Going Flat Out, National Front and All

Ian Hamilton

  • Diaries: Into Politics by Alan Clark
    Weidenfeld, 389 pp, £20.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 297 64402 5
  • The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists edited by Irene Taylor and Alan Taylor
    Canongate, 684 pp, £25.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 86241 920 4
  • The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt. Vol. III: From Major to Blair edited by Sarah Curtis
    Macmillan, 823 pp, £25.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 333 77406 X

Do you have a friend who keeps a diary, a journal intime? If so, you’d better watch your mouth – indeed, watch everything about yourself, the way you dress, the way you eat, and what you eat, how much you drink, who pays the bill, and so on. Be careful, but be careful not to seem too careful:

Dec. 14: Lunch with IH. Shifty fucker, absurdly self-conscious. Ate next to nothing and pretended not to drink. Even so polished off two thirds of bottle. Indifferent muck, thank Christ – not that he’d know. Wants something from me, I’m convinced, but what? Fidgeted throughout. Monosyllabic when quizzed by me re. future. Seemed to know I didn’t give a toss. What is he after/up to? I’ll find out soon enough, no doubt. Perhaps the bastard keeps a diary.

Most diarists claim that their jottings are completely private, not meant for publication, embargoed for a million years, and all the rest of it. Diaries, they say, are like the friends they never had, and – people being what they are – could not expect to have. The idea is that if you have a journal to whisper to at bedtime, you reduce the temptation to speak out unguardedly, in public, during working hours. You can therefore lead a well-adjusted double life: dissembling all day and at nightfall revealing to your trusty Letts how crooked you have really been. A diary is thus like a priest, an inner priest, an inner ear: it listens but it doesn’t care. You can tell it anything, the lot, and it won’t make you feel ashamed.

Well, not tonight, not yet. There are of course high-minded diarists who contend that making a daily tally of their conduct can improve their moral health, that when they look back on what they were like in 1996, they can get a fix on how much nicer they are now. And this in turn keeps them up to the mark: they do things that won’t seem too terrible in four years’ time. Or forty. Even the most rudimentary diary can have this usefulness. ‘Did I really have lunch so often with him/her? Assuredly, I’ve travelled far since then. And, even allowing for inflation, did I really . . . ?’ And so on.

Since the diaries we get to read are usually those which have managed to be published, we tend not to believe much in the idea of a self-reckoning composed for oblivion, or for the mortal self. But the illusion of secrecy does appear to matter at the time of writing, and for a period thereafter. Diarists seem to like to fear that their disclosures may be chanced on by their most intimate companions: husbands, parents, wives – those people in their lives who think they know what’s really going on. Does this mean that diarists – like adulterers (and most diarists do seem to be adulterers) – are actually yearning to be rumbled? Well, probably; or maybe not. Who, if anyone, did Samuel Pepys think he was fooling when he wrote, in his now famously transparent code, that ‘Yo did take her, the first time in my life, sobra mi genus and did poner mi minu sub her jupes and toca su thigh’? (In a later entry, Pepys proudly records that Mrs Pepys, having learned the truth of his most recent indiscretion, is feeling pretty good. Sam has lain with her as a husband ‘more times since this falling-out than in I believe twelve months before – and with more pleasure to her then I think in all the time of our marriage before’.)

Alan Clark’s Diaries 1983-91, published a few years ago, were applauded for their beastly candour but Clark was nowhere near as winningly ingenuous as Pepys. Mrs Clark was generally pitied at the time for having to put up with such a brute but on the whole she emerged from her husband’s disclosures with her dignity intact – indeed she was at times portrayed as even more cynical and snobbish than he was. Somewhat in the Jeffrey Archer mode, Clark plays the naughty boy, and turns his wife into a parent – strict but merciful, the custodian of his best self. Since Clark’s death last year, his widow has paid tribute to his sensitive prowess as an adulterer. He caused her much pain, she has confessed, but never quite too much. Bully for him, then, so to speak.

In his introduction to the first volume of his Diaries, Clark claimed that they were printed as he had written them and had not been tidied up. ‘Much of course has been excised,’ he said. ‘But of what remains nothing has been altered since the day it was written . . . Sometimes lacking in charity; often trivial; occasionally lewd; cloyingly sentimental, repetitious, whingeing and imperfectly formed. For some readers the entries may seem to be all of these things. But they are real diaries.’ But are they, can they be ‘real diaries’, if ‘much has been excised’? Well, they were real enough for quite a lot of people – some 300,000, we are told – and for weeks after their appearance the salons were abuzz with talk of ‘nouves’ and ‘toffs’, and how to tell the difference between them. Clark’s quip (although it wasn’t really his) about how Michael Heseltine had to buy his own furniture was widely cited as the nadir of bona fide toffdom.

But was Alan Clark himself a toff? His family millions had been amassed by his great-grandfather, a Paisley textiles merchant. Newish money, then, but older certainly than Heseltine’s. And Alan, moreover, was the son of a celebrated aesthete, Kenneth Clark, whose cultivated snootiness made the cash seem older than it was. And as to his son’s personal credentials: who could fault them? He went to Eton and to Oxford, he lived in a castle stuffed with priceless paintings, he owned garage-loads of vintage cars, he belonged to Brooks and Pratts and regularly lost large sums at Aspinalls – playing backgammon, not roulette. He was posher, by far, than Margaret Thatcher and most of the cowed arrivistes in her Cabinet. And, to cap it all, he’d written several books (both fiction and non-fiction). He had claims to be thought of as an intellectual. Who else, in Thatcher’s Parliament, could say the same?

Westminster, in Clark’s diary-portrayal, was peopled almost wholly by buffoons and crooks. The Laird of Saltwood, it was evident, had no need to spend his days doing what they did: sucking up to Thatcher, plotting the downfall of mediocre rivals, pretending to take an interest in the squalid misfortunes of constituents. Clark was a volunteer, an amateur who on the tiniest of whims could instantly repair to Kent in order to repair his moat, or to swap a few more of his daddy’s paintings for a few more vintage cars. And as to the politics, here too he was above the dreary fray. He had no real political principles but he did have quite a few well-rooted prejudices and was not afraid to voice them. Upper-class gut instincts, if presented with sufficient vehemence, could easily be passed off as ideals. He was an old-style patriot, he liked to say. He wanted Britain to have lots more guns, and more opportunities to use them. He wanted to cut down on welfare handouts, immigration quotas and so on. Although Thatcher was his social inferior, he saw her as a spiritual kinsperson. Indeed, his rare moments of bewilderment were usually to do with her fluctuating attitude to him: why didn’t she recognise their kinship, why didn’t she turn to him for help? Maybe she didn’t fancy him, or was it that she fancied him too much? Puzzles of this sort did not keep Clark awake at night, but they did leave one or two small puncture marks on his disdain.

And these were pleasing to behold. On the whole, though, his Diaries were ablaze with sexual vanity. This being so, one might have expected him to see a bit more action. Perhaps the more lurid of his sexual antics were excised. Or was he, as he sometimes feared, over the hill? Still, it was a rare politician who could talk so freely of his ‘urges’, and even of his W.D.s (wet dreams), and maybe the chief triumph of the Diaries was in Clark’s presentation of his randiness as just another aspect of his lofty status, as a folie de seigneur (the ‘succulent’ young girls whose ‘globes’ he finds so enticing tend to be from the lower orders). Most of his readers were not used to such posh spice and even those who deplored Clark’s snobberies found themselves warming to his raddled ‘honesty’. Here, for once, was a politico who didn’t pretend to be concerned about the public weal. Clark was in politics for fun, for the wet dream of consummate preferment: ‘What a rich, varied and exciting world politics is . . . How inextricably woven are the different strands of greed, ambition, cowardice and idealism. No one’s motives are pure; certainly not mine.’

The new volume of Diaries, subtitled ‘Into Politics’, is a posthumous selection covering Clark’s ‘early years’ – that’s to say, the years 1972-82. It has been put together by Ion Trewin, with the collaboration of Clark’s widow and is nowhere near as fun-filled as Clark’s own selection. Indeed, much of the new volume is quite plodding. When the narrative begins, Clark (aged 44) has just been granted ownership of Saltwood Castle by his ailing father, and a good deal of his journalising over the next few years is to do with property and money. From 1972 to 1980, the Clark finances are in trouble, or so he believes. The deeds of the castle are in the hands of bankers, interest is piling up on various overdrafts and gambling losses are eating into the cash flow. Rather tiresomely, Clark’s father is taking a long time to die, so it is not easy to ship paintings to the saleroom. All in all, a chap can get to feeling somewhat bleak:

Sitting at my desk with a heavy heart. On top: the ineradicable, obsessional worry about money. Just what am I going to do when we get back, faced with instant outgoings like mortgage on Silks cottages, school fees, stock exchange, plus balance to be paid Lermatt for the delightful 2-door Shadow. Immediate decision on ‘culling’ rest of collection to bare minimum – but will these be dissipated, when I meant to concentrate them in the Classic car a/c? One side effect of this obsession is growing identity of salvation with Hitler in 1943, that carries with it unhappy overtones of inevitability.

This Hitler preoccupation crops up with regularity and when Clark decides to stand for Parliament he sees himself as closer to the National Front than to the Tory Party faithful he gets saddled with in his inconveniently placed Plymouth constituency. The National Front ‘still keeps alive the tribal essence’, he believes, and when he meets two NF members at his Plymouth surgery he ‘thought how good they were, and how brave’. Later on, he amuses himself at a dinner party by explaining to the German woman next to him that Hitler was ‘ahead of his time’. How so, the shocked German wants to know. In reply, Clark constructs ‘some sentence, clear in syntax but ambivalent in meaning, about the genetic need for racial purity. Then, seeing how shocked she was, developed it.’ Later still, he similarly shocks a Tory journalist by telling him: ‘Yes . . . I was a Nazi, I really believed it to be the ideal system, and that it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races that it was extinguished . . . Oh yes, I told him I was completely committed to the whole philosophy. The blood and the violence was an essential ingredient of its strength, the heroic tradition of cruelty every bit as powerful and a thousand times more ancient than the Judaeo-Christian ethic.’

If anything other than boredom took Clark into politics, it was surely a ‘man of destiny’ fixation. ‘What does the future hold for me? How far will I go?’ But he also fears that this moment may have passed. Several entries here are given over to his ‘collapsing looks and physique’, his declining levels of testosterone and other menopausal setbacks. And when he actually gets to Parliament, he finds that ‘destiny’ is not a concept that means much to his up-struggling co-members. One by one, we find them written off: ‘Loathsome, oily Leon Brittan’, ‘the odious Heseltine’, ‘that prick John Patten . . . so ambitious that he squeaks when he walks’, ‘that lazy, greasy slob John Hunt’, ‘that toad John Major . . . who has always loathed me’ and so on. Only the blessed Thatcher seems properly fanatical, and thus begin Clark’s twenty-something years of unrequited worship. (‘Goodness, she is beautiful,’ he sighs from time to time, but how can one so lovely be so cruel? ‘I quickly composed my features and framed a deferential smile. To my great alarm she looked straight through me, her own expression altering to one of icy disdain.’

Clark the caddish ladies’ man is, in his mid-forties, rather less fidgety than he gets to be in his mid-sixties. Maybe it was the money-worry, maybe it was Margaret or maybe in these troubled years Clark’s waning stamina was fully stretched. We hear of ‘the blondes’ and ‘the coven’ and we take these to be the mother-and-two-daughters combo that came back to haunt him in his later years. And at one point there is a mistress who needs paying off (£5000 is the agreed figure, although Jonathan Aitken considers this to be too much: ‘I should have offered her £4000 and the briefcase,’ he says). On the whole, though, we don’t feel that Clark is thoroughly committed to the path of rakishness. In these early, or earlier, diaries his wife, Jane, is more formidably visible than in the 1983-91 volume, where she is reckoned to be ‘game and jolly’. The mid-life Clark is frequently grateful for her ‘astute’ career advice and her downbeat views on human nature (‘her usual combination of wit and good sense’). How bracing it must have been to be told by her at breakfast: ‘You must face the fact that there are quite a lot of people dotted about who would be quite glad to see you put away for two years.’ Was Jane one of these, we have to wonder. It seems not. When she is not being astute, we glimpse her scouring saucepans, cleaning out the pool or battling with Clark’s VAT returns. All in all, she seems grateful for her lot. Certainly, from time to time, she gets impatient with Clark’s discontent. When, early on, he is heard grumbling about his stiff legs and back pain or about his dwindling collection of old cars, Jane ‘rightly’ ticks him off, reminding him that he is:

(a) Relaxed millionaire and superimposing on that (b) Gov. St Thomas’s Hospital; (c) Parliamentary candidate for distant seat; (d) stately-home-owner; (e) car-dealer; (f) fighting single-handed battles with Council, developing property etc.

And yet if I was your (c) and (d), with just a little of (e) thrown in, there would be nothing creative going back; nothing in value for all that God has given one. I still think I should go flat out, go for the Monday Club choice, take in the whole lot, National Front and all.

I suppose it is this that really fills me with gloom – the prospect of sacrificing probably for ever, certainly until I am too old to enjoy it, the happy celebration of a secure and lazy family life for the unrelenting grind of a mission. Yet, I suppose I must do it.

Clark is not often given to such searching bouts of self-assessment. Mostly, when he is not totting up his wrinkles, he is up and doing, and we on the whole would rather be tracking the intrigues and follies of his daily life than listening to him taking stock. And this, I suppose, is what we look to diaries for: the opportunity to eke out someone else’s days. Much of the pleasure is in the practical minutiae, the neurotic repetitions, the contradictions and delusions. We like diaries to unfold, at snail’s pace. And maybe this is why, as a genre, they don’t lend themselves to selections and anthologies. The Assassin’s Cloak, for instance, (‘an anthology of the world’s great diaries’), is as thorough and wide-ranging as could be, with snippets from almost everyone, from Pepys to Clark, from Wesley to Warhol, but it is more of a good guide than a good read: it points us to things that we would like to follow up.

Woodrow Wyatt is well-represented in The Assassin’s Cloak. He has almost as many entries as Alan Clark, with whom he is sometimes – as a diarist – compared. Certainly, Wyatt rivals Clark in self-importance, but he lacks Clark’s sour and thwarted disposition. In general, he is content to play the attendant lord, hosting grand dinner parties, humouring Norman Lamont, condescending to dispense advice to Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Each of them, according to Wyatt’s diaries, looks to him for guidance, either in person or via his News of the World ‘Voice of Reason’ column. After a couple of hundred pages, we are meant to wonder how our leaders and manipulators will manage to get along without him, now he’s gone. Clark felt that his wisdom was ignored; Wyatt was convinced, it seems, that everyone who mattered needed him.

Did he really believe this, or was he simply dotty? Clark calls him ‘less ga-ga than he seems’, and leaves us to work out what this means. But then Wyatt calls Clark ‘mad as a hatter’. Of the two, I’d say that Woodrow had the slight edge, madness-wise. Or maybe all I mean by this is that Wyatt seems much happier than Clark, in spite of – on the face of it – having less to be happy about. He truly believed himself to be ‘well-loved’. Like Clark, he worshipped Thatcher. But in his case, the worship was not spurned. On the contrary, Margaret – as represented in these diaries – can barely get through the day without a fix of Wyatt wisdom. And much the same went for John Major, so we are led to understand. Perhaps it is all true. At the very least, perhaps Wyatt believed it to be true. We have to note, though, that in the 900-plus pages of Thatcher’s Downing Street Years, Wyatt gets but one inconsequential mention. So too, alas, does Alan Clark.