A brief history of gossip

How the whispered word became the mightiest tool

(Words by)
Sam Leith

“If you can’t say something good about someone,” Alice Roosevelt Longworth is said to have had embroidered on a cushion, “Sit right here by me.” Now there’s a sentiment for the ages. A delight in malicious gossip may just be the second oldest human instinct — and it probably only comes second because it needs the first for material.   

  A recent double-whammy of memoirs has given the Roosevelt Longworth cushion a good workout. First came Sasha Swire — wife of the former Tory MP Sir Hugo — dishing the inside dirt on the Cameron/Osborne chumocracy in Diary of an MP’s Wife. Then, in her book Friends and Enemies, the veteran journalist Barbara Amiel told the hair-raising story of her professional and romantic career before settling scores with those who dropped her when her husband Lord Black went to jail.   

  These two books may indeed be important contributions to the historical record. But the reason they fizzed through the headlines was, undoubtedly, because they were bitchy, indiscreet, and full of fabulous stories about the rich and powerful. 

  The high-minded will, as ever, affect to dismiss this sort of material as trivia. Who cares how the young Barbara Amiel appeased George Weidenfeld sexually when she couldn’t quite bring herself to go to bed with him? Who cares that David Cameron told Sasha Swire that he was tempted to throw her into the bushes and “give her one”? How does any of this signify? 

  Well, honey: this is gossip, and gossip matters. Always has done. That’s what keeps journalists and hairdressers in business. It’s what bonds groups of people together and —as Sasha Swire has discovered — causes them to fall out. And in many ways it is more important than the so-called serious stuff — because it sticks. And for anyone who thinks this sort of thing is a deplorable product of the decline of the age of deference, be assured: there’ll have been people tut-tutting in just the same way when Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars was serialised in the Roman equivalent of the Mail on Sunday. 

  As that example shows, gossip is ostensibly the ephemera of the culture — yet my goodness it lasts. Many people who have never read a book by Martin Amis could give you chapter and verse on his feuds, his old girlfriends and his problems with his teeth. So it is with any number of others. It is the human detail — the outlandish anecdote or the apocryphal outrage — that sticks in the mind. Marianne Faithfull? Mars bar. Freddie Starr? Hamster. Ozzy Osbourne? Bat. Richard Gere? Gerbil.  

"Gossip is what keeps journalists and hairdressers in business..."

  Perhaps the finest example is the Elizabethan Earl of Oxford who audibly passed wind in the course of making a low bow before the monarch. He was so mortified he left the country immediately and didn’t return for seven years. When he did come back, and found himself again in the presence of Her Maj, she told him with a twinkle: “My Lord, I had forgot the fart.” 

  That single fart — thanks to the wonder of gossip — has survived for around 400 years. It was immortalised in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives — perhaps the pioneering work of early modern biography, and a book that lives on precisely because it is gossipy. The reason Samuel Pepys’s diaries live, too, is their human detail: the firkyfootling with the serving-maids, the concern for his wheel of Parmesan in the Great Fire, his kidney-stones and his interest in his food. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was sensational because it turned an irreverent and indiscreet eye on its subjects’ personal lives. The same is true in our own age. 

  Political diaries and memoirs — most of them worthy and solemn — gather dust on library shelves. The ones that live are the ones that make bitchy remarks and break confidences. We don’t, most of us, read Prime Ministerial memoirs; but we read Alan Clark, Chips Channon, Chris Mullin, Alastair Campbell, Kenneth Rose and Piers Morgan. And anyone who claims they’d rather read Margaret Thatcher’s memoir than Alan Clark’s diaries is a big fat liar.  

  Gossip has a long history — and its writers were conscious of that history. It isn’t an accident that so many newspaper gossip columns — Ephraim Hardcastle, William Hickey, Mr Pepys, John Evelyn — were named for 17th century diarists. The launch parties and flashy bars of 1990s London were seeing the same sort of exchanges of gossip as the coffee shops and learned societies of three centuries previous. And don’t assume that gossip columnists are lowlives. Walter Winchell may have been a scoundrel, but Bill Deedes, the sainted Michael Foot and even the poet John Betjeman worked on one or another gossip columns.  

  Why is gossip so powerful? Well, it’s because we make instinctive judgments about people based on it. We all know that the high and mighty present one sort of image to the world — and we crave a sense of what they get up to when they think they are unobserved. The old saying that news is anything that somebody doesn’t want to see in print applies here. No man is a hero to his valet — and gossip is what gives you the valet’s point of view. The mask slips, as we fancy, and we see the true self. The sole of the shoe flaps up and we glimpse the foot of clay. “Idle tittle-tattle”, in this respect, is very far from idle. 

  The so-called “ethos appeal” — one of the triad of persuasive effects identified by Aristotle — centres on the impression that we form of a public figure. And that impression, as any novelist knows, is all about the small details. The idea that John Major tucked his shirt into his underpants became a defining image of that Prime Minister; and it was, by most accounts, a malicious invention. Likewise, the story that, in a chip shop in his northern constituency, Peter Mandelson pointed to the tub of mushy peas and asked for “some of that guacamole”.  

  And that is why, among other things, the suggestion that he once put his private parts in a dead pig’s head — almost certainly a fabrication though it is — will follow poor old David Cameron to his grave. Even those who rightly discount that story will have other Cameron nuggets lodged in their minds: “kitchen suppers” and “chillaxing” with Fruit Ninja; the leaving-the-kid-in-the-pub moment; the bespoke “shepherd’s hut”; the tennis machine he nicknamed “The Clegger”. 

With Theresa May you probably struggle to remember a single one of her policies: but you remember the coughing fit, the field of wheat and the leopard-print shoes. And Boris Johnson? Well: there’s the first Prime Minister created entirely out of gossip. He has no non-gossip hinterland that anyone has yet discovered.  

"The mask slips, as we fancy, and we see the true self..."

When I started in journalism, I used to work on gossip columns — the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary; Ephraim Hardcastle on the Daily Mail; the Peterborough column of the Daily Telegraph. These used to be little playpens in old-fashioned print newspapers, jocular in tone, and hived off from the serious news in the main part of the paper. Here was where celebrity tittle tattle, unsubstantiated rumour and political speculation found its home — the bitchy remark made at a party, the who’s-shagging-who story, the feud or the anonymous briefing. 

  Since those days, gossip columns have waned in importance. That’s not because we all got high-minded. Quite the opposite. They became marginal not because people lost interest in what they did, but because they rendered themselves redundant by performing a sort of reverse takeover of the newspapers themselves. The unsourced political rumour is now page one. The showbusiness froth is page three. And page five. And page seven. The news now is the gossip, more or less. 

  The Internet has accelerated that process inordinately. Old-style media, with its stuffy editorial proprieties, tended at least in part to keep gossip in that roped-off little playpen. But now old media competes directly for our attention with the chattering machine of the internet. And it has to keep up or die. Gossip is just more compelling than proper news, and it travels faster. We live in an age in which this oldest of appetites is superabundantly fulfilled.  

 What’s more, it matters: rumours and speculation create the realities they describe. The epidemic of what’s now called “fake news” is, as often as not, just a particularly consequential form of gossip.

I write this on the eve of the US elections, and unconfirmed stories —about Trump’s finances and sex-life and relationship with Moscow; about Hunter Biden’s business dealings and Joe Biden’s cognitive capacities; about the doings of the Deep State and George Soros — are the things that are making the weather. It doesn’t much matter whether something is true — the lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, of course — it matters, rather, how many people believe it.  

  It’s very new — and it is, at the same time, very ancient. Shakespeare’s Rumour declares: “Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,/ The which in every language I pronounce,/ Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.”  

  Same as it ever was. Pull up a chair. Come sit right here by me. 

Want more gossip from the past? Here’s the mysterious, salacious history of The Dorchester Hotel…

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