Magazine article The Spectator

Man and Urchin

Magazine article The Spectator

Man and Urchin

Article excerpt


by Frank Johnson

J. R. Books, £18.99, pp. 338,

ISBN 9781906779337

15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p)

0870 429 6655

Frank Johnson, the finest and funniest parliamentary sketch- writer of his generation died, too young, in late 2006. His widow, Virginia Fraser, has now compiled and edited a selection of his writings. It is mostly about domestic politics as seen from his seat in the press gallery of the House of Commons, interspersed with expeditions to by-elections and general elections. There are also pieces on his early life in Shoreditch, his lifelong enthusiasms - opera, ballet, warfare, diplomacy - and at the end of his life, his newly acquired house near Montpellier.

In a work of this kind it is a temptation to review the man and not the book. I shall not resist it altogether. However, it is worth trying to recapture something of Frank's style by means of quotation. One of his favourites was Lord Goodman, now largely forgotten, but once a character - both comic and threatening - who bulked huge in the affairs of the nation. He described Goodman as 'the greatest solicitor since Cicero'.

Here he is descending, on the Croydon by-election, in October 1981, legally to menace one of the candidates:

Furthermore, there is not a jot or tittle of any suggestion to the contrary - or jit or tottle, tittle or bottle. There is not a scintilla, whatever that may mean, of evidence. It is all a farrago of untruths, and indeed a fandango if required.

(Lord Goodman's prose style is infectious on these occasions).

Frank's best-loved line came from Sir Denis (as he later became) during the general election campaign of May 1979. Margaret Thatcher had 'clasped a fragile, newly-born calf to her bosom as determinedly as if she were Cleopatra with an asp'. Her husband remarked: 'If we're not careful, we'll have a dead calf on our hands.'

Frank hated the post-war consensus as qit had developed between 1945 and, I suppose, the mid-1970s. He and I often discussed the pernicious influence of television programmes such as Hancock and Steptoe & Son. The supreme crime for these scriptwriters was pretension, getting above yourself, thinking you were better than you were.

He thought the trade unions, above all, had held the working classes back. It was a specifically English - perhaps more specifically still, East London - characteristic, rather than Scottish or Welsh.

We would sometimes discuss the great editors or other journalists who had flourished at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.