The thought that there may be a real-life Nigel Dempster out there somewhere seems preposterous. Scary even. It’s because he’s been doing what he does for so long: 35 years. His name has entered the language as a synonym for gossip and because he has become the mould into which every aspiring social diarist is poured, he now looks like a parody of himself: steeped in the social angst, chippiness and sulphur of others. Indeed, when Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, was introduced to Dempster at a Christmas party he looked confused and said: ‘I didn’t believe you really existed.’ Further suspicion is aroused by Auberon Waugh’s claim that he created ‘Nigel Dempster’ in the Seventies, when the two men worked together on Private Eye. It is a matter of public record that Nigel Dempster was born in India in 1941; his father was Australian. But when in 1976 Private Eye named him the Greatest Living Englishman at its annual awards, it was only half a joke. Waugh admired, he later said, Dempster’s sense of ‘innocent mischief’ and added that the diarist wasn’t a cruel man who enjoyed confronting people with their wickedness but rather a true journalist who felt the need to prick pomposity.’
As I take the lift to the third floor of Northcliffe House, the Kensington High Street home of Associated Newspapers, and walk along the corridor to his office, I am almost prepared to believe that ‘Nigel Dempster’ is an elaborate hoax. But there he is, grey single-breasted jacket on the back of his swivel chair, tie on but top button undone, shooting his monogrammed gold cuff-links before extending his hand in greeting. Or rather, as he quickly points out, he is not really here. ‘Nigel Dempster’ is in Melbourne. Covering the races. He missed his plane and so one of his stringers is out there being him instead.
Dempster’s thinning hair is greyer than it is in photographs but he still looks like Mr Rigsby in a tight-fitting suit, an Ealing Comedy spiv with a five o’clock shadow, oleaginous and yet dapper. There is something effeminate about Dempster’s fine features which combined with his lips (cruel, moist and pursed) and eyes (intense and dark, dark brown) serves to disconcert. His looks are saturnine and vampish. But at 57 he is pretty trim and healthy: the result of a rigorous if slightly camp daily regime. Today as every day the alarm-clock at his Chelsea home went off just before seven. He had a breakfast of half a pink grapefruit and weak Earl Grey tea and then took his five Pekinese dogs for a walk in Hyde Park. Next came a game of squash at his club, the Royal Automobile in Pall Mall, and now, at noon, he has just arrived at his office. On a normal day Dempster would be following up his usual stories about druggy marquises and philandering dukes for an hour or so before heading off for lunch at Harry’s Bar or Langan’s. Here he would meet one of his regular informants – who include Lord Lichfield, Michael Cole and Lord Archer – and polish off two or three bottles of chablis. At 3.30 he would return to his desk, instruct his secretary to wake him should the editor be spotted heading in his direction, have a short snooze and then wake up in a foul temper to begin swearing at his staff and writing his copy.
It is the stuff of Fleet Street legend. It makes Dempster a character: one of the old school who, for all his hard drinking and brawling, nevertheless brings in the scoops. And, although Dempster is prone to boast about them, the list of his exclusives is long and impressive. He claims credit for being the first to write about Harold Wilson’s resignation, the engagement of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and Princess Diana’s bulimia.
The trouble is, say his detractors, he is now past his prime and, like Margaret Thatcher and Dave Lee Travis before him, just doesn’t know when to bow out gracefully. What’s more, the detractors continue, the Daily Mail would like to get someone else to write his column, while keeping his name, which still has pulling power with the readers.
For a gossip columnist to fall foul of rumour in this way is the ultimate indignity. Even so, a series of events do lend weight to the speculation. His troubles began in 1995, when he allegedly threw a copy of Who’s Who at Kate Sissons, one of his assistants. She sued for constructive dismissal and the Mail paid her £12,000 in an out-of-court settlement. In 1996 Dempsters, a glossy gossip magazine named after him and for which he was the contributing editor, closed after only two issues. Earlier this year Dempster was stopped for suspected speeding after drinking two pints of orange juice which he claimed his 19-year-old daughter Louisa had spiked with vodka for a party. He refused to do a blood test, citing a horror of needles, and was given a fine and a 12-month ban from driving, suspended on appeal.
This summer Adam Helliker, Dempster’s loyal deputy of 17 years, left to become Mandrake, the Sunday Telegraph’s diarist. Dempster took it badly and accused him of being ‘fucking disloyal’. He then landed a left hook and Helliker needed medical treatment for a badly bruised jaw and a split lip.
Sir David English, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere, its owner, then died within months of each other – and Dempster lost his two most powerful protectors. Now, in another indignity, the Daily Mail has reportedly cut short its serialisation of Dempster’s People. a book which looks back over the 25 years he’s been writing his Daily Mail gossip column. The Daily Mail, which is said to have paid £75,000 for it, will not confirm this, saying instead that these things are a moveable feast.
Dempster looks edgy as he sits behind a desk strewn with cuttings files and transparencies. His body language as he talks is defensive: arms folded tightly over his chest. His voice is calm though, measured and opaque, and his eyes never waver from making contact. Presumably for my benefit he looks over my shoulder to where his secretary is sitting by the door and says: ‘Darling, any word from Fayed’s people yet?’ I oblige him by giving the questioning lift of the eyebrows. ‘Oh, I’m suing him about a profile he ran of me in Punch [a title revived by Fayed].’
The eyebrows go up again. ‘In this job you are a sort of historian which is why facts are sacrosanct. And the thing I notice when people write about me is just how inaccurate they are. I just hope we don’t do the same disservice to our subjects. I mean, last week I spent an hour and a half just trying to find out whether you spelt someone’s name with an “s” or a “c”.’ And the article in Punch?
‘They said I had received a warning letter from my editor and I would be sacked by Christmas. Two things wrong there: I’d just signed a new two-year contract; I have never had a letter from my editor other than one of congratulation. Fayed’s going to catch it straight in the nostril. There’s no way out. We’re going to see the whites of his eyes, if he’s got any. I’m not putting up with that crap any longer.’
Waugh’s words about pricking pomposity float back. You would think that Dempster of all people – having worked on both Private Eye and Punch in his time – would realise that the best policy is to treat it all as a big game. Laugh it off.
‘On the contrary. If someone deliberately sets out to cause mischief, then they should be deliberately attacked in return. Who cares if Punch only goes to a few thousand people – some of them are in this building. The other fantasy in the piece was that I earn £1,000 a day for my column. I wish, I wish, I wish. This year the Daily Mail isn’t even my main source of income.’
A rather endearing aspect of Nigel Dempster’s character becomes apparent. He doesn’t say the magnanimous things you are supposed to say when you’re being criticised. He’s not thick-skinned, he says. He really, really resents the bad reviews his latest book has received, especially one in the Sunday Telegraph by ‘Annie bloody Chisholm’. They make him angry.
‘Someone once said I spend the dark hours scheming about the downfall of my enemies and I think that is probably right. You don’t realise who your enemies are until something dreadful happens and then all these people jump out of the woodwork and start bashing you.’ As there are no empty meeting rooms anywhere in the whole of Northcliffe House – apparently – we are chatting in an office which Dempster shares with his four female assistants. As we talk, they sit silently around us, hard at work at their computers. He tells me that the thing that would hurt him most would be if he found out that the ‘girls in the office’ hated him. ‘That would be devastating.’
Another reason he sleeps badly is that he worries about the modest form of the three racehorses he owns. There is, however, no evidence of a sleep-disturbing guilty conscience. ‘Nooo. The worst a diarist can do is ruin someone’s breakfast. It’s after the event. I mean, children in schools, Prince William etc, they know what’s happened long before Princess Diana knocks on the door and says, “Guess what’s going to be in the paper tomorrow?”‘ He pats his head with one hand and rocks back in his chair as he contemplates the church spire his office overlooks. ‘Lord Snowdon has the right attitude. Least said, soonest mended. He is believed to have an illegitimate child. His wife has just left him. Never said a word. But he accepts that these things are going to be commented on. And when you meet him he is perfectly sweet.’
A young lawyer has appeared and is hovering by the door. Christopher Moran, a property tycoon, is suing Dempster for contempt of court. Dempster hands the lawyer some photocopies and explains that Moran is a good example of the sort of person who uses the press to promote himself and then complains about intrusion when his marriage is in trouble. (A few days later, Dempster is fined £1,000 and the Daily Mail £10,000). Although Dempster once quipped that he prevented more adultery than the Archbishop of Canterbury, he does not see himself as a moral arbiter. His true feelings are reflected in another of his jokes: that there is a holiday in his heart whenever he discovers another marriage break-up.
Then again, he insists that the tone of moral outrage in his column is not feigned. He finds the behaviour of politicians who lie to the public or leave their wives for their secretaries nauseating. And he wishes people in public office still had the decency to feel shame, as they did in the first two-thirds of this century. ‘This is why, in my position, you always have to behave yourself and not be a hypocrite.’ He smiles toothily. ‘Apart from anything else the hours are so onerous one can’t get up to any mischief. But if I was caught leaving the equivalent of Madame Claude or the Stork Room with five bimbos on my arms by Mr Rick Sky of the Sun I would deserve it.’
A female former colleague of the diarist described him to me as a lonely, maudlin figure who is uncomfortable in his skin. Dempster and his second wife, Lady Camilla Godolphin Osborne, daughter of the Duke of Leeds, lead largely separate lives – she has her own house in Ham. Because his wife has a title, and his first wife, Emma de Bendern, was the daughter of a count, it is sometimes said of Dempster that he is a parvenu who has broken the diaris’s code by becoming part of the world he writes about. He doesn’t see it that way.
‘We are outsiders. The number of people who split up and dive in opposite directions when they see me approaching is legion.’ He presses his fingertips together pensively and his blue signet ring catches the light. His nails are neatly manicured, apart from the one on his little finger which is very very long. ‘My wife’s a Communist,’ he says. ‘She didn’t get called “Commie Camilla” for nothing. Went to Newcastle University where I don’t think anyone understood a word she said. And vice versa. Her mother was a lifelong Labour supporter. Any of it rub off on me? No, not really. Home is one thing and work another.’
It is tempting to suppose that Commie Camilla might have married a gossip columnist as an act of rebellion against her aristocratic background. Dempster’s first wife – they divorced in 1974 after three years of marriage – was also a free spirit. ‘Just been widowed again,’ Dempster says. ‘The husband she married twice has died of cancer. At his 50th birthday I stood up and made a speech which said, “My first wife has gone back to her husband and the even better news is it’s not me.”‘ They separated, he adds, because they were too young when they married.
Dempster is unsure where his values – a highly developed sense of social propriety but little in the way of personal conscience – originate. His father, Eric, who was managing director of the Indian Copper Corporation, and remained married for 60 years, died 15 years ago; he did not believe in God. His wife, Angela, Dempster’s mother, is nearly 90 and is a believer. Dempster has two older sisters who, because of the War, were brought up separately from him. He was not close to his father – a distant, disciplinarian figure who was 50 when his son was born. ‘He never knew how to react to children,’ Nigel Dempster recalls. ‘He was a dear man but a total stranger. He was so old when he came to sports days all the 30-year-old fathers would be playing cricket and my father would be scorer.’
Dempster, like his father, lacks religious faith. He recalls that Kerry Packer, an Australian media tycoon who survived after having been pronounced dead after a heart attack in 1990, once told him, ‘Son, there’s nothing on the other side.’ ‘It doesn ‘t fill me with mortal fear,’ Dempster says. ‘Sometimes I think death can’t come too quickly. To think that I’ve got another 25 years. I’ve been here an awfully long time. There’s nothing left. I’ve done it all. Short of going to Bali. I really do think 70 is an old age. Like with Macmillan. He was so old, all his contemporaries had died. Or like the Queen Mother. My wife,’ he continues, with the diarist ‘s precision, ‘whose father was the Queen Mother’s brother-in-law, was desperate to meet her before she died and was surprised how she couldn’t remember whether my wife’s father or grandfather had been her brother-in-law.’
The phone rings. ‘Excuse me,’ Dempster says. ‘This might be my man from Melbourne. Pissed . . . Hello? Yes, yes. I know her. A very famous name. Her daughter was murdered. Sorry, her son was going out with the girl who was murdered by . . . Her husband . . . Exactly. Lived in South Kensington…’
I take a sip of tea and cast an eye around the room. On the pillar behind Dempster’s desk there is a poster of his Spitting Image puppet: as Private Eye’s ‘Grovel’ columnist, with monocle, white scarf and topper. The shelves are bulging under the weight of dog-eared old copies of Who’s Who. On the walls around his desk are colour photographs of racehorses and black-and-white photographs of himself: at the races; sticking pins in a voodoo doll; standing next to a naked woman who is holding a snake. He hangs up. ‘Sorry about that. It’s midnight in Melbourne but they’ve been up since seven. You listen to these people and think, “Thank God I don ‘t drink.”‘
I splutter into my cup. What? ‘It’s my month off. November, December and January I don’t drink.’ December? ‘Well, the first two weeks. Any time I have a medical they always say I’m fine, so what the hell.’
Dempster went to Sherborne School in Dorset where he is remembered for his long fingernails in the scrum. ‘I think one had an urge to misbehave. We used to wear boaters and had to tip them to prefects. I worked out that if you cut the top off, you only needed to tip the brim, leaving the top on your head. Automatic beating. I was always being beaten – for walking with my hands in my pockets or for treading on certain forbidden patches of grass, whatever. Of course it hurt but the secret was not to show it. To be the most beaten boy in the school required an enormous amount of chutzpah.’
When he left school at 16, however, he had no particular ambitions and took a job as a porter at the Westminster Hospital. He then became a vacuum-cleaner salesman before drifting into the City to work as a broker at Lloyd’s of London. ‘I wouldn’t have been happy staying in the City, because it was just like boarding-school where I had been from the age of six. ‘His first job in journalism came in 1963 as an assistant on the Daily Express ‘William Hickey’ column.
‘Diary writing was considered a dirty profession in the Sixties,’ he says. ‘It was traditionally a job for grammar-school boys. You know, Us and Them. You had to mix in the same pubs – and people were drinkers. Very much frowned on these days.’ Evenings would often end in fisticuffs and certain journalists established the reputations that would remain with them for the rest of their careers. ‘People like their enemies or heroes to be slightly larger than life,’ Dempster adds with a nostalgic chuckle.
Now better-known to regular readers of Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column as Pratt-Dumpster, Dempster does not think that he has ever slipped into self-parody. ‘Not really. We are so isolated here. I don ‘t know whether it is better to be ignored by Private Eye or not because when they write about you it is nothing but fantasy. Peter McKay [a fellow Daily Mail journalist] said, “It’s just Ingram’s and Hislop’s way of keeping close to you. Trying to hug you.” I said, “I’d rather those creepy crawlies kept away from me.”‘
The phone rings again. ‘Chalky, how are you?… I’m all right. Sort of dealing with life, as they say. What are you up to?… Was he wearing his titfer?… OK, my boy… I might catch up with you…’
The tone is hearty. And the rather haunted and vulnerable figure that has been presented so far steps aside for a moment. It reminds you that Dempster has a reputation as a great raconteur and that his natural milieu is not an office, pre-lunch, in one of his dry months, but propping up a bar. But even without a couple of drinks inside him, Dempster’s prejudices shine through. He refers to Mountbatten as Mountbottom and one duke as being ‘queer as a ninepin’. In his book he describes black people as ‘coloured’, ‘dusky’ or ‘not of English origin’.
The book has its comic moments. ‘”Writs are the Oscars of my profession,”‘ I once famously told an interviewer,’ writes Dempster. And even Craig Brown couldn’t improve on this for inadvertent self-parody: ‘It was misplaced revenge, but served only to add to my mystique.’ Dempster also has a happy knack of summing a person up with a one- or two-word description, such as ‘badger-haired politician Norman Lamont’ or ‘gap-tooth Lothario David Mellor’. When asked what adjective he would put before his own name he says ‘energetic’. When I point out that he is usually described as being charming, he smiles suspiciously and proffers a rather attenuated name-drop. ‘Charming? Well, I went to a prep school where the headmaster was Sophie Rees-Jones’s grandfather and he used to tell us to open gates for everyone and call everyone “Sir” and I don’t think anything has changed.’
Although Dempster has been overheard to say on the telephone, ‘Do you know who I am? My wife’s father was the Queen Mother’s brother-in law,’ and although he once said that John Major was not accepted in society because he had not been invited to a dance at Chatsworth given by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, he doesn’t think that the word ‘snob’ applies to him. ‘No, never. Never once. Just ask any of them in here. A snob is someone who holds titles in esteem and I’ve never done that. On the Express we had to write about titled people because Beaverbrook wouldn’t allow you to write about anyone who wasn’t.’ Paul Callan, Dempster’s original mentor at the Express, remembers him as being the most insecure person he had ever met. ‘Insecure?’ Dempster repeats. ‘I don’t think so. One is insecure about one’s job but then one has always been insecure about one’s job.’
Emotional then? As in ’emotional diarist Nigel Dempster?’
‘I’ve never cried. Doesn’t feature. Maybe as a child when I was whacked, but that was the last time. Only Continentals show their emotions.’ Upon reflection he considers that he does feel emotional about his dogs. ‘The unfortunate thing about dogs is that, as Sir Walter Scott said, unless you are old you are going to outlive them. We’ve just buried one, which was a tremendous sadness. Sad because they are such trusting creatures. They can’t forage for themselves. ‘
Those who find it difficult to relate to people are said to find it easier to express their feelings to animals. Bullies, goes the theory, are especially prone to transference of affection in this way. It is time to clear up those stories: is Dempster a bully in the office?
‘I don’t think I am, actually. There was a girl here who got something hopelessly wrong which she could have got right by looking in Who’s Who so I grabbed a copy and banged it on her desk to the left of her. The legend now is that I threw a copy of Debrett’s at her. Hardly likely. Every other girl in the office will tell you the same story.’
And the drink-driving?
‘Clearly I am an innocent person. I drove into work this morning. It’s not just a matter of having clever solicitors. It’s just the way things are. Other people don’t contest these things because they don’t have the time or the money. I have both.’
Lady Archer once questioned whether being a gossip columnist was a suitable occupation for a grown man. Nigel Dempster is wont to quote Søren Kierkegaard on the subject. ‘All life,’ the philosopher said in 1851, ‘will soon be gossip.’ Today, though, he justifies his lifetime’s work with the disarming – and redeeming – comment: ‘I think I’ve added to the gaiety of nations.’
His tragedy is that he has become everything he ever wanted to be – a Fleet Street legend – and this in a way makes him redundant. It’s a shame that he can’t bear being teased. And a pity that he feels such a great sense of injustice. Where once he was magnificently arch and supercilious, now he just seems twitchy and paranoid.
‘When you are at the top of your profession, such as it is, and when you are doing something well you have to keep doing it,’ he says when the retirement question is posed. ‘Every day. It’s not like making Citizen Kane, where you can rest on your laurels. You have to keep on making Citizen Kane every day. It’s Cambodia Year Zero right now.’
‘The girls’ – as well as ‘darling’, the secretary – have all departed for lunch. The lawyer who has been analysing the contempt of court papers is clearing his throat restlessly.
I am at the door when Dempster calls me back, apparently exercised by the question of his posterity. He intends to have a Viking funeral, he says, like Beaverbrook. On the Thames. And when he and his longboat go up in flames ‘everything’ will go up with him.