Friday 21 February 2014

Why no parliamentary sketch writer could replace Simon Hoggart and 53,500 signatures are needed for Maggie Watts e-petition for research into the cancer which killed him

Simon died from the effects of pancreatic cancer on January 5th. He was 67 years old. I've been reading his writing in the Guardian newspaper for the last 45 years and since he joined it in 1968. Although I didn't know him, like many thousands of others, I miss him and feel as though I've lost and old friend who, on meeting, always cheered me up made me laugh.

The cancer which killed Simon remains the cinderella of cancers in comparison with bowel, breast and prostate. Only more funding and public awareness will lead to earlier detection and, ultimately, better survival rates. It is often called the 'silent killer' since many of its symptoms mirror other less critical illnesses and doctors may not recognise these early enough, resulting in lost time before diagnosis and a terminal outcome. It kills 7,900, in Britain each year with 75% of cases in those aged 65 years and over.

Last year, Maggie Watts, who lost her husband to pancreatic cancer at the age of just 48 in 2009, launched a UK Government E-petition to push it further up the political agenda.
The petition is a call to :
'Provide more funding and awareness for pancreatic cancer to aid long overdue progress in earlier detection and, ultimately, improved survival rates'

Maggie speaking to ITN :

So, in memory of Simon, please sign Maggie's petition and spread it to family, friends and colleagues though facebook, twitter and other social media to help her get her 100,000 signatures by April 8th :
What went into making Simon, the boy ? who :

* was born in 1946 in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, before moving to Hull where his father worked as a Staff Tutor at the University until 1959 and where he went Hymer's College, an independent boys' school.

* was 11 years old when his father who 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, was a pupil at the celebrated Wyggeston Grammar School, developed a lasting affection for Leicester City Football Club and at home, met a rich array of guests 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 his family roots in the industrial North, left school in 1964 at the age of 18 and took a year off to to work in school in Uganda, where he 'was a terrible teacher', before returning to study English at King's College, Cambridge and wrote a column spiced with malicious gossip called 'Mungo Fairweather's Diary' in its 'Varsity' newspaper.

What went into Simon, the journalist in the making ? who :

* 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, writing that a Chelsea v Blackpool game, evoked 'Greek tragedy and the blinding of Oedipus', only to be bought up short by the night editor asking : "Will you tell me one thing? Were they playing with a ball or a discus?"

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

* stayed for five years and in 1972  filed a piece about the excessive behaviour of the Parachute Regiment in the Province
which was immediately denounced by the Military, just a few days before mounting political tension led to the shooting of  26 civil right protesters and deaths of 13 by the British Army in Derry on 'Bloody Sunday'.

* 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.

What was produced by Simon, the mature journalist ? who :

* 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 and 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, became and remained the Observer's Political Editor until 1993, when it was taken over by the Guardian and he was forced to give up the post, 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 and 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.'

* in books, in collaboration, wrote 'The Pact' in 1978, on the Callaghan-Steel arrangement after Labour lost its majority; 'Michael Foot: A Portrait' in 1981 and in 'Dear Mum' in 2006, the often hair-raising experiences reported by gap-year students in letters home.

* in 'A Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them' in 2010, wrote 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."

* took part in BBC Radio 4's history of political satire series, '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 :

*  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?"
Simon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2010 which, by that point, had spread to his spleen and metastasised in his lungs and so was pronounced terminal. With this form of the disease he might have expected to live for five to seven months, but thanks to cutting-edge treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital, managed to fight on for another three and a half years. He proudly considered himself the 'poster boy' of pancreatic cancer treatment and was delighted every time his doctors showed off his stats at medical conferences round the world.

What was produced by Simon, the journalist facing death ? who :

 * brought out a collection of sketches : 'Send Up the Clowns' in 2011 and 'House of Fun' in 2012 and still found that standing in the shadow of his still living a celebrated father, people would say, on introduction : "Hoggart? Are you any relation to Richard?" until it was 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 ?"

*  made regular references to, the flaxen-haired Tory backbencher, Michael Fabricant and in November last year, described his 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'.

* wrote in November last of the latest Government  U-turn with : '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.'

*  produced a final parliamentary sketch, in which he 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 Chancellor, Ed Balls, who in response, 'If he had pretended to be any angrier he would have been coughing up his own intestines.'

What was said of him after his death by :

David McKie, 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 Editor, Alan Rusbridger : '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 in a tweet : 'Such sad news. He teased me mercilessly but always kindly.'

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