Journalist and broadcaster Matthew Parris talks to Charlotte Metcalf about ambition, working with Margaret Thatcher and his ‘undistinguished’ life.
I’d met Matthew Parris briefly before when I went to watch him interviewing the ceramicist Emma Bridgewater about her sister Nell Gifford, who started Gifford’s Circus. In a crowded room he probed Emma, still raw from her beloved sister’s very recent death, with kindness and gentle restraint. It made me want to know more of the person behind the consummate interviewer. Most people know Matthew as a columnist and from Radio 4’s biographical programme Great Lives – he’s presented over 500 episodes. Last year came Fracture, Matthew’s book about how geniuses and great lives are often forged in trauma. Ed Vaizey and I talked to him about Fracture on our podcast Break Out Culture, but today is the first time we are having a proper conversation.
‘It’s not always the famous ones that are the most interesting,’ he says of his favourite guests on Great Lives. ‘Frances Cairncross, writer and broadcaster, chose Ignaz Semmelweiss, a Hungarian doctor in 19th-century Vienna. Very pertinent to today, he urged doctors to wash their hands to stop puerperal fever raging through hospitals. He was ignored and ended life in a mental asylum.’
I ask which, if any, guest he’d disliked and am delighted how bluntly he responds: ‘Lord Snowdon chose Alec Issigonis, known for designing the Mini, but I didn’t think his heart was in it. Jeremy Paxman was surprisingly unpleasant. He was rude and sneering about Lord Shaftesbury, but would no doubt pass it off as just joshing.’
Matthew was born in 1949 in Johannesburg, the eldest of six into what he describes as a big, close, happy family. His father was overseas manager for an engineering company, so they moved around – to Cyprus, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Swaziland (now Eswatini), Jamaica and finally Catalonia. ‘Unusually, our parents didn’t send us to school in England,’ he says. ‘We just all wanted to stay together – the only time I ever went to boarding school was in Swaziland. Eventually we sort of settled in late- Franco Spain and two of my younger siblings married Catalans.’ Later, with one of his sisters and her husband, Matthew bought an old fortified farmhouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees and says, ‘It’s been a wonderful 25-year labour of love doing it up and now we run it as a small, self-catering hotel.’
In Fracture he describes his life as ‘happy and undistinguished’, as opposed to the horrendous traumas that most of his great lives are rooted in. He explores over 30 of them: from Abraham Lincoln to Lenin, Charlie Chaplin to Coco Chanel. ‘I suppose dislocation can be a fracture, but we were all so happy that the moving about just made me look at things from different angles. As a child I wanted to be King of the World. I once shook hands with the governor of Cyprus and wrote the Colonial Office a letter asking how to go about it. I even got a nice letter back.’
We veer to talking about his time in politics. He laughs and says, ‘I just wanted to be in charge and thought it would be all about swanning around in plumed hats, like that governor. In fact, I once told David Cameron I’d love to be a governor of a small islandlike Grenada but he just laughed and that’s unlikely now at 71!’ After reading law at Cambridge and international relations at Yale, Matthew worked for the Foreign Office and for Chris Patten before landing a job as a clerk in Thatcher’s office. ‘One never really “got on” with her,’ he says. ‘She was very much the boss. I admired her and worked hard and that’s all she required. She made mistakes but she was a great leader.’
Matthew won the only safe Tory seat in the Derbyshire Dales, where he still lives happily. ‘I absolutely loved the constituency work as it made me feel like Lady Bountiful,’ he says, ‘but I didn’t get on in the House of Commons. I wasn’t enough of a team player for the party machine. I left in 1986 because I wasn’t getting anywhere – I wanted to be Prime Minister but never got promoted.’ I am surprised by such a candid admission of ambition and ask what he’d like to do now. ‘Be the first person on Mars – I’d go even if I knew I couldn’t return,’ he replies. We laugh and I wonder if he truly feels his life has been ‘undistinguished’. He answers, ‘Ed Victor was my agent and said, “God has given you a minor talent”. So the thing I’m most proud of is how far I’ve got with just a sniff of ability.’
I realise now that Matthew is so immensely likeable on air not so much because he’s good-humoured and self-deprecating, but because he lacks envy. He’s rare in being genuinely content. He loves travelling and his home in Derbyshire. He loves his big family and has grown closer and closer to his partner, journalist Julian Glover, over 25 years. Mars apart, is there anything else he’s burning to do? ‘Oh, I’ve plateaued now,’ he grins. ‘Nowadays my ambition is to pave our potholed driveway. That should take me the rest of my life.’
Featured Image: Alexandra Dao