Everyone seems to have a soft spot for Matthew Parris – apart from Matthew Parris. So why on earth has the Tory MP turned star columnist written an autobiography? Nigel Farndale finds out
As an experiment I’ve been trying to think of something rude to say about Matthew Parris. But whatever I come up with I find he has already said much worse about himself.
By his own estimation he is cowardly, feeble, sour, lightweight, calculating and prissy. There’s also a faint odour of sanctity about him. And he has a scrawny build and buck teeth. These are some of the descriptions he uses in Chance Witness, his autobiography, which will be published on Friday.
The self-flagellation is intriguing, given that, as a broadcaster and columnist, he seems to inspire nothing but affection in the British public, just as Alan Bennett, Michael Palin and John Mortimer do. He is held in high esteem by his peers, too; indeed the famously acerbic Auberon Waugh once called him ‘a prince among journalists’.
“Yes,” Parris counters, in his soft, clear, breathy voice. “But before Auberon Waugh met me he said he supposed from my literary style that I was a small man with an unsatisfactory moustache.’ He grins. ‘Actually I had a rather splendid and luxuriant moustache.”
We are in Matthew Parris’s garret-like flat in Limehouse, east London, overlooking the Thames, accompanied by the sound of lapping water and crying seagulls. The room is a mixture of bohemian sophistication and student digs: fat half-spent candles, maps on walls, open atlases on tables, paintings, kilims, a rucksack, an ironing board and a clothes horse on which washing is drying.
There is a hammock stretched between two supports and across this a sleeping bag is draped. Parris returned from a walking holiday in the Carpathian mountains yesterday and has yet to finish unpacking.
Tomorrow he is heading for his house in the Peak District, the one where he keeps the llamas he mentions so fondly in his Spectator column. He spent most of the summer in the Pyrenees, in the manor house he is restoring there.
Although Parris has a disarmingly boyish grin (his original crooked front teeth had to be removed and replaced with capped ones in 1986 before he was permitted on screen to present a current affairs programme), he often talks with his hands self-consciously covering his mouth.
He maintains contact with his big, mild eyes, though. Fixes you with them. He’s embarrassed about writing an autobiography, isn’t he? That’s what all the self-deprecation is about. “Yes.” Grin. “If I found myself asked to review a 500-page autobiography by a jumped-up columnist who had reached the age of 53, I would file just one word: ‘Why?'”
So, why? “This may sound tortured but perhaps the best way of selling the fact that I am, despite appearing vain, publishing an autobiography is to display my sense of guilt at writing it. That way people might forgive me.”
He’s right, that does sound tortured. “It’s not self-loathing, it’s just I’m highly critical of other people and I apply the same standards to myself, and I find I really don’t come up to scratch a lot of the time.”
He need not feel so apologetic about the book. It is as whimsical, outrageous and deftly written as you would expect a book by Matthew Parris to be, and his life story has more than enough picaresque mishap, as well as sexual and political intrigue, to justify a biography.
He was born, the first of six children, in Johannesburg, where his (British) father, an electrical engineer, was working at the time. He attended schools in Cyprus, Rhodesia and Jamaica, and became a solitary, sometimes bullied child, but also an impatiently strong-willed and precocious one.
When, aged 19, he came to England to read philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge, he decided, rather bullishly, to become either a diplomat, a spy or an MP. He had known for some time that he was attracted to men, though, and, for the sake of his career, he resigned himself to a life of celibacy.
This proved hard and, feeling miserable and lonely, he turned to his moral tutor for advice: he was sent to see a psychiatrist. “In retrospect, I didn’t need a psychiatrist. I needed a ‘Gay Guide to London’.”
He changed subjects, to law, took a first, and was recruited by MI6, only to turn the job down on the grounds that he thought himself too unreliable: “I am not discreet, not self-effacing, not patient, not heterosexual.”
He was also offered a job as an administrative trainee at the Foreign Office, one which would be held open for him while he took up another offer, of a fellowship in America, to read International Relations at the Ivy League university Yale.
He dropped out after two years, returned to take up his job offer in England, found he hated the civil service, or at least the protocol that went with it, and applied to London Transport for an apprenticeship as a diesel-fitter. He was rejected (for being overqualified) and so went to work as a speech writer for, and personal assistant to, the then leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher.
In 1979, at the age of 29, he was selected as a Conservative MP for West Derbyshire, beating a shortlist that contained Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. (Naturally, in his book, he puts this ‘fluke’ down to newspaper reports of how he had jumped in the Thames on a wintry night to rescue a dog, an act of bravery for which he was awarded an RSPCA medal… and the British do love their dogs.)
He held the seat for seven years – ‘The Tory Party itself was ghastly and many of its members unspeakable; but it became mine” – before prompting a by-election when he resigned to take over from Brian Walden on the political discussion programme Weekend World, a job which lasted for two years before the show was axed.
(He had come to the attention of television executives in 1984 when he agreed to take part in a documentary to see if an MP could live off social benefit for a week in a Newcastle council flat: he could, but only just.)
His parliamentary career reached its modest peak when he was verbally offered a job as a parliamentary private secretary to Patrick Jenkin, the then Environment Secretary. But the offer was sheepishly withdrawn when Parris took a principled decision to make it clear that he was gay and wasn’t prepared to pretend otherwise for the sake of the party’s image.
“But I don’t think being gay was the only thing that kept me back in politics,” he says. “I was also the wrong type.
“I get irritated with gay men who say everything they ever failed at was because people were prejudiced against them. I’m pretty sure John Major would have made me a minister, and I wouldn’t have been any good at it, and he would have had to sack me.”
This comment seems typical of his style: big claims, undercut by modest disclaimers; a blend of playful confidence and hand-wringing diffidence. Was it that the Establishment just didn’t think gays were trustworthy?
‘That they must be deviant, you mean? No, I don’t think so. There has been an irrational hatred toward homosexuals for centuries, and society has tried to find a way of justifying it.
“They said that being gay in public life made you blackmailable, which is unjust. So unfair. It made me so angry.” He thinks his party has come a long way since then. “It’s rather sweet. It’s like a dad trying to be cool. At least they are trying.”
But, as he reveals in his autobiography, his first sexual encounter was with a woman. It didn’t sound terribly romantic. “No!” he says with a laugh. “It really wasn’t!” It was with a tipsy Jamaican woman, on a beach. She had sex with a friend of his who then rolled off her and was ready for sleep.
She was not and so Parris took over. “I didn’t especially dislike it [heterosexual sex] after that. It’s just I could take it or leave it. I left it.”
Has he ever thought about what it would be like to have children? “Oh, I would love children. I don’t entirely rule the possibility out.
“When I’m 58 I might go to Bolivia and marry a South American Indian and have nine children, if only for the astonishment it would cause among my friends. I should like half-caste children, partly for aesthetic reasons, partly because it strengthens the human race.”
Does he have a partner at the moment? “No, I never have had really, in that romantic/domestic sense. I’ve got one very good friend who is definitely my best friend in the world but it’s not a sexual relationship.”
Is it that he finds it hard to fall in love? “I’ve never fallen in love. I fancy people every five minutes but that isn’t the same as falling in love. At times when I haven’t had companionship or comradeship – chap-like words – I’ve missed it very much.”
He tried ‘cruising’ for the first time on Clapham Common, at the age of 26, and never looked back, not least because it made him a more confident person generally. “Before that day, my hands had always shaken. They have never shaken since.”
Once when out on the Common he was beaten up by ‘two queer-bashers’. And in 1998, when Ron Davies, then Welsh Secretary, had his ‘moment of madness’, it prompted Parris to recount in print his own ordeal.
This in turn lead to him being invited on to Newsnight and to his being asked by Jeremy Paxman to name the other gay ministers in the cabinet. He now regrets ‘outing’ Peter Mandelson, not least because it left him at the eye of a media storm.
But friends and political colleagues soon forgave him, simply, it seems, because he is Matthew Parris, the cheeky boy at the back of the class, the calm-voiced exhibitionist. If it had been Peter Tatchell, a militant gay activist, who had outed Mandelson, it would have been a different story, wouldn’t it?
“Yes, but my air of innocence in that case was 95 per cent genuine. I thought everyone knew already. But you’re quite right. I got away with it where others might not. It’s a truth about sketch- writers that we can deliver ourselves of all kinds of prejudice but because it is in the garb of humour it is accepted.”
He clears his throat. “Sorry, it’s a cough I picked up in the Ukraine. Yes, I’m quite conscious of having got away with more than I deserve by just doing my Noddy act, the, “Oh, Mr Plod, please don’t arrest me,” bit in this slightly breathless ‘where-am-I?’ voice.”
So he isn’t naive at all is he, really? “When John Redwood stood against John Major, who was a friend of mine, I didn’t want Redwood to win so I thought the more ridiculous I can make his launch look in my Times parliamentary sketch the more it will hurt his campaign. That wasn’t a humorist’s response but that of someone with a political axe to grind.”
Others may forgive and quickly forget his indiscretions, but Parris rarely lets himself off lightly. He gives a moving account in his autobiography of an occasion in Mombasa when, aged 18, he was attacked and bound at knifepoint while his companion, Trish, was raped – an episode about which neither have talked publicly since.
Was he trying to exorcise demons? “I don’t believe in therapy by confession. The best way to forget is to forget.” For a long time, though, he hated himself for having submitted so passively to his attacker. “I understood then how shame could make a man want to kill himself.”
He likes to challenge himself physically as well as psychologically. Two years ago he spent five months on an inhospitable sub-Antarctic island, partly out of existential curiosity, partly because he got a documentary out of it.
He regularly runs marathons (in an impressive two and a half hours), climbs mountains, crosses deserts and freefalls from aeroplanes. “Actually, when I first tried parachute-jumping I managed to persuade myself that it might be a plot to kill me, and I was really scared and sick, and I nearly fainted.
“Now I’m determined to do it again and again until I’m not afraid any more. It makes you feel more alive to face your fears.”
He has also faced some unpalatable truths about himself in the book. He relates a story about how he teased a boy, a former friend, who was bullying him at school, by saying, “No wonder your father committed suicide with a son like you.”
He reproached himself from the moment his ‘bitter little voice’ had died away. While writing his book, he took that passage out and put it back in several times. There is another story in which he describes taking LSD at Yale and feeling an urge to kill a repulsive-looking tramp he saw on a bench.
Does he suppress these homicidal feelings when not under the influence of acid? “I’m sure it was worse, in fact. Worse than ‘I want to kill him.’ That would be an understandable if unpleasant human emotion. The feeling was that I want him to be killed. I’d probably rather not have seen it happen.” He hasn’t touched LSD since.
Matthew Parris seems a restless spirit, a contrary man who appears to trade in honest expression but feels he is an impostor; does he feel fulfilled?
“I’m not bothered about having failed to get to the top in politics because it wasn’t the right mountain for me to climb. My main feeling about journalism is of being very lucky, a feeling of gratitude, and a sense of what fun it is. I don’t think I’ve deserved it all.”
I remind him of a jokey note a friend of his left after a drunken evening: ‘Piss off, Parris, you overrated bastard.’
“Yes, exactly,” he says.”That’s how I feel.” Because he is the highest paid broadsheet columnist? “Am I? Golly! I doubt it. It’s probably because I write so much. But do I feel fulfilled? I would like to advance the boundaries of human knowledge in some technical way. But I’m not equipped to do so.
“And I would have liked to have been a good public administrator… Yes, I can see you yawning! But administration is so important. I think it’s from my colonial background.”
Does the urge to invent come from his father? “That may be true but I do happen to be interested in the things my father is interested in anyway.”
Is his father proud of him? “I think fathers are proud of success, but in the early years, when my brother said he wanted to be an engineer, my father said, “Well, at least one of my sons will have had a proper job.”
“I whimper about insecurity,” he continues in his earnest, whispery voice, “but I have always chosen professions where I would be insecure. I don’t think I’m alone in being unsettled by danger and risk and at the same time courting it. It’s a common human paradox.”
Matthew Parris does seem to be the sum of his contradictions: a liberal conservative, a shy show-off who never misses a chance to back into the limelight, an odd mixture of insouciance and vulnerability.
I dare say he plays these things up, for social advantage, and he may know that, ultimately, his reckless candour makes him seem more sympathetic, but essentially he seems an amiable, thoughtful and modest man.
He explains his failure as a television presenter, for instance, in terms of his having started tense and stayed tense. “I was never cut out to be a physical presence and have always had a hankering to be invisible.”
He removes his hands from his mouth and grins. “I think I lack natural arrogance.” But not moral courage. He really should stop being so hard on himself.