Ferdinand Mount mourns the passing of his friend and colleague — and a former Spectator columnist — whose wit, humour and clarity of expression remain unrivalled
As Alan Watkins lay dying last Saturday, his younger grandson Harry recited to him the passage from Macbeth he had just learnt at school. It was an apt send-off for the most enchanting political commentator of his day, as meanwhile in Downing Street Birnam Wood was inching closer to Dunsinane (though to be fair to Macbeth he did not claim that he was merely ‘securing a progressive coalition’). To those who professed to be shocked by the shenanigans of the past few days, Alan would surely have rolled his great bloodhound eyes and sighed, ‘politics is a rough old trade, you know’.
The pity of it is that he did not stay long enough to give one of his meticulous and irresistible blow-by-blow accounts as he did of the fall of Margaret Thatcher in A Conservative Coup. As it is, we had to content ourselves with the last column he wrote for the Independent on Sunday three weeks ago, after he had given up the kidney dialysis (a sort of DIY Dignitas). There he declared himself to be in a minority of one in refusing to be dazzled by the first TV debate between the party leaders. Mr Cameron’s Big Society was, he thought, a nightmarish vision ‘reminiscent of nothing so much as J.J. Rousseau’s work The Social Contract whose notion of the active citizen foretends some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution’. Mr Clegg was adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath, but ‘he did not have anything to teach Mr Cameron, still less poor Mr Brown, who chews gum even when he does not have anything to chew’.
I first met Alan in the gloomy basement dining room of the old Spectator offices in Gower Street in the mid-1960s. He was sitting round the table with Auberon Waugh and V.S. Naipaul, and it was he who led this formidable trio, the ruminative, insistent cello tugging along the strings. I succumbed instantly to his wheezy baritone chuckle. When a few years later, I followed Watkins and Waugh as this paper’s political correspondent, my principal joy in sloping along to the House of Commons on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for Prime Minister’s Questions was the post-mortem over tea and toasted teacakes in the press gallery canteen with Alan and his friends Michael White of the Guardian and Frank Johnson, then in his glory days as the Telegraph’s sketchwriter. Later, Frank and Alan shared a house in Islington round the corner from us, with Matthew Engel, the editor of Wisden, on the top floor, ‘a nest of singing birds’, as Watkins described it.
The three of us could be obsessive about the minutiae of politics. We spent most of Frank’s wedding party in the bridal suite at Claridge’s analysing the impact of the by-election result in, I think, Hull North, but the charm of Alan’s company never faded for me. I would go to the party conferences almost entirely for the pleasure of his conversation on the train. These could be arduous excursions, sometimes lasting six or seven hours in the case of Blackpool, and involving high levels of alcohol intake. One year, the train bar had entirely run out of beers, wines and spirits before we reached Preston, but Watkins spotted a line of dusty miniatures on the shelf behind the barman’s head. These too we dispatched, until as we passed Poulton-le-Fylde even the last mini-Drambuie had been drained.
Alan combined this conviviality in both the literal and the euphemistic sense with a nitpicking attention to detail and an unremitting concern that every sentence he wrote should be crystal clear. Conscientiousness was, he claimed, an unsung virtue of the Welsh. In every well-run organisation there would be a conscientious Welshman doing all the work.
His father, D.J. Watkins — otherwise known as Dai Lighthouse after the name of his house, or Dai Rhubarb-Legs, because of his long thin legs, quite unlike those of his stocky son — had been the headmaster of an elementary school in Carmarthenshire, from which post he was removed in circumstances that remained unclear. Alan was or became an only child, his two brothers having died in infancy, and was adored by his mother Violet, also a teacher and an English-speaking member of the Church in Wales, whereas D.J. could not read English until he was 12. Alan’s childhood was austere and high-minded, but also loving and close.
Superficially, he might seem to have turned out very differently from his father. It is hard to imagine D.J. stopping off for a glass or several of champagne at El Vino’s on his way in to correct his copy by hand at the offices of the Observer or later the Independent on Sunday. Yet Alan inherited all his father’s impatience with cant and sloppiness and also his elaborate stubbornness. For someone who never sought notoriety, he finished up on the front page surprisingly often. In his Spectator column in 1967, he published two D-notices (the secret documents warning editors about security matters they were not to publish), and no less a figure than Lord Radcliffe had to be called in to conduct an enquiry. In 1988, he was sued in the High Court by the Labour MP Michael Meacher whom he had criticised for pretending to be more working-class than he really was. In this absurd case, which he later turned into a miniature classic A Slight Case of Libel, Alan (who had trained as a barrister), shone during his three days in the witness box, rightly accusing Meacher’s counsel of having landed himself in something he wished he hadn’t and, rarely for a journalist accused of libel, coming out triumphant.
He was also partly responsible for landing Labour with Michael Foot as their leader. As the struggle to succeed Jim Callaghan got under way, Watkins sent Foot a telegram — even then a weirdly old-fashioned mode of communication, but typical of Watkins — inquiring whether he was going to stand. Foot, who may well have been dithering, was then egged on by his wife Jill, and the Labour party was toast for the next two elections as a result.
Though affectionate and loyal to his friends, Watkins was never blind to their faults. His collection of portraits, Brief Lives, owes more than its title to John Aubrey, whose technique of using crisp, factual, often seemingly unrelated statements to allow the reader to build up his own idea of the subject came naturally to him. Of Foot, for example, he wrote: ‘When he was well into his sixties, he would turn out for Tribune in the annual cricket match against the New Statesman. He was a promising batsman but negligent in the field. He attributed his sexual liberation as a young man to reading Bertrand Russell. He was attractive to both men and women, in the sense that having met him most people liked him and wanted to be in his company. Yet the appearance he gave on television was of a bitter and biased man.’
Or of Roy Jenkins: ‘He was highly competitive. If asked, say, to name three Belgian writers, he would mind if somebody else managed to perform the feat before he did. He was physically somewhat inept. He could not put coal on the fire without spilling it. His wife said he could not peel an apple.’
Watkins was a Labour party man all his life. He was against Nato, the Cold War, the Americans, the European Union, the war in Iraq and Tony Blair. Last week he cast a postal vote for the Lib dems. In the old days you would have called him a Bevanite, I suppose, but he was really a Watkinsite. The point about him in any case was not his particular collection of views but the sceptical, courteous, humane eye he cast on the passing scene.
He could be selfish and infuriating and blinkered, yet he was much loved by his friends and by their children too. His personal life was shadowed by tragedy. His wife Ruth took her own life, and a year later so did one of his daughters. He remained stoical and res
ilient. His attitude to most things was rather like Dr Johnson’s view that ‘a book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it’. In his last years of frailty he was often alone, and I would sometimes pass his house at night and see him framed in the unshuttered window sitting in a dressing gown squinting very close at a book, looking not unlike Johnson in old age, and I would feel that I was seeing the last days of something or other which was much to be regretted. That’s the kind of portentous thought which would have produced a derisive snort from Alan, but I feel it all the same.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 15, 2010