John Walsh column

Thirty years on, it is with a series of shocks that one connects the confident social analyses of the young meteor Aitken to his later behaviour
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The Independent Online
I've got my hands on a copy of The Young Meteors by Jonathan Aitken, and it makes riveting reading. It was published in 1967, when the 25-year- old Aitken was writing features for the Evening Standard, and a year after he had stood, unsuccessfully, for a seat in Parliament. His "Inside Report on the Rising Stars of London" veers, a little awkwardly, between the groovy and the self-important but it is by no means a bad read. Aitken interviewed about 200 young movers and swingers from the mid-Sixties milieux of fashion, politics, entertainment, art, photography and business, and marvels eloquently about their go-getting qualities, their energy and style. But it is impossible to read it now without feeling a series of little shocks, as you find little connections between his confident social analysis and his behaviour, 30 years later.

Discussing politicians, he complains about the abysmal pay ("One of the tragedies of modern political life is that too many people do not contemplate entering the House of Commons because they know that it means such a savage salary cut and such a cruel invasion of their privacy").

With an unerring nose for the ephemeral, Aitken nominates his meteors: in politics Leon Brittan and Anthony Blond (the latter became a publisher and a byword in loucheness), in entertainment Simon Dee, in business Jim Slater, in art Robert Fraser ... But what makes the eyes widen most is the way he suddenly abandons his list of Mary Quants and Barbara Hulanickis and Terence Conrans, and throws in a couple of chapters on sex, drugs, gambling and criminality.

The predominant note is of yelping prurience, a professional fascination for the financial niceties of whoring, shooting up and "dropping a few grand at chemmy", topped and tailed by hilarious have-your-cake-and-eat- it moralising. In Chapter Four he reports on his interviews with 11 prostitutes ("Miss L Ash", "Miss Kane", "Madame Sade", "Miss Birchwood", you get the picture) and recites their areas of expertise, and charges, as if preparing a tariff in his head for use at a later date, before muttering, "Why anyone should get the slightest pleasure out of having pain inflicted on them is a mystery to me".

Ah, sweet innocent Old Etonian. Sad to report, he finds nobody to "speak out for purity", with or without a trusty sword of thingy in his hand. The upper classes, he concludes, have "no morals at all". And I don't know about you lot but, "Personally, I am rather tired of the vulgarity of the accepted excesses. This is no doubt the selfish view of one who, at the ripe age of 24, feels he is getting too old for the excitements of youth". Likewise he parades his familiarity with Aspinall's, the Mayfair gambling den, snootily assuring us that, "All the in-members know the parking drill at Aspinall's" (and singling out the 7th Earl of Lucan as "one of the club's most regular and colourful members") before tut-tutting about "those who like wasting their lives..."

This high-mindedness does not stop him diving into the mid-Sixties drugs scene, with the same lively professional interest he showed when grilling the brasses. Hearing that the junkies' favourite retreat is Boots the chemist in Piccadilly Circus, he goes there at midnight, cunningly disguised in jeans, dirty green roll-neck jumper and dark sunglasses. Familiarising himself with the ghastly native lingo, he learns to say, "Any chance of scoring, man?" and "Turn me on, man, I'm sick" to the shady low-lifes clustered around Eros. How gratifying it would have been to learn their response on being thus addressed by the clipped patrician.

Unimaginably, he also drops a tab of LSD and his responses are monitored by a doctor and written down. Unfortunately he has a horrible time and a new Aitken starts to appear. Fearing that he is going mad, he says, "This drug needs police, the Home Office and a dictator to stamp it out," while calling out, "Where is my mother, the only symbol of sanity I know in this diseased world..."

You can sort of see why Mrs Thatcher was a little worried about his future. There is no mention in the book of Saudis, princes, middlemen or arms deals - although Aitken's prescription that the Young People of Today should be conscripted into "a national service for peace" could be construed as an early interest in defence procurement. But his casual bragging about his contacts in the crime world ("I had maintained contact with some of the boys in my dormitory at the borstal"), and the two Oxford contemporaries who had already served criminal sentences, might have rung a few alarm bells. Most poignant, though, is when he writes about the atrophied ambitions of young Londoners like himself. "They are ambitious to be somebody rather than do something" - to be recognised, rather than to have achieved. Well, if that included him, he sure got his ambition, in spades.

Can I share with you the latest joke to circle the World Wide Web? It's about the time three law enforcement organisations - the FBI, the CIA and the Los Angeles Police Department - tries to convince President Clinton that each is the best at nicking criminals. The President decides to put them to the test by taking a rabbit, releasing it into the forest and ordering each organisation in turn to apprehend the little beast.

The CIA goes in first. They place animal informers at all points of the forest. They question plant life, rocks, stones and other material witnesses. After three months of intensive investigation, they conclude that the rabbit does not exist.

Next come the FBI. They don't muck about. After two weeks with no leads, they torch the forest, killing everything in it (including the rabbit). They don't apologise. The rabbit had it coming.

Lastly it's the turn of the LAPD. They go into the forest - and emerge after two hours, frogmarching a badly bashed-up bear, who is shouting, "OK, OK! I'm a rabbit! I'm a rabbit!"

Suddenly everybody is apologising. Nike apologises to Islam for carrying a logo on its new basketball shoes that looks like the Arabic word for "God". Princess Diana apologises for taking her children to a movie. Tony Blair apologises to Ireland for England's lack of response to the Irish famine 150 years ago. President Clinton apologises to all black people for his predecessors' connivance in the slave trade. Soon Germany will say sorry for, you know, those misunderstandings earlier in the century, and the Royal Family will apologise for Elizabeth I's having allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to bring fags into the country.

In the middle of this orgy of self-abasement is the Birse construction company, which has set an amazing precedent by saying sorry to its staff and customers for being so nasty to them in the early Nineties. "We had adopted a new culture which led to a more aggressive approach to all our relationships," writes the chairman in the current Birse News, before apologising for - well, actually, we're not given any details of what they did or how beastly it got. So now I'm desperately trying to find a copy of Birse News from those difficult years, for the pleasure of reading its letters page (headlined "Don't You People Ever Stop Complaining?"), its "New Faces" page ("Fat Tart from Bought Ledger Lands Job On Board By Shagging Non-Executive Director"), and its front-page splash ("Oh P*** Off, the Lot of You").

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