BOOKS; Never out of arms' way

THATCHER'S GOLD: The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher by Paul Holloran and Mark Hollingsworth Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99
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WHEN the young George Cole appeared in St Trinian's movies, hunched under his big camel hair coat and his dodgy spiv titfer, smuggling bottles of scotch or sixth-form boys into the St Trinian's girls' dorm, his cheerful appearance would always be accompanied by a rackety barrel organ signature tune. It is that music one seems to hear throughout Halloran and Hollingsworth's book, but transposed into an oddly unpleasant minor key.

What a sad man Mark Thatcher appears to be. Extremely sad, extremely boring - and, of course, extremely rich. This is the man who walks into a glass door in an architect's office and threatens to sue the builder. The man who leans back expansively in a restaurant, topples over into the dessert trolley and angrily insists that the management pays his dry- cleaning bill.

Here is one impression of our hero, recorded by a girlfriend in 1980: "uses words like 'honking' a lot and calls his mother 'Mummy' all the time." Here is another, from an Argentinian "commodity broker" with whom The Boy was hoping to "facilitate" - as was his discreet and lucrative wont - an arms, anti-kidnapping and military training deal in that halcyon summer of 1982: "He is not very bright and has to be instructed on what to do. But his name does carry a lot of weight."

Quite: My son the arms dealer has an unlovely ring to it - and is not in any case a phrase that does justice to the full breadth of Mark's commercial interests. He was career middle-man, brokering deals and taking his cut as he plied his trade with nameless associates in a thousand intercontinental hotel rooms and jetsetted his way with compulsive self-importance all over the globe, with many a departure lounge spat along the way.

The abortive early career in rally driving was something in which The Boy showed a minor, but genuine talent: Halloran and Hollingsworth assemble evidence to suggest that the legendary "lost-in-the-desert" incident was bit of a publicity stunt. But its real importance was its connections with the world of sponsorship - particularly from the Middle East. About the same time, Jonathan Aitken - his Government job as "Minister for Defence Procurement" still to come - helped the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin-Fahd to sponsor the Frank Williams team. From there, Mark Thatcher got big in oil, big in aviation, and big in arms.

He picked up choice crumbs from that gigantic commercial banquet of the 1980s: the legendary "Al-Yamamah" contract, in which British Aero-space sold military equipment worth pounds 40 billion to Saudi Arabia. Supposedly conducted on a direct government-to-government basis, the deal in fact relied extensively on "consultants": the Middle Eastern governments with whom the British Government was dealing prized family-dynastic links above all things (parliamentary democracy being an alien irrelevance) and they did no business without middlemen. So it suited both sides to allow this pampered entrepreneur to be the semi-official Crown Prince of the United Kingdom.

Mark Thatcher clearly thought that his wealth and success derived from some irreducible talent for business. But the sad truth is that the one time this was really put to the test, when Margaret Thatcher lost power, and Mark took it upon himself to negotiate the deal for her memoirs, it was a pitiful disaster: his uniquely unpleasant and maladroit manner deterred almost every publisher in town. Pretty much the same went for his efforts to drum up cash for the still far from impressive Thatcher Foundation.

He emerges from this book as the most dysfunctional type: the secretive show-off, his main talent being to manipulate the Prime Minister, whose Cabinet knew better than openly to question the propriety of his activities. At one point, a contact of Mark's recalls Lord Young obsequiously greeting Mark in the bar of the Connaught: "the repeated use of Thatcher's first name reminded him of a headmaster addressing a pupil whose parents were paying a large part of his salary."

The "life and times" promised in the book's title do not emerge in any richly rounded way: this is the essentially banal story of a dull, unpleasant man making a lot of money. At times, it reads like a World In Action special: voice-over narration interspersed with stilted dramatic reconstruction. But it still casts a valuable, if depressing light on the way we were governed by Mrs Thatcher and her heirs. Perhaps it should be bound in a single volume with the results of the Scott Inquiry.