Edwina Currie reviews Alan Clark: The Biography by Ion Trewin

From Times Online
September 18, 2009

He had a quickfire intelligence and lordly charm, but Alan Clark was an appalling man

When Alan Clark wanted to impress his guests, dinner was served at Saltwood Castle in Kent on gold plates, though his wife, Jane, complained that they could not be put in the dishwasher. When he wanted to tease close friends, he would claim that the drive would be lined with naked black eunuchs offering them snorts of cocaine.

Roué, cynic, scholar, philanderer, wastrel, connoisseur and dreadful MP, his louche lifestyle as described in his hilarious diaries attracted both envy and disgust. He was rotten to his long-suffering wife, cruel to those who loved him, not the sort of man you would want as either your representative or your business partner. I was, fortunately, never one of his set; to me, this is an engaging book about an absolute bastard.

I worried that knowing more might spoil my enjoyment of those wonderful diaries of the Thatcher years, for as government ministers batter us with political correctness, it is sheer joy to take up Clark’s own writing. His aperçus never fail to delight. John Gummer (he of the hamburger fed to his daughter) was a “sanctimonious little creep”; Douglas Hogg (of the moat claimed on expenses) “colossally self-satisfied”; Norman Tebbit “radiates menace”; Kenneth Clarke was “a pudgy puffball” and so on. Early on he spotted “two bright boys called Brown and Blair”. He intrigued against his boss, Tom King, admired Enoch Powell, fawned over The Lady (Margaret Thatcher) and endlessly plotted his own advancement.

His world was Eton, the Guards (though he served only six months, as a schoolboy), backgammon at his clubs, where he often lost spectacularly and was known to punch an opponent, fabulous homes from Saltwood to Zermatt to Eriboll in Scotland; all glorious stuff, but full of added zest when peopled by Ian Gow, Jonathan Aitken, Jimmy Goldsmith and other rogues.

Clark’s account of Thatcher’s fall in November 1990 has become the standard version. Who could forget the moment he opened the door of her campaign manager Peter Morrison, only to find him, feet on the desk, fast asleep and sozzled in the middle of the crucial day? This is the moment her supporters knew all was lost, and despair oozes from every syllable.

Best of all for the diaries’ voyeurist readers (of whom I am definitely one) were Clark’s sexual adventures. “For me girls have to be succulent and that means under 25,” he noted. He met Jane when she was barely 14 and married her when she was 16, he 30. In the rather creepy wedding photos she looks about seven years old; he wanted a girl he could “mould”. But that did not keep him faithful, rather the contrary. “I can only properly enjoy carol services if I am having an illicit affair with someone in the congregation.” One woman blackmailed him (July 9, 1980) for £5,000. The three Harkess women he called “the coven”, a judge’s wife and her two daughters, flit in and out of the narrative. When the liaisons became public, according to Trewin, the family, led by the judge, went to Max Clifford and cashed in on the story. That was not the only moment when Jane was angry enough to leave.

“I hated it,” she told Trewin, but took the long view and thought of the children. She stood by him for 41 years, publicly dismissing the females who chased Alan as “so many bluebottles”, though it was he doing the chasing. To Trewin she appears a saint, but like many put-upon women she became an accomplice, treating her errant spouse as a spoilt but adored child.

Like his father, Clark was an art connoisseur and a fine historian; his book The Donkeys, about the First World War, influenced both Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War! and Blackadder, though Clark disapproved (no pacifist, he had simply wanted the war fought more effectively). Despite gleefully repeating Michael Jopling’s remarks about Michael Heseltine (“the trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture”), the Clarks were almost as parvenu, for the money came from cotton. That didn’t stop Clark being a ferocious snob. Perhaps it is appropriate that he is buried at Saltwood next to his beagles Gangster and Grandee.

More than once Clark dreamt of being prime minister himself. But it was never going to happen. His many qualities included a quicksilver intelligence and a capacity for hard work when it suited. His love of animals showed he had a heart, and he could write like a dream; the death of the heron sequence is reproduced by Trewin in its poignant entirety. But he lacked two essential faculties: continence and a moral compass.

Alan Clark never stopped himself doing something stupid if he felt like it. Broke, but he fancied another classic Bentley? He bought it, even though that risked losing his beloved castle. A pretty girl returns his leer with a smile? He’d go trotting after, even though Jane would be in tears when the quarry started phoning home. Gossip about his boss? Chatter to the press when sworn to secrecy? Criticise the Government in public? Clark would commit all these sins, the flow almost unstoppable. Indeed, he ruefully quoted a fellow MP: “Don’t people understand that Alan’s not pretending to be a s***? He really is one.”

As a minister he was a disaster, both in public — he was famously accused by Clare Short of being drunk at the dispatch box; I was there, he was, and it was very funny — and in private, freely granting export licences for weapons to Iraq in contravention of UN and government embargoes and good sense. Clark blithely lied about his role to the Prime Minister, John Major, who was furious. That led to innocent businessmen finding themselves on trial in the Matrix Churchill affair. In so many ways Clark was a nasty piece of work.

Margaret Thatcher had his measure, as she had Aitken’s, Archer’s, Neil Hamilton’s and eventually John Major’s, too. Under her Clark would go so far and no farther. He worshipped the Lady, but failed to realise that she was no lady, and that the advent of Thatcherism was the nadir of his kind of toff. The knights of the shires and the MCs were making way for the estate agents and used-car salesmen, as Julian Critchley observed, which left little room for one too keen to follow his own reckless agenda.

His attitude to Hitler and the Nazis, however, put him beyond the pale, and to many of us it was a mystery how he ever came to be made a minister. It was more than being anti-Europe and pro the white races. This is a politician who, early on, considered standing for the National Front, who loved the musical Cabaret for the wrong reasons, who quoted Mein Kampf with approval, and whose wife’s rottweilers were named after Hitler’s mistress, Hitler’s pilot and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite film-maker. Two of his books were about Nazi military prowess, in Crete and Russia. At a 1981 dinner Clark informed the German woman beside him that Hitler was ahead of his time as a vegetarian, “as in so many other things”; the poor lady protested in tears. On July 20, 1989, on a ministerial visit to Poland, he skived off to the “Wolf’s Lair” at Rastenburg to celebrate the Führer’s escape from the July Plot. He believed that Churchill should have made peace with Germany in 1940; he kept a signed photograph of Hitler in the Saltwood safe and would consult it in moments of stress.

Trewin barely touches on this aspect and dismisses it too lightly. Although he must have seen what other Hitler “relics” lurked in that safe, he never tells us. Maybe he preferred to turn a blind eye, or maybe Jane wouldn’t let him.

Clark’s Oxford tutor, J. Steven Watson, understood him. “I found him a man of many prejudices and little energy ... Instead of thinking, he tries to grasp at any generalisation that is extreme enough to be indefensible. Then he need only reiterate instead of having to defend it.” That helps to explain why he was so brilliant as a diarist: for a diary is like a perfect friend, always agreeing with the writer.

Trewin fills many gaps in the early life, including Clark’s first love, a dancer who underwent an illegal abortion for him (the papers were signed by his mother — nice family, the Clarks). I couldn’t help feeling that an air of indulgent envy pervades many chapters, even hero worship. The outcome is competent and entertaining, though even Trewin would not claim, surely, that it is up to the best of Clark himself.

Clark’s comment on his father’s life was to become true of his own as well: “He will be remembered only for his writing and his contribution to scholarship. His public life was a complete waste of time.” Nobody could put it better than that.

Alan Clark: The Biography by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25; Buy this book; 500pp)


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