Archive for April, 2007

Music

A song for everyone

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Howard Goodall is a man of many passions: from composing the Mr Bean theme to popularising Wagner. He tells Ginny Dougary why singing and squash — but not dancing — are good for the soul

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall, the composer, broadcaster and singing czar for the Government’s new Music Manifesto education initiative, is sitting at his kitchen table in Chelsea in his old Newcastle United T-shirt, telling me why he has no doubts about the healing powers of music in general and singing in particular.

At first he is able to come up with only some random observations that people who stammer don’t when they sing, and asthmatics no longer have breathing problems when they open up their voices. He’s a bit uncertain as to why this should be: “I mean I know there are scientific things like enzymes being released and all that kind of stuff.” Endorphins? “That’s the one, thank you very much. It’s a release like laughter that makes you feel better about yourself, and there’s no doubt that people who have a good sing feel great.”

But it’s when the composer recalls his “field trips” all over the country, as part of his national campaign to bolster singing in schools, that he snaps into focus. He was particularly impressed by a woman who teaches at a primary school in Bristol that has many pupils who are refugees: “It’s very, very difficult because they often don’t have the language skills, which means that they find it hard to cope and join in. She told a story about an Iraqi boy who was badly traumatised by the war and just sat at the back in a totally silent walled room of his own. The other children told her that he never spoke to anyone ever. On the second singing session she saw that the boy was singing along phonetically and this was the opening of the door for him and, after that, he was able to communicate.”

The teacher was so moved that she wrote a song about the experience, which was performed by 500 children at the national School Proms last year. “And the extraordinary thing is that when you see this boy now, you would never know what he’s been through,” Goodall says, “and it’s singing which has definitely changed his life.”

Goodall’s own childhood was untouched by trauma, unless you count an unhappy year or so as a boarder at the public school Stowe, and he went on to a glittering career that has included composing the theme tunes for Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show. “Stowe was a beautiful place but I was lonely and I found the other pupils arrogant, privileged and unpleasant.” He was parachuted out, as he puts it, of public-school misery to join his two brothers at the local state school in Thame, Oxfordshire, where their father was headmaster. This suited him far better “and so I carried that into my adult life, a sort of sticking up for the state system thing . . . and I know that I’m doing this thing for government singing, but we’re working with independent schools as well. I don’t consider there to be a dividing line beyond which we can’t move because my own background was both.”

Goodall first started composing at the age of 8 when he was a chorister at New College, Oxford. He doesn’t know what gave him the confidence to do so: “It was just that I heard music in my head and wondered what it would be like if I wrote it down.” But the floodgates opened when he was a shy 14-year-old smitten by an older French girl on a school exchange. “I just thought she was, you know, incredible, but I couldn’t even get through a conversation with her,” he says, let alone play her the song that she’d inspired him to write. He thinks that “Françoise” was probably a bit McCartneyish or possibly Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish, and he can still remember every word. Would you sing it for me? “No, I’d be too embarassed.” Oh, go on, I say, turning into Mrs Doyle. “I can’t. I can’t. Honestly, I just can’t,” the poor man says.

“Anyway, up to that point I’d written what you might describe as classical music, but then I realised, ‘Gosh, writing pop songs is really good fun’, and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs at the piano and that’s why I moved into writing musicals, I suppose, as a way of using them up.” At Oxford, where he read music at Christ Church, graduating with a first in 1979, he became close friends with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, writing the music for their revues and annual show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He owed his first break in television to Atkinson, composing the theme tune to Not the Nine O’Clock News, then Blackadder, as well as all the Mr Bean films, including the new one. Other TV credits include Red Dwarf and QI. He’s also written and presented award-winning music documentaries and presented classical programmes such as Choir of the Year.

He is quite sensitive to the suggestion that he owes his success to his friends, pointing out that Curtis has made four of the most successful films of all time ( Notting Hill, Four Weddings etc) “and if it were true that I just got asked to do my mates’ projects, I’d have done one of those, wouldn’t I?”

I watched Goodall’s last four-part television series How Music Worksbefore we met and was swept up by his enthusiasm and the way he built bridges between different composers from Wagner to Coldplay. He is as natural and unprecious in person as he is on television, but what is unusual is that he is disarmingly open — almost nakedly so — as though he has not yet mastered the art of masking his inner self from the public gaze.

In an early interview in 1994, he told the journalist that the reason why he found it so easy to relate to the George Eliot character Silas Marner (he was writing an opera based on the novel) was because “ it was a very sad time in my own life. My wife had just left me and I could empathise with the bitter despair of Marner.” He says that he shouldn’t have been so honest and then proceeds to go farther: “I’m happily married now on my second marriage [to Val Fancourt, a classical music agent]. My first wife was someone who had been in one of my shows.

“The leading lady and the composer,” he laughs, “bet you’ve never heard that before. I was about 28 or 29 [he is now approaching 50] and the marriage fell apart as I was writing the opera and so I felt my way through it with the pain I was going through “I loved my first wife and I missed her and I was devastated, but looking back on it she made the braver decision to leave because it wasn’t really working.

“I think I was young and very immature emotionally and unbelievably selfish as well. I had my music, with my head in the clouds doing my own thing. And I don’t think I really grasped what having a relationship of that intensity actually meant.” For some reason I ask him whether he gets angry — who knows why since he comes across as rather measured — and touch an unexpected nerve. “Yeah, I do have a temper and I’m sorry about that as it causes anxiety. I get impatient when I’m attacked; for example, when the person attacking me hasn’t done their homework. [His populist approach infuriates the classical elitists.]

“And it just drives me . . . it just drives my insides . . . I just get so frustrated.” Can he explain why this happens? “It would be nice for me to say that because I write music and it’s a very passionate, intimate thing and I bash away at the piano that maybe there’s a sort of raised temperature to my emotional state that I can’t stop happening in my normal life. But it would be a cop-out because there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write music and be a perfectly calm and patient person.” So what do you think it’s about then? “I don’t know,” he says, before suggesting that it may be a male problem. When his wife is dealing with a disagreeable builder, for instance, she is the model of diplomacy: “While I’m afraid there’s something male in me that makes me want to punch him and say, ‘You bastard. Don’t be so selfish and arrogant’. But of course I don’t do that because I’m a coward.” He has never hit anyone in his life, although he was once attacked by a puppeteer at a party.

“It was a Spitting Imagepuppeteer and they’ve got strong arms. He was drunk and threatening a woman friend of mine and she said, ‘Howard can you help?’ and I pulled the guy away at which point, you know, he lunged at me,” much laughter. “ Luckily, Stephen Fry was there and he’s a big man and managed to sort of calm things down,” he says, still looking relieved.

I ask him whether he still suffers from shyness and he says that he does, “which you might find hard to believe because, you know, I’m a perfectly normal chap sitting here not looking like a man who’s got a problem”. He has no difficulty making speeches or being on television, but what he can’t really deal with are parties, and he supposes that’s because he’s never been able to dance. Have girls laughed at him? “Yes. Oh yes,” he says. How mean! “It’s not mean; it’s what they do. I think girls are great.” He doesn’t like the way he looks either. How ridiculous, you’re perfectly good looking I say, and so he is with his startling blue eyes and cherubic curls. “Well, I wouldn’t say I was cherubic exactly,” he says. “I think that probably all of us who look like me really want to look like Jean-Michel Jarre.”

He worries about his weight even though he cycles from his home in Barnes, West London, to his Chelsea office every day, but he gave up squash which he really loved “maybe because it was an outlet for my irritation but they don’t advise men over 40 to play unless they’re really fit”. What matters to him apart from his music are his family and his friends, and he’s closer now, he says, to Atkinson and Curtis (he’s godfather to various of their children) than he’s been for a long time. Is that because he feels more on an equal footing with them now? “Maybe, but it’s probably more to do with life changing and mellowing you, and we’ve all got kids now, and for a while we were all wrapped up in our careers and then you realise that the things that really matter are being with people you like and the things that probably wound each other up in our twenties and thirties are all worn away.”

Goodall elaborates: “I think I was probably a bit of a tosser when I was in my twenties, terribly arrogant and haughty, and Rowan and Richard are just more mature and always have been. They probably found me a bit annoying. I don’t feel particularly good when I look back to that time; I don’t really feel good about the way I was.” He says that there was never a time when he felt ‘Gosh, I’d like to have children’ and I wonder whether that’s because I write music and will leave lots of stuff in my wake so there’s a bit of me there now to give meaning to my life and, anyway, I have the experience of parenthood since I completely adore my stepchildren, whom I’ve known since they were 5, and they feel like my own.” He first met their mother — who is not his agent, incidentally — when the two were students at Oxford and he asked her on a date that took her only 21 years to accept. Several times he refers to her calmness and how much he prefers the peacefulness of staying at home with her and the girls than gadding around town.

Writer’s block, artistic angst, none of these things applies. He says that he could compose all day: “It’s like a tap running or broadband, as though I have an enormous CD collection in my head.” I ask him to pick a song that has spoken to him consistently and at the end of the interview he says that it’s Paul Simon’s Something so Right because it’s delicate and beautiful and about someone who cannot believe that things have gone so well for them when they least expected it. He starts to sing the words, finally, in his lovely voice: “You’ve got the cool water/ when the fever runs high/ you’ve got the look of lovelight in your eyes/ And I was in crazy motion/till you calmed me down/ it took a little time/ but you calmed me down.”

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Benazir Bhutto’s life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father’s knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father – despite intense international pressure – from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia’s military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.

Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.

Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military – seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role – introduced a new amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country – regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple’s separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) – to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.

The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.

Although she declines to name names – saying that “it’s better not to give the impression that you’re trying to fire political shots over somebody else’s shoulder” – it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf’s “people” and Bhutto’s party. Her response to these reports is that although “there have been ‘back-channel’ contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an ‘understanding’ I find very confusing.” It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.

In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice – “I always lay my cards on the table” she maintained – I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: “You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven’t heard me speak like this before,” Bhutto finally allows. “Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition… to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they’re not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.

“But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military.” The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf’s ruling party has said that “they can rig the election so there’s no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP… Which is why it’s premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women’s Bill.

“At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf’s military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they’re not, the ruling party will still be in the driver’s seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue.”

Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: “If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan.” What a pragmatist she must be. “Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy,” she says.

I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government’s position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari – and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. “Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support,” Bhutto says. “Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West’s strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades.” And you and your party would like that support? “Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn’t have it.” Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? “Pakistan is a critical country,” she says.

Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn – set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.

Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls – like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian’s – kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children’s library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.

The headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence security agency – the ISI – are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America’s War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.

Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan – some already radicalised but not all – to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents’ adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.

It was my understanding that Musharraf’s inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan – on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan – was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto’s response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: “My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty.” What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? “The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran’s stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally,” she says. “In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he’s got the West in his hands.” A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.

Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because “my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support,” she says. “And they dislike me because I’m a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections – and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals’ slate in my father’s time and my time has been the PPP.”

When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn’t an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas – “But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order.” None of this was painless, she says, “there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can’t tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of ‘zero deaths’. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it’s not easy confronting them.”

Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith’s certainty that life and death are in God’s hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death. “My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics… My daughter will become prime minister’, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me,” she says. “But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment.” Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? “Yes, in a way, because I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, ‘You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.’ It makes me weepy,” she says, as her eyes fill up, “but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.

“Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn’t succeed with me.” This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself – in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married – to Elizabeth I, “who had also endured imprisonment and remained single”.

When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: “Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia… And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do – and ten years before Tony Blair.”

At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: “When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint.”

Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, (“Oh, they’ve gone on endlessly,” she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world’s terrorist tragedies would not have occurred – since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.

“I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight,” she writes in the new conclusion to her book. “I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998.”

Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: “I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I’m leaving… I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban.” Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? “No,” she says. “I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I’ve been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don’t feel that there’s anything like immortality.”

As we sit in Bhutto’s study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: “Yes, I do. I confess.” There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man’s watch – “I like big watches… All the better to see you with, my dear” – the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.

Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer’s, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch – I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna – Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. “My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman,” she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.

When she was a little girl, Bhutto’s father used to say: “Well, if Nehru’s daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan.” He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: “Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc.” These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.

At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: “I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers.” When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: “I consider myself a defender of women’s rights, yes.” You don’t like the label? “Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their – ah – underwear in the streets.” So did you burn your bra? “No, I never did,” she smiles, “and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!” It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes “off-message” and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: “Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977.”

Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don’t expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books “to try to cope with stress and anxiety”. In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.

This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir’s father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. “She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart,” Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained “‘Oh, Benazir has got so fat’ in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin.” But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.

Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It’s not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn’t like it, but it’s become a discipline – and she’s always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry’s caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: “I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I’m unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It’s the one thing that doesn’t complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness.” Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: “It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

It’s hard to know what part Bhutto’s husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded – and it has been put to her so very often – that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife’s investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow – however problematic he may be – but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.

“You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison,” she says. “And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew.…” And…? I ask expectantly. “And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile,” she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.

Bhutto’s mother was always trying to line her up with “good husband” material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage – as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman’s will – what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.

Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? “What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me,” she says. “I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?” Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren’t used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. “He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn’t,” she says. “He found it very difficult to cope with initially… the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he’s got used to it.”

Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband’s perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison – his neck slit, his tongue cut – and almost killed. “It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice,” she is gulping with grief. “He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn’t know what to do to save his life.”

I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn’t harder after everything she and her family have endured. “What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband,” she says, blowing her nose loudly. “And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly.” This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.

Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer – and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it’s hard to know whether she’s being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison”. I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.

* * *

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Times BooksDirect for £11.69 (RRP £12.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Food

One Paston Place

Times Magazine – April 14 2007
– Ginny Dougary

I’ve been wondering what is it about taste and smell that, of all the senses, connect so intimately with half-remembered experience. Proust’s madeleine is the most obvious example of this nostalgic potency; one bite of a cake unleashing a masterpiece of recollected memory. But some of the most evocative food writing also revisits the time when the writer’s taste buds were first awakened, resulting in a sort of double whammy of nostalgic pleasure for the reader who still remembers the precise feeling of delight and recognition on first coming across a passage of this kind.

It is long decades since I picked up a book by the American writer  M. F. K. Fisher, but  her description of eating the perfect peach in Aix-en-Provence – something she herself summoned years after she lived there – has not withered a bit. There was something so fresh and appealing about the way she described her discovery that it really paid to do as the French do: select the fruit in the market that morning and eat it before the day is over, while its bloom is still intact and the flesh is rosy but unbruised.

In that same collection, Fisher retrieved a much earlier memory of being taken out to dinner by her parents when she was a small child. It was somewhere very grand, and everything about it was fabulous in the best sense: the light refracted in the sparkling glasses, the sheen of the silverware, the exquisite mouthfuls of food… the whole experience awakening something in her which made a lifelong impression.

That passage made a similar impression on me for a number of reasons. I had taken the book from my father’s huge collection of perhaps three or four hundred volumes on food. Like Fisher, he believed in exposing children to the finer things of life and food was definitely up there. Almost all my childhood and teenage memories of my father are connected with meals, me being his navvy in the kitchen (he, not my mother, did the cooking) or going to one fine restaurant or another.

Perhaps a mark of a really good restaurant is that each time you return, you experience it with all the enjoyment of that initial visit – what keeps you coming is that it always delivers everything you relished the first time round and more. My old local, Chez Bruce, never failed on that count. In Brighton, Terre à Terre, although a very different sort of concern (being exclusively vegetarian, for one thing), occupies a similar position in my hierarchy of consistently happy-making eating experiences.

In New York, where I once lived and often return for work and holidays, I thought I had discovered a new R&R (reliable and restorative restaurant), Les Deux Gamins, which I stumbled upon in Greenwich Village and loved instantly. The waitresses all resembled that gap-toothed, slightly demolished beauty Beatrice Dalle from Betty Blue, and were hilariously moody. The patron had the air of an artistic, highly strung hobo. The decor was  French café without the  set-in-aspic museum atmosphere of the enduringly trendy Balthazar. And the food  was simple but spot-on: a memorable  onion tart was so creamy, unctuous, sweet and savoury, I  kept coming back just for that.

But on a later visit, it had disappeared. I eventually tracked Les Gamins down in a new location in the East Village and, while the  food may have been just as good, all the joy had gone in this dark, gloomy Deco-diner setting, and  I left feeling faintly depressed  and let down.

This theme of revisiting memories led me to try One Paston Place again. The first time I went there was five or six years ago when it was still under the owners who had won a Michelin star, the young woman on the phone had informed me, adding somewhat deflatingly that it was way back in 1970-something. On that initial visit, my friend and I were the only people in the restaurant.

The food was high-end French and pretty good, from what I can recall, but the atmosphere inevitably lacked buzz. This time round, the Saturday night clientele, perhaps in a bid to beat the Valentine rush, was exclusively made up of couples; a Brightonian mix of gay and straight and an eye-catching young woman whose décolletage was covered in tattoos.

When I phoned to apologise that we were running 15 minutes late for our 7pm reservation, the somewhat high-handed man answering the phone insisted that my booking had been made for 6.30, but eventually  admitted that he had confused me with another customer. This error of mistaken identity was repeated, however, when we arrived at the restaurant. More aggravation followed when my friend and I struggled to hear one another above the pounding sound system, an endless loop of Moby Muzac, and the words “Why does my heart feel so bad?” began to speak to us rather too feelingly. At one point, a piercing electronic sci-fi sound filled the room and the diners around us all started in unison. This, at least, resulted in the CD being changed, but to something more staid, featuring (oh dear) Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Just the Way You Look Tonight.

The formerly high-handed maître d’ became overbearingly friendly, sharing his life story of how he had recently been promoted from sommelier, then apologising for his depleted cellar (the wine list was covered in a rash of red dots denoting what was unavailable), explaining the roles of the rest of the staff and so on, which was too much information and of the wrong kind. It was strangely and exhaustingly like dealing with a passive-aggressive personality or needy child, as he kept asking if we liked the food and whether we would be coming back.

But what of the food itself? Could it possibly be so delicious that our mood would be sweetened and we could overlook these amateurish  defects? The Italian chef-owner, Francesco Furriello, former footballer and house music enthusiast, bought One Paston Place in 2004 and garnered an Egon Ronay star and a number of plaudits within his first year. A recent local award has given him the confidence to switch from French haute cuisine to a predominately Italian menu.

The amuses-bouches augured well: a delicate splodge of truffle-scented mascarpone adorned with a petal of bresaola and shreds of orange peel marinated in Grand Marnier (so fantastic we asked for another), and a bite-sized artichoke “pie” with flaky, buttery pastry and a sliver of potato and parmesan.

But the starters were immediately disappointing: the straccetti (flaccid rashers of pasta) smeared with white crabmeat, asparagus and assorted vegetables tasted as messy and gloopy as it looked on the plate. My Italian-American friend’s damning verdict was that it reminded her of canned Italian food. My smoked-haddock quiche was a bit dry and joylessly puritanical, with an unhappy cindery frizzle of fried rocket. Mains were better. Sea-bass fillets wrapped around ceps, on a mound of bashed potato, and a fragrant saffron and mussels sauce. While I found the dish imaginative and well executed, the person
eating it felt that the sauce was delicious but overwhelmed the fish. My coquelet dish was hearty and good (caramelised baby shallots, braised radicchio, roast potatoes), but didn’t send me into raptures. Orange and Grand Marnier soufflé with blood-orange sorbet was exceptional and more delicious than any of the soufflés I have tasted at the two Gingerman restaurants in Brighton, where it is their pièce de résistance.
 
On the basis of the food alone, I would be inclined to give One Paston Place another chance. But a good restaurant is not simply about what you put in your mouth, and the negative factors on this evening outweighed the positive. So, sadly, no, I can’t see myself returning.

Another downbeat aside before announcing that there is some good news on the Brighton eating front. I tried the newish Pinxto People and loved the food but hated the WAG-ish  disco atmosphere and the maître d’ trying to charge our table of eight an extra three pounds a head, when he had been set a budget of £25 per person. (We argued about this long and hard before settling the question. I won’t be back.)

And, oh,   the perils  of endorsing a restaurant when you’ve only tried it a couple of times. In an earlier review, I claimed that Gars, raved about by friends, did seem to be the best Chinese in Brighton. I have been back twice since and, most unfortunately, had the worst Chinese food I’ve ever encountered; ditto service. (Skewers of chicken frozen and lumpy and plain awful which prompted me to cancel my order and leave.) Alas, there are my words “best Chinese in Brighton” in the window, and there’s not a lot I can do about it.

But the new Riddle & Finns oyster bar, run by the same team behind Due South, is a great place (functional white tiles and bottle-green trim offset by antique candelabra and groovy chandeliers); slightly tricky service; excellent oysters (the Rockefeller scoring particularly highly); fab crab linguini and chowder. They’re about to open a big gaff in Hove as well and I’m very glad to say that I can’t wait.

* * *

One Paston Place
1 Paston Place, BN2 (01273 606933)
£125 for two, including wine and drinks

Riddle & Finns
12B Meeting House Lane, BN1 (01273 323008)
£79.20 for two, including drinks

Celebrities, Writers

Educating Piers

Times Magazine – April 7, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Fired as editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan published a bestselling diary of his rollercoaster career. Now the former tabloid bad boy is back and talks to Ginny Dougary about praying, his beloved granny, and stardom in America

Piers Morgan
Photo: Mark Harrison

The Penis on Legs – aka Piers Morgan – is resiliently handling my barrage of offensive, tabloid questions. It’s just as well that’s
he’s so robust since two days after we meet he gets fired again; only this time it’s for charity, Comic Relief’s celebrity The Apprentice, where we see Morgan enjoyably insulted by the likes of Maureen Lipman (responsible for the aforementioned penis jibe), Alastair Campbell, and later, Graham Norton’s: “Piers Morgan – what an easy person to hate” is greeted by whooping cheers from the audience.

The timing of this panto-villain acclaim is highly convenient for the latest chapter in the saga of Morgan’s entertaining career – as the former “shamed” Mirror editor (to give him the treatment his old paper meted out to the likes of Peter Mandelson) prepares to become a boo-hiss judge on the British answer to Simon Cowell’s America’s Got Talent.

The latter – involving “zany” acts such as granny rappers and men who put scorpions down their trousers or kick themselves in the head – has been a huge hit Stateside (number one in the ratings game last summer for the NBC network, attracting more than 14 million viewers) and Morgan has found himself recognised in the streets of Beverly Hills and – joy of joys – “papped” frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend (gorgeous!/glamorous!/posh totty!/blonde bombshell-with-brains!) the Telegraph’s gossip columnist, Celia Walden.

Never one to suffer self-doubt, Morgan predicts that Britain’s Got Talent, unleashed this summer, will be equally huge… more weirdo acts and a more savage audience made up of strangers from the street “and it’s like a Roman ampitheatre where someone will start an act and suddenly the mob will start screaming, ‘Off, off, off’ and it’s crazy! And Cowell holds his hand over the buzzer like a Roman Emperor asking, ‘Should he live or should he die?’ and the crowd starts chanting, ‘Press it, press it, press it’ and he looks around, smirks and goes ‘boom’ and that’s it. Cowell came out of the first day of auditions and said it was the best television he’d ever been involved with – completely crazy, I mean, hilarious! And with Ant and Dec presenting and Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden and me on the judging panel…”

So would you say that it’s downmarket? “Er – it’s not upmarket. I don’t think it claims to be Newsnight in a different guise, no. But is it damn good entertainment? Yes. Is it fun to judge? Yes.” Do you feel a bit moronic doing it? “No, because I’ve never worried about being taken seriously…” It’s quite an odd move after… (Morgan’s anti-war campaigning years on the Mirror when he hired heavyweight writers such as John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens, and won the sort of awards which are usually reserved for the top end of the market). “Not really,” he says, anticipating where my question’s going. “If you’re the editor of a tabloid newspaper, you’re not really saying,‘I want to be taken seriously.’”

What he’s learnt about television is that it’s all theatre “whether you’re Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight or Simon Cowell on X-Factor – one is very intellectual, the other isn’t, but I believe they’re both thinking, ‘How can I make this work from a televisual point of view’ and I’d say that if you’re looking at quick-wittedness and sharpness of wit, they’d both go head-to head. I’ve never sought to be, you know, a serious intellectual and I don’t claim to be massively well-read, although I’m reading a lot more now and I’m enjoying it – but I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid and I’ve always tried to be open to anything and I’m interested in people and events.”

Here’s a confession: some people actually don’t find it easy to hate Morgan and I’m one of them. He was only 28 when Rupert Murdoch promoted him from Bizarre showbiz columnist on The Sun to editor of News of the World (the youngest national newspaper editor for more than half a century) and much like the boy bands he used to dish the dirt on, Boy Morgan had to do his growing up in public. He made plenty of indefensible mistakes and had his knuckles duly rapped (the photographs of Victoria Spencer leaving a detox clinic allegedly prompted his proprietor to say, “The boy went too far” hence Morgan’s enduring nickname). He continued to make them when he became editor at The Mirror ( the ACHTUNG SURRENDER headline on the eve of the England v Germany Euro ’96 semi-final; the Viglen shares scandal of 2000 which dragged on for four years with Morgan eventually cleared while his City Slicker columnists were fired; culminating in the publication of the hoax photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners which finally did for him).

Morgan’s adventures in the tabloid world were revealed in his first bestseller The Insider – a rattling good read, fascinating for its glimpse into just how much power a red-top editor can wield with the great and the good (so many visits to No 10; so many e-mails from Peter Mandelson), but also riveting for its self-penned portrait of the author as a sort of Artful Dodger happily nicking scoops off his senior colleagues, playing fast and loose with the truth, distorting celebrity photographs and so on, if it suits him.

But it’s not all harmless high jinx as Morgan discovers only when his own marriage difficulties are written about in other publications, and finds himself growing up rather abruptly. These personal complications coincided with the build-up to the Iraq war and suddenly Morgan was a man with a mission – The Mirror was to transform itself into a tabloid with a conscience, reconnecting itself with the pre-Maxwell Cudlipp era, taking on governments rather than bothering itself with the minor peccadilloes of B-list celebrities. His anti-war campaign there lasted for two years, during which time the circulation went into freefall and he was eventually sacked.

Even during his glory days Morgan was still capable of behaving unattractively, to put it mildly. There were his petty long-running feuds with Ian Hislop (against whom he launched a campaign in The Mirror, thereby making himself look both vindictive and ridiculous); ditto David Yelland, then editor of The Sun – and that strange business with Jeremy Clarkson who docked him for printing photographs of him kissing a woman other than his wife. All of it to do, rather loweringly, with either being exposed or exposing – and none of it showing anyone in a particularly good light.

So what’s there to like? Not a lot, if your only experience of Morgan is through his TV appearances. Television may be Morgan’s new career but it does not flatter him. He has certainly improved since his early excruciating performance on Have I Got News For You – but he can still seem horribly pleased with himself, bumptious, brash, arrogant, tub-thumping and generally not someone you’d want to spend any time with.

But off the screen, on the few occasions I’ve bumped into him – he is smart (as opposed to a smart-alec), funny and generous-spirited. He can be immensely charming, and his character makes a great deal more sense when I discover that he’s Irish on both sides of his family (the Pughe-Morgan double-barrel is from his Welsh stepfather who brought him up, rather than evidence of plummy landowning stock). I happen to know that he has been helpful to all sorts of organisations without reaping any personal reward or kudos and he’s naturally meritocratic, trebling or quadrupling the number of women journalists on The Mirror as well as people from ethnic minorities. This is one of things he’s proudest of in his journalistic career, alongside his editorship of the paper after 9/11.

He was to be applauded for saying “Enough!” to copy control when a transcript from a Richard and Judy interview came back littered with absurd “corrections” (he printed the two versions alongside one another and a humbled Richard Madeley phoned up to apologise). But what is perhaps most attractive about Morgan is his energy. When he’s on form – and I’m sure he can be a nightmare when he’s not – he’s one of those people who makes you feel immeasurably more alive to be around. His whole family, it seems, is the same way. He comes from one of those big extended clans of matriarchal grannies and loads of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces, “and we all tend to be the life and soul of the party”. He also gets ragged something rotten by his siblings particularly his brother Jeremy (a major in the Royal Regiment of Wales who was dispatched to Basra): “He takes no nonsense at all from me about my ridiculous, shallow, showbusiness life.”

Like most former journalists turned celebrities, Morgan is far too alert to the dangers of being wrong-footed to allow himself to be led into perilous personal territory. He refuses point blank to talk about The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde for whom he left his wife, Marion. In The Insider, he refers to Hyde in the acknowledgements only as “my best friend, most amusing companion, and unpaid but razor-sharp proof reader” (they are no longer together). Private Eye, among other publications, thought that Morgan’s private life was fair game since he had no qualms about running similar stories about other media figures (eg, Clarkson).

“You know, it’s just that I’ve never felt comfortable talking about a relationship or my private life and I always find that Hello! stuff really gut-wrenching and never understood why people wanted to do it,” he says. “Now obviously I was a rank hypocrite as an editor because I wanted people to do that… but it’s a bit like when somebody would ask me, ‘How do you feel about the snitches who ring up and offer dirt?’ And I would say, ‘Well I used to hate them but be delighted that they were doing it.’ And it’s the same with people spilling their guts out. I think they’re ridiculous but I’m quite pleased that they do it. And with this new book [Don’t You Know Who I Am? The story of how Morgan rose from the ashes to conquer America and become a celebrity himself] I was told that it would be nice to know who you’re with and what you were doing and who was sharing this adventure with you. And that’s why I put Celia in this book because I thought that, actually, not to do so would be unnecessarily – you know – standoffish.”

There’s a whiff of disenchantment with his old tabloid world in the new book, which opens with Boy Morgan – not yet 40 – suddenly feeling a bit like “a semi-retired old fart, running around Sainbury’s all day and watching DVDs because that’s what happens when you’ve come from a huge job and you’re suddenly ex-communicated from a big corporation – the reality of your life is the mundanity.” At some point, “you just start thinking, ‘God, this is really bad, you know I really need to sort myself out.’ At no stage was I depressed [although he does read as though he was], it was more a sense of listlessness and an increasing feeling of edginess and frustration about what was I going to do for the rest of my career since I was only 39.”

Not only did Morgan find it increasingly intolerable to be asked “So what are you doing ?” after years of never having to explain himself, but when he got together with his old mates at The Mirror, he felt out of the loop and simply unable to get excited about this or that scoop with him no longer in the driving seat. He says now – and this is not going to endear him to his former colleagues – that he doesn’t hang out with journalists very often these days because he finds them “really aggressive. It’s quite funny, I know. But I do find them really aggressive.”

In what way exactly? “If it’s been a really busy news day, they’re all absolutely wired with adrenalin and aggression and competitive spirit and it’s obviously the way I used to be. And I realise now why people had a view of me when they saw me at those award shows and I got so fired up, so competitive and so desperately wanted to win. And if I didn’t win, I’d just be blindly in a rage about it and feel cheated for me, my staff and everybody and now I can look back at it and laugh and think, ‘My God!’”

He makes no apologies for his editorship of the News of the World. There is a certain freedom of youth which makes the paper really exciting, you know. Did I go over the top a few times? Definitely. Do I regret some stuff? Definitely. It was only later as I got a bit older and had my own life and started getting responsibilities that I began to rethink things. And writing the book, it was quite cathartic to look back on the impact of some of those stories and the slightly carefree way that you dealt with people’s lives. ”

Most journalists, in his experience, have to be hardbitten. One of his least proud moments was being disappointed when Concorde crashed and there were no celebrities on the plane. “It was full of German pensioners on a charter and I reacted in a really offensive and ugly manner – pissed off because there was no story. But when you go home and have a drink, you think, ‘I really should not have reacted like that. A hundred people have died.’ But there’s this protective shield of “I’m a journalist… I’m above
human reaction in this.’ And when you’re a newspaper editor I think you’re so completely consumed with it that everything just becomes a story.”

It was the Mirror readers themselves, he says slightly surprisingly, who made him think more seriously about what he was doing. “I’m not talking about all of them but as a rule of thumb, I found their letters and their thought processes – the way they voted on issues on phone lines – a great insight into the type of people they were. They were just more caring and sensitive, and I think that evolved me completely.”

He believes that most newspapers misread the public’s appetite for stories which crucify celebrities. “The worst hypocrites I know are editors and senior journalists. I could tell you about the private lives of all of them and they’d fill the News of the World for weeks,” he says. (But then most members of the public would not be all that interested since they hardly expect journalists to be pure as the driven snow.)

As regards his own affair, “Without being drawn into specifics, I would say that my life experiences over the past ten years did radically alter my moral code as an editor because I realised that human frailty can be something that, you know, can pop up with everyone and your ability to be utterly censorial and moralistic about everybody else starts to look vaguely ridiculous.

“Actually, I think what all journalists should do is lose their jobs and go and live a normal life for a few years and then come back into it because they’d have a much better understanding about how real people think about things and react.” Most people who have been involved in a massive scandal, in his opinion – from Jonathan Aitken to Jeffrey Archer to Lord Levy to Jade Goody – get almost universally positive reactions from the public. “The media wants to say, ‘You are a disgusting human being and everybody thinks so.’ The public says, ‘You did something stupid but forget it – you’re actually just like the rest of us.’ They are much less judgmental and not into this media bombardment of hatred and fury and destroying people’s lives.” And, in any case, he says, everyone’s a celebrity now.

Despite his own transcendence into celebritydom, Morgan hasn’t ruled out the possibility of editing another newspaper – it’s just that no offers have been forthcoming. He keeps his hack’s hand in with a weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, a column in the national children’s tabloid First News (of which he is editorial director) and a monthly celebrity interview in GQ magazine. The questions Morgan asks his celebs in that slot are beyond belief – “I’m certainly not going to answer any of those!” he says. Oh go on, Piers, don’t be coy – are you good in bed? “No comment.”

And what position, pray, do you like? “Look, you and I would say ‘No comment’ but what is unbelievable is they [see, for example, Ulrika Johnsson and Billie Piper] seem pleased to answer them.” He’s just done Naomi Campbell (rather sporting of her to agree to be grilled by Morgan, one might think, after he exposed her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Chelsea with all the ensuing courtoom dramas.) “I found her a joy to interview,” Morgan says, because she made very little apology for her behaviour. I asked her, ‘Why are you always late?’ and she said, ‘Because I can be.’ What a great answer. There’s nothing to say to that, is there? It’s obviously reprehensible but it’s also great, I think.”

This comes on the back of me asking Morgan for his Top Five All-Time Gruesome Celebrities, and him saying that he’s quite sympathetic to the genuinely awful “pieces of work… the grand divas” who make no pretence to be anything other than they are. Top of his black list is – da-da-dahhh – Elizabeth Hurley, “the ultimate example of a talentless wannabe becoming grander than the biggest star in the world bleating about privacy and then selling her wedding for two million quid. You cannot complain about privacy and then sell your wedding – the most private event in the world – and the whole excessiveness of it, the whole celebrity thing that came with it is just ghastly, utterly ghastly.”

Hugh Grant is next: “The biggest whinger in the world, constantly saying he hates being a film star but constantly making movies when he probably doesn’t need the money. If he doesn’t like it – disappear. Hugh, you are a very annoying, miserable little man. Right? Go away.” I point out that he’s always calling people he dislikes “little”, even when they’re not. “It’s my ultimate insult,” he says. “I like people who are over 6ft, men and women. Oh and, Kate Winslet has just disappeared up her arse. Awful, awful, awful. I used to love her, such a sweet girl who’d ring me up effing and blinding and having a laugh and it’s the Catherine Zeta-Jones syndrome – they go off into Hollywood and never re-emerge.

“I saw her [Winslet] on Parkinson recently where she began sobbing when Parkie asked her what Sam Mendes thought of her new movie, and she said the reason she was sobbing was the memory of Sam having come home from watching a rough cut of the film and he was in tears saying to her, ‘You were absolutely wonderful, darling’ – and at that point she sobbed – sobbing at the memory of her husband sobbing at her being wonderful.”

Kate Moss and Pete Docherty complete his list. “Awful, skanky little Croydon girl. I don’t get it at all.” But she looks beautiful in every snap of her I’ve seen. “So she scrubs up well, like a lot of Croydon girls do. Why is she this great phenomenon?
I have no idea because when I saw her she was revolting and he was disgusting – fat, bloated heroin junkie sweating and singing tunelessly and I thought, ‘God, these people are supposed to be the hottest stars in the world.’ They’re not exactly Mick Jagger
and Marianne Faithfull, are they?”

It is perfectly possible to construct a convincing portrait of almost anyone based on a few slender facts. So with Morgan, the military family, childhood in an East Sussex village, prep-school education, early admiration for Margaret Thatcher for whom he cast his first vote. “I thought she was a great leader for most of her reign but then, like most of them, went slightly potty”, short-lived stint at Lloyds and the double-barrelled name all created a certain pukka image… but it’s not the whole story.

Of course, he’s not averse himself to hamming up the toffee-nosed Brit bit particularly for his American audience for whom he is thinking of reinstating his dropped barrel – “They want me to be a sort of James Bond charming, smiling assassin – so I posh it up in America.” Anyway, the only reason he excised it on The Sun was because it made his by-line too long and in Sussex, where he spends most weekends with his family, he’s still a Pughe-Morgan, as are his three splendidly named sons, Spencer, Stanley and Bertie.

He only discovered recently, when he went to Ireland for his aunt’s funeral, that his natural father – Vincent O’Meara – who died when Piers was one year old, was a journalist for two years on a local newspaper. “There I was in the middle of southern Ireland in a place called Bannagher and all these people came up to me who had known my father,” Morgan says. “His mother persuaded him to become a dentist because there was more money and security and all that but it was interesting to find that out that it’s obviously in the blood, you know.”

His maternal grandfather was a “proper investigative journalist” on the Sunday People back in the Seventies. Piers’s first introduction to Fleet Street was through his grandfather’s connections with friends such as Brian Hitchin, then editor of the Star.

Dublin, he says, feels like his spiritual home… “my best nights out have been there at Lily’s Bordello [which turns out to be a nightclub, rather disappointingly, not a brothel]. I do actually feel quite Irish – the blarney and the craic and all that – and I’ve got lots of Irish cousins and I like Irish people very much and feel a certain affinity with them.”

Morgan was brought up as a Catholic and went to church most Sundays. He describes his mother, Gabrielle, who is a part of the Cantopher clan as “very Irish who has remained a pretty devout Catholic whereas I’ve become less so”. He still prays when times get tough and he is a definite believer. Does he suffer from Catholic guilt? He says not although he has become more reflective “now that I’m calmer and less in that volatile cauldron of competitive tabloid nonsense”. He’s suddenly a bit worried about how this will look, saying, “You know I’m not a Sinead O’Connor in a male wig, if that’s what you’re getting at. I don’t want to overdo my devoutness because I think a proper devout Catholic would see me as pretty lapsed – it’s just that my whole family, apart from my dad, are believers and that’s the way we were brought up.” He describes getting instruction from nuns when he was a small boy “which I rather liked, actually”. Now this is a revelation. What was it that he liked? “You’d just go along and chat for an hour and I liked the purity of the nuns and their pure view of life and the world. It was nice.” Is there any way that could be seen to have a bearing on his life now, I ask somewhat doubtfully. “I don’t think that I’ve led such a pure life as those nuns, no. But I thought there was an idealistic side to them that was rather nice, you know. Always looking for the good in people is a nice trait to have.”

Talking about his natural father makes him feel uncomfortable because he’s worried that it will seem as though he is downgrading his relationship with the man who brought him up – “And, you know, he’s been absolutely incredible. He took on two young boys when he was in his twenties and did a great job for us. All four of us children [he has two younger siblings through his mother’s second marriage] had a lovely upbringing and a lot of fun. It wasn’t privileged and we didn’t have much money but we had a great time.”

Morgan is extremely close to his grandmother, Margot, known as Grande to whom he dedicates the new book: “To Grande, my
incomparable grandmother.” She was largely responsible for looking after her grandchildren when Morgan’s parents were working “unbelievably long hours, catering to maybe 200 people a day” running a pub, the Griffin Inn in Fletching, seven days a week.

When Grande had a stroke some years back, Morgan converted the garage of his half of the family house (a Grade II Georgian wreck, set in six acres, which Morgan’s parents had done up slowly over the years), so that she could be looked after. “She was living on her own in Shoreham on the beach and I thought, ‘I’ve got a big garage, why not just convert it into a lovely little cottage for her?’ And now she’s back on fighting form and it’s a bit like the Waltons. There’s my granny and mum and dad next door and then my brothers and sister all come down with their tribes and at night it’s “Goodnight, Grandma” [cheesy American accent] and I love it. And I’m totally unashamed about it because I like having a close family.”

Before we move on to the present-day Piers, there is one last incident from his childhood which is illuminating. Like all his siblings, Morgan’s education was a mixture of private and state; Jeremy and Piers went from a prep school to the local comp, while Rupert and Charlotte did it the other way round. Morgan reckons that he and his older brother got the better deal. “I think my education was, in many ways, perfect. I went to a great prep school until I was 13 and then I got my snobbish creases ironed out [at Chailey, near Lewes] where some of the kids did give me a hard time for being a posh twit. [His younger siblings suffered a lot of snobbery, he says, having come from the state sector.]”

I wonder whether he was bashed around? “Yeah, a bit,” he says, naming a boy called Gideon Short (what’s the betting he was teased?) who had an orange mohican and another kid in particular, John Surret, who had done some boxing training in Canada. Morgan can still vividly remember getting off the school bus outside his house and slugging it out in the street. “The first couple of punches when he smacked me in the face were really bad. But after that I became completely immune to the pain and didn’t feel anything else. And I think that’s not bad as a template for life, really – the first couple of blows hurt, and then after that it’s fine. And you just have to keep in there fighting.”

Years ago, I spent a riotous evening with Piers, after he had given a most unentertaining speech which went on interminably and ended up with him being jeered off the stage (even though he had funded the event). It was at the height of his tabloid madness, and a group of us piled into Mirror-chauffered limousines and went from club to club dancing into the early hours and quaffing champagne paid for presumably by Morgan’s expense account. It was enormous fun but did have a slightly excessive Scorsese-Coppola feel about it. When I mention that it’s somewhat nerve-wracking that he tends to dissect his interviews in his books, he growls with a Corleone look: “Yes, you gotta show me respect.”

Although he does remember that long night, it was clearly one of many and his life – just as well – is no longer like that. “It’s different now. I’m calmer now,” he says again, “and I don’t feel the need to get wrecked like I used to.”

In Los Angeles, where Morgan spends about two and a half months filming America’s Got Talent, he has a ferocious German trainer who feeds him dreadful purging potions and is very “big on the burrrrrrrn”. He goes to the gym a lot, and has lost almost a stone which shows more in person than on unforgiving telly where he still looks a bit jowly and puffy. So will he be getting American teeth and all that jazz? Absolutely not, Morgan is horrified by the idea. Cowell “who obviously has had all that stuff” has bet him a $100 that he will succumb to the knife or Botox at some stage… “and I have resolutely said that the day that happens, I’m out of here – because I’m quite happy with the way I look, thank you.”

But it’s a different sort of training in Morgan’s life that’s really interesting. His new girlfriend, Celia – with whom Piers is clearly very smitten indeed – has made him put ten bookshelves up in his flat to accommodate her essential reading list. It’s not that he was anti-books, he says, “it’s just that from the age of 21, I was on The Sun and rampaging around seven days a week.” What he’s learnt recently, he says, is the pleasure of quietly listening to music of an evening – be it Snow Patrol or Tschaikovsky and going to art galleries, travelling for the sake of it and “walking in parks and stuff”.

He’s just finished reading Madame Bovary and then there’s the complete works of Shakespeare – a gift from the girlfriend “a beautiful bound thing”, and lots of Dickens and Hemingway and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and “In the next five years, I’d like to have read the hundred great classics,” Morgan says. “I want to immerse myself in the great works of literature because I never had the time or the patience to do it before.”

What really draws him to Walden, Morgan says, isn’t her undeniable prettiness – “I’ve never really been attracted to people just because of the way they look” – nor her accomplishments (she speaks French, Russian and Italian fluently and has her first “beautifully written” novel coming out shortly) but the fact that she’s always roaring with laughter: “She has a lovely sunny disposition and I find that very appealing.”

It’s just as well that she has a sense of humour because she’ll certainly need one if she’s to hang in with Morgan in the years to come. I ask him how he’s going to cope if he becomes absolutely huge celebrity-wise. “What do you mean if?” he says, with mock-outrage, and then proceeds to tell me about his last Christmas in Barbados.

There’s this bloke buried up to the neck in sand who worked for an agency Morgan always used when he was at The Mirror. And our man is tipped off from someone else on the beach that the snapper has been taking photos of him and the girlfriend walking up and down the beach. “So I walk over to him and he’s stuck there with some sort of camouflage over his head, and his great big lens and looking very sheepish and I said, ‘Mate, you’re gonna have to do better than that. This is my game you’re at.’ So I tell him to show me the pictures and I said, ‘You’ll never sell these.’ And he said, ‘I already have, mate.’ And so he’d taken the pictures, sent them back to his office and sold them all in three minutes.” Well, talk about the papper papped.

Do you think, Piers, you’re ever going to have a sense of humour failure? “Of course I will,” he says. “If they get a picture of me looking fat on a beach I’m going to be absolutely incandescent at the brand damage this will cause!”

There’s no question that the papper papped is having the time of his life after the initial strangeness of being a bit lost in LA without all the familar buffers of old friends and family. But he is under no illusions about the ephemeral nature of his new fame: “It’s great fun and you’re treated brilliantly over there but it’s a very brutal world and if the ratings dip, you know the game – you’re sent back on economy. But I can cope with that very easily. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d think what a great laugh that was and come home and do something else.”

* * *

Don’t You Know Who I Am? Insider Diaries of Fame, Power and Naked Ambition by Piers Morgan is published by Ebury Press, and is available from BooksFirst

priced £16.19 (RRP £17.99), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy