Simon Hoggart: Columnist who delighted readers for decades with a wit that was incisive and acerbic yet never malicious

 

Comedy is a terribly strained trick in journalism, the comedy of politics even more difficult. It's too easy to fall into vituperation or puerility. But Simon Hoggart managed it day after day, not just in his parliamentary sketches, which he had written for The Guardian for the last 20 years, but also in his foreign and political reporting for The Observer in the decade before. His was always the piece you looked forward to, not just because it was always so incisive but also so genuinely funny.

On to the stage he would bring his characters: Ronald Reagan taking his long naps in office, John Prescott mangling the language, David Cameron sporting spectacles, presenting them with mocking pleasure at their foibles and merciless deconstruction of their pomposity. It was a gift that made him at once a friend of the reader, who shared in his pleasure at puncturing the pretensions of our elected representatives, but also the respect of his victims, who saw much teasing but little malice in his poking fun at them. He was always more a man of the Punch school of humour than Private Eye's, and his columns harked back to the traditions of the comic spirit of the mid-19th century, where words carried not just lucidity but also a relish in the oddities of person and the fun of performance.

If this suggested a role as entertainer, however, it was far from the whole journalist. Five years covering Northern Ireland for The Guardian in the early 1970s and an equal stint as The Observer's Washington correspondent in the 1980s, along with books of political analysis and biography, had proved him an acute observer of the moods and emotions that drive democratic politics and its practitioners.

He was one of the first to understand that politics in the age of celebrity and mass media is not merely more and more about personalities, but it was also about popularity and impressions. You couldn't understand its practitioners unless you understood how concerned they were with image. It wasn't a matter of trivialising a serious business but understanding that this was now a driving force of politics.

The irony was that in many ways it was this trend that his father, the distinguished academic and cultural critic, Richard Hoggart, railed against in his seminal book The Uses of Literacy, a hymn to the dying values and cultural aspirations of the working class of the north, where both his father and Simon were brought up. His father's distinction, not least when he took part in the Lady Chatterley case as a key defence witness, had a profound influence on Simon, his eldest child. On the one hand it gave him a stable and intellectually rich background, with a year in the US when his father took a sabbatical to teach in New York, the stream of visitors to his house including WH Auden and JB Priestley. On the other it hung over him as an example to measure up to. There was something in Simon that made him feel he wasn't quite serious enough.

A child of his time, Simon went to grammar school in Leicestershire and King's College, Cambridge in the 1960s at a time when youth culture and anti-establishment satire were coming to the fore. He always denied being part of the Sixties culture, saying Cambridge was too divorced from reality for that. But he was part of the generation that moved from student journalism into the media with facility, joining The Guardian's Manchester offices as a graduate trainee in 1968 and going on to report for five years on the Troubles in Northern Ireland before coming to London to write from the gallery, and then applying to cover politics in a more straightforward fashion as deputy to the political editor.

It was a move that surprised many on his paper, who thought the feature writing job far more glamorous. But that was to misunderstand the man. Simon Hoggart always took the craft of journalism seriously and its job as covering the times in which he lived as crucial. It was partly with that in mind that he moved to The Observer in 1981, becoming their Washington correspondent for five years and then returning to London as political editor.

The US, where his two children were born, was made for him. He understood immediately the nature of Reagan's presidency, with his long rests and casual air, but he also understood its appeal to a public who liked the man and shared his distaste for the pomposities of power. Hoggart revelled in the populism of its culture and the openness of its people while understanding, too, the pain of its underclass. And he applied that understanding to British politics when he return as The Observer's political editor, a job he was removed from when The Guardian took over the Sunday paper in 1993 and inserted its own man in his stead.

Simon was bitter at his dismissal. He never enjoyed the intense internal politics which characterise newspapers and it was with some sense that his new job at least gave him a means of developing his own thoughts in his own way that he returned to The Guardian to write a daily sketch. It worked well over two decades, allowing him to appear regularly on TV and radio, most notably as chairman of BBC Radio's News Quiz, write a wine column for The Spectator (more as an amateur enthusiast than experienced critic), produce books of his columns and the oddball customs of the day and make frequent appearances at literary festivals. If he sometimes felt pangs of regret for not commanding a wider reporting and comment role, his readers never felt it in the continuous political wisdom contained in his sketches.

His last years were dominated by the pain and deterioration that went with pancreatic cancer. He'd been given three months to live when diagnosed three years ago but soldiered on with a fierce determination not let it poison his life as it was his body, writing up to a few weeks before his death in hospital last Sunday. Although at times he could be dismissive, particularly when he thought someone was behaving badly, he was never really cruel. Wide-eyed, bespectacled and quick to smile, he was in person as his readers found him in print, warm, generous with his time and attention and loyal to his friends through the upheavals of Fleet Street, whatever the cost to himself. He lived longer than he expected, but not nearly long enough for those who treasured his company as much as his writing.

Simon David Hoggart, journalist: born 26 May 1946; married 1983 Alyson Corner (one son, one daughter); died 5 January 2014.

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