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June 27, 2006

Harry Phibbs hopes that Jonathan Aitken will publish his diaries: Heroes and Contemporaries - Jonathan Aitken

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Heroes and Contemporaries
by Jonathan Aitken
London: Continuum, 2006
Hardback, 20

Jonathan Aitken was a precocious fellow, schmoozing with the rich and powerful from an early age. This has meant this collection of pen portraits has quite an age range. What an enthralling, indiscreet collection it is too. Some of the stories I had heard before. The Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook would ring the news desk of his paper in the evening and if the Editor had gone home enquire: "Who's in charge of the clattering train".

Lord Longford (whom when Aitken was at Eton he invited to be a guest speaker) was fond of telling a story against himself. Going into a bookshop he demanded to know why his latest tome was not prominently displayed on the window. The assistant asked:

Oh, I am so sorry Lord Longford. What is the title?
Longford replied:

More indiscreet is Aitken relaying conversations Longford had with The Queen. For the last 12 years of his life, Longford was senior knight of the Order of the Garter. As such he was seated next to the Queen at Garter lunches. Never missing a trick, the old boy asked the Queen if it was true about Charles and Camilla. The Queen replied:

Well, they do seem to need each other.
This was years before Buckingham Palace acknowledged anything was going on.

Some passages are surreal. The chapter on Harold Wilson records Nixon visiting London a few years after Watergate and being largely cold shouldered by the Labour Government. However Harold Wilson bought him dinner at the Dorchester. Only four people were present. Wilson, Nixon, Lady Falkender and Aitken. Asked by Nixon how he passed the time, Wilson replied that he was busy campaigning to save the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which owned the Gilbert and Sullivan copyrights. Nixon and Wilson then sang four verses of When I was Lad.

James Goldsmith and John Aspinall have a joint chapter because Aitken believed the most interesting thing about them was their friendship. Aitken recalls Aspinall coming to speak for him at an election rally in Thanet. Aspinall declared:

Napoleon once said that England is a nation of shop-keepers. As I look around Ramsgate High Street this morning I see that Ramsgate has become a nation of shop lifters.
Aspinall's views on human affairs derived from his ideas of how the animal kingdom worked:
Long observation of animals had left him with the unshakeable conviction that the human species would be far better off if it reverted to the instincts of its animal forbears, did away with equal rights for women and accepted that male supremacy was essential for the good order of the family, the nation state and the world.

I once listened to him expounding a slightly modified version of this theory to Baroness Thatcher, telling her she was the genetic equivalent of a silverback dominant male primate gorilla, a transformation that had probably been due to "a rogue gene" in her chromosomes. (Lady Thatcher appeared flattered by this theory.)

In his dedicated chapter on the Thatcher family Aitken recalls being Carol's boyfriend in the 1970s when he was a Tory MP and how they had planned a skiing holiday. He writer:
Unfortunately, the day of my return flight had been chosen by the Opposition for some contentious parliamentary voting which required all Conservative MPs to be present on a three-line whip. I told Carol my weekend with her had to be cancelled. Unknown to me, she telephoned her mother with a wail of protest which obviously melted Margaret's heart. Shortly afterwards, Carol rang me to say: "Mum says she can change the voting for Monday".

At the last minute the Opposition's business was switched to another day and the three-line whip miraculously dropped. Carol and I had a wonderful weekend together in the Alps.

The day after my return I saw the Leader of the Opposition a few feet away from me. So I went over and started to thank her for rearranging the parliamentary business. "Sshh!" she said putting a finger to her lips and giving me a theatrical wink. "Did you two have fun?"

"Great fun," I replied.

He includes the story partly to rebut claims that Margaret Thatcher favoured Mark but never put herself out for Carol. Further evidence of this was her hostility to Aitken when he ditched Carol.

Eventually Lady Thatcher softened towards Aitken. After his release from prison she told him:

You have paid a very high price for one foolish mistake. Now we must all rally round and help you rebuild your life.
Aitken adds:
Mark twice wrote to me, repeating his invitation of an all expenses paid holiday in Cape Town. He called several times to find out how I was bearing up and Denis invited me to lunch at his club.
Another who rallied round was Michael Portillo. Aitken discloses the motivation for the change in Portillo's hairstyle:
"You can't carry on looking like a rugby player who's just come out of the shower", Portillo adopted a hairstyle consisting of two ornate quiffs twirling together like a pair of mating conch shells in the middle of his forehead. This led to a nightmarish mocking in the smoking rooms of the Commons.
This was not the only change. Aitken says:
I caught a glimpse of the new Portillo when he visited me in prison in the summer of 1999. I do not believe the old Portillo would have bothered. He changed from a bruiser to a man who is easily bruised. Struggling to come to terms with people's perceptions of him, he gave the impression of going through some sort of midlife crisis.
Portillo preferred to describe himself as "being on a journey". I doubt he, or some of the other surviving subject will be too chuffed by their inclusion in this volume despite the liberal scattering of references to them being "heroes".

What can we look forward to for Aitken's next book? He states:
The main sources of biographical material in each chapter are my own diaries, correspondence and recollections, reinforced by wider research in publications in the source notes.
So he keeps a diary, eh? That should help him recoup some of his fortune if he decides to publish it.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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