Sweetly Terminal

Edward Pearce

  • Diaries by Alan Clark
    Weidenfeld, 421 pp, £20.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 297 81352 8

‘What’s all this?’

‘It’s the new line to take!’

‘How do you mean, “new”?’

‘There’s just been’ (plainly a lie, since she wouldn’t look at me) ‘a telegram from Number 10.’ I was cornered. The little Portuguese (for the whole of my time as Minister for Trade, I am going to find myself at every international conference where the participating countries are identified in French – Royaume Uni – sitting next to a little Portuguese) was coming to the end of his peroration.

Not, really, that it makes the slightest difference to the conclusions of a meeting, what ministers say at it. Everything is decided, horse-traded off, by officials at COREPER, the Council of Permanent Representatives. The Ministers arrive on the scene at the last minute, hot, tired, ill or drunk (sometimes all of these together), read out their piece and depart.

Some wanker called ‘Caserly’ (that just has to be a false name, probably someone on the editorial staff) has written an open letter to the (Western Evening) Herald saying how arrogant and ‘out of touch’ (yeah) I am, will lose my seat, SDP wave of the future, usual balls.

Actually, little White (Ambassador to Chile) isn’t so bad. A bit guarded, but that’s probably down to the secret FCO biog. which precedes me at all destinations. I am not getting on with his wife though. There is this certain type of woman who simultaneously demands that you make a pass (or at least flirt) and then gets show-outraged, demonstratively outraged if you do. I want to say fat chance dear, calm down.

The actual meal is a shambles, Mad Hatter’s tea party. The so-called Opposition is variously fragmented and, as is usual in such cases, the various fragments are barely on speaking terms. One who is tipped as a possibility for President [correctly tipped EP], a chap called Aylwin got drunk immediately and monologued persistently; although at one point he got into a spat with a couple of others about who ‘denounced’ whose sister during the period of military rule.

Frankly, I’d have put them all under arrest as they left the building. I might say that to Pinochet if I get to see him on Friday.

We opened a bottle of Palmer ‘61. Bruce (Anderson) laid down the law on personalities and ratings. My own shares are down badly after that slip on the Channel Tunnel. She was not going to keep Paul (Channon) on. Bernard had the briefing to hand ... Bruce was dismissive about Tristan, ‘not up to it’; and Gow, ‘can’t get a grip on things’. I don’t like this. These are my friends, I mean my close friends. Then he made matters worse by saying he had had a talk with Michael (Heseltine). ‘He is formidable.’ ‘He’, pause, ‘is’, pause, ‘formidable’.

I got him back to the station at four thirty, smelling powerfully of brandy. Seeing I was a bit dejected, Bruce said he would plug me with John Major and David (Young) ...

I went to Brooks’s, lost £150 and my appetite waned. Returned here and ate a toasted bun, first food since a banana at 1.30.

In the tea room I had a chat with Fallon, a nice cool whip. I complained about all this rotten, irrelevant, unnecessary legislation which clogs our time. Firearms, Football Supporters, War Crimes, Supermarket Trollies (Local Authority Recovery Powers) Restricted Amendment etc ad nauseam. Compounded with our abject failure to sort out the rioters at Strangeways Prison, it was all accumulating evidence of a government in decline. To my considerable pleasure, he was in complete agreement, citing additionally the Iraqi supergun. ‘We should be making them and selling them to everyone.’

‘Good God, all this stuff about a decline in our manufacturing capability, but they had to come here to get the barrels made didn’t they? We should put them in a trade fair.’ Splendid fellow.

On our return, I saw Tom alert and bristling, hackles up, at something in the corner of the peppercorn field where the fence crosses the dyke. Fearing a dead or wounded fox ... I walked over with a sinking heart.

It was a badger with still some life in it ... ‘Get some sacks.’ I told the boys. I muffled the badger and he went quiet, knowing I was a friend, while John worked with the wire-cutters.

Once he was released, the little Block squared up to us, bravely and aggressively. Then when he saw we made no move, he bumbled off at a Very fair pace toward the old railway line. I hope and believe he was saved by his rib cage. What is awful is when they worm their way down the noose by exhaling (as foxes, being more intelligent do) and then tighten it against the lower gut in a final effort to break free.

In spite of my early start, this diversion caused me to miss my train and thus the first of this morning’s dreary Meetings with Officials. Good! What are they beside the saving of a beautiful and independent creature of the wild?

Dale Campbell-Savours came in with an ill-natured supplementary – ‘Will the Minister ensure that his department ... does not get into bed with any of the companies from which the Member for Petersfield is drawing a retainer ...?’

Mates sat staring ahead with a face as black as thunder. Much uproar, ‘show’ indignation, points of order. When it settled, I was expected to make a pompous rebuttal; at the very least reference to the Committee on Members’ Interests, every confidence etc, etc.

But I don’t like Mates; the House doesn’t like Mates.

I said: ‘One thing I have learned, Mr Speaker, is that it is never the slightest use telling people who they shouldn’t go to bed with.’

I got the little Admiral round. People tried not to tell me his name, just referred to him as CFS (every one or thing here is denoted by their acronym. All part of a conspiracy to befuddle incomers). I told him that nuclear power was essential to the security of the country in two fields and two only: warheads and maritime propulsion. If we were to retain public support, or at least assent, for these we must lean over backwards in assuaging their environmental concerns. What he was proposing to do wasn’t just bad PR, it amounted to wilful sabotage.

He bounced about in his chair crossly. Conveyed he thought that I was half Red spy, half dogooder academic. Card marked ...

I see that everyone’s career is predicated on the horrendous Soviet ‘threat’. But that’s all balls. My problem is that as far as top management is concerned, I appear to be both a Red agent and the man’s who’s going to wreck their careers.

I fell into a conversation with Douglas Hurd. His is a split personality. A deux he is delightful, clever, funny, observant, drily cynical. But get him any where near ‘display’ mode, particularly if there are officials around, and he might as well have a corncob up his arse.

Michael Quinlan is benign: always hard to tell what he’s really thinking. Which is as it should be with Permanent Secretaries. The Chesterfieldian masque(?) which should be discarded only at times of acute crisis.

He [Bertie Denham] seemed pretty tight, but the Upper Classes remember what they hear and say when they were tight.

The only other character given heavy billing today is that ambitious creep, War(sic) grave.

Bumboy drivers in nasty little Alfa Romeo sedans took us from the heli-pad to the Villa Taranto.

The picture restorer in Bristol is helping with huge Duncan [Grant] centrepiece; the enormous canvas of the youth (Present it to the Terrence Higgins Trust, Jane said) ...

As far as I am concerned, ‘dirty tricks’ are part and parcel of effective government.

Always looking on the bright side, she said: ‘perhaps TK (Tom King)’s had an accident.’

What the fuck do you mean, Don’t Know? This isn’t a fucking street-canvas. It’s a two-horse race ...

Also in there, loathsomely conspiring, was little Kenneth Clarke.

I’ve got £700,000 in my Abbey National Crazy-High Interest account. But what’s the use? Ash, ash, all is ash.

Willie said that Nigel Wicks will be (sic) very good ... is very good ... BUT – a marvellous Willyism. Everyone says Wicks is useless.

This seems the only satisfactory way to write about the Alan Clark Diaries: set out hunks and small slivers like a buffet for the prospective readership to nibble and savour. The book has been ineptly ill-reviewed so far: furtive pieties on the infidelity front, squeaks from the girls on the Via Femina and bursts of general prissiness, notably from the FT which, anent Clark’s happy recollection of running three girls at once in the Fifties, finds ‘something distinctly vulgar about Clark’.

Let me declare an interest. I know Clark moderately well, though unlike ‘that fat creep Bruce Anderson’, this reviewer has never ‘invited himself down to Saltwood’. He is clever, original, brave and, where it matters, compassionate; he is also an acid test of political taste. Lots of people dislike, even detest Clark, which is permissible if wrong; fools think him unsound, unwise and mistaken; only those with a feel for flavour and quality admire him. He is an élite commodity. Being ultra rich, handsome, athletically fit, independent, a strong minister who got results, clever, rude, lucky with women and radioactively indiscreet, he enjoins detraction. You simply have to put up with the long straws he has drawn, walk back twenty paces and appreciate the perspective.

The point about the Diaries is that you can throw them open in the ejaculatory, random way of the more exalted evangelicals with the Bible, and invariably find something good. There are passages pertaining to sex, though nothing like as many as the drooling lesser media would have you think. There is a great deal of abuse, much of it glorious, concerning ambassadors, ambassadors’ wives, officials, the military, ‘that mad ninny’ Keith Hampson, Kenneth Clarke (good for cardiac arrest), Michael Heseltine and intermittently Tom King; though King appears both as odious faux bonhomme and quite decent fellow really whom Al was a bit rough about – these and an all-singing, all-dancing cast of thousands more. If you want to hear a politician talk about other politicians the exact way politicians do, only in a better-phrased, more literate and sweetly terminal way, this is your only man.

There are running wars with officialdom deviously putting Eurospeak into his tea, and with public upholders of official political morality (for feminists this must be the most politically incorrect book since the Koran). There is also a travelogue as the weary but implacable minister puts down in Sofia, Santiago or Helsinki, eyes the local talent, retches at HE’s wife, recoils from his own shaving mirror (‘Puffy and pink about the eyes, clearly precancerous’), approves the architecture, sniffs at the pictures before, as he puts it, ‘Caramba meets the Opposition at a formal dinner.’

The obiter dicta come tumbling out, giving offence the way a grenade breaks up a cocktail party. The Finns don’t have an immigration policy, they just ‘want immigrants to look like us Finns’. Offence is given like alms (that crack about always having to sit next to a little Portuguese): deeply unfair, racially prejudiced, aucun esprit communautaire, brutally triumphalist, not helpful. Clark’s is a chronicle of under-the-breath speaking. A polite phone exchange ends in an ‘Oh Fuck’ or ‘Does he, the Cunt?’ the way the conversation of any real, striving, combative man’s does.

What we have here, merely in its political aspect, is a politician painted, as Thackeray said no one in his age could be, ‘as a man’. Ambition, even less than sex, has its legs covered up. The jobs are coveted, the shape of their behinds gloated over, their inaccessibility groaned about. When they come, places at Environment, Trade and Defence, the response is both orgasmic and triste. This is a live politician set up in section-drawing, bowel included. This is how they are and there’s no point in getting the bowdlerised edition. Politics is the most extreme form of market competition, subject at all times to violent attempts to rig it. Any attempt to portray it in any other light is sanctimony; Clark who has been there, yearned, chased and, in a modest way, caught, is its honest chronicler.

He is good on all politics, not just his own: witness the delusions of David Young, who really thought he might be prime minister, and the avidities and excitements of Tristan Garel-Jones. Garel-Jones is another original and a Clark friend, though the object of deranged hatred on the Thatcherite anti-European right, where Clark is supposed to dwell. But the book is a corrective to such lazy simplicities. He dislikes Europe for being thick with viscous anti-language, for breeding an undead civil service. But he has nothing in common with the Anti-Maastricht loons, only three of whom would survive contact with a sense of humour. His pro-Maggieness is part chivalry, part ambition – getting on with the boss – part admiration for her crazy certainties, partly the function of her very creditable willingness to listen to him, a redeeming virtue in the lady but not enough! Instructively, since most of Clark’s judgments are morally sound, he is also nice about John Major, who tries to be helpful. He gets on with left-wing Labour men like the tirelessly depressing Bob Cryer, but does so injuriously: ‘Activists, and like all activists, wanting more money for less work, no different really to the chinless riff-raff hanging around Smith’s Lawn’. One thanks God for not being in his index.

Admiration for the entire Clark approach should not excuse nonsenses, one a very ugly nonsense. Observing that ‘MPs tend to die in batches,’ he has to attend the funeral of David Penhaligon, killed when his car collided with a post van on Christmas morning.

I don’t see what all the fuss was about. P was an unmemorable figure really, with his (demibogus) West Country vowels and homespun philosophy. But he personified, I suppose, a kind of soft-centre Cornish provincialism.

    Come to think of it, he had something of a dud, down-market Jock Masarene (and Ferrard) ...

Not fair, not true, entirely missing the flavour and the charm, and the fingertip understanding Penhaligon had for his own necessarily provincial party – which is currently screwing the Tories. This was Clark being unkind under temperamental compulsion. Less unpleasant but even more wrong is his aversion to ‘that toad Appleyard’ who, mysteriously, seems to have made a vertical ascent up both Clark nostrils in Budapest. Leonard Appleyard is precisely the sort of ambassador whom Clark, slayer of verbicidal, glacial men looking right in evening-dress, should be cheering on. He speaks the language, pursued evidence like an ace reporter and went after the movers and shakers of the Hungarian transformation of 1987-90 like a lobby correspondent on commission.

This is an account of the mêlée of real politics from a clever, candid, creative and endearing minister, the author of the Defence Review, also a sustained piece of excellent writing. With its love for animals and its timor mortis, it is the record of an acute melancholy louring above the champagne and the great game. In a hundred years’ time, it will be opened as Pepys is for ten minutes at a go, by anyone seeking the sheer pleasure of which it is a deep well.