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Was his diary his downfall?

The audiotape of Alan Clark’s Diaries — barely mentioned in this rather Dr Watsonish, sensible shoe of a biography — is well worth hearing.

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

Alan Clark: The Biography Ion Trewin

Weidenfeld, pp.500, 25

The audiotape of Alan Clark’s Diaries — barely mentioned in this rather Dr Watsonish, sensible shoe of a biography — is well worth hearing.

The audiotape of Alan Clark’s Diaries — barely mentioned in this rather Dr Watsonish, sensible shoe of a biography — is well worth hearing. Alan Clark narrates them himself, in a wonderfully high camp, pantomime manner, reminiscent of Kenneth Williams reading the Just William stories. 

It’s a rib-tickling comic turn, and adds a new dimension to the original book, an additional mirror reflecting on the first mirror at a jaunty angle. Clark’s semi-parodic tone acts as a sort of wry critique on the diaries, which are themselves, of course, a wry critique on his life. Observing himself observing himself, Clark uses every inflection of his voice to bring out the humorous and the grotesque, the essential absurdity and self-delusion of Clark the anti-hero.

What is the effect of a diary on its author? Inevitably, it gives a staged quality to the life. In her biography of Samuel Pepys, Claire Tomalin suggests that his diary allowed Pepys to divide himself in two — to become, as it were, both the actor and his audience, both the man of the world and the dispassionate observer of that man of the world. As a man, Pepys could be vain, randy, ambitious and deceitful (much like another parliamentarian 300-odd years later), but as the observer of that same man he was able to hover, eagle-eyed, overhead, recording, however unfavourably, his own ways. 

In the past few weeks, there have been grumbles from Alan Clark’s old enemies, fed up with all the praise flying in his direction. ‘Alan Clark was not wonderful’, wrote Dominic Lawson in the Independent. ‘He was sleazy, vindictive, greedy, callous and cruel.’ So he was, but then so, too, was Samuel Pepys; perhaps even more so. Unlike Clark, Pepys blacked his wife’s eye, pulled her nose and called her a whore, as well as threatening to throw the family puppy out of the window when it peed on the carpet. Alas for Dominic Lawson, posterity forgives such bad behaviour, and even relishes it, just so long as its perpetrator keeps it going long enough and then makes his confession sufficiently lively. 

How many robust, well-argued speeches in the House of Commons on matters of great importance, delivered down the centuries by intelligent and passionate MPs, are now forgotten? Yet Alan Clark’s tipsy (‘We “tasted” first a bottle of ’61 Palmer, then “for comparison” a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville’) rendering (‘at 78 rpm instead of 33’) of the Equal Opportunities Order in July, 1983 will be long remembered, just as Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School is remembered, and for much the same reason. Unfair it may be, but, in the words of the song, when it comes to the diarist, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it — that’s what gets results.’

The first half of this biography, dealing with Clark’s life before Westminster, is much the more interesting. In the second half, his biographer is obliged to go over ground already covered in the published diaries, often elbowing out their essential jokiness to make way for dogged paraphrase. He sometimes seems a little clod-hopping, a little slow on the uptake, so that the reader finds himself screaming ‘Behind you!’ For instance, Trewin writes of Clark’s account of the fall of Margaret Thatcher, ‘Not that those involved accept his every word as gospel — did he, they ask, allow his own bias to show through?’ To which one simply wants to scream, ‘Of course he did! Don’t you realise? That’s the whole bloody point!’ And did Trewin really have to employ someone called Renata Propper, ‘a graphologist who lives in the United States’, to drop in regular ‘A Doctor Writes’ banalities concerning his handwriting over the years (‘A man of some brilliant ideas, he was more of a thinker than a doer, although he had some enterprising spirit and motivating ambitions’)?

Clark’s Diaries tell their own story, so once they get going there’s very little else to add. After all, they were hardly a cover-up job. Indeed, Clark loved spilling the beans all over himself, and took a Flashman-like delight in his own infidelities, mad fantasies, deceptions and skulduggeries. In criminal terms, he turned himself in, on a daily basis. So Trewin is denied the biographer’s traditional role as copper’s nark. 

Those who continue to go goggle-eyed at the very idea of an Englishman actually enjoying sex will probably lap up all the details of Clark’s affair, or near-affair, with his secretary. And there is a gossipy pleasure to be gained from reading the victim’s unexpectedly prim remonstrances (‘My future lies with someone else who has a surfeit, unlike your poverty, of principles. I am sad that you wore away some of my own, and lowered me in some respects to your level, but I, at least, am young enough to change my ways’). On the other hand, news of Alan Clark’s extra-marital affairs, like news of a postal strike or of the Queen Mother’s joie-de-vivre, does lack a certain shock-value. 

Clark was 46 when he became an MP (‘at the age when most people start “slowing up” I suddenly gain a job’). At this point, his published diaries kick in and his biography loses its raison d’etre. However, Trewin’s account of Clark’s prolonged youth is fresh and illuminating. His snobbery stood on shaky ground. Though he didn’t have to buy all his own furniture, his great-grandfather, the founder of a cotton thread business in Paisley, certainly did; Alan’s father, Lord Clark of Civilisation, only bought their stately home, Saltwood Castle, when Alan was 24. 

His parents were at the hub of arty-smarty society. As a child, Alan mixed with Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, Henry Moore and Nancy Mitford. William Walton was in love with his mother. For four years, he was an only child, but then twins came along and he ‘had to stamp and yell if he wanted attention’. At lunch with, among others, Ivor Novello, Sibyl Colefax and Binkie Beaumont, his sister recalled the 16-year-old Alan showing off by trying to balance a glass: it fell and broke. This chronic attention-seeking lasted a lifetime, as did his other childhood fads for hypochondria (throughout his life he kept a thermometer and a sick bowl by the side of the bed ‘just in case’) and battles (as a schoolboy, he subscribed to Jane’s Fighting Ships). The only teenage pursuit he seems to have abandoned in later life was stamp-collecting.

One contemporary recalls feeling sorry for the young Alan at Eton because his father ‘was such a vulgar character’: Kenneth Clark would, it seems, drive down to school in a yellow Rolls-Royce, puffing on a Havana cigar, like someone in an H. M. Bateman cartoon. Alan inherited his father’s passion for flash cars, and greatly multiplied his natural inheritance of vulgarity. I barely knew him, but he once invited me to a summer party at the House of Commons. The guests were as naff as can be: most of them seemed to have stepped out of the pages of TV Times, and at least half of them had their own quiz-shows.

‘Why isn’t Michael Winner here?’ I asked him, having feasted on a glass too many of his champagne. 

‘Why do you ask?’ he said, a little warily.

‘Because every other awful person in London is’, I replied.

Clark executed a half-smile. ‘Well, to be honest, I did invite him, but he had to go to a première in the West End’.

But vulgarity is not to be sniffed at. Wit
hout it, he would never have been such a brilliant diarist, for what could be more vulgar than indiscretion? He once wrote a letter to his agent, Michael Sissons, in which he announced:

All publishers have got one great prize to look forward to, and that is my witty, revealing, salacious and enlightening memoirs . . . I already know enough about the internal workings of the Conservative machine to write a really appalling book.

Remarkably, he wrote this back in 1973, before he had even entered Parliament. 

On his first day there, he was hailed in the Strangers Dining Room ‘with incredible hurrahs’ by his fellow Old Etonian, Jeremy Thorpe. It would make the perfect opening number in Alan Clark: The Musical, the pair of them executing a Dick Van Dyke dance (‘never need a reason, never need a rhyme, kick yer knees up, step in time!’) in their fancy waistcoats.

Over the years, the House of Commons was to provide him with the perfect platform on which to smash more glasses. He could then retire each night to describe, in tranquillity, the mess he had just created. Would he have got further in politics had he never had the need to fuel a diary? Was his diary his downfall? A diarist, particularly a knockabout diarist like Clark, feeds off calamity. Without enough calamity, he will have to generate more by saying or doing something appropriately inappropriate. High-flying politicians have a much stronger hold on dullness.

But having created his bad-hat Captain Hook character (Hook was, incidentally, another OE), Clark was obliged to carry on playing it to the end. ‘In writing it down, he detached himself from the self who acted out the scene’, wrote Claire Tomalin of Pepys. It was true also of Alan Clark. As he lay dying, he seems to have drawn solace from this dual perspective: it allowed him, in the most awful circumstances, to detach himself from his cancerous body, and to look down at himself and smile. His entry for 12 July 1999 reads, ‘The stage hands are fiddling about with the curtains.’ That’s a very Alan Clark sentence: self-aware, poetic, true and peculiarly funny. Less than two months later, he was dead.

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