Staggers envy, being rejected by Martin Amis, and why the left hated Maggie so much

Boris Johnson explains why the <em>New Statesman </em> used to keep him up at night.

I used to be petrified of the Staggers. I mean it. It was just after I became the editor of the Spectator – and I was under great pressure to make an impact with scoops, big-name pieces, and so on. I used to sit there racking my brains and people would torture me about the latest triumph of our supposed rival on the left. “Did you see that terrific piece in the New Statesman?” someone would say. I pathetically rang Charles Moore in the hope of reassurance. “I say, Charles, have you noticed any good pieces in the Staggers recently? Looks like a load of lefty bilge to me,” I said tentatively. “Oh, yes,” he drawled, “everyone says there are some terrific pieces these days . . .”

Sincerest form of flattery

Trembling, I put down the phone and looked over at our genius deputy editor, Stuart Reid. He was peering at something through his magenta specs. “Terrific piece,” he said, tapping the blasted New Statesman with his earpieces. Then I remembered some advice I was given by Paul Johnson, the great man of letters and Spec columnist who, in his time, had flogged the New Statesman circulation to a record high. “You need to bring in the best writers,” he said. “Flatter them. If I were you, I would lay it on with a trowel.”

Toynbee or not Toynbee

That was it! I was going to poach the cream of Staggers talent – London’s leading literary lefties. I was going to lure them ruthlessly to the Spectator. I began, obviously, with Martin Amis, one of this magazine’s most brilliant hirings from the age of Tony Howard. I wrote obsequious letters. I rang him at home and had long and fruitless conversations with the gorgeous Isabel Fonseca, his wife. I became so persistent that poor Amis could take it no more. He wrote a rather kind letter that began, “You are one of nature’s optimists,” and explained that he was a Staggers man to the core, wouldn’t be seen dead in the Spec. It was a matter of principle, he said. Next, in my delusion and despair, I tried dear Polly Toynbee. She told me to bog off in no uncertain terms. I can’t even pretend that she tried to string me along.

At the end of a harrowing conversation, she said: “You don’t understand. You think this is all some game, some debating forum for civilised adults. But this is serious. You are on one side and I am on the other.” Shortly afterwards, she vented a volcanic piece, accusing everyone at the Spectator of being effete, slimy, bullying creeps. The article was illustrated by a picture of Auberon Waugh as a human turd about to be flushed down the pan – and the poor chap had only just died.

Sinister purge

This makes me think that there is an interesting psychological difference between left-wingers and right-wingers. On the whole, right-wingers are prepared to indulge left-wingers on the grounds that they may be wrong and misguided but are still perfectly nice. Lefties, on the other hand, are much more likely to think right-wingers are genuinely evil.

Look at the hate, hate, hate that is erupting at the sad death of Margaret Thatcher. When the left come to power, they purge the place of Tories. They liquidate them with Stalinist zeal. When the Tory-led coalition got in, however, there was no symmetry – no purge of the New Labour establishment – and that has cheesed off Tories hoping for jobs. They can see the lefties still in place; and the lefty quango­crats beam and nod – and secretly they think it will be just a couple of years before they have a nice, splurging Labour government again.

Needing a creed

As it happens, I think they are wrong. The past few days have been bad for Labour. George Osborne managed to say something that the majority were privately thinking – and all Labour could do was denounce him as evil for even raising a question. That won’t work. You can’t tell a large chunk of the population that they are evil and heartless for asking whether the operation of the benefits system could be improved.

People can see there is a problem: they want to know how Labour would fix it. That is why, in its 100th glorious year, we need the Staggers more than ever. Or rather the Labour Party needs this magazine, because at the moment Ed Miliband is saying nothing of interest about anything and what I think he needs is one of those terrific pieces that will help him to develop his currently non-existent policies. Come on, New Statesman – give that man a creed.

Slippery wicket

My paranoia about the New Statesman and its terrific pieces went on for some months, until we finally met for physical combat, in the form of a cricket match. It was a torrid afternoon and I was full of nerves. Bernard Levin had come to watch, for heaven’s sake, and the New Statesman’s captain, Christian Wolmar, displayed what I am forced to call gamesmanship. At last we prevailed, thanks to a last-wicket stand by Alex van Straubenzee, our circulation manager, and myself.

I cannot resist adding that by the time Alex and I came figuratively to end our innings at the Spec, we had pushed the circulation to an all-time high of 70,000. So perhaps we didn’t need Martin and Polly, after all. Happy birthday, dear Staggers, and vive la différence.

Polly Toynbee (in 1965): Boris's dream woman. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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I somehow feel very different this year, waving my teenager off to Pride

I thought times had changed, and was glad – then Orlando hit me like a smack in the face.

When I guest-edited Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of years ago, one of my chosen topics was young people and the internet, and specifically the way in which it can be such a positive force for gay teens who are coming to understand themselves and to find friends and allies. This item was entirely inspired by my own teenager, who came out at the age of 15, and had already found an online community of help, support and friendship.

Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Well, of course I did, but didn’t know it. My friend had a boyfriend with whom things never quite worked out, and when he came out years later it all made sense. We didn’t talk about it or wonder about it at the time. We sang “Glad to Be Gay” and thought we were cool and we knew nothing.

My kids, on the other hand, know everything, and they’ve taught me so much, mostly in terms of theory and terminology. I’d still thought I was cool but it turned out that in fact I was 53 and out of date, and they dragged me cheerfully into the second decade of the 21st century, blinking, dusting myself down.

The whole experience was a happy one, on both sides. A teenager who came out into a welcoming family. A brief, teary hug, because I hadn’t instinctively known (“God, Mum, your gaydar is crap”), and laughter at the clues I’d missed (“All that watching Eurovision together, Mum – did you still not guess?”). It wasn’t that I didn’t think any of my kids might be gay: just that I was still being a mum and not realising they’d stopped being kids.

Back in 2007 I wrote a song called “A-Z”, about gay teens being bullied at school, a kind of retelling of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, which I’d always adored. But then my own teen wasn’t bullied at school, and was happily out there, and everyone was cool, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What a time to be alive.” A crowd of them – gay, straight, bi – went off to Pride, wrapped in flags and with rainbows painted on their faces, and we took photos and celebrated, and again I thought, “What a time to be alive. Hurrah for Now.”

But then Orlando. Oh God, Orlando, which hit me smack in the face, left me shattered and weeping, feeling stupid for not remembering that there were still people out there who might want to harm my beautiful, clever, funny, science-loving, Ru Paul-loving child. Had we been living in a dream? Were we wrong to do so? We’d just been enjoying the good news, that’s all. The increasing freedom and equal rights. The taking of simple things for granted, like being able to marry and have kids. Just ordinariness – nothing anyone should have to feel grateful for.

How we can both know and not know things. How our longing for change lulls us into believing change has come. Of course I knew there was still a way to go. But there’s knowing and not knowing. There’s knowing something cerebrally, and knowing it viscerally. Love makes you strong and it makes you vulnerable. The people you love are the gap in your armour where the blade gets in, and Orlando was quite some blade.

“Four dead in Ohio,” sang Neil Young, in a plaintive lament for the students killed at Kent State University back in 1970. And the tune keeps coming into my head, with different words. Fifty dead in Orlando. Those text messages sent from the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub, what was it one of them said? “Mommy . . . Trapp in bathroom . . . I’m gonna die.” Mommy. That’s where the blade got in. And I wave my child – 18 now, an adult, but always my child – off to Pride for the third time, but in a different mood this year. Alert. Steely.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book about same-sex marriage, non-binary gender identity, family, motherhood and, above all, love, and I come across this line: “Sometimes one has to know something many times over. Sometimes one forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets again.” I promise not to forget again.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies