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Chance Witness: An Outsider's Life in Politics Paperback – 25 Jul 2013
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Shockingly Candid (Observer)
Of interest to students and lovers of politics alike, and indeed to anyone who is interested in the history of the last quarter of a century. Parris is a skilful entertainer, who informs as well as amuses (Peter Bottomley Literary Review)
Whimsy, polemic, irony, humour . . . a scintillating read (Boris Johnson Sunday Telegraph)
The perfect autobiographer (Spectator)
Brilliant, deliciously entertaining. I laughed a lot (Observer)
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Top customer reviews
Love his columns in The Times? This is better still, Many hysterically funny anecdotes, but also a great deal of reflective comment. More personal memoir than I expect he found it easy to write, as I have him down as an essentially extremely private man, although highly sociable. But he's also scrupulously honest, so if he tells a tale he tells it all and doesn't leave out any of the bits of it that he feels might not exactly redound to his own credit. Nor am I sure just how much he likes himself, and a sense of uneasiness in his own skin occasionally comes across.
Sometimes (I find this in his Times columns too) I can't understand how he gets to the conclusions he does. For example, his insights into Margaret Thatcher's character and personality are razor sharp, well punctuated with anecdotes that will have you bent double with laughter. She comes across as utterly im-possible. Yet he adored her. Most people who had to endure the same relationship with her would have
I read so many bits aloud to my husband (always an unkind thing to do to anyone) that he must have felt we were reading the whole thing together. Yet, he has now demanded the purchase of the hardback version, which tells its own story.
Do read it.
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. Matthew spotted far earlier than most of us the flaws of our current Prime Minister, a charismatic figure with an excellent grasp of oral rhetoric who was (and still is in many ways) American-influenced in his speeches and politics, with a shallow grasp of policies and detail.
At the same time, Matthew shows himself to be slightly eccentric, bumbling to a degree and insecure almost to the point of madness. His homosexuality is revealed to be a large factor in this, and the sections on Clapham Common as well his Newsnight encounter capture this very well.
A highly perceptive and readable biography. Well worth a look.
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