Oh, if only the 'father of the modern sketch' were here...

Frank Johnson would have found a bonanza in the MPs' expenses row, writes Matthew Bell
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The Independent Online

As MPs returned from their 72-day summer recess to pigeonholes bristling with letters from Sir Thomas Legg, detailing how much of their expenses each must repay, it was a moment for misquoting Wordsworth: Frank Johnson – you should have been here at this hour. The veteran sketch writer, famed for his comic renditions of the daily business of Parliament, would have found a rich seam in the unfolding story of MPs' expenses.

He would also, no doubt, have been fascinated by another story of last week, the attempt by law firm Carter-Ruck to stop The Guardian reporting a question asked by an MP in the Commons. Reporting the business of Parliament was his bread and butter, a right vigorously fought for in the 18th century by John Wilkes. Last week's super-injunction threatened a return to the days of Dr Johnson, arguably the founding father of sketch-writing at a time when reporters were not even allowed to attend debates.

So it is with apposite timing that an anthology of Frank Johnson's best writing is to be published this week. The book comes nearly three years after Johnson's death from cancer, and contains the best of his sketches and articles from the last 20 years of his life, bringing together many of his most memorable "conceits". This was the word Johnson gave the ideas around which he would weave his daily sketch column, flights of fancy that teetered between the absurd and the profound. He was thrilled when he heard that Harold Evans, then his editor on The Times, told an editorial conference "Frank's gone up to Liverpool to do one of his conceits".

Friend and colleague Stephen Glover says Johnson was "the father of the modern sketch", responsible for turning it into a comic form. There had been others before him, including Bernard Levin in The Spectator and Colin Welch in The Daily Telegraph, but, according to Glover, Johnson "did it better than anybody else. He was uproariously funny". Margaret Thatcher agreed: "Personally, I always felt that Frank Johnson at his best was very difficult to beat," she is quoted as saying.

Among those sketch-writing at that time was Simon Hoggart of The Guardian. "We were all very envious of Frank," he says now. "He made it look so easy." Writing did come easily to him, and his sketches were peppered with literary and historical parallels, although he was largely self-educated. Born the son of a pastry chef in the East End, he left school at 16 with one O-Level. At his funeral, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore used a typical Johnsonian device of turning a received wisdom on its head: "Those of us who were sent off to boarding school can have no concept of the luxurious life of the sole son of a traditional East End household. In that warm house that smelt of baking, Frank's mother ... used to bring him a cup of tea in bed every morning until he was 32 years old. Frank was a young prince at home."

His career peaked in the late 1990s when he become editor of The Spectator, but he started out as a Sunday Express teaboy, aged 16, where those he served included Alan Watkins, now a columnist on this paper. Years later, Watkins asked what the messengers had thought of the journalists, to which Johnson replied: "We didn't consider you a proper journalist at all. You didn't use a typewriter. What we used to talk about was who we would rather sleep with: Susan Barnes (later Susan Crosland) or Dee Wells (later Lady Ayer)." In fact, Watkins and Johnson would become close friends, living in neighbouring flats for some years.

Although sociable and popular, Johnson was never happier than when reading. From the age of 19 he read voraciously, teaching himself about modern history, politics and literature. He would often carry a book into the Commons gallery and while other journalists spent hours gossiping and drinking, Johnson could be found in a tearoom reading alone. Stephen Glover recalls one occasion when The Spectator had its annual board meeting, after which there was traditionally a dinner at Brooks's club in St James's. Although by then the editor, Johnson excused himself from dinner. He was later found by one of the board members dining alone at Wiltons round the corner, his nose in a book.

His other great love was the opera, a passion sparked by the night he spent on stage at Covent Garden, aged 14, Maria Callas's right nipple in his eye. His hilarious account of that episode, which appears in the book, was read by David Cameron at his memorial service in St Clement Danes, Fleet Street. By chance the service was held the day after Tony Blair's resignation as Prime Minister, and many journalists dithered over whether to attend, conscious that Gordon Brown was launching the formalities needed to become leader that day. It would have tickled Frank to know that they did.