Satirised MP looks to his heroes

AS a former Government minister brought down by your own lies and cant, it's hard to leave the past behind. Six years after release from prison, you still have only to poke your head above the parapet to risk a pot-shot like one of those flip-up ducks on a fairground sideshow.

AS a former Government minister brought down by your own lies and cant, it's hard to leave the past behind. Six years after release from prison, you still have only to poke your head above the parapet to risk a pot-shot like one of those flip-up ducks on a fairground sideshow.

It's especially so in the case of Jonathan Aitken, the former Suffolk schoolboy who gouged himself on his “simple sword of truth” and served time for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Publish a book called Heroes and Contemporaries and your detractors are bound to take a pop. Particularly when subjects include bêtes noires - in some people's eyes - such as the gambling-obsessed zookeeper John Aspinall, the billionaire Eurosceptic James Goldsmith, and Mark Thatcher.

Private Eye satirist Craig Brown opened fire with both barrels. His spoof diary, purporting to be in Aitken's voice, was cruelly funny - and, at one point, skirted the boundaries of good taste.

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Jonathan Aitken accepts it's “entirely fair” that his new book might be viewed in an ironic light by some readers, bearing in mind his fall from grace.

He also recognises that his chosen heroes do not include the unsung bloke who jumps into the cab of a runaway lorry to stop it crashing into a school, but consist of famous figures whose positive traits are often offset by unattractive flaws.

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“Yes. They are public heroes, rather than one-off heroes. One-off heroes probably also have character faults, but we don't notice them because they do one dashing brave rescue and (then fade away),” he says.

“Nobody this side of sainthood is perfect. They've all got blemishes and Achilles' heels, but that doesn't stop them being wonderfully high achievers. So these are warts and all portraits. Even in the worst cases, like Randolph (Churchill), I think the virtues far outshine the vices.”

Mr Aitken flew too close to the sun in the 1990s when he lied to the High Court during a libel case against The Guardian and Granada television. In the midst of claims about secret bank accounts and arms deal commissions involving an Arab businessman, at a time when Aitken was Defence Procurement Minister, he'd tried to cover up the fact that his hotel bill at the Paris Ritz was met by aides of the Saudi royal family - violating ministerial rules.

He said wife Lolicia had paid, but it emerged she wasn't in the country when the account was settled.

Aitken served seven months of an 18-month sentence. He was released in January, 2000, but his immorality would extract a high price. Legal bills of about £2.4 million propelled him into bankruptcy. Lolicia ended their marriage in 1998.

Since being jailed he's had a major reawakening of his Christian faith - viewed suspiciously by cynics - and has written a number of autobiographical books. Today, he writes and broadcasts. He does voluntary Christian outreach speaking with the Alpha course - last year his diary showed110 speaking engagements, mostly unpaid - and is a sometime lecturer in America. He's giving six this month.

It's very tempting to attempt some kitchen-sink psychoanalysis in light of his heroes' flaws. Is there a sense - even subconsciously - that he's bracketing himself with these people: imperfect, yes, but with many fine traits on the other side of the coin? Perhaps a feeling that he could be redeemed?

“I think I'd put it a bit differently. I see where you're coming from. One thing that makes me different from everyone in the book is I'm the only one who went to prison, and therefore had quite a long time to sit in a prison cell thinking about mistakes and the necessity to change direction.

“Redemption - at risk of sounding like a rather pompous theologian - is at the end of the day God's business, whereas rehabilitation is man's business.

“Richard Nixon, whose biography I wrote, once said to me 'Failure is not falling down; failure is falling down and not getting up to continue life's race.' A rather good statement. A percentage of the people in the book really fell down quite badly at various moments and one way or another they got up and continued. They were resilient - and resilience is a quality I certainly admire in my heroes.”

Does it annoy him when people hark on about his troubled past?

“No,” comes the reply, firm and quick. “It's like saying you don't like the M1,” he laughs. “It's there on the map and anyone who's talking about me is bound to drive down that particular road. Rather interestingly, most people in prison never want to talk about their past again and do their utmost to suppress it, forget it, and so on. I never thought this was an option available to me.”

The book starts with Max Aitken - Lord Beaverbrook. Because of a family quarrel in the 1930s, Jonathan Aitken didn't meet the proprietor of the Daily Express, Sunday Express and London Evening Standard until he was 19.

The 82-year-old had a stooping gait that made him look tired and shrunken, but “the energy of Beaverbrook became apparent when he opened his oversized mouth and began speaking in a rasping transatlantic twang”. He told Aitken “I got my education from the university of hard knocks.”

As young Aitken left at the end of his first visit, Beaverbrook advised: “If you're thinking of a political career, always remember that politics is the best of lives and the worst of lives.” Later, on his 85th birthday, he'd add: “But enjoy it, and make sure you stir up lots of mischief.”

Sir Winston Churchill is another hero. Aitken met him three times, the first as a 12-year-old in 1954 when he was in the House of Commons with his father on Churchill's 80th birthday and had his hand shaken by the great man. “I'm not going to wash for a week!” he said, though matron soon put a stop to such notions.

In 1962, the aged Churchill was like a lighthouse: long periods of darkness and flashes of brilliance.

The third time was “one of my life's most embarrassing moments” - delivering Randolph Churchill to his parents' Hyde Park Gate home 45 minutes late for lunch. Alcoholic Randolph, who had a difficult relationship with his mother and father, insisted on stopping to fortify himself at three hostelries en route from Oxford.

The confrontation, when they arrived, was heated - even the frail Sir Winston, in a wheelchair, rattling his walking sticks together to show his disapproval of the row between mother and son.

Aitken whispered to Randolph to apologise. “My suggestion was not well received. 'Shut up!' he bellowed. 'Why don't you bugger off!'”

Surprisingly, Randolph is a hero in his own right, though Aitken recognises he “squandered many of the talents he inherited from his father”. Succumbing early to drink, he became notorious for bad behaviour and bad temper.

Yet he mellowed in his later years, retiring in his 50s to a country house at East Bergholt and reinventing himself as a hard-working political journalist, historian and author, though his rudeness and tardiness in paying small tradesmen earned him the nickname “Beast of Bergholt”.

At “Stour”, his Georgian mansion standing in 12 acres near the church, Churchill worked as official biographer of his father. He died in 1967 and Aitken reckons he was always something of a lonely figure in rural Suffolk.

The nature of the book means being subjective and releasing personal details. Has he had any comeback?

“When you're dealing with profiles, you are making judgements; they could be wrong judgements - you just do your best. What I tried to do with the Thatchers, which I don't think has ever done before, is to try to look at them as a family. There are probably not many people who could write about them as a family - and at the end of the day it's meant to be quite a respectful, quite a loving, portrait.

“I'm as confident as I can be that none of my subjects, if they read their profile, would say 'Uh, I can't bear the way he's said that.' There's a paragraph that's maybe near the knuckle, but (with) the portrait as a whole I think they'd all say 'He's had a fair shot at it.'”

No grumbles from the Thatcher clan, then?

“Rather the reverse. I had a drink with Margaret the other night, I'm not absolutely sure she's read the whole book, but she was very complimentary about it.”

THE chapter on the Thatchers offers a fascinating glimpse of a family frequently described as dysfunctional - a label Jonathan Aitken argues is not unfair.

He blotted his copybook with Margaret Thatcher in 1974. At a dinner party in Beirut, the new MP for Thanet East was asked about Mrs Thatcher's views on Israeli troop withdrawals from the Sinai area.

“Taking a deep breath and a sip of post-prandial Dom Perignon champagne, I replied: 'Frankly, Margaret Thatcher knows so little about the Middle East she probably thinks that Sinai is the plural for sinuses.'”

But the time the quip found its way into Private Eye, Mrs Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. She wasn't amused.

In 1977. Aitken started going out with his leader's then 21-year-old daughter, Carol. “I had the impression that Carol admired Margaret from a distance but did not enjoy being close to her. Theirs was a tense relationship, with more chill than warmth in it. The same could be said of Carol's attitude to Mark, but without the admiration.”

Mrs Thatcher, he says, was kind to him, but Aitken confesses he was bad at reciprocating. “I was paradoxically both an arrogant and at times insecure young man. I found it difficult to imagine having a relaxed and happy relationship with a woman of such formidable strength and character . . .”

His relationship with Carol came to an end in the summer of 1979. He had fallen for Lolicia Azucki, a Swiss lady he would marry later that year. “Carol was hurt. Margaret Thatcher was upset.”

It was a long time before relations warmed again, though he would be a passionate supporter of the PM.

Within days of Aitken's release from jail, Mrs Thatcher was making solicitous inquiries. She said “You have paid a very high price for one foolish mistake. Now we must all rally round and help you rebuild your life.”

Her son also helped - with moral support and offers of practical help. “I was touched by his genuine compassion, which had no hidden agenda. There was only one explanation for it. Mark Thatcher, for all his outward brusqueness and occasional surliness, can be a very kind man.”

Heroes and Contemporaries is published by Continuum at £18.99. ISBN 0 8264 7833 6

JONATHAN Aitken worked for the East Anglian Daily Times sports department during a couple of summers in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when he was on the cusp of Eton and Oxford. He was assistant to “a venerable figure everyone referred to in the office as Double Fault. He was a gentleman who combined the roles of tennis correspondent with funerals correspondent. In summer it was an arduous double-act, and the first question he asked me was 'Can you change your clothes quickly?'

“I did learn something very quickly about accuracy. A minor county tennis star at the Framlingham tennis tournament could get very shirty indeed if you reported him losing a 6-2, 6-3 when he only lost 6-3, 6-4, or something. And a mourner at a funeral who comes into the church so upset that it's rather difficult to get their name then gets very cross if you spell it wrong.”

Other Aitken heroes and contemporaries

Lord Longford, the legal reform campaigner

Harold Wilson

Sir Frank Williams, who created his own Formula 1 racing team

Michael Portillo

Nicky Gumbel, developer of the Alpha course on Christianity

The Jonathan Aitken file

Born August 1942

Moved to Suffolk aged seven

Father, Sir William Aitken, became MP for Bury St Edmunds

Has three daughters

In 2003 married Elizabeth Harris, former wife of the late actors Rex Harrison and Richard Harris

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