For the writing

I’D been rumbled. I was standing in the queue waiting to order a takeaway burger (that was indiscretion two of the day), when this presence loomed to my right. It was Mark Steele, newly retired from his job as a DA parliamentarian, and now, his duty done, free to observe the passing show and offer a mischievous quip or two.

“I never would have thought,” he said, “an avowed liberal like yourself.” To be accosted in public is not unusual for a journalist, but it’s mostly on account of a misplaced comma or the habit we have of parading the emperor around without his clothes.

Often one is berated for the politics of the paper (think of Julius Malema calling black journalists “house niggers”). There’s one particularly incontinent minister who’s of the view that the duty of the media is to obey him, and invariably when I have the misfortune of bumping into him, he unburdens himself of four decades of grievances about obdurate deviations from the propaganda script. His black book of thought crimes must be running to a good few volumes now, all in preparation no doubt for the day when ideological deviants have to face the Inquisition.

I was initially at a loss over what illiberal thing I had done. I had just been to Exclusive’s to indulge my book habit, which is still socially acceptable I find. I’d bought a copy of A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany, a memoir of his Hungarian family’s collaboration and complicity in crimes against Jews and how that burden weighed on successive generations. Its theme of reconciliation and guilt resonates with South African dilemmas, hence the interest. Not exactly Holocaust denialism, so I was in the clear on that score.

But I had declined the offer of a plastic bag at the check-out (because, the environment), and my other purchase, peering indiscreetly from under my arm, proved to be the offending article: The Spectator.

Okay, I know it’s a shock, but it’s out there now.

I have indeed, after years of being in denial, succumbed to this furtive pleasure. It’s never easy to come out. In one’s mind one always imagines the curling lips and sad looks of betrayal from those whose respect one values.

I remember, many years ago now, blithely telling a close friend of my predilection for The Spectator, realising my faux pas only because her eyebrows shot up so fast they are still orbiting in indignation. I don’t think she’s forgiven me to this day and it’s one of those taboos we skirt around.

I’ve never quite worked out how reading something one disagrees with makes one unclean, or, by contrast, how reading like-minded authors makes one virtuous. I am what I read? What would Descartes have thought.

For those who don’t know, The Spectatoris the supreme articulation of the English Establishment. It is, by definition, conservative. What’s to like about it then? Well, one could argue that it has attracted fine writers along the way, such as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Feels a bit like saying in the old days that one bought Playboy for the writing. But it’s true. For an Anglophile to see English shown off (and they do show off) in its full glory is thrilling.

There’s more to it though. It exudes a confidence which can come only of a thorough sense of entitlement.

Sometimes it’s smug around the edges, and I can do without that. But what entitlement does is obviate the need to be apologetic or accusatory, simply asserting things as though there were nothing more obvious in the world. Why this is refreshing, is its contrast to social media, where any opinion which isn’t just plain nasty has to couch itself in all sorts of defensive colours to pre-empt attack. The result of this is that it is almost impossible to see ideas for themselves. Deciding whether they are good or bad can come later, but one should be spared being told what to think while one is still trying to make out the arguments. It gives me time to marshal my own thoughts, and believe me they need a lot of marshalling, but I prefer to do it myself rather than by being flagged by virtue signals along every sentence.

Maybe what does it for me is that in spite of its ideological position, by which one can take the measure of a range of other positions including one’s own, it is eclectic, a sure indicator of curiosity and openness.

It boasts that its writers have included “princes and prisoners, prime ministers and prime donne”. I suppose when you feel fully entitled you don’t have to suck up to anybody. Maybe that’s why I read it, because there isn’t a brown nose in sight.

• Yves Vanderhaeghen is the editor of
The Witness.