Iain Murray: The political diarists who drive us all to distraction

Lord Ashdown’s diary is pure vanity with spurious tales of political success. While he was in the back seat with his pants down, Alan Clark had real drive. By Iain Murray

At a time when the news could scarcely be more sombre, the restorative comfort of laughter is desperately elusive.

All the more reason, then, for applauding the diaries of Lord Paddy Pantsdown, excerpts from which were serialised last week in The Times. Not since Charles Pooter – of The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway – took up his pen has a diarist unwittingly revealed so much of himself and given such pleasure to his readers.

Lord Ashdown recounts his campaign to change the face of British politics for ever, to build a new nation through forming an alliance between the Liberal Democrats, under his leadership, and New Labour. What makes these accounts so hugely enjoyable is that his enormous vanity suffocates any sense of self-awareness. He casts himself in the role of a major player and cannot see that others, most notably Prime Minister Blair, see him as an extra. It is as if the second gravedigger in Hamlet had taken it upon himself to chronicle his part in the unfolding of great events.

“I was taking a respite and leaning on my shovel when the Prince of Denmark stopped by. He was wearing doublet and hose and looking a little distracted. I suggested he might wish to hear the way I saw things. I stooped to lay aside my implement preparatory to setting out my overview, and when I looked up, the Prince had vanished, no doubt summoned elsewhere to attend to urgent affairs of state. No matter. Returned by destiny to the solitude of my labours I am afforded the time necessary to consider my position on the threshold of an historic breakthrough.”

For one so humourless to have written a comic masterpiece is a notable achievement, and when the word gets out, sales of The Pantsdown Chronicles are likely to rival those of that other great political diarist Alan Clark.

Clark’s work, of course, was everything that Ashdown’s is not: witty, thoughtful, intentionally self-revelatory, scurrilous, and above all beautifully written. So one ought to relish the forthcoming publication of a collection of motoring articles by Clark, whose passion for cars almost exceeded his passion for women. The trouble is that, try as I may, I cannot see driving as remotely pleasurable.

It is one of the great myths perpetrated by advertising and marketing that cars are fun. It is a proposition that is true only if the car as an object is divorced from its primary function. Cars may indeed by beautiful. That was certainly Alan Clark’s view. His widow tells us that he used to retreat to the Long Garage of his castle home and talk to his collection, which included a Jaguar XK120, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, a CitroëDecapotable, and a Bentley Continental. What he said to this magnificent assembly of beauties we do not know, though he most assuredly admired their sleek lines, curvaceous bodies, sturdy chassis, and, on the evidence of his diaries, the way in which their gleaming headlamps bobbed up and down in response to his urgent opening of the throttle.

Modern cars, too, may be beautiful. One can admire the design, the engineering, the attention to detail, and the smell. There is no aroma to compare with that of the interior of a new car, which is why the Americans have tried to bottle it and sell it as perfume. One can imagine the effect on Clark of a beautiful woman who trailed the smell of a Bentley’s upholstery.

He discovered motoring in his youth when the golden age of the car, though coming to an end, still offered its pleasures to the few. That they were few was the point. The pleasure of motoring lies in the freedom of the open road, which allows the joys of testing how the vehicle handles and responds. In common with an orchestral concert, it is an experience that must be uninterrupted. Which is why, in most parts of the UK today, motoring can never be a pleasure.

It is paradoxical, when cars have never been more efficiently engineered and designed, nor more reliable and fast, that the roads are so crowded, the drivers so unpleasant, the laws so oppressive, the cyclists so abundant, that motoring has never been more hellish.

Hell, as Sartre observed, is other people. Though in an egalitarian democracy it can never be acceptable to say so, it is a fact that whatever the masses touch, they wreck. Mass tourism, mass entertainment, mass motoring, all are to be avoided. Snobbery, on the other hand, is a private pleasure and a consolation.

So the joys of motoring are to be found off the road. Chief among them is cleaning. Jane Clark recalls that her husband loved cleaning the cars. He was a serious cleaner. “Vintage Bentley leather seats are easy to remove to work on the inside; likewise large chrome lights.” There is a childish pleasure to be found in cleaning cars that far outstrips life in the same lane as the man in the white van or the ubiquitous rep in the fleet car, whose white shirt, sun glasses and pointed head loom so depressingly in the rear view mirror.

If you don’t like cleaning cars, Clark has another tip: you could always allow your vehicle to become a bird’s nesting box. When a robin set up home in his Bentley he commended her on her taste. That’s style.

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