Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Ginny Dougary
August 2012

The man who was one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, as well as its editor for 23 years, had arranged to meet me ostensibly to discuss the 20th anniversary of his “new” magazine The Oldie and my journey to Aldworth, where he lives, on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, was suitably old-world. The approach to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, is a heart-gladdening sight of rolling, rural loveliness.

It is a beautiful summer’s day and Ingrams takes pleasure in showing me around his garden, with its bursts of wild colour and sense of nature being barely tamed, secateurs in hand, deadheading as we go. Sara joins us before retreating to organise lunch, and the three of us eat outside on a pair of old wrought iron benches under trailing fragrant flowers with the restful sound of birdsong.

Gardening and nature, along with music and friendship, would be at the top of Ingrams’ list of consolations in life – and there have certainly been periods in his life when he has needed to be distracted from grief. As his biographer and friend, Harry Thompson (the late producer and writer of Have I Got News for You) noted, Ingrams has a strong melancholic streak – surely not helped by the early passing of his father, marriage breakdown, the death of two of his three brothers and two of his three children – that sits alongside his anarchic sense of humour and love of satire.

He has always been religious, brought up by a fiercely Anglican father, Leonard, and equally fervent Catholic mother, Victoria – he converted to Catholicism in his seventies – but his faith seems more of a spiritual tussle for him than a cosy support system.

“One of the things that people think about religion is that it must be very nice to sort of sit in an armchair and think about God. People also assume that you have these certainties, but in my case, they’re not certainties at all.”

Leonard St Clair Ingrams, OBE, came from a long line of clergymen and was a dashing figure, a bit of a philanderer and a brilliant financier. Victoria Reid came from the Baring family – her father had been Queen Victoria’s personal doctor and her mother had been a royal maid of honour. The family’s London home was in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Two of the four boys, including Richard, were brought up Protestant, the other two as Catholics. Richard was sent off to prep school at the age of seven, which he detested, thence to Shrewsbury and Oxford, where he read Classics.

Since Oxford, Ingrams has kept notebooks in which he has jotted down quotes that have appealed to him. He only has four or five of them because he doesn’t read a great deal, he says – “I tend to read writers that I like and a lot of them are people I’ve known.” But what he does read, he reads deeply, returning to the lines – as others would turn to poetry, a favourite cookbook or, indeed, the Bible – when he needs cheering up.

His favourite sayings have now been compiled in a book, Quips and Quotes: A Journalist’s Commonplace Book, conveniently assembled by Oldie Publications, “and that’s a lovely thing to be able to do – your own book in your own office”. Will this be seen as a vanity publishing exercise? “Probably, yes.” Do you care? “Not really. James [Pembroke, The Oldie’s latest saviour and publisher] wanted to have it so he can use it as a giveaway to subscribers.” A great wheeze of laughter.

When Ingrams came up with the idea of The Oldie, he was still quite a youngie, at 54: “I know,” he laughs, “but I felt pretty old.” It was the original creation of a group of writer friends – Auberon Waugh, Stephen Glover and Alexander Chancellor – after a pub lunch and a prolonged moan about the need to create an antidote to youth culture. The initial reaction to both the idea of the magazine and its title, was disbelief … and worse, especially when Naim Attallah announced he was going to fund it.

Ingrams wanted to produce a sort of “Private Eye for grown-ups”. His first columnists signed up were Germaine Greer and the late Beryl Bainbridge, the latter as theatre critic, who described her new gig as “a Zimmer frame for the mind.” Other contributors included William Trevor, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Eric Newby, Harry Enfield and, rather marvellously, Barbara Cartland.

Twenty years on, after various ups and downs, the magazine is in rude health, owned by a consortium headed by Pembroke, with a circulation of 41,000, and is full of good writing by well-known Fleet Street names, as well as contributions from readers who write in. It helps, of course, that amateur writers aren’t too fussy about what they get paid.

“It wasn’t an ageing thing,” Ingrams tells me, “it was more the fact that – which I still feel – I’m not at home in the modern world. Oldies at all times probably have that feeling anyway. But I think that particularly now, with so much having changed in the last 20 to 30 years, that it’s quite natural that people of my age should be feeling a sort of bafflement.” This is a man, after all, who doesn’t own a mobile phone or use email.

Ingrams may dislike the more idiotic extremes of youth culture, but he’s quite partial to youth itself. Around the time of The Oldie’s launch, his behaviour seemed to some to have become deeply odd and distinctly out of character. He had agreed to pose in tight-fitting leather bikers’ gear for The Observer magazine in order to publicise The Oldie – a sight which was, indeed, startling. He also seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time at The Groucho Club, where he was photographed surrounded by admiring young women. “It was very nice,” he admits. His wife of 30 years, Mary, stuck at home in the country, was less impressed: “He’s bonking girlies! He’s bonking girlies!” was her response.

Now, when I tease him about his Groucho days, Ingrams gets quite hoity-toity with me: “I think it’s a silly point to raise and it’s not right to suggest The Groucho Club is a trendy place frequented by lots of hippy [surely shome mistake – presumably “hip”] young people. When I went there, it was full of old bores like me,” he says, rattling off a rollcall of reprobates who are no longer with us: Jeffrey Bernard, Simon Gray, Keith Waterhouse and Dan Farson.

But then he remembers something which makes us both laugh. “It’s my favourite story of The Groucho Club … Dan Farson [the writer and broadcaster] was having lunch with either Gilbert or George and he was trying to introduce me to this man and he couldn’t remember whether it was Gilbert or George … so he just ground to a halt! It was so funny, particularly as those aren’t their real names anyway.”

It was at The Groucho Club that Richard met Deborah Bosley, then in her late twenties (and 27 years younger than Ingrams) who was one of the receptionists there – although they only became an item after his wife had left him. There was no doubt that the Ingramses had loved one another, but as Mary grew older she suffered increasingly from manic depression, her erratic behaviour compounded by alcoholism. Ingrams maintains he would have fought to save the marriage, but Mary moved out of their house and into their tiny cottage in Rye and insisted on a divorce (despite being a Catholic), which came through in 1993, a year after Debbie had moved in with Richard. (Mary died in 2007.)
Debbie soon became lonely and isolated living in the country. She left Ingrams, had a fling, became pregnant with Louis and Richard took her back, helping to bring up her little boy. Louis is now in his teens and his mother has remarried; Ingrams played the organ at the wedding and is still actively involved in Louis’ life.

I first met Richard Ingrams, almost 20 years ago, at a Private Eye lunch. Every few years, I would get reinvited and would always be seated next to him. For a long time this seemed like a bit of a punishment, as he made no effort to make conversation and was quite frightening. It took about a decade for him to thaw, and for me to look forward to and appreciate his sense of humour and bright blue-eyed tilt at the world.

At a certain point in my career, I ran into difficulties over a story and turned to him for advice. I trusted him not to betray my confidence and he didn’t let me down. From that point on, we became friendly and would meet for lunch in his favourite restaurant, Elena’s L’Etoile, in Soho, round the corner from his office. This coincided with a difficult time in his personal life; Debbie had left him a second time and Ingrams was obviously feeling lonely and a bit blue.

We talked about life, the universe and everything, and when remembering friends and family who had died (there have, after all, been so many – Peter Cook at 57, Paul Foot at 66, Auberon Waugh at 61, Willie Rushton at 59, and, saddest of all, his daughter, Jubby, at 39, who died alone in a bedsit in Brighton of a heroin overdose, leaving behind three children and her husband) his eyes would fill with tears.

Then one day he phoned to say he had some interesting news, and that we should meet at L’Etoile to discuss. He seemed very perky and announced that he had someone in his life (I don’t think he said anything as heady as “I’ve fallen in love”), and that she was his god-daughter, Sara Soudain, whom he had last seen when she was 14 and she was now 43. Her mother, Annie, inadvertently brought them together when she contacted Ingrams to ask if he would accompany her daughter to a court hearing. Sara, a medical researcher, was fighting a case involving a neurologist, which had been a solitary battle over seven years. The neurologist, who had been falsifying the research, was eventually suspended for 12 months, but only after Sara had lost her job and her relationship with her partner, the father of their two small boys, had broken down.

We talk about courage à propos Sara’s solitary stand and Ingrams tells me that he doesn’t regard himself as a brave person at all. “I was often told that I was brave during that business with [James] Goldsmith [Goldenballs] in Private Eye, but it wasn’t really brave because I always had a lot of mates with whom I could go into the – ah – jungle. But Sara was a whistle-blower, too, and she was on her own throughout; there was no one supporting her. Well, that is brave.”

Looking back, does he think that it was Sara’s courage that made him fall in love with her? Pause. “I was very impressed by her and love came into it.” Did you fall in love with her instantly? “Pretty well, yes.”

Were you thinking about this in relation to Ian, that he might feel that way towards you? “Not towards me, but towards anyone … because I think people who are younger than us don’t have the same attitude towards the past. It’s partly because we were brought up just after the war, so that there was the history of the war, and what had gone on was very, very important. And men like Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Foot, A.J.P. Taylor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh … were kind of heroes to Christopher Booker and Paul Foot and myself. We wanted to read all their books and know all about them. We were sort of fascinated by them.”

So, by the same token, does he think that forming relationships with women, after his marriage breakdown, who were from the same generation as his daughter, was a way of reclaiming her? “Er, I never thought of that … Mmmm … I would say that was amateur psychology. Aren’t those swallows lovely, sweeping down …? I don’t want to change the subject but …” Then he says: “I suppose as you get older, you are very much more attracted to young, vivacious people because they cheer you up. It might not have to do with sex, so much.”

When it comes to matters of sex and morality, Ingrams has deeply ingrained views: “People, of whom I know quite a lot, who have casual affairs all over the place, are generally quite shallow types of people. And I have never been tempted by the idea of having casual love affairs. I couldn’t cope with it – it’s all or nothing for me. I think it would all be very unsatisfactory and it would end unhappily and there’s no point in doing it.”

He is also dead against the idea of a no-fault divorce. He thinks it is quite wrong that when someone leaves the marriage, regardless of the provocation or unhappiness, that they should be entitled to half the couple’s assets. “I think someone who does that is worthy of attack,” he says. “People always say ‘Well, in a married situation, I’m sure there were faults on both sides …’”

But that’s because it’s usually true. “Well, it is true in some cases. But I don’t think you can say that morality doesn’t come into it … You’ve got to judge each case on its merits – and what I object to is that in the eyes of the law now, if a couple split up no one is to blame.

“Let’s be honest about this, we all approach this question from our own personal experiences. Undoubtedly, as someone who’s divorced – who was left by my wife who then turned round and demanded lots of money from me – and the law supported her – that caused me a lot of resentment and anger.”

But why, since Ingrams is well-off, supported from an early age by a sizeable private income? “Because she just walked out of the whole thing and said, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore, I’m living on my own.’” But she believed you’d had at least one affair? “She might have done, yes – but, you know, she wasn’t just walking out on me, she was walking out on the children, too.”

It’s true, as he says, that we are all informed by our own experiences to this question. Mary sounded a nightmare to live with. But it must have been tough on her, with a husband who seemed to be leading such a jolly, exciting life in London, but was decidedly non-communicative and anti-social at home. It took a certain amount of courage, particularly for a woman of her faith, age and background, to leave an unhappy marriage and go it alone. Equally, I can see that it takes a different sort of courage to stick out a marriage, however unappealing the prospect.

Mary’s occasional mood swings became far more pronounced after the traumatic birth of the Ingrams’ third child, Arthur, who was born with cerebral palsy. He died of pneumonia in 1977 at the age of seven. I wonder whether this experience made Ingrams sympathise with David Cameron and his family, when their son Ivan – who was born with the same condition complicated by Ohtahara syndrome, a very rare form of epilepsy – died aged six. “The trouble was I felt that Cameron was going to make political capital out of it, which he did,” Ingrams says. “He was always talking about the National Health Service and actually suggested that because of Ivan, it was safe in his hands and he wasn’t going to reform it. And that was a big lie. Bad. And from an Old Etonian, too!” he jokes. “Well, letting down the old school, you know.”

He is starkly honest about his feelings towards Arthur: “The difficulty I had about Arthur was that as far as Mary was concerned, I think she felt about him the same way that she felt about her other children – she loved them all the same. But I couldn’t feel like that about Arthur because he couldn’t talk to you, he wasn’t aware… all the things that you hope for with children he didn’t do – so you had no relationship with him.”

He is equally candid about his vivacious daughter, Jubby, to whom he had been so close. He thinks that she was in a circle of friends who snorted coke at dinner parties and then she became hooked because, like her father, she had an addictive personality. “I’m scared of all drugs,” he told me, when I asked whether he had tried any. “I’m scared of becoming addicted to them.”

When Jubby died in 2004, it was after she had been on a retreat in Scotland to deal with her drug and alcohol problems, which clearly hadn’t worked. So she had left her family home in Lewes to move to nearby Brighton, to try to sort herself out. “When someone becomes a drug addict … it’s a kind of living death because the person you knew and loved has gone,” her father says. “And your relationship changes because you can’t have a stable – or any kind of proper relationship with the person.”

Does your heart harden in order to protect yourself? “No, I don’t think so. It’s very, very depressing obviously, but all I am trying to say is that a certain death has already occurred in a way. Does that make sense?”

At the end of the interview, Mr and Mrs Ingrams want to show me their vegetable patch and, in particular, their crop of crazily giant-headed garlic. I step outside to see the couple walking, hand in hand, up the slope. Sara, in her black leggings, and her long, black hair with its distinctive Susan Sontag streak, is so funny and warm, with her slanting humour, and she teases her husband, fairly mercilessly, from a position of clearly adoring him. They seem really happy and it’s good to be around them.

There are lots of quotes in Ingrams’ book that I like – “Everyone I know is either married or dotty” (from the unmarried Germaine Greer); “I believe in getting in hot water. I think it keeps you clean” (G.K. Chesterton); “There is of course no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano” (Rebecca West).

But there is one that I like that isn’t there. I had asked Ingrams if he feared death – and he said that he did not. “Death is necessary and part of the circle of life,” he says. And so he won’t mind if I ask him what would be the perfect inscription on Richard Ingrams’ tombstone? Pause: “He made a nuisance of himself.”

Richard Ingrams has spent four decades poking fun at the powerful and, now, at modern life. But he has also endured more than his share of private grief.

Richard Ingrams wanders out of the house he has lived in for the past 30-odd years to greet me, wearing a faded shirt, baggy shorts and a pair of slippers, with his hair sticking out at wayward angles. He is even scruffier in the country than the town but, improbably, despite his genteel tramp demeanour and advanced years – he has just celebrated his 75th birthday – there is still something very attractive about him.

It takes the taxi ages to find the house in Aldworth, partly because we are given a bum steer – whether intentional or not – by a pair of drinkers in the local pub. Ingrams, teetotal since 1967, was banned from it in 2000, along with his former partner, Deborah Bosley – aka Big Debbie – after she wrote a negative article about living in the country, including the line that someone at the pub “disapproves of the coupling of black and white human beings on the grounds that it is unnatural”. [Debbie’s son, Louis, is mixed-race.]

One person in six in the UK is now over 65, which should be good news for The Oldie’s future but, as Harry Thompson pointed out, the magazine was never intended as special-interest reading for pensioners – it was to celebrate old age as a point of view.< We had been talking earlier about Ingrams’ admiration for and attachment to older men such as Malcolm Muggeridge, whose biography he wrote. Since his father died when Ingrams was 16, and was pretty absent before that, I wondered whether he was always looking for a replacement father figure? “Possibly, yes,” he says. “I was thinking about this the other day, because I think one of the differences between my generation and say Ian’s [Hislop, who Ingrams personally appointed as his successor on Private Eye, at the age of 26, to much initial opposition; he describes it as the best thing he has ever done] is that all of us were aware of various men, particularly men who were older than us, whom we sort of revered.” There has been a lot of loss in his life, but so many gains, too. At 75, one of his great pleasures in life is his involvement in the lives of his many grandchildren and the children of his ex-partner and wife. I had read in an old interview with Otis, the son of Ingrams’ son, Fred, about how brilliant his grandfather was at doing impersonations, particularly of the Muppets. Ingrams is actually a bit of a luvvie manqué – and, in fact, his Dr Bunsen Honeydew is fabulous – “Here at Muppets Laboratories, we are bubbling with excitement … Beaker, there’s no need to be nervous …”