Magazine article The Spectator

Brief Lives

Magazine article The Spectator

Brief Lives

Article excerpt

The great and the grumpy BRIEF LIVES by Alan Watkins Elliott & Thompson, 27 John Street, London WC1N 2BX, £10.99, pp. 223, ISBN 1904027164

Denis Healey will never be the same, once you discover, as you do in this fizzing collection of mini-biographies, that his favourite question is, 'Do you have sexual fantasies when you smoke cigars?' Peregrine Worsthorne is now forever fixed in my mind exchanging shirts with the first Mrs Nigel Lawson in a crowded Wheeler's restaurant during a Brighton party conference. And the dynamics of Private Eye fall into place when you know that, in the 1950 scholarship list for Shrewsbury, Richard Ingrams came first, Christopher Booker third and the late Paul Foot fifth.

Alan Watkins, the eminent political-columnist, now for the Independent on Sunday and for many years in these pages, is the master of the well-deployed fact, and, more importantly, the personal fact. You get the flavour of Roy Jenkins when you hear that he suggested, over lunch with Watkins, a joint business venture - putting good-quality wine in one-litre bottles and selling it to restaurants. Jenkins thought that the normal 75 cl bottle is not enough for two, and too much for one. That sort of anecdote is much more revealing than the normal stuff of political biography: how many times Jenkins addressed the Oxford Union or opened a prison or whatever.

The only criterion for inclusion in this collection - they're all writers or politicians, with the exception of Osbert Lancaster and Watkins's father, a Carmarthenshire teacher - is that Watkins met the subject. So you get Kingsley Amis exactly as he was, in the flushed flesh at the Garrick: two or three glasses of Macallan's before lunch, followed by a few glasses of Gewürztraminer, St Joseph and Beaumes de Venise. That sort of carefully controlled, if not abstemious, drinking is not responsible, though, for Amis's disagreeable nature later in life. …

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