10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 14


A.N. Wilson on Lord Wyatt,

The Spectator, the Queen Mother and himself

A GOOD editor can make contributors forget their better judgment and write arti- cles they will probably regret. This is cer- tainly what happened to me when I returned to The Spectator for a short spell under the editorship of Dominic Lawson. He had himself caused an almighty stink by his interview with Nick Ridley. Every- one knew that Ridley was Eurosceptic, but even in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet it was not permitted to say, as Ridley said to Lawson, that Chancellor Kohl had the same sort of pan-European ambitions as his predeces- sor, the one who was elected in 1933. So, Ridley had to go.

Interviews are not really my sort of thing. I seldom read them, and I've only ever interviewed a handful of people in my life. How did I ever find myself being sent off by Dominic to interview Lord Den- ning? I had assumed that it would simply be a matter of noting down anecdotes from the good old days at the Bar. But, oh dear, this distinguished old Master of the Rolls, entirely unprompted and completely sober, began a rant which, when tran- scribed and printed in The Spectator, caused an uproar. Leon Brittan was a Ger- man Jew, so how could he have our national interests at heart? The Guildford Four should have been hanged, guilty or not.

It was one of the most nightmarish weeks of my life, with Denning appearing on the six o'clock news, dodderingly sug- gesting that I had somehow trapped him into saying words which were 'taken out of context'. What he could not possibly have guessed is that I was entirely on his side — not on the contentious question of Sir Leon's antecedents, but in his gut preju- dice against intrusive journalism. On the other hand — if you feel like that aged 90, why ask a journalist to lunch for an 'inter- view'?

Dominic Lawson's natural genius for journalism had made The Spectator a mag- azine which seemed to be 'outing' a new old buffer every week. Which distinguished old person would be idiotic enough to accept an interview with The ,Spectator next? The Queen Mother's 90th birthday was approaching. No chance of an inter- view there. But I let fall that, some years before, I had met the old lady at Woodrow Wyatt's house, and kept notes of our con- versation. Some of the things she had said were not repeatable. Her right-wing views gave new meaning to her oft-repeated phrase (when Buckingham Palace had been bombed slightly in the war): 'Now we can look the East End in the face.' Yes — and which bit of the East End? If the police had ever allowed the so-called Bat- tle of Cable Street to take place, one had no doubt on which side of the barricade Queen Elizabeth would have found her- self.

But this was the pre-Morton, pre-Bashir, pre-Jonathan Dimbleby era. A mere eight years ago, it simply wasn't done, especially in The Spectator, to repeat any words said to you by royalty. Although I censored the right-wing stuff, and some fairly surprising remarks about different members of the royal family, when my article came out there was a furore. Needless to say, the angriest voice of protest came from my genial, funny, old host and friend, Wood- row Wyatt.

He was completely right to be angry. It had not even occurred to me when I was writing my article that, as well as being mildly embarrassing for all concerned, it might have led Queen Elizabeth to 'drop' Woodrow. She is notoriously ruthless about dismissing even old friends from her entourage if they step out of line. Woodrow was besottedly fond of her — hence the (I think absurd) rumours that they once had an affair. To have done something which might imperil their friendship was, on my part, insufferable. He wrote to The Spectator in the highest dudgeon, and denounced me on the tele- phone in terms which suggested that I might be horsewhipped on the steps of my club. There was, in other words, even at the time, an element of theatre in his rage, a feeling of parody which was oddly reassuring. You felt he was going through the motions, so that he could turn to the Queen Mother and say, 'You see, Ma'am — I've thrashed that young cad for you.'

What no one, not even Woodrow's wife, knew at the time of this bust-up was that old Woodrow was himself keeping a highly indiscreet diary of Queen Elizabeth's con- versations, and those of Princess Michael of Kent, Margaret Thatcher and all the other grandees who so freely confided in him. He was not writing for posterity, but for as immediate a journalistic scoop as could be contrived between himself, Rupert Murdoch and the Almighty. When he knew he was dying, Woodrow himself negotiated the sale of serialisation rights with the Sunday Times.

Unlike me, Woodrow did not limit him- self to tales of George VI having the gig- gles. He has deliberately laid bare all the royal gossip he could find. And, from a journalistic point of view, the 'scoop' is to reveal that the royal family are right-wing. Many of us could have guessed this for our- selves, but among what could be called the Pimlott-reading classes, there exists a myth that the royal family, and the Queen in par- ticular, are 'left of centre', hankering after the good old days of Harold Wilson, etc. Woodrow's accounts of their drinking toasts to Margaret Thatcher give the lie to all that.

Of course, Woodrow's diaries are not necessarily accurate. Mr Geoffrey Wheat- croft has already issued an angry denial that he arrived late for a luncheon at New- market — as described in last Sunday's newspaper. If Woodrow was prepared to play fast and loose with the truth in Mr Wheatcroft's case, why should we trust his account of Princess Margaret?

Woodrow was first and foremost a jour- nalist. When we met I always greeted him as 'The Voice of Reason' — the title of his column in the News of the World. Saluting him thus in the presence of his more hien pensant friends could provoke looks of incomprehension on their faces until he explained the joke. No such explanation was required in the Queen Mother's pres- ence. She is a keen News of the Screws addict, who agreed with every contentious word which her mischievous old friend wrote.

What on earth can she be feeling now? Let down? Or, as the rest of us are (howev- er rude he might be about us in print), highly amused? Queen Elizabeth knew Woodrow much better than I ever did, and she will surely recover from any sense of betrayal and realise that for a man like that everything which happened was good copy. His posthumous last laugh, such crashing bad form, and so hilarious, confirms my earlier hunch that he was not very angry with me fof behaving like a cad at that ear- lier juncture. What enraged Woodrow was that another hack had pipped him to the post with his Queen Mother 'material'.

She'll forgive him, won't she? Surely, at the age of 98, she is old enough to know that if you go and get drunk with a journal- ist from The News of the World, you have only yourself to blame for what you said after your umpteenth glass of excellent Tokay.