Way back in 1711, when my friend Zahos Hadjifotiou was considered middle aged, two Londoners, Joseph Addison and Richard Steel began a weekly publication and called it The Spectator. It only lasted for 555 issues, although it sold as much as 20,000 copies per issue. Around 100 years later, a Scot newspaperman revived it in 1828, and The Spectator has been published without a single interruption to this day. In nine years we will be 200 years old, and we will have published 10,500 some issues week in week out. I joined the Spectator 43 years ago, just in time to attend the 150thanniversary and the grand ball that went with it.
H.H.Asquith, prime minister and later Earl of Oxford, was among the many notables who edited the Speccie, as we call it. Its declared purpose has always been “to convey intelligence.” The Spectator quickly made its reputation of a “must read” by being well written, witty and frequently mischievous. Its writers have been too numerous to list, but among them have been Britain’s two greatest catholic authors, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, also Kingsley Amis, Ian Fleming, John Betjeman, Randolph Churchill, Alec Guinness, John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Alec Douglas Hume and many others equally well known in Britain. And Taki.
For sheer quality of writing, incisive analysis and all-round entertainment value, The Spectator has always remained unrivalled among magazines. Graham Greene before his death called it “the best written magazine in the English – speaking world.” Although conservative in its editorial policy, all sort of writers and pundits have been given access to its pages to write their opinions. “As long as it’s good English, it runs,” could be its motto. How did a poor little Greek boy join such an august publication 43 years ago, and has managed to keep the column going all these years? Well, it all happened almost by magic. Helen Vlachos, an admirer and reader of the Speccie, once asked me whether I had bribed someone. Was she joking? I never found out. All I remember is telling her that that’s not how things worked in Britain, in fact owners at times had to beg the editor in order to have a letter to the editor published in their very own publication. (I think she got the message.)
So, how did I manage to break through and get a column among the poems, reviews, humorous competitions, profiles, diary entries, political and social reportage? It had to do with a Fiat 600 that I had bought for a young Austrian princess who became the mother of my children. I got it in Turin and was told I had to go slow for the first 1000 kilometers while driving to Paris. Which meant boredom and a tendency to fall asleep. So I decided right there and then to construct an article of how to tell an Englishman abroad, re-write it time and again in my mind, and then memorize it. Basically it was simple: An Englishman abroad always had sunburn on the tip of his nose and on his knobbly knees, was always lost, said sorry or excuse me non stop to people he had nothing to apologize for, got even redder in the face when speaking to a female, danced spasmodically and in a manner that scared local people and other dancers, and always – but always – demanded to check the tiniest detail of a nightclub bill.
Once in London I rang the editor of the Speccie, Alexander Chancellor, and proposed the article. He knew me as a “right-wing Greek who was always proposing pro-junta articles, but the only Greek I know whose English I can understand.” (His words.) Over the telephone he said that he was having a drink with a female MP, over at the Ritz, and we could meet there and I could hand him the piece. The M.P. turned out to be Margaret Thatcher, at the time not yet head of her party, and Chancellor was a very nice host who got drunk while chatting with her about Eton, his old school, and after she left demanded I keep him company for the rest of the evening. (He was 36 at the time and I was 38 years old.) Happily, although drunk, Alexander loved the piece. He ran it in the next issue and then out of the blue asked me if I liked to write regularly. It was as simple as that. Make fun of the English, and the upper classes love you for it, was the message.
Thus it started. Most of the editors of the Speccie, at least while I’ve been there, have been old Etonians. The rest of the magazines hate us for it, but old Etonians are gentlemen, and gents do not fire people over the telephone. The column did not work after the first one. “But I could never find him,” exclaimed Alexander once things had calmed down and I had hit my stride. And so it went, year after year, decade after decade. The Speccie was always housed in rather grand houses, with a garden and a kitchen and all that, and always held a lunch for invited guests each Thursday. Prince Charles came couple of times, I brought Princess Diana once, Spiro Agnew, Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy who president Nixon went after and jailed back in the Fifties, various film and theatre actors, and of course many distinguished writers and politicians. Our yearly garden party has always been attended by whoever is ensconced at Ten Downing Street, and his or her cabinet ministers. The magazine now sells around 80,000 a week, and is very profitable. I’ve served under six proprietors, all extremely rich, and seven editors. It’s been a great run, and a very happy one, and has even made the word Taki rather well known in the tight little island that is Britain. Last but not least, The Speccie and I have been sued five times for libel and we have always lost. Which means veritas odium parit.