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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:18 GMT
The Alan Clark I knew
The late Alan Clark was a colourful character, a modern day Pepys who recorded the affairs and scandals, the in-fighting and backbiting of his time in Westminster. What memories do friends and colleagues hold of the man?

Charming, reckless, irreverent, unpredictable and vain, Alan Clark was all these things. He was obsessed with climbing the political ladder one minute, seemingly willing to risk everything on a whim the next.

Little wonder then that his legendary diaries, covering the Thatcher years, have been turned into a six-part series for BBC Four, starting on Thursday.

But how is Clark remembered? We asked people who knew him for their memories of the man - and for their favourite Alan Clark story.

Guardian sketch writer Simon Hoggart

"The one thing Alan hated was people whose views were boring or predictable. He would often say things - such as he was an admirer of Hitler - just to get a rise out of you. I disagreed with most of his opinions, but I always got on with him very well.

"I was a dinner guest at Saltwood Castle, when he produced gold plates for us to eat meat off. He didn't eat meat of course. His aged butler was on hand to do the carving.

"His wife, Jane, said the trouble with gold plates is that you can't put them in the oven, because they melt. By the time the ancient butler had carved the beef, it was completely cold with a ring of white fat around it.

"Somebody described Alan recently as the 'keeper of the wooden spoon'. He loved to stir things up.

"I once wrote a pretty rude article about David Davis [the shadow home secretary], saying he'd had a pretty disastrous speech. Alan was absolutely thrilled by this. He thought it was hilarious."

Book edited by Ion Trewin
Ion Trewin edited Clark's diaries

"What mattered more than anything else to Alan was perfection. In the competitive atmosphere to secure the first volume of his diaries, I took a dummy book to show him what we'd do.

"He stroked the pages and said 'you really mean you'd print it on paper of this quality?' as he hated cheap paper that yellowed at the edges.

"This love of quality struck me whenever I visited his apartment or Saltwood Castle. He'd grown up with wonderful things and he loved adding to them. His clothes, his shirts, his watches - he loved buying new watches. But some of his classic cars were in a terrible state - he was very cautious about restoration as he didn't want to destroy the integrity of the thing.

"My main memory is that whenever he entered a room, everybody suddenly got excited; he lifted the atmosphere. He always said interesting things, and when he left, people always said that he'd made their day."

Jonathan Aitken, a fellow Conservative MP and friend of Clark

"'Girl trouble again. Can you advise soonest?' was one note I recall Al leaving in my Members' Lobby pigeonhole one evening. Memory now fails me as to which of at least a dozen possible scrapes it referred. But it could have been the time he seduced a girl on a train between Canterbury and Folkestone soon after his appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary for Employment.

"'Did I think his unknown partner in this one-stop stand could have recognised him as a minister?' he asked me in anguished whispers. Probably not, I replied, but I changed my answer when Al revealed the creative use he had made of his red despatch box to improve the excitement of this adventure.

"Fantasies were never far from his mind and he fulfilled an amazing number of them including, notoriously, seducing not only judge's wife Valerie Harkess but also her daughters Josephine and Alison."

The book of Clark's collected columns, edited by Robert Coucher
Robert Coucher edited Clark's book Backfire

"Alan wrote a column for me when I edited Classic Cars magazine. They always generated more irate letters than anything else because he'd say rude things about cars and individuals.

"He loved Porsches and Jaguars but hated Italian cars, complaining that they were very poorly made, which annoyed many readers.

"He also used to regard polishing a car as terribly middle-class - he liked his own cars to be scruffy - which wound up the anoraks who'd spend their weekends lovingly polishing their cars. But they loved him regardless.

"We had a dinner once at which Alan was guest speaker. He was vegetarian, but found out that dinner would be venison. He declared that as he'd eat anything that hadn't gone through an abattoir, venison was fine. He was a right-wing nut, but animal welfare was top of his priorities."

Conservative MP David Heathcoat-Amory

"He wasn't a particularly nice man, I don't think. He could be very cruel with colleagues. I don't think he was very empathetic.

"One incident which sticks in the mind was when we were having a whip round for a colleague and he refused to chip in. He wouldn't put any money in.

"He was a radical. I remember being in cabinet committee meetings where he would refuse to back down. He was a good corrective. I think he was licensed by the prime minister to play that role.

"I also think he was very conscious of his own image and status, and his own reputation as a diarist. But the diaries were not always accurate. They are valuable historically, but ultimately unreliable.

"There is no doubt that he was a great character. We need people like that in politics. Just not too many."

Edwina Currie, author, and one of Clark's fellow Conservative MP

"He was a complete rogue. I was very relieved that I was not his type of woman. He had trouble with women as equals - women to him were either beddable or they weren't.

"I came across his darker side as a result of a conversation with a constituent who was a gun manufacturer. He was after an export licence. I asked where they were going, and he said somewhere in the Middle East - but purely for self-defence.

"So I asked Alan [then the minister responsible] and he said 'no trouble at all, my dear'. Of course it later turned out that the embargo on selling weapons to Iran and Iraq was being broken. It all came out in the Matrix Churchill arms-to-Iraq case - when they questioned Alan, he knew all about it.

"Yet this was a man - a vegetarian - who did his best to get the fur trade banned. Margaret Thatcher was furious when she found out, saying 'Tories are not in the business of banning trade'.

"He was a pacifist as far as animals were concerned, but not people."

Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary

"I think he was probably the most incontinent minister I have ever come across in terms of security. He was absolutely incapable of retaining any information longer than the time it took to bump into a journalist.

"He was utterly mischievous. He was born completely out of his time, in many ways. He should have been an 18th Century rake.

"He was very ambitious. He campaigned mercilessly to be made foreign secretary. It's sometimes said of Mrs Thatcher that she was not a good judge of men, but I think it shows she had something about her that she never had Alan Clark, Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer in her cabinet.

"I bumped into Alan after we had both retired, and he had the effrontery to say to me 'What are you doing? Up to no good, I expect.' I said 'how dare you, of all people, ask me that!'

"It was impossible to dislike him. But it was also difficult to take him seriously."

Shireen Ritchie, chairman of Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association

"He was thoroughly intelligent, very witty and erudite, a really good constituency MP.

"He put his name forward twice for selection. The first time, perhaps, he wasn't taken quite so seriously. The second time he really wowed us.

"He was very open and thoroughly charming. He did have a reputation for frankness, but we are grown up-people. We welcome candour, as long it is not arrogance.

"I remember he had a very sweet tooth, which is something we had in common, because I am a chocoholic.

"He could be very trenchant in his views. He always wanted to argue his points. But I don't think he was ever rude about the association."

The Alan Clark Diaries is on BBC Four, on Thursday, 15 January, at 2200.

I forgive Clark, says judge
25 Sep 99  |  Politics



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