House of Fun by Simon Hoggart Guardian Books, £14.99
This marvellous book chronicles an extraordinary 20 years in Parliament and takes us from John Major (described here making a speech that was “rousingly adequate, even thrillingly average”) in 1993 to Jacob Rees-Mogg on the constitution in 2013. Our companion is the finest parliamentary sketch writer since Bernard Levin; you could not hope for a better guide than Simon Hoggart. Although it makes sense to follow the story in chronological order, I found myself wondering if one of my children’s iPhones could be adapted to include a Hoggart shuffle option so that, freed from the tyranny of the calendar, I could dip into the bran tub and extract, at random, glorious writing such as the description of Baroness Thatcher, postdefenestration, haunting a Tory Party conference in 1994 with “hooded eyes drawn together like the curtains in a crematorium”, or this, on former golden boy George Walden, who learned the “terrible lesson” that backbenchers do not so much “prowl the corridors of power but skulk down the alleyways of impotence”. Denis MacShane would dismiss writers such as Hoggart as “sketch boys”, which is not only unfair to some of the fine women, but implies that the parliamentary sketch is a verbal soufflé that does not linger long in the memory.
This book proves that the parliamentary sketch has staying power; future generations will wonder at the awesome majesty that was Sir Peter Tapsell and the weirdness that was Michael Fabricant through the immortal words of Hoggart. It is the genius of the journalist to so describe an individual that the subject becomes defined by the words. Read Hoggart on the peevish Major or the increasingly foul-tempered and caddish David Cameron to see how much their image has been defined. I should point out that Gordon Brown does not emerge with honour intact, either. There’s not a duff piece in this book and, if more rigorous sub-editing might have spared us the three times appearance of a suggestion that the writer often needs to prop a sharp biro beneath the chin to avoid falling into the arms of Morpheus, that is a petty cavil as this literary edifice stands testimony to a comic genius allied with the keenest of political brains who has sat by, with wry smile and, occasionally, in horror, as the last 20 parliamentary years rolled on beneath his eyes.
Hoggart loses his mildness when absurd sentences are formed from modish words that obscure rather than illuminate. He has no mercy on those who transgress, and Tony Blair, as well as most of his various Cabinets, comes out of this particularly badly. I like to think that the ambitious political creep reaching for the lexicon of “overarching multi-iplinary cross departmental step change initiative rollouts” will glance up to the reporter’s gallery and see Hoggart waving an admonitory finger. He or she will then tear up the blizzard of buzzwords and the great contribution of Simon Hoggart to our legislature, and our language, will be advanced.