The perfect 10: Robert Harris's eulogy to Alan Watkins
The late IoS columnist liked to rate funeral tributes. At Watkins' own service last week, the novelist's brilliant oration did our man proud
Sunday 30 May 2010
Alan Rhun Watkins was one of the most talented and original columnists to emerge in British journalism in the past 50 years. He it was, more than anyone else in post-war Fleet Street, who did as George Orwell urged, and turned political writing into an art, creating a parallel universe – the World of Watkins – peopled by young fogeys, chattering classes, men in suits, Seamus O'Gelignite, the Foolish Virgins of The Guardian, the People's Party, THIGMOO, the prig press and le cabinet fantôme.
Watkins – who, for comic effect, was fond of referring to himself in the third person – was born by Caesarean section on 3 April 1933 in St Helen's Nursing Home in Swansea, the only child of David and Violet Watkins, schoolteachers. Of his mother, he wrote: "She loved me extravagantly, as did my father." And to the end of his life Watkins retained many of the traits of the adored only child: a certain solitariness, wilfulness, self-confidence, stubbornness and an absolute fearlessness. Of no individual, or institution, or dogma, or group was he in the least in awe, not even the Welsh, for whom he expressed a teasing affection. His account of the reaction in his home village to his father's death in 1980 was a comic masterpiece:
"Tell me, Alan," asked one caller at the house, "did he suffer at all?"
"No, not at all. He went like a baby."
"But there must have been some suffering."
"No, none at all, really."
"They were saying that he was screaming in agony."
"Well, you can tell them they're wrong. Thank you for calling, Mrs Davies. Much appreciated."
From Amman Valley Grammar School he went to Cambridge, where he was chairman of the University Labour Club. He studied to become a barrister and considered pursuing a career as a Labour MP. Neither of these ambitions came to much, but they left enduring marks on his writing. He took a Wisden-like pleasure in obscure legal facts, especially facts relating to constitutions and rule books.
And his columns were never mean-spirited about politicians, or anyone else, for he had an underlying sympathy for those engaged in what he famously called that "rough old trade". He particularly admired Anthony Crosland and Iain Macleod, and often referred to them, even as their lustre faded, as he did to a more obscure figure, the Llanelli MP Jim Griffiths, prompting Neil Kinnock once to exclaim: "Even I don't know who Jim Griffiths is, and I'm the leader of the bloody Labour Party."
Watkins was given his first job as a journalist by John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express. Eventually he worked on the Crossbencher column. His predictions, then and later, were not always wholly accurate. Asked about the health of the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell – at that time in hospital and only a few days from death – Watkins replied firmly: "As strong as a horse."
In 1964, Watkins became political columnist of The Spectator, and for the next 46 years – successively in The Spectator, New Statesman, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday – he produced a weekly article on politics: over 2,000 in all, running to more than two million words, every one of which was written out in ink in his microscopic hand – a span of activity unequalled in modern political journalism. He did not write polemic. He did not seek to be a player in politics. He did not pursue scoops, although he did break the news that Michael Foot would stand for the Labour leadership. He quickly placed a bet, at odds of 14-1, that Foot would prove successful; he invested his winnings in champagne.
He was pre-eminently a stylist. His prose contained echoes of the King James Bible and of the hymns of his youth, of the great novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries, of A J P Taylor, of Waugh, of Wodehouse, of Beachcomber. He had an ear for language. He excelled at parodies of Sherlock Holmes and at cod 18th-century prose. His books – especially Brief Lives, A Slight Case of Libel, A Conservative Coup and A Short Walk Down Fleet Street – will bear rereading for many years, not least as primers in style.
Who else but Watkins, in a column on the Labour leadership election in 1983, when his companion compared the distinguished politician Roy Hattersley to a suet pudding, could have demurred by launching into this culinary flight of fancy?
Hattersley is a northern food (at once a staple and a delicacy), a piquant yet wholesome cross between a meatloaf and a black pudding. The standard way of serving hattersley is cold, sliced, with pickled gherkins and chips, but it is a versatile comestible and can just as well be fried – some Sheffield connoisseurs will brook no other method – with egg and tomato. For the continental touch, it can be coated in egg and breadcrumbs and served with tartare sauce à la lyonnaise.
Opinions may differ as to which was his golden era, but few would dispute that the page he appeared on in The Observer in the 1980s – a page which at one time consisted of Watkins, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and a profile, usually written by Laurence Marks and illustrated by Mark Boxer – represented a high point in Sunday journalism.
His habits were fixed, sedentary, urban. "My entire working life," he once wrote, "has been spent in the quadrilateral enclosed by the Euston Road to the north, the Thames to the south, Goswell Road to the east and Whitehall and the Charing Cross Road to the west." He patrolled his beat in a dark blue raincoat, occasionally taking out a small black notebook in which he would write down jokes for later use. Over the years he was often to be seen pursuing his inquiries at both branches of El Vino's; at the old Red Lion in Poppins Court; at the Temple Bar Club; at the Garrick Club, where he was a member for 32 years; at the Beefsteak Club; in Annie's Bar at the Palace of Westminster; and at the Gay Hussar.
To the rituals of food and drink he devoted the same care he brought to his prose. With his spectacles pushed up on to his forehead, he would scrutinise a wine list with the professional intensity of a jeweller inspecting a gem. He knew about wine, and always could be relied upon to select something good, for a reasonable price. He enjoyed conversation. He laughed a lot. He called people "dear boy". Disagreement he would express by smiling, shaking his head and sucking in his breath: "Oooh, no, no, no, no." He could be waspish but never malicious.
Few sat down to a meal with Watkins, or read a column by him, without leaving his company feeling cheered up. Cheering people up was his particular gift, all the more laudable because his own life contained more than its share of sorrows, notably the deaths of his wife, Ruth, and of his elder daughter, Rachel. He met these blows stoically, supported by the love of his surviving children, David and Jane, his grandsons, Roy and Harry, and his devoted companion for almost 30 years, Fanny Butlin. In his memoirs he wrote: "I have had much happiness and some unhappiness" and left it at that.
He was not a religious man, although he liked singing hymns, and enjoyed memorial services, scoring the eulogy on a scale of one to 10. He tended to avoid conversations about spiritual and emotional matters, preferring, he once wrote, to watch Newsnight instead. He planned his own funeral with Churchillian attention to detail, specifying all the hymns and texts. Challenged as to whether he would be permitted a service at St Bride's, he responded: "My dear boy, even the deputy motoring correspondent of the Daily Mirror gets a service at St Bride's."
Towards the end of 2009 his health, which had been poor for some time, took a turn for the worse. With characteristic courage and stubbornness, he declined to prolong his life, except on his own terms, and refused medical treatment, which he considered tiresome. He remained in his house in Islington, where he continued to write his column until three weeks before his death. The last published sentence he wrote was a joke about the then-Prime Minister: "Poor Mr Brown chews gum, even when he does not have anything to chew."
On Saturday 8 May, his son, David, was just about to read aloud to him Simon Hoggart's election column when he noticed his father had died – an extreme reaction, some might have said, but Watkins would have seen the funny side, the funny side being the one he always preferred.
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