Magazine article The Spectator

Patriot's Progress

Magazine article The Spectator

Patriot's Progress

Article excerpt

I HAVE long thought that the hollowest lines in the English language are 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?' Often the sting and the victory are only too apparent: never more so than this week. Alan Clark may have been a year older than three score and ten, but until the onslaught of his final illness, he never felt his age - and would not have dreamt of acting it. `How old is x?' I would inquire. `Oh, our age' he would say. I am 21 years younger (though I do not look it), but I saw what Alan meant.

Words like 'irreplaceable' and 'unique' are worn tawdry by over-use. In this case, they are inadequate. All Alan's friends would agree that he was simply the most life-enhancing character they had ever met. However dull-witted one felt oneself, the sight of Alan entering the room with that loose-limbed, loping swagger raised the spirits. Whatever might now be on the agenda, it would not include tedium.

Alan was one of the few people who talked as well as he wrote. There was a constant play of wit, anecdote, malice, historical reference, gossip, perceptiveness. He was fascinated by the theatre of the human condition and drawn to politics, partly because of the high quality of the drama it offered. He used humour to shock; from his earliest days, his motto could have been `epater les bourgeois'. At Eton - during the war - he kept a poster of Hitler in his room and sometimes told the sons of fallen soldiers that their fathers had been fighting on the wrong side. Not long after the war, when the focus of threat had switched to Russia, Alan was dining with his parents. His mother was exercised by fears of a Russian invasion. `Alan, darling, you're the expert; if the Russians came to London, what should one do?' `Well, Mummy, I think there's only one thing you can do. Try to get yourself reserved for the officers.' Kenneth Clark ordered him from the house.

Like a lot of thoughtful men, Alan used humour to approach topics and ideas that he had not yet fully thought through, to arrive at playful conclusions, which would later be followed by serious ones. His jokes were always anarcho-subversive: oral handgrenades. As Alan knew that anti-Semitic remarks were guaranteed to cause outrage, and as he enjoyed doing that, he sometimes made them. When he first met Michael Howard, he disliked him, so I asked him what apart from anti-Semitism made him so agin Michael. `Anti-Semitism,' he replied. But I do not believe that Alan was anti-Semitic. This is not merely because some of his good friends were Jews, including Michael Howard, whom he later came to like and respect. His anti-Semitic sallies need to be understood in context. Au fond, they were nothing more than a cutting edge of his campaign to assail the conventional wisdom and the conventional pieties, all of which he despised.

Here, however, he suffered from the deficits of his qualities. Because he was so funny and so outrageous, many people did not realise that he was also deeply serious. Nobody had thought more profoundly or more astringently about 20th-century British history. He believed that the best account of that history had been written before the century had begun, by Kipling.

Far-called our navies melt awayOn dune and headland sinks the fire Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh, and Tyre!

In 1900, Britain was an imperial power. In 1999, we are struggling to retain our unity and our independence. It has been a century of national decline, a theme which obsessed and oppressed Alan throughout his career as an historian and a politician. He tried to work out why this had happened and what could be saved from the wreckage; sometimes, indeed, one felt that he was writing history in the hope of reversing it.

Decline is, of course, inextricably bound up with war; a country of Britain's size cannot hope to win two world wars and still remain a superpower. Alan believed that we should not have fought either of them. …

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