The Times’ political sketchwriter and column editor talks about how he began his journey as a ‘diary-fodder gopher’
The historian Andrew Roberts told one of my junior reporters on the Times Diary recently that if, as a journalist in your early twenties, you’re not out at parties most nights of the week, scrabbling around for stories by charming your way into conversations between the rich and famous, there is something wrong with you.
He added that if you were still doing it in your late thirties, there was something equally wrong.
I started out fifteen years ago as one of those diary-fodder gophers, sent to book launches and first-night after-parties to neck champagne, swallow canape?s and scribble down overheard anecdotes on a napkin before I could forget them.
Horrid it was too. Most of the guests didn’t want to speak to diarists and the team kept a chart on the wall of the office of those who were particularly rude.
I recall John Prescott, Michael Portillo and, for some now forgotten reason, the Belgian ambassador featured highly. It made the friendly all the more loved. Michael Palin was one who would actively think up a story for you, if only, perhaps, to make you leave him alone.
Meanwhile the Times Diary editor at the time, Giles Coren, used to swan into the office at midday, check his email, go out for a long lunch and then stagger back sometime after 4pm and bark, ‘What stories have you got for me?’ He’d then write them up in an hour, brilliantly, and zoom off out again to some dinner.
I think the paper made him restaurant critic in order to reduce the amount of meals he claimed on expenses. His was the life I wanted.
Now I’m the one sending lackeys out to be ignored by ambassadors at cocktail parties, while I prefer to pick up my own stories in private conversations over lunch or a few glasses of evening wine.
Claret sips loosen lips and I find that people are far more likely to chat away to a diarist if you, rather than a PR, are the one buying the drinks.
I stay away from most parties (I’d rather be able to sit down and hear the conversation these days), but some invitations are impossible to refuse.
One this summer was to mark the completion of the superb Everyman Wodehouse series, nearly 100 volumes, beautifully bound and presented. Bollinger flowed at the Goring and the conversation was just as sparkling.
Rachel Johnson and Sebastian Faulks were there and I enjoyed even more discussing Wodehouse with his grandson, Sir Edward Cazalet, and some of the learned and fun members of the PG Wodehouse Society.
The society throws a grand dinner every other year. At the latest, Sir Terry Wogan gave a rip-roaring address and then Faulks, Sir Michael Gambon, Lucy Tregear and even the Duke of Kent took part in a skit based on Wodehouse’s works. The world of amiable but dim toffs, life-saving valets and formidable aunts still holds a huge appeal, but did it ever really exist? Probably not.
At least Bertie Wooster is never found inserting part of his anatomy into a pig’s head at a drunken Drones Club dinner, as our prime minister was recently accused of doing.
The eternal pleasure of Wodehouse is the absolute lack of crudeness or menace. It is an oasis of innocence, where being pleasant to each other is what matters most. The code of the Woosters is ‘never let a pal down’.
It should be a guiding mantra for all of us.
I found myself thinking of a Wodehouse story this summer when I was sent in my new job of Times political sketchwriter to cover one of Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies.
In Comrade Bingo, Bertie goes along to a rally of the Heralds of the Red Dawn to support a friend, who has donned a fake beard in the hope of being able to win the heart of some daughter of the revolution.
Despite sharing Bertie’s fear that the Heralds of the Red Dawn ‘want to massacre coves like me’, I found Corbyn’s supporters extremely welcoming, once I got over being addressed as ‘Comrade’.
Woody Guthrie and the Byrds played over the speakers and beer was ’2 a pint. There were a lot of cagoules, floral skirts and roll-your-own cigarettes and the hair was either grey or purple.
These revolutionaries do not want bloodshed. I’m not all that convinced they want power. Perpetual opposition has its attractions.
Against all the odds — 200-1 at one point — Comrade Corbyn became Labour leader and I now have the great pleasure of sketching him in Parliament.
There’s quite a Wodehousean menagerie around him: David Cameron, looking like polished ham (can we say that post- swinegate?); Tim Farron, who makes me think of a middle-aged Tintin; the SNP rabble; Nigel Farage as a modern-day Roderick Spode; and the admirably antediluvian Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for Fusty-upon-Tweed.
What a time to be a sketchwriter. I got a text message after Corbyn was elected from my old boss, Coren: ‘You lucky bastard. I want to be doing your job. I give you your break and this is how you repay me?’ Sorry, Giles. And thank you.