PUBLISHED: 13:52 13 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:30 20 February 2013
Chelmsford's Simon Heffer, the frequently outraged right-wing columnist and creator of the phrase Essex Man, reveals his mild-mannered side to Pat Parker
IN PRINT, Simon Heffer, right-wing commentator and associate editor of the Daily Telegraph, is an irascible critic, lambasting Gordon Brown, and the hug-a-hoodie political correctness of David Cameron, whom he disparagingly refers to as 'Dave'.
He regularly fulminates in his bi-weekly column against the evils of high taxation, a welfare state which stifles self-reliance, and the EU, which he believes we should leave at our earliest convenience. His political hero is Enoch Powell, whose biography he wrote, and whose monetarist economics he admires. He has never really forgiven the Tory party for defenestrating Margaret Thatcher, and has had an ongoing feud with David Cameron which only now seems to be abating slightly.
Are they on speaking terms? 'I think he knows I have a principled disagreement with him. In terms of the slanging match, he started it. I never said anything bad about him, and then I pick up a copy of the Spectator three years ago where he says I'm not part of the problem with the Conservative Party, I am the problem. So I thought, if you want to play this game, I do this for a living, and if you want a fight, let's have a fight. I don't think he quite understood what he was getting into.'
A mild-mannered man
This may give the impression that Simon spends his life in a continuous state of rancour. Not so. In person, he is mild-mannered and courteous. He speaks terribly correctly, and rapidly, with polished vowels and measured tones.
He greets me at the door of his 200-year-old Georgian house just outside Great Leighs, near Chelmsford, and ushers me into the book-lined drawing room, where photos of ex-Rhodesian leader Ian Smith and Margaret Thatcher adorn the mantelpiece. His elder son Fred, on holiday from Eton, comes in to say hello. Simon apologises for not being able to offer me a coffee, as he's not sure how to make one. I think he's rather proud of his incompetence in the kitchen.
The man who coined the derogatory phrase 'Essex Man' actually has a deeply-held affection for the county he's lived in almost all his life. 'It's a wonderful place,' he says. 'It's largely very picturesque, has immense history, and enormous charm. Essex people are hard-working, respectable, decent people who have created a civilised community. And I love the countryside. I know it like the back of my hand.'
Simon was born in Woodham Ferrers, then a quiet Essex village, before it became subsumed into the modern South Woodham Ferrers. Ironically, for a man implacably opposed to over-taxation, both his parents were tax inspectors.
He was a precocious pupil at his village school, which had just 70 pupils, and passed his 11-Plus at the age of nine. 'I spent the last year and a half reading every book in the school library. I'd done everything else.'
He went on to the King Edward VI Grammar School (KEGS) in Chelmsford, where he distinguished himself academically, in sport, and as house captain and deputy head boy. He loved Latin and Greek, and ran the debating and history societies.
He still retains links with the school, attending prize-giving last Christmas, and donating to the sixth form college fund. Why then, was he educating his two sons privately at Eton, rather than at KEGS, a state grammar?
'I'm a huge admirer of my old school, and if my younger son hadn't got into Eton, which I regard as the best school in the world, I'd probably have asked KEGS if they'd have him, because it is probably better than 95% of public schools in this country. It's a fantastic school, as is the girls' high school. It's no reflection on KEGS at all, it's just I don't think there's anything I could spend my money on that's better than giving my children the best possible education.'
Simon went on to read English at Cambridge and toyed with the idea of becoming a stockbroker, until his then girlfriend suggested journalism. 'She inadvertently hit on the only talent I possessed.'
He applied to 80 newspapers and magazines, only to be rejected by every one. 'I wrote saying, "Look at me, I have a second-class degree in English from Cambridge, I'm obviously very clever and you must want to give me a job". And they wrote back with varying degrees of abuse.'
In desperation, he applied to be a sub-editor on a magazine for medical laboratory technicians. The interviewer asked him to find 20 grammatical errors in a text. He found 24, taking pains to explain the difference between gerunds and gerundives. 'I got the job on the spot.'
He worked there for 18 months, 'sharing an office with an Icelandic man-eater and a Jehovah's Witness'. He then moved to a more mainstream medical magazine, where his writing caught the attention of the then editor of The Times, who hired him as a leader writer at the age of just 25. He later moved to the Telegraph, before leaving after a row with the then editor Max Hastings over the ERM. 'He said we should stay in. I was right, and he was wrong.'
He moved to become deputy editor of the Spectator, and then the Telegraph, but left in a huff after the promised editorship of the Spectator went to Frank Johnson. He went off to write his biography of Enoch Powell, and work freelance for the Daily Mail. Billed as, 'irrepressible, irascible, irreverent,' he wrote an invective-filled Saturday column for ten years, before returning to the Telegraph three years ago.
It was in a piece in the Sunday Telegraph back in 1990 that Simon coined the phrase 'Essex Man' to describe the new high-earning, high-spending entrepreneurial class of aspirant, working-class Tory voters. 'I said they were the perfect Thatcherites - energetic, self-starting, entrepreneurial, and wanting to own their own homes and bring up their children properly. I put in some jokes about them, but what's wrong with that?'
He claims a subsequent article by another journalist in the Sunday Telegraph, making fun of ankle-chained Essex Girls, was, 'infinitely more damaging'.
There is a strong belief, certainly among the great and the good of Essex, that the phrase and the perceptions it created were extremely damaging to the county, not least in terms of economic investment, recruitment and tourism.
Simon vehemently disagrees. 'Essex doesn't have a negative image. If it did, it wouldn't be so wealthy. This is a fiction put about by people who want to spend our money trying to correct it. When I was a child, Essex was not a wealthy county. It now is, and it's Essex Man who's made it so.'
Although he is only 48, Simon Heffer can appear something of an anachronism, wedded to a romantic vision of England and a Thatcherite brand of Toryism that are fast disappearing. He vigorously disagrees.
'There are millions of people like me out there. They have no voice yet, but they will. Their time will come, although it may take another ten or 20 years. Not all my readers are geriatrics. I'm amazed at the number of people at university who read my column. I don't think we've seen the last of my brand of Conservatism. Far from it.'
David Cameron, take note.