Quentin Letts: Letts talk
PUBLISHED: 14:02 05 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:47 20 February 2013
Quentin Letts, the satirical journalist and broadcaster, talks to Pat Parker about his Hertfordshire schooldays and how Britain is becoming bog-standard
QUENTIN Letts, the Daily Mails witty, acerbic, pomposity-prickingsketch-writer, is talking to me before rushing off to cover a Commons select committee.
He hasnt got too long to chat, because he is a very busy man. As well as penning parliamentary sketches, he is also the Mails theatre critic, and a regular broadcaster, appearing on everything from Panorama to Have I Got News For You.
His sharp, elegant, but above all, funny brand of satire is much in demand, and widely admired he was named Political Journalist of the Year at last years British Press Awards. He is right-wing some might say reactionary but no Thatcherite. I dont belong to a party, but I suppose Im a pastoral-shires Tory, he says. His tone is often scathing, but rarely angry; there is a humanity to his conservatism. And to speak to, Quentin, who attended Hertfordshires Haileybury public school, is a model of kindness and courtesy.
On television, with his plump, round face, owlish glasses and clipped, perky delivery, he has the air of a posh-but-cheeky schoolboy which, at Haileybury, he indeed was. I was a little impertinent, he admits cheerfully.
He now lives in rural Herefordshire, with his wife, Lois, and three children, but has to spend much of the week in London, where he bunks down at the Savile Club in Mayfair. Its traditional elegance must suit him perfectly. For Quentin Letts is a natural conservative. He abhors the mediocrity, enforced egalitarianism and political correctness of modern Britain, which he attacks in his latest book, Bog-Standard Britain, borrowing the adjective used by Alastair Campbell in an off-guarded moment to describe average comprehensives. I ask him his definition of bog-standardism. Its the pursuit of the second or third rate out of some misguided class guilt, he replies crisply.
He believes the rot set in with Anthony Croslands introduction of comprehensives in the 1960s. Since then, he believes, weve seen a steady decline in educational standards, spoken English and manners. Affected classlessness, says Quentin, is now de rigueur, whether it be the BBC paying Jonathan Ross an astronomical salary because of his supposed blokeishness, the Church of England dropping the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer, or well-educated MPs flattening their vowels to sound as if theyre one of the people.
He is firmly opposed to state-imposed egalitarianism. You cannot enforce egalitarianism its inevitable that people are unequal, he says. But if people have no sense of what is best, how can they improve themselves? The great fuel to self-improvement is aspiration. Without aspiration, we just give up hope.
His previous book, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain has also been updated and republished, with added bankers. In it, he attacks a wide array of targets, from Jeffery Archer to Janet Street-Porter, Tony Blair to poor old Alan Titchmarsh, whom he describes, somewhat harshly, as middle-road mediocrity made flesh.
Margaret Thatcher is also in the list. Mrs Thatcher was too radical, unyielding, unwise in the way she defeated the miners, he says, describing them in the book as a remarkable body of men. Her merciless treatment of them, he believes, has led to vast swathes of the north being lost to the Tories ever since.
Quentin Letts unfashionable yearning for a pastoral, paternalistic, hierarchical Britain no doubt stems from his childhood in Cirencester. Both his father and grandfather were prep-school headmasters who taught Latin and Greek. Quentin was so-named because he was the fifth sibling (one child sadly died in infancy).
My father was a very traditional, Mr Chips figure slightly eccentric, distant, says Quentin. He was quite formidable, and an enthusiastic thrasher!
Both his father and grandfather had been sent to board at Haileybury, and were keen for their pupils to follow suit. They both sent scores of boys up to the windswept frozen wastes of Hertford Heath, where they say the next highest point east is the Urals!
He remembers Haileybury as bracing in more ways than one. It made one independent you had to stand on your own two feet. He was also permanently exhausted. It was a very big campus, and we only had five minutes between classes. Youd have to run to your lessons, clutching your books, and invariably arrive out-of-breath, with a stitch.
Quentin started a magazine at the school and his ambition to become a journalist was strengthened while visiting a careers fair in Hatfield. All the stands were manned by very enthusiastic ambulance drivers, or bankers and so on, he remembers. And then the local paper had a stand, with a newspaper man sitting there looking bored, with a full ashtray. He said, Do you want a leaflet? You dont really want to do this, do you? And I was immediately impressed, because he was the only one there being honest.
His Christianity was strengthened by the uplifting services in the schools magnificent chapel with its vast dome. On a less spiritual note, he has fond memories of returning from Hertford on the bus with bags clanking with bottles of Clan Dew. Im eternally grateful to the staff of Victoria Wine, who served us alcohol even though we were in school uniform!
At 17, he left to study for a year in Kentucky on a scholarship. It proved an education in more ways than one. I went wild, he admits happily. You could buy a litre and a half of gin for $17, and I learnt to drink bourbon. It was a very jolly year. It was also an eventful one the year John Lennon was shot and Reagan elected.
He edited a student magazine and managed to get in trouble with the college dean for writing anti-authoritarian articles shades of what was to come.
After a year doing odd jobs in Oxford, including working as a dustman and a barman, he went to Trinity College, Dublin, to read Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The hunger striker Bobby Sands had just died, and there was a lot of tension in Belfast. Crossing the border in a British car was quite frightening you suddenly realised politics was very real. But I had no trouble in Dublin. One of my friends was the son of a leading IRA member, and I used to drink in Provo pubs and sing Republican songs. It was possible to get caught up in the emotion of those songs. I was proud to be British, but you could see where they were coming from.
After further study at Cambridge, Quentin wrote to the then editor of the Telegraph, Max Hastings asking for a job. I wrote seven letters, and got no reply. Then I sent the eighth to his home address. He replied to that, and offered me some holiday relief work on the Peterborough column.
The holiday relief turned into a full-time post, and Quentin recalls his days on the gossip column as bliss. He was later sent to America as a correspondent, before returning as a sketchwriter, and promptly getting into trouble, after Mrs Thatcher was ousted, for calling John Major dreary.
The new prime minister was highly offended. Max said it would have been OK if Id said unexciting, he says. But dreary sounded snooty. Major was sensitive it was a time of high emotion, as the Tories had just assassinated their leader. He later moved on to edit the Peterborough column.
Quentin left the Telegraph to become The Times New York correspondent a job he found knackering. He was covering almost the entire country, working six days a week and getting up at 5am because of deadlines. He returned when his wife discovered she was pregnant with their first child. They arrived back on May 1, 1997 the day Tony Blair was elected. Now freelance, Quentin was given a parliamentary column on the Telegraph, all the better to lampoon New Labour.
He moved to the Mail in 2000, and since then his profile and prolificity have risen sharply. He writes for numerous other publications, from the News of the World to Horse and Hound, and is a regular TV pundit. Perhaps his star is rising as Labours popularity wanes.
Left-wing satire was tremendous in the 60s and 70s, when the old establishment needed taking down a peg or two, he says. Nowadays, I think the sharpest satire is from the Right, and the lazy stuff is from the Left. Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You is always very sharp, and even Rory Bremner has swung to attacking the Left, which has become very defensive now.