Thursday Book: How history's oldest courtesan gilded Thatcherism

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt Volume Two

Edited by Sarah Curtis

(Macmillan, pounds 25)

"A HIGH-CLASS poule de luxe," was how Woodrow Wyatt described Pamella Bordes, consort to editors, early in 1989. He should have known, since Wyatt himself, on the evidence of these hilarious memoirs, turns out to have been the oldest, ugliest courtesan in history. His Louis was not some Sun King, but came in the bouffant shape of Margaret Thatcher, whose ego Wyatt had been servicing since her accession to the Tory leadership in 1975. As we join him at the start of this volume in 1989, storm clouds are gathering at court. Wyatt alone, it seems, cannot feel their presence, cocooned in his cosy boudoir.

Nevertheless, the entries suggest that, however absurd, he enjoys the confidences of the rich and powerful. His life is defined by his position between the three odd poles of his "darling" Margaret, his boss Rupert Murdoch and - bizarrely - Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. All three sup at his salon and in their wake come financiers, industrialists, journalists, Conservative politicians and dukes. Naturally, no courtesan calls her clients by their full titles, so their Graces become Mickey Suffolk and Andy Devonshire.

At root, the Wyatt magnetism originates in his relationship with Thatcher. Once or twice a day, Woodrow lifts his petticoats for a daily bout of telephonic sex with the PM. This volume starts with a call from Number 10 after Margaret has found herself talking on the phone to a Wyatt impostor. "A high-pitched voice came on," she tells him, "and said something vaguely insulting, and then rang off. I knew it wasn't your voice." You can bet it wasn't.

Sometimes, of course, a girl gets asked to perform when she's not at her best: "Fourth of June. Just as I was going to bed, Mrs Thatcher rang back. I had been cleaning my teeth and my false teeth were out, so I had to jam them back in again, or I would have sounded strange." Cora Pearl might have written those words, albeit in a slightly different context. But tarts have hearts. Wyatt adored Maggie. "I really love that girl. She has got such terrific guts," he says. She always looks radiant. Which he puts down to her really being from aristocratic, not grocering, stock. He believes that she is the bastard grand-daughter of a blue-blooded Tory MP, Harry Cust.

What was in it for her? Couldn't she have found someone a bit younger, more fragrant? Or, at least, someone whose advice is not as unerringly dreadful. When Geoffrey Howe resigns, precipitating the terminal crisis of Thatcherism, Wyatt reassures Margaret: "It will all be forgotten in a few weeks." Not long before, Brian Walden phones up to quarrel with Wyatt's comments on his interview with Willie Whitelaw. Walden tells Wyatt cattily: "He said about you, `That dreadful old Lord Wyatt. He keeps ringing her up and giving her bad advice.'" It takes an effort to recall that this is the journal of the same Lord Wyatt. Such candour is rare.

He's also truthful about his own hypocrisies, greed and snobbery. He employs a butler and a cook, suffers unexpected tax demands, and thus hangs on, limpet-like, to his columns in the Murdoch press ("The Voice of Reason"!), his chairmanship of the Tote and his lobbying activities. He happily records how Gail Sheehy of Vanity Fair gives him a cigar cutter "from Aspreys" for arranging an interview with Mrs Thatcher.

Wyatt is a casual racist, though emphatically not anti-Semitic. And he is corrupt, in a minor way. When asked to help award a prize for the best political journalist under 35, he argues: "The age limits should be raised from 35 to 39, because I had a candidate from The Sun, Richard Littlejohn." The committee refuses. He then suggests Mary Ann Sieghart from The Times (another Murdoch paper). They demur again. Finally Wyatt says: "What about Dominic and Nigella Lawson? She writes about politics sometimes. They are the children of Nigel Lawson." This is pure patronage; the intention of the prize clearly meant nothing to him.

This Barbara Cartland of politics repaints Thatcherism's steely world in pastel pinks, scattering sequins and fluff over its corpses, and conjuring romantic leads out of its grim personnel. It's also a picture of how one silly man used his influence for his friends' and his own interests, rather than the country's. Such whoring is amusing now. We wouldn't have thought so had we known it then.