How Sketchwriting Works: Part I

People are always asking me about what the job of the sketchwriter entails.

“So do you know everybody?” they ask.

Well, I say, I do – sort of. I certainly know, by sight, almost all of the regular attenders of the Commons, which must be at least 300 of the 650 MPs. Indeed, I not only know them, but I know them from the back as well. It is almost embarrassing to me that, as I walk down the beautiful stone walkway along New Palace Yard, where criminals were once exposed for pillory during the reign of James II but now is occupied mainly by pollarded lime trees, I can tell who is walking in front of me.

“But do you know the Prime Minister?” people ask.

Well, I certainly know David Cameron’s bald spot, a fascinating apparition that seems to change constantly. Indeed, my new theory is that there are two of them which would explain why I think it moves sometimes. I am also a bit of an expert on George Osborne’s weight loss programme. Plus Ed Balls’ hand signals and Ed Miliband’s geekisms. But do I know these people?

I know a lot about them, their events, their habits and their politics. I have, as they say, history with them in that I sketched all of the leaders before they were leaders, when they were only aspiring to get to the top of their greasy pole. I have ridden on the Tube with David Cameron before anyone in the real world, as politicians say, knew who he was. I sketched Nick Clegg during that mad, brief, crazed period during the 2010 election debates when everyone was in love with him. I have been driven by Ed Balls around his constitutency, an experience I hope one day to be able to forget.

But do I know them? We do greet each other, if we have to (i.e. no way to avoid). But I would never claim it’s more than that. I haven’t been to their homes (I’m not counting Downing Street) or their dinner tables. I don’t think it would work for me to know them personally. My late great colleague, Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart often described how whenever he had a drink with one of his predecessors, Normal Schrapnel, MPs would try to tell Norman how much they enjoyed his work. Norman would, as quickly as possible, turn his back on them. One day Simon asked him why. “If I got to know them,” said Norman morosely, “it might spoil the purity of my hatred.” It’s a good story but I may ruin it by admitting that I don’t think I have any hatred. (Actually, I can think of a few exceptions, now that I am trying.)

“But do you like the Prime Minister?” they then ask (or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg or whomever).

Frankly, like doesn’t come into it. The Prime Minister is my job. I think I would find liking him or indeed non-liking him to be a deep irritation. It’s my job to tell it like it is. If I also had to worry, while I am doing that, if I am stabbing someone in the back, or indeed in the front, it would be just another complication. And politics, especially at the moment, is complicated enough.