Obituary: Sir John Junor

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By the 1980s John Junor was possibly the best-known Scotsman in England, writing a famous column in the newpaper he edited from 1954 to 1986, the Beaverbrookian Sunday Express.

It was a column that had millions of readers nodding their heads wisely and telling themselves that you had to hand it to old Junor - he knew how to sock it to them. He socked it to social workers and homosexuals, to intellectuals, to pompous old twits and various other groups that the average Englishman longs to abuse but lacks the facility with words, not to mention the necessary bad taste, to do the job properly. He socked it to liberal- minded members of the Royal Family. As for politicians, he regarded Harold Macmillan as a poseur ("as phoney as a two-dollar bill") and Harold Wilson as spineless ("I doubted whether between his backstud and his backside there was anything but his braces"). He adored Margaret Thatcher.

Junor's father came from the Highlands, but Junor himself was born in Glasgow, in a tenement building in Maryhill. Years later, when he wanted to delight his readers with an idealised community with all the homely Scottish virtues, he picked not on Glasgow but on the town of Auchtermuchty, which sounds fictional but is in fact an undistinguished little place in Fife. Junor liked to call in there when he went north from Fleet Street to play golf - Auchtermuchty is conveniently on the road to St Andrews. The Auchtermuchty of Junor's sabbath imagination warmed the heart of every Sunday Express reader. It was a place where the lassies were pretty, the lads were lusty, and there was short shrift for "woofters and poofters". No man in Auchtermuchty ate quiche.

Junor's early ambitions leant more towards politics than journalism. At Glasgow University he joined the Liberal Party and became president of the University Liberal Club. In 1939, he found himself picked for the kind of mission most of us think of as taking place in fiction. He was signed on, at the then not inconsiderable salary of pounds 4 a week, by the fabulously rich and highly personable Lady Glen-Coats, a Liberal activist, as her private secretary, to go on a fact-finding tour of Hitler's Germany. The couple were only just able to get a train out of Germany before the Second World War started on 3 September. Later, Junor was to stand unsuccessfully three times for Parliament in the Liberal interest.

Junor came to the notice of the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook soon after the war, the latter stages of which Junor spent editing the Fleet Air Arm's magazine, Flight Deck. By 1948 he was working as a reporter on Beaverbrook's Daily Express. "I discovered early on that I would not have made a very good hard news reporter," he said, but he had the knack of writing about political personalities and was moved on within months to writing the "Cross-Bencher" column in the Sunday Express.

The column set standards for malicious political gossip and Junor soon joined the select club of Beaverbrook cronies, liable to be called in to make up dinner parties or simply to provide or listen to ideas. He was even provided with a house on the Beaverbrook estate. In 1951, Junor was promoted to assistant editor and chief leader writer of the Daily Express, and after a brief stint as editor of the London Evening Standard, became editor of the Sunday Express in 1954.

He edited the paper for a long time before he took over the column which made him his own most celebrated contributor. He started writing it, as it happens, at almost precisely the time that the Tory party chose Margaret Thatcher as its leader. The initiative for the first meeting between them came not from him, but from her, or at least from her entourage.

Her public relations adviser, Gordon Reece, arranged a lunch with Junor at the Boulestin restaurant. Junor regarded himself as a connoisseur of the Tory politicians at the time, but at the initial lunch he did not find the future Prime Minister over-impressive: in Auchtermuchty they preferred their politicians to be male. But it was not long before the Thatcher team, seeking to woo Junor, found they were pushing at an open door. It had come to him as a blinding light that what Auchtermuchty really wanted in the hour of the nation's need was the no-nonsense approach of a woman, a woman who believed in good housekeeping, a grocer's daughter who knew how many beans made five.

It takes one to know one; and in Margaret Thatcher Junor recognised one of his own kind. At last the old Etonians and the effete Southerners who had run the country for so long were about to get their come-uppance. He was soon coming up with suggestions as how to purge the old Conservative Party.

The most characteristic setting for the mature Junor was his favourite table at either the Boulestin or the Savoy, where he would entertain leading politicians. There he picked up and passed on gossip, and received whatever messages the politicians were anxious to convey to the greater public. He liked to think his conversation had a catalytic effect on policy-making at the top. Yet one suspects that these were the sort of occasions where each participant was convinced he was using the other.

Junor was an ill-natured populist with a taste for common-or-garden abuse, although he could be generous in his summing-up of some politicians. "Of all the people around Mrs Thatcher," he wrote in 1990, "I have not the slightest doubt which one, in a perfect world, I would choose as her successor. Geoffrey Howe." But Junor never traded on his judgement. It was his gift for homespun invective, which he developed into an art form, which seemed particularly appropriate to the Thatcherite years.

The John Junor brand of rudeness was one of the more notable characteristics of public life in the Eighties; in the Nineties, no longer editor of the Sunday Express, he moved his column to the Mail on Sunday, a pulpit that he shared with Julie Burchill. It was the Old next to the New Testament. Junor, a heavy, thickset man of a folksy appearance, might had had his finger on the nation's pulse, but he also got on its nerves.

John Donald Brown Junor, journalist: born Glasgow 15 January 1919; Assistant Editor, Daily Express 1951-53; Deputy Editor, Evening Standard 1953-54; Editor, Sunday Express 1954-86, Columnist 1973-89; Director, Beaverbrook (later Express) Newspapers 1960-86; Kt 1980; Columnist, Mail on Sunday 1990-97; author of The Best of JJ 1981, Listening for a Midnight Tram 1990; married 1942 Pamela Welsh (one son, one daughter); died 3 May 1997.