Books: The diary of a nobody; Lucky George: Memoirs of an Anti-Politician by George Walden Allen Lane pounds 17.99
Gerald Kaufman wonders why a self-confessed 'marginal sort of MP' has written such a bulky volume of reminiscenses
Sunday 02 May 1999
The whole point of George Walden's book, insofar as it has any point, is that his achievements as a politician were next-to-nil. He served in the House of Commons for no more than 14 years, giving up a safe seat voluntarily, and readily describes himself as "a marginal sort of MP". He held junior office at the Department of Education for a short time (again resigning of his own free will) and does not claim to have been more than a "mini-minister". Before entering Parliament, he was a Foreign Office functionary for 20 years, rising no higher than the dogsbody role of principal private secretary to two Foreign Secretaries (David Owen and Lord Carrington); though he does speculate (or fantasise) about the prospect of being appointed ambassador to some middle- ranking sort of country.
So why has Walden produced this bulky volume of reminiscences? Partly, I suppose, to demonstrate about himself that he, like other Britons he names, is "pretty good at writing"; and, indeed, he is certainly capable of penning many a nifty phrase. He uses this talent, in his opening chapters, to describe ruefully a series of premarital love affairs across the globe (for his duties took him to locations as far-flung and exotic as Russia and China).
Walden seems to have been that lucky kind of young man who attracted the erotic attention not only of his own coevals but of those legendary experienced and voracious older women so essential to a tyro's sexual coming-of-age. These adventures are recounted - a mite smugly, perhaps - in a series of what amount to short stories, each ending with a wry twist in the manner of de Maupassant.
It is curious, however, that while Walden is relentlessly, sometimes unsparingly, frank in providing every last little carnal detail about the effect of a bout of crabs on his "genital region", he is coy about disclosing financial information. Though he crows at length about the large sum of money he made out of reselling a picture he picked up in a junk shop, he never reveals exactly how much he made.
Walden realises, rightly, that there is a limit to readers' interest in other peoples' sex-lives, however picaresque. So he gets on to the real meat of any politician's memoirs: paying off old scores against other politicians: it is true that there are a few - very few - politicians whom Walden seems to have admired and/or respected.
Pre-eminent among these was Carrington (the kind of languid toff that Walden might have liked to be himself), together with - at any rate to a certain extent - Douglas Hurd, whom he categorises as "born to govern". In any case, when in a burst of generosity he lists a collection of MPs he holds in high regard, he shows himself inadequately informed about them. In lauding "backbenchers few have heard of", he gets names of these unsung paragons wrong. It is, for example, Bob, not Bill, Sheldon.
Far more often, however, he is on the attack. Denis Healey, a "clever but deeply flawed man", was guilty of "intellectual bad faith": and Walden writes with special authority here, glorying in having been derided by brutish Tory philistines as "our bloody intellectual". Tony Benn "adjusted his name to his convictions" and - crime of crimes - "left his school out of Who's Who". Benn and Michael Foot were "self-indulgent patricians ... small men affecting the postures of great ones". Enoch Powell, who left the Conservative party as Walden has now done himself, was a "man of hate" (possibly because he broke the conventions of the Commons by criticising Walden's maiden speech).
Mostly, however, Walden indulges himself by inveighing against politicians who were Conservatives when he was a Conservative himself. Left or right, they are not spared. "Poor" Kenneth Clarke "trusts to his guts, so he's got plenty to go on". As for John Redwood, "the more he tries to behave like a normal person the madder he looks". Somewhat surprisingly, as well as decidedly disagreeably for someone who emphasises his internationalist credentials, he is really nasty about Tories, such as "fancypants" Norman St John Stevas, whom he categorises as "foreigners". He is especially xenophobic - I had better not say racist - about "clever/immature" Michael Portillo, with "his black hair, thick lips and 'dago' name".
Leaders of the Tory party, past and present, are Walden's special targets. Edward Heath is indicted for "petulance and vaingloriousness". Margaret Thatcher, these days "drinking too much", has "reached a premature anecdotage". Of John Major, Walden muses that "I could never convince myself that he was a real person". Of the current leader of the party he opines loftily, "When I think of William Hague, nothing occurs to me". Certain other politicians arouse neither ire nor contempt but perplexity. He recalls that, after he accosted Glenda Jackson for a conversation in the Commons smoking room, "she looked straight through me when our paths crossed". It does not seem to have occurred to him that she preferred to be left alone, even - perhaps especially - by him. He tells of a meeting with Tony Blair, when Blair was leader of the opposition, to discuss an idee fixe on education that Walden was hawking around at the time: "I left no wiser about his intentions than when I arrived." Maybe Blair was too polite to say he thought it was a crackpot scheme.
Maybe Blair found Walden as condescending to himself as he is in this book to so many others: his constituents, Prince Charles ("There were so many things the Prince needed to understand and so few ways of telling him"), even his own sad mother. He is aloof, too, towards other authors, such as C P Snow and his "unreadable novels". It would certainly be a blow to Walden's undoubted self-esteem if the book-buying public found this volume equally unreadable.
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