March books 12) Chance Witness

12) Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics, by Matthew Parris.

I have a certain sense of loyalty to Clare College, Cambridge, where I spent five mostly happy years between 1986 and 1991, and part of that includes following the careers of my fellow alumni not just from my own year but those who attended after I left (like the sf writer China Miéville) and who graduated before me, or even those who, like the entertainer Richard Stilgoe, the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the mystic philosopher Thomas Merton, had attended for a few terms and got thrown out. (Interestingly my wife, who was also there for four years, cannot relate to my loyalty for the place at all.)

When I arrived, and challenged the Senior Tutor at one of those embarrassing get-to-know-you sherry parties to name someone famous in contemporary public life who had been at Clare, he named Matthew Parris, who had just a few months before resigned one of the safest Tory seats in the country to become presenter of ITV’s best known current affairs program, Weekend World. I didn’t know it at the time, but I encountered his legacy in the college when I served on the committee of the Clare College Students Association and became the resident wonk on constitutional issues; Parris had written the constitution and given the CCSA its name back in 1969. (The year after my term of office the name was again changed, to the Union of Clare Students.)

So I’ve followed his progress since. I’ve seen him in the flesh precisely once, at a Cambridge Union Society debate on the anti-homosexual Clause 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, where he made a moving and effective speech about being a lonely and shy gay undergraduate at the tail end of the swinging sixties. It went better than his first speech in the Union Society chamber, an embarrassing debacle which he describes in painful detail. In fact much of this autobiography is taken up with embarrassing events described in painful detail. He fails as a diplomat, fails as a politician, and fails as a TV presenter (Weekend World was axed, largely because of Parris’ own lacklustre performance in the chair), before finding his element in written journalism.

As with a lot of autobiography, particularly if it’s written in a confessional style, one has to be cautious about feeling that one has got to know the author; what is written is fascinating, especially about his colonial childhood in Africa and Cyprus, but presumably much is unwritten as well. But I feel I would like Matthew Parris if I were ever to meet him socially. We are both fascinated by politics. I am gradually and reluctantly growing out of the kneejerk reaction that I acquired in the Thatcher years (years which he helped to bring about) that all Tories are irredeemably evil. Much of his thinking is also taken up with gay rights problems, to which I am very sympathetic though much less directly concerned. Also if he has a favourite continent it is probably Africa; I’m a devoted and practising European.

And in fact my career has eerily mapped his. Like him, I graduated from Clare College and headed for a niche which didn’t suit me (in his case, the Foreign Office, in my case, academe). Both of us started working for the research department of a political party in our mid-20s (in his case, a decently paid berth under Chris Patten in the Conservative Party; in my case an unpaid position in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland). Both our lives were changed by an election when we were 29 (he won his, and became the MP for West Derbyshire; I lost mine – badly – and emigrated to the Balkans). Now I am 36, the age at which he resigned his safe seat to embark on the risky path of a media career. I don’t think the media will be my next destination, and I have more to lose than he did so cannot take the same risks, but my feet sometimes feel itchy…

The other thing I take from the book is what a difference a split second decision can make. The most significant act of Parris’ political career was to rescue a small dog which was drowning in the River Thames, shortly before the 1979 election. The resultant favourable publicity was enough to get him the nomination for West Derbyshire, beating out not only another Clare graduate, Peter Lilley, who later became deputy leader of the party under William Hague, but also a smart London lawyer called Michael Howard, who is now the party’s leader. The most hilarious moment in the book is when a reluctant Mrs Thatcher is compelled to present Parris with an award for his bravery at a ceremony attended also by the dog and its owners. The dog, excited by the occasion, humps Mrs Thatcher’s leg in front of the full scrutiny of the press. Alas, those days were more discreet, and nobody mentioned it at the time. But it gave me a good laugh.

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