Frank Johnson – who died in December, aged 63 – was an editor, leader-writer, foreign correspondent and political columnist of great versatility, and the most gifted and original Parliamentary sketch-writer of his generation.
He held a series of senior editorial posts in Fleet Street on The Times, The Daily and The Sunday Telegraph and The Sun, reaching his professional apogee as editor of The Spectator. And he scaled these heights from a starting-point well below sea-level as a teaboy on the Daily Express.
If this brief account makes Frank sound like a traditional Fleet Street figure, it is entirely accurate and only half-true. Once bitten by the journalistic bug on the Express, he went the usual route from the Street and back again: local papers in Leytonstone and Barrow-in-Furness, a provincial daily (the Liverpool Daily Post), the tabloid Sun, and finally the Telegraph and Times. His model and great hero was William Haley who, also starting out as an office boy, eventually became editor of The Times. He delighted in the regular lunches that the editor of his tea-boy days, John Junor, laid on for him in the 1980s. He liked the idea of being a Fleet Street graduate. At the same time, Frank was uneasily aware that the magisterial Haley would almost certainly have disapproved of the newspaper column that Frank had shaped and made his own on The Daily Telegraph: the surreal/ satirical Parliamentary sketch.
‘That’s us, John,’he said to me once when someone denounced the falling standards of the press. ‘We’re the decline in standards.’He occasionally regretted that the Speaker of the House of Commons had not summoned him to the Bar of the House to apologise for his lack of respect for Parliament. Frank was a Tory satirist. He loved what he mocked. And after a short interval, those he mocked loved it too.
Generally, Frank was a mass of entertaining contradictions. Because he had left school at 15 (having unaccountably failed his 11-plus), he felt the lack of a formal education. As late as the mid-70s when he had achieved something like fame as a sketch-writer, he had to be dissuaded from resigning in order to read Classics at Oxbridge. (Like many others he had bought Michael Oakeshott’s Guide to the Classics from motives of self-improvement, not realising that its guidance related to England’s classic horse races.)
Yet Frank was astonishingly well-read, an opera buff who as a boy had sung with Maria Callas at Covent Garden, a balletomane, and a polymath whose Islington apartment rivalled the London Library and the Virgin record store combined. Still, it took dons such as Maurice Cowling, John Casey and Peter Bauer, who had become close friends, to persuade him that he need not spend four years catching up with the people behind him.
So Frank continued his self-education at the expense of his Fleet Street employers. After a few seasons as a sketch-writer for The Times, he persuaded successive editors to send him as a foreign correspondent to Bonn and Paris. In those capitals he learned the local languages, attended their opera houses, took in their art galleries, occasionally paying for this Grand Tour with witty columns about the natives cowering in their homes at the approach of the ‘Shirley Williams Comprehensive’crack brigade of football hooligans.
He returned to England to serve as a fount of editorial ideas to two Sunday Telegraph editors, Perry Worsthorne and Charles Moore, who themselves became his great friends. He was appointed editor of The Spectator and, given time, might have become a great one. But he was not given time, initially by management, ultimately by cancer.
However, he continued to write sparkling and slyly-learned columns for both The Spectator and The Telegraph. Frank’s life was brilliantly varied. But it was ultimately built on three great loves – journalism, opera and his late marriage to Virginia Fraser. For most of their eight years together, Virginia had to help Frank to cope with his cancer. Her devotion was exactly matched by his gratitude. To say that, however, risks obscuring the simple merriment, let alone the deeper love, that united the Johnsons, and the Johnsons with their friends.
A visit to their household was a roller-coaster of historical curiosities, social gossip, literary allusion, operatic arias, political plotting, tales from the journalistic crypt, convoluted wit and flights of brilliant fancy.
It was a roller-coaster that continued its dizzying progress right up to his death. He had been warned by the doctors that a visit to La Scala might shorten his life. But a night at La Scala was worth a week in a hospital bed. He travelled to Milan and was present when the tenor was booed and flounced off.
Frank rushed to the telephone and gave The Telegraph a scoop. Shortly afterwards he found it difficult to breathe, and collapsed. Taken home to England, he lay partly comatose in a hospital bed for four days while a procession of friends from politics and journalism came to say goodbye.
He had died giving his paper a scoop from La Scala. If a Hollywood scriptwriter had invented such an ending for him, Frank would have sent it up something rotten.
John O’Sullivan worked with Frank Johnson as a sketch-writer for The Daily Telegraph during the 1970s. He is editor at large of the US-based National Review. and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister on Regnery Books.