BOOK REVIEW / Good chaps and the great she-elephant: 'A Bag of Boiled Sweets' - Julian Critchley: Faber, 17.50

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The Independent Culture
JULIAN CRITCHLEY never quite made it. Skewered by his own wit, blessed with a charming insouciance and unfashionably 'wet', he succumbed early on in his political career to the enemies of promise. But as a wicked observer of the Conservative Party he remains second to none. Chips Channon, the Noel Coward of political diarists, once observed that the memoirs of the frivolous will be read long after the deeds of the worthy are forgotten.

Clark and Critchley or Thatcher and Lawson? Few readers will be in any doubt.

Julian Critchley came from a middle-class background. His father, Macdonald Critchley, was a distinguished neurologist, his mother was one of six children of a Shropshire railway worker. They lived in the nether regions of Swiss Cottage. 'Sadly,' Critchley recalls, 'our house was just in NW6.' The family was comfortable but not affluent. 'The Critchleys,' a neighbour said, 'are the sort of people who drink wine with their meals.' Indeed they did, but on the table were rissoles, HP sauce and resurrected Sunday joints. Respectable it may have been, grand it was not.

Prep school, Shrewsbury and Oxford seem to have changed all that. It was at prep school that he experienced his first encounter with a figure who was to recur throughout his life: 'an eleven year old, blond as a Viking, who was called Heseltine'. Young Master Critchley sold young Master Heseltine a replica of a landing-craft ship at a profit. It was the last transaction between them that came out in Critchley's favour. Later he would team up with Heseltine at Oxford to take on the Young Conservatives and the Union. But it was Heseltine, not Critchley, who became Union President. In the Sixties, Critchley edited Town magazine - but Heseltine, the proprietor, sacked him. Critchley was first into the Commons, but Heseltine made it to the Cabinet. These vicissitudes apart, the two men seem to have stuck remarkably close together.

They were united by their dislike of Margaret Thatcher, 'the great she-elephant' as Critchley dubbed her. She it was who transformed his beloved Tory party (knights of the shires, cream silk shirts and dark suits, Brigade or old Etonian ties) into its modern self: 'Essex men,' sniffs Critchley, 'selected by Suffolk women.' Her fall is retold with relish.

The best parts of a very amusing book come when the author's genial contempt is tempered by affection. He evokes mildewed committee rooms in the Home Counties where splendid old buffers held forth to formidable old trouts on the merits of hanging and flogging. Nervous candidates stepped between the Scylla of metropolitan self-confidence and the Charybdis of provincial suspicion. These were the days when suburban Tory meetings could be greatly vexed by such issues as black rule in Africa: 'So emotive a subject,' recalls Critchley, 'that even the labradors in the audience were moved to discordancy.' Perfect.

It would be difficult to conjure up a better social sketch of South- east England, or a funnier portrait of conservatism itself. Discussing the 1922 Committee's reaction to the fall of the Falklands, he writes: 'The Tory Party, which for most of the time is torpid,

had come alive, lashing its collective tail like an angry disturbed alligator.' By contrast, Critchley's account of his gastronomic excursions into European politics are helpful mainly to the discerning diner in Strasbourg. He describes his two marriages and the love he rediscovered late in life with meritorious discretion. The cameo sketches of Westminster characters are what one would expect from his light journalism.

There is in the author, just as in the politician, a hint of the melancholy which is supposed to hide in all comics. One of the moments at which it flits into view is in his description of the Queen at a service for the Old Contemptibles.

The ceremony stirred those deeply patriotic feelings the British now hide beneath layers of protective paint; the veterans frail but proud, the last of a generation capable of sacrifice and endurance beyond our capabilities whose strength and discipline was drawn from the long and stable years of Victorian England. We wept for our past, and for our future.

But then the Queen is comically accosted by the verger for collection money and Critchley is back on safe ground. A chap can't let his mask slip, even if the mask is a jester's.