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Being Frank

Frank Johnson transcended class but believed in its continuing power

By Dean Godson   131

Two nations stood vigil at the death bed of Frank Johnson in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital late last year. On the one side were the Frasers, the grand Scottish Catholic family into which he married, and the professional friends of a lifetime in journalism, such as Peregrine Worsthorne and Charles Moore. On the other side were Johnson’s blood relatives: the former east Londoners or, as the Labour politician Ray Gunter might have put it, the “people from whence I came.” It would not quite be true to say that the twain had never met—but the encounters were few and far between.

The scene resembled the final moments of a medieval magnate, surrounded by grieving women, fellow knights and assorted retainers: Torrigiano would have made the most of that handsome face tilted back upon the high pillows for one of his effigies. All that was missing was the dog at the foot of the bed. The historian Kenneth Rose—no mean judge of such things—once said that Johnson had one of the most patrician aspects he had ever seen.

The obituaries made much of the romantic pageant of Johnson’s life—the son of a chef who left school at 16 and rose to some of the top positions in Fleet Street; the 11-plus failure who self-educated himself into polymathy.

Class has become unfashionable. The right likes to think that Thatcher swept away the barriers, while the left has migrated from class to identity politics. But even as Johnson transcended class, he continued to believe in its centrality. He had an idiosyncratic view of his own place in the system—perhaps because, like Ernest Bevin, he regarded himself as a “turn-up in a million.”

Johnson disliked the grammar school meritocrats, who he contended would have looked down on an 11-plus failure like himself. Rather, he averred, he had received his breaks from “eccentric toffs” such as Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor for whom he worked on the Sunday Telegraph. He had an almost Young England-ish belief in a compact between the upper and the working classes, which the bourgeoisie never quite got.

Worsthorne particularly excited Johnson’s admiration because, in his words, “Perry hates his own class.” The postwar establishment had succumbed to what Churchill called “the long drawling tides of drift and surrender.” Johnson shared Worsthorne’s belief that the elite had let down the respectable working classes—as personified by his father—to maintain industrial peace.

Despite his lack of fellow feeling for the middle class, he backed Margaret Thatcher and loathed the “civilised Tories” and their liberal orthodoxies (Chris Patten’s pretensions were mercilessly lampooned).

Johnson rarely gave vent in print to another of his deeply held beliefs: that a great injustice had been done by the British ruling elites to the white working class through the creation of the multiracial society. Instead of dealing with the issue head-on, he opted for mockery of the “chattering classes,” a term which he had coined.

Johnson was especially upset by the effects of immigration on Stoke Newington, where his father lived. By what right had this massive demographic shift been engineered, he wondered? He didn’t much like the change in the white working classes, either: he regarded the “chavs” as far removed from the “imperial” working class of his parents’ generation. Johnson hated crudity of all kinds.

Much as he enjoyed grand weekends at country houses, interesting conversations—on politics, history or the arts—were even better. He left east London because he couldn’t get enough of them. Many people had escaped before; very few did so on his terms.

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