This review is part of a series on books that might be of interest to those interested in conservative history.
Was Frank Johnson a conservative? He most certainly was not a Conservative with a capital C, being, as a journalist, of a somewhat anarchic nature. He was, however, one of those who promoted Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies and being from an East End working class family (his father had been a baker) he had a natural affinity with many of the IEA’s ideas. But Frank would not have been Frank if that had interfered with his ability to see the funny side of everything, including Margaret Thatcher’s campaign in the chocolate factory.
The Times obituary said that he excelled in “a very English art form”, which would have pleased him as he was, despite his travels to European cities and capitals, a very English person.
A good parliamentary sketch can be high art, but art with a hard-nosed purpose. Sketch writers know they are an important arm of the democratic process. Unless we can laugh at our politicians we can never keep them in order.The Telegraph obituary quoted a number of his witticisms about politicians of every hue and stripe. Though I followed his career with interest and read him whenever I could while he peregrinated through the right-wing press, I had not realized that he invented the term “chattering classes”. That alone will keep his name alive.
The Telegraph also gives the story of his last few days, which I read at the time and found funny, moving and absolutely typical all at once:
Johnson endured cancer with exemplary courage for seven years. He would say of his illness that he bore it "with the stoicism of the London working class from whence I came".A journalist to the marrow of his bones and all attempts to be anything else, even editor, failed. But, really, who cares when we have those wonderful sketches, many of which were collected by his widow, Virginia Fraser, in a recently published volume, called Best Seat in the House? This might make a wonderful Christmas present though the potential giver ought to be warned that there is a strong chance that much of Christmas Day will be spent by people reading out various hilarious passages with younger members of the family wondering who all those people flitting through the articles are and why is everybody roaring with laughter.
Last Sunday, just before he went into hospital for the final time, he attended the performance of Aida at La Scala in which the tenor Roberto Alagna (as Radames) walked off the stage in a fit of pique after being booed; Johnson immediately filed the story to The Daily Telegraph.
There are the stories of his childhood and adolescence with the famous one about being clutched to Maria Callas’s bosom in “Norma” as well as my favourite of young Frank pretending to talk about football or cricket though he had actually been spening Saturday afternoon at the ballet; his early journalistic career and being hired by Maurice Green, then editor of the Daily Telegraph to write parliamentary sketches alternating with John O’Sullivan (though this last fact is not mentioned). Nor is there any mention of Colin Welch, then Deputy Editor and the man who more or less controlled the motley crew of political writers on the newspaper.
And so we get to the meat of the collection: those wonderfully funny and pointed stories about politicians in Parliament, on the hustings, at party conferences, anywhere and everywhere. Johnson’s way with words was entirely his own though one sees his influence among all sorts of political journalists.
Not all the pieces are good. Some of the later, supposedly more serious ones lack soul and wit. Sometimes the wit is misplaced in that it does not do what it should: illuminate the subject of the article.
I also have my doubts about some editorial decisions. The concept of having Frank Johnson’s victims comment on the articles about themselves must have seemed like a good one but after a while those insincere sentences written with teeth firmly clenched become tedious. The choice of photographs is tilted towards Frank the later grandee rather than Frank the journalist. That is what he was all his life – one of the best. A Fleet Street legend, indeed.