Lunch with Richard Littlejohn is not for the fainthearted, not if it is to be one of those involving what Britain's highest-paid newspaper columnist calls "a good drink". Stamina is needed if one is to be Littlejohn's companion during such a lazy afternoon, but the experience is rewarding. He tends to talk like he writes – pugnaciously, often hilariously, while pouring vitriol on the control freaks he believes have damaged Britain. That means, mostly, the political Left. Richard Littlejohn is the scourge of the Left and as such has been branded a right-wing zealot comparable with, say, TV and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh ("Enraging liberals is simply one of the more enjoyable side effects of my wisdom.") in the United States. It is a categorisation Littlejohn vigorously rejects, at some considerable length.
"Calling me right wing is lazy," he protests. "I think labels are meaningless – as I've said before, it's about right and wrong, not Right and Left. When people lose the argument or you expose their argument for the hollow, shallow bollocks it is, they just lay it on you. I'm big enough and ugly enough to take all the shit, but it depresses me. As far as the Left in Britain is concerned, if you are not with them on every single dot, comma and iota of their agenda, you're not wrong or misguided – you're evil. If you don't buy up the whole ticket, then there's something wrong with you."
He is merely limbering up. As lunch – one of many I have shared with him over the years – drifts towards teatime, his denunciation of the Left will pepper the conversation like shot in a roasted pheasant. His language is florid, but otherwise the scattergun slaughter of what he despises about Britain today could be published under the Daily Mail byline to which much of middle Britain turns each Tuesday and Thursday morning.
"I get researchers ringing me up and all they do is quote what they've read on Wikipedia or seen on the Guardian website or somewhere," he continues. "Some bird rang me up – "I'm ringing from so-and-so. We're doing a debate on hanging and we'd like you to come on and tell us why you're for it.' I said: "Well I'm not – what makes you think that?' She said: "You must be – it's in The Guardian. Polly Toynbee said in her column after the Soham murders that you were leading the call to bring back the rope.' I said: "Did you actually read what I wrote?" What I wrote was that it was an appalling crime and that there might be a case for it [capital punishment] to be discussed in Parliament, or even a referendum. I also said that I'd still vote against it, because I don't believe in it. But what fits Toynbee's view of me is that I want to hang people. It's a given, right?
"And I took up a whole page [when writing for The Sun] to argue for civil partnerships – I always thought it was outrageous that in everything from pensions to visiting-rights gay couples were excluded. And I argued this in The Sun, not in The Independent or The Guardian, but in The Sun, where it was an unpopular view. But because I don't buy the whole of the gay-rights agenda – I don't believe in gay adoption and I don't think cottaging is a way to behave – that makes me a homophobe.
"So what does being in favour of gay marriage make me – right wing or left wing? I'm not in favour of hanging – now, is that right wing or left wing? When I first went to The Sun, I wrote that [then Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher had gone mad and that she had to go. [Then editor] Kelvin [MacKenzie] must have thought: "Oh Gawd, what have I signed here?' but he gave me my head. My job is to say what I think and if sometimes that's unsayable, unthinkable, something people would rather not hear, well, that's what columnists are for."
He is as vehement about suggestions that he is the British National Party's columnist of choice, especially as he has attacked the BNP in print more than once: "It's bollocks, isn't it? But it's something the Left, particularly, does and it shows how desperate they are when people like David Aaronovitch accuses my novel [To Hell In a Handcart] of being a recruiting pamphlet for the BNP." Does such criticism make him angry? "Listen, I've said some very unpleasant things about people, but I have never knowingly told a lie about somebody and if I discover something was a lie I always put it right in the column. But the Left routinely tells lies. That makes me angry."
Born in Ilford, on the edge of the East End of London, Littlejohn moved to Peterborough at the age of five. He recalls an ambition to enter journalism born long before he left grammar school at the age of 16 with five O-levels – "plus a football proficiency certificate and another that said I could pick up a brick from the bottom, six-feet down, of a swimming pool. I didn't like school. I remember one summer being gated by my mum – I'd broken a window or something – and I sat in the garden with her sit-up-and-beg typewriter and wrote my own newspaper. I must have been about nine. We took the Daily Express and my parents would find me sprawling in the hallway in the morning, reading the old broadsheet Express, so as soon as I was old enough my dad got me a paper round. I used to take twice as long as anybody else – people used to complain because I was reading all the papers".
Five O-levels – including English a year early, he takes pains to add – were enough to get him an interview and a job as a trainee at the now-defunct weekly Peterborough Standard, where he failed to complete an NCTJ course. "I missed one exam because Spurs were playing Derby that day and I went to White Hart Lane." Moving on to Raymonds of Derby, where he and Terry Lloyd (the ITV reporter killed in Iraq) manned the news agency's Lincoln office, he arrived at the Birmingham Evening Mail with experience in and a liking for the industrial beat. "Peterborough was an industrial town when I was there and if you wanted to get your name in the paper, that's where the stories were. And in Birmingham it was a wonderful time to be an industrial correspondent, what with all the British Leyland stuff. I was the Red Robbo [militant shop steward Derek Robinson] correspondent and I got to know Terry Duffy and Bill Jordan [president of the AEU]. The Right and Left of the trades unions were fighting for their soul and I was never off the front page of the Evening Mail. These were exciting times and the industrial lobby was second only to the political lobby in terms of clout."
It was a conversation with Duffy, then a regional officer on his way to the presidency of the AUEW, that propelled Littlejohn into Fleet Street: "We were having a pint and he told me he'd been to see Jim Callaghan in Downing Street. We were chatting away and I said: "What did you talk about?' And Terry said: "Oh, he wants a 5 per cent pay rise.' I went away and wrote that the Prime Minister wanted to hold pay increases to 5 per cent and it was the splash in the Evening Mail and everybody in Fleet Street followed it the next day." Interviewed by then editor Charles Wintour for a job at the industrial editorial coalface at the Evening Standard, he used the scoop as his calling card and arrived in London in 1979.
Before this, Duffy had suggested that Littlejohn should become an MP. "I suppose I had left-ish sympathies at the time," he recalls. "I mixed in trade union circles, but my mates were always on the sensible side of the movement – the AEU and the electricians were the people I spent time with. I was tempted and I was flattered, and the fact of the matter is that they would have delivered me a [safe] seat. But even then I took the view that you can make more trouble as a journalist – and I wasn't even a columnist at that time."
John Leese, who became Standard editor in 1986, expanded Littlejohn's role within the paper and he covered the 1987 general election from Neil Kinnock's campaign bus. After Thatcher's third consecutive victory, Littlejohn thought: "It's over really, isn't it? I remember having a drink with Peter Paterson, who'd been an industrial man and gone on to write about TV, and saying: "This game isn't worth a candle any more. The unions are finished. Labour is finished – we've got another 400 years of Thatcher. I'll have to think what I'm going to do for the rest of my life'. Peter put his arm round my shoulders and said: "Dear boy, it's time to become a gentleman journalist'."
Kelvin came a-calling
Leese duly obliged, making Littlejohn a leader writer alongside Christopher (now 3rd Viscount) Monckton and Peter McKay – "The competition was always for who could write the jokey bottom leader, because we took the view that it was the only one anybody read" – and subsequently a columnist: "He [Leese] asked a lot of features people to try out as columnists and I was the only one he put in the paper. And he never asked me to stop. Later I said: "Why me?" And John said, "Every other column read like a pastiche of somebody else's – yours sounded like it was written by you.' He was quite an impresario, was John. Then Kelvin came a-calling and the rest is..."
The history includes moving from The Sun to the Mail – "My spiritual home" – and back again before resettling at the Mail to the accompaniment of a legal wrangle: "When I left the Standard and when I left the Mail I got a big party and a club-class return ticket. When I left The Sun [for the second time] I got a writ," he chortles, and warms to the theme. "My farewell from the Mail was in a club with a few like-minded people. My farewell from The Sun was in the High Court surrounded by Mr Rumpole and his mates. But that's fine, no hard feelings. Rebekah [Wade] and I have kissed and made up." His second stint at The Sun was, he says, occasioned by "a shedload of money and the offer of a TV series. I said to Paul [Dacre, the editor]: "I won't tell you what they're offering me, because it wouldn't be fair to ask you to match it, and, gentleman that he is, he said I should do the best for myself and my family and that he was confident that we'd work together again."
The confidence was well placed. Littlejohn returned, allegedly for around £900,000 a year, which would make him the highest paid member of the paper's staff – "I don't know if that's true, although of course I get nothing like what Paul [Dacre] is supposed to be paid." With the high salary came suggestions from media commentators that he's high maintenance, prone to hissy fits unless constantly nurtured. "What's high maintenance mean?" he demands. "You'd better ask the people I work with and have worked with, but at nine o'clock at night [on the eve of his column appearing] I get a final proof and I go through it syllable by syllable and get pissed off if I miss something and see it in the paper the next day. That's called doing the fucking job. As for flaunting and screaming and yelling, well the black dog descends with everybody at some time if you care."
There's no doubt that he has had to field more than his fair share of flak from critics over the years working as a newspaper legend-in-the-making – he was elected as one of the 40 inaugural inductees to the Journalism Hall of Fame – and a less successful but widely-employed radio and television presenter. He has been volubly sensitive to what he sees as deliberate spin against him and confesses to a sizeable ego. "Well, if you don't think you're any good, who else is going to? I remember once ringing [fellow Mail columnist] Keith Waterhouse [notorious for never answering his telephone] and saying to the answering machine, I just thought I'd ring to say what a fucking great column... and suddenly he picked up and said: "I'm always in for praise'.
"I don't lash out at criticism as much as I used to. I don't mind people abusing me – abuse me all you like – but I don't like people telling lies about me. My problem with [media commentator Roy] Greenslade is not that he had a pop at me, but you do expect someone who's known me a long time to write the truth. He wrote stuff about me when I left The Sun, saying I was standing around in Wapping pubs slagging off Rupert Murdoch and the paper's sub-editors. I mean, I can't remember the last time I was in a pub in Wapping. I wouldn't have minded if he'd said I was a knuckle-scraping moron and that he thinks I'm the worst columnist in Britain – that's absolutely fine. But anybody who knows me knows that the story was wrong – it was completely fictitious. Maybe I'm sentimentalising, but in the Fleet Street days there was respect even for people you didn't like.
"I tell you what did annoy me – the moment I put in my notice at The Sun to rejoin the Mail, I suddenly went from being voted independently into the Hall of Fame to being a moron who couldn't write his own name. Few [media writers] bothered to think, well, hang on, if he really is the complete scumbag who all the readers hate, who doesn't understand the Mail because he refuses to go into the office through petulance [as a freelance, he has worked from home for the past 17 years], then why would the two greatest newspaper organisations in Britain bother to have a squabble about which one of them I work for? It's moronic and it irritated me. And I have a long memory. Life's a duck-shoot, isn't it? If you miss them the first time, they'll always pop up again."
Flavour of the month
He was also, at the time, irritated by BBC2's What the Papers Say electing him "Irritant of the Year", rather than awarding him the prize for best columnist in 1992. "I was told when it happened that the BBC vetoed it because they felt they couldn't have this scumbag from MacKenzie's Sun [winning a prestigious award]. The great irony is that nobody remembers who actually was columnist of the year in 1992. I bet whoever was columnist of the year [it was Matthew Parris] probably doesn't remember who was columnist of the year. But "the irritant" label stuck, so now I think it's fantastic". Littlejohn went on to be named British Press Awards columnist of the year in 1997, yet his sometimes unashamed bloke-in-the-pub views and working-class-laced irony are as irritating as ever to many. When money was first mentioned during lunch, he embarked on a social comment flight of fancy familiar to his fans: "Have you noticed it's always the wrong people who win the Lottery? The Lottery would be a great thing if only it were won by a Guardian reader who would spend it on improvements, instead of by some woman from Romford who wants to get some bigger tits and go to live in Marbella." It's funny, but such mockery of dinner-party conversation is unlikely to make him flavour of the month at the Groucho.
He doubts that his columns have made much of a difference politically or socially over the close to 20 years he was been writing them, but insists, "That's not a columnist's job. Bron [the late Auberon] Waugh always used to say: "The job of a columnist is to chivvy things up a bit'. We can say things others can't, or won't. And I have clearly made a difference to people's lives, personally, because of the sheer volume of mail I get – packets and packets of the stuff – which isn't hate mail, it's people saying: "We thought we were the only people who thought like that and thank God you're saying it'. The first one I opened this morning just said: "Fucking brilliant', and I get others saying: "I hurt my stomach laughing'. That gives me an awful lot of satisfaction and, anyway, I don't have a legacy complex.
"What most columnists don't get is that we are part of the entertainment industry as well. You know, there's no divine right to be read and I like to think that people who turn to my page don't know if they're going to get a polemic or a song and dance act or a page of jokes. I've always remembered what John Leese said about my column sounding like it was written by me. I haven't tried to write a column like Keith Waterhouse's, because he's cornered the market in Waterhouse, just as when I took over Michael Parkinson's show on radio, I didn't try to be like him because he's cornered the market in Parkinson. All I would say is that I have cornered the market in being Richard Littlejohn. And I've been exceptionally lucky, although I take that old Gary Player line – the harder I practise the luckier I get. Since I went freelance 17 years ago I've usually had three things on the go at any one time. The column is the day job, but I've just done another book and I'm making a Channel 4 documentary on anti-Semitism, although I can't be, because I'm a BNP-supporting racist, aren't I?"
He would, he says, have to vote Conservative were a general election imminent, even though he has voted every which way in the past – "I even voted for Red Ken [Livingstone] in 1982" – and believes David Cameron to be "a spiv". But "the important thing is to get rid of the current bunch of shysters and charlatans. I and others did a lot to help the Labour Party become electable in the 1980s by turning over the communists in the unions, and when the Right of the Labour movement got hold of the T&G for a couple of years, I was deeply involved in that. But we are a much less-free society than we were 25 years ago. What was that about things can only get better? Things have got worse."
He's not very keen on old sparring partner Alastair Campbell, either: "I've known Alastair since he was drinking and he was brilliant for Tony Blair, but he was the most malign influence on the body politic – he did a magnificent job for Tony and the Labour Party and an absolutely disgraceful job for the country and democracy."
There are no prisoners taken by Richard Littlejohn, now 53, yet in a gloves-off media world the venom he attracts from both inside and outside the media industries still seems excessive. Later, much later, in a pub a few streets away in Soho, he reflects: "I've never felt more remote from an industry I've spent my entire life in, although I've never felt closer to a readership than I do at the Mail." Outside, his driver waits patiently in a Mercedes, rare evidence that this is a journalistic superstar ("I don't think I'm a celebrity and, anyway, I've never milked it. I remember a bird ringing up and asking me to do Celebrity Squares, and when I declined she said: "But it's a thousand pounds.' I said: "Tell you what, if I give you a thousand pounds will you promise never to ring me up again to ask me to be on Celebrity Squares?' ")
And even later: "People say to me, "How long does it take to write a column?' How do you explain that basically I've been writing a column since I was sitting in the garden with my mum's typewriter, making my own newspaper? I've been writing a column ever since I was standing there reading the Daily Sketch and a bloke's come out in his dressing gown and said: "Are you going to be much longer? I want my paper."
Copyright © 2011 Richard Littlejohn. All rights reserved.