Books: A party animal: He is devious, snobbish, lecherous and disloyal, but his diaries make compelling reading: Alan Clark has thrown caution to the wind in his revelations on the Great Game

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The Independent Culture
ALAN CLARK wrote his diary with a ghost at his elbow. Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon, Tory MP for Southend, 1935-1958, never rose above the level of parliamentary private secretary, but his journal has ensured him glory long after most Cabinet ministers have been forgotten. Clark may have scrambled a little higher up the greasy pole - to minister of state rank - but, as a historian, he surely knows that his years in office are already so much dust. It is his diaries which offer his best hope of immortality.

Clark alludes several times to Chips, and the parallels beween the two diarists are, superficially, striking. Both are outrageous snobs. Both love gossip. Both fancy themselves as experts on art and the finer things of life. Both have money: dollars 200,000 and marriage into the Guinness dynasty in the case of Chips; an inherited fortune rumoured to be worth about pounds 40m in the case of Clark. As a result, both can afford to buy a seat at the high table of political society. Both also hero-worship their prime ministers; for Chips, Neville Chamberlain is 'the Man of our Age'; for Clark, Margaret Thatcher is that 'dear good kind sweet Lady'. When he finds himself in 1984 sitting next to her on the front bench for the first time, he is filled with unrequited love:

Like Chips and 'Neville' I radiated protective feelings . . .

We engaged in desultory conversation, though without warmth on her side. At one point she rummaged in her bag and purse.

'Can I get you anything?'

'No,' she said in tones of surprise. 'No.'

But whereas one cannot help liking Chips, for all his absurdity, Clark emerges here as a thoroughly disagreeable character: a spoilt, devious, calculating, vindictive, boorish, vain, selfish, vulgar, faithless, pompous, whining dirty old man, with a sinister fondness for Adolf Hitler, or 'Wolf' as he affectionately calls him. In publishing these diaries in his lifetime, Mr Clark has thrown caution, and just about everything else, to the winds. It makes for the most compelling account of modern politics I have ever read. But quite how Mr Clark is going to live with himself, let alone his wife and family and friends, is another matter.

There is, for a start, the matter of his penis. 'I don't in the least mind letting girls see my penis,' he declares, and his relentless search for an audience proceeds even as his father lies dying ('I am interested in Clare, the au pair . . . and chatted her up'). Clark fancies, variously, his Labour opponent in the 1983 election, the head of his private office, his press officer, his diary secretary ('hips and a bust which are almost too noticeable'), a 'red-haired telephone girl', a shop assistant in Folkestone ('she was not wearing a bra, and her delightful globes bounced prominently'), a Hungarian woman whose 'beautiful nipples showed through her satin blouse', Edith Cresson, Erica in the British Embassy in Bogota ('a true phew-wotta-scorcher blonde'), a Romanian waitress with 'a large bust'. . .

On and on and on it goes. How many of these women he manages to get into bed is not clear. Eventually, Nicholas Soames gives him a 'phial' of 'an incredibly powerful new aphrodisiac'. Which, I wonder, is the more terrifying image: the gargantuan Soames pumped full of crushed rhino horn, or Clark, who needs an aphrodisiac about as much as Michael Heseltine needs hair restorer? Towards the end of this volume, Clark ponders his relationship with his wife, Jane. 'Sometimes I have been foul to her. Why? Hormones, I suppose.' Ah. Of course. Hormones.

Clark is a kind of walking encyclopedia of political incorrectness. Appointed to the Department of Employment (who says Mrs Thatcher had no sense of humour?) he comments: 'I'm responsible for all these spastic, money-consuming Employment 'measures'.' Irishmen are invariably 'Paddys', the working classes are 'ugly common people', officials are 'cunts', David Sainsbury is 'a dreary little Jewish accountant', King Hussein is an 'oily little runt', Janet Fookes has a 'vast arse'. Of his long-suffering official driver, Clark writes: 'like all the lower classes, he went to pieces quickly'. The only living creatures he cares about have four legs and fur ('it's human beings that are the vermin') and even these he betrays, abandoning his campaign against animal-trapping after pressure from Number 10.

Here is Clark on democracy: 'As far as

I'm concerned, 'dirty tricks' are part and parcel of good government.' Clark on Africa: 'Bongo-bongo land.' Clark on the Church: 'I would gladly burn them, those trendy clerics. What fun to hear them pinkly squealing.' Clark on the meaning of Christmas: 'I can only properly enjoy carol services if I am having an affair with someone in the congregation.' He gambles, gets drunk, throws things, drives at 140 mph, thumps someone over backgammon at Brooks's ('I must say he took it in the most gentlemanly way, even though bleeding quite badly'). Meeting the unemployed ('wretched people'), he muses on 'what Soames and I can spend between us on a single meal at Waltons'. Well might he also reflect - in one of his few moments of self-awareness rather than mawkish self-pity - that 'if I'd come from 'an underprivileged background' I'd probably by now have done time for GBH or assault'.

Friends and colleagues looking themselves up in the index will pray not to be there. Those who are include Clarke, Kenneth ('that podgy life-insurance risk', 'butter ball'), King,

Tom ('loathsome puffball'), Anderson, Bruce

('fat creep'), Bottomley, Virginia ('lost

her looks'), Morrison, Peter ('sozzled'), Hampson, Keith ('mad ninny'), Waldegrave, William ('ambitious creep'). The whole tone makes a mockery of those, including this reviewer, who had always believed the English libel laws to be too restrictive.

Does the book have any redeeming virtues? Yes. Many. It strips away all pretence that party politics is, at heart, about anything other than personal ambition. Colleagues clamber over one another in their anxiety to reach the top. Journalists are used to leak stories. Civil servants seek to control ministers. Cabals are formed. Egos are preened. Backs are stabbed. There has seldom been such a frank account of the Great Game. And the depiction of the endless backstairs intrigues involving Sir Charles Powell, Thatcher's all-powerful private secretary, shows once and for all how grossly he exceeded the traditional limits of the civil servant's role.

Clark does not have Chips Channon's insight or descriptive powers. But he has a powerful sense of history. His record of a visit to the street where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914 is superb: 'I could still smell it, just as one can in a haunted room. A colossal, seismic charge of diabolic energy had been blown, released on that very spot 72 years ago, and drawn its awful price.' And if there is an epic vanity about his project, there is, too, a breathtaking willingness to say the unsayable.

The entries published here are but a fraction of the entire diary. 'Much of course has been excised,' writes Clark in his preface. What on earth, one wonders, is the nature of the material he has felt constrained to leave out? In due course, let us hope we shall discover. In the meantime, those who appear in these pages and who feel their confidence and friendship have been abused can draw this comfort: in terms of loss of public reputation, the biggest casualty of the Alan Clark diaries is, appropriately, Alan Clark himself.

'Alan Clark's Diaries' were published last Monday by Weidenfeld at pounds 20