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Updated: 15:59 GMT, 18 September 2009
At first, you find yourself wondering: what on earth do we need a biography of Alan Clark for? I mean, what did he actually do? He wrote a couple of good history books, made a pretty good boggins of a political career, committed a lot of adultery and inherited a castle.
Alan and Jane Clark in his Saltwood Castle in 1993.
The answer is that we need this book as a companion volume to his Diaries. As his biographer Ion Trewin writes, Clark’s real interest to posterity will not be what he did, but what he wrote. This gives you a good sense of – so to speak – where he was writing it from.
Clark was vain, childish, reckless, petulant, mendacious, self-serving, callous, lecherous, slapdash, attention-seeking, cowardly and dishonourable. But he had the gift – essential to a diarist worth the reading – of seeing himself clear.
He could digest his failures and his disgraces, and put them down on the page; likewise, his arrogance. He never tried, in his writing, to make himself sound attractive. So if we recognise Clark as – in the words of the woman who knew him best – an ‘ess aitch one tee’, we must at least credit him with making that recognition possible.
Clark was emotionally starved in childhood – his father, the art historian Lord (Kenneth) Clark, was remote and lackadaisical, and his mother sounds to have been perfectly horrible. It strongly shaped his character. He was a needy, weak, damaged man.
There were deep accesses of sentimentality in him. One of the celebrated passages in his Diary has him shooting a heron: ‘Sodding fish, why should I kill that beautiful creature just for the sodding fish .. I cursed and blubbed… Yet if it had been a burglar or a vandal I wouldn’t have given a toss. It’s human beings that are the vermin.’ He doted – to the extent that he feared having spoiled them – on his own sons; and, though he betrayed her, on his wife.
And, of course, there was the sex. Clark’s goatishness – his Diaries are forever going on about ‘lechery’ and feeling ‘randy’, and he uses the creepy adjective ‘succulent’ to refer to women – was extraordinary. Socrates said having a male libido was like being ‘chained to a lunatic’. Clark – well, Clark’s lunatic – would have complained about being chained to him.
When he was a young man, his neighbours knew him as Vlad the Impaler, and marked out a cordon sanitaire around his house into which their daughters were forbidden to venture.
Alan Clark with his wife Jane and two sons, Andrew (l) and James in 1966
The shrewdest and coldest assessments of Clark in this book come from David Cornwell (aka John le Carre), who knew him a little and didn’t like him: ‘Women were the enemy for him, I think.’ Even while Clark was courting his wife, a diary paragraph assessing his romantic situation included, in addition to Jane, mentions of Liz, Christina, Shirley and ‘stray blonde in Folkestone soda fountain’.
The great fascination in Clark’s story is his relationship with his wife Jane. By the standards of any Sunday tabloid and, I daresay, most functionaries of today’s child protection agency, Clark’s courtship of the woman who he was to marry would look as near to child molestation as makes no difference. At the age of 28, he assiduously courted a 14-year-old and, complaining to his diary of her ‘ck-teasing’, spent two years waiting with drooling anticipation for her 16th birthday. Indeed, it’s not even 100 per cent clear he did wait: when she was 15, he ‘absolutely panicked’ when her period was late, which I can only interpret one way.
As he expressly told one of her jilted predecessors ahead of their marriage, the attraction of Jane was that: ‘I can mould her. I know she is pliable.’ Mould her he did – and you can’t but feel he got the best of it. She was always ‘little Jane’.
Clark expected his wife to serve him, and she did. Shortly after they were married, she handed him a tea-towel to help with the washingup, and he handed it straight back, saying: ‘I don’t expect you to do my job, and I don’t expect to do yours.’ Before she was 16, her birthday was etched on Clark’s mind: after that, it lost its interest. Trewin reports not long into their marriage: ‘In Devon he forgot Jane’s birthday and was mortified when she wept.’ And throughout their relationship, Clark cheated – including, one of the new things in this book, a passionate love affair with his Commons secretary Alison Young.
According to her, this was ‘not a physical relationship’, though what they exchange are unmistakeably love-letters and she admits to having ‘sort of relented’ after being ‘chased round the filing cabinets’.
There’s a poignancy in Jane’s stated conviction that: ‘Al would have married straight away if I’d died before him.’ When Michael Cockerell made Love Tory, his documentary about Clark, the star turn was Jane – who found a way to say to the television camera what she had never been able to say to her husband (or what he had never been interested in hearing) about the hurt and humiliation he inflicted.
To write her off as ‘poor little Jane’ is to add insult to injury by patronising her. If she was a victim, she was a conscious victim. She chose not to leave her husband, as she explains with passive-aggressive steeliness: ‘You can’t really wreck their [her sons’] lives just for your convenience. He wasn’t actually making everyone’s life a misery, except for mine … I don’t know if he did understand how much he hurt me. I think he probably did before the end. He used to say: “I have ruined your life.” But I don’t know; I don’t know.’ And yet, he did love her – deeply and lifelong.
There’s a very touching scene quoted here from the Diaries, shortly after the beginning of Clark’s final illness (a brain tumour got him): ‘Later Jane sat on the bed. “Are you going to blub?” She nodded. “Come over here.” The poor sweetheart, her lovely grey eyes were full of tears. This is my real sadness. I just can’t bear to be away from her for so long.’ Clark being Clark, mind – that absurd vanity! – he goes on to describe the scene as being ‘Jackie Kennedy and Jack in the Dallas infirmary’. There, characteristically, the comic vaingloriousness intrudes.
One of the strengths of Trewin’s book is that it makes you see the sex-pest, the borderline pederast, the ocean-going ‘ess aitch one tee’ in three dimensions. It takes a large view. To understand is not to forgive – but it is to understand, and that’s enough.
As for the rest, Trewin was Clark’s publisher and literary executor, so he’s more interested in book-world gossip than most of his audience will be. You learn more about Clark’s relationship with his agent Michael Sissons, for instance, than you do about his relationship with Mrs Thatcher.
But to skimp on the politics – which is all there in spicier detail in the Diaries anyway – is also to redress a balance. If, like me, your abiding image of Alan Clark was shaped by his late notoriety, you’d see him as a colourful minor politician with an uncontrollable mouth and uncontrollable trousers.
You’d barely know that for most of his adult life he worked as a writer (with a sideline dealing used cars). In addition to his controversial and admired books of military history, he tried his hand at pulp stories – westerns, crime and romance – under pseudonyms such as Lane Ford and Louis Dellatrez Brand.
But he was idle – and after the success of Barbarossa, his book about the Eastern front in World War II, he started using publishers’ advances as an overdraft facility.
Trewin’s Life gives you the man more or less in the round. It is a solid, scrupulous, cautious piece of work. His prose has none of the zing and sizzle of his subject’s, so the parts most heavily seeded with quotation are the parts that most sing.
The strongest of them all are the chapters about Clark’s death. His Diaries may have conveyed the sneer and the leer in, as Trewin puts it, ‘languid cadences’; but they also talked about fear.
What would come next? (Clark had two very bizarre and unexpected relationships: with God, and Alastair Campbell. You would expect him to be a natural ally of neither.) Clark was always a hypochondriac – keeping a sick-bowl and thermometer by his bed, and spending nights in a muck sweat convinced that some minor twinge was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, he really was ill.
His fear of death was such it became almost literally unspeakable: Clark had a whole series of code-names for aspects of illness and death: Positano steps; Willie’s eye; Hungarian Embassy; Norwegian Embassy; Thompson; George VI valet; Full Lenin-stadium.
Poignantly, when Alan’s journals peter out, Jane’s pick up the story. This is strong meat – a look into the heart of that loving, unusual, painful marriage.
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