I really can’t remember exactly how I came to appoint Simon Hoggart the wine correspondent of this magazine, but I have a feeling that it must have been in the aftermath of one of those long lunches at which it was then — and I hope and believe still is — the privilege of the staff to get sozzled at the expense of the wonderful and benevolent proprietors.
It might have been a parliamentary awards judging lunch. Perhaps it was just a lunch. At any rate Simon was there, and he started doing impressions of some of his favourite House of Commons characters.
I am pretty sure Sir Peter Tapsell cropped up. But the star turn was what he claimed were the exact words of a monologue he had recently heard at another such lunch from the lips of another great man: a Conservative minister, as he then was, a prodigious figure well known to readers of this magazine but whom there is no need to identify.
This was a continuous discourse, but in two modes. In the first, this MP would harangue the company at large about all the copper-bottomed ocean-going shits on the Tory backbenches who were being disloyal to John Major; and in the second, he would turn to his neighbour on his left — a young female journalist — and ask her, ‘But WHY won’t you go to bed with me, xxxxx?’ before returning to the theme of the chateau-bottled shits who were undermining the Prime Minister, and then back, without drawing breath, to his fortissimo importuning of his neighbour.
OK — so perhaps you had to be there. I am conscious as I write this that the gag loses a bit on the page. But I laughed so much at Hoggart’s impersonation that first I started crying and then retching and then I thought I would pass out.
Long before I met him I had decided he was one of the very greatest parliamentary sketchwriters of all time, and among the current crop he was the most dedicated practitioner of what Frank Johnson used to call his ‘conceits’ — the yoking together of two unlikely ideas, or the extension of some simile with multiple points of absurd comparison.
Most mornings he was funny, and often very funny; and though he could sometimes be sharp, you never felt there was malice in what he wrote. I think I have read somewhere that he really wanted to go down as one of the great scoop-getting political editors. He did far better than that.
With his brief and eloquent match summaries he told you what had happened more clearly than if you waded through all the straight reporting. He made a lot of people happy every day, including the vintners of Britain, because as far as I can remember he also sold a lot of wine.