23 AUGUST 1975, Page 8

A Spectator's Notebook

My own version of a familiar story can be put briefly. In Edwardian times No 99 Gower Steet was a hotel of sorts, offering — none too discreetly — the additional amenities of a brothel and thereby enjoying a wider esteem, not to say celebrity, than its other appointments could command. It prospered accordingly.

But that was well before its second and graver distinction. The larger fame attaching to 99 dates from the years of the Great Depression, after the arrival of The Spectator (previously housed in Covent Garden) in 1929, when Evelyn Wrench, then owner and editor, bought the freehold. There the offices remained until last weekend. The address and the old facade (which is protected) will survive the developers: but the lustre is removed. Happily, however, the paper will not be leaving Bloomsbury, which seems the right place for it. It is to be published from nearby Doughty Street, nowadays a more congenial thoroughfare than the noisy race track that one-way Gower Street has become.

Within its own history (The Spectator was founded in 1828 by Robert Stephen Rintoul, a Scottish printer turned journalist), forty-six years cannot be called a great span of time. But those forty-six years — less than a third of the long romantic record — have been uniquely eventful, and were duly, one might say dutifully, reflected in the weekly comment, discourse and discussion proceeding from 99 Gower Street, often radical, seldom illiberal, usually informative, invariably principled.

Before the move from Covent Garden, Evelyn Wrench (subsequently knighted for hisi many public services) had succeeded the prolific St Loe Strachey in the editorial chair. He himself was succeeded by H. Wilson Harris. Walter Taplin followed; and then in the mid-'fifties there was a reversion to previous practice or convention when Ian Gilmour assumed the combined role of editor-proprietor, having bought the property from Sir Evelyn.

A new heyday — an exciting era = was at hand for The Spectator. It became less predictable, more contentious and provocative. It was wayward,, certainly by the standards usually applied to old-established institutions. It was pugnacious — opposing Suez (very sensibly), letting Bernard Levin loose , on the ruling establishment (he made his name as 'Taper"), campaigning against capital punishment, speaking up (as few did) for the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. There were no half-measures — and a spirited editorial policy produced a spirited response. Circulation and readership increased (the second is a multiple of the first), influence grew, notably among younger people.

1 was not yet associated with The Spectator those days, but had taken it since I was a boy. Up to then, I always turned to the New Statesman first (I bought them together). I remember reversing the order, and putting the Statesman aside until I had read The Spectator, such was its new appeal, its force and exhilaration.

Although Ian Gilmour remained proprietor until 1967 he had surrendered the editorship long before that — to Brian Inglis. Three editors followed under the Gilmour regime: lain Macleod and Nigel Lawson. It would be invidious to judge between them. As a former managing director, but equally as a contributor, reader and friend, 1 would say th al however great their individual differences — in temperament, interests and inclination — all were good editors, each 'having, his own particular strengths, Lain Hamilton's on the literary side, perhaps, and Nigel Lawson's on the economic and political, while fain Macleod's were those of a gifted amateur with a natural flair for journalism, otherwise little exercised in a long but cruelly shortened public career.

When lan Gilmour decided to part with the paper, it passed — rather improbably as we thought at the time — into the hands of a youngish businessman, Harry Creighton. Although he had no previous experience of journalism or public affairs he was interested in both and not without aptitude, albeit of a somewhat slapdash, capricious sort.

One of his first actions was to resurrect the pre-war dining room at 99, long disused and derelict, and re-equip the kitchen. This was not simply for personal convenience or to indulge his own hospitable instincts. What he had in mind was that important political figures and other guests would feel freer in the comfort and protection of a private dining room than in a public restaurant or club. He was right. For a modest outlay the daily lunches proved a great success, agreeable in themselves and a sure source of information (not to mention rumour and red herrings), artistic and literary as well as political.

Harry Creighton inherited his first editor, Nigel Lawson; the next was his own appointment, George Gale, who had been a strong contributor over the years and shared his anti-Common Market sentiments. Finally, Creighton appointed himself editor, "an editor by purchase," as he said with saucy candour.

Now he is gone, and some of his policies (over Europe, for example) go with him. The new proprietor, Henry Keswick (of the Jardine Mathieson dynasty), and his editor Alexander Chancellor (Sir Christopher's son), will pursue their own. But they will be keeping on the lunches, I am glad to hear, and upholding an older Spectator tradition as well — the crowded evening parties to which many of us have become accustomed once or twice a year, when everyone who is anyone in politics or the arts seems to be present.

Of course the company on those occasions exactly reflects the combination — the mixture — that characterises the first of the weekly reviews. The literary and other arts pages are no less important than the political: to a good many readers they are indeed more important. Hence the galaxy of critics and other contributors in succeeding generations: it has probably included every writer of consequence in this country. One would like to salute them all by name, but cannot: they are too numerous.

Although the fortunes of many general newspapers and popular periodicals are at risk, I personally have faith in the future of the intellectual weeklies — and I know something about their economics as well as the editorial aspects. There is, I believe, a durable if not permanent minority who like and value good writing, considered, unhurried argument and sound information, presented at substantial length when occasion requires, free from irrelevance and invested with the independent expert authority frequently among their contributors.

Nor is there any disadvantage in being "small," in the sense of not belonging to some large newspaper company: other considerations apart, the smaller publication is more manageable nowadays. While the weeklies have their own troubles (and I am not making light of them), these are not to be compared to the problems besetting — often bedevilling — major newspaper managements, not only in London but elsewhere in the country, as we have been seeing in Birmingham.

Of course good management will not make any publication: only good journalism, sustained by good management, can do that. Given the two, we can wish The Spectator a further 147 years, and a continuing influence out of all proportion to its circulation.

An important and kindly person, a former Cabinet minister, later chairman of the BBC (you can guess who it was) once asked me why I was "messing about" with The Spectator. He could not understand my interest. "There are bigger things," he said (and indeed there are — some of them already collapsing). I was rather at a loss to explain to him. You either know or you don't.

George Hutchinson

The Spectator finally said 'Farewell' last weekend to Gower Street, its home since 1929. The new offices are also in 13/oomsbury, at 56 Doughty Street, WC1.