Magazine article The Spectator

Boy's Own Story

Magazine article The Spectator

Boy's Own Story

Article excerpt

Boy's own story

David Hughes

LIFE IN THE JUNGLE: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Michale Heseltine Hoddler, L20, pp. 560

Yes, but what is he like? A political memoir is rarely kiss, let alone tell. They are written to set the record straight, to put posterity in the know, to correct future historians on their interpretation of momentous events, to bow out on a dignified but deafening ovation of well-chosen words but rarely to reveal the man. Without reading everyone else's apologia, a formidable task in an era when most politicians lack both style and eloquence, I find it impossible to judge who makes the best case for anyone's responsibility for the last two decades of crisis or triumph, let alone who is right about them. Let the politicos argue it out, while we look for the man behind the current evidence of this book.

While I was editing Isis at Oxford, Michael (two years younger) was several rungs up the ladder to the Union presidency. With sly fun we recognised each other as ruthless careerists plotting to take the future by storm, as well as small boys playing games with the present. We took it for granted, with suitable shyness, that we were top-notch. Our relations were characterised by warmth and humour, two qualities not invariably associated with his later image in power, but valuable and inspiriting when in 1960 he appointed me editor of Town magazine, which he owned jointly with Clive Labovitch (`a kind, gentle man whom I trusted implicitly'). Into a crowded little office in Soho were packed his multiple business interests. As editor I shared a hutch with a building contractor. For conferences on strategy, also known as lunch, Michael, Clive and I traipsed across to the Carvery at the Regent Palace, from an upper window of which hotel overlooking Piccadilly Circus the teenage Heseltine watched London's relief and happiness besieging Eros on VJ Day: `a moment of history, hopefully never to be repeated, engraved for ever on my memory'. Quite a lot of lumps in the throat arise in this otherwise even (and now and then racy) narrative.

Also engraved on his memory are his own moments of history, and although he is properly proud of them they show a limited view of the man within. He busily promoted Concorde when Minister for Aerospace. With tremendous aplomb he inspired a hostile Merseyside to clean up the toxic mess and renew its self-confidence along with its architecture. At Environment he was the force behind Canary Wharf and the regeneration of the South Bank. He believes it was his `management style' that kept inducing the Iron Lady to promote him, finally (in her administration) to Defence Secretary; certainly few indications hover over these pages of any love lost between them. In these later chunks of book the man himself disappears in a welter of policies; Hezza dissolves into issues; Tarzan facelessly swings into action.

The essence of the fellow emerges often in his compliments to others, but even then no more than formally. Keith Joseph `had a brilliant mind, an unswerving integrity and a rigorous commitment to any conclusions that he reached'. His wife Anne (to whom the index contains but ten references) `has always been there, a tower of strength and unswervingly loyal'. The platitudes, unweeded by Tony Howard who tended the prose and dug out the dyslexia, do not conceal Michael's kindness or the reflection of himself he unwittingly conveys in these tributes. None of his friends puts in more than a ghostly appearance. So we must look earlier into frequently amusing pages for clues to the vigour of the inner man, for whom politics ('jealous taskmistress') provided a carapace and commercial proactivity a disguise.

The first surprise is to discover that this Nordic blond was born a Franco-Welsh Englishman, which helps explain why in 1960 he put unresisted pressure on me as his editor to publish in Town an enlightened article on the urgency of European integration, from which vision he has signally failed to swerve. …

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