If there's one thing I like to do when I’m at a loose end on a Thursday night, it's to spend the evening with a disgraced former Tory cabinet minister. Obviously I'm going to have to narrow that down a bit - I could be talking about any number of people. But on this occasion, I spent the evening of June 7th getting up close and personal with Jonathan Aitken.
Having failed to make a return to parliament in 2004, thanks to the narrow-minded Michael Howard, who for some reason didn't want a convicted liar representing his party, Jonathan turned instead to religion and writing, producing books on prayer, pressure and prison, and now publishing a biography of slave-trader turned songwriter, John Newton, ‘From Disgrace to Amazing Grace’. He was giving a talk about it at the CityCoast Church in Portslade, in an event imaginatively entitled 'An Evening With Jonathan Aitken'. And it was free. Which is why I went.
According to Speakers UK, the public speaking agency which represents him, Jonathan Aitken charges over two thousand pounds for an after-dinner speech, so the chance to hear him for free overrode any reluctance I had to attend church, and I decided to tag along. I have to say, the CityCoast Church is very impressive. If I was going to go to church, I'd go there. They're better equipped than most theatres I've been to, with a huge stage, lighting rigs, sound system, audio-visual equipment, and even a drum kit in the corner. Frankly you could have stocked an entire music shop just with the stuff they had lying about at the back of the hall.
It's just a shame that the entertainment didn't quite match the surroundings. I don't know what it is about Jonathan Aitken. This is a bloke who's been romantically linked to Germaine Greer, Carol Thatcher and Miss Whiplash, had a glass of wine thrown over him by Anna Ford, and came very close to leading the Conservative Party. I just expected him to be more, well, charismatic. The way he stood there, slightly awkward and self-conscious for an hour and a half, you'd think he'd never really done any public speaking before. I wanted him to have the kind of powerful magnetism potential prime ministers ought to have, but he came across more like a first-year history teacher with nerves.
Not that the evening wasn't interesting - some episodes of Newton’s career were downright fascinating, and Aitken undoubtedly knows his stuff - it's just that having begun by saying that the life of John Newton was a swashbuckling adventure story, Aitken then proceeded to tell it with all the animation of a sloth. He did mention that when he first told his friends he was planning a biography of Newton, they expressed concern that he wouldn't be able to grasp the maths and physics. That produced the biggest laugh of the evening. It wasn't a strong night for comedy.
We did, however, get the chance to ask questions, so having failed to ask Patsy Palmer anything of importance at the Brighton Festival last month, and with the rest of the audience apparently dumbstruck, I put up my hand and asked Jonathan an insightful and intellectual question. Obviously I didn't ask the question I wanted to ask, which would have involved prison, perjury, and getting his daughter to lie for him in court, so instead I asked if John Newton had made a mint from his hymn-writing.
Jonathan answered me with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, and said no.
Personally I preferred the answer he gave to the man who asked what had drawn him to John Newton in the first place. I think we all expected a speech on his lifelong admiration for the man, and desire to tell the life-story of one of the key figures of Christianity, but Mr Aitken was surprisingly blunt. He said he'd heard they were making a film about William Wilberforce (‘Amazing Grace’), and thought a book about John Newton would sell well on the back of that. You've got to say he's more honest than he used to be.