Wednesday 13 December 2017

Obituary: Simon Hoggart

Witty political sketchwriter and former Northern Ireland reporter who chaired the BBC's 'News Quiz'

Guardian and Observer Journalist Simon Hoggart who died aged 67 from pancreatic cancer.
Guardian and Observer Journalist Simon Hoggart who died aged 67 from pancreatic cancer.

SIMON Hoggart, the journalist who died last Sunday aged 67, wrote on politics, latterly as the Guardian's acerbic and witty parliamentary sketchwriter, and on wine for the Spectator; for many years he also presented the satirical News Quiz on BBC Radio 4.

He was a well-respected reporter in Northern Ireland during the Seventies and spent four years in the US as the Observer's Washington correspondent. During that period the Sunday Independent published his weekly American Diary.

He also more or less cornered the market in Christmas novelty books, publishing his own sketches and such entertaining volumes as The Hamster that loved Puccini (2005), and the self-explanatory Don't Tell Mum: Hair-Raising Messages Home from Gap-Year Travellers.

But it was as a parliamentary sketchwriter that Hoggart became best known. Though he broadly shared the Guardian's leftist political stance, he aimed his glittering satirical barbs at politicians across the spectrum. But he liked politicians who refused to conform to the grey sycophantic identikit of the sort favoured by party HQs.

He particularly enjoyed Labour MP John Prescott's tortured relationship with the English language to the extent that in 2003 he published an affectionate compendium of his verbal infelicities, Punchlines: A Crash Course in English with John Prescott.

Simon David Hoggart was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, on May 26, 1946, the elder son of the distinguished academic Richard Hoggart, author of the influential Uses of Literacy, an examination of working class life and culture. Richard Hoggart would achieve wider fame in the Sixties as the chief defence witness in the Lady Chatterley trial.

Simon was educated at Hymers College in Hull, Wyggeston Boys' School in Leicester, and then King's College, Cambridge, where he read English and History.

After graduation he joined the Guardian, becoming one of its correspondents in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles, though he did not recall the posting as being particularly risky: "The Guardian was seen to be more sympathetic to the Catholic side," he said, "so journalists would say they were from the Guardian if they were interviewing Catholics and the Telegraph was seen to be more sympathetic to the Protestant side, so journalists interviewing Protestants said they were from the Telegraph. One time, a bomb went off on a Protestant estate and all the journalists said they were from the Telegraph; in case of suspicion, the news editor said as it was such a big event he had sent along every available reporter."

In 1973 Hoggart joined the paper's staff at Westminster as a political reporter and later political correspondent. In 1981 he left the Guardian to join the Observer (then under separate ownership), working as its Washington correspondent from 1985. In 1989 he returned to London and, after a spell as a columnist, became the paper's political editor. In 1993, much to his dismay, he was sacked after its takeover by the Guardian. But he came into his own after being appointed parliamentary sketchwriter for the Guardian and given a Saturday column in which he broadened his targets to include such bugbears as privatised train companies and fussy health and safety rules.

Hoggart was a regular on many radio and television programmes, notably Radio 4's The News Quiz. He appeared as a panellist on the show in the early Eighties and returned in 1996 as chairman for 10 years. A Telegraph review described the show under his chairmanship as so funny as to be "dangerous to listen to while driving or attempting any other complex manoeuvre, such as eating".

He became wine writer for the Spectator in 2001, succeeding Auberon Waugh. It is said that the magazine's then owner, Conrad Black, asked why they had hired "a communist" as wine correspondent, but was reassured that "Simon won't only write about red wine".

He also published 20 books and became a regular on the literary festival circuit.

Hoggart modestly summed up his own biography by saying that he moved from being a promising newcomer to a clapped-out old has-been, with no intervening period. While he had a fund of amusing stories to tell about the great and not so good, even in a book of reminiscences Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them (2010), he seemed to prefer to lurk in the background.

Thus the revelation, in 2004, that he had been having an affair with the Spectator's publisher Kimberly Quinn at the same time as she was seeing the Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, caused him great embarrassment. The story, published in the News of the World (which had allegedly illegally hacked Ms Quinn's phone) was a shock for which Hoggart, a married father of two, was unprepared. At first he angrily dismissed the claims as "bulls***", but later issued a statement admitting he had lied.

Much fun was had at his expense by rival hacks who dredged up examples of Hoggart's sometimes moralising pontifications on the extra-marital affairs of those in the public eye, in which he had put up a strong case for the right of newspapers to expose errant husbands.

In 2010, Hoggart was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, but it was only in December last year that he was forced to give up writing the Guardian's sketch.

Simon Hoggart married, in 1983, Alyson Corner, a clinical psychologist, who survives him with their son Richard and daughter Amy.

Irish Independent

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