Philip Hensher

A big beast in Hush Puppies

Ultimately a loser, but with winning ways, Clarke has always been a popular Tory. But this decidedly political memoir is disappointingly discreet

It always used to be said that, if it had been up to Guardian readers, Ken Clarke would certainly have been leader of the Conservative party. It might have gone beyond that. Some politicians are much loved by the general public, who never have to meet them, and loathed by their colleagues and unfortunate underlings — one thinks of Greville Janner or Alf Morris, who once pushed his fist into my face when I was refusing to do his bidding. That doesn’t seem to be true of Clarke, who is popular pretty much across the board, his instincts for decency and sceptical intelligence ensuring that. Although his Europhile commitments effectively barred him from the party leadership on the occasions when he might have stood a chance, his qualities have always been recognised.

The memoir has a beautiful and ingenious title from this aficionado of jazz, but is a slightly patchy piece of work. Clarke’s appeal is largely personal, but he is not going to open his life up to readers. He has taken the honourable decision not to write about family matters, and his wife, children and grandchildren only appear in small roles. It is sad and touching to hear that Clarke’s wife Gillian, a highly intelligent woman, was so upset by one BBC comedian saying that ‘the prospect of seeing Kenneth Clarke go to his grave’ cheered him up that she phoned the corporation in anger and distress. Much more than that, Clarke will not share with readers.

More disappointingly, his very interesting journey is only lightly sketched in: we are very swiftly past his childhood and the colliery-electrician father. The family background promises glorious material. There is a probably bigamous Suffolk grand-father who ran away to sea ‘because he could not bear… topping turnips in the rain’, and was deserted by his first wife on their wedding night; the other was a dedicated Stalinist, who made his money from winning newspaper competitions; while a great-grandfather drank and gambled away the family fortune at Doncaster races.

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