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12 April 2023

Richard Ingrams: “Journalism is a drug: you can’t give it up”

The veteran editor on satire, libel and Private Eye.

By Kate Mossman

Richard Ingrams is fairly sure that Robert Maxwell accidentally fell off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, while having a wee, naked, over the side. He was not pushed, and he did not kill himself: he was just partial to peeing outdoors. Maxwell was one of the men with whom Ingrams spent the 1980s battling in court, as editor of Private Eye. “We should never have fought him, we really shouldn’t have,” he said, between mouthfuls of fisherman’s pie. “We should have settled out of court.” The estimated cost of a libel suit in 1986 ran to more than £250,000, so why did he do it? There was a pause. “Because he was just so… awful.” His eyes flashed. Ingrams once said he was not a satirist: he was an editor of satirists, and needed writers like Paul Foot to keep him outraged. But he had an instinct to crusade against what he described as “horrible rich men”.

When I arrived at Goring and Streatley station in Oxfordshire one cold recent afternoon, Ingrams stood looking down at me from the top of a long flight of stairs. He was motionless amid the commuters, and from a distance, with his scarf and overcoat and inscrutability, looked a little like George Smiley. It was not just politeness that had him meet me off the train, but that he has no mobile phone. On his car dashboard was a toy Bagpuss, his favourite children’s TV character, crumpled and crestfallen. The Clangers he loved, too, but not the modern remake. There were many silences on the undulating drive back to his converted forge. Unlike most journalists, Ingrams has no impulse to fill them, and when you get used to it, it becomes rather restful. He is no raconteur: at Private Eye lunches he used to play the piano.

The villages of Goring and Streatley, although only an hour from London, are so much in the countryside as to be a few degrees colder. George Michael had a house in the former. The last time anyone saw him, Ingrams said, he was waving from the window at the Christmas Day parade: he died that night. “People wanted to turn the house into a shrine.” A few miles away is Ingrams’ place of worship, Douai Abbey, a Benedictine monastery with 21 extant monks. There was once a school here, attended by his son. Ingrams had another son, who had cerebral palsy and sadly died aged seven; his daughter died of a heroin overdose in her thirties.

Ingrams converted to Catholicism in 2011. It was in the abbey’s large archive that he researched his recent book on GK Chesterton, which exposed Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, and linked it to the influence of his short, unattractive and uncharismatic younger brother, Cecil. Ingrams wrote the book after coming across a 2005 newspaper interview – given while he was editing the Oldie magazine – in which he said he was writing a book on Chesterton: he thought he’d better get on with it. But it is hard to pin him down on whether the revisionist angle was an effort to keep in with modern publishing demands. “We used to call it debunking,” he said. “I had to unpeel my feelings for Chesterton” – traditionally thought of as cheerful and innocent – “and I think he was a tormented character. But it was completely suppressed. You’d think he would look back and regret writing these horrible attacks, but he didn’t.” Today’s cancel culture “raises huge difficulties about how you’re dealing with the past,” he said. “Because once you start thinking that way, everything comes undone.”

[See also: Emily Thornberry: Jeremy Corbyn’s treatment is “very sad”]

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Over marmalade cake made by his wife, Sara, Ingrams told me he had recently reviewed the autobiography of Norman Scott, the lover of the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Ingrams sat in the public gallery at the trial in 1979 and noticed Thorpe was given a cushion “like the ones the royals get when they do a public visit”. He added: “Of course, all anyone said at the time was that we were anti-gay in the way we reported it, which wasn’t true. I was regularly attacked in the Guardian as being a homophobe and anti-Semite. Once you get categorised like that, it’s hard to change. I am aware now that the kind of jokes that were made in Private Eye would not get passed today. I don’t think anyone would publish Auberon Waugh’s journalism now.”

Ingrams hasn’t been to a Private Eye lunch in years, and doesn’t look at the Oldie these days. At 85, he is restless. “The trouble is, if you’ve been a journalist all your life, it’s like a drug, you can’t give it up. I’m still absolutely obsessed by the news and what’s happening. I still dream about having to write columns and not having anything to say.” He wasn’t surprised that Isabel Oakeshott leaked Matt Hancock’s messages after writing Pandemic Diaries: “She is well known. The problem was that it was all in text messages in the first place.” He has noticed Westminster’s increasingly short-term memory. “[John] Profumo lied to the Commons and as a result, acknowledged his fault, retired and was never heard of again. If it happened now, he’d be back in the cabinet after a year.”

But his greatest gripe is that satire has failed the country. “I’m still angry about Boris,” he said. “He got away with it. He should have been absolutely, mercilessly torn apart. Certain images and cartoons and jokes can do terrific harm to politicians. I don’t feel anything like that was ever done to him. There are still people out there who think he’s no worse than the others.”

Old age has left Ingrams with many questions. Like, how is it that his brother was Boris Johnson’s godfather – something he only discovered at the funeral? “I can’t explain that at all.” And was his father, Leonard St Clair Ingrams, a spy? He was away for long periods of time, in Germany and Hungary, apparently working as a banker, and was in Hitler’s Black Book, the list of UK residents to be arrested after a German invasion. But the Ingrams weren’t the kind of family that asked questions.

After his father died, when Ingrams was 16, the house lightened. Did his father’s absence give Ingrams the freedom to turn his boyhood pastime – at Shrewsbury School and Oxford University, he made magazines – into a career? “Absolutely. Funnily enough, Willie Rushton had the same. His father died and he was living with a widowed mother, and she was very supportive.”

Ingrams formed Private Eye with his former schoolfriends Rushton, Paul Foot and Christopher Booker in 1961. Booker would later facilitate the career of Nigel Farage, persuading him to become an MEP in the Nineties. You still wonder how four natural Tories became so anti-establishment, when they could have been the establishment. Ingrams’s formative moment, he says, was the two years’ National Service he did after school: he and Rushton failed the officers’ selection and remained in the ranks, “among the people who did the work”. “We were rendered bolshy characters by being in the army,” he said.

He was pro-Brexit, though he looked a little wary talking about it. “The argument that we want to make our own laws is quite a simple one. I never thought of it in terms of anything else.” He supports a united Ireland, and thinks the DUP “should be ignored”: on this, he compares Johnson to Edward Carson, whipping up Ulster Unionist anger in order to oppose Home Rule in Ireland. “Boris reminds me of him because he doesn’t give a fig about Ireland, he knows nothing about it. For him, it’s just a useful thing for making trouble.”

On the wall in Richard Ingrams’ study is an eerie portrait of a church on Romney Marsh by John Piper. He also showed me a picture of himself with the creator of Bagpuss, Oliver Postgate.

He was more talkative on the drive back to the station. “Charles is absolutely mad thinking Harry’s got to come to his coronation,” he said. “Part of him feels he’s got to show he’s the forgiving father. But all the attention will be on Harry.”

When we get to the station, he comes all the way inside again, and waits until the train arrives.

[See also: Lucy Easthope: “We are all disaster survivors now”]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue