Rory Stewart, Who’s Who and clubs

Stewart is a man of action and a man of letters of a kind you no longer find in British politics

I am pleased to see that Rory Stewart, having failed in Bracknell, has been selected as the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Penrith and the Border, a safe Tory seat once held by Willie Whitelaw. Stewart is an unusually interesting figure: a soldier, diplomat, writer, traveller, polyglot, academic and, some say, a former spy. He is both a man of action and a man of letters of a kind you no longer find in British politics.

I first met him at a Guardian party, not long after I'd read his first book, The Places in Between, an account of his travels in Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. I asked him about the emergence of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. "They are the wrong kind of Etonians," he replied (Stewart himself is an OE). What do you mean, I said. You should write a piece about that for us (I was then on the Observer). "I don't write those kinds of pieces," he said, before the conversation moved on to the subject of a mutual acquaintance, the literary critic James Wood, who is now a colleague of Stewart's at Harvard.

Stewart and I later corresponded when I was editor of Granta. I'd read his second book, Occupational Hazards, about his time as deputy governor of Iraq's Maysan Province during the disturbed aftermath of the American and British occupation. It's simultaneously a critique of the philosopher Machiavelli, an intimate memoir and a deconstruction of British adventurism in Iraq. He said he wanted to write a narrative report about the old city of Kabul, where he was head of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. We agreed on 4,000 words. The piece had not arrived by the time I moved on.

Is Stewart the right kind of Etonian? He is certainly a complex and profound thinker, and a kind of self-styled Aristotelian great-souled man. He seems unable to specialise or dedicate himself to one career, perhaps because he is so restlessly interested in everything, except football. "Shall I become prime minister?" he asked, in a grand flourish of ambition during a recent Financial Times interview. The Germans have a word for this, Machtgefühl, the conviction that you have the power to achieve great things. Stewart would certainly offer David Cameron poise and expertise as a Foreign Office minister, beyond which . . . well, let's see how he goes.

What Tony Blair knew

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Michael Ignatieff, another man-of-letters-turned-politician, and now, as the leader of the Liberal Party, the likely next prime minister of Canada, speculated on what it was that made certain political leaders successful. What is it they know, he asked. It is a question that Gordon Brown must also ask every day, as he reflects, painfully, on his failures to communicate and connect. There is no doubt that Brown will go to his grave still bitter at Tony Blair for his reluctance to step aside before the 2005 general election. So what was it that Blair knew that Brown doesn't?

Secret societies

I have received, from a mysteriously unnamed editor at A&C Black publishers, a request to answer some personal questions so that my answers might be published in the next edition of Who's Who. This got me thinking about the first time I ever properly looked at the reference book - I had been amused by a spat between Peregrine Worsthorne and Andrew Neil: a spat about class and snobbery, in the usual English way, that had ended up in a libel action (of which more later). I was interested to know where Sir Perry had been to school and turned to Who's Who to find out. Yet more interesting to me was his entry on club membership - he'd listed two, the Garrick and the Beefsteak. I knew of the former, but what on earth was the latter?

Many years later, I found out, when I was invited to lunch at the Beefsteak, which occupies small upstairs rooms above the clamour and squalor of Leicester Square. At a long table, I sat between the present Lord Salisbury and the former ambassador and military historian John Colvin; opposite was Hugh Montefiore, the former bishop of Birmingham. It was an agreeable occasion of the kind that once I might have despised, but which that afternoon I found curiously reassuring. Here they were, all these patrician men of mature years, their characters formed by the rituals of boarding school and the dormitory, gathered together in the heart of the West End to eat and talk in a manner and style of their own choosing, and in defiance of the democratic herd roaming the streets below. I felt as if I'd stumbled into a meeting of one of G K Chesterton's secret societies. In a way, I had. I have never been back.

The language of clubs

Who's Who still persists in asking about club membership. So what should one answer, if at all? I used to be a member of the Garrick, but resigned - wonderful building, interiors and wine list, but dreadful food and coffee (there have since been changes at the club, I hear, including the purchase of an espresso machine, though women are still foolishly excluded). In the end, I listed my clubs as Arsenal and Hatfield Heath, the village cricket team for which I've played, on and off, for more than two decades.

Andrew Neil's last laugh

A couple of months ago, just before we went live with our redesigned magazine (and thank you to all those readers who have written to say they like the new look), my old friend and mentor Peter Wilby dropped in to our splendid new offices on Carmelite Street. I had many magazines scattered across my desk at the time, including copies of the Spectator from 1989 and 1990, a period when I admired the magazine very much. Peter's eye settled on a diary column written by the then editor, Charles Moore, who was commenting on the libel case brought by Neil against Worsthorne.

With studied hauteur, Moore disparaged Neil for being, among other things, a "bad writer". Yet, as I discovered as NS literary editor a decade ago, when both men wrote for me, Neil and Worsthorne are perfectly respectable writers, and, all these years later, especially worthy of admiration for being among the enduring presences of postwar journalism. Moore still writes a column for the Spectator, which nowadays is under the tight control of one Andrew Neil. Those public-school fogeys who used to torment him, how he must have enjoyed having had the last laugh on them.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman
Peter Wilby returns next week

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule