The Alan Clark diaries are compulsive, fascinating, addictive, shocking and horrifying. They also show the world has changed.
“Why am I still, in the main, so zestful?
I know, but I don’t like to say
In case the gods take it away.”
As so often, Alan Clark, here aged 62, is talking about what he refers to as the other – as in “I fear that if I’d come from ‘an underprivileged background’ I’d probably by now have done time for GBH, or assault, or even what Nanny calls the other.”
An Amazon reviewer of the Alan Clark diaries, which cover the period 1972 (when he was 44) to his death in 1999, describes him as The Mr Toad of the Tory Party – vain, boastful and a lover of fast cars. No-one outside the UK has heard of him. He quotes Hitler, of whom he keeps a signed portrait in his safe, and revels in the shocking effect this has on readers.
So why read his diaries?
I have to admit: I found them fascinating.
Why the diaries are entertaining – and fascinating
To read the Alan Clark Diaries is to experience a voyeuristic glimpse into the mind of a member of the British upper-class political elite of the late 20thC unlike anything I’ve experienced. The bloke is self-pitying, hypochondriac, cruel, inconsistent, arrogant, untruthful (“If you are a serious player, it’s no good being ‘straight’. You just won’t last”) and, often, mystical and downright weird (“it is a very great loss to lose a jackdaw, because they are magic birds, and carry reincarnationary powers”). He is consistently horrible about, and to, people (he teases the nervous Home Secretary “sadismoidly” about the possible safety flaws of the helicopter in which they are flying). If you don’t like reading nasty stuff, this book is not for you.
On the other hand, he is undoubtedly creative; reflects on events in an illuminating fashion; leaps into and out of his collection of classic cars to drive to his vast estate in Eriboll, on the far north coast of Scotland, or Zermatt; writes well; revels in nature; and is clever (a reminder of the obvious fact that there is no correlation between being clever and being good). For example, take his eye for a quote – here from unknown-to-me poet Keith Douglas, on the failure of his career (the epilogue to Volume 2):
“And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked;
to find them, as the great collectors before me.”
On seeing Michael Heseltine after the collapse of the latter’s effort to lead the Conservative Party, he quotes Emily Dickinson:
“A Great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was Within.”
His first-hand accounts of struggling with retirement, or ill-health, are instructive and moving – however unlikeable he may be.
What to make of all this? I am, honestly, baffled: pleased to have read the diaries, seared by the content, guilty to have found them readable.
Ten questions about the Alan Clark Diaries
So, rather than further analysis, here are some questions the diaries raise for me.
1. Are they real?
Are they real? The style of the volumes varies markedly. In Volume 3, edited after his death, Clark often refers to God, and praying – Volumes 1 & 2 contain no such references. Conversely, Volume 3 surfaces his affairs more explicitly than Volumes 1 & 2 – although the former make throwaway references which cannot be deciphered without context from elsewhere. For example, Vol 1 refers opaquely to him meeting “The coven”. According to Wikipedia: “Clark is, at this time, also carrying on an adulterous affair with Valerie Harkness, the wife of a South African judge, and her two daughters (to whom he refers collectively as “the coven”). Why would he suddenly start to refer to affairs in his final diaries but not in earlier versions? All this supports the view of a British politician who told me he thought these were “the most edited of all diaries”.
2. Does an unexpurgated version exist?
2. Is there an unexpurgated original version? In what light would that reflect Clark? Apparently he started keeping a diary in 1955, when he was 27.
3. Should we complain?
Is it reasonable to criticise a diarist for behaving badly? In other words, is Clark simply writing down with irritating insouciance the kind of thoughts many people have, but usually do not express – let alone publish?
4. Is he worse than other men?
In a similar vein, how extreme is Clark’s misogyny? The quote about GBH at the top of this review comes from a complaint about some valuers who visit his castle at Saltwood, and reads in full: “Another thing that irritates me is that they are all men. Why no birds? I know that the atmosphere at Saltwood, creepy passages and little chambers and casement windows, can have a mildly aphrodisiac effect on female visitors. Once I’ve separated the girl from her group she gets alarmed, which is fun. They breathe faster, talk nineteen to the dozen, keep changing the subject. (I fear that if I’d come from ‘an underprivileged background’ I’d probably by now have done time for GBH, or assault, or even what Nanny calls the other.)” Is this extreme? Or is it, cf Kemal, the chilling “hero” of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, simply how (many) men think? (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog)
5. Can we admire other aspects of his life?
Is it legitimate to loathe Clark’s failings but also to admire the way he enjoys less controversial aspects of life, such as the countryside? For example, at his Eriboll property in Scotland: “This morning I bathed, before breakfast, in the loch just opposite the targets. I don’t know what the temperature is, a tiny trace of Gulf Stream perhaps, but not much. One feels incredible afterwards – like an instant double whisky, but clear-headed. Perhaps a ‘line’ of coke does this also. Lithe, vigorous, energetic. Anything seems possible.”
6. Can we admire his writing?
Similarly, is it legitimate to appreciate his sketches of leading politicians? eg this on Douglas Hurd: “His is a split personality. A deux he is delightful; clever, funny, observant, drily cynical. But get him anywhere near ‘display mode’, particularly if there are officials around, and he might as well have a corncob up his arse. Pompous, trite, high-sounding, cautiously guarded.” Or of the 1992 Committee: “The trouble with this club… is that it personifies in extreme form two characteristics found in the majority of MPs – stupidity and egomania.”
7. Does reading diaries affect people?
Clark read others’ diaries – he mentions “Chips” Channon and Leo Amery, whose views he seems to have shared or found sympathetic. Does reading others’ diaries mould one’s views, or does one read diaries which reflect one’s existing views? Or: is reading all diaries a waste of time?
8. Can a book change history?
In a similar vein: if hundreds of thousands of people read a book in which the author expresses “politically unacceptable” views, does that action make those views less unacceptable, as people feel that their own dark feelings are actually shared by others and thus legitimate? If so, could a book like this change the political complexion of a country? Did this one? Could it have contributed, for example to the Brexit debate?
9. Was this a wife’s revenge?
The final volume, where we all know Clark is dying but he does not, is moving. So is the account of the weeks up to his death on 5 September 1999 written by his wife Jane, after his final diary entry on 1 August. But what motivated her diary’s explicit references to the humiliation of his failing bodily functions in those weeks? Is this simply reflecting reality, or some kind of posthumous revenge? Or her description of his burial, in a shroud: “Reg blessed the grave and consecrated it and after a short prayer we lowered Al into it and I threw or rather shovelled 2 spades of earth on to him, the first one rather splendidly landing on his tinkey.”
10. Can you learn something from the diaries?
For me, the answer is a clear “yes”. The diaries are a guide to understanding British politics and society. More: they illustrate in excoriating detail how it feels to age; to fail; and to die. Clark’s descriptions of how his life fell apart after he retired are a revelation. Before retirement, he kept a busy job, family, estate, affairs, travel, writing and countless other commitments under control. After retirement he felt so overwhelmed by his diary that couldn’t find time to tidy his desk. Retirees: read, and learn.
The Alan Clark Diaries: thought-provoking
As you can see, the Alan Clark Diaries are, at the least, thought-provoking. I noted also the irony of his observation in 1991 (aged 63):
- “Obituary pages nearly always cause satisfaction – if not Schadenfreude.”
And, later, inevitably, the gods did, indeed, take it away.
P.S. If you would like to see my own writing, my most books include: the blackly comic Seven Hotel Stories, hard-hitting Berlin thriller Blood Summit and Corona Crime – a thriller for a world in the grip of coronavirus.
They make terrific gifts!