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The most extraordinary thing about this recording of Alan Clark’s diaries is the author’s own voice. Those who have read his chronicle of life as a Conservative MP and minister in the government of Margaret Thatcher will have developed a strong impression of his character. So how strange it is to hear that Clark sounded much less like a Jim Hacker or a Francis Urquhart and much more like Kenneth Williams. Yes—that Kenneth Williams. For, extraordinary though it may be, Clark, and there is no other way to put this, did not sound especially posh. Or at least not as much as might be expected. His voice is high and nasal, his vowels ringing out with an almost estuarine twang.
But then Clark was always a contrarian. A high Tory, with estates in Scotland and Sussex, he was also a vegetarian who didn’t allow hunting on his land. A staunch right-winger, he quite openly said that he liked the Labour party, especially Frank Dobson, whose collection of eye-wateringly dirty stories Clark particularly enjoyed. In his diaries he often quotes “the Fuhrer,” and compares the layout of his offices to that favoured by Mussolini, but is frantic with worry when a he finds a badger caught in a trap. He was a raffish, attractive womaniser who loved fast cars, but was riven with self-doubt. But Clark happily revealed these contradictory facets of his character—the unstudied accent only adds to the impression that he had nothing whatsoever to hide.
Clark reads well, his tone of voice matching closely the narrative ups and downs. Certain passages are frosted with venom, especially when he dismisses the “gnomes,” the “shits,” the “creeps” and the “wankers” who inhabit the Westminster village. At these moments, the voice hardens, the delivery becomes punchy and sardonic. He must have made a terrible enemy. But at other times, he becomes gentle, reflective, poetic even, as with the extraordinary passage in which he walks to an abandoned Devon farm remembered from childhood and falls into a trance as he contemplates the open fields and the distant church steeple. Gazing at the view, he is overcome by the possibility that young men had looked at the same scene before being sent to the killing fields of Flanders. In moments such as this, hearing the author speak his own words considerably increases their emotional weight.
Clark was a formidable political operator. Clever (more so than perhaps he himself realised), sharp-elbowed and propelled by immense energy, the course of Clark’s upward trajectory forms the backbone of the narrative. His first serious job is as a junior minister at the DTI under Tom King, whom he never liked. He is immediately overawed by the workload, consumed by anxiety at the responsibility. Then comes his first speech to the House of Commons, an event that forms one of the most notorious passages in the diaries. In preparation for what is regarded as a minister’s stage debut, Clark attends a party at which his host lays on a wine tasting. Clark, although he cannot quite bring himself to admit it, gets drunk and afterwards swans back to the House, brimming with misplaced confidence and red wine. The result is a shambles. Clark fluffs his lines. Clare Short stands up and accuses him of being drunk. The whole thing is a farce, the House descends into uproar and Clark is left convinced that he will be sacked.
It is to Clark’s credit that in the following re-shuffle he is promoted, but even his ascendancy to the Ministry of Defence is not without incident. On learning that he will once more work under Tom King, he announces immediately that he would rather resign. It takes a telephone call from Margaret Thatcher, or “the Lady” as he calls her, to change his mind. “I can’t work for Tom,” he tells her over the phone, and in perhaps the most perfect Clark formulation of all, tells her that “he’s too ghastly.” But Thatcher talks him round. He takes the job.
The appeal of the Clark diaries is their honesty; there is no self-justification or self-aggrandisement here. Certainly, many will find his politics objectionable, his language aggressive and some of the terms he uses are now unacceptable. But it is still astonishing to hear a man revealing himself so completely, strengths and weaknesses alike. People who succeed in following the Delphic instruction “Know thyself” are rare. As these funny, touching and highly perceptive readings make clear, Clark was undoubtedly one of them.