He's got more columns than the Colosseum: the prolific Mr Letts

A review before bedtime, a TV appearance before breakfast and a day of non-stop writing that might take in theatres, parliamentary sketches and gossip. Britain's busiest freelance journalist somehow finds time to talk to Vincent Graff

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:11

‘It's quite satisfying getting up at 5.30am to do GMTV," says Quentin Letts, "because I think money before breakfast is a sort of reassurance." Not that the man who is quite possibly the most prolific journalist in Britain need worry.

Take a deep breath and have a glimpse inside Letts's invoice book.He is the Daily Mail's parliamentary sketch writer and theatre reviewer, writes for the paper's features pages and supplies it with a satirical weekly column under the byline Clement Crabbe. You'll also see his byline, on a less frequent basis, in this paper, The Observer, the New Statesman and Horse & Hound.

He contributes anonymous stories virtually every day to newspaper gossip columns such as the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary. He was a regular in The Sunday Telegraph. He was, for a while, a columnist in the News of the World. He's been the motoring correspondent of Country Life.

He has launched himself on the public speaking circuit ("known for his sharp wit and logical arguments", according to the agency that is punting him aroundtown for £3,000 to £5,000 a shot). And then there are the occasional breakfast television appearances.

Oh, and last week Britain's busiest freelance journalist presented the last of an excellent four-part documentary series onRadio 4 looking at British institutions. "And I've just done a book,which is being published in the summer." How many words is it? "Forty thousand. So not that long."

Letts estimates that in a good week – and there are lots of those –hecan writeupto 10,000 words. Plus there are the appearances on Sky News, News 24, Have I Got News for You, This Week, Richard and Judy ... The working day, from the first TV appearance to the last word of a late-night theatre review, some- times lasts 19 hours. So you can survive on a Thatcherite five hours' sleep? "For three nights aweek, yes."

The question is, might he be spreading himself too thinly? Jealous rivals may say so, though wise editors across Fleet Street reckon a Letts piece – which may be on anything from Harriet Harman's debut at Prime Minister's Questions to the relative merits of the strawberry and the raspberry – is always a jolly read (and often more than that).

Letts acknowledges that some people feel he has too much on his plate. "I got axed from being used in The Sunday Telegraph by[then editor] Patience Wheatcroft, who took against me," he says. "I think she felt I was popping up too much."

He adds: "Things can get a bit chaotic around five o'clock if I'm trying to finish a feature and I also have to garner the material for a sketch and then write the bloody sketch before scramming off to the theatre to make the seven o'clock curtain up. So occasionallymy eyeballs are swivelling in different directions."

Like many of the best writers, Letts, who began his career as a diarist on The Daily Telegraph's much-missed Peterborough column, speaks in the same manner as he writes, sprinkling metaphors with abandon.

It is, he says, "interesting to have a range of clients. I approach it like being a business and you need to diversify a bit. So for instance, the New Statesman does not pay incredibly attractive rates but it's quite nice to appear in a left-wing publication sometimes. And I do occasional bits, oneoffs, for other clients. For instance, I sometimes write a column for British Industry magazine. You won't have seen it. It's a specialist publication.

"Journalists tend to get sacked and are lucky if they survive professionally beyond 50 or 55. I think you've got to be realistic about that. I don't have a company pension, company healthcare, things like that. That's why you diversify.

"I think we're probably the last generation that's going to make a living out of newspapers. I suspect in 10 years' time it's going to be much harder to turn a shilling."

But at some point, would he like to edit something? A couple of years ago he was approached by The Spectator, which was looking for a candidate to take over from Boris Johnson. Though there's some ambiguity over whether or not Letts was officially offered the job, it was his decision not to take it.

"Well, the exact form of words, I think, is – how does one put it exactly? – I ‘pulled out of consideration'." He pulled out? "Yeah." Because they couldn't match the money you were getting from the Mail?"Well, actually they went quite a long way. Money wasn't the main reason for deciding not to pursue that. I just decided I preferred the independence of being a freelance." But could he yet join the officer class?

"At some point, yes. I think probably in perhaps seven years or so, because my suspicion is that a lot of editors are appointed too early," says Letts, 45. "I don't think I would ever want to do a big editing job, but a smaller enterprise might be quite fun."

A smaller enterprise? Perhaps he should have words with his friends at British Industry?

Letts laughs. "Actually they haven't been on the line for a while," he says. "The column seems to have dropped out of the sky."


Max Hastings
The former editor of 'The Daily Telegraph' and the 'Evening Standard' writes regularly for the comment pages of the 'Daily Mail' and 'Guardian'. Subjects: Hitler and Franco's alliance; why the Diana inquest was a dirty raincoat show for the world.

Zoe Williams
Feature writer for 'The Guardian', her work also appears in the 'New Statesman', 'Marie Claire', 'First', 'Radio Times' and 'Grazia'. Subjects: Nick Clegg's sexual history; breastfeeding a baby with teeth; Delia's cheating.

Toby Young
His website carries a cartoon by Heath depicting a partygoer asking: "Toby Young? So you're the Toby Young you write so much about." Writes on restaurants, theatre, books – and Toby Young. Subjects: why Acton is the Monte Carlo of Metroland; the day I didn't recognise Glenn Hoddle.

Rod Liddle
His musings in his 'Guardian' column cost him his job as editor of Radio 4's 'Today'. (He told readers that, "You may have forgotten why you voted Labour in 1997. But then you catch a glimpse of the ... Countryside Alliance.") Now writes for 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Spectator' and also pops upon TV and radio.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments