John Crace on sketch writers – the pirates of the papers

By Sarah Purnell

I’m early. I sit near the back of the boat at first, but then a wave of courage and I find myself second row from the front. We’re at sea, I think. The canvas slaps in the wind, someone manoeuvres around the central mast for a better view, they remove their jacket because it’s warm. Tropical, even. The rest of the crew slowly assembles and the Guardian’s political sketch writer John Crace stands up to the helm. He is a jolly roger.

“I’m here to talk about people that are dishonest for a living,” he says, referring to the politicians he reports on daily. This feels like this is the crux of what sketch writing as good as Crace’s achieves. Politicians don’t lie. But they don’t tell the truth. And that can leave people in shark-infested water when it comes to trying to interpret it.

Sketch writers are the pirates of the papers: “the rogue element that can’t be controlled”. Crace explains that sometimes it’s difficult to write the daily sketch, and then sometimes government figures almost write the sketches for him.

The author reads from his book, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, in which the coalition is scripted in ways that we might like to secretly (or not so secretly) imagine. “Now here’s the thing, friends,” says Milliband in Crace’s sketch How not to give a party leader speech. The Cult of Farage, an exceptional Boris Jonson impression, the innocent verdict of Rebecca Brooks; it is as though Crace forces people to walk the plank and asks them to try to talk their way out of it.

By stripping away the hyperbole, the smoke and mirrors, you find yourself thinking: “Why didn’t I see it like that at the time?” Ker-sploosh.

I’m in a marquee, and it’s late afternoon. I know we’re not on a pirate ship, but I can’t help but feel the sense of raucous camaraderie that Crace instils in us. He’s made each person laugh out loud, letting us feel like it’s OK to be openly cynical of political embellishment. He writes with a wit and intuitiveness which proves hilarious, and enviable! And maybe I also enjoy being a little bit pirate.

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