Is this really the voice of reason?

We can only imagine the expectant joy with which the Queen Mother hovered by the letterbox
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The Independent Culture
THE VOICE of Reason has spoken, against expectations, one more time. When Woodrow Wyatt died last year, his millions of readers in the News of the World must have thought that was it; his scores of friends in the upper reaches of the Tory party must have imagined that from now on, somehow, they must manage without his unfailing advice. And then it was announced that Wyatt, unknown even to his family, had been keeping a diary, and The Sunday Times was serialising it. We can only imagine the expectant joy with which the Queen Mother hovered round the letterbox last Sunday morning, eager to hear the familiar admonitory tones from beyond the grave.

Whether she was quite so delighted when she read the excerpts, however, is a question that has been occupying the papers all week. Outed as a Thatcherite and a keen supporter of apartheid, she turns out to be not quite the nice old lady the nation has held dear all these years. Her opinions, in fact, turn out to be startlingly identical with Wyatt's own. Margaret Thatcher, too, comes in a great deal; with the Queen Mother, she provides a constant, sycophantic chorus of approval, reminding Wyatt how good and profound his articles are, agreeing with everything he says as if their lives depended on it.

I don't quite understand why somebody would write anything so damaging to the reputations of people he admired. But I wonder, though, how authentic the diaries are. Not that there's any doubt that Wyatt wrote them. But did he write them at the time? Did he really go home and write down what the Queen Mother or Princess Michael of Kent or Margaret Thatcher had just said? Really?

If he did, I must say that he had the literary equivalent of tone-deafness. No conversation in the very substantial excerpt which The Sunday Times printed last week sounded like anyone apart from Woodrow Wyatt.

Here's Wyatt and Margaret Thatcher talking on the subject of the Church of England's report on the inner cities:

"`They seem to be more interested in Mammon than in God,' I said. `They think you can solve everything by chucking money at it.'

"`Yes,' she said. `There is nothing about self-help or doing anything for yourself in the report.'"

Wyatt to Thatcher, or Wyatt to Wyatt? And these interior monologues, presented as conversations, often cross the line into surreal fantasy. Here's Margaret Thatcher on Bernard Ingham:

"`I don't want him to think I don't trust him and he's somehow being demoted.'

"I said: `That doesn't arise. One of the reasons I love you is that you don't have enough cunning and you're not a devious person.'

"`Yes, Ingham and the other officials say I'm the most honest prime minister they've ever dealt with.'"

Would Margaret Thatcher really ever have felt the slightest need to say this? Was her self-belief really so low that she needed to tell Wyatt she was more honest than her immediate predecessors, every one of which she famously despised?

The falsity of tone is constant. The Queen Mother is reported as saying: "I'm going to write a record of what really happened. The King was not a weak man. He was very strong. I want to put down all the events of that time. I shall put it in the archives at Windsor and they can decide what to do about it years ahead. This is between you and me. Nobody else knows that I'm going to do this." This would be interesting if it were true, but scepticism is aroused by the fact that she so clearly sounds like a summary; like "Margaret Thatcher" and, indeed, like Wyatt himself. If he can't remember how she said something, you wonder, can he be trusted to remember exactly what she said?

To me, these excerpts read like the reconstruction of conversations and events, long after the fact. Compared to Alan Clark's diaries, which are full of immediate responses to ephemeral things (a girl's breasts, the weather, a silly conversation) and an alarmingly accurate rendering of how other people talk, this is very thin stuff.

The thought crosses the mind, indeed, that Wyatt may have been encouraged to assemble his diaries by the success, in the mid-Nineties, of Clark's iconoclastic volume. Why did he start keeping a diary only in 1985, never having kept one before? Could it be that he couldn't find his appointment books before that?

Of course, even if that were the case, it wouldn't make them forgeries; they are still Wyatt's diaries. Nobody can seriously doubt that the opinions he reports people holding are roughly the correct opinions. The trouble is that to write a really good diary, "roughly" isn't enough.

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