The Faber Book of Conservatism
Alan Clark, former defense and trade minister under Margaret Thatcher, son of the art historian Kenneth Clark, and man about town, is what the English call a toff. He lives in a medieval castle in Kent, with peacocks strutting around the gardens. He owns land in Scotland and a fleet of vintage cars. He has a dog named Eva—after Eva Braun. He also holds very right-wing opinions, which he expresses with great panache in private and in his diaries, published in London a year ago. Hailed as the best of its kind since the diaries of “Chips” Channon MP, chronicler of London society in the 1930s, Clark’s book was at the top of the British best-seller lists for many months. Even people who could not possibly agree with Clark’s political views selected his diaries as their favorite book of the year.
Clark’s politics are probably beside the point. It is the waspish tone that appeals, the wicked sense of humor, the unashamed snobbery, the charm, the gossip. Evelyn Waugh’s letters come to mind, or Flashman, the dashing bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It is an acquired and rather English schoolboyish taste.
Here he is, bored with his job as junior minister at the Department of Employment:
It is (naturally and heartbreakingly) a glorious summer morning, and I have drawn back to their maximum extent the sliding windows, thus buggering or—I trust—partially buggering the air conditioning system. There is a tiny balcon, a gutter really, with a very low parapet, below knee height. Certain death on the Victoria Street pavement eight floors below. Sometimes I get a wild urge to relieve my bladder over it, splattingly on the ant-like crowds. Would this get one the sack? Probably not. It would have to be hushed up.
The diaries are, as one might expect, longer on malicious gossip than political philosophy. But you get a good picture of the office politicking round the palace of Westminster, and the casual anti-Semitism of Tory grandees: “Too many jewboys in the Cabinet” was the conclusion at a former home secretary’s dinner party, where Mrs. Thatcher’s government was discussed. And there are numerous entries on Clark’s various sexual enthusiasms: one secretary’s hips, another’s pouting lips, the braless breasts of a young woman met on a train, Mrs. Thatcher’s “attractive—not boney—ankles,” and so on.
Despite the snobbery and the cruelty, Clark is not shy to expose himself as a lustful, ambitious, even somewhat ridiculous homme moyen sensuel. He says what he thinks, and often what many people think, if they had the courage to say so. Clark is romantic but not sentimental, except perhaps about animals. When he tells you that a politician stays in power by “gratifying people’s material aspirations,” but that you must “dress it up a bit with intellectual pretension,” you realize he is a man of few illusions.
Here is Clark, as the roguish fantaisiste, reveling…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.