Iain Dale cruises through Matthew Parris’s autobiography Chance Witness and finds tales of woe, gay sex, political failure and journalistic triumph….and a bit more gay sex for good measure.
I was recently at a dinner party and was asked to name five people I would quite like to be. Matthew Parris was one of the five people I chose. If I tell you that Paolo di Canio, Richard Nixon, Peggy Noonan and Larry Hagman were the others it’s not perhaps as much of an accolade as I meant it to be, but there you go.
Parris’s memoirs make clear that he considers himself to be a total failure in most things apart from writing parliamentary sketches, yet to the outside world his life has been admirably varied and successful.
He spent most of his childhood in Cyprus, southern Africa and Jamaica and only came back to this country to go to university. After a brush with MI6 – he turned them down – he had a brief sojourn at the Foreign Office before working in Margaret Thatcher’s office during her period as leader of the Opposition. It was in that post that he wrote on behalf of Mrs T to a council house tenant informing her how lucky she was have a council house and she should stop whinging. There followed Matthew’s first brush with media notoriety. It was the first time Mrs Thatcher was to shake her head and remark, “There’s something not quite right about that boy”. It wasn’t to be the last time.
Much to his surprise, Parris was selected to fight West Derbyshire for the 1979 General Election. He was by no means a comfortable MP. He soon became disillusioned with the job and equally disturbed by his lack of preferment. He wasn’t alone in that. But Parris was rescued from his parliamentary travails by the ITV political programme ‘Weekend World’. It proved to be a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. Whatever his other qualities, Matthew Parris was no TV interviewing natural, as he readily admits.
A further rescue was to come, this time from The Times, who asked him to take over from Craig Brown as the newspaper’s parliamentary sketchwriter. And Matthew has never looked back. Everyone eventually finds their niche in life and Matthew found his. While he gave up writing the sketch this year, his columns remain the best informed and most widely read of any political columnist. I’m a fan. He writes in a way I can only dream of doing.
But this book is far more than the autobiography of a failed politician turned successful columnist. It’s about a tortured personality. I use the word advisedly, because if ever there was a public figure apparently totally at ease with his homosexuality it is Matthew Parris. But it is something which has caused him huge dilemmas and personal crises. In fact, alongside the feeling of personal failure, homosexuality is the other running theme in the book. Barely ten pages pass before it rears its head again. And often in uncomfortable detail. I can imagine my Great Aunt reading that “I had not particularly wanted to be penetrated, and it hurt” and immediately reaching for the smelling salts. But I particularly enjoyed his description of the Conservative Research Department (based then appropriately in Old Queen Street) as “more wank than wonk”. I wonder if it has changed….
We all now think of Alan Duncan as the first Tory MP to publicly declare that he is gay. Yet it was nearly so very different. Matthew Parris made a late night speech in the Commons in the mid 1980s which didn’t leave much to the imagination, yet no one noticed. He did it again, and still no one made anything of it. His detailed accounts of late night cruises on Clapham Commons during his time as an MP can only lead one to believe that subconsciously he was desperate for the world to know. He walked on the wild side and unlike Ron Davies got lucky. But if he had stayed in parliament it would surely only have been a matter of time before he was exposed. Would he have ridden the ensuing storm, or sunk without trace like Ian Harvey before him? Who knows.
This book is what The Sun would describe as a ‘highly entertaining romp’. If you enjoy Matthew’s columns and sketches I defy you not to want to read this book from cover to cover in one sitting. Matthew Parris may sometimes not be very happy being Matthew Parris, but he ought to be. He probably has no idea how many people literally hang on his every word and regard him with huge affection.
Richard Nixon once said the best epitaph anyone can have is that you “make a difference”. Matthew Parris has made a difference and long may he continue to do so.
Chance Witness is published by Penguin in hardback at £18.99