Ferdinand Mount

Diary - 10 October 2009

Ferdinand Mount opens his diary

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Alan Clark will always have a special place in my heart. He remains the only person ever to sue me for libel. I still occasionally have a nightmare in which he is personally cross-examining me in the witness box and the court is erupting in laughter at his sneering sallies and my flustered answers. What happened was that, in the course of a rather turgid article in the TLS about the Tories’ prospects (it was 1996 and they were dismal), I remarked that Mr Alan Clark was ‘colourful certainly, endearing possibly but not exactly a man of bottom’. Alan erupted, claiming that I had accused him of financial dishonesty and linked him to the Tory MPs who were being skewered for sleaze at the time. I pointed out that he himself was not then an MP and that ‘lacking bottom’ meant every sort of unreliability except financial. I grovelled to him in print, I grovelled over the telephone. No good. ‘See you in court’, he drawled — his last words to me, and a fitting epitaph for someone so incurably litigious.

In the event he wearied of the sport — he was just about to land the nomination for Kensington and Chelsea to everyone’s shock. We paid a modest sum to the charity of his choice, and the nation was denied the snorter of a libel case — ‘Clark says “I am man of bottom”.’ Soon after his death, the final volume of his diaries came out, and I scurried to the index. Not a mention, not even a footnote. Last week, when Ion Trewin’s life of Clark appeared in our Waterstone’s, I scurried once more. Again, not a word. The case of Rt Hon Alan Clark vs Times Newspapers and Another might never have been. The episode which had caused me so much anguish was no more than a speck on his lapel.

One of the things I dread about the autumn is the onset of another David Attenborough TV series (Life begins again next week). Even more off-putting than the programmes are the post-mortems — for once literally the correct term. ‘Isn’t it amazing that bit where the coot eats her chick and the other bit when the penguins fall off the ice floe and the killer whale hoovers them up?’ I particularly dislike the section at the end where the programme makers boast about their technical ingenuity in pursuing some miserable little reptile down its burrow. Nor am I too keen on the wheezy good humour of Attenborough’s voiceover as another tiny creature disappears into the jaws of its predator. Highlights of the forthcoming series advertised in the Daily Mirror include a brown bear fishing for salmon, cheetahs banding together to hunt ostrich and ‘gripping but grisly footage of Komodo dragons biting a buffalo with venom, then stalking it for three weeks, waiting for it to die before devouring it’. Those are what pornographers call the ‘money shots’. For all the rhapsodies about the swooping hawk and the curvetting dolphin, these films are only snuff movies with a U certificate.

This is a golden age of cheating. Hot on the heels of Bloodgate — never again will we believe rugger players claiming that their oafish heavings are really a gentleman’s game — came Nelson Piquet Jr revealing that he had been ordered to crash his car.

In a more modest vein, I very much liked the Gothenburg goalkeeper who was caught on camera moving his goalposts closer together, and expressed surprise that he hadn’t been spotted before.

Such shortcuts are scarcely new in sport. There have always been jockeys who would take a deliberate tumble to oblige an insistent bookie. In his first-ever tour as a pro, Fred Perry bribed the court-marker in El Paso to move the service line three inches closer to the net, so that the big-serving Ellsworth Vines thundered down a series of double faults.

And when I look back to my school days, it is those little feats of gamesmanship that bring tears to my old eyes: the close fielder in the College Second XI who used to imitate the batsman’s voice and call ‘Yes, just a quick one’, to entice the other batsman into a suicidal run; our dazzling centre- forward who used to clutch his groin in theatrical agony whenever a defender brushed against him; and best of all, the enterprising boy who hid in the bushes near the finish of the school steeplechase and pranced out ahead of the panting, muddy pack to finish an easy surprise winner.

These miscreants went on to become, respectively, our leading Marxist historian, a kingpin in the arts world and a big cheese in the City, which only shows the importance of a certain subversive energy for success in later life. For me, though, those early misdeeds are the deeds that linger in the memory, long after I have forgotten the goals and the centuries. Like Harold Pinter, ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime’, and I can’t remember a thing about it.

To Manchester for the Conservative conference with a sinking heart. The two fringe meetings to which I have been invited both begin at 8 a.m. So does the only reception I have been asked to. As party conferences are drained of any real meaning, they strive harder and harder to look busy. But I can’t help feeling that these 16-hour days are so last year. Look what they did for the bankers. How much better if Sir Fred Goodwin had listened to the advice of Walter Bagehot that ‘banking is a watchful but not a laborious trade.’