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Seductive Pursuits
January/February 2010


Henry Fairlie: A tottering tripod of women, drink and debt 

Political writers of distinction, whose work survives and retains its appeal, are rare. Frank Johnson, the parliamentary sketch writer, and Henry Fairlie, the commentator, were the outstanding examples of my time, and I count myself fortunate to have known both well. These selections from their writings, Frank's edited by his beautiful widow, Virginia, and Henry's by a Newsweek writer, Jeremy McCarter, are welcome and should be pondered by anyone who cares about British domestic politics of the past half a century. 

What particularly links the two is their celebrity as neologists. Fairlie invented the term "the Establishment" for the group of well-born, well-placed grandees who, in his heyday of the 1950s, moved and shook behind the scenes. Its archetype he identified as Lady Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of Prime Minister Asquith, and the unwelcome publicity this exposure brought her provoked in her an explosion of vitriolic — but far from speechless — rage. Fairlie's important essay on the origins and consequences of his use of the term is reprinted in this compilation, though it does not, alas, include the magnificent correspondence the topic detonated in the pages of the Spectator. But it does give us a dozen of his most memorable pieces, and there is an introduction telling us all about him. He came from a Scottish farming family and combined bucolic good looks with an absolute lack of scruple in surmounting any obstacle to his physical satisfaction. As one friend, Judge Billy Hughes, put it: "Henry looks like a handsome homicidal ploughboy, the county Adonis type. I often have them in front of me." He was well educated, a great reader, deeply thoughtful, and had absorbed and pondered the work of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Burke, Macaulay, Stubbs and Trevelyan until the English constitution and way of public life was part of him. He could hold forth on what was going on in the Cabinet and parliament with an authority which was never pompous but always fresh, incisive, illuminating and original. There has never been anything which carried so much delicate intellectual punch as his weekly essays on politics in the Spectator

Frank Johnson's task was quite different: to give entertaining (and instructive) snapshots of British politics in action, for the Telegraph and The Times, daily in the Commons but also at party conferences and by-elections. He addressed himself chiefly to what he called "the chattering classes", the much larger group of (fairly) well-informed people who had succeeded the Establishment, and who helped to make, and break, political reputations by their endless gossip at social gatherings. This neologism also stuck and Frank saw it as his duty to add spice and wit to their chatter. No writer has ever made more jokes, nearly all of them good ones. But like the best comedians in prose — Swift, Sydney Smith, P. G. Wodehouse, James Thurber — Johnson was expert at the running gag, or devising a sustained piece of fantasy which lasted right through the article, and could be reprised in a later one. Other writers made fun of John Prescott's mangled English but Johnson insisted he was really speaking in an arcane code with important MI5 implications. Similarly, he turned the gruesome Dennis Skinner, the shambolic Michael Foot, the brilliantly sinister Norman Tebbit, the magnifico Roy Jenkins, the flashy Heseltine and the taciturn Heath into obedient character-actors in his skilfully contrived Commons comedies. Such events as the gravediggers' strike, Diana's funeral, Mrs Thatcher in a marzipan factory and Boris Johnson apologising to Liverpool, were delightful detonators to his fancy. As Hamlet said of Yorick, Frank Johnson was "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy". Moreover, unlike most professional jesters in print, his humour was not confined to the written word. He made you laugh over the table, in the bar, amid the high-pitched susurrus of a drinks party, even in the heart-sinking despair of an airport lounge. He was the spirit of innocent and angelic fun, and his early death deprived me and countless other friends of a constant palliative to the sadness of life. 

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