So farewell, Max Hastings – we shall not see your like again. Not that it is out of the question that some former gung-ho reporter, famed for dodging bullets and beating the Parachute Regiment into a target town during armed conflict in some far-flung foreign field, will one day become editor of the Evening Standard. But it is unlikely that another huntin’-shootin’-and-fishin’ country gentleman of the old school – Charterhouse, in Max’s case – will ever again run a paper so metropolitan you can practically hear rumbling traffic and smell the exhaust fumes as you turn its pages.
Hastings, who despite the immaculate cut of his pin-striped suits always looks as if he would be more comfortable with a Purdey under his arm and a gundog at the heels of mud-caked wellies, is to London what morris dancing is to all-in wrestling.
He is an accomplished editor, with the record to prove it. But he gave the impression to those outside the Standard that he’d be happier wringing the neck of a ferret – sorry, but I am not too well versed in blood sports – than supervising coverage of the arts and farts of a city where the animals might be dumb, but are also human.
For a piece in the media section of The Times, James Silver put it to the outgoing London Standard editor that he was ambivalent towards the capital and refused to stay in it any longer than he had to.
"There is a bit of truth in that," Hastings replied. "But I don’t know of one major-league editor at the moment who doesn’t have a country house and does not rush off to the countryside." That last sentence startled me like a suddenly leaping salmon.
Not one major-league editor without a country house? I knew things had changed considerably since I was editing a national newspaper, in the days before serious share options when, so I heard, editors less fortunate than I wore clogs and lunched on bread and dripping sandwiches. But now they all have country homes? I decided to invite the other editors to respond to Hastings’ blatantly elitist claim – don’t you just love that "major-league"? – and open up their property portfolios.
All replied. And some of their e-mails were so amusing that they are worth sharing. Never look a gift column in the mouth, that’s what I say.
Those with country homes came clean (should anyone be wondering, yes, my wife and I have a second, country house, but it was acquired long after I ceased Fleet Street editing). But most appeared not to share Hastings belief that if they did not scurry off to the country at the earliest opportunity they might begin uttering phrases such as "Cor blimey, guv’nor, you’re a toff and no mistake" to perfect strangers.
The Times’s Peter Stothard, for example, has a house "by the Thames on the Oxfordshire side", but it is "probably not what Max would call country – getting in from there is hardly worse than getting in through the traffic from our London home in Hampstead". Oxfordshire and Hampstead, eh? Very grand – and I guess there’s no denying The Times is major-league.
Simon Kelner of The Independent has a second home in Le Touquet, but I am not sure English gent Hastings would consider northern France to be the kind of country he had in mind, nor Kelner’s small-circulation daily paper to be pukka major-league. The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger owned up to a country cottage and Piers Morgan, whom I bumped into at the theatre – he’s obviously getting more serious by the moment – said he half-owns, with his parents,ÃŠanÃŠout-of-town property.
Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail lives in Sussex, but stays in a flat in London during the week. David Yelland of The Sun is in the process of acquiring a London place so he does not have constantly to commute to and from Surrey. And, honestly Max, that’s the entire roll call of Fleet Street’s answers to two-Jags John Prescott: the two-homes editors. As a list of country squires, it looks more like the line-up you might find any night in Gerry’s Club.
Those so skint that they have to make do with one humble abode more readily sent up Hastings, although the claim of The Sunday Times’s John Witherow, that he does not have anywhere outside London "mainly because I work on Saturdays and have children who go to school in London on Mondays", smacked of having let down the major-league players. But his rider, "Anyway, I’m a city boy at heart", will have Hastings reaching for his pitchfork.
Dominic Lawson of the Sunday Telegraph confessed, "My only house is in the country" and wondered "Does that make me major-league or minor-league?" Chris Williams of the Daily Express said he had just one house, owned mostly by the Halifax, while Martin Townsend, editor of the Sunday sister, admitted: "My kids have a small playhouse at the bottom of the garden that I might spend an hour or two in during the summer. Plus I have a copy of Country House by Blur."
Peter Wright of The Mail on Sunday, Rebekah Wade of the News of the World, the Sunday Mirror’s Tina Weaver and Peter Hill of the Daily Star are one-home paupers; nor does The Independent on Sunday’s Tristan Davies maintain a country estate. And Neil Wallis of the Sunday People reported, plaintively: "My only second home is the dog house I get sent to by the wife when I spend too much time at work or on the bloody phone instead of talking to her or playing with the kids!"
I have saved the best almost to last. Roger Alton of The Observer filed a colourful reply to my question and observed – what else? – of Hastings’ contention that "it was absolutely hilarious, though I suspect depressingly true… occasionally you read, or maybe I am imagining it, people saying things like, ‘I was having a party at my London home’. The truth is that a lot of editors, although not me, are pretty rich men [sic: apologies to Rebekah and Tina] – I am literally one pay cheque away from the Embankment, and always have been." So Hastings was way off beam, although we cannot be certain about Charles Moore of The Daily Telegraph, who replied: "Thank you for your e-mail. I am afraid I have no desire to tell people about my housing, though I take no offence at your asking." There’s a toff and no mistake. We’ll take that as a yes, then, shall we Charles?
With understandable fury, The Daily Telegraph reports that Lord Wakeham is still being paid his £156,000 salary as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, despite having temporarily quit the PCC as "a matter of honour" over the Enron affair. "He has not resigned," said a Pressbof board member. "He has ‘stepped aside’ rather than ‘stepped down’."
I intend to ask the editor of this publication if I can temporarily step aside from writing this column. On full pay. Honourably.