Book Reviews: Insiders Eye on Outsiders Life in British Politics

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), February 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews: Insiders Eye on Outsiders Life in British Politics


Byline: CIARAN McKEOWN

Chance Witness An Outsiders Life in Politics by Matthew Parris. Published by Penguin. pounds 7.99.

THE recent paperback publication of Chance Witness offers a welcome opportunity to review this richly informative autobiography by one of the very best political writers in English journalism.

Parris begins by explaining why he gives himself much more than the usual cursory scamper through childhood, school and college years, arguing basically that these are the years which make and mark us for life. In his case, the result is very rewarding, for earlier years were spent in such a variety of places, from South Africa, England, Cyprus, and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Jamaica, all of which are seen at critical moments in their history by the acutely observant eye of the young Parris and recalled brilliantly by the older version.

Since he is the eldest of six children, it is strange to sense a kind of outsiderdom, even loneliness, from his earliest days.

His description of the aftermath of a serious childhood bicycle accident is touching: he knew it was serious when his father entered the picture, and here he was on his fathers knee, his father not only enduring someone else to drive the car, but not seeming to mind as Matthews blood dripped on his suit.

Later, he described an adult incident in which he was beaten up, apparently by a aaqueer-bashing gang at Clapham Common, and, as he looked for a long time afterwards at himself in the mirror aaas one might at a friend in trouble, full of sympathy and affection, he experienced aaperhaps the most intense and comforting moment of companionship I have ever known.

I immediately heard the echo of his description of the rare experience of sitting on his fathers knee. Staring in the mirror was not simple narcissism, and he was aware of a sense of desolation, which he seemed to feel defined him: yet it was his own childhood determination to get home after his bicycle accident which came to his mind not the feeling of sitting on his fathers knee.

He was also aware of anger, shame and self-pity and, throughout his recollections, he writes with a candour and self-perception that is unusual. Yet in this, for what was for him aaa pivotal moment, I retained a feeling that he had not fully understood himself.

Of course, most people will read this book because Matthew Parris the ex-MP, turned Parliamentary sketch-writer and travel writer, has been so close, such a aachance witness, to so many major figures in recent history.

And he is indeed rich on them all, starting with Maggie Thatcher, whom he served as chief letter-writer before becoming an MP in his own right.

Like all of us, he is even better at seeing the foibles in others than in himself, witty and sensitive about human frailties and the limitations of power among the powerful. …

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