Chance Witness by Matthew Parris

The charm of failing with such success

Steve Richards
Tuesday 15 October 2002 00:00
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(Viking, £18.99)

There is a riddle at the heart of this book. Matthew Parris is the most talented columnist of his generation – so damned talented that he has had the rare honour of being commissioned to write a thick autobiography. Yet much of the book is touched with a sense of failure. Most journalists would die to fail like Parris.

This is part of his charm. He can see through the absurdities of life, including his own. Perhaps this is why he plays down successes and overplays failures. According to Parris he was not a very good politician and an even worse television presenter, the job he moved to when he resigned as an MP. This is not quite how I recall it. Parris seemed to make more of a mark as a backbencher than his contemporaries, much in demand by the media, which is why he caught the attention of Weekend World. He was an assiduous constituency MP, wracked by guilt when he resigned for the apparent glamour of TV.

Parris did not find it glamorous at all. Weekend World was a programme for manic producers rather than presenters. The producers would list all the questions in advance, along with permutations depending on the answers. Parris was in a straitjacket, but he was not as bad as he suggests. Some of his interviews were rather good. I seem to remember he actually listened to some of the politicians' answers rather than follow the whims of the control freaks who produced him.

Even his success as a sketch-writer is put down to luck. He says he was fortunate to be faced by the disaster of Neil Kinnock's Sheffield rally in 1992, which he predicted would go badly wrong (Parris had to file before the comically overblown event got under way) and to comment on parliamentary scenes as dramatic as those of the Major years.

The riddle of a big autobiography penned by someone claiming only modest success is compounded by a tone that does not quite match the contents. More than any other columnist, Parris has a voice. I can hear him writing this book. The tone is quiet, thoughtful and gentle. Yet Parris can be funny, shocking and quite damning in his judgements. Only on reflection does a reader realise that the gentle Parris has been simultaneously quite nice and quite nasty about colleagues and friends. From Thatcher to Portillo and on to Hague he is courteously damning.

As well as his perceived failings, we read about his experiences cruising on Clapham Common, his competitiveness, his sense of not feeling comfortable in his own skin. Only a writer with supreme self-confidence could afford to be so candid and modest. The author of such an enjoyable read has much to be self-confident about.

Matthew Parris appears at the Cheltenham Festival on Saturday 19 October

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