Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The writing of Simon Hoggart

This week the political sketch writer Simon Hoggart died suddenly and at his peak.  This might seem like a slightly odd thing to blog about, but as I read the obituaries, it was deeply moving in terms of reliving some of the great political moment of the last few decades.  
And I couldn't stop thinking about why we are drawn towards particular styles of writing, and what stays with us about the things we’ve read, and why a few key writers change the way we look at the world forever.

As I read back through the collection of Hoggart’s columns that The Guardian published on Tuesday, I was transported back to the time of reading them.  The way that he could, succinctly and without show, paint a picture quite unlike anyone else.  And with wit, compassion, and most of all a dissatisfaction with the status quo.  I’ve grown up with these observations, my parents brought The Guardian and Observer every day of my childhood, and almost by osmosis that’s what I’ve done.  If it’s not in the shop my heart sinks, even though most days I hardly do more than skim it.  A very large part of that has been Hoggart’s unrelentingly good sketches.  These are most solid for me in the time (before children) when I used to commute up to London from Southampton.  I was working in a research institute, to my mind doing cutting edge research that was directly feeding into government decisions; I lived and breathed it and it was just the most amazing time.  I struggle to think of people in that workplace that I didn’t respect and genuinely like;  it is one of those perfect moments frozen in time.  People used to be incredulous that I was commuting for 5 hours a day, but that was half the appeal.  That meant 5 hours a day to read, to people watch, and, for a large part of it, to smoke (we used to in those days).  What wasn’t to like??  Every morning the first thing I did when I got into the carriage was to turn to Hoggart’s sketch.

What was it about it these that was so unremittingly good and compelling?  It was the humanity.  Too often people say politics is boring.  How can that be? Leave aside the sheer fact of it affecting every single thing we do, its people are surely the most fascinating on this earth – the inspiring, the bizarre, the incredible, the ugly (on the inside).  You couldn't make them up.  And this was precisely what Hoggart managed to portray.  He would take some seemingly insignificant characteristic of an individual and run with it until it took on a life of its own.   He would chart the emotions and reactions of politicians in a way that Hansard couldn't touch.  But it was more than that.  Above all else it was the humour, and humour that was deployed so elegantly and in such deadly fashion as to make the point that simple reportage never could.  And never unnecessarily cruelly.   I will always believe that humour is the most effective tool in drawing a reader into your argument.  Which is perhaps why I will never make a good academic.



There were many points yesterday as I read the accounts of Hoggart's life, when I found myself stopping and thinking in a way I hadn't for a long time.  But perhaps the one that will stick with me most is this, a memory of Michael White’s of a note that a younger Hoggart had stuck to his typewriter:

Always remember, you are not writing for your contacts, for MPs or civil servants, but for a clergyman in Norfolk, a busy housewife in Penge and – with luck – two or three other people.”   

As bloggers our imagined audience will always be elusive, but those two or three who get what you’re saying  really are the point.  I'm sure I am one of many thousands tonight whose lives were altered forever by being able, for a few moments each day, to read Hoggart's world into their own.


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27 comments:

  1. A sad loss. I love that quote at the end, how very true! :)

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  2. so sad, but good that it made you think.

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  3. I think if just a handful of people are moved by your writing and that causes a chain reaction from those who it matters most, then your job is done.

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  4. He was, at the end of the day, a true realist, and being so grounded enabled him to view life with as little subjectivity as possible. A unique satirist, and certainly had style!

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  5. It's very sad that he's died. I enjoyed reading your post, especially the quote at the end which applies to all writers I guess.

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  6. I haven't been reading the news, so his death is news to me. Remember reading his work as a student. Thanks for the post, I agree. Hoggart both refreshing and wise.

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  7. I love the quote and last paragraph, very true! x

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  8. RIP to him, and love the last quote

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  9. I agree with Fritha such a great quote in the last paragraph, certainly makes you think. x

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  10. What a great post! I'm not familiar with Hoggart's work, but you make me wish I was. That's the most disconcerting thing about getting older, the gradual falling away of everything that's been a constant in life up to now, whether it's Peter O' Toole, Nelson Mandela or the Clerkenwell Fire Station - that sense of finality, of mortality, becomes more and more palpable.

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  11. That really is a great quote. RIP to him.

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  12. I have to admit I don't know who he is but I am going to go and have a good old search on the internet now to find out! Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Sounds like he (and his work) will be sorely missed by many people. As others said I'm not familiar with his work but he clearly had a powerful effect on you, so much so that I wish I did!

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  14. He will be missed, I loved listening to the News Quiz when he chaired it.

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  15. I too love that quote but such sad news x

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  16. Thank you for an eloquent read and bringing his loss to my attention. Off to read the stuff you linked to now.
    Liska xx

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  17. I was so sad when I heard that Hoggart had died. Like you, my memories of my younger self are tied up with the way he presented the world, through his columns. If I only had a few minutes to look at the paper, I'd always turn to his page first....

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    1. So true. I know if I'd have gone to the House of Commons to watch it would have actually been a disappointment after what he'd done with it.

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  18. I love the last couple of paragraphs of this post. Such a true and thought-provoking thing to say. Sad that he is gone. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo x

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  19. It was an incredible quote, witty and poignant at once. Thanks for commenting (& for PoCoLo!) x

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