The Spectator Book of Wit, Humour and Mischief was conceived, possibly over lunch, as a belated follow-up to Christopher Howse’s 1990 volume The Wit Of The Spectator. My publisher and friend Richard Beswick and I pitched the idea to the magazine’s seniors, who embraced it with enthusiasm.
They gave me the run of the website and the digitised archive, but being the sort of person who writes for The Spectator, I favoured a more old-fashioned approach. I asked if I might come into the office once a week and leaf through binders of old magazines. I thought it might take three months of Fridays. It took nearly a year.
The magazine has elegant offices in Old Queen Street in St James’s, a short stagger from the Houses of Parliament. The building has five storeys and an ancient, terrifying lift, which I have been in once. (Everyone, I discovered, has been in it once.) On the top floor is the office of Andrew Neil, The Spectator’s chairman, but he doesn’t use it much, preferring the mahogany-panelled conference room in the basement. This left the office free for me. I sat at his meeting table, reading old articles and taking care not to spill crumbs from my sandwiches on the floor. A more unscrupulous individual, or a better journalist, would have rifled through his desk drawers or the pockets of the spare suit (pinstripe) hanging in the corner. But I am far too well brought up to do any of that. I just read and read, did some photocopying, and read some more.
Until the gin takes hold, I am quite a shy person, which may explain why I have been freelance and worked alone at home for nearly 30 years. It took me several months of wandering through The Spectator offices to establish that others were relatively diffident as well. Indeed, it took me seven months to introduce myself to the editor, Fraser Nelson, who had been eyeing me up suspiciously as though I were in the building to steal something. I was lucky enough to do my photocopying in the Events and Marketing department, a large room full of shiny young people who are constantly on the phone arranging things, or taking delivery of boxes of champagne. How much of the stuff does the magazine get through? After ten months of this, and many sandwiches, I had three box files full of photocopies, and from this the book was ultimately formed.
Now that it’s all over, and I have a bouncing baby book to show for it all, I have to say that I rather miss the reading and the photocopying, and even the brief, horrifying moments when the photocopier didn’t work. (You needed a PhD in mechanical engineering and three years at Nasa merely to operate it.) My next task? To come up with another brilliant idea for a book, to enable me to go back into the offices and do it all over again.