News came recently of the death of a friend, Alistair McAlpine – Lord McAlpine of West Green. The obituaries have naturally focussed on his political career, rather than on Alistair’s stellar importance as a collector and patron of the arts with a golden gift for friendship. This is understandable, as he was Treasurer of the Conservative Party during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, and seldom out of the headlines – as when the IRA bombed West Green House in 1990, a few weeks after he’d actually moved out, as he said to me, “leaving nothing but a toothbrush behind.”
But remembering Alistair only as a politician distorts the character of this remarkable human being. Indeed, having known him as a friend for at least 30 years, and having visited him at several of his houses, and seen a good many of the collections he built up each of them, I can say I was a little surprised when he emerged as one of Mrs Thatcher’s closest advisers and allies. I had never thought about him in that light, and don’t think I’d even have predicted that he would become a leading Tory. Of course, as his nursery was the Dorchester Hotel, built by his own family, he must have had a hereditary leaning to the Right – but you’d never have guessed this from his artistic interests. For example, the 60-strong collection of modern sculpture he gave to the Tate in 1970, included most of the avant-garde British sculptors of the 60s, just as Alistair was an early collector of Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and Jackson Pollock, and there was nothing remotely Tory about the group of erotic photographs he donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Alistair once owned a shop and gallery on Cork Street, the centre of the London art trade in contemporary art. He loved to man the front office himself on Saturday mornings dealing, as I remember it, in folk art from all over, plus things he collected himself, such as police truncheons, beads, furniture, textiles, ties, dolls and Cornish cream-and-blue-stripe china mugs.
I knew Alistair for such a long time that I don’t remember our first meeting. But we knew each other well enough that, in the mid-80s, when I had a staff sabbatical from The Observer, I could telephone him at home to ask whether he knew anyone with a house I might borrow to get away to write a book. I wanted to be as far away from Oxfordshire as possible, without the distractions of family or social life. To my genuine surprise, Alistair offered me one of his own houses, a 19th century pearl-fishing captain’s house in Broome, Western Australia. He wasn’t joking, and the arrangement was made there and then, for the one or two-bedroom house, surrounded by a veranda, with a swimming pool the temperature of warm tea at the back, and a lawn at the front, where (I discovered) local Aborigines were in the habit of gathering to sing and drink through the night.
It came with bottles of Salon Le Mesnil, one of the world’s rarest Champagnes, chilled in the fridge, and it was perfect for me, working on a primitive word processor. I completed my memoir, Finger-Lickin’ Good: A Kentucky Childhood in six weeks. There really was not much else to do, except to visit Alistair’s private zoo, near Cable Beach, where I formed a rewarding relationship with a young ostrich. (He was also interested in birds, gardening and farming.)
Sometime in the middle of my stay, Alistair turned up himself, staying at the larger of his two houses, along with Sidney Nolan (of whose glorious work Alistair had a large and fine collection) and his wife, Mary. At lunch Sidney astonished me by talking knowledgably about my book on the philosopher G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles. Alistair was a very good writer himself, as readers of his memoirs, Once a Jolly Bagman, know. In return for half a lifetime of hospitality, all I was able to give him was the dedication of the book he made possible in the first place.
Memories of Alistair come back to me in snatches. I stayed with him in Perth, and in Sydney – where, running away from my duties as judge of the Best Restaurant in Australia competition, I once turned up at the Intercontinental and was installed in a suite by the manager solely because he recalled meeting me with Alistair. At a major birthday party at West Green House, with its Quinlan Terry follies, what I remember most is that several of the women guests wore dresses by Bruce Oldfield, also a guest, who had literally sewed them into their frocks. The superb food was prepared by Albert Roux – though not by him personally, as he was seated near my wife, Terence, and Caroline Conran at the table. Lord McAlpine of West Green was one of nature’s democrats.
I remember, too, lunch with Alistair in Venice, when he’d retired there. Afterwards we were taken in a motor launch to a private island belonging to another lunch guest, and after tea, asked to sign the guest book in which the last signature was that of Mrs Thatcher. And there was the time at Gatwick Airport sometime following his 1999 health problems, when we were made to swear not to tell his wife that he was breakfasting on a Full English.
It might seem disingenuous to write about Alistair without mentioning the ridiculous kerfuffle about the BBC and the various libels committed against him, but Alistair, though hurt by the vicious false claims, came out of it with his character and dignity intact. My real regret is that I never got the chance to visit him in his final incarnation, as the husband of Athena, in the B-&-B they renovated from an old monastery in Puglia, the wonderfully named Il Convento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli.
Alistair was my personal Maecenas, but as a public man he was something rarer than any politician – a rounded, civilised man, who used his wealth to enhance our common culture. As a private man he was loyal, lovable and huge fun.