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"Many Prejudices and Little Energy.",
This review is from: Alan Clark: The Biography (Hardcover)
Devotees of Alan Clark's Diaries will be delighted by this warm, well-written and richly detailed life by Ion Trewin and hardly deterred by the author's obviously indulgent attitude towards his subject.
Alan Clark was born into a life of privilege. The son of the wealthy and both socially and intellectually eminent art historian (Lord) Kenneth Clark, he strove constantly to earn his father's approval which, in keeping with his time, class and Englishness, was only sparingly forthcoming. Alan Clark grew up among famous people, including William Walton, his mother's lover; he attended Eton, where his friends remember him as being a Nazi sympathizer; and took a Third at Christ Church, where his tutor effectively nailed the man with his assessment that he was possessed of "many prejudices and little energy." He avoided conscription through some administrative cock-up that counted his six months in the university corps as national service, and eventually passed his bar exam but chose not to practice. He did not have a salaried job until he was 46 and elected Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1974, though he did achieve vocational success when "Donkeys" was published in 1961.
Clark attained moderate success in both his main careers but was held back in each by flaws in his character. His historical writing enjoyed a good box office, but failed to win the respect of serious historians: Clark was too sensationalist and prone to be less than objective in his deployment of facts. All too typical was his response when hard-pressed to provide the source for the epigraph of his most famous book ("Lions led by donkeys") - he simply made it up.
In politics, Clark became a junior minister and Privy Councilor and made a key contribution to Thatcher's Defence Review. He fell short of his goal of reaching the cabinet and of his periodic fantasy of leading the party. He was held back by his reckless behavior, his tendency to reveal confidences, his private life and his outspoken, right wing views. Indeed, his father hit the nail squarely when he commented while his son was still at school: "I think he should do well in politics if he weren't - my profound conviction - a fascist." Trewin's account of Clark's career also put me in mind of a favorite saying of my rugby coach: "some players never play their best because they are afraid that their best is not good enough."
There was one field where Clark clearly surpassed his father: philandering. The father was himself no mean swordsman, but the son surely swept the field with his simultaneous affair with a judge's wife and her two daughters, the notorious "coven". But there was nothing glorious about Clark's womanizing. Trewin does not produce a Leporello-like body count of Clark's lovers but he does give detail, for example, of his embarrassing pursuit of his constituency secretary accompanied in her words by "schoolboy gloating, crude manhandling, simpering and begging," when he was sixty and she was in her early twenties, behavior that would meet many employers' definition of sexual harassment. His courtship of his wife, Jane, also had a predatory complexion. He met her when she was fourteen, describing her as a "perfect victim", and married her when she was sixteen and he thirty. A year earlier, while she was still below the legal age of consent, he became panicked that she might be pregnant - as in fact had happened with a previous girlfriend. When it emerged that she was not, Clark celebrated by playing - wait for it - Tannheuser. The marriage lasted and there was evidently much love on both sides, but Clark's behavior undeniably distressed and humiliated his mate. Selfish to the end, he extracted from Jane, when he was on his deathbed, a promise that she would never re-marry.
Clark became famous with the publication of his diaries beginning in 1993. These were well written, indiscreet, delicious in their gossip and astonishingly candid in their self-portrayal. The second half of Trewin's book inevitably overlaps with them to a considerable degree, but as Clark's friend as well as publisher, and with the authorized biographer's access to not only the family papers but also extensive interviews with Jane Clark and many of Clark's acquaintenances (including the secretary mentioned above), he also produces much more.It makes for fascinating reading. Clark was not an especially admirable man, but he was a hugely colorful personality.
As for the over-indulgence, Trewin does give Clark many benefits of the doubt. However, he also provides the raw material needed to construct the case for the prosecution if the reader is so minded. It is as if he is saying, with a wink, "Look, as Alan's friend, I have to believe that he was not drunk at the Commons dispatch box while presenting the Bill on Equal Pay, or that his Nazism was merely an act designed to shock the gullible, but, Reader, you decide for yourself."
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Initial post: 1 Nov 2010 10:43:11 GMT
Last edited by the author on 1 Nov 2010 10:43:50 GMT
Gary Longden says:
I think your comments are overly generous. For me Trewin was overwhelmed by the family source material and publishers documentation. The result is a dull dry account of an entertaining and colourful man. This reads like an authorised Family History. How ironic that Trewin should have such unprecedented access to first hand accounts and papers, yet produce a Biography which fails to grasp either the flavour of the man, nor key parts of his life.
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