Show Hide image

Alan Clark: the Biography

There is an obvious challenge facing any author seeking to tell the life story of Alan Clark. He has, after all, filled in the details of his often steamy existence so fully in the three volumes of his Diaries that the question arises as to whether there is anything more to say. In terms of scandal, there may well not be. Yet, in this admirable biography - published ten years after its subject's death - the man who edited the Diaries has at least found a way around it.

To put the matter bluntly, Clark's own priorities are hardly those of his biographer. Very little is added to the accounts of his various sexual escapades: we get the name of the constituency secretary whom he lusted after and the full story of his much earlier, premarital dalliance with a ballet dancer, but that is about it. Instead, Ion Trewin has tried to produce a book that will modify the popular image of Clark the "love Tory" and roué.

Clark was, in fact, more than that. Deeply ambitious, he was haunted by a sense of failure, and as a minister he never really got out of the "foothills" (to borrow Chris Mullin's phrase). Yet before he entered parliament, rather late at the age of 45, he had already established a successful career as a writer. As a former literary editor and publisher, Trewin is well qualified to deal with this aspect of his subject's life, and he does so with sufficient skill to make even such mundane matters as Clark's relationship with his long-suffering agent of more than passing interest.

The author is helped by the man he is writing about being all of a piece. The politician who was "economical with the actualité" over arms in Iraq is recognisably the same character who invented a bit of dialogue in order to justify the title of his first (and best) work of non-fiction, The Donkeys (1961).

Yet if Clark does not emerge unscathed from this book, he also comes across as far more sympathetic a personality than his Diaries presented him as being. He was the victim of singularly uncaring parents: his mother became a drunk and his father's preoccupation with art and civilisation seems to have left him with little time for his family. After an undistinguished academic career at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, he developed an obsession with sports cars and fast women. His first serious apprenticeship was to the law, but a short period spent as a judge's marshal seems to have been enough to slake any ambitions he had as a barrister. He came to writing more or less by accident, starting off by contributing to car magazines and later trying his hand at short stories and novels. Although two of the latter were published, neither was a success, and in later life Clark eliminated all mention of them from his Who's Who entry.

Writer and subject did not properly come together until he got the idea of presenting British soldiers in the First World War as having been betrayed by their commanders. The theme of "lions led by donkeys" enabled him to make his name as a military historian. The pacifist mood of the early 1960s was ideal for such a message, and Clark, like Ernest Raymond and R C Sherriff before him, certainly benefited from a widespread scepticism towards military expertise. Hardly conventional preparation for a career in Tory politics.

Trewin is least impressive in his account of his hero's approach march to parliament. He does not make enough of Clark's early membership of the far-right Monday Club and suppresses almost entirely his association with the disgraced historian David Irving. But he recovers his confidence once he gets Clark safely on to the green benches of the Commons in 1974. The impression remains, however, that Trewin, unlike his subject, is happiest away from politics, and the narrative is strongest when covering the period between Clark retiring from Plymouth Sutton in 1992 and being selected for Kensington and Chelsea in 1997.

The final pages of the book, describing his battle with a brain tumour, are very sensitively handled. The only person who is unlikely to appreciate them is Father Michael Seed, the ubiquitous Catholic priest whose claim to have received Clark into the Roman Church is effectively demolished.

Anthony Howard edited the New Statesman between 1972 and 1978. For an archive of his writing for the NS, visit:

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people