He meets me at the tiny local station and we drive briefly along winding lanes and through what looks like a small suburban council estate to Saltwood Castle. He jumps nimbly down from the driving seat to prop open the double wooden doors of the gateway. My first sight of the castle grounds reveals a startled white dove flying up to perch on a turret and a peacock strutting across our path. Resisting the temptation to interpret this symbolically, it is still a theatrical start to my encounter with Alan Clark.

Can I see what all those women saw in him? Yes. At 66 he looks 10 years younger, while his wife Jane looks 32 not 52. They are both tanned, trim, taut and springy of step. It must be all those walks across the Scottish moors on his estate at Eriboll; all that skiing at his chalet in Zermatt; all that hard work maintaining the house and garden at Saltwood.

In a diary entry for March 1990 he reflects: 'Why am I still, in the main, so zestful? I know, but I don't like to say. In case the gods take it away.'

Why is it? I ask. He gives me a long look. 'It's private.'

Alan Clark is exactly the swashbuckling, egotistical, indiscreet, urbane and witty character who leaps outrageously from the pages of his celebrated Diaries. This, the Thatcher years as seen by the most iconoclastic member of the chorus line, was first published in 1993. Clark, already a multimillionaire, is rumoured to have received a pounds 150,000 advance. Tantalisingly, he says there are 18 more volumes, dating from 1955, still unpublished 'to give nosey-parkers pleasure in years to come. The volume they want next presents me with a frightful problem because it covers the Matrix Churchill trial and the period when Jane walked out on me for a bit, which made me very miserable.'

Has he written differently since the Diaries were published, with half an eye on an audience? 'Although riddled by hypochondria, caution and vanity I'm not going to change my style. I just write as I've always written.'

Does he mind the probability that, whatever earlier ambitions he may have had, his fame is likely to rest on the diaries? 'I'd like to be famous for more than that. I very much regret being out of active politics and, in order to maintain vitality and interest, I will not allow myself to think that I have forever vanished from the field. I fantasise, though I can't be specific. I'm riddled, or is it raddled, by quasi- disreputable episodes and you could say I'm completely disqualified, but I know different. I would like to be famous for political achievement: it would be a lovely double to be remembered for that as well as for an enduring work of art.'

Diaries has been on the bestseller list for months, selling some 145,000 copies in hardback and paperback. As soon as Max Clifford started his campaign on behalf of the Harkess women, sales increased fivefold.

He leads the way into the library at Saltwood; a time-warp, he says, quite unchanged since the Thirties. It is a dark, panelled room lined with gloomy leather-bound books and pictures of the Clarks meeting royalty and other notables. Seems a bit naff, that. 'Naff', like 'spastic', is one of his favourite words. He says the Spastics Society (known nowadays as Mencap, but not by him) wrote and complained. He wrote back and that was the end of it. He had expected a debate on political correctness: one of many aspects of modern life he deplores.

He invariably calls women 'girls' and displays a thoroughly old-fashioned attitude towards them. When I inquire about the Harkess women, referred to in his book as 'the coven', he says gallantly: 'I'd rather leave them out of it. I don't like talking about other girls and have always made it a rule. It's their prerogative.'

He offers me red or white wine, adding quickly: 'As Kingsley Amis says, the heart sinks at the implication that you can only have one or the other.' Red, please, I say. 'Will burgundy be all right?' he asks, with elaborate concern.

He returns with a tray upon which reposes, in a cradle, half a bottle of yesterday's lunchtime claret for him. He was recently quoted as saying that claret at less than pounds 45 a bottle was not worth drinking so I squint at the label, but it is concealed. He recalls a previous female interviewer who reeled away quite pissed. I sip thoughtfully and sparingly.

We go into the garden, ringed by half- ruined battlements and the remains of a Gothic building with lovely empty tracery. His father bought Saltwood in 1950 from Lady Conway, who in turn had bought it from the Deedes family after they went bust in the Twenties.

We settle in lounging chairs beside a tiny pool surrounded by honeysuckle and trailing roses, nibbling from a tray of biscuits and cheese with scraped radishes served on silver plates. After a bit Jane appears from behind a clump of pampas grass with the prosciutto and melon he wanted. I had thought he was a vegetarian: but why should he deny himself those succulent pink slices, that tender fruit?

He had an unhappy childhood. His father, the art historian Kenneth Clark (author of The Nude), was strict and taciturn. On 'the batty Calvinist theory that any self-indulgence is sinful' the children were allowed few treats. Equally batty psychobabble would say that Alan has spent the rest of his life compensating for being denied ice-cream as a boy.

Alan Clark hated Eton; loved Christ Church, Oxford; and embarked on life as a historian. His first book, The Donkeys, was about the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. That war still engrosses him.

'It was the great seismic shock of the century and nothing since compares with it. People have a vested interest in whingeing on about the Holocaust but that was just a horrific and shameful episode - it didn't symbolise a shift in values and social structure which all came together with the First World War. That war changed everything, for ever.' He leaves me in no doubt that this is to be regretted.

Such remarks explain why Clark stands beyond the extreme right wing of the Tory party. He accepts that, adding: 'I'm on the right on social issues, but left on economic topics: I believe in capital punishment and cutting off thieves' hands but equally I believe a government has a responsibility to create full employment and the redistribution of wealth through the taxation process. It's the reverse of current fashion in the party which says that everybody must be given counselling and then you can put them all out of work in the name of efficiency.'

Yet he has not lost hope of getting back into the thick of it. He eyes the chairmanship of the party wistfully, telling me that two people had telephoned the weekend after Norman Fowler resigned, suggesting him as a candidate. Politicians? 'Not politicians,' he concedes. Is he trailing his coat? Of course he is.

His entry into politics in 1968 was impeded by Ted Heath, who disliked the young Clark intensely ('I'm not his cup of tea - or he may have thought I was an old-fashioned fascist') and tried to get his name removed from the list of candidates. 'However, I was equal to that because I was good friends with a very influential lady and she said, 'No, no, this is monstrous] You can't take Al off the list]' and so I got put back. It's one of the very, very few occasions when you can trace the exercise of sex appeal to a good result.'

So he was put on the shortlist for Plymouth where he was selected. He didn't like the constituency aspects of an MP's life and admits he was no good at it. 'They got on my nerves and were terribly possessive. They tried to claim me and wanted Jane and me to live down there and were completely insatiable. But I still have affection for Plymouth and I send them all Christmas cards.

'Like my colleagues, about whom I wrote dreadful things, they also bore me no ill-will. I wasn't nasty about everybody and curiously, I always had quite a high opinion of John Major - a nice man, very courteous, who gave the impression of actually thinking things through, unlike the Cambridge mafia.' Is this coat-trailing again, I wonder?

I change the subject by asking when exactly he met his wife Jane. Was she only 11 or 12, as is sometimes rumoured?

'I met her in 1956 when she was 14. I just, um, well . . . same thing as she did: if you meet your mate you know it. I had never felt like this about anyone before. Her parents took her away for most of 1957 because they thought I was a bad influence. When she came back I brought her over here and my parents were delighted; my father adored her. Her parents were pretty grumpy because she was so young.'

At this point I said, but you can't have found it very difficult to charm her mother? He pursed his lips and stared at me in silence for over a minute. I moved on. Had he given his sons a happier childhood than his own?

'I very much hope so. I adore my sons and we're just like brothers really, and fool around. I took one away from boarding school because he ran away. He taught himself to fly in Arizona, came back and used to say to me, 'I'm only 19 and I'm earning more than you are.' '

From Alan Clark the loving father (an image that is easy to credit) we proceed to Alan Clark the lover: perhaps his most celebrated role. I ask whether he ever falls in love? Again I am transfixed by a long look. 'I don't want to talk about it,' he says. 'It would hurt Jane, and I don't like to hurt Jane.' But under his breath he murmurs: 'Only once.' It may be true and in any case it's a clever answer, allowing any of his former conquests who may read this interview to hope she was the one.

'I couldn't do lechery quite untouched by love because that's tantamount to going to brothels, which I don't like. Going to a prostitute is so demeaning for both of us. Of course there has to be fun and sympathy and delight in one another's company.'

Does he find the pursuit more fun than the capture? 'I find the pursuit actually very unsettling . . . is she going to turn up or not? But it's all fun. You can confuse yourself if you try and separate different elements in the relations between the sexes which for me have always been a complete delight.' So he had a lot of fun and a lot of women had fun and that's nothing to be ashamed of? 'That's exactly what I feel, yes,' he says.

'The only things I repent are the times I made Jane unhappy. I can't bear to make her unhappy and when I do I'm miserable.' But, I suggest, not miserable enough to stop doing it? He laughs. 'Well, that's the trouble, isn't it? I'm afraid I'm a recidivist.'

His laugh is so roguish, so endearingly tail- wagging, that I say, but what if Jane paid you back in your own coin? He snaps into coldness at once. 'She'd have to comment on that, not I: but that's an extraordinary phrase to use. No person could contemplate embarking on a relationship unless they felt attracted to the object of their desire. If Jane felt attracted to somebody I'd feel absolutely miserable, but I certainly wouldn't try to divorce her. You might think, let him see what it's like: but that just pushes you further apart, and we're very close.'

He promised me two hours and my time is up. He glances at his watch - with luck, we can just make the next train. I scramble across the lawns through the sweet-smelling hall to the car. As we round the bend to the station, the train is waiting. 'It's there,' he cries. The car screeches to a halt and he hurls himself out and runs towards the platform with me in pursuit.

'Hold it] Hold it]' he calls. And they do.


The Spastics Society wishes to correct the assertion in the interview with Alan Clark last week, that it is now known as Mencap; they are entirely separate organisations.

(Photograph omitted)