twenty-five years’ time this country will have grown out of the idea of kings or queens, and when Charles ascends the throne, as he will as soon as the Queen dies, I think the gig is up. There will be a referendum at some stage after that, and the referendum will say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
It was an aristocrat who said to me that Dempster had done more than anyone to maintain class divisions in this country.
Others have said I’m a communist because, by constantly delving into the unsavoury elements of the aristocracy, like revealing that Lord Blandford, the Duke of Marlborough’s heir, and Lord Bristol were drug addicts, I was undermining the class system, I think myself that, by writing about them in the way I have, by making it amusing and immediate, I have helped to keep the class system afloat. People want to belong to a class system which is admired, and we’re never going to be without a class system in this country as long as there are titles and a royal family, and there are always going to be people who want to join.
Mrs Thatcher has changed British society during the past decade. Is that change for the better or for the worse?
She has changed it in such a way that she’s made a new class of spiv. Now, whether the spiv would have risen without Mrs Thatcher I don’t know, but she has given the green light to spivvery. All round Britain, but especially in London, you see illiterate yobs driving £60,000 cars and you’re bloody sure they’re not paying taxes. Mrs Thatcher has allowed these people to proliferate and profit, and it’s the by-product of her greater design, the entrepreneurial society. Against that she has got to be praised for bringing down taxes. When I married my wife she was paying 98 per cent on unearned income, and I was paying something like 82 per cent on earned income. Those draconian measures to tax one out of existence were crazy, so that’s the good part, but I deprecate what she has unleashed upon us.
What exactly happened to cause your rift with Private Eye?
There was only one reason. I went to work for Private Eye because I liked Richard Ingrams enormously and had known Auberon Waugh since my schooldays. I never got paid because I didn’t want money and didn’t ask for it. During their problems with Goldsmith I never took any salary, yet raised, I think, about £9,000 for their appeal, from among my friends. So I was working for Private Eye out of a sense of mischief and a sense of love for Richard and Auberon Waugh and Patrick Marnham. Clearly I was a very great selling point, and the acceptable face of Private Eye throughout all those struggles. People used to look on Private Eye as a rabble who poked fun at their betters, and tee-hee. I was the only person who had any position in society. ‘Grovel’ of Private Eye worked on a decent newspaper; his wife was a duke’s daughter; he appeared on television and was a public person.
During the Goldsmith case, I was the centre-forward, very much taking on Goldsmith and his gang because I was on the same level as them, so to speak. That all passed, and in the early 1980s Ingrams was introduced to lan Hislop, who I thought then, as I do now, was talented in the way of being able to write jokes, but no journalist. The fact that he was appallingly unattractive didn’t help him. He was a runtish figure who looked like a sort of bat you see at London Zoo, and was always oiling up to Ingrams and no one else. I’m not saying he should have oiled up to me, for I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But then it became apparent that Ingrams was going to leave Private Eye, which, one must remember, was practically his only form of income. Although he did the occasional radio show Private Eye was his whole life, whereas it was a very minor part of mine: maybe 5 per cent, and certainly less than 1 per cent of my income. I therefore became rather disquieted at Richard’s absences and the fact that, during his absences, a totally unpredictable man was in charge of what I was doing.
I don’t know that I ever spoke to Hislop at that time. I certainly can’t remember having a conversation with him. I would go and do ‘Grovel’ and that would be the end of it. Then came what I most feared: a disgraceful act. I was playing squash in the RAC when Liz Elliott rang me up at about half-past eleven on the Friday and said, ‘Look, we haven’t got a “Grovel” column.’ I said, ‘Aah, I don’t want to do one.’ She said, ‘You’ve “got to do it, we’re relying on it. We’ve got a blank page.’ So I left the squash court, went to Private Eye, sat down at a typewriter and wrote the thing, the main item being that Sir Geoffrey Stirling, head of P & 0, had had an illegitimate daughter. This was yet another blah blah blah, because he was one of Mrs Thatcher’s blue-eyed boys and one of her unpaid political advisers. Underneath it I inserted a story which was in the ‘Grovel’ folder about Cecil Parkinson and his new secretary and there were various other items.
I handed the ‘Grovel’ copy over, and for the first time in my life Hislop was there. I said, ‘Look, these stories I can vouch for, but this one about Parkinson. I know nothing about.’ Now, what normally happened on a Friday or a Monday at Private Eye was that the lawyer would ring me and say, ‘Look, this story . . .’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, it comes from a friend.’ That Friday the lawyer didn’t ring, on Monday he didn’t ring, so I assumed Hislop had either had it passed by the lawyer or taken the story out. It was nothing to do with me anymore. Then someone, in Private Eye perhaps, leaked the story to Parkinson. He issued an injunction for libel and had the issue scrapped. The first thing I read was that lan Hislop, who was meant to be the editor of Private Eye in the absence of Richard Ingrams, had done what I feared, which was to tell the world that I wrote the story.
That was wrong on two counts. First, as an editor he should have protected his sources; secondly, I hadn’t written the story in the first place. I walked in and screamed at Hislop, ‘You know nothing about journalism. You’re a little shit. I never want to have anything to do with you again. This has just gone to prove everything I’ve said to Ingrams about you. You have no knowledge of journalism whatsoever and I’m not going to put my reputation on the line for you.’ And that was the end of it. My reward for having worked mostly without pay, certainly without any form of proper recompense, was that for the next three or four years I was written about, sometimes three or four times in the same issue, invariably in an unpleasant manner. They even said I was being paid by Peter Cadbury to write about him in a flattering way, or worse, being paid not to write about him. So I sued and won and got, I think, £8,000 plus costs. Cadbury also sued and won, so that vindictive little paragraph cost them about £25,000.
There were no other reasons for ending my Private Eye connection. I’m a professional Fleet Street journalist of some standing, and I helped out in what I believed to be a good cause, which Private Eye was originally. Then suddenly it became a commercial venture; they tried to make money. The reason I left was because I didn’t see why I should have my career threatened by a man like lan Hislop, who couldn’t understand that the first thing an editor does is protect his sources. The reason why Private Eye has never had a decent story since dates from that time, because everyone in Fleet Street saw that Hislop didn’t understand the basic tenets of journalistic behaviour.
I wouldn’t say there’s bitterness on my part, because that’s a negative emotion. I just think Private Eye is now a rather pathetic magazine of very little interest. There is no information in it as there used to be in the old days and you’d go golly or wow. Now I know more than they do, week in, week out.
I haven’t spoken to Ingrams for a very long time. I’ve rung him once in the last two years. I feel that originally when Richard was involved in Private Eye, it was an excellent publication because it took on the Goliaths and, win or lose, went on taking them on. Then it became a tool for abuse. You don’t use a publication to bash your enemies. You simply don’t do it.
It is often noted that men with macho images are given a high profile in your column, suggesting you have a secret admiration for men who make a name for themselves by seducing women.
The only reason they get into the column is because, if you’ve got mistresses, you’re an interesting person. Jimmy Goldsmith denies he ever said, after his marriage to Lady Annabel Birley, ‘When you marry your mistress you create a job vacancy.’ I told him he should stop denying it and go down in history as the author of one of the immortal remarks of our time. The point is that if you have a lot of women, then you are attractive and my readers find you attractive. The fact that you’re a womanizer, like Dai Llewellyn, who was engaged to three attractive girls at the same time, is something readers enjoy, even though these people all come to grief in the end.
Jimmy Goldsmith hasn’t come to grief yet.
He’s come to grief emotionally. He’s got problems ahead with the present mistress, I imagine. But I don’t write about such people because I respect or admire their macho side. It’s simply one of the crazy vagaries of life that people behave in this way – like sultans or potentates – and others love to read about it.
Lord Longford said of you, ‘I like Nigel Dempster, but I can’t bring myself to approve of him.’ And the Mail art critic, Paul Johnson, called your trade a loathsome business.
I get on very well with Lord Longford and his wife, and I was a great friend of his late daughter Catherine. As for Paul Johnson, if he finds my business so loathsome, why is he collecting money by writing for my newspaper so frequently? I find him loathsome. I find him humbug. As someone once said about Paul Johnson in his leftie days, he eats more oysters than a duke. He is a terrible snob, the sort of person who’d be oiling up to my wife’s father if he were alive. He’d have loved to have met the Duke of Leeds.
It has sometimes been said that you make an intransigent foe. Is this balanced, would you say, by your loyalty as a friend?
I don’t think I’ve ever been intransigent and I don’t think I’ve ever been a foe. I haven’t got it in me to hate anyone. I don’t hate lan Hislop, for instance. I just think he’s a twerp. People who are loyal to me are friends. We’ve always been friends and obviously I help them and they help me. I’ve never conducted a campaign against anyone, because if you were to do that as a gossip columnist, you’d lose your job. You’re not employed to conduct personal campaigns but to write about the people out there who interest your public.
It doesn’t happen that I walk into a parlour of my enemies and I’d be a damned fool to do so. I only go to places where I want to go. Anyway, who are these enemies? I’ve outgrown all my childhood enemies from when I was in my twenties to thirties. I’m bigger and better than they are. I work hard and I’m appreciated. The only people who are enemies now are those who have suffered by my exposing them, and I’m very happy to have such people as enemies because they should be exposed. There are a lot of unpleasant people around.
You married twice into the aristocracy. Is that a world where you feel entirely at home?
Ever since I went to deb dances in 1959, I’ve known a world which is populated by people who, if not aristocratic, are related to the aristocracy, simply because that is the tribe. When you mix at a certain level, it becomes almost impossible not to marry someone who isn’t related to the aristocracy. It’s just coincidence that, of the two women I’ve fallen in love with, one had a mother who was titled and the other had a title of her own.
You’re not an Englishman, but most Englishmen, even those who are heterosexual, prefer the company of other men. What’s your feeling about that?
If you’ve gone to an English public school and been brought up in a sporting ethic, you like to spend your leisure hours doing sporting things. You can’t play squash with a woman, or golf with a woman, or tennis with a woman, because women are not very good at it. British men who have been to public schools tend to stick together because their pastimes are male-oriented. I take women out to lunch, not because I’m trying to have affairs but because whatever they do interests me, but the major part of your leisure hours must be spent with men.
Do you have ambitions outside the world of newspapers? For example, you breed horses.
I don’t think I would be happy to leave that world, but obviously it’s going to happen in the not too distant future. My whole life has been spent working ten to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. I wouldn’t know what to do it I didn’t work those sort of hours. My wife always says I’m the only person among my friends who works, but I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t. Breeding a horse is a two minute job. In fact horses ejaculate so quickly its about a thirty-second job. It just wouldn’t be enough.