Captain Moonlight: Legend in his own Tipp-Ex

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Roy Hattersley has been talking fluently, in the Hattersleyan way, for some 30 minutes. The photographer has recently joined us, interrupting the stately plosions not one whit. We have moved on to recent stirrings of journalistic envy at Roy's prodigious output - he now thinks of himself, he says, as a writer who is also a politician - when suddenly he calls a halt, whips out a comb and applies it, briskly. Can't think properly unless his hair is combed, he says.

It is this sort of thing which explains why Roy has been mocked from time to time during his career. The shirts, the lunches, the aldermanic manner, all lend themselves to a bit of a josh. But it is also a mark of his charm that he is aware of his little foibles. He stands up and paces around several times during the interview, notably when discussing why he has a contract to write for the Daily Mail and when rejecting criticisms of his literary style. But you only make the connection when he tells you that he always gets up when he's agitated.

Particularly prodigious at the moment, Roy has been available, inter alia, on the franchising of the Burton suit, the appeal of Shakespeare and the attraction of Coronation Street. Roy is available weekly in the Guardian on the large messages of the small things in life, particularly small things in the past, in Sheffield. Read Roy in the Independent (Burton's, Shakespeare). Roy has interviewed the Prince of Wales for the Mail on Sunday, and has just got back from interviewing Benazir Bhutto. He is 61. At the Mail, they say he's a trouper, good on deadlines; they also say he's on more than pounds 100,000 a year. When John Smith died, Roy wrote two appreciations that day, one for the Mail, the other for the Guardian.

He is, he says, a great believer in private grief, which sounds silly, given the two articles, but he thinks the Guardian article failed because it was a more personal piece. Anyway, he finds writing helps him in practically every situation, even if he is a grinder, a man who writes five words to produce one, a legendary user of fountain pen and Tipp-Ex.

He has written three novels, The Maker's Mark, In That Quiet Earth and Skylark's Song, thumping Victorian-style works of faction, drawing on the colourful Hattersley background, including his father, a lapsed Roman Catholic priest, 850,000 words and pretty well received in all. His next will be about a young television current affairs man on the make. He has written eight chapters, thrown them away, and written another six. All this journalism was getting in the way, but the trouble was that he was a serious journalist, in the sense of being pathologically addicted. 'Arnold Bennett said he thought of hanging a sign outside his door, 'Articles written while you wait'. It's a terrible desire to do it. Somebody comes along with an idea, and it's almost impossible not to say yes.'

But the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, the Tory party Pekinese, yappy, occasionally ungrateful, but very aware who provides the chicken liver? Roy, as mentioned, got to his feet. He understood that people might think it odd, but the Mail values were not his values, and he fundamentally opposed many of the articles which appeared in it. But he never wrote anything he didn't want to write. And it was the demands of writing for a tabloid, like that Browning poem about always wanting to master a new challenge.

And the money? Roy said he was not like Frederick Forsyth, who cheerfully admitted he was only in it for the lolly. He negotiated hard, but there was joy in writing for him. Later he called the Mail's behaviour during the last election 'corrupt'. I said this came across as a bit odd, too, but he said it was OK, he had an agreement that he could leave when the election rough stuff started.

Do not wonder if writing is second best for Roy, compensation for lost leadership, lost office. 'I don't look back on life with that sort of regret. Of course I wanted to be in government, but I don't feel dispossessed or deprived . . . I don't have a burning desire to get back to it. If I had, I would have stood for the Shadow Cabinet.' The thought that he wouldn't have to give up his Guardian column after all was a great consolation last general election night, he said.

What got him to his feet again was the criticism of his writing style as being, a bit . . . orotund. He knows who says this. He knows all his critics, even though he mocks himself for it. He accepts that he is orotund in speech, but not in writing. He sends for the Prince of Wales interview and deals with criticism of his style and content. 'The Sun said I should have asked him questions of state, like his relations with Mrs How's-your-father. Frankly, I am not the slightest bit interested in Mrs How's-your-father.'

He posed for pictures. 'I do raise hackles,' he had said. 'I've never known why.' Now he confided that he had lost one-and-a-half stone in four months on a fat-free diet and was really enjoying baked potatoes. Strangely, it's impossible not to like him.

(Photograph omitted)

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