A Failed Politician - but a Diarist of Comedic Genius

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ALAN CLARK: THE BIOGRAPHY by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld, Pounds 25)

WHO now remembers Alan Clark? The notorious reactionary-romantic Tory tried and failed to achieve real power in the Thatcher era; the height of his political career was drafting the "Options for Change" memorandum as a junior minister at Defence in 1989, setting out the possibilities of a peace dividend -- a brilliant document, which still failed to get him into Cabinet.

But it was just Clark's talent that went into politics. His genius went into the gloriously indiscreet Diaries, published after he briefly quit Parliament in 1992. These semi-intentionally created the myth of the devil-may-care buccaneer, the rich gadabout, the droll Right-winger who adored baiting liberals with praise for Hitler's military genius, and the compulsive womaniser whose conquests included the wife and daughters of a judge -- but who remained in love with his wife Jane.

Ion Trewin's wonderfully readable and insightful biography shows that even though Clark persuaded the world, and himself, that he was an adorable cavalier, the truth was darker, sadder and altogether weirder. Clark was lacerated by self-doubt and hypochondria. He longed for a career of Churchillian glory leading from journalism and books to parliamentary power -- yet he never quite made it, owing to a sprinkling of bad judgment and bad luck, chiefly the bad luck of having been born a generation too late. The barbs, gaffes and shags were at least partly an alibi, pre-emptive flourishes of scorn to explain failure.

Clark never quite accepted that his Diaries were the centrally important thing about him. For a successful politician, the sort Clark dreamed of being, all the gossip, intrigue and bedhopping would have been an incidental, though intense pleasure. For an ultimately unsuccessful politician, all these things became, on the Diaries' publication, the main event. Clark was the leading character in a compelling comedy of ambition and lust. Trewin's biography asks us to see the Diaries not simply as chronicles of an age but the portrait of a gifted, creative mind, though Trewin could perhaps have emphasised more Clark's stylistic debt to the Chips Channon diaries, particularly Channon's mannerism of ending a paragraph with a throwaway single sentence. …