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.

His relationship with Beaverbrook, however, sets the tone for the more important part of Junor’s life. The press baron spotted him, befriended him, preferred him and received in return the admiration of a sycophant. When old Beaverbrook whistled, young Junor jumped, whether to go for walks at unreasonable times, dump his family and rush to the South of France, or sit through interminable hours of an old man’s reminiscence. So terrified was he that Beaverbrook, on the verge of making him editor of the Sunday Express, might think him a weak sister that he concealed for months the onset of a stomach ulcer, continuing at great damage to his health and comfort to drink the champagne his boss insisted on stuffing down his throat. Thus was the pattern established for a journalistic life which, while affecting disrespectful acerbity, was actually rooted in an unquenchable desire for establishment connections, made and sustained on a bottomless expense-account. This is the book of a thousand lunches, written by the Uriah Heep of Boulestin’s and the Savoy Grill.

He is proud of his capacity for attack. His column certainly laid into its targets with juicy abandon. But he seems prouder of what he calls his friendships. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that politicians could easily regard his mish-mash of venom and sententious perversity as a journalistic art-form of which they need take not the slightest notice. One Christmas, he meets Denis Healey in the street. ‘Don’t think you’re going to get away with it,’ booms Healey’s voice as Junor is caught feeding a parking meter. They engage in bonhomous conversation. What a marvellous moment, the editor meditates afterwards. ‘I reflected that no one had attacked Denis Healey over the years more than I had and perhaps I had even played some little part in denying him his ambitions.’ But no matter. ‘Isn’t it one of the most wonderful things about our political system, and indeed our society, that you can attack a man’s politics without losing his personal friendship?’ Similarly with Harold Wilson, a most carefully cultivated contact. Junor wrote some genuinely rough stuff about Wilson, including one sally lovingly preserved here: ‘All I ever doubted was whether between his backstud and his backside there was anything but his braces.’ Once, Wilson even got as far as issuing a writ. But the important thing was the friendship, which ‘never altered or changed’. Lunches, dinners and appearances at occasions for mutual back-scratching continued down the decades. ‘I find it difficult,’ writes the innocent memoirist, ‘to explain how one can like a man so much personally and dislike his politics so completely.’

Maybe this has something to do with the quality of British politicians, and the creepy nature of their relationship with a journalist who also happens to be an editor. Junor himself could be easily disarmed by a dose of old-fashioned condescension. He once did what he thought was a scorching job on William Whitelaw, but chanced to run across him shortly after in White’s Club. The columnist confesses to being horrified. Presumably he would never attack a man he knew he was lunching with next week. But Whitelaw soon has him grovelling, by booming down the club staircase: ‘Hello John. You know, when my wife read what you wrote about last Sunday she turned to me and said: “He’s quite right, Willie” ’. On the other hand, as editor, Junor did have one prize in his gift. The terms of trade were not entirely one way. This editor would do almost anything to get the right politician to his lunch table, but politicians will do almost anything for exposure, and the leader-page slot on the Sunday Express was for many years a coveted venue for the sounding-off of opinion on the issues of the day. Perhaps it was for that reason that such a varied galère was prepared to succumb to his ministrations.

Not all Junor’s friends were Tories. Apart from Healey and Wilson, there was Emmanuel Shinwell, the veteran Labour minister who, Scot to Scot, befriended the tyro when he was doing an early stint as Crossbencher, the Express political gossip-columnist. In the unreliable world of Westminster, Shinwell proved to be an ideal godfather. ‘Manny Shinwell?’ Junor recollects. ‘Manny was different. Manny was quite prepared to rat on his enemies. But, by God, he was loyal to his friends.’ And this was one socialist friendship that endured. On Shinwell’s 100th birthday, Uriah Junor makes a particularly prominent appearance. Although two former prime ministers, Wilson and Alec Douglas-Home, attended the inevitable lunch, it was the old editor, describing himself as ‘just about the least consequential person among the 36 present’, whom Manny chose to have sit beside him.

It is the Conservatives who flock most often to Boulestin’s, however. At first sight, there is a kind of oddity about this. For Junor, as he reminds us, first got close to the political action as a Liberal Parliamentary candidate after the war. He failed to win Kincardine and West Aberdeenshire by only 642 votes, and in 1951 went back to Scotland to fight another seat in the same interest. From a man who has spent a fair proportion of his columnar life deriding liberals if not Liberals, one would have liked more explanation than he gives of why he ever got involved as that kind of politician. He certainly evinces no interest in their political attitudes, even forty years ago. We do learn, however, why the switch occurred, and it had more to do with the companionability of which Junor seems to have been desperately in search. The more he worked as a journalist in the Commons, the more he got to like the Tories. ‘The ones I met were straightforward, simple and on the whole honourable men. They might be cheating on their wives but, at least at that time, they never tried to stab a colleague in the back.’

A new party loyalty was born. One of the earliest heroes at the Junor table was Quintin Hogg, later Hailsham. They spent many years rubbing each other up the right way, Junor agape at Quintin’s intellect and unostentatious preference for riding a bicycle round London, Hailsham enchanted – at what? The generosity of the meals? He was, after all, obsessively worried about money. Junor’s political wisdom? Hard to believe, in a man who appears to have made wrong bets, whether on Ian Smith to survive in Rhodesia or, just to bring it right up to date, the recommended successor to Margaret Thatcher, about whose identity he confesses to having ‘not the slightest doubt’: ‘In a perfect world, I would choose ... Geoffrey Howe.’ There must be more to the Hailsham connection than that. And here we glimpse in a single cameo both Junor’s saving unpredictability and the thraldom which, as editor, he could exercise. The time is 1963, the moment the fight for the succession to Harold Macmillan as Conservative leader. Hogg would appear to have been close to the editor for many years but Junor, in the end and to his credit, backs R.A. Butler in the contest. There is a backstairs struggle to mobilise support for Butler against the virtual imposition of Alec Home, and Junor plays his part on the telephone. He rings Hogg asking him to pledge support for Butler, which his disappointed friend agrees to do, but not before complaining that in this way Junor is helping to make Rab prime minister. All in all, Hogg sounds pretty panicky. Along with a lot of Tories, he thought he was about to be out of a ministerial job. But the editor’s comfort was instantly available. ‘I gave him categoric assurance,’ Junor writes, ‘that he could make as much money writing for the Sunday Express as he was getting from the Government.’

Reginald Maudling, Alec Home and even Ted Heath appear among the intimates. At Home’s 80th birthday party, given by Rupert Murdoch, ‘who hardly knew Alec’, Junor finds himself among a mere 20 people and is pathetically grateful that Alec has done him ‘the extraordinary honour’ of inviting him as ‘one of his handful of personal guests’. But these encounters are only the prelude to the one that really matters, with Mrs Thatcher.

For the key Thatcher lunch, we leave Boulestin’s and move to the White Tower. Junor is tickled pink, as who wouldn’t be, that the Prime Minister is prepared to come to Charlotte Street to eat with him alone in June 1981. This wasn’t their first meeting, but it reassures Sir John – knighted at her instance a year before – on the point that really matters. There are times, he reflects, when one has an instinct about whether someone likes or dislikes one. ‘I had already suspected that the Prime Minister liked me.’ But now came the moment of truth. ‘Now I knew for sure. There was never one awkward pause in our conversation. Margaret talked about her difficulties in Cabinet and she sought my advice.’ And a thunderbolt disclosed itself. ‘On almost every single issue and on every single personality I shared her view.’

This seems to have been the beginning of something beautiful. Before this faithful lapdog, the Prime Minister felt free to let down her hair. Why were her ministers being so beastly to her? Men like Ian Gilmour. ‘John,’ we hear her whining, ‘he takes every chance to do me down. He is against me on every issue that comes before Cabinet.’ Followed by an equally peevish plaint: ‘John, why does he have Roy Jenkins to dinner?’ John’s retort has the right note of manly sagacity. ‘ “You have nothing to fear from Ian,” I replied. “He will never put the dagger in your back.” And this she accepted.’

After this lunch, Junor wanted to be quite sure he’d picked up the right message. A Downing Street secretary told him he was not mistaken. The leader had accepted his invitation, Margaret told her minion, ‘because I want to do this. He is a friend.’ So these encounters continued through the Eighties. In 1988, the Prime Minister is telling him that Howe is a blancmange, Kenneth Baker is wet, Nigel Lawson wants to go and make money but is being kept in post at her request, and John Major is her most likely successor. Perhaps more to the point, she had a message for her good friend. By this time, his own days at the Express looked as though they might be numbered, but the Prime Minister had the matter in hand. ‘She was reassuring about my own future, too, if and when I left the Sunday Express,’ he writes. “There will be something for you,” she said.’ This mysterious pledge, if pledge it was, appears not to have been made good. But then not everything Junor reports Mrs Thatcher as saying has the instant mark of credibility.

I find it a little improbable that she would have descended so far into sexual innuendo as he has her doing when discussing why Ted Heath cannot be brought into the Cabinet. ‘All the time he would be trying to take over,’ she is supposed to have said. ‘I have to tell you this, John. When I look at him and he looks at me I don’t feel that it is a man looking at a woman. More like a woman looking at another woman.’

With all these connections, Junor could have made a contribution to contemporary history. But even with what he does report, one would need to be a little surer than one feels able to be that his memory or his diary note are exact. Still more telling are the lacunae in his journalistic record. For remarkably little of these conversations found its way into the Sunday Express at the time they happened. They may have provided some leads, and perhaps an entrée to the leader page. But only on a highly selective basis was Junor in the business of telling his readers straight out what really happened, when, as he chronicles it in this book, he was quite often in a position to know at least part of the story. That would have left too many empty seats around the starched table-linen and the ice-buckets. For this reason also, no doubt, his memoirs leave an impression of great inadequacy. They lack narrative coherence, dribbling on from one disconnected encounter to another. They have little to say about the ethical or commercial issues which have deeply affected the practice of journalism during Junor’s long span at the top. They are a collection of heavily self-serving tittle-tattle.

In that vein, however, they do reveal the author as having one credential for a footnote in history that is possibly unique. When he took his own knighthood, it plainly did not cross his mind that there might be some faint conflict between his role as a fearless editor and his acceptance of a bauble at the hands of the Prime Minister. But that was only the start of such dalliance. The Express proprietor at the time was Victor Matthews, a builder and property-developer. Matthews was apparently desperate for an honour, and not best pleased when Junor got one first. But he didn’t have to wait too long. For the editor went selflessly to work among his cronies. The Prime Minister’s PR man, Gordon Reece, telephones, and asks: ‘John, do you still want Victor to be on an Honours List? I can tell you for certain that he is going to be on the next one and for something more than a knighthood.’ Junor can’t wait to tell his boss, who had been giving him a hard time about the paper. They retire to the men’s room where Matthews can hear the news in privacy. You will be getting a peerage, Junor informs him, ‘provided you keep your nose clean between now and then’.

From then on, the editor has no trouble from his proprietor, who is over the moon. The Prime Minister draws Matthews aside at the Cup Final. ‘Victor, I’m going to send you to the Lords,’ she tells him. This seems to give Junor a double claim on the esteem, or if you prefer obloquy, of history. He not only gets himself a knighthood but his proprietor a peerage, quite oblivious to the shadow cast by both transactions. He also accepts each of these preferments in a spirit from which almost every other journalist would surely recoil. He tells us the proud story himself. ‘She told me afterwards that she had heard I was in difficulties with Victor and implied that her granting of the peerage was her way of helping me.’ Uriah could not have put it better.