I blame the Los Angeles Review of Books. Earlier this year I noticed a link to a review of a biography on Kenneth Clark. Lord Clark of Civilisation as he was hilariously known. Alan Clarks dad as he was also hilariously known, though mainly posthumously. Clark, was an interesting character and the review was good.It reminded me I had volume 2 of Clark’s Autobiography in a box somewhere. I located it and read it firly rapidly. Published in 1977 and dedicated “ To Alan “ it covered the years from before the second world war to publication.
Clark is a lucid writer and you enter a world as bizarre and out of touch as anything his son ( The racist Mr Toad ) conjures up in his diaries. He bought a castle for gawds sake ! How many of us will be able to put that in our autobiographies ?
Clark takes us through his time as a wartime Civil Servant. He doesn’t seem to have enjoyed it or been very attentive at it. He wrote If the Invader Comes a pamphlet sent to every household. Its a document worth further exploration, but he dismisses it as useless. He put on films and Concerts during the war to keep up morale. It seems he had little problem with his own morale.Away from his wife he claims to have been “ the least Strindbergian of men”….and he got into a trouble away from his wife that he “need not specify nor describe”. Im sure this is his way of saying he met nice ladies and they were nice back to him. Its not quite in the Princess Diana/ Prince Charles league of admitting adultery by semaphore …its more like by cryptic crossword.
Anecdotes abound, normally about the great and the good. He hears that the war has ended after lunching with Ernest Bevin and then taking his wife Jane to a German Surgeon to remove a broken needle left in her backside. He continues post war in a variety of public service roles and each of these brings fascinating tales.
Clark though doesn’t see himself as a powerful person. He tells of his mission to ask De Valera ( Irelands Premier ) to change his mind over the issue of port access not to reveal power but to reveal the lack of power. Indeed as Chair of the Arts Council he says he had less power than a lollipop lady ( who oddly he says enjoy using it ?).
Like his son, Clark sees the world darkly. He claims to have seen “Death” enter Maynard Keynes opera box the night before he died. A natural optimist he is not. I must confess to never having watched Civilisation, but I did allow myself one clip after reading this book. Clark gives a rather gloomy view of the world today. He is a stick in the mud and quotes Yates second coming, before looking reflectively around his Castle. He owned a Castle !
At the same time as reading this I also received a free trial download of an audiobook. I currently don’t have much cash to buy new books so decided to try this out. I am not a fan of audiobooks in general but decided to spend my daily commute with that other Kenneth Clarke. Partly because I seem to recall a story that he sued Trivial Pursuit for claiming he was Kenneth Clarks son, or perhaps Alan did or some such combination. A rubbish anecdote I digress but a perfect connection for the Clark/s.
Clarke was a “big beast” political figure. His autobiography read in a rather sing song and friendly tone provides an entertaining if not revelatory account of life in British Politics since the late 1960’s.His early life was content and happy he enjoyed everything it seemed from trainspotting (not the film) to sport and joined the elite very easily. He ran up an enormous overdraft as a student that he didn’t pay off until he was in his 40’s ( a sentiment I can concur with ) and then had a bizarre life as a QC in Birmingham by day, MP for Nottingham at the weekend and on a train to westminster for the evening session each day and back to Birmingham for bed. Oddly he thinks this was good for democracy.
His reminisces about the 70s political scene are rather stereotypical, but then maybe they were compared to the current times.
Audiobooks create an odd relationship, at times I miss large chunks of what is being said either through concentrating on the road or over concentrating on what had been said. I almost career into a ditch when Clarke recalls standing dripping wet with no clothes on arguing with Mrs Thatcher. He was on the phone I think and not in the same house but it was mental torture and not easy to just skip back. Clarke enjoyed the Thatcher years and rose to prominence, he then became chief smartarse during the Major years. Im not sure he really respected Major and always seems to be the smartest guy in the room whether its at Euro meetings or on Black Wednesday. As Chancellor he enjoyed tinkering and claims that all students during his Chancellorship smoked Drum roll ups. I know this to be a lie. I was a student during his Chancellorship and my tobacco of choice wasn’t Drum, however I can’t recall its name it was in a more yellowy packet. Drum of course was not available in the UK and was all bootleg. Clarke wanted his duty.
Later Clarke stood for leadership of the party 3 times and lost in rather different circumstances each time. When rejected he nursed his directorships, most controversially at British American Tobacco, though its hard to see why a man who loved smoking so much wouldn’t have done this job.
Each chapter is named after a Jazz classic and Clarke introduces them like a poor mans Alan Partridge. If only he had slipped a few John Zorn titles in. Fuck the Facts about his time as Chancellor or bonehead . Maybe he did and I had drifted off mentally on the commute home.
Throughout the book the real star is his now deceased wife Gillian. Gillian sacrificed an academic career because Ken wanted a political one. She travelled second class while Ken flew business and she put up with his working hours, overdraft and raised the children.
Clarks return to Government under David Cameron paints him as a crazy uncle tolerating the noisy kids. He likes Osborne, seems contemptible of Cameron and eventually moves on. Clarke is now the hero of Bremainers, I personally will miss his midlands sing song voice on the commute tomorrow, though I still have to remember the name of my 1990s Tobacco taste.
this at 5 minutes 22 seconds
Ken Clarks “Audiobiography” is an eyewatering 23 hours and 29 minutes
And reading Kenneth Clark The Other Half took 2 and a half hours.