Friday, July 16, 2010

House Points: Frank Johnson's Best Seat in the House

This week's acting editor of Liberal Democrat News was Adrian Slade - the man who auditioned Peter Cook for the Cambridge Footlights.

Whenever he Adrian takes charge I feel under great pressure to be funny. As I couldn't think of any witty lines of my own, I decided to review Best Seat in the House so that I could steal someone else's.

In praise of Johnson

Frank Johnson, who edited the Spectator and wrote the Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch for many years, died in 2006. A collection of his journalism – Best Seat in the House – edited by his widow Virginia Fraser was published by JR Books last year. It is still available and certainly worthy of review.

Johnson, as everyone agreed when paying tribute to him after his early death, was witty but never vicious or nasty. His victims did not take offence.

Which is just as well when you read some of what he wrote. He summed up Enoch Powell nicely in 1982: “It was the full Enochian carry-on. The gaunt features. The death-mask face. The black suit. The creepy Black Country vowels. Mr Powell is essentially the man who opens the door of the Gothic mansion to the travellers seeking refuge from the storm at the start of one of the many tales in the genre inspired by Edgar Allen Poe.”

Then there was his fantasy of the young Michael Martin as a Billy Elliot figure, caught wearing black tights by his father. “The little boy would have been brutally informed: ‘We’re no havin’ a lad of oors end up as Speaker of the House of Commons. That's for gurrrls.’”

And older readers will recall the train that once carried the SDP’s rolling conference across the English countryside. It broke down in East Anglia: “Another railwayman appeared: ‘We’ll have a new engine put on in March,’ he announced. Despair! Those throughout the country ‘distressed at Britain’s continued decline and fearful of our future’ could not be expected to wait until March. Happily, he turned out to be referring to March in Cambridgeshire, rather than March 1983.”

Best Seat in the House also reflects Johnson’s love of opera, and this enthusiasm provides the best story in the book. It happened that his Shoreditch school traditionally provided the urchins for performances at Covent Garden, and at the age of 14 he played one of Maria Callas’s children in Norma.

He retained a clear and painful memory of the experience of being clasped to her breast at a particularly dramatic moment: “there penetrated, into my left eye, the top of the diva’s right breast, which partnership remained throughout the subsequent duet with Stignani.”

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