When The Knife was about 14, I was introduced to Mary Kenny, now a senior grande dame of Fleet St, back then a rehabilitating enfant terrible. My daily reading included The Times, having just discovered ‘proper’ newspapers, and the best part of the paper was Frank Johnson’s parliamentary sketch.
Given the chance to quiz someone who might actually know the great man, I asked her did she know him, she did. What was he like? “Frank? He’s the wittiest man in London”
Pretty much all the current and recent sketch writers, including class acts like Simon Carr, are in a direct line of descent from the great man. He invented that style of wit, allusion and paradox which is now routinely attempted, but rarely achieves the panache and laugh-out-loud humour of prime Johnson. His ability to reduce pompous politicians such as Roy Jenkins and his ilk to satisfyingly absurd caricatures predates the iconoclasm of the present day blogmasters like Guido Fawkes.
He died in 2006, having been perhaps for a few years less high-profile than in his Times heyday, although he had a natural second home for a while editing The Spectator. It was almost impossible for a long time to sample vintage Johnson, unless you were lucky enough to find a second copy of his sketches such as Out of Order. That has changed with the publication of a superb compilation The Best Seat in the House.
This covers not only his masterly political pieces but also his autodidact traits that lead to a lifelong, and infectiously conveyed, love of opera and ballet. He was the opposite of the Oxbridge-educated leader writer in his background, although one of the very finest practitioners of that role.
To quote one memorable autobiographical detail: “….there are few men who can truthfully say that their eye made contact with the right nipple of Maria Callas.” Few indeed.