A Whisper to a Roar – Frank Johnson
9 January 1996
Some years ago Frank Johnson was having a drink with his friend and fellow political columnist Alan Watkins. “I don't want to be like you when I'm fifty,” said Johnson, sipping at his Perrier water while Watkins drank claret. “I want to get off this treadmill ... I want to be an editor.” Watkins fell to ruminating about those columnists who had desperately wanted to be editors and for whatever reason had never quite made it, notably David Watt and Peter Jenkins, then he replied with a sigh: “My dear boy, it's a dog's life.”
Now, at 53, Johnson has started to enjoy such a life. When Conrad Black shuffled his pack of editors a couple of months ago, Johnson was initially a disappointed man. He had wanted more than anything else to edit the Sunday Telegraph, where he had been “deputy editor (comment)” under Charles Moore. Instead, he was given the editorship of the Spectator, the 167-year-old political weekly, as a consolation prize, although some believe he has won the greater prize of the two.
“One of the joys of the Spectator,” says Johnson's friend Stephen Glover, the magazine's new media commentator, “is that it doesn't have all the crap that bores Frank - stuff about fashion and soft features - which you've got to have in a newspaper.” Indeed, Johnson can now confine himself to high politics, high culture, mischief and gossip.
Johnson is committed to the notion that a political weekly should be a broad church in matters of tone and expression as well as ideas - what he has called “a friend to all extremes and all persuasions”. His new approach is not without its critics. “It lacks focus,” says one. “The features were sharper under Dominic Lawson.” One member of the Spectator team has been openly disloyal, putting it abroad that Johnson's Spectator is “no bloody good”. Another journalist who admires Johnson as a writer believes that “he has no taste as an editor”. Everyone seems to lament his appointment of Petronella Wyatt (daughter of Woodrow) to alternate as a columnist with Auberon Waugh, because she is so limply punching above her weight.
His predecessor, Dominic Lawson, may, in the estimation of one commentator, have “enveloped it in solemnity and smugness” but he had made the magazine controversial and successful, pushing its sales up to 54,458.
In his first edition, Johnson published a diary column by the rebarbative former Tory minister Alan Clark, which attacked the outgoing editor in terms of ad hominem abuse, referring to his slit-eyes and pastily-glistening features. Johnson was disinclined to censor Clark's copy, a decision that surprised Clark and apparently angered Lawson and Barbara Amiel, Conrad Black's wife. “I can't believe Frank actually put that paragraph in,” says Clark with a malefic chuckle.
The episode illustrates the central ambiguity of Johnson's character. He is irreverant and mischievous, yet also spellbound by the cobra-like gyrations and darting tongue of Clark and others like him. “He's not seduced by snobbery or love of power, so much as glamour,” says Watkins. “He regards himself as a sort of Balzacian or Stendhalian hero - the young man who conquers London by storm and is invited to all the best dinner tables. He likes what I would call High Bohemian, metropolitan society - Nicko Henderson, Sonia Melchett, Lord Weidenfeld.”
Frank Johnson is the first person of working-class origin - and the first former Sun journalist - to edit the Spectator. In his memoirs, Harold Evans describes Johnson as “a pale, handsome Cockney, who always speaks in a tense whisper”. In Johnson's Who's Who entry he includes his father's trade of pastry cook and confectioner (the usual practice being merely to give one's parents' names). This has been adduced by one writer as evidence of his preening upward mobility, though it might equally be offered as evidence of an admirable lack of coyness about his origins.
Johnson is famously sensitive about being patronised, however. He is widely read in history and literature, able to speak and read French and German and to differentiate individual recordings of operas. He was educated at a secondary modern school in Shoreditch, having failed his 11-plus, and he came away with one O-level, in commercial studies. He has been making up for it ever since, devouring books on a prodigious scale.
During his schooldays he made an important discovery - his love of opera and ballet. His school used to supply boys to play the urchins in various operas at Covent Garden, and for a memorable period in 1957, Johnson was one of two boys whom Maria Callas regularly clutched to her bosom (as her sons) in the final moments of Bellini's Norma. One friend describes this incident as “the defining moment of Frank's life” and Johnson himself has proved ecstatically lyrical on the subject. He once explained “there are few men who can truthfully say that their eye made contact with the right nipple of Maria Callas”.
“He once told me that he had been taken up as a youth by a grand lady of ballet,” Watkins recalls, “but that he had had to abandon plans to become a professional dancer, partly because he thought he'd be made fun of and partly because his shoulders became too wide.”
At 16, the wide-shouldered Johnson became a messenger boy at the Sunday Express, his first brush with the press. “The messenger boys used to sit like Dickensian clerks on a bench, nudging each other, chewing apples, looking like urchins,” recalls Watkins, then the paper's “Crossbencher” columnist.
His next stop was the Walthamstow Post, where he became a reporter. After that came spells at the North West Evening Mail in Barrow, the Nottingham Evening Post and the Liverpool Daily Post. In 1969 he joined the parliamentary staff of Rupert Murdoch's Sun, a Labour paper at that time, and he is fond of telling the story of how he would censor his parents' copy of the paper (he was still living at home), removing page three. When his mother enquired about this, Johnson would blame it on the unions.
Johnson's heyday as a writer came in 1972 when he joined the Daily Telegraph as a sketch-writer and leader-writer. Over the next eight years he set about re-inventing the parliamentary sketch as a journalistic genre, bringing to it a satirical brio, a fondness for wild conceits, a rich loam of historical knowledge and cultural allusion, and a nonchalant, gaily tripping prose style.
Soon after he reached the Telegraph, Johnson had been converted to Thatcherism. He had started off in the sixties as a CND and Labour supporter but soon developed a great hostility towards trade unions. “There is a personal element here,” Watkins says. “He believed that the Labour Party he knew and the unions were intent on holding people like him back. It's an East End attitude to life.”
Stephen Glover, his junior by about 10 years, joined the Telegraph at around the same time as Johnson, who at first regarded him as an old-fashioned Tory in the mould of the editor, Bill Deedes. “He was very suspicious of me because I wasn't a fully paid-up free-marketeer. He was quite touchy and distant, difficult to talk to, but we soon became fast friends. I was about 25. He'd already embarked on his great autodidactic journey. He's read an enormous amount of books but he was thinking about going to Oxford as a mature student.”
Indeed, Johnson had a fixation about reading Classical Greats at Oxford. “He is terribly snobbish about academic subjects,” Watkins observes. “He used to say PPE is the degree you get by reading the papers.” Aside from the blandishments of academic life, Johnson was perpetually tempted by the notion that a journalist would have a more rarefied atmosphere to savour on The Times. Watkins recalls: “I remember saying to Frank, when he was ambitious of going to The Times, that he could walk out of the Daily Telegraph office any day and wander into the King and Keys pub next door, where he would find, in varying degrees of sobriety, Colin Welch, Bill Deedes, T E Utley, Michael Wharton, John O'Sullivan, Peregrine Worsthorne ... I said: 'You won't get anything like that general level of intelligence at the Times.' Indeed, The Times, when he went there, was a great disappointment to Frank.”
After being lured by a sizeable salary increase to write a political column for Sir James Goldsmith's Now! magazine in 1979, Johnson joined the Times in 1981, shortly before Now! closed, as the paper's first fully-fledged sketch-writer. He had been recruited by the new editor, Harold Evans, who perhaps felt an affinity with Johnson because of his own humble background. Nevertheless, Johnson delighted in making fun of Evans's cultural ignorance.
Another fixation that has distracted Johnson was his ambition to become a famous foreign correspondent. While on The Times the, he served turns in Paris and Bonn but he found the experience lonely and dispiriting. “He wasn't a great foreign correspondent and he doesn't have the mind of a natural, hard reporter,” says a friend. “Though he would challenge that, of course.”
Yet all the while, that other ambition of Johnson's, to become a big-shot editor, a manager of men - a player in the Hollywood sense - was exercising its draw. “He's always had this awful urge to be serious,” a Sunday Telegraph colleague says. “He'd go off to Bonn but then he'd come back and do some more sketch-writing and then he'd be quite fun again. It's a Jekyll and Hyde story, and Hyde took over in the end.”
Earlier this year he was nursing hopes of editing the Sunday Telegraph. On a trip to Rome to attend a gala lunch for Lady Thatcher, he allowed himself to be photographed clowning around in a hotel bar by the Evening Standard journalist, Rory Knight-Bruce. The understanding was that this photograph, which gave the impression that Johnson had been tipsy, was for Knight-Bruce's private album. However, Sarah Sands, one of the Standard's senior editors, spirited it into the paper. Since Sands is married to Kim Fletcher, who was the Sunday Telegraph's deputy editor (news), Johnson saw in her action evidence of a conspiracy to discredit him with Conrad Black. He also believed that a sniggering Fletcher had been showing the picture around the Sunday Telegraph newsroom. Diplomatic relations have since been restored.
Johnson is hopelessly impractical, according to his friends. “He can't add up,” says one friend, “and I don't think he can read a map or a road sign.” There are other foibles. “For some reason – it might be his connection with the East End - he knows an awful lot about boxing,” says Watkins. He is also a great one for breakfasting out. At one time he frequented hotels such as the Connaught or Claridges, and now he can be seen on most mornings in the Dome in Islington, surrounded by newspapers.
He has occasionally expressed indignation about gossip-mongers, and once successfully sued Private Eye for erroneously suggesting that he had evinced a salacious interest in speculating about whether John Major had a mistress. Yet despite this high-minded disapproval, he is as avid in his pursuit of gossip as the worst of Fleet Street's scavengers. “Frank is just the most ferocious gossip,” says the Evening Standard's Peter Mckay. “The phone will ring and I'll hear Frank's whispering voice asking 'What's up, cock?' We have no conversation that's in the least philosophical or intellectual, but we enjoy hard gossip – an exchange of prisoners, if you like.”
Johnson's own private life has been the subject of much gossip among fellow journalists. He has always been a bachelor and has enjoyed a penchant for dark women, starting back in the early seventies when he assisted the young Arianna Stassinopoulos, who had recently graduated from Cambridge, in writing her anti-feminist tract, The Female Woman.
What sort of magazine will the Spectator become under a Johnson editorship? Stephen Glover thinks that his old colleague will bring a lightness of touch to the front of the magazine, where all the longer, more political articles appear. “Frank's more in the entertainment business than Charles Moore or Dominic Lawson,” says Glover. Another is more gloomy about the succession: “Frank's got a very limited range of interests. He's so out of touch. I mean, who can take Petronella Wyatt seriously as a columnist?”
While it is true that Johnson has been an ardent admirer of Lady Thatcher, he has never quite been a worshipper at the handbag. During the 1979 election campaign one of his funniest sketches was an account of a visit to a Cadbury's chocolate factory by Margaret and Denis. He may have idolised Lady Thatcher, but he was not afraid to highlight her more ridiculous aspects. “Although he likes to think of himself as an ideological figure, he really isn't,” says Watkins, “and he will sacrifice anything for the sake of a good joke.” Others are less charitable. “He's become terrifically dark and self-important,” says a former colleague at the Sunday Telegraph. “I used to find him a cheery soul to have around, but he doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humour any more.”
Still, it is also true that Johnson's gifts for satire were at their highest when mocking the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan, and later the antics of their dissident splinter-group, the Social Democrats. As the prospect of a new Labour government looms ever larger, Johnson may be the ideal editor to see the magazines of the intellectual Right into the brackish water of opposition.