Bite the Hand that Feeds You: Essays and Provocations by Henry Fairlie and Best Seat in the House by Frank Johnson
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.
Henry Fairlie was good company too, though very far from innocent, and with nothing angelic about him except his deceptive smile. I wish Charles Lamb had been around to encapsulate him. He spent his life perched on a tottering tripod formed by women, drink and debt, occasionally falling off but scrambling back with astonishing agility until, in the end, it was all too much. When I first came across him, he had just emerged from a brief spell in Brixton, where an angry judge had put him for contempt of court by breaking a bankruptcy order. His much-tried wife, Lisette, memorably summed up this episode: “Well, at least I know where Henry is.” I can still hear her calling out despairingly: “Henerey!” He always kept his money in cash in his top pocket, and when this was full he was liable to disappear, on a tour of girlfriends. He specialised in seducing young, pretty, lower-middle-class housewives, whose husbands — commercial travellers, oil explorers, airline pilots, etc — were away a lot. It was Henry’s boast: “I can get a hot cooked supper all over North London.”
He sometimes contemplated, in his cups, more permanent escapades. It was one of his accomplishments to get so drunk that he remembered nothing of the night the next morning, yet appeared at the time perfectly sober, except to those who knew him really well.
A beautiful woman, the wife of a rapidly rising politician, told me that Henry had once proposed to her, during a carousal, to run away with him. “This kind of furtive intrigue is unworthy of us both,” he declared grandly. “We must regularise it.” Enraptured, almost unable to believe her delighted ears, the lady said: “Henry, are you serious?” “Never was more serious in my life.” He told her that, as a start, they must go to Paris together. He would get the tickets. She was to pack a little bag and meet him the next day in the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz, at 6.30pm. So off he went, and the next day, with no recollection whatever of the conversation, Henry went about his normal business. The lady packed her bag, left a farewell note to hubby on the mantelpiece, and was duly in the Rivoli Bar at 6.30. No Henry. Six forty-five, still no Henry. Seven, and quarter past, no Henry. She asked the barman. “Mr Fairlie, Madam? No, haven’t seen him for some time.” At 7.30, she realised with dread that he was not coming, and taxied home in panic, just in time to snatch the note and tear it up, as she heard her husband’s latch-key in the front door. What an escape!
Henry prospered for some time with the Daily Mail, that most generous of newspapers. Told to cover the Paris Summit in 1960, he was given by the cashier a thick wodge of newly printed notes known in the trade as a Goldbrick. That duly went into the top pocket, and Henry was unable to resist a tour of North London housewives. So he never got to Paris and the Mail sacked him. He then turned to America, and wrote some splendid pieces there in Washington, oscillating between New York and London. During a brief visit to home pastures, he took part in a then-popular evening chat-show, Three After Six, and rashly libelled a popular woman writer. She sued, the TV company coughed up, but Henry never troubled to answer any of the lawyers’ letters he received. Instead, he returned to America. When the case came to court, for approval of the settlement reached, Henry was nowhere to be found, and the judge became angry. He concluded his remarks: “As for the contumacious co-defendant, who I understand is in foreign parts, I must point out, that if he ever comes within the authority of this court, it will be at his peril.” These deadly words in due course reached Fairlie in America, and he took them very seriously indeed, never returning to England — even after the affair had been forgotten, and the judge died.
Inevitably, he fell on hard times in America too, and ended up sleeping on a couch in the office of the New Republic. This book is a glorious memorial, delighting his fast-dwindling band of friends, and introducing him, I trust, to a new circle of younger readers. I wish one could be sure that, among them, there are two such clever writers as Frank and Henry, as funny as the first, and such a rich source of anecdotage as the second.