Humorous and often acerbic columnist, who chronicled the folly of politicians for four decades, dies from pancreatic cancer
Simon Hoggart, one of the wittiest and most distinctive writers on the Guardian and Observer for 45 years, has died from pancreatic cancer, it was announced on Sunday. He was 67 and had managed to work and lead an active social life for three and a half years after being told his condition would prove fatal.
It was only in December that complications arising from the disease in combination with another round of chemotherapy forced Hoggart to give up writing the Guardian's parliamentary sketch – which he had done for 20 years – as well as his popular Saturday column. His final article, a review of the year just ending, appeared on 19 December. It was a waspish summary in which he noted that, while Pope Francis "may have renounced his own infallibility", Margaret Thatcher never did.
Though he got home to his family in west London late on Christmas Day, Hoggart soon returned to the Royal Marsden hospital, where he died on Sunday afternoon. Until the last few days visitors had found him sounding off, as usual, against favourite targets – the folly of politicians, publishers and privatised train companies, the pleasures of food and drink, the stupidity of manufacturers' safety warnings. He remained determined not to give up, nor to let his illness become widely known lest it detract from the laughter he always sought to generate.
The elder son of Richard Hoggart, the literary and cultural academic, Simon Hoggart joined the Guardian straight from university in 1968. He rapidly emerged as a journalistic polymath whose career ranged from covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland and five years as the Observer's Washington correspondent to writing about politics for Punch, and wine and television criticism for the Spectator.
A regular on many radio and TV programmes, Hoggart chaired Radio 4's The News Quiz for 10 years before 2006. He published 20 books and anthologies and became a regular figure on the festival circuit. Though a resourceful news reporter and feature writer with an eye for telling detail and a vivid turn of phrase, he found his most comfortable niche as a humorous, usually acerbic columnist, notably as the Guardian's sketchwriter, briefly in the 1970s and after his return to the Guardian from 12 years on the Observer in 1993.
In his final parliamentary sketch, the day after George Osborne's autumn statement, he likened the chancellor to Mr Micawber ( "In America the president's aides are scratching their heads and wondering how they can create their own British miracle") and wrote of David Cameron that "he smiled like the Cheshire Cat after a large sherry". Of Ed Balls's response, Hoggart declared: "If he had pretended to be any angrier he would have been coughing up his own intestines."
Hoggart's world view was shaped by his family roots in the industrial north of England. He knew Thatcher had made necessary reforms but felt she was neither evil witch nor national saviour, merely increasingly mad. He disliked New Labour ("if they ever invent a fat-free lard it would resemble a New Labour MP") and thought Tony Blair a self-satisfied opportunist. "I sat in the front row for Tony Blair's (conference) speech. It was like the monsoon in a Somerset Maugham short story," he once wrote. John Major's curious vocabulary and sentence structure he routinely ascribed to the then-PM having learned English as a second language in a British Council office in rural Nigeria.
He also tormented John Prescott and Lib Dem ministers in general. But he could be kind when he decided a politician had risen to a difficult occasion and had his favourites. They included Sir Peter Tapsell, now father of the Commons, whose grandiloquent style of speech prompted Hoggart to suggest that monks must be writing down his every word on vellum.
The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, said: "Simon was a terrific reporter and columnist – and a great parliamentary sketchwriter. He wrote with mischief and a sometimes acid eye about the theatre of politics. But he wrote from a position of sophisticated knowledge and respect for parliament. A daily reading of his sketch told you things about the workings of Westminster which no news story could ever convey. He will be much missed by readers and his colleagues."