David Mellor has a reputation as a cynic, an opportunist with a roving eye for the main chance and much else besides. But the self-confident veneer hides a more vulnerable, sensitive spirit, troubled by his relationship with his one true love: music
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By their metaphors ye shall know them.

When David Mellor ignominiously quit the Cabinet in 1992, having been caught grazing on the toes of a thespianette, he invoked the spirit of a heroic predecessor in his resignation speech. "I leave the warmth of government," he told the House of Commons, "for the icy wastes of the back benches." Power had been snug, as balmily enjoyable as Mellor's famous family holiday in Marbella paid for by the daughter of a PLO activist; to be a mere commoner meant exile to the tundra. He took consolation, Mellor added, from one who had gone before: "Captain Oates was born and raised in my constituency."

That cheeky snigger concluded a speech more notable for pique than for remorse. Mellor, deploying another grandiose metaphor, had interrupted a debate about Bosnia to compare himself, pilloried by the tabloids, to a victim of Ceaucescu's secret police. But his reference to Oates topped even this for unrepentant impertinence. The ailing Oates, as every schoolboy used to know, sacrificed himself so as not to hold up Scott's doomed trek from the South Pole. He left the camp in a blizzard, allegedly off for a stroll, and told his comrades through an upper lip stiffened by frostbite: "I may be some time." His example enabled Mellor to transform petulance into stoicism, disgrace into sacrifice. The gesture also made official a change in the morality of public life, which is no longer about duty and service. Politics today is a minor form of showbiz, governed by the same shoddy principles. Shame and guilt are left-overs from fuddyduddydom; all exposure - even if what's exposed is yourself in a borrowed flat committing adultery, while gamily attired in a Chelsea football shirt - is good.

In the event, Mellor stayed away for rather less long than the altruistic Oates. He was absent for all of two days, which is how long it took him to negotiate his first newspaper contract. Since then, ubiquity has become his revenge on his censorious political colleagues, on the hacks who harried him, and on all of us who hoped that we might be permitted to forget him. He writes for the papers, snortingly mimics Winston Churchill on television, and functions as a highbrow disc jockey on Radio 3: he is currently presenting a series called Vintage Years, in which he discusses historical recordings with musicians like the pianist Mikhail Rudy and the conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

I asked Mellor why he hadn't spent longer in the icy outer darkness. John Profumo has done three decades' worth of expiatory good deeds in the East End of London, and Cecil Parkinson at least made himself scarce for a year or two before he swaggered back to be ennobled. "Well, you must admit," beamed Mellor, "that my circumstances here are rather more comfortable than Captain Oates's ... "

The grin of self-congratulation took in the West End offices where his consultancy firm sells Mellor's services as a go-between, greaser and know-all. Actually, the rooms looked as temporary as Oates's camp in the snow, with coffee cups belonging to a hotel chain and an avalanche of faxes spilling on to the floor. (One of the curling sheets apparently concerned a sheikh who was being dunned for an unpaid finder's fee.) Tacked to the wall was a poster of Monaco: an advertisement, I suppose, for sun, sand, and freedom from taxes. In a corner Mellor guards the souvenirs of his defunct careers as a minister and a paterfamilias: framed photographs of royals, Reagans, his young sons in sailor suits and himself jauntily shouldering a cricket bat.

The football crowd at Chelsea used to chant "There's only one David Mellor." In fact there are several. Keeping his options open behind those lidded, supercilious eyes, he is a serial self-multiplier. He trained as a lawyer and then - tiring of what he calls "the cab rank idea of the bar, where you've got to take whoever comes along and argue cases for people you might hate" - switched to politics. Since 1992 he has turned his downfall to profit, relaunching himself first as a professional celebrity, as ebullient as rubber. Now there is also the obscure and very lucrative business of consulting, which reputedly earns him more than pounds 300,000 a year. Linking all these disparate identities is the oldest of them all: Mellor the music- lover, who began as a boy treble, became obsessed with recordings when a schoolfriend sold him a job lot of scratched LPs, and has recently professionalised this hobby in his platter-spinning career.

Mellor once said that Ronald Reagan was "the only politician I ever met who made me look sincere". It was as wickedly impish a remark as his conscription of Captain Oates, and its slippery irony is entirely characteristic of the man. Did he mean that even he was sincere by contrast with the old pretender, for whom politics was performance? Or was he perhaps expressing gratitude to Reagan for teaching him how to counterfeit sincerity? Ambiguity is what makes the comment so cunning, protecting it from scrutiny. Opportunism may be the politician's only creed, but there is a part of Mellor which remains residually sincere. He does love music. It is - though he might stammer, blush and volubly deny it - his conscience. It serves, as wives were once said to do, as his better half. (Mellor, having left his own loyal wife, Judith, now avails himself of Lord Cobham's wife, Penelope.)

Mellor knows, of course, that musical talent (or the capacity for musical appreciation) is no guarantee of moral probity. "One's got to be able to detach the person from the art," he said to me while discussing the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who joined the Nazi Party as an aid to her bossy self-promotion, lied about her complicity after the war, and was eventually rewarded - to Mellor's snorted disgust - with a DBE. "Still, in her case, I think the art was infected." With Mellor too, the bumptious politician and the music-lover overlap. Musicians are the apostles of Orpheus; they are also notoriously venal and ruthless careerists. Consulting is best done out of sight, in confidential whispers. Music, meanwhile, has supplanted politics as the chosen arena for Mellor's exhibitionism.

"I always think," he drawls in one of the current BBC programmes, while analysing a performance of Beethoven by the Russian pianist Maria Yudina, "that the Diabelli Variations is the sternest test a pianist can subject himself to." Lofty presumption like this can goad you to throw things at your radio. It's the "always" which is so exquisite. When does Mellor always think this? While lapping Antonia de Sancha's pinkies? While not reading those intelligence reports on the export of machine tools to the Iraqi munitions industry which somehow (as he told the Scott inquiry) escaped his attention at the Foreign Office?

Yet Mellor's musical enthusiasm remains an innocent, unguarded part of him, as he revealed when I mentioned Yudina's revved-up Beethoven to him. "Of course," he said, "you can only understand the Diabelli if you've got eight or 10 recordings of it." Then panic briefly convulsed his face, and jolted his jowls. "I know, I know, what a decadent thing to say - of course it's not all of us who can afford to buy 10 recordings of the same piece." By now he had recovered his composure, and he risked a reference to the freeloading privileges of reviewers. "Or," he added, "maybe I should say it's not all of us who get sent them ..."

His eyes retreated beneath those ruched lids. He was probably counting compact discs. In his ministerial days, Mellor was celebrated for owning 3,000 of these. Since then, I dare say the total has exponentiated. When this statistic first became part of the lore about him, it seemed to me unspeakably vulgar: fancy boasting of your possessions! After meeting him, I have changed my mind. It gives you a glimpse, I think, of a naive nerdiness which is the truest and most touching part of him. What now astonishes me is his trainspotter's tolerance for boredom. Imagine putting yourself through the chore of counting all those CDs.

Mellor's fine brain - once crowned by a QC's wig, now sold off by the hour to corporate clients - is a filing cabinet for musical trivia. He prizes information whose uselessness is almost Platonic: that the conductors George Szell and John Barbirolli died on the same day, that Stokowski conducted a symphony by Panufnik in Twickenham when he was 92, that the first LP he ever bought was a recording of Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto by John Williams, because Siegfried Behrend's on Deutsche Grammophon had been deleted - and so on, and on. He could probably recite the serial numbers of his dozen Diabellis, and would no doubt waive the consultancy fee out of sheer love. The utter irrelevance of all this is what makes it precious, even purgative, for Mellor. Lawyers and politicians see facts as things to be twisted, given an interpretative "spin". The musical facts which Mellor collates are at least safe from having to be flexed and faked.

Such fanaticism can be obnoxious. But, in a way, it is an adolescent fault, endearing in so worldly-wise a grown-up. Mellor often seems quite plaintively keen for the musicians he interviews to acknowledge him as a fellow, a colleague in expertise. Solti - assuming that he had been invited on to Vintage Years in 1995 to talk about himself - was reduced to shouting down his garrulous host. He finally squelched Mellor by setting him a quiz, demanding that he guess the three composers Solti could not live without. Mellor immediately nominated Mozart and Haydn, and chortled in triumph. The third name proved trickier. He flailed about, audibly dying. Beethoven? Surely not Brahms? No, no, Solti wickedly cackled, then tossed him a clue: it was another B. Ah, definitely Berlioz! cried Mellor, only to be gonged. Solti allowed him to squirm a little longer and then told him the answer, elongating the vowel with a middle-European death rattle: Bach. Why of course, said Mellor, who else? He then made the mistake of copying Solti's pronunciation, and uttered Bach's name as if gargling. More recently, he has been heard on Radio 3 out-lisping Placido Domingo in a discussion of Spanish zarzuela, conscientiously whistling through the gap in his front teeth and spraying the microphone with those twin, liquid zs.

Gargling and spitting to ally himself with musicians, Mellor also demarcates his distance from the pack he used to run with: the politicians. He admires the suicidal effrontery of Maria Yudina, who stood up to Stalin in the early Fifties. Hustled from her bed to record a Mozart piano concerto in the middle of the night because Stalin wanted it delivered to him before breakfast, she enclosed a note telling the ogre that perhaps after all, if Mozart could move him, he had a soul. She would pray, she promised, for the absolution of his crimes. Dumbfounded, he spared her. The story reminded Mellor of Mozart's wasted, woebegone appearance at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, a few weeks before his death. "The emperor in all his glory, and this insignificant little man... But who would you rather have been? Emperors come and go."

So do empresses. "I feel sorry for someone like Margaret Thatcher. I may never achieve what she did, but here she is at the end of her life, and it wouldn't occur to her to sit down and read a book or listen to a string quartet - all that area of experience, all those doors in the imagination, are closed to her. It's only cultural values which endure. Culture isn't something designed by Gucci, some spray-on accessory to the rest of life. All that's left of the Pharaohs is the pyramids." Mellor, during his brief tenure as Secretary of State for National Heritage, entertained fantasies of himself as a Mitterameses, and suggested building a new opera house on the South Bank to commemorate the millennium. Now he sees things differently. "If I wanted to talk about the scale of human achievement, I'd always point to Beethoven or Wagner, though I suppose I should be thinking of some statesman or other. I always remember Beethoven at some premiere of his works, late in his life when he was completely deaf, having to be turned round towards the audience to see that they were applauding. And yet there's not a bar of self-pity in that man's work."

I asked Mellor to sum up what music meant to him. He did so, with the aid of metaphors drawn from his multifarious other lives. He is fond of sporting analogies, which defend his sensitivity by making it seem hearty and laddish. Reflecting on Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich and the transformation of misery into music, he shrugged: "You don't become a great heavyweight boxer unless you're born in poverty." Lamenting Wolfgang Wagner's inept Bayreuth productions of his grandfather's operas, he said "It's like a golfer who hits a ball into the clubhouse or the lake, but never gets it to land on the fairway." On other occasions, swerving aside, he recalled the priorities of Mellor the high-liver. He speaks of musicians "laying down" repertory on disc, as if the recording studio were a wine cellar, and the title of his BBC series classifies interpretations as vintages. He despises the superficiality of current conductors, "who come out of a bastardised culture and just hack around the world. It's like Coca-Cola. When you've tasted a decent wine, you don't want Coke any more."

I dismissed as unworthy the thought that Pepsi might have Mellor on a retainer and asked him to try again, without metaphoric props. He gobbled in embarrassment, but made the effort. "Music is everything I want out of life. You are continually being refreshed by it... "

The same might be said, I pointed out, for Coca-Cola. He paused to reconsider. These harumphing paraphrases, it occurred to me, might be his way of avoiding the testament of faith more candidly made by Mikhail Rudy, in a Vintage Years programme, when explaining the survival of classical music in Stalin's Russia. Music, Rudy tells Mellor, "atoned for a life that depraved people. They had a longing for purification through art."

Finally Mellor blurted out the same truth. "Well, yes, all right, I suppose if I were religious - that's the place it fills." He too longs to be spiritually laundered by sweet, healing sounds.

That, I think, is his tragedy, because he knows his own unworthiness. Music is a severe art. Mellor began with a vocation but has ended, stockpiling CDs, with a profitable hobby. He first fell from grace as a choirboy. "I had a good voice, but I wasn't a serious craftsman. I never worked at it, I didn't give myself the grounding I should have had." That has been a pattern in Mellor's fickle life. Escaping again into a sporty analogy to conceal his discomfort, he said: "One plays number six in several teams, instead of number one in just one." Voices die inside bodies, and souls also atrophy. "Now," Mellor said, "I have no musical talent that remains." As he squirmed, I felt suddenly very sorry for him. Somewhere inside - under the limply silky swathes of hair, behind the glasses which look like two large-screen television sets, protected by those cornices of puppy fat beneath his jaw which unroll down his chest - a treble once virginally fluted.

What can a dilettante do except take noisy delight in the pleasures which will never replace his forfeited art? "I am lucky," Mellor said, "because I've been able to develop this hobby into something more important. I may not be able to sing, but I can use my voice and imagination to arouse the enthusiasm of others. I can proselytise, I'm an advocate in everything I do. I try to harness my creativity when I listen to music, and it is creative, in a way, to write a book review or do a radio programme." The idea, which he couldn't inflate with the required conviction, wistfully expired in the air.

Mellor told me about a dinner at which he'd sat next to one of his heroes, the pianist Shura Cherkassky. "I admired him so much. But after we'd talked for a while, I discovered that there was absolutely nothing in his head. All he had, you see, was this fabulous facility." Like most of Mellor's remarks about music, this one was inadvertently revealing. Having graduated through so many careers, he possesses that same facility. What's a consultant, after all, but a professional facilitator, operating along the shadowy border between politics and finance? But Mellor - unsparing in his expectations of musicians, even if he's benign when reflecting on his own conduct - seems to feel how disreputable it is to live by your wits and to sell your skills, how inauthentic it is to be someone else's hireling, without something of your own to express. "That's what I don't like about the early Prokofiev, when he was at large in the West," he said. "Before he went back to Russia, all his music was showing off: `What a clever jackdaw I am, I can write anything you throw at me...' " I assume, at least, that the last sentence was in inverted commas.

"I harness my advocacy," he had remarked, "to causes I believe in." When you add the man up, this blameless partisanship becomes more complex and dubious. Does he "believe in" all those corporate clients? Though one of the causes he advocates may be Yudina's Beethoven, another is gun control. Private Eye recently drew attention to the contrast between his post-Dunblane posture as an opponent of handguns and his continuing receipt of retainers from manufacturers of weapons like British Aerospace. The law taught Mellor a glib, gabbling ingenuity, which can justify any position on request. "Ah now," he said with relish when I asked him about Stokowski's souped- up orchestral transcriptions of Bach, "an element of special pleading is needed here"; he went on to ably defend the indefensible. There's a certain virtuosity to such fancy footwork, which resembles Cherkassky's prestidigitations at the keyboard. Let Mellor himself, shaking his head over the vacuity of Cherkassky, be the judge of such behaviour.

"I enjoy my life," he said, defiantly outfacing those who expect him to affect regret. He is, at least, not a hypocrite. "I have a lovely new house on the river. I'm going down there in a little while to do some letters and listen to music. I've put in the hi-fi of my dreams. Usually I have a ghetto blaster here in the office too, but it's broken, I need a new one. All I've ever wanted is to be fulfilled." Certainly he is filled full, as his continental shelf of florid chins and his bow-windowed shirt front proclaim - but with what? With lunches, dinners and those decent wines? Or with air (of which music too is made)? After Mellor's fall, Cecil Parkinson made a desolating prediction: "He is going to face a totally empty diary." Of course he soon filled the pages. A businessman is one who keeps manically busy. But it's hard not to suspect that the motive for Mellor's rushing about is a chilling horror vacui.

How can he not blame himself, and feel abject about losing his chance to help the arts, a cause which is evidently so dear to him? "In this country we do our best to get it wrong," he said to me about the Government's current starvation of the arts. "The big losers are those for whom one might have done something." Then, while I was nodding (sincerely, I hope) to semaphore agreement, he remembered his paranoia: "Of course everyone will just say that Mellor is being arrogant again."

After another awkward pause, he had some more last words on the matter, which remains - for all his bravado - frustratingly unconcluded. "One may return," he said. "One might be better." With Mellor, musical analogies are always lurking somewhere in the vicinity. In the Vintage Years series, he comments on an enforced interruption to Artur Rubinstein's career during the 1930s: "He retired to reconsider his technique, and emerged perhaps a graver artist than before." Maybe Mellor has just been retooling his nimble fingers?

"But Oates," I reminded him, "didn't come back. Not even after some time."

He raised the blinds which cover his eyes and gave me what might be called a straight look, as if down the barrel of a gun. "No," he said. "Well, I'm sorry that this particular morality tale does not end the way people might want. I am happy, I am gratified. I have no more self-pity than Beethoven had."

I gaped. Mellor's metaphors used to be lowlier. In 1993, grimly realistic, he had said of his departure from government: "I allowed myself to become the sick animal of the herd and when an animal gets sick in this jungle, people pounce on it and pull it down for the fun of it." Aggrandisement has since set in. Now he is the deaf Titan, shaking his fist at an indifferent universe. I didn't like to point out that Beethoven was undone by physical disability, Mellor by the rorty antics of a quite different organ.

Saying so would have made no difference, because Mellor had already moved on to another inadvertently revealing choice of words. Someone else was unjustly spurned and despised, and resigned himself to necessity - but (unlike Oates) made a prompt, dazzling comeback. "The trouble is," he grunted, "that we're a society where they crucify people for sexual acts."

We were speaking just before Easter. Christ, I thought, might have been interested in this particular metaphor. !