'I laughed until I cried, then retched': Boris Johnson on the wit of Simon Hoggart

The former Spectator editor remembers his brilliant wine correspondent

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

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.

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  • David Lindsay

    I appreciate that his job here was to write about wine. But more broadly,if Simon Hoggart was so well-liked by politicians, then how was he doing his job?

    He pioneered the view that politics was a joke subject, and that running gags about MPs’ non-existent wigs constituted the height of comment.

    Like the registration of newspapers with the Post Office, the Parliamentary Lobby is already a form of the apparently feared “State licensing”, which is nothing remotely new in this country in the modern era.

    The Lobby is a very exclusive club with astonishing privileges within the Palace of Westminster, not enjoyed by, for example, the lowly staff of mere MPs. A cosy cartel, if you will.

    It is like the City, convinced that its own oligarchy and that oligarchy’s privileges are the quintessence of liberty, transparency and democracy.

    But there is nothing to stop anyone from applying for a ticket to the Public Gallery. After all, isn’t that all that they are? Citizens exercising their rights as citizens?

    No, of course not. But the publications granted Parliamentary Lobby access should be required to be balanced among themselves, even if not necessarily within themselves.

    Broadcasters having such access should be required to give regular airtime to all newspapers enjoying the same access when covering newspapers, regular airtime to all magazines enjoying the same access when covering magazines, and regular airtime to all websites enjoying the same access when covering websites.

    Subject to that condition, such access should be enjoyed by all and only those newspapers, magazines, websites, news agencies or freelance journalists publicly certified for the purpose by one or more seat-taking members of the House of Commons, or possibly of either House, whose staffs would enjoy no less access to the Palace of Westminster than that enjoyed by members of the Lobby. After all, who is in charge? Who is sovereign?

    For, again, if those writing for the papers are merely doing for payment what anyone may do for free, then why do they need their own Press Gallery? Why should they not have to apply for tickets to the Public Gallery, like everyone else?

    If they do not want that, then let them be made to accept this.

    Even if that did mean less fulsome praise of them from politicians when they died.