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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz