Edward Pearce, the Telegraph parliamentary sketchwriter (1979-87) and Moral Maze panellist who died last month, was known for his witty invective. Matthew Parris quoted him on Jim Callaghan: “If you were hanging from a ledge by your fingers, he’d stamp on them.”
Colleagues we spoke to for the obituary remembered him as quirky and chippy, “an extreme right-wing leftie”. He once wrote a piece in the Spectator on “why I have long disliked the sight of this magazine” in which he bashed its “brutish Europhobia” and “snob-flecked malice towards the Prime Minister” (John Major).
He was also prone to losing his temper. One contemporary saw him getting agitated during a discussion with the Telegraph’s editor Bill Deedes, picking up a heavy glass ashtray and waving it around. Worried that the ashtray might fly out of Pearce’s hand, the friend found himself edging closer to Pearce so that if need be he could dive at him and deflect the ashtray.
It is fun to hear journalists reminiscing about eccentric figures like Pearce. In putting obits together you also have to go through paper cuttings, which offers the same sort of pleasure that you get from stumbling on a yellowing newspaper page that has been used to line a drawer.
Today most newspaper archives are digitised by companies such as Gale Historical Newspapers. In this way you can browse and cross-search all Pearce’s parliamentary sketches. Nowadays they read as quite dense and involved, not light-touch – though good lines can be picked out: Michael Heseltine, for example, induced “a feeling of unease; rather like Goering playing the piano, it doesn’t seem quite right”.
And a striking feature is the relative frequency of biblical references. For example, when a politician resorts to repeating a tedious formula, “numbing opponents by iteration”, Pearce compares it to the slogan, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”, which was chanted to St Paul by a mob of rioting silversmiths at Ephesus after Paul condemned their shrines to Diana (Acts 19). On another occasion Roy Hattersley is quizzing Margaret Thatcher about sanctions against the South African apartheid regime. Mrs Thatcher repeats the same “dull, departmentally vetted” formula, that she is against violence from either side.
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