Friday, April 13, 2018

They are real diaries

‘Sometimes lacking in charity; often trivial; occasionally lewd; cloyingly sentimental, repetitious, whingeing and imperfectly formed. For some readers the entries may seem to be all of these things. But they are real diaries.’ This is from an introduction by the maverick politician and historian Alan Clark to his own diaries. Born 90 years ago today, he became well known for his love of cars and women, for his right-wing politics, for his friendship with Margaret Thatcher, and for the outrageous part he played in the Matrix-Churchill affair. But, it’s for his diaries that he’s best remembered. They certainly are real diaries, colourful, entertaining, spicy, unguarded, and full of extraordinary arrogance - providing an unrivalled insight into the man himself.

Clark was born in London on 13 April 1928, the eldest son of the art historian Kenneth Clark (from whom he would later inherit Saltwood Castle in Kent). After a series of preparatory schools, he was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied history, partly under Hugh Trevor-Roper, but only just passed his degree, with a third-class honours. He was called to the bar in 1955, but did not practice law. He preferred to research military history with a view to publishing books, while living the life of a rich young man, particularly interested in cars. For a couple of years he belonged to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. In 1958 he married Jane Beuttler, aged 16 at the time. They had two sons; and despite his chronic womanising she remained with him throughout his life.

Although Clark published two novels, it was his first book on history - The Donkeys - that brought him public success. Other histories followed, though in time his ultra right-wing politics showed in his writing, through, for example, his appreciation of Nazi Germany’s efficiency. After failing to win several nominations as a Conservative candidate, he succeeded in 1972, and became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1974. He was considered something of a maverick in Parliament, openly plotting against the prime minister, Edward Heath, yet an amusing and witty dining companion. To the surprise of others in the Conservative Party, he was given a junior ministerial position by Margaret Thatcher (who 
seemed to take an indulgent view of his many indiscretions - see also Thatcher gives a cuddle). He went on to serve in various other posts during her governments, ultimately rising to minister of state in the Ministry of Defence. He was heavily implicated in a political/legal controversy concerning the fraudulent sales of arms to Iraq by the engineering firm, Matrix-Churchill.

Following Thatcher’s fall, Clark left politics in 1992. A year later, he published the first volume of his now-famous and infamously indiscrete diaries. In 1997, encouraged by the success of his diaries, he returned to parliament as MP for Kensington and Chelsea, but was soon ill, dying from a brain tumour in 1999. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, and various obituaries online: The Guardian, The Independent, but see also Dominic Lawson’s character assassination in The Independent (‘He was sleazy, vindictive, greedy, callous and cruel’). Some pages of Ion Trewin’s official biography - Alan Clark - can be read online at Amazon or Googlebooks.

From his mid-30s and throughout his life, Clark kept a regular and private diary. A first collection of extracts were published 
simply as Diaries by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1993. Many reprints followed until the edition was reissued in 2001 as Diaries: In Power 1983-1992. This first volume has been recognised as providing the most detailed and colourful account of the downfall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But, equally, according to the publisher, it is famed for Clark’s ‘witty and acerbic pen’ and for being ‘the most outspoken and revealing account of British political life ever written’. Two further volumes were published posthumously, also by Weidenfeld & Nicolson - Diaries: Into Politics (2000), and The Last Diaries: In and Out of the Wilderness (2002). Although Clark himself had begun work on the former, his wife Jane took the decision to publish the latter, as edited by Trewin, and it also contains several pages of Jane’s diary from the last week’s of Clark’s life. All three volumes, in more recent editions, can be previewed at Googlebooks (1972-1982, 1983-1992, 1993-1999)

Clark’s own preface to the first volume of diaries is worth quoting:

‘Diaries are so intensely personal - to publish them is a baring, if not a flaunting, of the ego. And for the author also to write a preface could be thought excessive.

Let me explain. These are not ‘Memoirs’. They are not written to throw light on events in the past, or retrospectively to justify the actions of the author. They are exactly as they were recorded on the day; sometimes even the hour, or the minute, of a particular episode or sensation.

I wrote, in longhand, in a variety of locations; principally at Saltwood, or in my room at the House of Commons, or at my desk in the Department(s). Also in trains, embassies, hotels abroad, at the Cabinet table in Number 10 and at international conferences. When I had completed an entry I closed the notebook and seldom turned to that page again.

During the whole of this period, nearly eight years, I was a Minister in three successive Tory administrations. Politics - Party, Governmental and Constituency - dominated my life and energies. But on re-reading the entries I am struck by how small a proportion - less than half - is actually devoted to the various themes that dominated political life over the period. [. . .]

Expurgation, from considerations of taste or cruelty, I have tried to keep to a minimum. My friends know me, and know that I love them, and that my private explosions of irritation or bad temper are of no import. And as for taste, it, too, is subjective. There are passages that will offend some, just as there are excerpts that I myself found embarrassing to read when I returned to them. Much of course has been excised. But of what remains nothing has been altered since the day it was written. Is this conceit - or laziness? A bit of both, I suppose. But I found that when I attempted to alter, or moderate, or explain, the structure and rhythm of the whole entry would be disturbed.

There remain certain passages that vex me considerably. Mainly they refer to friends and colleagues with whom I have worked - or who have worked for me with loyalty and dedication: for example, Dave, my competent driver for many years; Rose, my sweet diary secretary at DTI who coped with ‘harassment’ with dignity and decorum; Bruce Anderson, one of my closest confidants; Tom King, Secretary of State above me in two departments, whom I still regard with affection in spite of the way in which we treated each other in the heat of our political careers. And there are many others to whom references coloured by the irritation of the moment are ill-suited.

There are also passages that, to some readers, will be unintelligible. Family joke-words, Eton slang, arcane references to events in the past, crude expletives, all these are present but I have done my best to illuminate the unfamiliar in a glossary that covers events, locations, individuals and so forth.

Sometimes lacking in charity; often trivial; occasionally lewd; cloyingly sentimental, repetitious, whingeing and imperfectly formed. For some readers the entries may seem to be all of these things.

But they are real diaries.’

Here are several extracts from 
Diaries and The Last Diaries.

23 December 1983
‘Evening of the first day of the Christmas hols.

I don’t seem to have done anything except get rid of a lot of cash filling all the cars with petrol. And cash is so scarce over Christmas. Again and again one goes down to the bank to draw, always the last cheque until the New Year.

At tea time I wanted pliers. I could not find pliers. Nowhere in this whole fucking place, with its seventeen outhouses, garages, sheds, eighteen vehicles. After stealing tool kits from every car I’ve sold on over the last twenty-five years - could I find pliers?

I was screaming frail. I ransacked the china room, where I kept my most precious things. My new red vintage tool locker was empty, except for a lot of useless stuff for an Austin Heavy Twenty. Why? I am surrounded by unreliables.

I’ve done practically no shopping. How could I? When? Yet tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

As for the Dept, I never want to go through its doors again. Total shit-heap, bored blue. Strained and befuddled by all the paper work. Fuck them.

Fortunately, I’m dining with Ian on Wednesday next. I hope he gives me a boost.’

10 April 1984
‘I was in vile mood this morning, even on arrival. I had done a lot of washing-up, drying, wiping, etc., at Albany, and I always find this enervating. I do it so badly and so slowly. For someone as great and gifted as me it is the most uneconomic possible use of time.

Then, triumphantly ‘marked up’, a page of Mediascan was pushed under my nose. Impending sackings (!!). Named were Arthur Cockfield, David Mitchell, Bob Dunn, John Butcher and myself. Flushed and shocked I became.

Either way it’s a bore
(a) that anyone should believe that I am a candidate
(b) it becomes self-feeding (journalists draw from each other)
(c) a plant from Ingham and Downing St

As long ago as 6 February I wrote in my Day Diary, on the space for 23 April (when we come back from the Easter break) ‘Am I free today?’ But now that I am actually faced with the prospect of being dropped as - allegedly - no good, I don’t like it. All the gabblers are of course immune. As always, AS ALWAYS, Heseltine and that podgy life-insurance-risk Kenneth Clarke are approvingly tipped. Apparently (this is what makes me think there is a bit of Ingham in it) the changes will not take place at Easter, but during the Whitsun break. Or (much worse) in September, after a summer of travail and misery.

I am going on Question Time in a couple of days. Might gallop.’

4 November 1990
‘The papers are all very bad. Tory Party falling apart, the death blow, that kind of thing. Something in it, I fear, unless we can get a grip on events. The only person who can restore order in the parliamentary ranks is Tristan. He can do it short-term (like many intelligent people T. can only see things very long or very short) but that’s enough. Get us past November.

After breakfast I telephoned Chequers.
‘The Prime Minister is speechwriting.’
‘Who with?’
‘Charles Powell.’
‘When will she be free?’
‘There might be a minute before lunch.’
‘When’s that?’
‘One o’clock sharp.’
I was being kept at bay. Unusual. The Number 10 switchboard girls are always helpful. With Chequers I’ve had this problem before.
‘Oh well, please pass her my name, in case she wants to take a call then.’

It was a lovely crisp day of late autumn. I had said I’d join Jane in the garden. Now I was going to be stuck indoors waitng for a call. But I had barely got to the doorway to give her a shout when the phone started ringing.
‘Alan . . .’
I tried to cheer her up: ‘There’s an awful lot of wind about’. ‘Hold tight and it’ll all blow away’. ‘Geoffrey was past it by now, anyway.’
I said, with suitable preface, that I would never seek to tell her who she should employ or why; but that if she could find something for ’Tim’ to do . . .
‘Tim who?’ (thinking, I suppose, that I wanted her to bring someone called Tim into the Cabinet. Blast, blast. Too oblique Never works with her.)
‘Renton. You really ought to make Tristan your Chief Whip.’
A very long silence. I almost said ‘hullo’, but didn’t.
‘Oh but he’s enjoying his present job so much . . .’

I don’t think she realises what a jam she’s in. It’s the Bunker syndrome. Everyone round you is clicking their heels. The saluting sentries have highly polished boots and beautifully creased uniforms But out there at the Front it’s all disintegrating. The soldiers are starving in tatters and makeshift bandages. Whole units are mutinous and in flight.’

10 March 1991
[Saltwood] ‘God, is it already 10th March? A quarter of the year gone by, and I have done nothing, not answered a single letter, paid a bill - still less ‘played’ with cars or other hobbies. I must break out of the cycle, but I can only really effectively do so by giving ‘notice’ in the next three weeks. The sheer administrative complication that this entails compounds it. This morning, woken up from a deep muck-sweat slumber by Jane at 2.30 a m. I lay awake for about 1 1/2 hours, thought among other things - I really would just as soon pack it in now, just not go back to London at all. She rightly pointed out I must see through Options, the tank etc - leave my mark. Then again, I suppose, the Cabinet changes at Easter - if there is to be no General Election - but even Secretary of State would almost have to ask - because of how it might have been.

Finances are now in a total mess - Coats at 160+. Vast new outgoings of Mains in prospect, lead roof, moat leaking. I fear it will have to be the Degas because we will save the CGT by doing it through Andrew. Might yet scrape by as stock markets are recovering. But how do I see my future? Get the diary into shape as soon as you can, then really become a recluse, naturalist, pinpoint feats. Loch Shiel to Loch Eriboll. A kind of upmarket Albert (if he was called Albert) Wainwright. With a hint, perhaps, of Poucher (and a touch of class, as Jane said, with Robin Fedden).

But right at the moment, I am in really bad shape - shaking, inability to concentrate. The knowledge of this makes me medically apprehensive.’

26 December 1991
‘I’m very depressed - not from hangover, as had drunk little, though Christmas lunch was always lovely and I consumed (sic) three glasses of Stolichnaya with the caviar, then more Roodeburg than Andrew with the turkey and pudding. (His young lady Sarah, was a success.)

I’m concerned, somewhat profoundly, at the recandescence of my nose place; my sexuality seems to be diminishing again. I’m dust off the dial in terms of political insignificance - Bruce Anderson no longer makes contact, but he wouldn't ‘chuck’ like this if he thought I rated. Also, of course. I’m miserable about dear little ‘x’, away in some French ski resort while I mope around here trying to get old cars to start and splitting firewood. That’s something else that is going to come to a head this year (if it hasn't done so already).

Well it’s no good moping.

I must pull myself together ... I will ‘hold the line’ at the Department - might even get in a couple more jolly trips. Then it’s cutting peat in the Highlands and the fallow period of editing the diaries - and inventorising the contents and dispositions.

I wonder how long I’ve got? I have this nasty feeling that things are going to go so badly this year that I will be ‘on the way out’ next Christmas. My hair is white in certain back lighting. When I’m 65, sadly, I will actually look 65. Shopping for Jane on Christmas Eve I ‘happened on’ a ski shop in Folkestone’s main street, thought to buy her an anorak and also found myself buying a ski suit for myself. It made me feel ten years younger. Oh if only I could really regenerate!’

7 October 1992
[Brighton] ‘On the way over here I parked the car, got out in the moonlight, and walked along the Downs to a 5-bar gate. I spoke to God. I apologised for having avoided Him for so long. The muddle of guilt and lust over ‘x’ had blighted our contact for over a year. Now I had to make penance - first for hurting sweet Jane over ‘x’, and for still harbouring sinful, muddled thoughts there; second for having discarded the special advantages He had given me, to get me into Plymouth Sutton so late and so old, without consulting Him or taking his permission. Now the moment had come, at last, when I could do something. But how could He give me another chance? If He did, of course, our relationship would be impregnable. But could He? Everything is possible of course. But nothing works out so easily.’

30 November 1993
[Saltwood] ‘I went over after tea to shut the drive gates of Garden House, and on the way back I looked at the dark outline of the Mains, the Santé wall. My open prison. I am not ready to stand back yet. But I am nervous of using up time - even when, e.g., ‘polishing’ the Buick - because I dread that suddenly, I may ‘go’.’

18 December 1997
‘Sitting in Albany kitchcn -  still in dressing-gown al 11.05; and the delightful, and unusual pleasure of the two clocks striking simultaneously ‘across’ each other. Very Edwardian, or early twenties. I am hugely calmer and more contented - although of course anxiety in new form will always flow into the vacuum created by the extinction of a real one, and I am apprehensive. The trial has not gone badly and the judge seemed sympathetic, although Prescott was odious at every stage. If I lose, of course, I will be open season. But my real consolation, fresh boost, is Spalton. Stuttery, amiable and bespectacled (naturally)  oculist. He tested me, I told him all my symptoms [here AC draws on the page the edge of a spot]. He was unphased. Said the optic nerve ok etc. And I really haven’t had a headache of any kind since ...! Defocusing, and periodic lights and ‘flooders’ of no consequence. This is such a relief; I clap my hands in prayer of thanks a lot of the time and when I wake up at night.

Just in time. As I need to think long and hard about the next three months. The real damage and threat to Parliament. The cogent conspiracy between Blair and Hague. We are actually going along with what Blair is doing.’

The Diary Junction

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