Playing to the Gallery: Parliamentary Sketches from Blair Year Zero by Simon Hoggart10 February 2008
A quick review this Sunday, since I’m sort of in the middle of travelling at the moment.
Playing to the Gallery: Parliamentary Sketches from Blair Year Zero by Simon Hoggart
The craft of writing parliamentary sketches is a fairly longstanding tradition in the history of modern journalism. Charles Dickens even tried his hand at it, back in the day when several pages of the quality press were devoted to reporting the ins and outs of whatever had happened that day in the Commons and the Lords. But now that Hansard is available online, viewers can watch debates through BBC Parliament, and most newspapers have cut down the column inches devoted to parliamentary coverage, parliamentary sketches might well seem to be on the way out as well. But the art of capturing memorable moments in the alternating frenzy and dullness of the Westminster village is not easily acquired — and it would be a shame if some of the cleverest sketches of the Guardian‘s Simon Hoggart were to be lost to the maze of microfilm and Internet archives without being collected somewhere for quick, easy reading.
Playing to the Gallery is a collection of Simon Hoggart’s sketches, a selection of the ‘best bits’ as collected works are so often touted. The sketches are not merely from 1997; the selected sketches begin with the pre-election coverage of April 1997 and run until well into 2002, giving a full range of the first five years of the Blair government. Plenty of familiar faces grace the pages, and some mostly forgotten faces crop up now and then, including perennial stalking horse Michael Heseltine, the ageing and now deceased rake Alan Clark, and the former Madam Speaker Betty Boothroyd. The index, for that matter, is one of the best parts of the book; the entries are pithy summaries that are almost complete sketches in and of themselves. The entries for Tony Blair include ‘helps William Hague into heffalump trap, 169-71‘ and ‘treats Parliament like late-night radio call-in, 107-9‘. Ken Livingstone, as it happens, ‘launches campaign for London mayor with high-pitched whining noise, 154-5‘. One of John Prescott’s many notable moments includes an incident in which he ‘blames Tories for rain, 188-90‘. There’s just enough truth to the exaggerations to make for fine and accurate parody.
Hoggart is quite skilled at deciphering the often unintelligible proclamations of John Prescott, and he takes pleasure in finding and holding up for ridicule some of the most vapid examples of New Labour prose — he actively points out how the New Labour speech style all but abandons verbs in its attempt to make promises without actually promising anything. I spent most of my reading time alternating between chuckling and wincing, for beneath the humour lies a certain amount of wry bitterness, a little voice that says, ‘Is this really what we’ve managed to dig up, push past the post, and stuff into that faux-Gothic monstrosity in SW1A?’ Playing to the Gallery is a collection made for politicos and political junkies, true, but it’s a sad trueism that no history is forgotten quite so easily as that of the recent past. Even those who are less than fond of the state of political reporting in this day and age would be able to spend a few worthwhile moments looking at one or two of the sketches compiled in this book.