Her way of helping me

Hugo Young

  • Listening for a Midnight Tram: Memoirs by John Junor
    Chapmans, 341 pp, £15.95, October 1990, ISBN 1 85592 501 X

Sir John Junor made his reputation mainly as the man prepared to be more bitchy about famous people than any other newspaper columnist. This was the basis on which he conducted his column on the Sunday Express, the paper he also edited for 32 years, and which underpins its less successful appearance nowadays in the Mail on Sunday. Junor is the man whose mind, however squalidly obsessed, they cannot gag. He is regarded by some people as a great journalist. But if he is, that is a tribute to the power of longevity and self-created myth. To be read for the studied perversity of one’s opinions, and the calculated outrage provoked by one’s means of expressing them, supplies celebrity of a sort. As a contribution to public knowledge and even public entertainment, though, it can easily be exaggerated, especially if this process enjoys the assistance of those who have from time to time been the butt of the column in question. This, if Junor’s own account is to be believed, is roughly what has happened to him. His memoirs recount a lifetime not of controversy so much as of systematic tireless fawning, the regular stance not just of editor towards politician but of countless politicians towards the great man who commanded their access to the pages of the Sunday Express.

His book contains a certain amount of the old acid. Towards the end, he has a crack at Lord Carrington for allegedly being a snob. It is one of his many stories, told at second or third hand, that sometimes strain credulity. Carrington lived in the same London square as one Patrick Maitland, to whom, according to Junor, he never deigned to speak. But then Maitland inherited an earldom, and his lordship was evidently on the line on the first day of his neighbour’s succession with the amiable cry, ‘Good morning, Patrick.’ Having also courted Junor when he was a government minister ‘needing the occasional spot of help and understanding’, Carrington leaves the editor amazed that he should depart ‘completely out of my life’ after quitting the Foreign Office at the time of the Falklands War. Junor puts this down to sheer snobbery, quite unable to comprehend that some men might regard as one of the compensations for the loss of office the release it offered from having anything to do with him. Most of the friends parading through this book, who almost invariably become, if they are not already, ‘very old friends’, treat him with more deference.

The authentic Junor unpleasantness surfaces in some other modes. The prurience about sex marches side by side with slavering after pretty women. These range from the tennis player Virginia Wade – ‘Quite a girl. Warm and vibrant. We lunched together a few times but, alas, remained only good friends’ – to Anna Ford (‘I had the feeling that her first love was men and work came second’), and ‘my friend and discovery Selina – gorgeous, delicious Selina Scott’. The old boy seems always to have been unduly fascinated by sexual speculation. He finds it worthwhile to tell us that Jim Prior told him that one or two other members of the Cabinet had in turn told him that they had ‘tried unsuccessfully to get a leg over’ Margaret Thatcher. He not only recites the well-known story of Harold Macmillan’s cuckolding by Robert Boothby but indulges himself in fascinated gossip about who then got Sara Macmillan (or Boothby) pregnant, driving her to alcoholism and an early death. Junor’s patron, Lord Beaverbrook, receives a full working-over. He apparently insisted at one time that his current woman should always wear a starched nurse’s uniform at the dinner table. His last years were ‘probably quite sexless’ even though, the author later makes clear, ‘it was clear that even in his seventies Beaverbrook had not lost the capacity to become sexually excited,’ rushing up to bed with a piece of soft porn from the Sunday Dispatch.

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