Early one Sunday morning, I found myself standing beside Andrew Marr at the BBC’s old Shepherd’s Bush studios in west London. I was about to do a paper review, and he was on to plug his eponymous show.
The day before, I’d heard a story about him: a DNA test had shown that the baby he’d been supporting financially following an extramarital affair was not, in fact, his. The relationship and everything to do with it were still the subject of a superinjunction, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. To my astonishment, when I asked him about it, Marr confirmed my story. He would have known, of course, that I couldn’t have used a word of what he had said, but I was struck by the pain in his voice. “It is all really so difficult,” he kept saying.
Twelve years writing the Telegraph’s Mandrake diary made me, for all my own sins, the country’s father confessor. How sorry I feel for the modern, self-appointed gossips who go about their business online, anonymously and usually maliciously, with little more than a nodding acquaintance with either the facts or libel laws. Seldom, if ever, do these “trolls” get to talk to those they write about – and what salutary experiences such encounters can be.
Deep down, I had felt Marr wanted to talk. Jamie O’Neill, the lover of the late talk-show host Russell Harty, once told me that anyone who feels a sense of shame about anything almost always seems to crave its exposure as a kind of therapy. He felt that Harty – terrified throughout his career of his homosexuality ever making headlines – found a kind of peace when it came to pass.
Tony Gallagher – the best of the ten editors I worked for at the Telegraph – once turned to me at our morning conference and related how a distinguished moulder of images had told him I was “the most dangerous man in London”. Gallagher said it admiringly, but that was never what I had sought to be.
My old boss Nigel Dempster – the late, great Daily Mail diarist – often seemed to see himself as a kind of Witchfinder General, regarding it as his duty to pillory wrongdoers in general and bed-hoppers in particular. For me, it was only ever about beating my rivals to the best stories.
True, I might have wrecked this year’s MasterCard Brit Awards – I went public about the “pro forma” tweets that the PR people had instructed journalists to post about how much we would be “enjoying” the event – but mostly I tried to be a low-maintenance employee. Once only did I disrupt the life of an editor outside of work: Patience Wheatcroft’s breakfast got cold one Sunday morning after Matthew Freud phoned her to register his displeasure that I had alluded to his resemblance to a guppy fish.
When Stephen Fry took exception to an item I had run about him, I reacted stoically to him telling the world that I was a “shiny-faced, arse-witted human cockroach”. And, though old Dempster may have taken the view that libel actions are the Oscars of journalism, only one of those ever came my way – courtesy of the heiress Petra Ecclestone – and it was the defendant who won the subsequent action.
Strikingly, a lot of people seemed to welcome confessing all to Mandrake. Sir John Mortimer, when I asked him ten years ago if he had a love child by the actress Wendy Craig, seemed only too happy to confirm it and to talk of his pride in his son Ross Bentley. Ditto Peter Mandelson, whose spokesman confirmed in 2008 that what I’d heard about him being aboard the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s yacht was true. And what is more – Mandelson’s man added, after an actorly pause – George Osborne had been up on Deripaska’s poop deck, to boot.
Who knows, I might have done the Duchess of Cornwall a good turn, too. The royal biographer Sarah Bradford maintains that after I reported in 2004 that protocol had dictated that Camilla wouldn’t be permitted to sit beside Charles at a society wedding, she’d had it out with him. They married the next year.
In my final days at the Telegraph, informants called wanting to be sure that no trace of their dealings with me would remain. They needn’t fret: their emails were wiped and their letters shredded.
I had imagined that, when I ceased to be Mandrake, I would, like Mr Ratchett in Murder on the Orient Express, have a dozen stab wounds and the police at least as many suspects. In the event, I was “banged out” from the paper and, on Twitter, I found myself the bemused recipient of a wave of affection. Still, not a word from Stephen Fry. “Least said, soonest mended,” he had clearly decided. Not an adage I’ve ever heeded myself, I have to say.