Alan Watkins: Farewell, my old friend Frank Johnson - from urchin to editor, with wit and style

'You wore very funny trousers', he said. 'Army surplus'
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Frank Johnson, who died early on Friday at 63, was one of the most percipient and easily the funniest of the political writers who first came to prominence in the 1970s. His chosen vehicle was the parliamentary sketch. As he might have put it himself, he peddled his bicycle up and down the columns of The Daily Telegraph and The Times, with an interlude at Sir James Goldsmith's Now! magazine. (One of Goldsmith's unsung benefactions to Fleet Street was a general rise in wages, in which Frank participated.)

The political sketch was invented or, it may be, reinvented by Colin Welch in The Daily Telegraph of the 1960s. It was a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, the parliamentary reports which took up acres of space in the extensive papers, and kept in gainful employment whole battalions of skilled shorthand writers. These mini- Hansards gradually diminished in importance and by the 1990s they had disappeared completely.

But the political classes turned to the parliamentary sketchwriters instead. They would write 600-800 usually amusing words which were not as southern as those issuing from No 10 through the exertions of the parliamentary lobby, a separate journalistic organisation. Sometimes, the lobby would complain about the sketchwriters.

More often, it would be the politicians who would be doing the complaining. To sacrifice a whole speech, maybe an entire debate, for the sake of a single phrase: what blasphemy! But, there was no doubt about it, the readers preferred the jokes. Here is Frank, describing Michael Heseltine's visit to Toxteth in the 1981 riots:

"One explained to the policeman that Mr Heseltine was the new minister for places like Merseyside and that sort of thing. You could not miss him. He was about 7ft tall, with what looked like a blonde wig but was, so far as we knew, real hair. This man was believed to be in the area. 'The public have been warned not to approach him, but to call the police instead,' I said, adding a tentative 'Ha, ha, ha'."

Frank's skill would often derive from a metaphor or a simile but which he would call a "conceit". This would be something non-political in the news or some half-forgotten news story from long ago.

He had, I remember, a special fondness for the "Mad Axeman" who used to prowl the bogs of Dartmoor, or wherever it happened to be. From time to time the Mad Axeman would put in an appearance, only to be revealed in due course as Sir Keith Joseph, or some such figure.

We first met in 1974, when I was 41, and he was 10 years younger. But, never having met, we had nevertheless worked together 15 years previously, I on the editorial staff of the Sunday Express, and he as a copy boy (or tea boy) of the same paper. Two or three of these Dickensian figures sat together on a bench, eating apples, sometimes throwing apple cores and even scuffling with one another.

I asked him what they talked about. The sole topic of conversation, he said, was whether they would prefer to go bed with Dee Wells or Susan Barnes (later Crosland), both of them among the editor's favourite journalists. I asked Frank and his young colleagues what they thought about me.

"You wore very funny trousers," he said, "Army surplus. And you wrote with your face very close to the paper. You never used a typewriter. We didn't take you seriously as a journalist at all."

In the intervening period, Frank had worked for a variety of local papers and for several nationals. His period on The Sun had much impressed the Telegraph's then editor Maurice Green, and had given Frank his job as a leader-and-sketchwriter partly because of this popular experience. Green had been much taken by Frank's contributions to The Sun. I was by now with the New Statesman.

Quite by chance, we found ourselves sharing a house in Islington, off Upper Street. More precisely, he had the ground-floor flat and I had the first-floor flat; while the top was occupied by Matthew Engel, then of The Guardian, now of the Financial Times. I tell you, we were a nest of singing birds.

One of my self-imposed tasks was to fix Frank's central heating. Though I lack practical abilities, I can press the appropriate buttons with the best of them for "Heating constant", "Water twice" or whatever the dial says it is. Someone had to do the job, after all. Alas, whatever programme of heating Frank wanted, so the apparatus refused to supply it.

"But Frank," I would say, "You can't have 'Heating twice' and 'Water constant'."

"Why can't I have it?" Frank would say.

"Because there isn't a suitable programme."

"Why isn't there a programme?"

In general, Frank's patience with the physical or the electronic world was easily exhausted. He also possessed an aversion to the discussion of philosophical questions. After all, several of his older heroes, such as Malcolm Muggeridge and AJP Taylor, shared the same disposition, as does Richard Ingrams in the present day.

When Frank said he wanted to discuss "ideas", what he really wanted to do was to talk about diplomatic history, of which he attained a far greater knowledge than I ever did, or wanted to do.

In his thirties, he made a suggestion - or others made it on his behalf - that he should embark on a course of classical studies at Oxford. The learned professor who had been involved said that it was an interesting idea and he wished him well but that there was too much to master, too late in the day. I think it was a lucky escape. He was much better off as he was.

He was more an aesthete than he was anything else. At school in Hackney and Shoreditch, where his father was a pastry-cook, he had been taken to Covent Garden. The school supplied urchins to the opera house. As a boy, he had been clasped - literally and forcibly so - to Maria Callas's breast. A woman teacher had also interested him in the ballet but he had been compelled to give up when he grew too broad shouldered for the activity. Music, the opera and the ballet made up the most important part of his life.

When he was editing The Spectator in the late 1990s, I would drop in occasionally for a chat on Tuesday evening in Doughty Street. It might be to leave an article with him, or to change or correct an article I had already written, or simply to have a gossip. That evening, he was looking particularly troubled.

"This week's diary," he explained: "It simply isn't rude enough. In fact it isn't rude at all."

I had a quick look at the offending - or, rather, unoffending - copy submitted by Dr David Starkey.

"It seems perfectly OK to me," I said. "Standard, literate stuff."

"But it's not what we're paying Starkey for," Frank said.

And there the matter rested.