An Englishman in New York. Tina Brown wanted an elegant hatchet man to edit the New Yorker magazine's keynote Talk of the Town section. What she got was a blimpish journalist who knew nothing of New York
Some Times in America
Alexander Chancellor Bloomsbury, 320pp, £16.99
In 1992 Tina Brown, in one of her first acts as the controversial new British editor of that quintessentially American institution, the New Yorker, offered her old friend Alexander Chancellor, another Brit - who was pretty much a total stranger in the city - the job of editing the magazine's famous keynote section, The Talk of the Town. It was an extraordinarily inept and provocative thing to do - rather as if the first-ever American editor of that quintessentially British institution, the Daily Telegraph, had immediately offered the job of editing the Peterborough column to a fellow American journalist with no prior knowledge of London.
Tempted by the overwhelmingly generous terms - chauffeur, unlimited living expenses and privileged access to the city's high life - Chancellor accepted, but with deep misgivings, which turned out to be fully justified. However, before setting out for New York, Chancellor, as a kind of insurance policy, persuaded a London publisher to give him a whopping advance on a book telling the story of his impending experiences on the principle that the worse they turned out to be, the more copies the book would be likely to sell. So he couldn't really lose: if he was on to a bum steer as a journalist, he was on to a winner as an author.
Wise man. In the event Some Times in America is indeed a delightfully wry and readable book, precisely because the New York job was such a disaster. Chancellor, as readers of his current column in the Guardian and his work elsewhere will know, is a master of self-deprecation who knows exactly how to squeeze the maximum journalistic advantage out of personal setbacks and reversals of fortune, not to say humiliations. Working for Tina Brown offered him a superb opportunity to show his form to the very best advantage. Things started to go wrong - in the right kind of way - from the outset, as the black chauffeur sent by the New Yorker in a stretch limo to meet him on his arrival at Kennedy airport assumed that his pick-up was to be the celebrated ABC anchorman, John Chancellor - one of the chauffeur's heroes, whose books he had brought along in the hope of getting the great man to sign them. In an effort to assuage the chauffeur's disappointment, Alexander claimed to know his celebrated namesake, and promised to work to have the books signed as soon as possible. The story of how he pulled this off is very funny. Some Times in America is off to a flying start.
But the main portrait is of Tina Brown herself, who seems to have realised almost at once that the appointment of her old friend to edit The Talk of the Town was only a little less outrageous than Caligula's appointment of his horse as consul, not only because he was another Brit but also, and just as important, because few journalists could be less suited to the role.
What she wanted was a kind of sophisticated hatchet man, such as Christopher Hitchens, who would turn the city upside down - reveal secrets, expose scandals, dish the dirt, create mayhem. What she got instead in Chancellor was a sophisticated and quizzical tease with an unerring eye for the many absurdities of life and a Candide-like gift for getting himself in and out of awkward social predicaments. As a result she frustrated him at every turn, regularly spiking what he judged to be his best stories just before the magazine went to press. Chancellor remembers her once, on a grey afternoon, gazing dejectedly out of her office window and saying: "It's all happening out there, but we" - by which she meant him - "just don't seem to know about it."
Nor did the obstruction come only from Tina, since the notorious fact-checking department at the New Yorker proved equally unappreciative of Chancellor's ironic style. For example, he once wrote a "cheerfully inconsequential" item about a dinner party given in Washington by the British ambassador for two distinguished men named Powell - General Colin Powell, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, and Sir Charles Powell, the former chief policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher. "There are at least two ways of pronouncing the name Powell," he wrote. "You can rhyme it with 'bowl'. In the United States 'bowel' is generally preferred. In Britain there is an unfathomably snobbish prejudice in favour of 'bowl'." A fact-checker with furrowed brow came to see him in his office. There was a problem, she said. She had telephoned the British Information Service in New York, which had told her it was unable to confirm the existence of a snobbish prejudice in Britain in favour of any pronunciation of "Powell".
Colleagues were not much help either, since the senior and eminent writers whom he wanted to contribute to The Talk of the Town refused to do so on account of the anonymity rule; and the eager juniors who did want to contribute refused to take no for an answer. Not that Chancellor moans or whines. In any case, as he was lodging in the smart apartment of Gregor von Rezzori, famous author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, with permission to borrow from his landlord's magnificent wardrobe, he clearly had a whale of a time, lionised by New York's creme de la creme - Deva Heinz, Mrs Wrightsman, Arthur Schlesinger - and very much, for a year, the toast of the town.
All this is described with a nice detachment, which allows readers to indulge in the fun without feeling in any way contaminated by the snobbery. Here he is at a grand dinner sitting in the place of honour between the nonagenarian grande dame Mrs Brooke Astor and the reigning TV celebrity Barbara Walters. "I talked mainly to Mrs Astor because I had never had the chance to do so properly before. She said she wasn't feeling well, but seemed quite animated to me. Had I noticed, she asked me at one point, that we were the only people laughing in the room? English people laughed more than Americans did, and she liked that, she said. Then she started to talk somewhat competitively about her English contemporary, the 92-year-old novelist Dame Barbara Cartland. Was I aware, she asked, that Barbara Cartland claims still to have milk in her breast?" Such plums follow one after the other, and if this is padding, then I only wish that more books were as well padded.
Throughout, Tina's baleful shadow hovers over all, although in the end even she is let off lightly, being judged "insensitive but not at all uncaring" on the slightly unconvincing grounds that after any particularly obnoxious piece of prima donna-ish behaviour she would always send him a consoling case of wine or something similar - a gesture that a less charitable man than Chancellor might well think only added insult to injury.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the "Sunday Telegraph"