Goodbye to Clark, wayward history man of politics

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The Independent Online
HE WAS the man who owned a Rottweiler named Eva Braun yet would not eat meat. A man who inherited wealth and then set about making much more to spike the guns of his critics. A man who once bedded a judge's wife and two daughters yet declared undying love for his own wife.

To say Alan Clark was a man of contradictions would be to simplify a life of enormous complexity. He could shock and dazzle, be witty with a terrifying gaze, play the buffoon with gravitas, rubbish the party line yet survive.

His death at the age of 71, announced yesterday, has robbed politics of its clown prince, while providing a liberal dose of schadenfreude for his many enemies - none of whom would dare say they did not like him.

Clark was a maverick who came to high office late and prospered on the strength of his friendship with Margaret Thatcher. His antics in the House of Commons - he once appeared at the dispatch box clearly drunk - earned him a reputation as a loose cannon, yet his intellect and radical thinking rendered his enemies impotent in their pleas to be rid of him.

Alan Kenneth McKenzie Clark was born on 13 April 1928, the son of Baron Clark, a life peer, art historian and academic. After studying at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford - both of which he loathed - he served in the Household Cavalry and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force before being called to the Bar in 1955.

He is the author of a number of serious academic works in military history, which, to his regret, came to be widely overlooked after the publication of his notorious diaries. Instead of being remembered for The Donkeys, a controversial study of incompetence among First World War generals, his name will, for many, be synonymous with infidelity, raffishness and intellectual snobbery.

He served in Parliament as MP for Plymouth Sutton, from 1974 to 1992, when at the last minute, in a classic piece of Clark spontaneity fuelled by frustration, he stood down. He had enjoyed the ear of Mrs Thatcher, serving as under-secretary for Employment, minister for Trade and minister of state for Defence, but he upset too many of his colleagues to advance to cabinet level once the Iron Lady, whom he adored, was deposed.

However, almost as soon as he left Parliament he began brooding, bored and depressed, at his family seat, Saltwood Castle, in Kent, the grand property shrewdly acquired by his father from the Deedes family after the crash of 1929. So he decided to make a comeback - and succeeded in being selected for the safe and snobbish seat of Kensington and Chelsea, into which he swept in 1997, his wife, Jane, by his side.

She doggedly ignored his infidelities with dignity, once joking about the South African judge's wife and daughters' decision to be interviewed by the tabloids: "If you bed people of below-stairs class, they will go to the papers."

Clark once said of his own behaviour: "The various escapades - well, nearly all of them - ended in tears, on my part anyway. It's just a sort of romp, really, isn't it?"

Stories abound of him expressing astonishment that people could buy suits for less than pounds 1,400, of his delight in being arrested for a driving offence - "Everyone in public life ought to be arrested at least once. It's an education" - and of him referring to Africa as "Bongo Bongo Land".

Yet, during the infamous Matrix Churchill trial in 1993, when the defendants insisted they had been involved in Saddam Hussein's supergun project with the full knowledge of Whitehall, only Clark backed up their version of events. Without his admission - of having been "economic with the actualite" - three innocent men would have gone to jail.

Quotes of

A Lifetime

On treatment for his brain tumour: "I have an incredible body and it would be blasphemy to pump it with chemicals."

On possible successor Michael Portillo: "All the nouves in the party think Michael is the real thing."

"There are three things in this world you can do nothing about: getting Aids, getting clamped and running out of Chateau Lafite '45."

Responding to William Hague's suggestion that his colleagues should look less stuffy: "It's gay bar culture. They may love mincing around but I'm not going on TV in a shell suit with wet-look hair."

When asked if he had any skeletons in his cupboard: "Dear boy, I can hardly close the door."

"Sexual charisma is not high among Tory leaders."

On football hooligans: "A compliment to the English martial spirit."

His phrase to defend his role as trade minister in the Matrix Churchill affair: "Economical with the actualite."

"I am quite used to people who are jealous of me making snide comments."

The Monarchy: "The Queen is all right, and Princess Diana is a goddess, but most of the rest are so awful it is quite a work to describe their vulgarity."

To Sir Geoffrey Howe, who was attired in a dinner jacket: "Bring us three Bucks Fizzes and keep the change," and to Margaret Thatcher: "The head waiter wants to know what you'd like to drink."

On Kenneth Clarke: "A pudgy puffball."

On Douglas Hurd: "Might as well have a corncob up his arse."