On the Blower

Peter Clarke

  • The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt: Volume I edited by Sarah Curtis
    Macmillan, 748 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 333 74166 8

Sensitive and introspective persons keep a journal secure in the knowledge that their secrets will never be exposed to public scrutiny. This was hardly why, in 1985, the former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt began his diary. Sir Woodrow, having then served for nearly a decade as chairman of the Horserace Totalisator Board, had yet to reach his apotheosis with the life peerage that validated his sobriquet, Lord Toad of Tote Hall. Confidant of Margaret Thatcher, columnist in the News of the World, professional diner-out and social climber, Wyatt spotted his opportunity. His diary would be a secret but was, from the outset, intended for publication. Its rationale was as a nice little earner.

The late Lord Toad has duly achieved his triumph. Within a year of his death, extracts from his diaries have been serialised in the Sunday Times and this seven-hundred-page volume was piled high among the Christmas books. Since it covers only the first three years, there is plainly more where it came from, to satisfy public demand and to supply Wyatt’s heirs with the good things in life, to which they have long become accustomed. That his motive was to provide for his family is made amply clear in these pages. That there has also been a price to pay can be inferred from the conditions which he imposed on publication.

Wyatt’s fourth wife, Verushka, was not shown the manuscript, clearly on the hard-nosed calculation that its efficacy in securing her financial security should not be compromised by the exercise of any nice feelings on her part. No doubt there is more to her than the frivolous and self-absorbed spendthrift depicted in her late husband’s diary; but he was evidently determined to show this picture to the world if it would boost sales. Similarly, their daughter Petronella must have acquired some competence in becoming a successful journalist; but the story on which her father dwells is of a spoilt child whose place at Oxford, already tainted by his own backstairs machinations, was thrown up after a week or so, on a whim which he further indulged by again seeking backstairs access through his cronies, this time to University College London, which had the crucial advantage that Petronella could continue to be pampered at home.

Verushka and Petronella can presumably chuckle all the way to the bank over the old man’s posthumous practical joke. It is a shame that his own elder brother is no longer alive to see the funny side of some of the things said about him. ‘I am always faintly embarrassed about my brother,’ Woodrow wrote, ‘because he is such a fearful name-dropper and combines vulgarity with illiteracy, most of which he acquired from his wife who already had false teeth when he met her during the war when she was a chorus girl.’ Comments on Verushka’s ‘latest face-lift’ seem mild by comparison.

The spirit in which Wyatt proceeded is apparent from the very first entry. The journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft is berated for his ‘terrible manners’ in turning up late for a Tote lunch and for having brought, ‘uninvited and without warning, a woman who looked like a bedraggled, tired prostitute’ – Germaine Greer, as it turns out. Within six months, Wyatt had shown some of the entries to a publisher, ‘to know whether he thought it was worth going on writing it’. The latter’s favourable response – ‘marvellous’, ‘outrageous’ – reassured him that he was on the right track, with the prospect of an immediate advance to encourage him. But suppose Mrs Thatcher heard of it? Wyatt’s need for secrecy to preserve his sources triumphed over his eagerness to cash in prematurely on his little literary scheme.

In one sense, then, Wyatt’s lifestyle can be seen not as an extravagance but as an investment. ‘I find it very odd always at Cavendish Avenue,’ he wrote of one dinner at home for 15 people, ‘when I have a room full of people immensely rich, yet I have difficulty in scraping by and am almost without capital.’ But where would Wyatt have been without his contacts among the rich and famous who graced his table and drank his wine? Not only did he snatch at their tittle-tattle and inside information for immediate consumption, in the manner of a newspaper columnist with deadlines to meet; he was also taking care, through his diary, to lay down vintage gossip for future use.

It was undoubtedly a fine moment when the Duke of Devonshire declared: ‘Woodrow your hospitality is so lavish that it might almost be thought vulgar.’ But the real trick was to keep from the Duke any suspicion that such display was the result of clever management strategies rather than of open-handed generosity, still less of a bottomless purse. With as many as 14 at table, Wyatt was conscious of the risk of having to open a fourth bottle of seriously good claret – ‘Fortunately I got away with three this time’ – and he was adroit in rationing the older champagnes to a few privileged guests. Still, the costs of entertainment were inevitably heavy. It is only with the entry of these Journals into the bestseller lists that the returns have finally justified Wyatt’s far-sighted outlay, which he disguised as hospitality on an aristocratic scale when it was in fact a thrifty exercise in the bourgeois ethic of self-help as enjoined by Samuel Smiles.

Little wonder that Wyatt cut such a dash at the Thatcherite court, with his unmatched instinct for squaring the social circle in which he moved. Ribbed over his life peerage by the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Vestey one day in the House of Lords, ‘I refrained from saying, “I’m sorry my family didn’t make enough money out of corned beef in time for me to have been a hereditary peer,” which is what happened to the Vestey family.’ Wyatt relished the fact that his friend Arnold Weinstock, the self-made chairman of GEC, who had lost his butler to the Duke of Westminster, was subsequently able to get him back because the butler found that ‘he preferred the more patrician and traditional surroundings offered by Arnold.’ The moral was that money can indeed buy everything.

Wyatt’s cash-register mind was always busy. ‘You’re a bore about money,’ Roy Jenkins told him. The reason is not hard to find. His pleasure at the social splash made by Petronella – ‘more adult than ever, amusing and pretty’ – is immediately calibrated: she seemed ‘immensely rich with no one knowing it was a total outlay of £200 for dresses which last year cost some £3000 or £4000’. Wyatt’s 70th birthday was properly commemorated by the generosity of those friends who not only knew that wine was the right thing to give but also what wine. There were four bottles of Château Pétrus 1970 from the Duke of Beaufort (‘They cost the earth, or at any rate some £70 a bottle I would imagine, if not more’). Then there was the 1949 Château Latour (‘immensely valuable’). And four bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1970 (‘It must be worth about £70 a bottle’). There was Bollinger RD 1976 from Julian Amery and no less than a case of Krug 1975 from Chips Keswick. ‘Immensely generous of him’ is all that Wyatt can write. Can he really have expected us to believe that he was quite unable to put a price on it? There were few human transactions which escaped the bottom-line reductionism that Wyatt made his stock-in-trade. ‘It is strange how so many of the old are determined to do good for a future they will never see,’ he muses, like Candide at accountancy college.

His desire to shock retains an undergraduate freshness, overlaid with a worldliness which left him determined never to be out-trumped in cynicism. Trite and silly as political correctness may sometimes be, it takes someone like Wyatt to bring home the mindlessness of knee-jerk incorrectness. When Elspeth Howe complained about the women having to withdraw after dinner at Cavendish Avenue, Wyatt explained that ‘it was sensible that the women should go away and rearrange themselves and talk about what they wanted to while the men had a serious conversation much of which would be boring to women, as I know very well.’ Trying to decide whether this sort of thing is flatulent posturing or whether Wyatt had simply become an old fart is not worth the effort: either way it cannot be taken seriously.

What redeems these journals is that they have some good stories to tell and that Wyatt remained a good enough journalist to know how to tell them. Vain, snobbish, materialistic, greedy, reactionary and opinionated he may often appear, but at least he does not cover up his own lapses, foibles and frailties. At dinner one night this philistine meets ‘the wife of a famous pianist (Alfred Brendel): she is surprised I have never heard of him’. Nor, on first encounter, has the man who knows everybody heard of Tony O’Reilly, either as an Irish wing-threequarter or in his later position as head of the Heinz organisation. Yet when meeting Jack Heinz a few months later, the man of the world from the News of the World unabashedly puts us all in the picture: ‘He didn’t found the Heinz beans empire but he inherited it. He could never have founded it. Nor does he run it: Mr O’Reilly does.’

And the biggest story of all? Wyatt shows himself well aware that the value of his diary rests largely on its account of his relationship with Margaret Thatcher. Their long telephone calls on Sunday mornings give Lord Toad of Tote Hall his chance to become the Boswell of the blower. Here alone he invites the reader to suspend a cynical assessment of mutual advantage, and instead to eavesdrop on a meeting of minds and hearts. ‘One of the reasons I love you,’ he tells her, ‘is that you don’t have enough cunning and you’re not a devious person.’ It is her vulnerability that appeals to his chivalrous instincts. These soulmates are shown transcending the weakness of the flesh in their missionary endeavours. ‘Neither of us can be ill,’ she says. ‘We have to keep on fighting.’

Despite their different stations in life – she at the pinnacle of power in Downing Street, he a scribbler in the pay of Rupert Murdoch – Wyatt is not shy to confess to her private secretary: ‘I’m a little bit in love with her.’ After this vicarious declaration, nothing could ever be the same. ‘You looked beautiful,’ is the message after the 1986 Conservative Party Conference, ‘so beautiful that I fell in love with you all over again.’ In the springtime, the declaration had to be repeated; and a year later, Wyatt finds himself choking in sorrow – ‘My dear darling’ – over her tribulations. On her birthday that October there are red roses at Number 10, and when he affirms, ‘I’m in love with you,’ she giggles.

Whether Wyatt exaggerates the degree of his influence with Thatcher is a pertinent question. It seems clear that he was circumspect in not flaunting his access to her. ‘I keep it very quiet,’ he remarks. ‘She is always giving it away.’ Wyatt’s keen sense of self-interest told him to keep quiet about a goose whose golden eggs he badly needed. When others flattered him with talk of his direct line to the Prime Minister, he always made deadpan responses. Moreover, we have the authority of Sarah Curtis, who has edited these diaries with admirable discretion, for accepting the integrity of the text as that dictated by Wyatt at the time (or at most with revisions in the same week).

Wyatt was vain, but no fool. When Kingsley Amis showed that he knew as much as Wyatt himself about Mexican myths, the comment is characteristic in its mutually admiring embrace: ‘He knows a lot, Kingsley.’ Wyatt’s vanity insulated him against both sensitivity to the exposure of petty error and reproof to his confidently held opinions. There is plenty here to convict him of getting things wrong, though often in good company, as in an encounter with Nigel Lawson during the final, hubristic phase of his Chancellorship. ‘He is not fussed about the deficit,’ Wyatt wrote. ‘He thinks, as I do, that it will be likely to take care of itself.’

Wyatt enjoyed the reflected glory of the Thatcherite court. He basked in his reputation as the hero whose advice to Thatcher had saved the General Election of 1987. He had certainly done his bit in passing on crucial advice about the taxation issue from his employer. ‘“Appeal to their greed,” said Rupert.’ Above all, Wyatt had urged the Tories to scrap their initial campaign strategy and concentrate all attention on the Prime Minister herself. This advice came over the telephone as music to her ears, rather like an up-market answering service, but to more immediate effect. It was at this stage that Wyatt’s political love-affair reached its climax. ‘She’s the most remarkable woman of the century and the outstanding prime minister of the century,’ he lectured an insufficiently admiring dinner companion.

Still refusing to take the Conservative whip in the Lords, Wyatt persistently commended Thatcher as a radical who had carried through a revolution. ‘Britain will never be the same again,’ he records assuring her. ‘Labour will be either forced to become like the Democratic Party in America or never be in power again.’ On this reading, the trouble with Woodrow, the former Gaitskellite whose own career had become a Smilesian parable, was that he was New Labour before his time, forced to support a Conservative Government that had been induced to betray its conservative heritage through sheer force of personality. And his own influence on the remarkable woman whose weekly telephone calls became his finest hour (or twenty minutes, at least)? ‘Usually she does 65 per cent of the talking. It’s a question of whether I take any notice, not whether she does.’