There was a dinner in Soho to celebrate the publication of John Humphrys’s book, A Day Like Today. John was asked by his publishers to select guests — an interesting mix from the left and right — and organise the seating, a small piece of administration that made him fretful and therefore resentful.
The room grew warm with conversation and affection, so John insisted on throwing open the windows to the cold and the boisterous sound of the street below. Then he interrupted the civil murmuring between the guests to go round the big table with a question: scale of one to ten, was Britain going to be better or worse in three years’ time? In other words, he got everybody started on Brexit.
It went downhill impressively. The editor of the Daily Mail, who had stepped in to restore order after Rod Liddle went hammer and tongs for Kenneth Clarke, texted me the following morning: ‘It was completely mad.’ So, John was happy. ‘I cannot deny that I enjoy arguing,’ he writes in his book.
I am drawn to John because he is intellectually unruly, rather in the manner of The Spectator. He reminds me of Frank Johnson, the late Spectator editor. Like Frank, he came from the proud working class to spend his career among the liberal elite. Frank used to say that his childhood gave him a huge advantage, because aspiration and generosity were working-class qualities. And John writes that he succeeded because of his poor background rather than despite it. His father, a French polisher, was almost blinded by measles but became a track runner. He refused to use the tradesman’s entrance when visiting big houses to restore furniture. His mother only once bought something on credit: a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
According to John, his father had a balanced view of politics: he hated capitalism, in particular inherited wealth.