So farewell then, Frank Johnson, Fleet Street legend, dead of cancer at 63. Johnson’s best work was as an acerbic parliamentary sketch-writer, and a columnist, though some of the examples chosen from the archives (such as this) show how quickly newspaper satire dates.
My favourites – when they weren’t forced right-wing bray-ins – were the “shared opinion” pieces in the Spectator, in which he used perhaps the most desperate technique in the book – humorous allegory, eg turning Labour Party infighting into the Middle East, etc – to surprisingly good effect.
But things being what they are, it’s for the worst of his work that he’s going to be remembered – his disastrous editorship of the Spectator from 1995 to 1999. In the 1980s and 1990s, under Dominic Lawson and Charles Moore, the Spectator was one of the finest magazines in the world, simply because its editors knew how to judiciously mix high-seriousness and shameless baiting.
So, there was the appalling but funny Auberon Waugh, who was balanced by serious and fair-minded political analysis. Taki’s name-dropping “High Life” column worked because it was rendered absurd by Jeffrey Bernard’s Soho lament “Low Life”. And so on.
Johnson managed to wreck that within a couple of years. True, he had bad luck – Waugh and Bernard died, New Labour was on the rise – but dealing with all conditions is what an editor’s job is. Under Johnson the Speccie lapsed into the same cantankerous slough of despond that Lawson had rescued it from.
New editor Johnson (Boris) in 1999 revived it to a degree with a certain Eton-dorm-after-lights-out loucheness – hiring mad Mark Steyn as a global affairs commentator and funny but know-nothing Toby Young as theatre critic – but the shrill yahoo triumphalism and anti-intellectualism was the price of the magazine’s credibility. The incumbent Matthew D’Ancona has restored it, but only by turning it into a neocon tome of thundering tedium.
Tim Blair notes Johnson (Frank) as one of his inspirations. The latter had to be sacked in 1999, when the staff – of the Spectator! – went on a wildcat strike against him. Here’s hoping.