On 8 July 2010 I lunched with Simon Hoggart, who has just died at the age of 67. He was the Guardian’s parliamentary sketchwriter, and as well as writing a large number of words he found time for a proper lunch, in which I was fortunate, as his opposite number on the Telegraph, quite often to join.
This particular lunch was different from any that had gone before. He communicated, with tact and courage, the terrible news that he was suffering from cancer, “and it’s not a good one”: cancer of the pancreas. He did not wish to advertise the fact, or for people to be lachrymose. He wished to enjoy himself.
“Are you a man of faith, Andrew?” he asked in a mock-serious tone.
“I’m an Anglican,” I replied.
This gave him the chance to develop his fantasy about an Anglican arriving in heaven, only to be told that his beliefs are the best and most accurate version of Christianity ever promulgated.
I mentioned the joke I sometimes have with my wife: that if she dies first, I’ll put a death notice in the paper which says something like, “After a long illness, borne with a good deal of complaint.”
Hoggart did not complain. He conducted himself with astonishing fortitude. While continuing to write his sketches, and books, and notebooks, and wine and television columns for the Spectator, and many other pieces, he spent over three years undergoing bouts of chemotherapy.
Readers of this site, which concentrates on the affairs of the Conservative Party, may wonder why I am writing about a columnist for the Guardian. A similar question occurred to Conrad Black, the then proprietor of the Spectator, when Hoggart became that magazine’s wine correspondent. Hoggart himself takes up the story:
“I had just been appointed during the reign of Boris Johnson. The then Mr Black assumed that anyone who worked for the Guardian must be a Stalinist. ‘I wish to know,’ he growled at a board meeting, ‘why you have appointed a communist as my wine correspondent.’ There was a difficult pause, until someone chipped in: ‘I’m sure Simon won’t only write about red wine.’ I kept the job.”
Part of the point of Hoggart was that, although a man of the Left, his sympathies were not confined by his political opinions. He saw through various Lefties – Tony Blair, for example, or Tony Benn – while possessing a satirical but nonetheless genuine appreciation of various Tories: Nicholas Soames, Alan Clark, Sir Peter Tapsell.
As Hoggart himself said, in a volume of memoirs, A Long Lunch, published in 2010:
“It is certainly not fashionable to say this now, but I have always had an affection for most politicians. Though by no means all.”
This meant he could write with amused appreciation of Sir Keith Joseph, perhaps the greatest ideological influence on Margaret Thatcher:
“For quite a while he was the industry minister, but he found it hard to cope with the demands of new technology, even the more primitive technology of the time. A chap called Brian Shallcross worked in the parliamentary press gallery for many years, mostly for TV and radio. He once interviewed Sir Keith in the Midlands. The minister had begun by talking near gobbledegook for a minute and a half. When the interview ended, he told Shallcross, ‘You must take out the first ninety seconds of that.’
‘But we can’t, Secretary of State. It was live, and it’s already been seen by millions of people.’
Sir Keith shot back: ‘And I don’t want any of your technical excuses.'”
Hoggart admired the ability of Willie Whitelaw, long Thatcher’s wisest counsellor, to parry a difficult question:
“The reporters pressed Willie several times, but he had clearly not been briefed on the topic, and had no intention of pronouncing on it. In the end he said firmly, ‘I have always said it is a great mistake ever to pre-judge the past!’ I thought at the time that would make an excellent watchword for almost any politician.”
Unlike some journalists, Hoggart had no wish always to think the worst of the people he wrote about. His judgments were tempered with mercy, but were also informed by a conviction that various people were intolerable. He was harsh to the self-important, but understood fallibility.
He knew much about wine, but could still enjoy the house red or white, and might observe that it was better value. He was loyal to an old news editor whom he visited whenever he was in Lancashire, and to an old fish and chip shop which he visited whenever he was in Brighton, but at party conferences he had no desire to consort with the great. He instead mustered a party, usually including Steve Bell, the Guardian’s cartoonist, which met at the reception hosted by the Scotch Whisky Association and went on to an Indian restaurant, before rounding the evening off in some soothingly unremarkable pub, where one was in no danger of meeting either the Home Secretary or the shadow Home Secretary.
Hoggart was a democrat with high standards. He would talk to anyone, but could not tolerate bogusness. His judgments were sometimes wrong, but were not designed to curry favour. He puts me in mind of a passage from the introduction Alan Watkins wrote in 2004 to a new edition of Brief Lives, a collection of portraits of journalists and politicians a bit older than Hoggart:
“The representative figures of the age of Wilson and of Macmillan’s England who are depicted here possessed, with some exceptions, a rationality, an optimism and a capacity for the enjoyment of life which their successors do not always, or even usually, exhibit today.”