The Deborah Ross Interview: Chris Patten - He's a JOLLY DECENT chap but isn't his book a bit self-congratulatory?

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Lunchtime in Bibendum, a smart Conran eatery situated on a corner of smart Fulham Road and even smarter Sloane Avenue. I arrive early - which is good, because it shows me for the fine professional I am - but rather dirty, which is not so good, obviously. A quick coffee round the corner had, I am afraid, ended with most of it spilling down my trousers. My trousers are a very pale blue. The coffee is a very dark brown. You get the picture, I think.

Anyway, Chris Patten - the man once tipped for leadership of the Tory party, the former Governor of Hong Kong - and now on the board of The Independent; among other, less important things, like presiding over the policing review in Northern Ireland - arrives around 15 minutes late (hurrah!), but appears spotlessly clean (not so hurrah). Of course, I immediately apologise excessively for my appearance, adding that I was going to dash in for a new pair of trousers, but the shops around here! Paul Smith! Issey Miyake! Whistles! Super-chic shops which, I confess, I lack sufficient courage to enter.

Perhaps, I continue, if I earned more money I might feel more entitled. Perhaps, Mr Patten, this is something you might even like to raise at the next Independent board meeting? I could dictate something suitable, if you like.

Mr Patten laughs. "Ha!" he goes. It is just a single, loud bark of a "Ha!" I say he is possibly not taking me as seriously as he might. Would you like to see the hole in my left sock? "No!" he cries. I make to undo my shoelaces. "Stop," he cries, worriedly. To be sure, I have his attention now, but do not think I have especially impressed him. Still, no matter. I have heard there are jobs going on Stained Pants Monthly, which doesn't exist yet, but will, I am convinced, become Britain's biggest-selling stained pants magazine, once I get around to launching it.

Maurice takes us to our table. Maurice, the maitre d', turns out to be a big fan of Patten, who comes here a lot. "My very favourite politician," Maurice tells me later. "And his daughters! So beautiful!" As you may recall, Laura, the oldest of Chris's three daughters, caused a press sensation when she first accompanied her father to Hong Kong in a mini-skirt that, had it been any mini-er would not have had much point to it. Chris was shocked by the attention she received, but what could he do?

"Some prat suggested I should have intervened, and lowered her hemline. But that's seriously for the birds, don't you think? Clothing is one of the ways in which children parade their independence, isn't it?"

Chris does not rate himself physically. "I was once described by a girlfriend's mother as 'lumpy with a fringe', which pretty much sums it up, and I've put on a stone or two since then. I do hate my daft hair. So lank. It's like someone's dropped a bit of cardboard on my head."

Oh, come now Christopher, I protest. You are a wonderfully attractive man with, if I may say so, a seriously enviable and lovely hair-do. Plus, while we're about it, you're not that fat and your book on your time in Hong Kong, East and West, is a truly magnificent achievement and your little speech to the board might go something like: "It seems to me that if someone of Miss Ross's unquestionable talent has to turn up nastily caffeine-stained, in trousers which might have been nastily cheap to start with, we must be seriously undervaluing her..." Chris goes "Ha!" Maurice goes: "Would you like some soda water on a cloth to clear up that... um... mess." I decline his well-intentioned offer. As the future editor of Stained Pants, I have my appearance to think of.

We concentrate on the menu. Chris is seriously interested in food and wine. In Hong Kong, he was known as "Fatty Pang", although it could just as well have been "Hunger Pang". He loves his grub and, yes, will cook just for himself. He is good, he says, at "porky little omelettes", and "I've been known to cook a decent daube". He is working on his risotto. "Lavender [his wife] says I always overcook it." His next project, as it happens, will be a TV documentary on the cookery writer Elizabeth David: "The woman who convinced Britain it was not socially unacceptable to have garlic." He had 45 servants in Hong Kong, which was jolly nice, but he did miss doing the supermarket run.

Did he miss anything else while away? British telly, perhaps? "Oh no. I only watch half an hour of television a week, at most." So you didn't have to have EastEnders couriered out to you? "Certainly not. Although I did have tapes sent out of Blind Date, for which I do seem to have a certain weakness."

Maurice is hovering to take our order. Chris orders herring as a starter then, after some consultation with Maurice - "Tell me, which of the main courses are the least fattening?" - the lamb. Are we having wine, I ask. Perhaps just a glass, says Chris, "because I have to perform after".

Does Lavender know, I enquire. Or is it going to be a surprise? "I've got more interviews to do," he stresses. He settles for a half bottle of something white at pounds 13.95. He says: "You will get reimbursed for this, won't you?" I say, Chris, it doesn't matter if I don't. I mean, it's not like my son minds never having new shoes, or living on bread scraped with Stork, or anything. He says: "You will let me know if there is a problem, won"t you?" I think he's scared I'm going to try showing him my sock again.

Seriously now, Chris Pattern is, actually, VERY GOOD COMPANY and TERRIBLY BRIGHT and seems EXTREMELY DECENT, considering he's mostly only been a politician. Yes, I noted he needed reading glasses to study the menu. No, I didn't put the above flattering adjectives in capitals just so that, when he sees this, they'll jump out at him. I did it because I simply wanted to stress his GREAT QUALITIES and because, after consideration, I have decided that the market for Stained Pants Monthly might prove limited.

However, when it comes to his book, I'm not so sure. The subject - the handing over of the world's eighth largest trading economy to one of the most repressive governments in the world - is certainly a FASCINATING one. And Chris Patten's five years as the last governor were not without controversy.

Still, the book does come across, to my mind at least, as a little lacklustre and self-serving, a sort of dry, company report, full of self-congratulation for the new rules he did manage to bring in, even though the Chinese undid them the moment the British left.

And while Jonathan Dimbleby's book on the subject - The Last Governor - named the names of his Foreign Office enemies, Patten's book does not.

How come? "Because," replies Chris, "I did not want to write a kiss 'n' tell. Plus, it would not have been fair to the people in Hong Kong who are still there. I know I've been criticised for not throwing more dirt at people, but it just isn't my style." Chris does seem to have INTEGRITY. DEFINITELY.

Of course, one can't help wondering where Chris Patten would be now if, in 1992, he had not pulled off that extraordinary double whammy - as chairman of the Conservatives, he saw electoral victory of the party, but lost his own seat in Bath by 3,000 votes. Where do you think you'd be now, Chris, if you'd hung on to it? "Oh, I'd probably be shadow minister for bits and bobs, or on the back benches, like Heseltine and Ken Clarke."

Not Tory leader, then? No, he says. "I was always too centre left." What do you think of William Hague? "I think his shares will go up in time." Blair? "A great operator, although I'm not so sure he's a man of ideas." New Labour in general? "I think they're good at politics, although the jury is out on whether they are good at governing. Plus, the spin doctoring is very tiresome. It makes one sympathetic to Roy Hattersley, which seems an unlikely way to end one's political life." Has your political life ended? "Well. We'll see." A little vague, but WELL PUT, SIR!

Chris Patten's father, Frank, was a jazz drummer turned popular music publisher, who met Chris's mother, Joan, at a dance at the Rougemont Hotel, Essex. Frank was "a happy, genial man, calorifically challenged, like me", while Joan was "very pretty, and curvaceous, and glamorous, and well- dressed. I always felt proud of her on sports days".

Chris was brought up a Catholic, and remains very much a Catholic. However, "while my religious beliefs form an important part of my life, I am not a rosary clanker."

Do you go to confession and all that? "Yes."

And what do you say? Forgive me, Lord, I have irritated Rupert Murdoch enormously this week? "Now I have to be careful what I say here. Murdoch's a papal knight."

Chris's book, of course, received a great boost to sales before it was even half-written, when the original publishers, HarperCollins, dropped him on the direct instructions of Murdoch, their owner.

Chris was shocked, yes: "I'd been in London in January, and I'd already submitted six chapters, which everyone was very excited about. HarperCollins even held a dinner for me at The Savoy.

"I returned to France, then, three days later, my agent told me HarperCollins had decided to drop the book, because it was not as I'd said it would be in my outline, and they didn't think it would sell."

As it transpired, the true reason was that Murdoch was afraid it might damage his commercial interests in China. Perhaps, I suggest, Patten could now make it up to him by writing a book called, say, Manchester United go to Peking and Have a Jolly Good Time In the Hands of The Delightful and Straightforward Chinese Government? Chris says: "I have my next book in mind, actually." Which is? "Can't really say at the moment." WELL PUT AGAIN, SIR!

Anyway, Chris seems to have been quite a serious child, with two great passions - books and cricket. He read Forster and Conan Doyle, when not too busy following the England fast bowler, Brian Statham, from one county ground to another.

His first political memory? His father, he replies, "taking me for a walk at the time of Suez, to tell me there could be another war. The only other time he'd taken me for a walk was to talk about sex".

PRECOCIOUSLY CLEVER, he won an exhibition to study history at Balliol, Oxford, aged 16 and a half. He became a Tory at University. He has always been very much to the left of the party, so I wonder why he didn't go the whole hog, and just become Labour. "Because," he replies, "to be Labour you have to accept rather more ideological baggage."

He met Lavender, who was at the time a law undergraduate, while at Oxford. He fell for her hands: "I do like nice hands." They seem an especially devoted couple.

East and West is dedicated to her, which is "more than a marital formality ... she has been my best friend ... my constant support." They row rarely but, yes, he does irritate her sometimes. "I'm inclined to be sanctimonious. I don't always listen to what she has to say."

When guests come round, I ask him, and say, "I need the lav", how do you know whether to say "top of the stairs" or "she's in the kitchen, clucking disapprovingly over my risotto"?

"Yes, well," replies Chris, "She was called Lav at school, much to her irritation. Now, when I want to annoy her, I call her Mother." HOW TOUCHING!

Chris, who went into politics straight from university, and has therefore always been paid for by the taxpayer, must now get on with "earning an honest crumb". He may, one day, return to politics. But, then again, maybe he won't.

I'm not sure he's sure, plus, I don't think it bothers him especially. I don't think he's particularly ambitious anymore. Still, we've had a VERY PLEASANT lunch.

He's a WARM and AMICABLE man although not especially complex and with exceedingly daft hair, now I think about it.

I might not be here next week. So, should you wish to reach me, try:


Chris Patten's 'East and West', Macmillan, pounds 22.50, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and CHEAP AT TWICE THE PRICE!