Talking it over

Lucky George: Memoirs of an Anti-Politician

George Walden <em>Allen Lane, 401pp, £17.99</em>

Just before George Walden resigned from politics, John Major joined him in the Tea Room at the House of Commons and, improbably, read him his horoscope. Under Virgo, it said: "In spite of all your work in an important area of your life, you may not have succeeded as you had hoped. Don't go on doing something you don't enjoy."

The Evening Standard 's astrologer could have used the same words plausibly at many other moments in Walden's career. He has never been slow to ask himself: "Why am I doing this?" On the point of being made an ambassador, he decided to leave the Foreign Office and become a Tory MP. At every turn, he has confounded expectation and tried to give his stars the slip.

Walden seems unable to believe in his own role in his life. Perhaps it is for this reason that he often writes about himself in the third person (even the title Lucky George suggests that the book is about someone else). He has a talent for self-ridicule that occasionally seems like inverted self-importance. He is anything but single-minded (even as under-secretary of state for education: "I had a horror of becoming a single-issue fanatic"). And I had to read this sentence more than once: "Till becoming an MP I had never voted." Where, I kept wondering, was he coming from? The literal answer must explain something. George Walden, as a child, lived with his divorced mother and sister on a council estate in Dagenham (his uncle was a car worker at Ford). He escaped his background thanks to his mother's determination and his own intelligence. He won scholarships to Latymer School and then to Cambridge, where he read modern languages. But even as a youth he ricocheted between different Georges. One hung out with the local boys, the other was devotedly reading Anna Karenina in the original, line by line, with the help of a big Russian dictionary. There is a sense of vertigo even in reading about his life.

At 21 he went to Moscow on a British Council scholarship. He writes about this period of his life with amused indulgence, as if describing a wayward son who is beyond his control. He plunges straight into communist Russia and temporarily bypasses politics to describe his love affair with the communist Lara and Lara's love affair with his electric toaster. George emerges as a lustful ingenu who seems to find women unfathomable. He always suspects that they are something other than they seem before taking his baffled leave of relationships.

The most interesting chapter describes his time in China during the cultural revolution. His description of walking the streets trying to collect information is fascinating. And I loved his amusing and poetic account of the art of buying Chinese scrolls. But as ever, it is a woman who dominates his story, the beautiful Camilla, as hard to read as Chinese itself. It is only about his wife Sarah, a picture restorer, that he is clear. But he writes about her with such zeal that he leaves her portrait luminously over-cleaned.

Walden's understanding of languages has a mastery that his descriptions of women lack. He lets us know that in Chinese you cannot say that the sea is black; that in Mandarin Margaret Thatcher's name is Ta Er Che Tai Tai; he is comically squeamish about having to speak political campaigning language in England. His sense of nuance did not surprise me. I met George in 1995, when he was chairman of the Booker prize panel and I was one of the judges. As a chairman, he was a diplomat, prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice his own bracing, unconservative views to keep the peace. He is generous about the judges before explaining that we chose the wrong book, Pat Barker's The Ghost Road.

The woman he writes about best is Margaret Thatcher. He rewelds the Iron Lady, rendering her dangerously human. He explains that, contrary to her own publicity, she was often tired and, latterly, tipsy, too. He recounts Lord Carrington passing her a piece of paper during a meeting with Ronald Reagan, on which was written "Margaret, you're talking too much".

Some Walden anecdotes one suspects have been told too often and, like stones washed by the sea, have become too smooth for their own good. But his impressions of Francois Mitterrand, Prince Charles, Francis Bacon, David Owen, Saul Bellow (if he could have been born someone else, Walden would surely have chosen to be Bellow) are fun to read.

I'd like to know more about Walden's mother, about whom he writes touchingly, and about his sister and his own children. But he does not write much about ordinary people, as if for fear that they might prove of no interest. He is never complacently sure of his welcome. The problem with Lucky George is its determination to entertain at all costs. There were moments when I felt I was at a dinner party in the company of a brilliant raconteur who was never going to go home. By the end I wanted, like Carrington, to slip a restraining piece of paper George's way.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence