Parliament's Peanut Gallery

10th Sep 2008

The Wit and Wisdom of Britain’s Sketch Writers

Whenever Simon Hoggart writes about Michael Fabricant, he always makes note of the Honorable Gentleman from Lichfield’s hair. “How many My Little Ponies, we asked, had died to make such a creation?” reads one of Hoggart’s countless dispatches. That 2003 piece, in fact, was devoted entirely to Fabricant’s mane (or lack of it) and its uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and length. The previous day, Hoggart had noticed that Fabricant’s blonde toupee “used to be roughly normal length, finishing around the level of his ear lobes.” Yet twenty-four hours later, “the thing had reached his shoulders, a great lustrous cascade of tresses curling over and even caressing the collar of his jacket.”

It’s hard to imagine a congressional reporter for a major American newspaper writing such things about a member of Congress. But Hoggart is not an impetuous blogger; he’s parliamentary sketch writer for The Guardian, the paper of Britain’s right-thinking liberals. His kind has existed for centuries, dating back to Samuel Johnson, commonly known as Dr. Johnson, one of England’s greatest literary figures (born, ironically, in Lichfield). The eighteenth-century poet, essayist, lexicographer, and biographer spent some thirty years filing reports from parliament, and often had to use his imagination to describe how elected officials conducted the people’s business—journalists were banned from attending parliamentary debates at the time, and so Johnson had to piece together his reports using bits of information gathered from witnesses. Or, he just made things up. Indeed, many of the speeches today attributed to William Pitt (the Younger) were actually written by Johnson, who simply printed what he envisaged Pitt had said.

Today, sketch writers don’t need to make anything up partly because they are allowed to watch parliamentary proceedings, but also because they have such great material. Sketch writers differ from typical legislative correspondents in that their primary duty is to provide colorful accounts of parliamentary debates, not report hard news based upon interviews with sources or analysis of thick government reports. The closest approximation to a sketch writer in the U.S. is The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, whose recently inaugurated “Washington Sketch” is described as “an observational column about political theater in the White House, Congress and elsewhere in the Capital.” While Milbank has the entirety of Washington —think tank events, scandal personalities, foreign dignitaries — as his canvas, the U.K.’s sketch writers, aside from the annual party conferences and parliamentary elections, write entirely about what transpires in the parliamentary chamber.

The lack of sketch writers in American journalism is attributable to the fact that actual debates in Congress are rare (though John McCain recently proposed the introduction of a ritual similar to that of prime minister’s questions). Every week, the prime minister ventures from 10 Downing Street to the House of Commons, where he is subjected to merciless questioning from not only the backbenchers in his own ranks, but also members of opposition parties. Other days of the week, government ministers also face questioning. As any American viewer of C-Span (where “Prime Minister’s Questions” is one of the most popular programs) knows, a Member of Parliament who rises to speak — whether to ask or answer questions —risks a barrage of insults and jeers no matter what he or she says. (“New Labor, new hair,” Labor MPs yelled at Fabricant when he rose to ask a question not long after their party’s 1997 election victory.) A day in parliament makes a congressional hearing look like the Q&A segment at the Miss America pageant.

Sketch writers turn in copy typically four times a week, regardless of how amusing the day’s events. “If we didn’t know how to sketch boring, we’d be out of a job,” Ann Treneman, sketch writer for the London Times, tells me. Four of the country’s newspapers (the Guardian, Independent, Times, and Daily Telegraph) have regular sketch writers, and the Daily Mail employs one intermittently. Given the nakedly non-objective nature of British newspapers, sketch writers—who usually work themselves up the ranks to achieve their envied position—tend to mirror the editorial stances of their employers. Hoggart tells me that the sketches of his colleague Quentin Letts, for instance, reflect the “populist hatred for politicians that you expect in a reader of the Daily Mail,”—the Mail being synonymous with an old-fashioned England obsessed with the causes of unimpeded immigration and fox hunting. Hoggart is the longest serving of the “Guild of Sketch Writers” (as the group calls itself), having written sketches “on and off” for The Guardian since 1973. P.J. O’Rourke calls him the “P.G. Wodehouse of Westminster” and it’s not hard to see why.

In 2005, witnessing the triumphant return of George Galloway to the House of Commons, (days earlier Galloway had wowed Americans with his Scottish brogue-inflected ranting before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that called him to testify about his alleged taking bribes from Saddam Hussein), Hoggart wrote that the radical left-wing MP’s incredibly short visit to the parliamentary chamber “was the political equivalent of a dog announcing its presence by peeing on a fence.” Riffing on a mid-twentieth-century sketch writer’s essay collection entitled, The Glories of Parliament, Hoggart tells me that the title would be “inconceivable today, like ‘The Pleasures of Pedophilia.’”

Sketch writing demands writerly flair. “Verbal cartoonists” is how Hoggart describes himself and his colleagues (sketch writers were long the sole sources of reporting on the atmosphere of parliament; radio broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings did not begin until 1978 and television cameras were not permitted until 1989). Sketch writers must come up with “endless metaphors” to describe the political figures they cover; Treneman, reminiscing on her descriptions of beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown, remarks, “I do the bear thing. I did the bull thing for awhile.” Andrew Gimson, sketch writer for the Daily Telegraph, asks me if Mark Twain ever wrote about American politics, and when I answer that it wasn’t his specialty, he remarks that Twain would “have been a very good sketch writer.” He’s right.

Politicians’ attitude towards sketch writers varies, depending on the personality of the legislator (“Some politicians want to be liked by the sketch writers because they’re sad people” Treneman says). John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister, was an early and favorite target given his blustering speaking style and a 2001 incident in which he punched a man who threw an egg in his face. In his last Commons appearance, Prescott (who had earlier ridiculed sketch writers as “screenwriters”) complained about the “penny scribblers in the press gallery,” a reference to James Boswell’s description of parliamentary journalists as “obscure scribblers.” While some may see sketch writing as yet another example of the public’s cynical disdain for politics and public servants, a Labor MP (himself sometimes the subject of the sketch writers’ sharp pens) told me that the existence of sketch writing — the luxury of making light of politics — is a “quintessential part of a mature democracy” that doesn’t exist in countries where the foundations of liberal government are weak. Frank Field, a backbench Labor MP suggested to me that, “We should have a draconian regulatory body that has the power to take off limbs for offenses, to control the way they report our foolishness.” Clearly, the existence of humor in the relationship between British politicians and the “obscure scribblers” who cover them cuts both ways.

For all the mockery Hoggart has heaped upon him, one would understand if Michael Fabricant wanted to strangle his journalistic antagonist. Initially, Hoggart tells me, this was indeed the case. Fabricant “got very, very upset,” he says. Yet over time, Fabricant began to mellow. Hoggart likes to think this attitudinal change was owed to the popularity of his sketches amongst Fabricant’s constituents; not long after he began writing about Fabricant’s hair, Hoggart tells me, people in Lichfield began sending him photos depicting the wild variations in their MP’s locks. After Fabricant came close to losing his seat in the 1997 general election, Hoggart wrote a piece boasting that “my readers had voted for him because they didn’t want me to stop writing about him.”

In the decade since, Fabricant has been a recurring feature in Hoggart’s sketches, appearing more often than any other member of Parliament, save perhaps Brown and David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. “I feel that I invented Michael Fabricant, and it is his duty to me to be as silly as his hair-type substance still is,” Hoggart explained in a December 2007 sketch. In turn, Fabricant has given Hoggart the greatest gift a public official can bestow upon an author: he blurbed the latest collection of his columns. “Simon Hoggart has the unique gift of making me laugh out loud when I read his sketches,” declares the MP on the back cover of Hoggart’s The Hands of History. “Even when they’re about me.”

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