This is an amiable book. The parliamentary sketchwriter Simon Hoggart, also the wine correspondent of this magazine, for which he drinks as selflessly as Zorba the Greek, has set out to record anecdotes that have amused and appalled him in the course of his long professional life. He also throws in some, mainly Jewish, jokes whenever the mood takes him, so at times this reads like one of those gag books that professional comedians lose, then loudly appeal in the press for the return of, but it is none the worse for that. This is a book you are meant to read, put down, read, and put down. It is very readable.
But one thing it isn’t is an autobiography. Hoggart, on whose own life these stories and personalities are threaded, is little more than a shadowy, often disapproving presence as he watches safely from behind rocks (in his case the Parliamentary Press Gallery) the public figures he has been obliged to write about. His reaction tends to be, ‘My dear, the noise, and the people.’
As he says, nothing quite like the British parliamentary sketchwriter exists, or has existed, anywhere else in the world, for this is a man who every day has to mock his legislature. I suppose the nearest equivalents would be the court jester or that strange being who stood in the triumphal chariot breathing ‘All life is grass, mush’ into the ear of a laurel-crowned Roman emperor, and God knows how far they dared go. There are just five sketchwriters left now, brooding on Michael Fabricant’s wig and John Prescott’s syntax (and brain), and — this I didn’t know — theirs has been such a little day. Irreverence came so late to the species that, when the old Guardian sketchwriter Harry Boardman published his selected columns after the war, the book, without a breath of irony, appeared under the title The Glory of Parliament.
With irreverence came fame, this again so soon over that when Hoggart introduces Bernard Levin, the most famous and irreverent of them all, it is as ‘journalist Bernard Levin’. But then, while you may find the odd jester in the footnotes of history, the breather in the chariot is not named anywhere.
A Long Lunch provides an opportunity to settle old scores. A paragraph that begins ‘It is easy to present Tony Blair as a liar’ then goes on to argue that this is because he is a Christian, and, with religious belief requiring an act of faith, it is then easy to leapfrog truth ‘to what you feel to be true’ which is an odd, if deadly, argument. The converse is far more acceptable, that when a man loses his faith he goes on to believe, not in nothing, but in anything, a quotation usually ascribed to Chesterton but which no one has been able to find in his writings. Still that is Blair, and faith, cut down to size.
Norman Tebbit he quite likes (asked whether Michael Portillo was having cold feet over running for Tory leader, he said, ‘I wouldn’t know, I have never slept with him’), Tony Benn he hates (‘ a blend of cold, clear-eyed opportunism and an extraordinary naivete’). Joe Ashton he liked a lot.
As for the rest, there is the vanity of Nigel Lawson, who, when he appeared in a group photograph, demanded to be shown the pictures before they appeared, only to be told by the photographer that in his entire career only one other person had made that request.
‘And who was that ?’ asked Lawson.
‘Zsa Zsa Gabor’ said the photographer, smiling sweetly.
Then there is Margaret Thatcher, into whose universe double meanings and humour had never swum. Introduced at a training centre to a large youth (‘who was, as it happens, black’, adds Hoggart warily), she noticed he was brandishing a giant wrench. She said, ‘Goodness, I’ve never seen a tool as big as that’. Invited to fire a field-gun in the Falklands, she asked, ‘But mightn’t it jerk me off?’ The only thing is, instead of portraying her as one of the cast of a Carry On film, this just makes her sound rather human, which makes the laughter die a little, always a professional risk to the gigglers in the Gallery.
For it is not the achievements, or lack of them, of such people, or even what they represent, that interests a sketchwriter: it is their absurdity. So a slight despair hangs over these very funny stories, the despair of the stand-up comic, only here obliged to mine his material from the egomaniacs and the disturbed, and laugh on and on into a dark eternity.
As in most journalists’ memoirs, Hoggart, of course, finds his own colleagues far more interesting. He didn’t much like Princess Diana, and quotes with some glee Alan Coren’s reply on The News Quiz when asked about land-mines, which the Princess had then discovered. ‘I don’t know anything about landmines or Princess Di, except you’d be mad to poke either of them.’ The recording has now been locked away in a BBC safe.
It is not just sketchwriting. Reporting on the US for the Guardian he goes to a volcano then expected to blow at any minute and meets an old man, straight out of The Waltons, who doesn’t believe this and has stayed on. The interview, like most things in this book, is funny, except that two weeks later the volano does blow. Two years later Hoggart goes back, and is told what happened when rescuers found a man dead in his car, his body intact. ‘But when they tried to take him out his body just fell away, like a cooked chicken.’ And for a moment the giggling has to stop.