Sunday, 9 May 2010

Alan Watkins

I'm very sad that Alan Watkins has died. He was one of my journalistic heroes (here, here).

There's a fine appreciation here by Robert Harris:
Watkins was fond of comparing himself to a highly skilled craftsman – a lathe-operator at Rolls-Royce, say – whose task each week was to produce a precision object to the best of his ability. He did it with consummate skill, always using a fountain pen (he never mastered a computer) and always measuring what he wrote against the stern syntactical standards of his late mother, Violet, a Welsh school teacher: "She knew about sequence of mood and sequence of tenses, the relative pronoun as subject in its own clause, and the difference between a straight and a subjunctive conditional."
It was Watkins who called Labour "the people's party", and invariably referred to the trade unions as "THIGMOO" ("this great movement of ours"). It was Watkins who first observed that "politics is a rough old trade" and who revived the sobriquet "young fogeys" to describe the twentysomething Thatcherite journalists on the Spectator and in theDaily Telegraph. Of Hugh Gaitskell's famous "fight, and fight, and fight again" speech" at the 1960 Labour party conference, he observed: "The speech was crude, vulgar, abusive and intellectually negligible. Inevitably, it was a great success."
Only Watkins, with his ear for the rhythms of English prose and love of the demotic, would have observed of the sports desk of a national newspaper that their names were "as solid and reassuring a presence as the Trumpton fire brigade: Jones, Rea, Simon O'Hay, Bateson, Glover, Tench". It took a journalist of Watkins's comic skill to sum up the uneasy after-effects of a conversation with the sinuous Tory MP Sir Edward du Cann, which he compared to "descending a staircase in the dark and missing the final step".

I liked Watkins because of his learning, wit, style, humanity, irreverence and Welshness. I've recommended it before but his memoir 'A Short Walk Down Fleet Street' is indispensable to anyone who'd like to experience vicariously the ambience of what will probably be regarded as journalism's golden age (at least for journalists).

It also gives one a true sense of British politics in the late-twentieth century, which like politics everywhere is as much about people as ideas. Given his own feel for history, I think one of the compliments that Watkins would have most appreciated is that his work will live on as a valuable primary source for future historians of the period. You can't say that about many journalists.

By the way, I met him once in the M&S in Islington back in the '90s. He was ahead of me in the queue and I was brave enough to tell him I enjoyed his column (in the not entirely thriving Independent on Sunday). He thanked me, before - shaking his head in mock sorrow - urging me to 'just keep on buying the paper'. Not much of a reminiscence but enough to suggest he was a decent, humorous and modest chap, a craftsman in the best sense of the word who never forgot that he plied his trade for the enlightenment and amusement of his readers.


zmkc said...

Complete agreement, which may not be what you want, considering your post before this one.

No Good Boyo said...

A fine man, a must-read in the old Indy, and an warm appreciation from yourself.

Your meeting with him in M&S had something very Welsh about it, and I can't quite work out what.

Gaw said...

z: This blog has no higher function so agreement is always welcome.

Boyo: I hadn't thought of that but you're right - is it the insistence on turning compliment to commiseration as that's easier to deal with for a Welsh?

No Good Boyo said...

I think you've put one of your 12 fingers on it.