From one "tricky little prick'' to another
Commentary - Sebastian Shakespeare asks Tory ex-ministers how it feels to be insulted by Alan Clark
Edwina Currie says the most hurtful thing about her affair with John Major was to look at his autobiography and find she wasn't even in the index. Poor lamb. No doubt when she trawls through the index in Alan Clark's The Last Diaries: in and out of the wilderness (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) her vanity will be bruised again, for different reasons. She only warrants one fleeting reference in the entire decade. When I discovered that Clark had devoted a vignette to me in his latest volume, I was worried. I wasn't even a fellow MP, let alone one of his floozies, and I had never met him. Was I really more worthy of comment than the egg woman? Had the great diarist caught me out? Then I read on:
"What should have been a delicious desoeuvre day, free of obligation, and with choice, soon evaporated. On came that tricky little prick Sebastian Shakespeare. 'Always a pleasure to talk to you.' ' You may not think so this time . . .'. Asked me about putting in for Chelsea; I referred him to the agent. 'People are saying you wrote your CV on House of Commons notepaper.' (Gaaah!) I explain I'd paid to print it myself. But what a lesson in how everyone is just waiting to fault find. Whispering he mentioned something about the 'Matrix Churchill scandal'. Silly little runt."
My mortification turned to relief. At least I had successfully got under the skin of the old boy. Anyone who uses the word desoeuvre as often as he does (twice too often in this volume) deserves to have their morning reverie disrupted. And I had escaped pretty lightly. Believe me, it's quite flattering for a politician to insult a journalist and it's not as if I wasn't in good company. The barbs in his latest volume are plentiful, despite the diarist's old age and infirmity. Michael Heseltine ("loathsome"), William Hague ("shifty little bureaucrat" and "jarringly ghastly as always"), Tom King ("what a fool and how objectionable"), John Redwood ("slightly loopy"), and Iain Duncan Smith ("who is that buffer over there in the hat?").
Though refreshingly candid, they lack the pungency of earlier epithets. Remember the "pudgy puffball" Ken Clarke? And this, of Michael Heseltine, the "jerky, wild-eyed, zombie" who "in Jopling's damning phrase 'bought his own furniture'"? How can we ever picture Lord Hurd again without thinking of him with "a corncob up his arse" ?
It made me wonder what fellow victims think of his character assassinations. Some, like the film director Michael Winner , take it on the chin. "He was a very dear friend and came to my house with his wife and had coffee," Winner told me. "Whatever he said about me I don't care as he was a wonderful chap." Jonathan Aitken ("a reliable stand-in for many a dirty trick") speaks for many when he says, "To be insulted by Clark is like being complimented by anyone else." He has a point. To be complimented by Clark can border on an insult ("little dapper 'boyish' Alan Duncan"). And as an old friend of Clark, Aitken knew his teasing ways better than most. "If you read the diaries carefully, you'll see that the only dirty trick I did for him was to advise him to buy a tape-recording device on one occasion when he was in a difficult situation with his South African women," recalls Aitken. " He also said something quite rude about the Aitken furniture. At least he said the furniture was quite decent, but the pictures were art dealers' pap. My wife banned him from the house for at least three months."
Heseltine and Clarke, when I contacted them, both declined to discuss their place in the Clark canon. For others, however, like Tristan Garel-Jones ("unlikeable and deceitful"), the wounds still run deep. "Lord Garel-Jones has authorised me to say that he won't want to make any comment on the Alan Clark book," says his office. "He was recently asked to do a TV programme about Mr Clark and he declined on the grounds that Mr Clark to his certain knowledge lied to the Prime Minister, lied to the cabinet secretary and placed a question mark over the integrity of two of his friends. He fell out with Mr Clark over this and they weren't on speaking terms."
Ion Trewin, who edited the latest volume, points out that Clark's waspish tone could belie a grudging respect. "When it came to the question of who should be leader of the Conservative Party, Alan in the end decides that Ken Clarke would be better than any of the other candidates," he says.
Perhaps his victims should not take him so seriously. Many years ago, I reported how Alan Clark had scandalously taken the scissors to one of his works of art at Saltwood Castle. The then defence minister had cut a precious Duncan Grant panel into two pieces in order to make more room at home. I received in the post, the next day, a photocopy of the article with a small annotation in green ink. "Two pieces" was scribbled out and replaced in spidery handwriting by the words: "Four pieces, actually. Otherwise accurate." It was the son of Lord Clark of Civilisation writing to a tricky little prick.
Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary