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Monday, 5 January 2009

Whatever happened to The Spectator?

A couple of weeks ago I picked up my copy of The Spectator, a respected journal which has been around in one form or another since the early 1700’s.

Its founders, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, were two of the best essayists in English who ever lived. I still strive to write as well.

A few years ago I even wrote a marketing plan for the magazine, which either deliberately or by coincidence it has followed almost exactly ever since, and as a result, I was delighted to see, turned a profit for the first time in its history

I started subscribing to the modern version almost exactly 30 years ago. At that time the novelist Graham Greene said it was the best written journal in the English language - and God knows, he was a better judge than I could ever hope to be.

The column on wine by Auberon Waugh was alone worth the price. The Low Life column by Jeffrey Bernard, who liked a drink or two, was called "a suicide note in weekly installments" and was so popular it led to a hit play called "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell" featuring Peter O'Toole.

That is his his picture at the top which shows him doing what made him so unwell so often. We actually drank in the same pub and even, I discovered, slept with same woman, although I never knew it till he wrote about her in one of his columns. My God, she got me into a lot of trouble - but that is another story.

Anyhow, moving swiftly on, the old mag has gone downhill since then; and what I saw in this issue persuaded me it really is time to stop reading it. It was an interview by the editor with a girl called Lily Allen.

Now, if you want to know anything about Lily Allen, you really don't need to look in The Spectator. You just get a copy of Scrubbers'r’Us weekly and you’ll soon see her with all the other C-listers lurching drunkenly out of clubs in the Kings Road at 3 a.m. She's just a fairly good pop singer with acting pretensions, a penchant for being rude to people and absolutely nothing interesting to say about anything.

Whatever has happened to The Spectator? It still has some fine writers – Paul Johnson, perhaps our finest living journalist; Rod Liddle, perhaps our funniest – but the average is far, far below what it once was.

It really is going to hell in a handcart. So much so that I use one of its Diary Pieces in a course on how to write that I run for public servants. The piece in question is a faultless demonstration of how not to write good English, banged out by a woman called Joanna Shields who is "president" of a thing called Bebo.

"How many examples of cliche and jargon can you find in this?" I ask my students. Even the most modest toiler in the smallest district council in England has no trouble in finding plenty.

No editor worth his salt would even consider running a word this woman wrote. So how come the editor of The Spectator runs such tripe? Maybe because he imagines his readers want to know anything - anything at all - about Lily Allen.

A shame.

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