Memoirs, as I have mentioned before, are my favourite form of reading and I was pleased when my eldest daughter sent me a copy of Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire.
I put it aside to read later because I was up to my neck in the 1,000 page first volume of Chips Channon’s memoirs. I came back to it recently and recommend it to anyone interested in how politicians live and talk away from the media.
She is married to Hugo Swire, who was a Junior Minister in Northern Ireland and the Foreign Office while their friend David Cameron was Prime Minister. Friend or not, she accuses Cameron of lacking a clear political identity and of making a mess of Brexit.
On a six-mile walk in Cornwall with the PM, he asks her not to walk in front of him. “Why,” I ask, and he says: “Because that scent you are wearing is affecting my pheromones, It makes me want to grab you and push you into the bushes and give you one!”
She is a keen student of George Osborne and watches him as he sees Boris Johnson on the Andrew Marr show: “ It was like looking at a child who is about to commit some terrible torture on one of God’s weaker creatures.”
Boy George, as she calls him, “has a heart, a hinterland, dimensions, passions, and he bleeds when he is cut, but you rarely see that side of him. He can be hilarious company, but he doesn’t mind how he gets his way.”
At Osborne’s birthday party she finds her husband laughing in a corner with Cameron. When she asks what they find so funny, they tell her that the private member of the member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove if you must) is remarkably long – “rather like a slinky that comes down the stairs before the rest of the body.”
She sits next to Bris Johnson at a Downing Street dinner, describing his company as “Cheeky. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient, Energetic. We have a good laugh.”
When she tells him the food is disgusting, “he stuffs in more mouthfuls and knocks back the cheap plonk at an alarming rate. I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance.He looks back, as if he is working out if I am shaggable or past my sell-by date. He’d probably do the same if a sheep walked into the room.”
He picks up a whisper that her husband used to go out with Jerry Hall and can’t resists shouting down the table to him: “Hugo! Did you shag Jerry Hall!”
Later she hears him speak outside Downing Street after winning the general election. “This is Good Boris,” she writes, “lit up by the fairy lights like the true celebrity he is. This is the Boris who won the Leave campaign, defeating the serried ranks of the British Establishment,” secured a new deal from the European Union; the ruthless Boris who fought it through Parliament and had the guts to discipline his own party by withdrawing the whip from 21 of them and won the election with a large majority…and throughout all this he maintained his good humour and star quality.”
She reflects: “Boris is, in many ways, an island, a spinning, mad island. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many. For all his hinterland and hot young vixen and his agile mind. Boris just comes across as someone who is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside.”
Death of a multi-talented man
When Jarvis Astaire died last week aged 97, he was described as a boxing promoter, a job description that always annoyed him and probably denied him the knighthood he deserved.
He was so much more than a fight promoter. Among other things, he was an entrepreneur, a property developer, a film producer and agent to Dustin Hoffman. When the first print of All the Presidents’ Men was a flop, he saved the film by getting much of it played in semi-darkness - and by persuading Robert Redford to give up his contractual right to approve every shot in which he appeared.
Jarvis turned down the chance to buy out Brian Epstein’s contract as manager of the Beatles because his wife didn’t think it was a good idea. He also owned menswear shops and Mappin & Webb, the upmarket jewellery shop, and owned and bred racehorses.
At the same time, along with Mickey Duff, he dominated boxing in Britain for several decades. He became a friend of Muhammad Ali and persuaded him to fight Henry Cooper for the world title at Highbury football stadium in 1963.
That was the time our ‘Enery’ knocked the great man down, the first time he had ever been floored, and might have won on a sensational knockout if Ali’s cornerman, Angelo Dundee, hadn’t played some dubious tricks between the rounds to give his man time to wake up.
Ali always claimed that his attention was distracted when he was caught by “Enery’s ‘ammer”, a blistering left hook, by spotting Elizabeth Taylor in the audience. Ali won when the soft tissue around Cooper’s eyes opened up, as it often did.
He had been a keen cricketer in his youth and I often used to meet him at Lord’s, where we were both members of the MCC. In the 1990s he became my tennis partner for a time at the Queen’s Club.
He was born Joseph Golombovitch in Stepney to Russian immigrant parents. He told me that Jarvis was his mother’s Yiddish pronunciation of Joseph and the Astaire came from his parents’ millinery company, Astaire Hats, named after Fred Astaire.
For all his capitalist ventures, Jarvis was a lifelong Socialist and donor to the Labour Party. He once found himself seated next to the wife of a Tory chairman and regaled with his left-wing beliefs.
As they were leaving the dinner she spotted Jarvis’s chauffeur-driven Bentley and asked him how he could square that with his socialist beliefs. He opened the window and replied: “Nothing’s too good for the workers.”
Telling the truth to a King
Donald Zec, also the son of Russian immigrants, lived even longer than Jarvis, dying this week at 102. Zec, whose father was a Jewish tailor called Simon Zecanovsky, was best known in his prime as a legendary showbiz correspondent on the Daily Mirror, with unrivalled access to the stars, especially Marilyn Monroe. In his later career he became involved in management, helping to promote the paper. When I met him many years ago, he told me this story.
In his promotion role he had got to know Dame Ruth Railton, whose National Youth Orchestra was supported by the Mirror.
One day he was in the office of Cecil King, chairman of the group, who suddenly asked him: “Do you know Dame Ruth Railton?”
“Yes, sir,” said Zec.“What do you think of her?” asked King.
Zec replied without hesitation: “Mad as a hatter!”
Long silence, broken by King saying, “I’m getting married to her on Saturday.”
Wholly unabashed, Zec turned to shake hands: “Let me be the first to congratulate you, sir.”