Obituary: Simon Hoggart, columnist and radio host

Born: 26 May, 1946, in Lancashire. Died: 5 January, 2014, in London, aged 67

Simon Hoggart, former presenter of Radio 4s The New Quiz and Guardian parliamentary sketch writer. Picture: Getty
Simon Hoggart, former presenter of Radio 4s The New Quiz and Guardian parliamentary sketch writer. Picture: Getty

Simon Hoggart was a witty and refined journalist whose articles in The Guardian and The Observer caught with unfailing accuracy the political temperature of the day. He wrote with a fine understanding of the English language. Hoggart captured the verbal battles at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) with a brilliant – but light – touch that reflected the mood in the House: writing what many thought. He was certainly delightfully irascible and cantankerous but woven into his prose was a humour that made his articles readable, enjoyable and memorable.

Typical was his review of last year which appeared last month in The Guardian: “Pope Francis may have renounced his own infallibility. Margaret Thatcher never did.”

Hoggart’s arrows always hit the political target. He never much cared for New Labour – constantly criticising John Prescott and saying of a Tony Blair speech that “it was like the monsoon in a Somerset Maugham short story”. He summed up David Cameron by writing that “he smiled like the Cheshire Cat after a large sherry”.

Hoggart’s delights were many – he loved wine (writing an admired wine column in The Spectator) and railed against sloppy English and instructions on anything mechanical. His political reporting undoubtedly helped to change the political landscape: Hoggart was always concise, pithy and irreverent.

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Simon David Hoggart was the son of a distinguished academic. From the local grammar school he read history and English at King’s College, Cambridge. He worked on the undergraduate newspaper and furthered a passion for lawn tennis.

In 1968 he joined The Guardian and after a few years covering local Manchester news Hoggart was sent to Northern Ireland. For five years he reported on the tension and social turbulence in Derry – including the horrors of Bloody Sunday. The military strongly objected to the veracity of his account of that day but the 2010 Savile Enquiry confirmed his reports.

In 1973 he joined the political desk of the paper at Westminster and wrote of the turmoil of the Heath and then the Wilson governments of the 1970s.

Hoggart appeared often on news programmes – notably Radio 4’s Today programme. To colleagues’ surprise he switched to The Observer in 1981 and spent two stimulating years as its Washington correspondent. “Living in New York,” he once wrote, “is like being at some terrible late-night party, but you can’t leave, because you’d miss the party.”

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In 1989 he returned and his career was less straightforward. His appointment as The Observer’s political editor never really worked out. Then when The Observer was taken over by The Guardian, Hoggart became the latter’s parliamentary sketch writer – a post he held for the rest of his life. Even the most tedious session in the Commons would be graced by Hoggart’s analytical prose and perceptive comments.

The former MP for Linlithgow Sir Tam Dalyell told The Scotsman yesterday: “I knew Simon very well over many years. In the flesh Simon was infinitely nicer and more agreeable than he was in print. In his early days he was unnecessarily waspish but as he grew older he avoided the clever-clever remark. I learnt from him that just because we lunched he would not necessarily be a friend when it came to print. He was a fine and insightful journalist.”

He became a regular on various radio panel games – especially Radio 4’s The News Quiz, which he chaired for ten years from 1986. He bade farewell with typical bravado: “I’m getting a bit clapped out and jaded, and I think that’s beginning to show. Better to quit while still ahead rather than be dragged out by the heels in a few years’ time.”

He also published compilations of amusing and boastful Christmas round robin letters.

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In 2004 he hit the headlines when he was named the “third man” in the affair with the publisher Kimberly Quinn which ended the career of the Labour politician David Blunkett.

But it is those stunning sentences that crystalised a personality or a moment in the Commons for which Hoggart will be fondly remembered. “Ed Balls sounded like King Lear, raging against the storm that was blowing outside.” “Listening to the bosses of the energy firms, you’d imagine they were running charities rather than businesses.” All were gems that poured forth from the Hoggart pen.

And finally, under a picture of the massed pipes and drums, Hoggart wrote of the “blessings” of Scotland’s independence: “We won’t have the BBC desperately trying to keep the Union going by pretending that anyone south of Carlisle is interested in football matches watched by fewer people than go into the average Sainsbury’s in half an hour.

“Scotland will stay in the EU, so there will be free trade and unlimited travel in that beautiful country. Scots working here will be able to stay. Except Gordon Brown, who is staying north anyway.” The Hoggart tongue was firmly in the cheek.

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Hoggart is survived by his wife Alyson and their two children.