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The great and the grumpy

28 August 2004

12:00 AM

28 August 2004

12:00 AM

Brief Lives Alan Watkins

Elliott & Thompson,, pp.223, 10.99

Denis Healey will never be the same, once you discover, as you do in this fizzing collection of mini-biographies, that his favour- ite question is, ‘Do you have sexual fantasies when you smoke cigars?’ Peregrine Wors- thorne is now forever fixed in my mind exchanging shirts with the first Mrs Nigel Lawson in a crowded Wheeler’s restaurant during a Brighton party conference. And the dynamics of Private Eye fall into place when you know that, in the 1950 scholarship list for Shrewsbury, Richard Ingrams came first, Christopher Booker third and the late Paul Foot fifth.

Alan Watkins, the eminent political columnist, now for the Independent on Sunday and for many years in these pages, is the master of the well-deployed fact, and, more importantly, the personal fact. You get the flavour of Roy Jenkins when you hear that he suggested, over lunch with Watkins, a joint business venture — putting good-quality wine in one-litre bottles and selling it to restaurants. Jenkins thought that the normal 75cl bottle is not enough for two, and too much for one. That sort of anecdote is much more revealing than the normal stuff of political biography: how many times Jenkins addressed the Oxford Union or opened a prison or whatever.

The only criterion for inclusion in this collection — they’re all writers or politicians, with the exception of Osbert Lancaster and Watkins’s father, a Carmarthenshire teacher — is that Watkins met the subject. So you get Kingsley Amis exactly as he was, in the flushed flesh at the Garrick: two or three glasses of Macallan’s before lunch, followed by a few glasses of Gew


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