Harry Mount

His biting is immortal

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Matthew Parris

Viking, pp. 503, £

If Harold Pinter's plays are about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet, Matthew Parris's autobiography is about the butchered segment of electrical cable that lies on the dusty roof of the throne of the Speaker of the House of Commons. For several decades this piece of copper wire, unused, long-neglected, has rested above the heads of Bernard Weatherill, Betty Boothroyd and Michael Martin, and no one has noticed it except for the eagle-eyed former parliamentary sketchwriter for the Times up in the press gallery.

It's the perfect example of a Parris observation. Take something grand, respected, highfalutin, like parliament, and show quite how lowfalutin and dull it really is. And do all this in a teasing but kind tone - one critic described Parris as 'the young Anglican curate in cycle-clips who can make respectable ladies laugh with his cheeky double entendres but steers clear of anything interesting enough to be seriously rude.'

Parris is masterly at applying the bathetic, wine-into-water touch to his own life. To the outside world, his career is a row of ticks in establishment boxes - the sort of CV that Jeffrey Archer would think too OTT to invent even for himself, but would just about do for the hero of one of his novels: top of his Swaziland school, Cambridge, Yale scholarship, Foreign Office fast stream, correspondence secretary to Margaret Thatcher, MP at 29, Weekend World presenter and then top Times journalist.

In his own eyes, though, Parris has been a failure in all these departments, except for his current job. It's clearly untrue; real failure at any stage would not have led to the next illustrious position. But, still, it's a useful attitude; because he's so down on himself and because he's moved from job to job and so doesn't have to keep anybody sweet, he becomes the perfect autobiographer. Unlike most politicians, he doesn't think that an event is interesting just because he's been part of it. Quite the opposite: whenever he lights upon something engaging he does his best to withdraw from the actual business in hand, retaining only a watching brief.

But he does know when he has fallen into interesting company and is witnessing interesting events, which he's bound to do with his hops from one establishment staging-post to another, like a charming flea with an unusually gentle proboscis, sucking the lifeblood from anybody he lands on, with them barely noticing he's there.

On a fact-finding trip to the Falklands, straight out of Scoop, Parris casts himself as major-domo to Sir Julian Amery's Grand Duke, fetching him his whisky, making sure his soda is cool. But it is the Grand Duke who ends up looking ludicrous. After too much refreshment, Sir Julian is unable to rise from the deep sofa belonging to Sir Rex Hunt, the Falklands governor. But he is still keen to make a speech about fishing prospects in the islands, from a reclining position:

The tragedy of the salmon is that the gentleman salmon never actually meets the lady salmon ... It is as if our esteemed governor, Sir Rex, were to have spent Tuesday night alone in the best bedroom in the Upland Goose Hotel, and his delightful wife, Lady Mavis, were to have spent Wednesday night in the same bed alone, and ....

And the flea hops on, unharmed, unnoticed, in search of some new deserving target.

When it comes to Parris's other proboscis, there's not much coverage. Well, not of the business end of things anyway, the description of his first homosexual and heterosexual encounters apart. He's much keener on the bigger picture - homosexual emancipation - where, casting aside his innate self-deprecation, he thinks he might have made some small difference as an MP and journalist. Typically, though, he follows up with an attack on his own uselessness. When he goes to see Mrs Thatcher for tea - she plays mother - in order to apologise for standing down as an MP, he nervously delivers a prepared speech about the other gay Tory MPs, too scared to come out, and gay potential Tory voters, who should be made to feel more at home in the party.

'There', she breathed, 'that must have been very hard to say.'

The flea is crushed.

People who take the Magnus Magnusson approach to reading books - 'I've started, so I'll finish' - seem extraordinary. Would they do the same with people they bump into at a party: go on talking to an incredible bore in the hope that he'll warm up after the equivalent of 100 pages? Reading these 500 pages of Matthew Parris, at a couple of minutes a page, is like talking to him for around 15 hours. It's hard to imagine a better conversationalist.