This is the full length version of my interview with Simon Heffer, which appears in the December 2010 edition of Total Politics.
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So how have you found the change from working in a newspaper office to coming back to your old college?
I’ve still been writing three columns a week for the Telegraph. I think that was really important because I think if I had entirely come away, as some people do on sabbaticals, and had nothing to do, first of all, I wouldn’t have been paid, which would have made it very difficult for Mrs Heffer and the small Heffers, and second, I think I would have got out of touch and because there’s a part of almost every day when I’m doing some journalism, either writing a column or being in the office, or talking to colleagues by email or by telephone about things that I’m doing, I haven’t felt cut off. But what’s been nice about coming here is two things. I’ve had a lot of time to do what one might very pompously call ‘intellectual work’. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to people here about things I’m interested in, people who know much more about it than I do, or who have a different take on things to the take that I have, and that’s caused me to think slightly differently.
Has your sabbatical made you re-evaluate what working in the British media really entails?
No, because I think I’ve always had a pretty wide-eyed view of that anyway. I’ve been in Fleet Street for 25 years, I first wrote for the Telegraph in 1985, and the great romance of our trade wore off quite early on. Not because it was dreadful, I love being a journalist and I love my newspaper, I really do, and I’m very proud to work for it, but I realised that it’s actually not that glamorous. It’s bloody hard work. You never switch off, and I don’t think I have days off. You know I spend my Saturdays and Sundays reading piles of newspapers, listening to things, reading books. I think there are people that come to university and think that when they leave university they finish learning. I have now realised, and I have I think for a long time realised, I only started learning when I left university. What university did for me was it equipped me with the means to absorb information, to think about things when I absorbed it. So to come back here at the age of 50 and to share an intellectual life with people for a year has been incredible. And yes, it does make me look slightly differently at newspapers, but not in a despairing way by any stretch of the imagination, but to think that there may be ways that we can use the quality and the talent that we’ve got even better and develop it better.
You’ve written several books over the years. What do you get out of writing books that you don’t get out of writing columns?
Columns are about current affairs, and I’ve only really written one book about current affairs called ‘Nor shall my Sword’, which was about why I felt we should become independent from Scotland. Everybody had asked the Scots whether they’d like independence, nobody asked us. I believe in democracy and I thought it was rather a good thing to give everybody a say. But all the other books I’ve written have been on other, deeper subjects that aren’t current affairs and I suppose what I get out of it is that I’ve got a hinterland. I am deeply, deeply interested in the Victorians. I’m about to write, or start researching another book on the Victorians. I think that they were the most exciting era of people. The first book I wrote was about Thomas Carlyle. It was like a hobby and it allowed me to go on an intellectual adventure. The same is true to an extent of my book on Enoch Powell, which allowed me to go through that whole post-war history really of British politics and in which I’d always read widely because I thought as a political journalist I’d ought to know about it. But doing a book on Powell meant that I could really get under the surface of it and see it through the medium of an immensely influential and important figure in that period. So I think with all the books I’ve written, they give me a chance to write about things that I wouldn’t normally do in my newspaper columns and in a depth that obviously you can’t do in a newspaper column. I’ve always liked the idea of permanent sort of writing books. I am a great book collector. I’ve got a library of 7,000 books at home and I read ferociously. Even when I’m at work full-time I read ferociously. I try, every night when I come home, unless I’ve been out to dinner and I get home very late, to do about an hour’s reading.
Do you? Because I find it sometimes takes me three months to read a book now because I read three pages in bed and then I go to sleep, and I’ll wake up holding the book at five o’clock.
We’ve all done that. I have to discipline myself. I do have a lot of intellectual interests and most weeks I either see a book that I buy or I’m sent a book that I really want to read. I review a lot of books. I probably review 20 or 30 books a year. And I read every word of them. I think it’s despicable people who review books and read about three chapters and then think they know it all.
Do you read one book at a time or have several on the go?
I read one book at a time. And if that means I have to sit up until 2 o’clock in the morning finishing one to start another then I will. But it’s been obviously easier this year because I’ve had more time to read and I haven’t been getting home so late in the evenings. I’ve read a lot of books this year. Not just books that have come out this year but books that came out years ago that I bought and never got round to reading. So that’s been very useful.
Have you read any of the New Labour ones? Blair, Mandelson, Campbell?
I haven’t read Campbell. I’ve read Mandelson and I’ve read Blair. I read Blair the day it came out and then wrote about it for us. I like Tony Blair. It’s an old-fashionable thing to say. I’ve known Tony Blair 25 years. I’ve always had good relations with him. He’s always been honest with me which I know many people find that unusual as well. I don’t agree with Tony Blair’s politics, let me say, although I see that like me he’s very much against the 50p tax rate, so we agree on some things. But I thought his book was bizarre. It had almost Joycean aspects to it in extremes of consciousness.
I haven’t read it yet. I’ve read Mandelson’s.
Mandelson’s book I don’t know whether that should have been filed under fiction or fact. I couldn’t work that one out. If I were his publishers I’d enter it for the Booker prize.
Do you think that Powell is slowly being re-evaluated? I just wonder as time goes on whether people will actually start to understand the brilliance of the man.
Powell was in my view the greatest politician to think of our politics in the 20th century. I can’t think of anybody really since Gladstone who had the same command of ideas as Powell had. I knew Powell really well. Obviously I did, as I was his biographer. He is the only person who in my adult life has ever intellectually intimidated me.
I could reel off a whole list.
Well I’m an arrogant bastard I suppose. Let me define that. I was always incredibly careful what I said in front of Enoch because if one said anything even a quarter stupid, “I don’t think you mean anything,” he would say. “Have you thought about what you’re saying?” he would go on. And it was terrifying. The other thing about Enoch was he was such a brilliant writer. He wrote and spoke perfect English. He is a stunningly good writer.
Did he speak as he wrote?
Very few people do that.
Yes. I never heard Enoch utter a sentence that didn’t have a subject, object and a verb in it. And he weighed his words very carefully. He was very, very clever. He was spectacularly brilliant.
Whereas Tony Blair writes as he speaks.
Yes exactly. Enoch was also a textual critic which he learned really from A E Housman up here. If you are a textual critic or a professional writer you get used to understanding the meaning of words and you get used to evaluating words. But to go back to your question about Powell’s rehabilitation, I am absolutely sure that in 15 or 20 years time, quite a lot of the Powellite agenda will be accepted by almost everybody. Enoch said nearly 40 years ago, you can’t have a single currency without having a single economic policy and a single chancellor of the exchequer. Enoch was right about that. Enoch was right about monetarism in my view. He said that you only get period of mass inflation when you have a government that prints money. Enoch was the trade unionist friend in the 1960s and 70s. He said there’s no point in blaming the trade unions for inflation because they ask for high pay rises. Those rises can only be funded if there is money in the economy to fund them, and that was down to the government. He was right about that. But of course the really contentious issue with Enoch was all the immigration, or what his detractors call race. Enoch never made a speech about race. All Enoch speeches that people think are about race, like the so called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, are about immigration. I know very well that he wasn’t a racist, and so did people like Michael Foot, and so does Tony Benn, both great friends of his. He wasn’t a racist. He wanted to spend the rest of his life in India, and probably would have done so, had it not become independent. And he had a love of Indian people, of Indian culture. He didn’t make judgements about people, he was too intelligent. He didn’t make judgements about people because of their race. And what those speeches said was we are a small island, we have a largely indigenous population, and if we start piling in people from a very different culture in small parts of that small island then there are going to be problems. And we have them. We have them now. And Enoch argued very strongly against what is now called a multicultural society. He wanted people who came here to integrate. And he argued that if you bring in such large numbers of people that integration is impossible, there is going to be a problem. I am very depressed that every time a Conservative mentions the two words, Enoch Powell, he or she is either removed from any job that he or she might have, sacked as a candidate as that poor man in the midlands was before the election - Nigel Hastilow - or forced to issue a grovelling apology, or perhaps even all three. You can’t mention the words Enoch Powell without everyone thinking that you are about to open a new version of Auschwitz somewhere.
Or indeed Harold Macmillan nowadays.
Can’t you mention Harold Macmillan?
Remember what happened to Lord Young...
Indeed. Powell, has been deemed by Dave to be toxic. When you take the level of intellectual debate down to that sort of playground level, not even playground level, just ignorance, just pig ignorance, then you can’t have a proper political discourse in this country. If I thought Dave would read it, I would send him a copy of my book on Powell for Christmas...
…he’s a voracious reader, something you have in common!
Maybe I should send him a copy then, but I suspect he wouldn’t read it. I think all he knows about Enoch is what Harriet Harman’s told him. He doesn’t seem to know anything about Enoch that’s actually true or realistic or accurate and so, before he goes around pushing brown paper or sticky stuff over the mouths of anyone who utters the P word, he might want to see what Enoch actually said and what he actually stood for.
Why do you always call him Dave? It’s rather condescending isn’t it?
If you asked me to call you Reg, because I like you and you’re my friend, and I don’t wish to spite you, I would call you Reg.
But he’s never said to anyone ‘call me Dave’.
I beg to differ. I seem to remember at the very start of his premiership he was going around saying ‘call me Dave’. And I thought well if that’s what he wants to be known as, I’ll oblige. I don’t call him Dave in my Wednesday column in the Telegraph, which is meant to be a bit high-table, I only call him Dave in my jolly-genial, let’s-try-and-have-a-bit-of-laugh Saturday morning column.
Is that really what you think of your Saturday column, as a sort of a bit of a laugh, because it doesn’t often read like that Simon!
I attempt to have a laugh in it. It’s a different tone. I like to be a bit popular I suppose on Saturday. I try to be a bit popular.
No. I’m not populist. Populism suggests that I’m doing things because I think people will like them. I’ve never written anything because I thought anybody would like it.
I’ll give you that one.
I may write things that people agree with. In that case they’re popular rather than populist.
Has Cameron surprised you at all in his first six months? Has he done anything that you thought actually that’s quite good, I wouldn’t have expected him to do that?
No. I think he’s a social democrat, who has always wanted to lead a social democratic government, and he’s done it, so I’m not remotely surprised. I think he’s obsessed with power, and the way he’s trying to destroy the British constitution by allowing a referendum on AV, redrawing constituency boundaries, threatening to sort out the House of Lords, fixed term parliaments, no Queen’s speech next year... this is all about trying to protect his power. It’s dangerous, because if a Conservative prime minister or whatever he wants to call himself, a coalition prime minister, a Lib Dem prime minster, I don’t know what he is, if he behaves in this awful way then it’s going to be an invitation to the Labour Party, when – it’s when rather than if they come back into power – to be just as brutal and to start rigging the constitution their way. And this is very dangerous.
Well I suppose he’d say they did it in their last period in office.
You and I were both told by our mothers when we were very small that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I think it would be quite in order for him to recalibrate the British constitution to where it was before the Brown terror got its hands on it, but I don’t know that it’s a good idea to do it now.
So for want of the better phrase, who are the ‘proper conservatives’ in the Cabinet?
I’ve got huge admiration for Iain Duncan Smith and I admired Iain long before he became a born-again welfarist. I think Iain is a really serious, sincere, hardworking public servant. I thought he was despicably treated by the Conservative Party. I admire Owen Paterson. I think Owen again is a very serious, dedicated politician. I’ve always wanted to admire William Hague.I didn’t admire him when he was leader of the party. I thought he was a very, very bad leader of the party and made some mistakes. But I thought when he ceased to be leader he grew enormously in stature. I think that William is a man of enormous political talent and I’m just sorry that he appears to have got off to a rather false start as foreign secretary. I feel he has preoccupations but what do I know? I don’t feel that, for whatever reason, he’s articulating our place in the world very well. I don’t give a stuff about William’s private life. I don’t know what it is but I don’t think he should talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it. I just hope that if he’s got issues that they can be resolved because he’s an enormously intelligent man, he’s a brilliant debator and he should use the job of foreign secretary to do something very profound for our country abroad – not least in redefining our relationship with the Americans and in starting to be a bit more realistic about Europe.
People of a certain age, towards which you and I are rapidly approaching, often say “well of course, there were more characters in politics in my day” and when you actually look ‘round current day politics, there’s no one that you would want to write a Powell-like biography of, is there?
I think I’m ahead of you old boy... Well, there are one or two, but Enoch was unusual, even in his time. It wasn’t unusual to have politicians who had a very distinguished war, but it was unusual to have them who’d been a professor of Greek before having a distinguished war. And then having that record of independence, of being determined to enunciate ideas... who comes close? Frank Field is probably the only person who comes close. But Frank hadn’t had that very interesting life before politics. I have unlimited admiration for Frank. He is an incredibly serious thinker and a man who, like Enoch, has avoided being tribal.
But what has he achieved?
I think Frank’s achievements have yet to be finalised. I think that also history will come to see that Frank was an enormous civilizing force in the Labour movement. The very fact that Frank survived when militant were trying to get him out of Birkenhead 20 years ago and came through that, I think that was an inspiration to a lot of people. I think Tony Blair understood the contribution that Frank had played. I think Frank’s an enormously important figure. If someone held a gun to my head and somebody said to me “you’ve got to write a biography of the present member of the House of Commons, it would be Frank.” On the Tory side... probably only Ken Clarke. I don’t think Ken has actually achieved anything notable other than surviving, but it would be an interesting story because he came from a very humble background in Nottingham, came to Cambridge, went to the bar, got into politics quite early. He’s had a tremendous political career. He’s a man of weight and Ken has never allowed himself to be ridden roughshod over in the way that so many politicians are. One reason I never went into politics - and I thought about it very seriously in my 20s when Thatcher was Prime Minister - was because I realised that it would be a life frustration in that I would see people who I regarded as my intellectual inferiors – that’s an awful thing to say, forgive me for saying it, but people who I didn’t think that I had my grasp of policy, my grasp of talent, my grasp of the issues - I would see those people getting preferment over me because I would not have been capable of keeping my criticism to myself. I would always have said, you know “we’re making a mistake here, we can’t go down this road.” To an extent Ken Clarke has done that, or did that between 1997 and getting into government now, and I admire that in him. There are so many people politics now who are just afraid to say what they believe.
But there must be some part of you still that thinks “well, actually the only way to change things is to be in there and try and do it from the inside.” You can influence things on the outside, you can’t actually effect change.
I think that I’ve got more influence as a newspaper columnist than I would have as a backbencher. And I think that if other things had happened and if I had gone into politics and I’d been offered a ministerial post, I think I would have been deemed to have been so bloody difficult that I wouldn’t have got any further. I think it is a great disincentive for people who are 20 years younger than me who might now be considering a career in politics to go into it. Because you think to yourself well when so much of politics today is about artifice and about superficiality and about appearance and about not being able to speak your mind. About not being able to do what you want... I don’t know where the opportunities come now for anybody who has got genuine political convictions to act upon them in public life. You can’t do it as a backbencher, you certainly can’t do it as a minister. And if you do it as an ex-minister like poor old David Young you get a bucket of shit thrown at you.
But isn’t that all down to the media age that we live in rather than the political system?
Yes but the politicans condone it as well. Don’t you think that if David Cameron had just turned around to the media the Friday before last and said “I don’t agree with David Young but he’s not in the government he can say what he likes” that would be the end of it? Because what would the BBC have done? It would have said “ohh!” And then what? Cameron could have just shut it down and said “he’s entitled to his own opinion, he’s not a member of the government. He’s actually doing a public service, I don’t agree with him, if you want to know my view ask me, I’ll tell you. That’s the end of it.
The Daily Express has nailed its colours to the mast on pulling out of the EU. Are you going to persuade the Daily Telegraph to do the same?
I’m not editor of the Daily Telegraph. I can’t see us doing this now because if we took that view we would be jumping on the bandwagon of another newspaper. My own private view of this which I have never made a secret of is that we should be out of Europe. And I’ve written that again and again over the last 25 years and nothing will change me from that. This is not because I’m a Little Englander or a bigot, I’m actually much happier in France than this country, I go to France a lot, I speak French, I absorb French and German culture and Italian culture very deeply.
The British people don’t seem to be getting very worked up about the subject at the moment. We don’t get worked up about anything. We don’t get worked up by the fact that all over Britain we’re told by very senior policemen and politicians there are cells of Islamist extremists who are plotting to blow up our women and children in shopping centres. I don’t know what it takes to get us worked up about something.
But Europe doesn’t figure in the top 10 policies people are concerned about. That’s because there’s no immediate threat of us having to sign up for a single currency of fiscal unity or have some common international immigration policy. You know what we’re like as a nation Iain, until something really nasty happens we don’t actually get on our high horse about it. Remember 1939? If we had any sense we’d have had sat on Hitler when he occupied in the Rhineland in 1936. We instead waited until he’s started murdering Jews, had annexed Austria and was sending his tanks into Poland. So things really grave have to happen that make it seem that we are under direct threat before we do anything. And I suspect a federalist move might do that. I still think that Cameron would be very sensible to have a non-binding referendum on whether we want to remain in the EU, because I think there would be a very resounding ‘we want to get out’. He could then turn round to his European partners and say “it was a nonbinding referendum, I don’t intend to leave the EU but you now have absolute proof of the British people’s opinions and be in no doubt – you can push us no further.”
But if that happened I can quite see you writing a column saying “well the British people have spoken.”
Well, no, I wouldn’t leave it that late, but I think if he called a non-binding referendum, that’s the only way he could do it. But I’d still lambast him for not doing a binding referendum.
Hah! So he can’t win on this issue can he?
No he can’t win on this issue because I know he secretly likes being a committed European.
Do you think that? Because I think that he’s far more Eurosceptic than people think.
Really? What’s your evidence for that?
I have no evidence for that beyond instinct.
Well, if he was a committed anti-European he wouldn’t have called a referendum on…
You’ve just fallen into the trap of using the phrase anti-European…
Because that’s what all the Europhiles accuse of us, being anti-Europe. Which you’ve just said before that we’re not.
I’m not talking about me being anti-European, I’m Eurosceptic, but I’m saying that if he were an anti-European, or Europsceptic or whatever, if he had serious doubts he wouldn’t have called a post-facto referendum on Lisbon because it wouldn’t change anything. He wants a quiet life, they all do. The minute they get in, they’re taken aside by the Foreign Office and told “you just have to go along with it or it turns ugly” as of course happened to John Major. Whenever Europe gets a decision it doesn’t like it gets another referendum. When it gets a decision it does like there isn’t another referendum. I wouldn’t mind a referendum on a few things. Lets have a referendum on Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon…
But that’s what Cameron has said, that there will be a referendum in future on any further transfer of power
The trouble is that you and I both know that lots of power can be transferred under Lisbon anyway. There’s the scope for more qualified majority voting. So it’s a bit late. It’s stable doors, horse bolted.
What advice would you give to Nigel Farage now, he’s just become leader of UKIP again. What does he need to do to make progess?
I think that all Nigel has to do is wait, actually. I think that he’s got to play a waiting game and let the Conservative Party get into such a mess about Europe that he becomes the natural alternative. I think he’s also got to broaden what UKIP does. To be fair at the last election he was talking about Grammar Schools, talking about tax cuts… there was also a lot of people in the press who are determined to make no distinction between the BNP and UKIP, which is insane. UKIP is not a racist party like the BNP. It doesn’t have any views on that at all, other than being very firm on immigration.
If I were Farage, I would be talking to people on the right of the Conservative Party, both at MEP and MP level and in the House of Lords, about whether they can find common purpose in some way. This Coalition may be the beginning rather than the end of a realignment in British politics. I know Cameron seems to feel incredibly in bed with Nick Clegg, much happier than he is with some of his own party, and the logic of that is that the Conservative Party, which is of course a coalition anyway, can’t last in its present form. It may take twenty or thirty years, it may not be Nigel Farage that does that, it may be Nigel Farage’s successor. I admire Farage. I know he has a lot of detractors, I admire him. I think he’s incredibly committed, I think he’s incredibly articulate, I think he’s got great convictions. I think he’s right about a lot of things. To make UKIP a more serious party he needs to, I’m not going to say ‘take it more mainstream’ because actually I think it is quite mainstream, he needs to start convincing Conservative voters that they will never get what they want from Dave Cameron, but they’ll get it from him.
Did you vote for Alan Haselhurst in Saffron Walden at the last election?
No. I voted UKIP.
What would induce you into voting Conservative again?
Well I had a boundary change. That’s why Haselhurst was my Member of Parliament. I had always voted for Simon Burns because he’s a friend of very long standing. I voted for him when the Conservative Party was in an even worse state than this. He’s a brilliant constituency MP. I’m delighted he’s become minister of health. He’s a deeply committed public servant and I do admire him enormously. I wish he was in the cabinet. I think he’s got all the makings of a very responsible and good cabinet minister. I think he’s much more talented than a lot of people who are in the cabinet; I’ve probably destroyed his life chances by saying that. But I voted for Simon. If I’m faced with an MP who I don’t like and respect, how could I vote Conservative? The Conservative Party would have to become a lot more of a Thatcherite party. To use a vulgarism, it would have to stop being a social democrat party.
Do you think that in future there might be an opportunity for a brand new party on the right? Say Cameron decided he did want to continue the coalition even if he won an outright majority at the next election, and UKIP wasn’t making much headway, at some point there could be a Thatcherite breakaway party?
It’s so hard under our electoral system. UKIP is a Thatcherite party. I don’t know anything UKIP stands for that Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t support. We probably need to have electoral reform in order to get that, but I don’t really think I’m in favour of electoral reform. I think the first past the post system usually works quite well, in that it does usually reflect what people want. I can see people on the right getting to the stage, whether or not the AV referendum is successful, where if they feel increasingly disfranchised by the main political parties, looking for something else. There are real dangers here. We’ve seen this with the BNP. I don’t know why politicians are so reluctant to pursue lines of policy that will keep the lid on potentially dangerous situations. The way that Labour treated the white working class was despicable, and most white working class people are not racist. Most white working class people are quite happy to live next to a black man or to a Pakistani or to an Indian. However if they are marginalised and neglected by the party that should be the natural party of the white working class then that allows extremists to whip up feelings against them, and that’s exactly what Griffin did. Today all they can do is win two MEPs and they win the odd council seat, but I wouldn’t like to say that that’s the end of it. Obviously if you have PR, then anything can happen.
What’s the truth of this story that Cameron bashed on your door once?
I believe it’s completely fictional. Almost every summer go to a town in Brittany called Dinard for our holidays. Jonathan Marland has an apartment there and we often see les Marlands when we are there, and apparently Dave, I think it was in 2007, which was the only year we had not been there, Dave turned up and Marland apparently said to him: “This is ridiculous, I want to take you out for a drink with Heffer.” I would’ve been very happy to have a drink with Cameron, I would’ve got a bottle of something out of the fridge and we would have sat in my rather nice back garden there and we’d have talked about anything other than politics actually. Can I just say for the record I do admire Cameron on a personal level in many respects. I really admire the way he dealt with the illness and death of his child, which must be the most horrific thing. I’ve got two children. I can’t think of anything I want to happen less to me than a child dying. I think he showed real character and I would not seek to detract from him personally, it’s just his politics I find repellent. So I would have enjoyed sitting down for a drink with him, had he turned up, because I think that he has very admirable qualities that I would enjoy talking to him about.
When was the last time you spoke to him?
About a year ago at party conference we had a chat at the bar. We talked about the security services from memory. Anyway, apparently Marland had Dave staying with him and said let’s go and knock on Heffer’s door. And we were in Bavaria that year. So at the very time when Dave was knocking on my door in Dinard I was half-way up an alp in Bavaria.
Things could have been very different had you been in France...
I know, I’d be in the House of Lords now. That’s what seems to happen to most people who become friends of Dave, they get in the House of Lords. I’m surprised you’re not there actually, but you’re probably considered to be a little bit controversial.
I think that’s about as likely to happen as you going. Do you think you ought to consider, before you depart this world, writing a history of the county of Essex and what it’s brought to the country.
So many people have done good books on Essex. My bookshelves at home are full of books about Essex. I think it would be a book of local interest, and I don’t think I could do any better at writing a history of Essex than any of the very fine history books that already exist on that subject, so I shall content myself with reading those.
It was you that coined the phrase ‘Essex man’ wasn’t it? How did that come about?
I’m afraid it was yes. I can tell you exactly how it came about. I was with my wife on a train sitting outside Liverpool Street station, it would have been late September 1990. We were going to a very sad event, we were going to the funeral of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne’s first wife, of whom we were enormously fond. Liverpool Street was just being rebuilt in those days and there were always huge delays going in there, and as we sat patiently in our funeral garb waiting to get into the station, there was an ‘Essex man’, a ‘geezer’, sitting opposite me. He was late for work. He was on a mobile telephone, which in those days were huge, and he was conducting a very animated conversation. The entire carriage could hear, with someone in his office saying: “Yeah I can’t get in, I’m stuck, but you’ve got to do this deal and that deal, get on a phone, do this, do that, do this’, and I said to my dear wife when we got off the train, although I didn’t really want to be part of his business conversation, it was really symbolic of how things had changed. Because when I was a boy living in a little village in Essex most of the people who lived in our village were either farm labourers or they worked in industrial nurseries. Hardly anybody went to London to work. The great transformation had happened in the previous ten years to this conversation happening. People who had left school no longer had to go and work as farm labourers or in industrial nurseries, or even as office boys; they could get jobs on trading floors and could use their great natural intelligence and enterprise to make money. I said to my wife: “You know that is what’s happened. That bloke is absolutely synonymous with this change...” Anyway, we get to the funeral we’re talking to Frank Johnson about this . He said: “You’ve spotted a social phenomenon here!” I said: “What, you mean Essex man?” He said: “Write it, do it!” So I went away and wrote it, and I was astonished by the reaction to it.
It was massive wasn’t it?
It was, and you see the weekend after it appeared I had left the country; I went to Australia for a couple of months. My wife would ring me up from home saying: “Oh there’s endless stuff about ‘Essex man’ in the papers and people want to talk to you and they’re saying you’ve fled the country”, and I had fled the country but not quite in that way. You know it’s like the ‘rivers of blood’ speech, I wish people would go back and read it because it’s actually very complimentary, I mean I had huge admiration for this. I am a Thatcherite. I was delighted with what had happened to Essex. I don’t want people to be kept in servitude for the rest of their lives. I’m delighted that people could get good jobs, buy their own homes, buy shares, provide for their wives and children and what it was celebrating was that ethos that we don’t want the state to look after us, we are capable of doing it ourselves. And they were. I still live in Essex now and I love it. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
And of course it then went on to ‘Essex woman’
That was nothing to do with me.
Well, had ‘Essex man’ not happened ‘Essex woman’ wouldn’t have happened.
Well that’s probably right.
My sister, who is called Tracey, from Essex, says that she comes from Cambridge now because she can’t bear the jokes.
Well I hope I would never have been so lacking in gallantry to invent Essex girl. And I think it was Nick Farrell who did that.
At what point did the English language reach perfection beyond which further evolution is unacceptable?
When all ambiguities, in grammatical terms, were eliminated. Which I think, really, by the early nineteenth century, they were. It was when we invented the passive voice, when we stopped saying ‘a house is building’, you would say: “well building what?” We now say the house is being built. In Jane Austen, it’s always ‘the house is building’, or ‘was building’. I think that grammatically we had got it pretty well sorted out by the middle of the nineteenth century. Note I said ‘sorted out’, not ‘sorted’. We don’t want to go into this... ‘innit’. The meaning of words always evolves, and I don’t object to that. It’s one thing for words to evolve where something needs a new meaning, where you have something that there’s no word to describe it so you borrow a word to do it. What I don’t accept is that for reasons of ignorance we should use a word that we shouldn’t use. I heard a man on the BBC when I was writing the book about seven or eight months ago, say: “Yet again they are flaunting the rules”. And I thought: “You don’t mean that. You mean flouting the rules”. I remember looking it up in the Oxford English dictionary, which I invite any of you to do, and it does say that in recent years flaunt has often been used for flout. Well why? Flout’s a perfectly good word. If you can’t be bothered to use flout or can’t be bothered just to sharpen your brain to the extent that you can pick the word flout out of a box and use it instead of the word flaunt.
Are there more of those examples nowadays? People say: “I don’t want to be pacific about this but...”, and there are lots of other examples, but I don’t remember that happening... Or is this an example of old git-ism?
I think it’s old git-ism, and we shouldn’t forget about Mrs Malaprop, two hundred years ago was doing all these things. People have always got it wrong if they have the opportunity. I suppose the ubiquity of the broadcast media now means that you’ve got people, particularly on local radio stations, who maybe don’t have the level of articulacy that you and I grew up with on the home service.
Isn’t it articularity?
I think it’s articulacy. The reason I wrote that book, other than the offer of a large amount of money from the publishers, which is always nice, was that I was suddenly a bit cross with trendy academic linguists who say English is an organic language and you can basically speak it as you like. Well, really? That’s terrific until you go to apply for a job and you write a letter of application that’s illiterate or you fill in an application form that’s full of spelling mistakes, because then you say to yourself, well, this is not on really.
There was a very interesting example last week, Tom Harris, the Labour MP, got into great trouble by tweeting about how he had just thrown out a lot of job applications because people couldn’t spell.
Good for him. I think most businesses understand that if they’ve got a public interface, people who are communicating with the public need to be able to do so in a very literate manner, and I don’t blame them for not hiring people who can’t spell. And if this MP you’re mentioning was going to get this person to write letters for him, or communicate to his constituents, then I don’t blame him for not hiring people who can’t spell, because it reflects on him. It’s totally humiliating for him.
What book are you reading at the moment?
The Victorians by A. N. Wilson
Your favourite view?
The view of Dinard seen from the cliffs on the bay that is at the edge of it. There are cliffs in Dinard. If I stand on the top cliff I can look back at the view of the town and I love that view because I can only see that view when I’m on holiday, and therefore I’m happy.
Your favourite food
Anything you can’t stand
I don’t like spicy food; I don’t eat anything that comes from east of Brindisi.
Favourite rubbish television programme
The news. I don’t watch rubbish telly. I hardly watch telly. I watch Mad Men, but that’s not rubbish, that’s brilliant. It is my favourite. My favourite rubbish telly would be most news programmes because they just seem to be rubbish.
Your favourite interviewer
John Freeman on Face to Face.
Favourite composer is Vaughn Williams. My favourite music is classical. My favourite genre within classical is British classical music.
Political Hero, apart from Enoch Powell
There are four people I can’t differentiate because I admire them all probably for different reasons. In chronological order: Cromwell, Gladstone, Powell and Mrs Thatcher. I can’t differentiate.