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Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics by Matthew Parris

20 October 2007

Another quasi-politician’s memoirs? Don’t worry — I’ll run out of them one of these days.

Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics by Matthew Parris

The subtitle of Chance Witness is a very good indication of former MP and newspaper columnist Matthew Parris’s approach to his autobiography. He never claims to be one of the in-crowd in the political circles in which he moved for a time. Most of the time, he claims, it was only through chance that he ended up where he was — for example, he attributes his selection as a Conservative MP in the 1980s primarily to the fact that he once leapt into the freezing waters of Thames to save a drowning dog. (It apparently swung the vote of the selection committee, which was wavering only slightly in his favour.) Yet a fair number of key events in his life weren’t entirely left to chance…unless you consider that there was an element of chance in the fact that at a fairly young age he realised he was homosexual.

The trouble with most autobiographies I’ve read usually revolves around the fact that quite a lot of people simply haven’t led lives which really lend themselves to the kind of prolonged navel-gazing that autobiographies demand. More often than not, what starts out interesting and full of vivid detail can often devolve into a virtual laundry list of ‘people I have known’ and ‘places I have been’ and ‘what it all means to me’. Or conversely, an autobiography which becomes quite fascinating in the later chapters devoted to adulthood requires a long and arduous slog through page after page of the author’s reminiscences of memorable bowel movements from his/her childhood. (Or something along those lines.) But as far as autobiographies go, Chance Witness generally doesn’t suffer much from the occasional tedious bits that tend to pepper the pages of similar stories. Put it down to Parris’s long stint as parliamentary sketch writer for the Times, a job that requires the writer to be succinct and clever with words and ruthless about fitting as much information as possible into a restricted space. If anything, there are places where the narrative seems to have been cut short, though in such a way that the marks of the authorial scissors aren’t readily apparent.

Chance Witness has much to recommend it, not least of which is Parris’s thought-provoking account of his time as a MP in the 1980s, when his sexuality wasn’t so much an open secret as it was a carefully-circumvented predicament. He talks quite frankly about his experiences ‘cruising’ on Clapham Common in the days before London’s gay community truly existed, including a horrific account of a incident where he was savagely beaten by two men while crossing the Common one evening…and the shame he felt when he lied to the police and to the press about where and why he was attacked. Yet Parris manages to strike a decent balance when discussing his sexual orientation in relation to his life: he doesn’t try to pretend that it has overshadowed or affected everything he’s ever done. Chance Witness is quite interesting to read almost for that reason alone, even if there’s much else to recommend it.

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