Books: Rich and glamorous now, ridiculous later

Lord Wyatt joins Pepys and Clark in punishing the hubris of the mighty: The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt: Volume One ed Sarah Curtis Macmillan pounds 25
Click to follow
Let it be admitted that the first thing I did was look myself up in the index. So potential diarists should not include an index. We Establishment figures, the sort of people mentioned in diaries, are very mean. Otherwise we would not rely on people like Lord Wyatt to give us most of our dinners. Nor do we pay for books if we can avoid it. If there were no indexes to diaries, we would have to buy the book, since not to know whether one is mentioned is torture; almost most as torturing as being mentioned unflatteringly or inaccurately.

So, in the entry for April 15, 1987 - a time when I was writing Times leaders - Lord Wyatt quotes me as telling him that the Times's then editor was "timid".

Now I would never have said that about that particular editor. It is a misquotation. Ignorant, a bully of the weak, a toady of the strong, a man whose rise in life had been at the cost of all courage and dignity: I would have called him all that. But just "timid"; never! Timid-brained, yes; but nothing so timid as just "timid".

At which point it occurs to me that I must be the only person mentioned in this diary to complain about being quoted as saying something not malicious enough. The entries cover 1985-88. All I can say is that the references to me do not convey the essential envy and lack of generosity which I felt towards plenty of people at the time.

Reading the relevant entries in 1998 is bad for one. That is because one's defects of the time - which I had hoped represented but a passing phase - reassert themselves today. One regrets missing opportunities for even greater mischief and malice. In January 1987, that same Times editor, after Private Eye had quoted him as emitting some obscenity, telephones Lord Wyatt to speculate that Private Eye is attacking him because "he's not grand socially like Douglas-Home [his predecessor, who had just died]". Reading that, the more compassionate soul which I hope I now possess is temporarily dispelled. I long to be quoted as saying to Lord Wyatt: "No, no, tell him that it's nothing to do with his class. Reassure him that the Eye only does it because he's ignorant, a bully of the weak, a toady of the strong ... etc."

In April, 1987 Lord Wyatt snitches on me to Mr Rupert Murdoch. Or perhaps it could be argued that I snitch to Lord Wyatt on that same wretch of an editor. I tell Lord Wyatt that the editor was always nervous and wanting to tone down what I seem to have regarded in 1987 as my bravely right- wing leaders. Yes, I am afraid I was depicting myself to Lord Wyatt as brave to be right wing while working for Mr Murdoch.

Mr Murdoch tells Lord Wyatt that he will have the editor, as well as Peter Stothard (then deputy editor, now editor) and myself to dinner "to see what he could do to elucidate and stiffen up" the editor.

That dinner never took place. Mercifully. I can imagine what I would have got up to if it had. "Rupert," I would have said, "I just don't go along with Stothard's view that the editor is nervous and not right wing enough, but let's hear the case, Peter." Oh, the lost opportunities for mischief when one reads of oneself in a diary!

I have dwelt at length on the references to myself, first, because I naturally find them interesting, but secondly because of what might be termed the Diary Issue. The triumph of Alan Clark, and now of Lord Wyatt, mean that more and more diaries will be published. It sometimes seems that half my friends are keeping diaries for publication. Some of them suspect me of being at it myself. Future historians will rely on them, but as history this does not mean that they are reliable. Quotation, as I know in my own case, is selective. The diarists depict themselves as influencing the mighty. We seldom know if the mighty think they are influenced by the diarists.

Yet the Wyatt diaries, like Mr Clark's, remain a kind of masterpiece. Not because they are akin to historiography, but because they are akin to what used to be called, before sociologists took over the word "society", the novel of society. They illuminate the foibles, fears and pretences of the Great World, of Vanity Fair. They are therefore a solace to the vast majority who are not of that world. For how are the inhabitants of that world depicted? As ridiculous - usually.

Because they now live in the diary age, the mighty must make a Faustian bargain. In return for appearing powerful, rich or glamorous now, they know they must look ridiculous in some diary later. Think of that next time you resent some Mandelson lording it. In due course, the mighty - threatened by diaries - might even start to behave more modestly. Diarists thus carry out the teachings of all the great religions. They punish hubris, and cast down the mighty from their seats.

Not all the mighty, of course. Lord Wyatt does not do any casting down of Lady Thatcher or Mr Murdoch. Not consciously; readers, however, can do their own casting down, drawing different conclusions from the same information presented by the diarist.

It will be said of Lord Wyatt what is said of all great diarists from Pepys onwards: that he is a snob. Yet here he is at Lord Weinstock's country house in March, 1986: "I said the Grosvenor family was the most useless ever to be rich in England having contributed nothing to the state or to the arts or any other useful occupation and even the architecture they have presided over in London has been of very poor quality." Lineage and wealth are no protection from the born diarist which Lord Wyatt, like Pepys and Clark, is.

Even I must endure the mortification of reading that editor described in March, 1988, as "turning out to be an excellent editor of the Times. Quite firm and knows what a newspaper should be like."

Frank Johnson is editor of the 'Spectator'