Looking at the looker-on

Robert Rintoul, first editor of The Spectator

10,000 Not Out – The History of the Spectator 1828-2020

David Butterfield, London: Unicorn, 256 pages

Everyone has seen The Spectator. Few other journals have cut such a dash through history and culture, and no others have lasted as long. Contributing editor David Butterfield has immersed himself to excellent effect in the magazine’s billion-word digitized archives to pay tribute to a unique institution as influential now as at any time in its 10,000 issue-plus history, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, commercially viable.

His main aim is to show continuities of feeling and thought across all the incarnations of the magazine over 192 years, and under 29 editors. The Spectator is sometimes dismissed as mere ‘Tory press’, but even when the journal has been edited by Conservative politicians, it has allowed contrarian views that have angered or embarrassed Conservative administrations. The Spectator’s co-editors between 1861 and 1897 said their object was to protect “the right of free thought, free speech, and free action, within the limits of law, under every form of government”, and Butterfield believes this mission has been, and is still being, fulfilled.

Robert Rintoul started the Spectator as a means to numerous liberal ends, naming it after Addison and Steele’s eponymous earlier journal. It soon became a formidable champion of causes from anti-slavery to electoral reform. Later editors were less obvious crusaders, but Rintoul would probably have approved of their generic dislike of “the Establishment” and “nanny state” (phrases originating in Spectator articles), and P. C. censorship. Its best-known contemporary contributor is the irrepressible Taki (also of this parish), who has been delighting readers, appalling prudes, and causing awkwardness for editors since 1977 with his inimitable blend of high-society anecdotes, humorous insight and outspokenness. It published Enoch Powell, Roger Scruton, and even Oswald Mosley, but also Anthony Blunt, Terry Eagleton, and Kim Philby.

But politics is only part of the Spectator, and maybe not even the most durable. From the outset, it has given generous space to the arts, carrying a glittering array of writers from Auden to Waugh, by way of Conrad, Eliot, Forster, Greene, Hardy, Lawrence, Nabokov, Sartre and many more. If sometimes narrow-minded and nepotistic, overall it has shown a rare openness to new ideas and talents.

In the foothills below Parnassus, it has simultaneously helped make and mirror the British psyche, with its eccentric correspondents, impassioned arguments over apostrophes or etiquette, classical learning, clubmen’s gossip, nostalgia, bridge and chess columns, charitable fundraising, and sentimental dog stories. To read The Spectator is to read oneself not just into the mind of the British Right, but the heart of a complex country.

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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