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Chance Witness: An Outsider's Life in Politics Hardcover – 4 Oct 2002


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First Edition, First Impression edition (4 Oct. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670894400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670894406
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 4.8 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 666,058 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In Chance Witness: An Outsider's Life in Politics, Matthew Parris gives us a brilliantly diverting autobiography combined with a comprehensive and merciless picture of the politicians he has dealt with, both in his own time as an MP and subsequently as writer for some of our most august newspapers.

He is not only the most astute of political commentators, he is one of the most completely entertaining. Matthew Parris made little impression in his career as a Tory candidate (for which, as a sardonically witty and iconoclastic gay man, he was perhaps not best suited), but in his subsequent career as one of the shrewdest observers of the political scene, he has few equals.

The book's jacket gives some idea of the unbuttoned tone here: while John Mortimer "thank(s) God for Matthew Parris", Alan Clark is quoted as describing him as an "absolute sh**". And it's Parris' fearlessness (combined with that scalpel-honed wit) that makes this hefty volume the kind of book that (despite its length) will be consumed avidly. Parris was close to the centre of power (Margaret Thatcher no less) but always remained an outsider. Of course, his spell in Mrs Thatcher's office is by far the most entertaining part of the book, his dealings with the Iron Lady being no less than catastrophic. But while delivering devastating pen-portraits of that lady, he is equally exuberant in his pictures of such luminaries as Peter Mandelson (whom he famously "outed"), Tony Blair and Michael Portillo. This is eccentric, highly personal writing, but the combination of mordant humour and fierce intelligence is absolutely irresistible. After reading it, the reader may wonder how Parris lasted for five minutes as part of Margaret Thatcher's humourless government. --Barry Forshaw

About the Author

Matthew Parris was born in Johannesburg in 1949. For seven years a Conservative MP, he quit to present LWT's Weekend World, after which he became a regular parliamentary sketchwriter for The Times. His books include READ MY LIPS and SCORN WITH ADDED VITRIOL (both available in Penguin), and INCA-KOLA, about his travels in Peru. He has also made a number of television documentaries, including most recently an account of his sojourn on a remote sub-Antartic island.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Jimbo on 3 Feb. 2004
Format: Paperback
Matthew Parris cannot be accused of self-service in this enjoyable "memoir", a series of recollections of important events and important people's lives in which he was a bit player.
He has been through many peripheral roles - working in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as a correspondent clerk for Mrs Thatcher when she was Leader of the Opposition, a backbench MP and a parliamentary speechwriter. He delivers opinions, views and observances with wit and panache. He is a good story teller, and his brushes with those in authority are genuinely amusing.
It is also a very touching book - we learn how hard he found it cruising on Clapham Common, a very moving moment. Some may not approve of the way that he has laid his life bare, but he feels genuinely proud of the small advances he feels he contributed to for equality for homosexuals.
He has also reprinted many amusing sketches. Having read a collection of his sketches (Off-Message), I felt the extracts worked better in this book because he provided the context, and we also receive a commentary from him as well.
My one criticism of the book would concern his ruminations on his failure to enter into any form of office, not understanding why he was never able to climb to greasy pole, though he does provide an explanation for his failure. I also grew tired towards the end about how he kept banging on about how insignificant he was in the events he witnessed, and indeed he felt it had applied to his whole life. Had this been the case people would not have wanted to read the book: the fact that people have show that people respect him and enjoy his writing. He came across as a man seeking approval slightly too much.
That aside, it is a very interesting and enjoyable read. He has a real wit, and I found the book to be good fun, accurately observed and moving in all the right places.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Alain English on 11 Feb. 2004
Format: Hardcover
Matthew Parris is a notable journalist in the field of politics and, having been an MP himself at one time, loves to write in detail about the Parliamentary world. Much like his newspaper articles, this biography is written with an elegant, fluid and highly readable prose style that really captures it's author's personality.
The early section about Matthew's happy but highly unusual childhood travelling across Rhodesia, Swaziland and Jamaica, is well written but it would be better suited as backup to his travel books, and is not nearly as good as what follows.
When Matthew lands in England to go to Cambridge University, then his book really takes off. Matthew's highly cynical, but humourously realistic take on the British institutions he encounters (Cambridge, the Foreign Office and eventually the House of Commons) is very enlightening and he writes in such a way you can't help but agree with him.
Matthew is also well-placed to comment on several popular politicians of recent years including Michael Portillo and John Patten. He may have remained merely a backbench MP but he got to know Margaret Thatcher very well when she was in office, and he manages to capture in his own way her many strengths and flaws, building a very complete picture of this most domineering of politicians.
His opinion of John Major is equally good, as he describes the various subtleties that lay behind his "boring" image and shows the man to be a much stronger character than he was often perceived in his time. His opinion of Tony Blair is also very well written.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By HFM on 30 Oct. 2002
Format: Hardcover
Matthew Parris does not like himself! He tells us this again and again. However, anyone reading this wonderful book will certainly say he is being too hard on himself.
This Autobiography has obviously been difficult for Mr Parris to write - there are many times when he does not like what he has done over the years. However, many are his real achievements and I salute him for both his patent honesty and his determination. We find out a lot about the man, and also the many intriguing characters he has met and worked with throughout his career in Parliament and the media.
I have always admired his commons sketches but this book moves to a new level.
I could not put this book down and finished it in a couple of days.
I hope that there will be a second volume. soon.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Bill Hilton on 19 Oct. 2002
Format: Hardcover
This wonderful book is not so much an autobiography as apologia - an apology, that is, in the old sense of humble self-justification.
Anyone who has read anything by Matthew Parris, and particularly his much-missed parliamentary sketches in The Times, will know that he has no need of justifying himself to us; his humility, though admirable and genuine, is belied by the scale of his achievement.
Nobody has written more brilliantly about politics since George Orwell. Parris and the author of 'Animal Farm' are, you might think, a pretty unlikely pairing. Despite his travelling and global perspective, Parris does not apparently have the radicalism of Orwell; Orwell was not so skilful an observer of personality as Parris. What they share is what Orwell once called, in a poem, 'the crystal spirit' - humanity, honesty and a hatred of humbug, all manifesting themselves in prose of luminous simplicity.
Yet Parris agrees with Peter Ackroyd's assessment: that he, Parris, has 'no talent', and has thrived only as a commentator, a 'chance witness'. He laments, in his final chapter, that he has never done anything original: 'If in my life I had been able to think up just one important thing...then I could be happy in anonymity'. The originality of his work is open to debate - that of his life is not. If this lack of originality he claims has helped to produce some of the stuff he describes in this book, I say hurrah for that.
Near the end, he moves from apologia to apology, regretting that he finds little room to describe his travels, his family history beyond childhood, and, most intriguingly, his pet llamas. I regret this too. I only hope he makes amends as soon as possible with a second volume.
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