Matthew Parris - I know which side my voice is coming from
I speak to Times & Spectator columnist, and ex-Conservative MP Matthew Parris, about how to use a voice, and a language, in journalism
For a man who’s often heaped praise on privacy, although not secrecy, you seem to do quite a few interviews in your own home - just like this one. Why?
I love the flat, it's a nice place to be. I’m getting tired of trekking across London to do things, and I’ve kind of reached a stage in my career where quite often people will come to me rather than I have to go to them. So I’m afraid it’s just laziness, selfishness, and folie de grandeur.
Several of your books, Scorn, Mission Accomplished!, Read My Lips, as well as much of your writing, directly examines the powers of language. How do you think the importance of using language well is different for politicians as opposed to journalists?
There’s an almost 180° swing from the way a journalist uses words to the way a politician does. On the whole, a politician isn’t wanting to say anything – but has space to fill. A politician will be wanting to create a mood, to sound knowledgeable – to give a bit of news impetus to something he or she is doing; but never really to share with you their doubts or their difficulties, or even, sometimes, the likelihood of success.
A journalist’s job is not necessarily to prick that balloon, but at least to try to tell it how it is. On the whole we shouldn’t have an agenda, we shouldn’t really be trying to achieve anything, although sometimes as a columnist one does stray. So we are able to be honest, able to overstate without the fear of our words being shouted back at us – no-one is trying to pick apart what we say. Deprived of this impetus for caution, although one must be careful about facts, we have a huge freedom; and I just pity any politician who tried to speak as I write – they’d give so many hostages to fortune.
In a Spectator article, you commented on a trend in Manchester, in which the young described themselves as having been ‘raped’ when done over, done in, or done for: “I was completely raped by that exam question”, for example. Do you still believe watering down our English is an evil?
I could divide the answer into two halves. A rising of new words, like raped not really meaning raped, or change in the use of ‘gay’ from being merry, to being homosexual, to being pathetic; I don’t really regret those changes in the use of words – I like to see a profusion of new words, and to work out what ‘woke’ means now. I think that’s a good thing in a language. What I regret, is… oh, if I use a phrase like ‘the vocabulary of public discourse’ it sounds incredibly pompous… but whatever one might mean by that term – I think its shrinking. We are using a narrower vocabulary, and as a journalist now, I would think twice about using slightly unusual words. A journalist fifty years ago would use them.
I’m not trying to adjudicate in the end.
That reminds me of a remark you made about sketch-writing: that sketch writing seems a very nineteenth century thing, and out of place – and that if we didn’t do it so well, then it wouldn’t be around anymore.
Yes. I often think how sad it would be to be a native Gallic speaker, or an enthusiastic first-language Welsh speaker, or even these days a French speaker, and to envisage the disappearance of your language. To think of all the things you can say in your language, more beautifully, with more delicate distinctions of meaning, and also the spoken rhythm and music of the language, to think all that might go, and a day might come when nobody any longer knew how beautiful Welsh or French was – would be awful.
I love words, and the very slightly different meanings that different words for almost the same thing can give. And to see that shrinking and to see some of them lost, makes me sad.
This does also speak to your Conservatism; people are themselves of a time and a place, you can’t help but hold on to what you are.
You are quite right. And there’s a very fine line, I think, between loving and cherishing the variety and the subtly of our language – and becoming a grumpy old man complaining that people are saying ‘disinterested’ when they are saying ‘uninterested’ (laughs) I’m sorry to wave disinterested goodbye, but we probably have to.
Everyone else is going mad, and I’m going mad too.
You’ve said that your columns are akin to throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples; that you don’t always know if you’re right, and don’t feel a responsibility to be so. Why not?
I feel more like an advocate in court whose job it is to make the best case they can. My client is innocent or the accused is guilty; and I think a journalist who tries to think things all the way through to their conclusions, to say nothing that could be undermined by events, and to be the final judge, the final arbiter of which argument should prevail – I think that can turn a journalist either towards pomposity, or a terrible caution that undermines anything useful they may say.
And I think, a columnist anyway – not a news reporter, but a columnist, needs to think of a plausible argument in which they are prepared to invest something, that might well be right, and express it as best they can. Leave it to others to respond.
Writing in The Spectator only last month, you explained that you don’t trust the people, “never have, never will”. Are you saying real journalism should attempt to provide paternalistic guidance?
I think there’s an element of paternalism in any writing for the public, or making films for the public, or broadcasting for the public. I don’t think you just throw yourself in there and shoot off your mouth about whatever comes into your head – I do think you need to keep a sense of who your audience are and keep a little self-confidence that you know a bit more about it than your audience do. I’m contradicting myself in that I said I just throw stones into ponds and see what happens, but I think you pick the size of the stone and pick the pond.
That example that you’ve just given, of my saying that I’ve never trusted the people, is quite a good example of my approach to column writing. That of course is a great overstatement; it’s not really true that I’ve never trusted the people, and I could make a passionate case for always listening to the people, and for the wisdom of crowds sometimes being right over journalists, or experts. Nevertheless, I think the mob can be dangerous, and I think we live in times when the virtual mob has become rather dangerous. But rather than weigh my words carefully as I just have to you, one headlines ‘I have never trusted the people’, and that will make people think.
In an interview with C-Span, you suggested that a politician speaks less for principle, or for the merits of argument, and more as the representative of an interest: that of the middle classes, or the poor, for the gay perhaps – or the white. Have you picked an interest to champion?
Yes, yes I do all those things – no, not particularly the white; I was born in Africa, and the white can look after themselves. Certainly gay rights has been one of my themes, but that’s broadened a little to being interested in other issues of sexuality, even I’m getting a little bit interested in the trans thing now – or though I’m definitely not trans.
Anti-Brexit has become a huge mission that’s almost distorted my journalism, and I think sometimes, my judgement – but I can’t help it. Everyone else is going mad, and I’m going mad too. I am also a conservative columnist, often with a small c, and usually with a large C. And I know that one of the reasons why anyone would want to make a space for my voice in the paper is because I speak as a conservative. Every newspaper, every news channel, every platform, needs to hear voices from different sides – and I know which side my voice is coming from, and I wouldn’t conceal it. And here I go back to what I was saying before: I’m not trying to adjudicate in the end.
I flounder – but I hope entertainingly.
To represent people that you have decided to represent, who you don’t want to speak for, but perhaps in a way that you believe is best, sometimes disregarding what they believe they want - all feels rather difficult. To me, this taps into something you’ve described in your autobiography Chance Witness: “in my philosophy events often have less significance than the deeper currents on which they may simply be bobbing up and down. The events are news; the news is fast-moving and visible; the currents are slower-moving and often unseen; but it is the currents that interest me the most.” As an opinion writer, are you simply doing your best to tap into that current, that well of humanity?
Yes, I am. And the quote you’ve just given makes me sound like a Marxist. I’ve a lot of sympathy with a Marxist view – of great tides of events upon which mere human beings are simply epiphenomena. Of course it’s terrifically vain to say that one could tap in to the underlying current of events, and I’m sure I get it wrong all the time, but I try.
It’s interesting to hear you admire the Marxist, you’ve said often how much you hate socialism.
Yes, that is the Tory coming out in me. I think that the illusion of equality, and the illusion that equality is attainable – at least equality of outcome, is pernicious. I’m a bit of a Darwinist at heart, so I think that people do need to succeed, and other people do need to fail – that life, including social life, is a series of experiments: some succeeding and some failing, and that’s important.
How does it chime with this belief in currents, that you’ve presented almost 40 series of Radio 4’s biographical discussion program Great Lives? What’s so appealing about the great individual?
It’s almost as a novelist, really. I like extraordinary characters. Were I speaking as a historiographer, rather than a historian, I would probably diminish their importance in the chain. Doing the Great Life of Charles Darwin as a historiographer I would probably say that if he hadn’t come up with natural selection – someone else would have, and so in the great sweep of events, he doesn’t matter. But he’s such an interesting person. And the impact of what he said when he said it is so interesting.
Your writing spans several genres. Travel, columns, biography: do you juggle different hats?
Juggle different hats makes it sound as though I was control, the very word juggle sounds in control; no, I just sort of thrash around. Fitfully interested in all kinds of things – contradicting myself all the time. I’ve never felt sufficiently in control of my work, or the scope of my work: I flounder – but I hope entertainingly.
In 2015, you asked Roy Hattersley what made him actually want to be a politician, to fulfill the duties of a lawmaker, rather than simply believing in the ideology of a party. All of your self-deprecating accounts of becoming a media-person, a television host on Weekend World, a sketchwriter for The Times, don’t describe a series of accidents – but they are hardly imbued with a sense of deep-seated purpose: to be a journalist. For someone who’s also described feeling often uncomfortable in their own skin, has your writing brought any certainty, perhaps in a sense of self?
Well firstly, I do see a description of a series of accidents; I’d go back to the idea of a bat – virtually blind, moving by sending out squeaks and seeing where the echo comes back. My life has actually been a series of different attempts at different things, most of which have not been successful. The impression of a path, and of a purpose, can be imposed retrospectively; but at the time I never really knew where I was going, I was just trying different things.
I have actually found some things I can do, and of course that’s terrifically important to one’s self-confidence and self-belief. In the end, if you can do something it's three-quarters of the battle to being somebody.
You were Conservative MP for West Derbyshire from 1979-86, and I’m drawn to a section of Chance Witness where you write about how “it is sobering, it is cruel” to have seen all your years of Parliamentary effort listed on a grid for the website Parlianet – seven years in neatly categorised boxes. Disheartened to have laboured seemingly without grand purpose or reward; have you found that in your journalism?
No not in journalism. The purposes are fitful and self-contradictory, and sometimes conflicting. But I have liked being good at it. I always wanted to be good at something and I turned out not to be good at an awful lot of things. Without too much vanity, and without pretending that the waters will not close very quickly over the head of my career and writing the moment I have gone – I have discovered a minor talent, and I am quite good at what I do, and I just love being good at something.
It is through unkindness and unsparingness sometimes that one writes best, or I write best
It’s genuinely heartening to hear you say that, you’ve so often dismissed yourself very readily. In Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History, a collection of exactly what it sounds like, you describe scorn as “the dark side of language: humorous or serious, the use of the spoken and written word to hurt, wound or ridicule – to decry not just other persons but things too: and art, and life, and God himself.” Do you feel that you are a man who has been often scorned?
No, no. I was always a bit thin skinned, and insults of one kind or another come our way all the time in public life. But I wouldn’t see myself as someone who’s suffered too badly from the scorn of others, and to the extent that anybody who puts their head above the parapet in public print gets lots of rocks thrown at them – I have managed to get completely used to it. I really do believe in the old adage 'sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me'. I don’t mind being scorned, I don’t mind being ridiculed, and I am professionally aware of the usefulness to anybody who needs a little bit of public profile, the usefulness of being attacked. I sometimes welcome the attacks, it doesn’t hurt. But what I can’t stand is constructive criticism (laughs), that really does hurt.
I love opening my post, not that you get many letters these days, but I still get about ten or twenty a week, and I love opening the post and seeing a letter that has all kinds of curses and foul language in it – because you can just screw it up and throw it away. But a beautifully written letter with some very pointed questions to which factual answers are required, now that really sinks my heart.
Scorn’s 2017 edition prologue also suggests that the insults often say a lot about the insulter: how do you think society’s come to terms with you, as a gay, a difficult, and a non-conforming MP, and later as a writer?
I think it would be preposterously conceited to think that society, whatever that is, has ever come to terms with me – I don’t think society knows what I am, or who I am. I don’t really know what people think of me, or how they see me, and it’s probably better for me to say rather than for them to guess.
I wouldn’t like to be considered a nasty person, and I am aware that some of my writing makes me sound quite vindictive – and that worries me. I don’t think I am, in real life, a vindictive or particularly unkind person. But it is through unkindness and unsparingness sometimes that one writes best, or I write best.
I guess as a paternalist, it’s how the children learn. But you’ve stated regret a couple of times about the personal attacks that you’ve made...
Yes – and then I go and do it again.
Well, the 2013 Epilogue to Chance Witness, describes how the person who wrote this book “signed off at the end of the last edition (2002). He’s gone… I see and write this with the eyes of a man whose life, instead of slackening from a trot to a walk as he probably expected, quickened into a canter; and is cantering all the faster.” What are you running for?
I think I’ve just about, and really just in the last few years, admitted defeat on the ambition to do any great thing in the world, or any big thing, which has always been a sneaking hope – that I would achieve some big thing. And I think in my sixties has come the realisation that I’m not going to achieve any big thing, and so what I must do is carry on with the thing that I am doing, that I enjoy doing, that pays me well in more than monetary terms. To try to stave off the slow deterioration that comes with age but being ready to stop a little before people think that I’m losing it, rather than once people are saying that I’m losing it.
And I am actually just enjoying life in a commonplace way. I earn enough money to go on wonderful trips abroad, enough to shell some of it out to friends and relatives – which I love doing, and I hope to carry on being as good as I am as a journalist. I don’t think I’m ever going to get any better, or do anything else. And I regret that, but I can't complain.
It does seem a very healthy way to approach a peak of anything. A sustained summit of a mountain is unheard of in real life – you come and you go. Listening to Great Lives though, I think your presentation has changed. In the more recent entries about Freddie Mercury for example, you seem to have taken a little more of a back foot as an interviewer; you listen more, I think.
Well if that’s true, that’s very, very good news because I always was too quick to get onto the front foot and chip in with my own point of view. The best interviewers elicit from others rather than spout themselves – so if I’m getting a bit more relaxed and able to listen to other people, so much the better. If I could learn to listen more, whether that’s to be attributed to the gradual decline or to experience, it’s a good thing.