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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.

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)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis