Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Britain is no longer a country for an old and rare political sketch writer called Simon Hoggart who wielded a truthful, witty pen

I've been reading Simon's writing in the Guardian newspaper for the last 45 years and although I didn't know him, his death to me at the age of 67, is like the loss of an old friend, a year older then me and I don't doubt I am not the only old man to feel like this.

What you possible didn't know about Simon, that he :

* was born in 1946 in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, where his father, as a captain in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, was awaiting demobilisation before working as a Staff Tutor at the University of Hull until 1959 and where Simon went Hymer's College, an independent boys' school.

* was 11 years old when his father became a national figure with his book , 'The Uses of Literacy' and 14 in 1960 when he was called as an expert witness in the trial dealing with the publication of D.H.Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' which reduced censorship and ushered in the permissive 1960's.
* with his father working as Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, attended the celebrated Wyggeston Grammar School, developed a lasting affection for Leicester City Football Club and met a rich array of guests who appeared at the family home, including the poet WH Auden (right), who taught him  how to make a dry martini, extolled the merits of food mixers and talked about drugs.

* with his world view shaped by those family roots in the industrial North,  left school in 1964 at the age of 18 and took a year off to teach in Uganda, where he later admitted he 'was a terrible teacher', before studying English at King's College, Cambridge where he worked on the university newspaper, 'Varsity' writing a column spiced with malicious gossip called 'Mungo Fairweather's Diary'.

* left University at the age of 23 in 1968, joined 'The Gaurdian' as a graduate recruit in its Manchester Office and learnt lessons in the trade of journalism when, for example, he wrote a match report of a game between Chelsea and Blackpool, evoked Greek tragedy and the blinding of Oedipus and was asked by the night editor : "Will you tell me one thing? Were they playing with a ball or a discus?"

* was picked out to cover Northern Ireland, working with Simon Winchester, and where, according to Alan Rushbridger  his 'initial spells were arduous and sometimes dangerous. He learned the hard way how to write tightly, vividly and quickly.'

* stayed for five years through the mounting political tension which culminated in the shooting of  26 civil right protesters and deaths of 13 by the British Army in Derry in on 'Bloody Sunday' in 1972 and had written a piece a few days before, immediately denounced by the military, about the excessive behaviour of the Parachute Regiment elsewhere in the Province.

* in 1973, at the age of 27,  moved to London to join the paper's Westminster staff as a political reporter and typed on a battered imperial typewriter attached with a handwritten note to the effect : 'Always remember, you are not writing for your contacts, for MPs or civil servants, but for a clergyman in Norfolk, a busy housewife in Penge and, with luck, two or three other people'.

* in 1974 produced rich accounts of Prime Minister Edward Heath's doomed progress round Britain as he fought to keep his Government in power in the contest for the February General Election.

* in 1981, left 'The Guardian' for 'The Observer', wrote a regular column of disrespectful political comment for 'Punch', contributed to the 'Spectator', wrote for tv on television and wine, became a familiar voice on radio's 'News Quiz', first as a participant and then in the late 1990s, as Chairman.

* memorably described Bernard Ingram, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's  Private Secretary in the 1980s as ' brick-red of face, beetling of brow, seemingly built to withstand hurricanes, Sir Bernard resembled a half-timbered bomb shelter.'

* returned to London in 1989 at the age of 43 and after a spell as a columnist became the Observer's Political Editor until it was taken over by The Guardian and was forced to give up the post in 1993, later referred to by him, with some bitterness, as "When the Observer sacked me …"

*  rejoined the Guardian as parliamentary sketch writer and remained there for the rest of his working life, where, according to Alan Rushbridger 'his news training stood him in perfect stead for the daily task of noting the key moments of any debate before retiring to write something apparently effortless, piercing and funny – all written in the beautiful spare prose that had been drummed into him in Manchester.'

 * described the Tory MP, Nicholas Soames, at a party conference as : 'Soames was magnificent, a vast, florid spectacle, a massive inflatable frontbench spokesman. You could tow him out to a village fete and charge children 50p to bounce on him. They could have floated him over London to bring down the German bombers.'

* picked on slightest scent of sycophancy and said of new Conservative Member Harriett Baldwin in 2010 :  'I have my eye on Baldwin with her blonde hair and her ability to ask the most grovelling questions, she is rapidly becoming the female Fabricant – or at least Fabricant Mark I, before he stopped crawling and became an elder statesman."
* wrote of Bill Clinton at the Labour Party Conference in 2002 : 'The former president was brilliant, dazzling, charismatic, seductive and completely shameless. He wooed them all the time. He didn't stop. He cast his eyes down coyly. Then he raised his head, smiled, and looked slowly round the audience, gazing deep into their eyes. He is the Princess Di of the political world.'

* on the book front wrote 'The Pact' in 1978 with Alistair Michie, on the Callaghan-Steel arrangement after Labour lost its majority; 'Michael Foot: A Portrait' in 1981 with David Leigh ; the often hair-raising experiences reported by gap-year students in letters home, in 'Dear Mum' in 2006 with Emily Monk and 'A Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them' in 2010 about his 40 plus years in journalism and toyed with writing his memoirs but rejected the notion saying his life "had not been eventful enough to fill a book."

*  was part of BBC Radio 4's 5-part political satire programme 'Cartoons, Lampoons and Buffoons', was a contributor to the 'Grumpy Old Men', wrote for 'Punch' magazine and an occasional column for 'New Humanist' Magazine, was  celebrity panelist on the tv antiques quiz show 'Going,Going, Gone' and presented his last edition of  'The News Quiz' in 2006 with : "I'm getting a bit clapped out and jaded and I think that's beginning to show."

* appraised Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader in 2009 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS0iuYq0M2o

 * produced collections of sketches : 'Send Up the Clowns' in 2011 and 'House of Fun' in 2012 but perhaps was always in  the shadow of his celebrated and still living father, whose 'The Uses of Literacy' had come to be seen as one of the most influential books of the century, finding that people would say, when he introduced himself :  "Hoggart? Are you any relation to Richard?" until it was finally reported to him that someone in an airport, noting the surname on his father's luggage, had asked him if " he was any relation to Simon ?"

*  coined the phrase : 'the law of the ridiculous reverse', which states that : 'if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place', which meant, for example,when a self‑important politician boomed  "Now is not the time for cowardice!", would counter with : "Just when, is the time for cowardice?"

*  made regular references to, the flaxen-haired Tory backbencher, Michael Fabricant and described his recent sporting of a Movember false moustache as making him look like 'a cross between one of the Village People and the evildoer who ties the heiress to the railroad track' and chronicled his rise to political maturity as 'Mickey Fab' who had been 'spray-painted with gravitas'.

* dying from pancreatic cancer, continued to write in November of the latest Government  U-turn in November : 'Another day, another U-turn. This is less a government than a dodgem car ride. Sparks fly from the roof. Attendants bellow unintelligibly from the sides. Nominally driving, ministers crash into each other. Sometimes they fling the wheel round and nothing happens.'

*  his final parliamentary sketch, likened the Chancellor, George Osborne to Mr Micawber with 'In America the president's aides are scratching their heads and wondering how they can create their own British miracle' and David Cameron 'smiled like the Cheshire Cat after a large sherry' with Shadow Chancelor, Ed Balls, who in response, 'If he had pretended to be any angrier he would have been coughing up his own intestines.'

David McKie wrote in the Guardian :
'Far beyond his family, he leaves a host of disconsolate people, from his closest friends to those whose only acquaintance was through what he wrote and said, who know they have lost a rare, wondrously talented and wholly original man.'

The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, said:  'Simon was a terrific reporter and columnist – and a great parliamentary sketchwriter. He wrote with mischief and a sometimes acid eye about the theatre of politics. But he wrote from a position of sophisticated knowledge and respect for parliament. A daily reading of his sketch told you things about the workings of Westminster which no news story could ever convey. He will be much missed by readers and his colleagues'.

Michael Fabricant, butt of his wit tweeted : 'Such sad news. He teased me mercilessly but always kindly.'

BBC : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdzH8V5-fP8

An earlier post about Simon :

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Britain is a country where old journalists tell old jokes from France which strike a chord with old menhttp://britainisnocountryforoldmen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/britain-is-country-where-old.html

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