In praise of Simon Hoggart

Like any master of the art, the secret of his success is that he employs a light touch rather than a sledgehammer.

Simon Hoggart.
Simon Hoggart asking a question in Westminster in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images.

House of Fun: 20 Glorious Years in Parliament
Simon Hoggart
Guardian Books, 352pp, £14.99

Simon Hoggart is a very wicked man. For 20 years, he has made a living poking fun at our much-loved legislators. On most days, he does it better than any of his colleagues in the parliamentary press gallery.

Like any master of the art, the secret of his success is that he employs a light touch rather than a sledgehammer. There is little or no malice in what he writes. It is no part of his argument that all politicians are villains. One suspects that far from loathing parliament and its inhabitants, he loves the place.

This book is a collection of Hoggart’s greatest hits, distilled from his 20 years of sketch-writing, garnished with some of his more recent offerings and occasionally a few words of introduction. Many of the pieces have featured in earlier collections. The book is divided into eras rather than chapters, each named after the reigning prime minister: John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Blair, on account of his longevity, merits two chapters.

Taken as a whole, House of Fun amounts to a sort of light-hearted alternative political history of the past two decades, though there are large gaps. Many of Hoggart’s observations are as pertinent as any that may appear in an academic essay, except that they are rendered memorable by the author’s keen eye for the absurd. Thus we have Hoggart on Major’s love of platitudes: “They inspire him. He pronounces them with the wondering certainty of someone who has just learned the secret of life from a Tibetan monk with three eyes.”

John Prescott, inevitably, is a favourite subject. Entire sketches are devoted to Prescott and are often based on his words with minimum intervention from the author. This is from Hoggart’s account of Prescott’s address to the 1999 Labour party conference: “Gosh, he was angry: ‘Under Labour, our air is getting cleaner. Our rivers are less polluted!’ . . . The better the news, the more spittle poured from his mouth. Aaarghhh! He announced the creation of two new national parks the way you might declare the annexation of the Sudetanland.”

Hoggart is at his best when focusing on the obscure or the quirky. An entire column is devoted to Gerald Kaufman’s suit:

No matador in his costume of lights ever possessed such a suit. Max Miller’s wardrobe could have been owned by a down-at-heel accountant compared to this . . . Afterwards those of us who had seen the vision gathered together, like disciples who had seen the risen Christ, anxious to record each detail so that we could hold it in our memories and pass the knowledge down to generations as yet unborn . . . Terracotta could not do the colour justice, being too dull; ochre would be too yellow. Cinnamon came to mind, although the spice is too dark and woody. Someone compared it to murram, the orangey, clay-like surface of many African roads. All we could agree was that Mr Kaufman must be the only dandy who arrives at his tailor’s with a Dulux chart.

There are golden oldies, long-forgotten or obscure figures who will live for ever, thanks to their inclusion in Hoggart’s pantheon. Herewith a passing reference to Tony Marlow, an amiable but ferociously right-wing Tory, much given to colourful dressing and swept away in the landslide of 1997: “Tony Von Marlow wore a multicoloured, striped blazer, like a chair from the passenger deck of the Hindenburg.”

The Tory MP Michael Fabricant’s remarkable hair is the subject of much discussion. “It is strawberry blond and has a shiny, plastic sheen. The lower part stands off his face . . . yet, as one views it from above, it appears to be firmly anchored to his scalp. Overall it looks as if My Little Pony has been in a terrible accident and its tail has been draped over Mr Fabricant’s head.”

Lately, Hoggart’s gaze has alighted upon the magnificent spectacle of Sir Peter Tapsell, an extremely grand Tory whose 50 or so years in the House of Commons might otherwise have gone unnoticed had he not caught the author’s eye. Sample: “Sir Peter Tapsell rose. We could almost hear the flapping of wings as the Recording Angel himself arrived to take down Sir Peter’s every word, written in flame on tablets of gold . . .”

Of the class of 2010, few have yet to catch Hoggart’s eye. The Honourable Jacob Rees- Mogg (“No doubt he wore a romper suit of Harris tweed”) is an exception. A gift to the sketchwriter, if ever there was one. “You sense the presence of Nanny in the public gallery, leaning over to make sure he has wiped his nose.” Oh, yes, if he can hold his seat, the Honourable Jacob may well be on course for immortality.

Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister “A Walk-On Part”, his third and final volume of diaries, is available in paperback from Profile Books (£9.99)