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Coffee House From the archive

The wit, wine and wisdom of Simon Hoggart, 1946 – 2014

6 January 2014

12:36 PM

6 January 2014

12:36 PM

Simon Hoggart, one of the Spectator’s best-loved columnists, died yesterday after fighting pancreatic cancer for over three years. He began writing for the magazine in the mid-nineties, and started the column for which he was most well known in The Spectator – the Wine Club – in 2001. His last column was printed in our Christmas issue. Here are some of his contributions from our archive:

Diary, 19 April 1996

‘I’m just back from a week in France. Naturally I took a case of non-French wine over on the ferry so as to have something decent to drink. The French are terrifically complacent about their wine, believing that the worst they produce is better than the best from anywhere else. They are wrong, and there are few sights more depressing than the parade of tired, ill-kept, dreary bottles on the shelves of French supermarkets. The humblest British high street off- licence has wines from a dozen countries, and frequently twice that; in France it is hard to find wine from outside the region, never mind abroad. It may cost i1 or so per bottle less, but that is no compensation for Chablis like acidulated chalk dust, or clarets which have finesse and backbone but no discernible taste. I know many older drinkers like only French wines, but this is force of habit; just as men over 50 tend to prefer stockings to tights, it’s a matter of how you started.’

Srallen’s pain, 21 November 2008

‘I used to have one of Alan Sugar’s old Amstrad computers; in fact I wrote two books on it. The great advantage it had over modern computers was its slowness; you could literally make a cup of tea while it saved a page of text, and prepare a three-course meal while it saved a chapter. Modern computers don’t provide that luxury. They’re like dogs after you’ve thrown the first stick; they just sit there panting eagerly, demanding more and more words.

‘Amstrad stood for A.M. Sugar Trading, though these days the company makes nothing except money, being devoted to property deals. The owner has become ‘Sir’ Alan, a fact of which he is clearly very proud, though frankly, looking at some of the riff-raff who get knighthoods these days, I wouldn’t be too thrilled myself. Either way, everyone calls him ‘Sir Alan’, or rather, ‘Srallen’. If he marketed a new computer it would presumably be called the Samstrad. Once he famously signed a card for his wife ‘Sir Alan Sugar’, explaining later that it had been a busy day in the office. Don’t they give you a little booklet at the Palace, explaining that you never use the title of yourself? The correct form is: ‘Alan Sugar here’. ‘Is that Sir Alan?’ ‘Why, yes, as a matter of fact it is.’

My Dream of Mandelson as Labour leader, 12 August 2009

‘It was one of those dreams we all have. It had its own internal logic: everything that occurs seems to make perfect sense, and it’s only when we wake up that we realise the whole thing was absurd and silly. The other night I dreamed I was a Labour MP and we were in the Grand Committee Room welcoming the new leader of our party.

‘In my semi-conscious lucubrations, it seemed perfectly natural that this should be Peter Mandelson. The fact that no majority of the MPs, unions and party members who choose the new leader would find Mandelson acceptable was irrelevant. Possibly the fact that Ladbrokes had just announced they were taking more money on Mandelson for next Labour leader than on everyone else combined had addled my brain. It seemed so natural…’

Spectator Wine Club, 12 March 2005

‘You may remember the scene from one of Jancis Robinson’s excellent wine programmes. She offers a Burgundy vigneron the best selling Chardonnay in Britain.

‘He swirls it round his mouth and — here’s the fastidious detail – leaves the shed in order to spit it out on the earth. If memory serves, he utters the single word ‘why?’ Well, some people quite like Jacob’s Creek. I am not one, but it certainly has a market. The wines offered in this week’s mini-bar — all from the estimable Graham Mitchell — are, however, the diametric opposite to mass-produced, branded, heavily promoted ‘product’. They are among the best wines made in Australia, in small quantities, every vine carefully tended by people more concerned with quality than cash, launched on the world with no advertising at all. They would be perfect for drowning our sorrows if the Aussie cricket team beats ours this summer.’

The thirty years war, 9 October 1998

Simon Hoggart, who was there on day two, looks back on three decades of the Troubles 

‘People very soon became sophisticated enough to know which papers would provide the coverage they liked. Catholics preferred the Guardian, and I would lend my paper’s name to colleagues for their protection. Prods were Telegraph fans. Once, nine of us turned up at some outrage, and even the solipsistic Ulster people realised this was rather a lot from one paper. The real Telegraph man resourcefully told them, ‘The editor was so appalled at what’s been done to you that he sent every available reporter.’ They believed him.

‘They always did. In Ulster pubs you would see the boredom, and sometimes outright anger, when the news was about some trivial matter such as Heath’s incomes policy U-turn, or the Munich Olympics massacre. On one day, when there was some immense global news story — I forget which — the Protestant Belfast Newsletter led the paper with ‘IRA blows up pillar box’. I thought how satisfactory this was; the Newsletter’s outrage made it unnecessary for the IRA to blow up a per- son in order to get the splash.’

Public Face, 9 December 2009

‘My favourite Alan Bennett story dates from when his play The Lady in the Van was performed in London. The piece includes two Alan Bennetts, one to take part in the action, the other to narrate. One was played by Nick Farrell, a neighbour of ours, who had agreed to do it on condition that he would be free to attend the birth of his first child. For some reason there was no understudy, so when Nick’s wife went to hospital a chap in black tie appeared on stage before the curtain rose. ‘Owing to indisposition,’ he said — an odd choice of words in the circumstances — ‘the part of Alan Bennett will be played tonight by Mr Alan Bennett.’ And there was the playwright himself.

‘Of course the real Alan Bennett hadn’t memorised the text, so he was the only performer who had to read from the book. But it was a very Alan Bennett moment: the one person who couldn’t convincingly take the part was Alan Bennett. He could be Alan Bennett but he could not perform Alan Bennett; watching Alan Bennett as Alan Bennett, the audience could not entirely suspend their disbelief.’

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