As Auberon Waugh was about to die last year, Richard Ingrams and A N Wilson went into his bedroom to find him struggling half in and half out of bed in a state of confusion. When he was settled he asked them, in some befuddlement, what he had done in his life.
"You made people laugh," Ingrams replied; at which Waugh chuckled, before falling into unconsciousness for the final time. Had the roles been reversed, Waugh could have told Ingrams the same. Now that Spike Milligan, too, is dead, the two men who sat at Waugh's bedside may be the last in a peculiarly English line of anarchic, conservative satirists. Ingrams, however, has been something more. When he became editor of Private Eye in 1963, two years after its launch, it could have staggered on for a few years as a compendium of the giggly jokes that he and the three other founders shared as public schoolboys. What Ingrams crucially added to the mix, in his 23 years as editor, was an increasingly effective strand of inquiring, sceptical and iconoclastic journalism - chiefly by the obsessive Paul Foot - that altered the tone of British reporting in the second half of the 20th century.
He stood down as editor in 1986 to make way for the younger Ian Hislop. Still under 50, Ingrams might then have been expected to move on to greater things in mainstream journalism; but to do that, you need ambition and the ability to work within a large organisation. Ingrams would claim neither, and certainly does not look the part of the aspirant media executive. The shapeless corduroy jackets that make up his wardrobe give him the appearance of an ill-paid housemaster at a small private school. His gruff, languid manner is not an affectation, but is integral to his character.
By nature a dilettante, for the past 16 years he has been doing a bit of this and a bit of that: turning up at the Eye about twice a week, writing a column here and there, making the odd radio or TV appearance - though fewer of those as time goes on. His name is on the title page of several books, but more often as editor or collaborator than sole writer. His most substantial recent book, a biography of his idol Malcolm Muggeridge, was begun well before his subject died in 1990, but did not appear for another five years. Friends say a commissioned book on the nature of gossip has been in the works for as long as they can recall, and is still far from completion.
He probably has too low a boredom threshold to tolerate the sustained graft of writing at length. The writer Francis Wheen, a colleague at the Eye, believes that avoiding boredom is the motive that controls his life. It was Ingrams who gave the word "boring" such a high ranking in the league table of Eye insults. As editor, he would pick spurious quarrels with colleagues to keep that deadly tedium at bay.
His column in the Observer is seldom boring. It is churlish, opinionated, gleefully contemptuous of received wisdom. His targets, embracing most of the totems of modern life, have lately included mobile phones, women's equality, Sue MacGregor, John Birt and the popular music industry. To attack him as being purely destructive is like accusing the Pope of dogmatism: it is the whole point.
A N Wilson is an admirer as well as a friend: "Most British journalists are deferential to their subjects," he observes, "especially to celebrities. He isn't. He questions what's going on. He refuses to be impressed by people . . . But he isn't the sour, twisted, envious and brutish man that some make him out to be. He doesn't attack people because he'd really like to be a judge or the editor of the Times. And he doesn't take on easy targets."
There is one aspect of Ingrams's character that Wilson finds hard to accept. His unquestioning devotion to Christianity amounts to a lot more than playing the organ at his local church in Aldworth, Berkshire. It is a paradox to find profound faith in a man whose work is fundamentally irreverent. In 1999, he edited an anthology of writings about Jesus, and as a result he and Wilson were brought together at a literary festival for a debate on religion. "He has a literal belief in such things as the miracles," says Wilson. "He really thinks Jesus turned water into wine. I tried to engage him on it, but he wouldn't be drawn. He said hardly anything." His taciturnity, more pronounced as he gets older, is a powerful defensive weapon.
To call him conservative is not to say that he supports right-wing causes. He has given long-term backing to Irish nationalism and opposes Israel's expansionist policy, which has inevitably led to accusations that he is anti-Semitic. His conservatism is rooted in a dislike of change, a belief that everything began to go wrong at about the time he became an adult.
Last month - and this is the point where I must declare the editor's interest - he wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard laying into the New Statesman and the Spectator. The NS, he thinks, was at its best when Paul Johnson was editor nearly 30 years ago: a surprising judgement, as the two are enemies of long standing. As for the Spectator, he believes it has never been as good as when he started to read it in 1957. That was when Brian Inglis was editor, Bernard Levin wrote the parliamentary sketch - and I expect you could buy a pint of beer and five Woodbines and still have change from a tanner. Just as Ingrams hankers for old times, many of his heroes - Muggeridge, Bill Deedes - are of an earlier generation: his friend Alexander Chancellor calls it gerontophilia.
Which brings us to The Oldie, his underpowered monthly magazine for those in the late afternoon of life who share his mistrust of the new. Ingrams has been editor throughout its ten-year existence.
There is an irresistible irony in the former ace muckraker, scourge of the powerful, settling down in middle age to provide a comforting read for people to whom muckraking means giving the roses their annual feed. But, say what you will, he is inordinately proud of the magazine.
He launched it with a little financial help from four friends and more from the publisher Naim Attallah. When Attallah backed out last year, the philanthropist Paul Getty agreed to put in some money, and The Oldie is now produced by a contract publisher, John Brown, which is trying to raise the circulation above the present 22,000 devotees and make a profit for the first time in its history. The four friends have never had any return on their £12,000 investments.
Placing himself in the hands of a mainstream publisher means that Ingrams has to take note of such modern sales tools as market research, even though he disapproves. In 1999, he told me in an interview: "My philosophy has always been not to think about the readers too much, who they are or what they like." Another conventional editing technique that he eschews is to commission writers to discuss topics that he thinks people might want to read about. Instead, he tells them to write what they want, and often prints unsolicited articles. Only occasionally does he wield his big editorial stick, such as when he fired Germaine Greer as a columnist because he thought she was writing too much about contraception.
His haphazard way of editing is apparent when you examine The Oldie. The list of contributors invariably includes writers whose work you think you want to read - and whom you are (mostly) relieved to learn are still with us - but their choice of subjects is bizarre to the point of self-parody. They seem engaged in a private contest to write the least gripping opening sentence. This month's narrow winner is Miles Kington: "Most of the visits to shoe shops which were forced on me as a child have been long forgotten, but I still remember a shoe salesman in Wrexham . . ." - the kind of writing that the Eye regularly lampoons. Ingrams's byline appears on a short television review where he blusters that the BBC must "get rid of all the rubbish that currently fills the schedules week in, week out". His sole example is "those interminable awards ceremonies". What was that about easy targets?
It may be glib to assume that most Oldie readers are contented Darbys and Joans, biding the time until their golden weddings in front of their TV sets, their placid routine enlivened only by their monthly fix of tales from the Wrexham shoe shops. But if they are, Ingrams's own home life scarcely conforms. In 1993, he split with Mary, his wife of 31 years, and soon afterwards set up house with Deborah Bosley, a Groucho Club waitress roughly 30 years his junior. After a while, she decided she wanted a baby and, when Ingrams declined to participate in the transaction, went off to find someone who would. Safely impregnated, she returned to Aldworth. Friends say that Ingrams dotes on the infant - even if Bosley hinted in a New Statesman article two years ago that she was finding life in Berkshire a bit (whisper it) boring.
The death of Waugh, following those of other former colleagues - William Rushton, Peter Cook, John Wells - seems to have heightened Ingrams's awareness of his mortality. "I suppose I'll be next," he may be heard to murmur as he walks past their pictures on the "wall of death" in the Eye's Soho office. As he nears his 65th birthday, he is devoting more time to pursuits deemed suitable for dignified retirement, principally music.
He has improved his piano playing impressively by taking lessons and practising whenever he can, sometimes in the Eye office and sometimes at parties, where he is always eager to sit at the keyboard and perform. Francis Wheen thinks his motive may be antisocial rather than musical: "I think he does it because it avoids the problem of having to talk to people all evening. He's not good at small talk."
But it would be wrong to conclude that he is preparing to enter a Trappist monastery. He still relishes the cut and thrust of the London media scene - the feuds, the mischief, the power games, the gossip - especially if he is directly involved. When the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, hosted a party last November for the publication of a posthumous volume of Auberon Waugh's columns, he asked Waugh's widow, Lady Teresa, to join him in drawing up the guest list. Naturally she included Ingrams, but Moore struck out his name: they are old enemies, in part because of their opposed views on Ireland. Only a threat from Lady Teresa to boycott the shindig persuaded Moore to fax Ingrams a last-minute invitation.
"Richard enjoyed that," says Wheen. "He loves the idea that he's thought of as dangerous, that he can still infuriate people." It would have made Waugh laugh, too.