Everything about this book is endearing but most especially the jacket photograph of the author as an infant. Naked, girlish, shiny-haired, he poses on a rock like a water baby and contemplates his foot. It is a charming portrait – but one that any normal chap would have destroyed on sight. The fact that Perry prints it on his dust jacket, and with the inviting caption ‘Naked to mine enemies’ (a masochist’s plea if I ever heard one) serves as advertisement that this is not the autobiography of a normal chap. Hooray for that.
What makes him lovable is his gaiety, his silliness (he believes Geoffrey Wheatcroft to be ‘omniscient’), and his panache. Even after the most deadly blows, like the loss of the editorship of the Sunday Telegraph, he bobs up again smiling. He likes to put on a good show, to enliven a room. This is his appeal as a writer – he always entertains, he never bores or lectures. He says in the introduction that he has gone off punditry and, although he makes a few half- hearted attempts to expound his political beliefs, he soon skips away to lighter matters. He engagingly reveals his modus operandi as a political columnist: ‘All I did was to express ideas – the case for colonialism, for example – which a hundred years ago were conventional wisdom in any reasonably well-educated conservative home.
Naturally, I was looking forward to reading about his seduction by George Melly on the sofa at school, but it never came – he says it was only a minor incident. But now we have a FAR more serious scandal to worry about – the lady of the Steak Tartare. He tells us quite a lot about her. Her name was Edith, she was an American whom he met during his stint as Washington correspondent. He fell for her because, unlike his wife Claudie, she was quiet and neat and orderly and could rustle up meals in minutes without any fuss. But one day she ordered steak tartare in a restaurant and that was the end. ‘Surely, I thought, she can’t eat that, but she did, licking her at every mouthful. … Unfortunately, there had been an earlier off-putting experience of a more intimate kind, too unsavoury to mention, which the sight of the steak tartare suddenly brought back to the surface of my mind and, after a month of enchantment, the spell was broken.’ No doubt teams of researchers are even now tracking down every Edith in America: we surely haven’t heard the last of this steak tartare.
His personality is a most peculiar mix of opposites – vanity and modesty, gaiety and pessimism, childishness and sophistication. He is often described as a Peter Pan but that is wrong because, unlike Peter Pan, he longs to impress the grownups. Obviously he had a very harsh childhood – he calls it ‘our rather lonely travesty of a home life’ – big on material comforts but short on affection. His father, Mr Koch de Gooreynd, was not around and his mother refused to talk about him. Later, when Perry was about ten, he learned of his mother’s remarriage from a newspaper billboard. The stepfather, Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, was remote – literally, since he installed Perry and his brother in a separate house with servants – but obviously made a deep impression. He was the model of the homme serieux Perry always longed to be. His mother sounds like the worst sort of bossy-boots, so busy running the Child Guidance Association that she barely saw her own children, except to give them enemas which were her passion. She wrote in her autobiography that ‘Perry was always a little troublesome, even at the breast’. But, as Perry remarks fervently, ‘The trouble I caused her was nothing to the trouble she caused me.’ It is amazing, really, that he didn’t turn out gay. He had homosexual affairs at school and Oxford, but then settled down to women. How many women? In a rare burst of reticence, he doesn’t say.
He was teased and generally friendless at school but he found an unlikely friend and parent substitute in his grandmother’s butler, James (he chose him as his Hero in the Independent Magazine). He says that from James he imbibed his addiction to a ‘touch of class’ and a warm appreciation of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ – which he defines as that ‘ between master and servant. But this was not what we normally think of a master-servant relationship because it was between an adult servant and a virtually parentless child. Hence perhaps what I see as Worsthorne’s curiously servile attitude to people in power. He is too impressed by them. He sees them as wise grownups, while he remains the eternally naked little boy desperately exuding charm and eagerness to please.
Occasionally, like any little boy, he misbehaves and throws his food around – these are what he calls his ‘indiscretions’, such as the famous occasion when he said fuck on television, or swapped shirts with Vanessa Lawson in a restaurant. In his Telegraph columns, too, there was always a strain of exhibitionism, or what his editor called ‘intellectual sensationalism’. He loved paradox, and arguing the ‘wrong’, ie unfashionable, side of a case, for instance supporting the McCarthy witch-hunts in the US or the Boers in South Africa. If it were just a matter of being provocative it would be fine, but one can’t be absolutely sure that there’s a pass he wouldn’t sell if persuaded by someone sufficiently aristocratic and well tailored. He lacks that sort of sullen, charmless failure to be impressed that is such a valuable attribute in a journalist.
In fact, this book clarifies for me what is wrong with rightwing journalism and why it is inevitably inferior to left-wing journalism. I don’t mean that it is inferior because of the views expressed, I mean that it is inferior as journalism. The rightwing journalist like Perry, believing as he does in a ruling elite which includes himself but not his readers, accepts the notion of self-censorship. He believes that the rulers must have secrets from the ruled and that the price of admission to their flattering confidence is that he will never spill the beans. But once a journalist detaches himself from his readers he occupies a curious limbo. He is a client of politicians, dependent on such crumbs of truth (or untruth) as they care to divulge, and gratitude and dependency will tend to make him increasingly subservient over time.
Perry muses at one point, ‘To tell or not to tell, it is never an easy question.’ Fortunately, despite his earnest desire to be a good lackey, he was frequently saved by his own exuberant powers of indiscretion. For instance, he got into trouble for revealing in print that a Rhodesian minister he stayed with had an open copy of Mein Kampf on his drawing-room table. Perry seems to believe that, by publishing this, he transgressed the rules of hospitality. But could any journalist NOT print it? And, if not as a journalist, what was he doing in Rhodesia anyway? Another instance, even more startling, concerns an interview with President Johnson in Manila. The interview itself was very boring (Perry readily admits that interviewing is not his forte) but at the end LBJ took him out on to the hotel balcony and, indicating the glittering lights of Manila, exclaimed, ‘Christ, Mr Worsthorne, I sure wish I could join you down there for a night on the tiles.’ But while Mr Worsthorne was still trying to frame a reply, Lady Bird Johnson could be heard -moving about in the bedroom next door. LBJ then grinned broadly, put his arm round Perry’s shoulders and remarked: ‘Tell you something, Mr Worsthorne. I don’t truly envy your night on the tiles one little bit. For I’ve the nicest little lay in town right next door.’ Amazingly, Perry not only didn’t print this at the time but says that ‘Even now LBJ is dead, I still feel slight qualms about recounting such an intimate exchange in the public prints.’ He must be mad.
The trouble with an autobiographer who so readily admits to keeping secrets is that you think all the time: What else is he not telling? I know that he has omitted one important episode of his later life- the abandonment of his long-reigning mistress in favour of Lucy Lambton – but for all I know there could be omissions on every page. This causes a little itch of distrust, the more so because he seems (of course, not is) so artlessly frank. But even if this autobiography only gives us the public Perry, it is a wonderful piece of writing, provocative and amusing on every page, and lovable throughout.