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

Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit