Archive for July, 2008

Celebrities, Women

Kay Saatchi on life after Charles Saatchi

The Times, July 26, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Now the dust has settled on her divorce, Kay Saatchi has returned to her first love: modern art. With her pick of Britain’s best new talent on show in London, she tells Ginny Dougary about her future plans – and past mistakes

Kay Saatchi

There’s a certain ironic sting that in order to be her own person again, Kay Hartenstein felt the need to re-adopt the surname of her ex-husband, the art collector and spouse of Nigella Lawson, Charles Saatchi. For a while, in the difficult aftermath of that very public decoupling, the American art dealer turned collector and now curator reverted to her maiden name: “But really no one knows me as Kay Hartenstein here; nobody knows that I did that gallery with Charles all those years. It would be like starting out all over again. Even in LA, I’m known as Kay Saatchi in the art world, which means I have something to bring to the dinner table,” she says. “Charles would rather I had gone back to my maiden name but it’s part of me – and part of something I did for a long, long time, and it’s very good for getting tables at the Wolseley.”

It’s only in the last three years, since the couple’s divorce in 2001, that Kay has come out of the shadows and had the confidence to return to the art world, which had been her world, too, before she joined forces with Charles. For the first four years, she was “licking her wounds and lying very low”, dealing with multiple losses; apart from the end of a marriage which had been in trouble but which she had thought was salvageable, her mother and her brother died, as well as both Charles’s parents to whom she had remained close, and the 75-year-old nanny who had looked after the couple’s young daughter, Phoebe, also died of cancer. There had been the loss of her Chelsea home, which she was responsible for selling as part of the divorce settlement, and all the adjustments that diminution entailed: “It was a really hard time – physically and emotionally very draining, compounded by a lot of other loss in my life and a lot of disruption, and I was trying to take care of this little girl who was living in a tiny rented flat which she was unhappy about.”

Meanwhile Nigella, of course, had her own bereavement to deal with – living with and watching the decline of her husband, the journalist John Diamond, who died of cancer. But while only the most mean-spirited would begrudge her the chance to find happiness again, anyone can see that it must have been tough on the supplanted wife to be endlessly confronted with images of such a glamorous successor – in La Lawson’s dramatic trajectory as a domestic, then transatlantic goddess – splashed over billboards from the UK to the USA.

Our first meeting for this piece was in Selfridges’ “art gallery” Ultralounge, at Anticipation – an exhibition of work by some of the most outstanding London art school graduates, co-curated by Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren. This is a most exciting venture, where a shortlist of 21 blossoming artists show their work and receive 100 per cent of the proceeds of their sales. The public benefits from the collective eye of two aficionados who have done all the hard work visiting the major London art colleges and liaising with the tutors to find young artists who combine talent with the commitment and creative heft to produce distinctive work for the long haul.

Saatchi had already seen the Conrad Shawcross sculptures in that space, as well as Sam Taylor-Wood’s banners elsewhere in Selfridges and various other shows, such as the one on surrealism and urban art. Nonetheless, she admits to having some initial concerns about whether a department store, however stylish, was an appropriate context for the students’ work.

“But people know how hard it is to put on these shows – even the Tate sometimes has problems getting sponsors – and it all depends on how serious the show is when it gets hung,” Kay says. “I said that we needed to run it more like a museum than a commercial art gallery so you can look at the paintings and read what’s written about them on the wall. The artists also need to be there to talk to people and get them to engage because these kids aren’t used to talking about their art that much.

“It’s also to teach people about contemporary art and let them know that buying art doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you’ve ever walked into somewhere like the Gagosian Gallery, it felt like if you asked the price of something they’d laugh at you.”

I happen to be a fan of the first wave of YBAs and, while writing a profile of Damien Hirst, years ago, visited the home Kay then shared with Charles in Chelsea to see Away from the Flock, Hirst’s sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, which had pride of place in the reception. (Kay was amusing on the subject of the importance of hanging works in a way that you can live with them. She found it challenging, for instance, to eat her breakfast gazing at the crotch of one of Jenny Saville’s monumental women – and had the nude moved to somewhere that was not so, quite literally, in her face.)

This Anticipation show, following the success of last year’s, is less about the shock of the new and more about a mining and refining of traditional ideas – there’s an emphasis on painting for instance, and photographs that recall the Grand Masters – married to what could be described as a sort of mind-screw.

Kay is rather maternal in the way that she champions her artists, coaxing the more reserved ones to speak out but with the tact of a diplomat rather than the thrust of a pushy parent, as she click-clacks around the show in her high heels. There’s an amusing moment when we hover in front of Philip Caramazza’s jewel-like work and she says, “Saatchi has expressed interest” – which is striking for all sorts of reasons. She then adds that Charles “and Nigella” have been to the show, which suggests a level of equanimity as well as support from Saatchi but also, perhaps, an appreciation of what his ex-wife and Warren have pulled off.

We next meet in Kay’s home which has a gracious, double-fronted exterior and a tangle of vines, jasmine and clematis leading down to the basement, which is what she has for a garden these days. Inside, everything looks a little over-size – apart from the owner, who is petite – as though the paintings and vases and sculptures started life in a much larger space, which is, of course, the case.

In the living room, where we sit perched at the end of a table dominated by a huge vase of blue delphiniums, one wall is filled with an impressive Paula Rego, which I think I recognise from the Chelsea home. Half the room is occupied by a grand piano which gleams in the semi-darkness; astride it is a massive naked baby by Ron Mueck, the Australian sculptor and Rego’s son-in-law. There’s a collection of Picasso ceramics and a table covered in ancient Egyptian translucent bowls, as well as pieces by lesser known artists which have caught Kay’s eye.

There is still a touch of Southern belle girlishness to Kay even in her mid-fifties. She is slim, wearing fitted black trousers, a nipped-in black cardigan, a bow hangs in folds from a cornflower blue blouse, and more of those click-clacky heels. Her hair is loosely coiffed and blonde, make-up is sparse, and she has puppy-brown eyes which crinkle attractively at the edges when she smiles. There is nothing brash about her style; in fact, she is self-effacing and occasionally tremulous.

She says that she hates her voice but it’s only on the tape that you notice how distinctively odd it is – think Loyd Grossman’s strangulated vowels and Madonna’s version of posh English, with an occasional Southern twist. Tenderness, for instance, becomes “tindirness”; Charles is “Chols”; naughty is “norty”; Picasso’s erotic show “Picawsow’s eh-rot-eeeek” (as in the French).

She slips out to the kitchen, with its lino floor of customised spots in homage to Hirst, whose work she didn’t get in the division of spoils, for regular refills of water and asks me fairly early on if I mind if she smokes. An American who still smokes! How revolutionary! “You know, I had my first cigarette when I was 50 years old,” she says. “Well, going through divorce makes you do strange things.”

Kay Hartenstein was born on Valentine’s Day 1953 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Clinton became governor after she’d left and she says: “I’m kinda glad I didn’t meet him when I was young – I would have been just his type!” Her high-school boyfriend for six years – who she later says was one of the only Jewish people in Little Rock – ended up working as a lawyer at the same Rose Law Firm as Hillary and had an office next to hers: “He knows them both so I know all the scoop!” Kay glints.

As a side note, Charles Saatchi’s first wife, Doris, who was his boss and responsible for turning him on to art, came from Memphis, an hour away from Little Rock. “He had a thing about Southern blondes,” Kay says. “Well, Chols had a real love affair with America as a young man.”

Kay says that Little Rock (she slurs the words so it sounds like a whisper… liddlerahrk) became much more sophisticated after Bill came on the scene, but when she was growing up it was a “wonderful” hick town. Her father was an elevator contractor and her mother was a mom to four children. There was a new car every other year, country club membership and Hattie May – “a big black lady who was a darling, like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, who would hug us when we cried”.

When she was four, Little Rock made news headlines for all the wrong reasons. In September 1957, nine African-American pupils had been bussed in to join the Little Rock Central High School but were prevented from attending the racially segregated school by a line of National Guard soldiers, who had been deployed by the Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in support of the segregationist protesters, many of whom were parents of pupils. It wasn’t until 1959, school closures and the intervention of President Eisenhower that Little Rock public school reopened as an integrated school.

Kay says that although she grew up in a non-racist family, she was naturally aware that Little Rock was segregated and absorbed people’s comments on the street: “Builders would use the N-word and there were great financial divides between the blacks and the whites.” Still, she was appalled when the partner of a leading member of the liberal intelligentsia in London asked her whether her father was in the Klu Klux Klan: “I said, ‘Do you really think that every single person in the South is a member? No, of course, my father wasn’t in the Klu Klux Klan.’

“I was so shocked by that. There are some deeply racist people in the South but there are some deeply racist people here, too. I’ve seen a lot of anti-Semitism, as well. Even before I went out with Charles, I used to hear the most extraordinary comments. It would be normal dinner party conversation for people to talk about ‘yids’. And Charles was aware of it. Absolutely. We’ve had lots of conversations about it.” Did it get to him? “Of course. Whenever you see him described, it’s always ‘Charles Saatchi, British Jew’ – they always say his religion. Why mention it?”

She is the only member of her family to have moved away – and keep moving – which she attributes to being the third child: “It made me more independent because I was left to my own resources a lot.” She loved reading and was always interested in art, regularly daubing the walls of her school with murals. “Look, I’m a typical American story of opportunity. Little town. Regular parents. I have never been extravagant. I like nice things but I’ve had to make my own money in my life and my own way. The way I was brought up, and I was very lovingly brought up, is that I could do anything I wanted to and it had to do with my energy and how hard I worked. You really believed that and I think that is the great thing about America.”

At university in Memphis on a full scholastic scholarship, she still had to get a job – working nights in the campus infirmary, doling out Darvon [a stronger version of aspirin, “maybe with morphine in it”] as a hangover cure to drunk kids, while her friends were out enjoying their sorority parties.

Somewhere at this point, Kay got married. It is interesting that she did not offer this detail herself since we were going through her life with what seemed to be a degree of thoroughness. Later on, I suddenly remember reading a throwaway reference about a previous marriage and ask her about it. “I was married once for six months when I was a student,” she says, looking a bit uncomfortable. She had already said that she’d lived with a boyfriend, which was a mistake, but this was another one: “Yes, well, they’re all mistakes until you find the right one. It’s just a question of how long you stay with the mistake.” So tell me about this mistake. “He was an artist – very bohemian; the exact opposite of my high-school boyfriend – and I fell for the myth of the sensitive artist. The only thing it did was make me decide that I didn’t want to get married again for a long time.”

Next stop was New Orleans where she worked on a newspaper called The Times-Picayune, wearing little flowered sundresses and reporting on fires and robberies in the French Quarter. It was here that she learnt to cook – she had a boyfriend who owned a restaurant and knew all the chefs – and came of age.

Kay ended up selling space for New Orleans Magazine, a “little hick version” of New York magazine, which sounds fun: long lunches on her expense account with colourful people in a town where lunch is an institution. She describes herself then as “Melanie Griffith in Working Girl trying to buy a nice suit on sale, you know”. This is when she first started acquiring art. There was one gallery she particularly liked and if she had enough money left at the end of the month, she’d buy something for her rented flat. She still has an Ida Kohlmeyer – “sort of like a colourful Twombly” – but for now it’s residing in her sister’s home.

By 1980, Kay felt she had outgrown New Orleans and was ready to move on to New York. After a year, she became the cosmetic and fragrance marketing manager for one of the Condé Nast magazines. Her big trick was to get into work at 7am – “I used to see Si Newhouse at that time” – and phone the presidents of the various cosmetic companies direct. “I would call, like, Ron Perelman who owned Revlon – I knew his secretary wouldn’t be in at that time – and make a lunch date with him at a fabulous restaurant like Le Cirque. On the way to the lunch, I’d drop in to Saks and ask the girls at the sales counter what was selling well. They’d say, ‘Oh, this new mascara, which does this, that or the other,’ and so at lunch I’d say, ‘God, that new mascara is amazing – how’s it selling?” in-between asking them about their kids. You know, you’d just be clever.”

It can’t have harmed her career that she was, as she says, “kinda cute then – so I got lots of dinner invites. I was always being asked out by older, very wealthy, powerful men.” Were you attracted to that? “I must have been but they were certainly attracted to me.”

Her career was on the up – the new publisher of GQ magazine, which had been bought by Condé Nast, had just poached her for a bigger, better job. But Kay started to look at all her fortysomething women friends in their Chanel suits, with their swanky apartments – by this time she had one of her own – and noticed there was something missing: “They worked like dogs and had no personal lives.” As always, Kay had saved a nice little nest egg and decided that what she needed was to change direction.

I ask her baldly whether she came to London to find herself a husband. She says no – it was the possibility that she could do something in the art world. “When I decided not to be a doctor, I thought very seriously about a gallery but I couldn’t do it because you don’t get paid anything in the art world. It’s mostly rich kids,” she says. “If I could have afforded it, that’s what I would have done in New York.” It was Leo Castelli, the Manhattan art dealer, who suggested that she set up in London, where there were hardly any contemporary galleries, and show New York artists.

In 1986, Kay packed her bags and set off for another adventure. She was involved in setting up a short-lived gallery but was unwilling to invest in its future so left to work for Waddington’s. She met Charles not long after at a show when they were both gazing at a painting by Michael Andrews: “This dealer – who will remain unnamed – was always too grand to talk to me on Cork Street and all of a sudden he’s my new best friend, standing beside me and saying: ‘I want you to meet someone,’ and that’s how I met Chols.”

I read that he was instantly smitten; “that he changed the placecards at the dinner we were going to”, Kay adds. What was your first impression of him? “I thought he was amazing. I loved talking to him about art from the word go. He is very charismatic.” Did you fall for him instantly? “I did kind of fall in love with him, yes. And, you know, I’d moved here completely on my own and only made a few friends.” I thought she had a boyfriend at the time? “I had lots of boyfriends. I always had men after me. I don’t know what’s happening now – it’s all dried up.”

There’s seems to have been some confusion about how long Saatchi and Doris had been separated when he met Kay: “I soon found out that he and Doris hadn’t been separated for six months, it had been more like six days when I met him. [The couple had opened the Saatchi Gallery the previous year.] So I thought, ‘This is not a good relationship for me to be in because he’s still married.’ They may be living separately but I thought I can’t move to London to start an art career and have a love affair with this guy.”

Nine months later, when Kay was satisfied that the split was genuine, she and Charles started dating. Three years later, in 1990, they married. She has said that with each new step of their relationship – as she became a wife and then a mother – Charles’s feelings for her seemed to diminish. In the last years, he was more interested spending the evenings go-kart racing than with his wife. “I became very lonely at that time,” Kay says. “But there are a lot of women who are lonely.”

Why do you think he didn’t want to have children? “He likes to be the centre of attention. He’s probably watched all his friends have children and watched their lives become filled with toys and having to go on holidays. He’s very Urban Man. He likes to get in his car and go look at art. He’s not the type to potter in the back garden. And children do force you to grow up, that’s for sure.

“But then I had this darling angel of a girl and, of course, the person who didn’t want a child was absolutely besotted. There’s not a more besotted father on this planet. So you know, it’s hard to guess how it’s going to affect you.”

She still sounds regretful about the end of the marriage as though – despite their problems – it could have been saved. For a start, she says, she doesn’t know any couples who haven’t had their ups and downs. “But it was difficult. He is a powerful, difficult man. He just does what he wants to do. So it wasn’t an easy marriage. I worked my hardest at keeping it together.”

I wonder how she feels about Nigella now. “Oh, she’s a nice woman – I mean, you know…” (A shrug and an expression that suggests “Heyeeeewhaddyagonnado?”) The blending of families is working a little smoother now, six or seven years down the line. Her daughter, Phoebe, gets on well with her step-siblings, which is what all the adults would have hoped for: “And the truth is that if Phoebe wasn’t as happy spending time there and everything, I wouldn’t have had the time or energy to do Anticipation because I was functioning as a full-time taxi driver/nanny.” (I know what she means as a part-time single parent but, still, it’s an odd way of putting it because that’s just what a lot of parenting is about.)

So it must be great in a way that Nigella has been able to provide a homely home in a way that Charles may not have been able to on his own? “Maybe,” she says. “I just try to let them be.” They have had the odd meal together recently and Kay tries to sound philosophical with all the old clichés – “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and time is a great healer” – but then she can’t help a little dig: “…and she’s with him and he’s 65 now and probably really grumpy!” A big laugh. “And I’m free – so there’s a certain karma about that. I had him in his forties!”

While Kay is talking about the past and how difficult it was for her “having to read about Nigella all the time”, she is reminded of something rather telling: “Charles and I spent one summer in the Hamptons when Phoebe was tiny, and we went to Martha Stewart’s house and I remember Charles saying to me, ‘You know, you should do a Martha Stewart because you love to cook and do flowers and so on.’ He always wanted me to do something where I was famous and out there.” That is fascinating; what was your reaction? “I said, ‘I do it anyway – I don’t really have to be a brand.’ So maybe in the back of his mind… well, I think Charles likes fame and celebrity.

“But he also likes being private, too, because he likes to do whatever the hell he wants to do and if he’s ‘private’ he doesn’t have to show up to children’s bar mitzvahs and all the little things in life that we all do. I think that’s what it is because he’s not shy. He’s not shy at all. It’s actually not a bad way to be because if you say, ‘I’m too terribly shy to come to the opening of your show,’ you can get out of it if you don’t want to go!”

What is noticeable is that Kay vacillates between bitterness and loyalty about her ex. Any suggestion of him not having a genuine understanding and appreciation of art is smartly corrected. When I suggest that it was Doris who taught him everything he knows, she says: “And himself because he’s a very keen learner.” I wonder whether this learning curve continued in their marriage; whether they were enriched by each other’s “eye”. “Of course,” she says. “We went and looked at art almost continuously – that’s what we did every weekend. I was the unofficial co-curator with him. We saw every show; we travelled to look at art; we went to New York for the auctions. It was fabulous. What an opportunity.

“He was much more knowledgeable about art because he had been collecting it, and the best way to know about art is to have some money in your pocket and go see a dealer. All of a sudden the dealer shows you everything and tells you why this one is better than that one. Your eye develops as you immerse yourself in it, and if I hadn’t been with someone like Charles there wouldn’t have been this Saatchi Collection because I don’t have that acquisitive collector gene in the same dose that he has. I might buy one drawing from a show where he will go in and buy everything.” In other words, he wouldn’t love every work? “No, he would! But I’m the quieter, more conservative person in that way – and he’s bigger.”

A while back there was a flurry of tabloid interest when Kay was seen out and about with a much younger man who was reported to be her builder: “Oh God!” she says. “I met him in the park with my dog… it’s a great way to meet someone.”

But there’s been no one on the scene for some time now. She forces herself to go to parties and usually tries to take a girlfriend so she isn’t walking in on her own, and she worries about getting lazy: “And one shouldn’t because you’ll end up being a little lonely, miserable person sitting in your house all the time. You’ve got to embrace life, I think.”

Is she actively looking for a beau? “Everyone always wants someone to love. I quite like living on my own and I’m not lying about this, but I do get lonely. My ideal would be to have someone like a violinist who lives in Paris and is sophisticated and cool – to have a romantic life with him, and have someone to travel with. That’s when I miss it. You know, it’s nice to have a conversation with a man over dinner.”

Part of the problem, she thinks, is that she doesn’t find English men that attractive so perhaps she doesn’t put out the vibes: “Or maybe it’s because I was with such a charismatic, interesting man that most of the other men I meet are a little… vanilla.”

We’re almost done. Kay says that she’s found talking about her whole life in this way rather emotional and exhausting; a bit like going to a shrink. It is an odd process. When a person’s story is shrunk, patterns emerge that seem illuminating but may be equally distorting. In the retelling she comes across as a bit of a Becky Sharp operator, cutting a swath through all those rich and powerful men on her journey from Little Rock to London. But she is more likeable than that would suggest, and it’s plucky and admirable that she’s no longer fazed by Saatchi being “the big gun” in the art world, and has gone back to doing what she loves.

Before I leave, I have to ask her about a strange piece she did for Tatler not long after the split, when she was persuaded – or so I had assumed – to dress up as a maid. “Oh, that was my idea,” she laughs. “I was a bit nuts then! I was trying to be cheeky and funny because I had felt that I’d been like a housekeeper.”

Did she get much of a reaction? “Some people saw it in the light that was intended but some said, ‘Hey, that was so embarrassing. How could you do it?’ I did regret it. But who cares? If you worried about everything all the time, you’d never do anything.”

* * *

Anticipation runs until August 3 at Ultralounge, on the lower ground floor of Selfridges, London W1 (020-7318 3204)

Women, Writers

Lady Antonia Fraser’s life less ordinary

The Times, July 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

In a frank interview, the famed writer talks about motherhood, Catholicism, her parents and soulmate Harold Pinter

Lady Antonia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser adjusts her pearls, gazes out of the french windows opening out to the garden, and tells me to f*** awf. This, five minutes into our interview, comes straight after her waving a two-fingered salute at Private Eye.

I had inadvertently mentioned the satirical magazine, so thought I might as well ask her whether she had forgiven the chaps yet for nicknaming her Lady Magnesia Freelove – ooooh, about four decades ago, when London was swinging in every sense of the word. Her first response was as measured and dignified as her demeanour: “I’ll tell you what, Ginny, I decided that as I was campaigning for a free press, I couldn’t object. But I, too, was free and I never read Private Eye again – because I have the freedom not to read it.”

She went on to say that she does read all her reviews: “I take the criticism, you know. I’m interested by it. Of course, I’d much rather have a favourable than an unfavourable review and I mind what the public thinks of my books and I mind what the critics think, you know, historians, but as to what Private Eye thinks, well…” and then came the surprising V-sign.

Did she do that before she met Harold Pinter? “No, he’s been a very bad influence on me.” I tell her about an interview I did with the late Alan Clark when, on a tour of Saltwood Castle, he greeted a magisterial portrait of his father, Kenneth “Civilisation” Clark, with the same disrespectful gesture. “How frightfully funny!” Lady Antonia, 75, says. Does she often use the F-word, I ask. “No. That’s why I put my fingers up.” Has she ever used it? “Yes.” Can I hear you say it? “Well, I don’t want to look at you. Erm…” and then she gamely obliges. But why did she feel that she had to avert her gaze? “Well, I thought it would be so rude to look at someone and say it,” she says, and offers me another cup of coffee.

We are sitting in the living room of the house in Holland Park that has been home to Fraser for most of her adulthood. Like her rich and varied life, there is an impression of colour and profusion: walls covered in paintings, flowers tumbling out of vases, every inch of a coffee table layered with handsome books on opera, which she describes as her passion. She is wearing a smart navy dress and has debutante deportment, knees clamped tight at right angles to her feet, which are clad in black patent leather court shoes. This is where she lived with her first husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, the Catholic Conservative MP whom she married in 1956 at the age of 23, and, six children later, divorced in 1977. Two years earlier, the Frasers and their guest Caroline Kennedy narrowly escaped being blown up by an IRA bomb which had been secreted under the MP’s Jaguar. Their neighbour, Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, was killed when he spotted something suspicious under the car while walking his dogs.

This was the same year, 1975, that Lady A had her coup de foudre with the playwright Harold Pinter while he was still married to the actress Vivien Merchant. The next year, her anthology Love Letters was published with its dedication “for Harold”. In her introduction she wrote: ‘It is obvious… that I am on the side of love letters… Anyone can write a love letter and almost everybody has – one should beware those who boast of never having fallen in love, there is either something missing somewhere or else the boaster is subtly begging to be roused from his or her frozen state of inanition.”

This reads like a clarion call to lovers. During her research, she wrote: “My friends were not slow to suggest the great love letters of fiction, whereas I should have much preferred them to turn out their own.” Fraser has always maintained that her intimate approach to historical biography – did such and such a king visit his mistress’s bed or vice versa – revealed a great deal about the character of her subjects as well as the period.

I had rather hoped that this might mean she would be relaxed about talking about her own ancient history in this respect, the list of admirers detailed in the Daily Mail all those years ago, but she says: “I am making no comment on that. I have never confirmed or denied.” But why have they (Jonathan Aitken, ex-King Constantine of Greece, Rupert Lycett-Green, Lord Lambton and Robert Stephens, who confirmed an affair in his autobiography) been written about with such authority? “You tell me. But what I would point out is you will not find one statement from me on the subject.” Does she think it is unseemly to talk about it, even at this remove, or that married women shouldn’t take lovers… “None of your business,” she says, firmly but without a trace of froideur.

In my research, I came across a gem of an article written by Aitken in 1969, the year of Fraser’s first biography, Mary Queen of Scots, which was a publishing phenomenon. He sounds mildly irritated: “Antonia Fraser rather defensively likes to mention the interviews she has turned down. Some cynical observers might think she has turned them down only because she had difficulty fitting them into her schedule.” But then beguiled: “Lady Antonia turns out to be a sort of Lady Madonna of the tennis courts. Clad in a plain white miniskirt, with a glory of golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, and beautiful Botticelli-like features, she looks about half the 36 years she claims on the book’s dust jacket.”

Wherever this attraction may or may not have led, the two have remained close in the intervening decades. She describes him as “a very kind person who takes a lot of trouble… I’m sure there are lots of people in the world who nobody knows about who’ve been helped by Jonathan.” She talks about her grandson – one of an incredible 17 grandchildren – Thomas, son of Benji, who is at Harrow where Aitken gave a talk about literacy in prisons and prison reforms: “Thomas went up to him and introduced himself and Jonathan took infinite trouble to talk to him about his grandfather, Hugh, whom of course he never knew.”

I wonder whether she found her old friend much changed after his seven-month spell in prison. “He came to lunch after he came out and he was incredibly thin, of course. Very, very thin,” Fraser recalls. “Yes, I think he has changed. He would say that he’s seen the light. I don’t know what language he uses but…” He’s embraced religion? “Really embraced it, believes strongly. And this is what saved him in adversity. I think it’s wonderful to be saved by something spiritual.”

This talk of prisons and spiritual succour takes us into Fraser’s own fascinating family and, in particular, her father Lord Longford, who died in 2001 at the age of 95; 14 months later, in October, her mother, the writer Elizabeth Longford, died at 96. In November, the next month, Myra Hindley – the child murderer on whose behalf Lord Longford had campaigned – also died, at 60, of a chest infection.

What were her views of Hindley? “I never met her. I want to make that quite clear. Didn’t want to meet her. Wasn’t asked to meet her. I think that I admired my father for his position that no one is beyond redemption, very much. But the children were the same age as my oldest children so

I could never really read about it and if I did, I felt too unhappy. I did think, ‘Why shouldn’t she be parolled after 35 years, just logically, you know, she cannot be a danger.’ On the other hand, a bit of me thought about the wretched parents. So I just didn’t want to be involved in either position.” But did she talk to him about her? “No. Didn’t want to.”

As she says, the Pinters’ shelves are full of books stuffed with horrific details of the torture of prisoners and human rights travesties – indeed, it could be argued that her husband is almost as famous for his political anger, these days, as for his plays – so it is not as though Fraser’s sensibilities are too delicate to dwell on unpleasantness, complicated or otherwise. But, equally, there was something so viscerally horrible about the Brady-Hindley cases that one can understand her reluctance to form any sort of connection with the murderers. Her father once tried to read her the letters Brady had written to him about his daughter’s Mary Queen of Scots. “And I said, ‘Stop there! I’ve no interest in what Ian Brady thinks of Mary Queen of Scots.’”

The eldest of the Longfords’ eight children – Antonia’s sister, Catherine, the baby girl of the family, was killed in a car crash at the age of 23 in 1969 – Fraser is still protective of her father, who became a somewhat lampooned caricature of an eccentric, with his anti-pornography stance (he was nicknamed Lord Porn) and the public unease about his championing of Myra Hindley. “I liked talking to my father very much and we had a lot in common,” she says. “We were both fascinated by history and politics and oratory and as I say, I admired his principles. But the nitty-gritty of prison visiting wasn’t for me.” (Rachel Billington, her writer sibling, has taken up their father’s prison mantle and still contributes to Inside Time, the only national newspaper for prisoners, which she helped found in 1990.)

The one position Lord Longford took that caused his whole family to blanch was his intolerance of gays. “The funniest moment was when my father got up in the House of Lords – it was the homosexual debate, Clause 28 – and he said, ‘I am proud to say that none of my grandchildren is homosexual,’” Fraser recalls. “And one of my children [they range between 40 and 50 now] rang up and said, ‘I’ve a good mind to come out of the closet,’ not that the child was in it, you know, but, ‘I’ve a good mind to declare myself as gay… I found that so irritating.’” Did they give him a hard time over it? “No, not really. They loved him.”

Reading about her family background, one can quite see how impossible it would be for any of the offspring to lead average lives. Her father, Frank Pakenham, was a peer four times over – three baronies (Pakenham, Longford and Silchester) and one earldom (Longford). After the predictable trajectory of Eton and Oxford, Longford (the seventh earl of) became a don at Christ Church, where he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Harman, a bewitchingly attractive undergraduate, described as the Zuleika Dobson of her day.

Fraser’s maternal grandparents were Unitarians – a non-conformist faith with a strong emphasis on social reform (notable followers include Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and Elizabeth Gaskell). Her mother was a great niece of the Tory radical Joseph Chamberlain and a first cousin once removed of the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. (Harriet Harman is Elizabeth Longford’s niece.) “All of that was very important to us,” Fraser says. “I had cousins my age I could stay with in Birmingham where my grandfather – N. Bishop Harman – was a very distinguished doctor and secretary of the BMA. He was also a lay preacher and I remember his great, thundering, terrific sermons – sort of Reverend Ian Paisley [I’m also thinking of Pinter’s lambasting oratorical style]. Many years later, when I came to write about Cromwell, I started to think about my grandfather again. Various people said, ‘How can a Catholic write about Cromwell?’ And I said, ‘I have no Catholic blood. My father was Protestant Church of Ireland and my mother was Unitarian up to the age of 20, when she abandoned it.’”

It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that Fraser discovered that her father had suffered a nervous breakdown when she was a child. In the earliest cuttings, before she was aware of this, the writer referred to him being a gentle but rather shadowy presence in the home, with her mother by far the more vivid character. This makes rather more sense in hindsight. She remembers reading in the newspapers that he had announced that he’d had a breakdown, “and I said to my mother, ‘But that’s not true, he just had very bad flu.’ And she said, ‘No, he had a breakdown in the Army,’ which he insisted on going into very bravely… because he was 35.” And not cut out for it? “No, but because his father was a war hero who died at Galipolli…” So he had to live up to that? “Yes, and then he was saved by the Catholic faith.” She says that on his prison visits he would read from the New Testament and took it very literally: “I’ve got one of his huge-print bibles – he was pretty well blind – and he’d marked things on all the pages.” She can’t be sure but she thinks it was Evelyn Waugh who converted him. “They were good friends and certainly became much closer after my father became a Catholic.”

There were other conversions, too. Elizabeth Longford became a committed socialist in the early Thirties when she was a Workers Education Association lecturer in Stoke-on-Trent and witnessed the reality of ordinary people’s lives. It was she who persuaded her husband to leave his job at Conservative Central Office and switch political allegiances. He went on to become a junior minister in the Labour government from 1945-1951 and was a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson from 1964-68. His wife had her own political aspirations but finally abandoned them in 1950 after fighting the general election unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Oxford. Antonia used to joke about, “Mummy’s red mac for canvassing and grey fur coats for everything else.” To which her mother’s reply was: “If I could have found a red fur coat, I would have worn it.” Elizabeth went on to write her own acclaimed historical biographies in her late fifties on Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington and in 1986, at the age of 80, she published her memoirs, The Pebbled Shore.

Her daughter, who kindly gave me a copy as a parting gift, wrote a foreword to The Pebbled Shore in 2004. In it she makes the observation that her mother’s life demonstrates that, “The problems of what is now called ‘having it all’ are nothing new. They are on the contrary endemic in the life of a woman who is intelligent, ambitious and idealistic as well as being a loving mother and wife.” She also writes disarmingly that she never witnessed in her mother “the ratty solipsist behaviour of the working-mother-at-home – ‘Don’t interrupt me, I’m a genius’ – with which I undoubtedly greeted my own children.”

In 1946, six years after Lord Longford’s Catholic conversion, Elizabeth followed suit. In the epilogue to her memoirs, she makes it clear that her faith gave her support and “saved me from asking the terrible questions, ‘Why? Why her? Why me?’ when her youngest daughter was killed”.

Antonia became a Catholic in her teens. I wonder what sort of imprint her faith has made on her own life, expecting her to talk about the way it has guided or nourished her, but she talks about its effect on her writing: “All my books have a very strong theme, one way or another, of religious faith. People to whom their faith was important for good or bad. My book about Louis XIV is really stressing that although he philandered for the world, at the same time his mother was very religious and her example haunted him. He wanted to be saved. Literally, salvation. I think he always wanted to get back to someone like his mother… devout, you know.”

Even by the standards of her impressive family, Fraser seemed destined to cut a dash. Her mother once said, “She dazzled us all since the moment she could speak.” At eight, she went to Dragon School in Oxford – one of 40 girls to 400 boys – where she was “intensely happy” and played rugby (on the wing) for the school team. Her next school, a C of E girls boarder, was not a success: “I was really a boy, you know,” she says. “I was way ahead of everybody in work and way behind emotionally and nobody wanted to walk with me.”

From there, she moved to a Catholic convent, St Mary’s at Ascot, and was intensely happy again: “I found the world of nuns frightfully interesting,” she says. It was that world that Fraser drew on for the first of her nine Jemima Shore mysteries, Quiet as a Nun, in 1977. She arrived a Protestant in 1946 but the next year, as her letters home revealed – full of the brio of adolescent righteousness – she had converted with a vengeance: “I often wonder why there was ever a Reformation… I feel like rushing out into the streets and just telling people what utter fools they are not to be Catholics.”

Fraser is quite unabashed about being an intellectual snob: “I always brighten up when it turns out that somebody is very clever or got a frightfully good degree because I was brought up in a university town and my father, to his dying day, always knew who got a first and who hadn’t.” His daughter fell into the second category, having spent her time at Oxford – where she was at Lady Margaret Hall, like her mother – doing nothing but enjoy herself, “after having worked very, very hard up till then”, and gained a reputation for being “radiant and eccentric” with a penchant for cigars.

During the early years of her first marriage, there were occasional signs of that independent, tomboy spirit – she took flying lessons in 1963, when her fourth child was born, and the following year went on an adventurous expedition with her brother Thomas, the third writer of the Pakenham pack, riding on mules through Ethiopia. “All my life I had secretly wanted to be the first white woman to tread somewhere or other. Anywhere,” Fraser wrote in one of her lively dispatches for the Evening Standard.

It was a good time to leave her children, she says. Her husband was in London and they had a wonderful carer. Hugh presumably was too preoccupied with his political career to be much of a hands-on father? “He was extremely busy, but he was terrific,” Fraser says. “For instance, he always took the children to school in the morning, and what a bonus that was.” His ex-wife was at his side when he died of lung disease in 1984, four years after she married Pinter. A few years ago, Fraser described him to Andrew Billen as “a very fine person, rather detached, but a very fine person”. It is tempting to ask whether it was that detachment that prompted Fraser to seek engagement in other areas of her life.

But she is under strict instructions from her children not to talk about the break-up of their parents’ marriage, as she informed me at the outset: “They just don’t like it, you know, and why should they really?” What she does say is that she certainly didn’t go into the marriage thinking that it was possible that it would end. Divorce, she says, “was sort of unheard of. Of course, you feel more than a taint of failure. You feel a failure – well, you are a failure. You have failed, you know. But that’s all I have to say on the subject.”

Fraser, like most fully rounded human beings, is an intriguing combination of strength and vulnerability. For someone who is known as quite a beauty, she has always been unsure of her looks and still is judging by her anxiety about being photographed. In 1969, she said: “I’m very insecure in my appearance. I love it when someone says at a party, ‘You look terribly pretty,’ and I believe it.” When I ask her about this, she says: “As a teenager, people would say, ‘What lovely skin Antonia has,’ and then their voice dotted away.

“But I was terrifically helped by the Sixties and the emergence of people like Julie Christie. Although if you know Julie Christie, as we do, I mean she’s a wonderful miniature Venus – nothing miniature about me – but there’s a sort of resemblance and suddenly my looks came into fashion.”

That “nothing miniature about me” is telling. My mother was a tall stunner, like Fraser, and also had a shoe size which matched her statuesque physique. I remember her excitement when Mary Queen of Scots came out and how it inspired her to study history and become a Blue Badge Guide. Fraser is gratified to hear this but less happy when I mention my mother’s other source of glee. I tell Fraser that I think she felt quite a kinship when Vivien Merchant said that bitchy thing about you being able to wear Harold’s shoes: “I don’t go that way, Ginny,” she says hastily.

She doesn’t go that way partly, one suspects, because as she made abundantly clear in print, the previous Mrs Pinter never reconciled herself to the break-up of her marriage, which must have played a factor in her unhappy alcoholic death at the age of 53. Pinter and their son remain estranged. As Fraser would doubtless say, why should she be expected to talk about such private, hurtful matters to a stranger. But there is also something almost quaintly old-fashioned about her reticence which is at odds with our confessional culture.

Other femmes serieuses certainly do not feel the same compunction. Marjorie Wallace, the admirable chief executive of SANE and former Sunday Times journalist, has apparently incurred Lord Snowdon’s displeasure by talking about their long affair. And Joan Bakewell wrote about her seven-year affair with Pinter – which started at the beginning of her marriage to Michael Bakewell, a BBC head of plays, and lasted through her second pregnancy – in her autobiography The Centre of the Bed in 2003. But Pinter had already opened that door – in a betrayal of his own, it could be argued – by using their affair as the basis of his 1978 play Betrayal. At the time, it was assumed that the woman at the heart of the affair was Antonia Fraser, but the truth emerged in Michael Billington’s biography of Pinter, which the playwright read before publication, in 1996.

Fraser has kept diaries through all her tumultuous decades. She refers to them when talking about V.S. Naipaul’s late wife, Pat, who was an old Oxford friend and helped her do the “donkey research” for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish Love Poems published in 1974. (She was absolutely “charmed”, she said, to discover at a recent Sunday lunch at Chequers that Gordon Brown had been at the launch party when he was a student at Edinburgh. “Now I know that he is very literary and intelligent and knows his stuff.”)

These diaries would be a biographer’s dream – with such a cast of illustrious characters and Fraser’s sharp observations, not to mention her insights about her own various tangles and predicaments. But she says that she very rarely looks at the diaries unless she has to check something and when she does she finds them all too interesting, “which is why I don’t read them. I don’t want to start. I’m still living my life.”

All this time, the invisible presence of Harold Pinter – her soul mate for almost half her life – has been weaving in and out of our dialogue. It is striking how often Fraser references him, in the way that those who are newly smitten want to steer the conversation back to the object of their affection. Or that the recently bereaved draw comfort from talking about their departed loved one.

When we talk about her marching against the Iraq war, she reminds me that Harold spoke. I mention Norman Lamont’s rather moving address at Benazir Bhutto’s memorial service, and she smiles: “Well, of course, Norman and Harold crossed swords over Chile and Pinochet.” Early on, when we were discussing love letters, I asked her whether she had received many good ones: “Wonderful letters from Harold but very few because we were always together. The quality of his love is in the poems he’s written to me. Nowadays he writes poetry; he feels he’s written enough plays.” Nine years ago, Fraser was offered counselling after a pair of white-masked men threatened to kill her with a crowbar if she didn’t hand over her jewellery, “but I said, ‘No,’ because I had Harold”. Is he good in a situation like that? “Very good. Absolutely.” Was he angry? “No. His priority was me. Anger wasn’t going to help me.”

She seems genuinely mystifed by her husband’s reputation for being angry. “I don’t see that side of him,” she says. Isn’t he always telling people to f*** off ? (There is a great photograph of the couple, reproduced on page 23, when they were first together, with Pinter waving his two fingers and Fraser, fabulous in a fur-trimmed coat, half-smiling as she looks down.) “Is he? Well, not to me anyway. You know, the press writes that someone is angry and then everything they do is angry. If you saw him do his Nobel speech on television, you have to ask yourself, is this man – in the most public thing that he’ll ever do – is he angry or passionate? And if he is angry, what is he angry about?

“I mean, Harold has very strong views. I like that. I have very strong views, too. We mostly agree politically but not entirely.” (She is more critical of Cuba and its treatment of dissidents and gays than her husband.) Do you argue much? “Not really. I’m not a very quarrelsome person – or that’s my story, anyway.”

What has been the secret of their long and happy marriage? “I find Harold a very interesting person, which is not surprising. And I suspect he finds me interesting. And one of the nice things about him is that it’s impossible to predict who he will take a fancy to and who he won’t. Also, we’re both writers but we write absolutely, totally differently. I can’t think of two more different things than the plays of Harold Pinter and the historical biographies of Antonia Fraser. So there is absolutely no competition. Harold is not competitive, except in cricket, anyway.

“At the same time, Harold knows exactly what it’s like being a writer – the ups and downs, the failures, the successes – and that’s probably the bedrock. And I love the theatre, of course.” When she was on the Evening Standard panel, before she knew Pinter, she voted unsuccessfully for Old Times to win. What was it that she liked so much about his plays? “I’m not a dramatic critic so I find it difficult to say. I only know that I liked the plays before I met the playwright.” I try to prompt her to be more specific: “They’re powerful. Poetic in parts. Very funny in other parts.”

Billington, who of course is a critic, when asked what makes Pinter tick, wrote: “I believe that memory is almost the key to Pinter’s whole work as an artist. He is plagued and haunted by the whole notion of memory and by the idea that as we go through daily life we are occupied by our memory of past events, past emotional circumstances and they can break through at any moment.”

I’m sure some people would find it surprising that with their very different backgrounds (Pinter is the son of a Jewish East End tailor), they have forged such a deep connection. “That’s such baloney. It’s ridiculous. What background? We were both sophisticated enough – Harold was in his mid-forties and I was in my early forties. It didn’t matter where we came from, it mattered where we were going.”

Pinter will be 78 this October and has been battling ill health. I ask how he is faring now. “Ginny, I’m very superstitious,” Fraser says. “You know, he’s got so many things wrong with him and yet he’s surviving. I don’t want to say he’s fine and by the time this comes out, he’s back in hospital. He had cancer, and then he had a very rare auto-immune blood disease, and then he had some interior troubles.”

I wonder whether she found her love changing as her husband became ill. She used to speak so proudly of his robust health and vigour on the tennis courts. “I think that everybody – if their partner is ill – naturally becomes more protective and I certainly don’t think, ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.’”

The couple still seem to lead an enviably active cultural life but Fraser can’t quite bring herself to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance in A Year of Magical Thinking, the adaptation of Joan Didion’s book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. “I think I’d find it too harrowing,” she says, “having been through so many fears.”

She has only just read Sheila Hancock’s book, The Two of Us, because the actress is in The Birthday Party round the corner from her London home. “I ducked the book at the time – because John Thaw died of oesophageal cancer, which is what Harold had – while Harold was having chemo but then I read it and thought it marvellous. It’s about much more than dying, really. It’s about love.”

The doorbell rings and Fraser says we must stop. She has an important engagement with one of her many family members: lunch followed by the theatre. Before I go, I feel I must ask her about Nigella and the rise of the Domestic Goddess. Lady A has always been rather admirably undomestic. She loathes cooking and shopping and womanly duties. Of course she knows Nigella, but then she seems to know everyone. So what does she think of this recent phenomenon?

“Isn’t it fascinating?” she says. “I’m amused by it, actually.” So do you eat ready meals whenever possible? “Yes, of course,” Fraser smiles, ready to break another taboo. “Doesn’t everybody?”

* * *

Antonia Fraser will be speaking at the Buxton Festival on July 11 (0845 1272190; www.buxtonfestival.co.uk). Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (Phoenix, £11.99) will be reissued on July 24

Writers

The gentrification of Irvine Welsh

The Times, June 28, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

As well known for his epic drug taking as his iconic tales, Irvine Welsh seems now to be embracing middle age. But as he unveils his new novel, Ginny Dougary finds life in the old punk yet

The good news is that Irvine Welsh, having been obliged to give the subject some thought, does not believe that all men are potential paedophiles. What he does find interesting is that advertising and the mainstream media pander to a perceived tendency in men to respond to images of females captured on the cusp of puberty.

Welsh is the Scottish writer who shot to fame in 1993 with his first novel, Trainspotting, a surprising, not least to himself, massive worldwide bestseller about a group of Edinburgh junkies mostly written in dialect. The arresting opening line – “The sweat wis lashing ofay Sick Boy; he wis trembling” – has been quoted so often it has become youth culture’s equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, but the book was also celebrated by the likes of such august critics and academics as John Carey, emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University. Three years later, Trainspotting was made into a film directed by Danny Boyle, launching Ewan McGregor’s career and further boosting the author’s.

Novels have been released since then, some with short titles: Ecstasy, Filth, Glue, Porno; others with a few more words, among them The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work. The new novel reverts to the school of short titles – Crime – and deals with large themes of retribution, redemption, abuse and male anxiety, seen through the horrid prism of paedophilia.

The central character, Ray Lennox, is a Scottish cop who has had a breakdown while on the trail of a serial killer of female children. In the course of his investigation, interviewing relatives of the latest disappeared girl, Britney (named, doubtless, after the singer who dressed up as a schoolgirl for her first hit song), he experiences the full weight of his colleagues’ disapproval of the chain-smoking single mother and the assumption that she must be partly to blame.

This whole subject (including the blame-the-mother syndrome) is discomfitingly topical – from Portugal, with the vanishing of Madeleine McCann, to Goa (the murder of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling) and the ongoing morbid fascination with the Austrian captivity cases of Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl.

The obvious question is whether Welsh found himself besieged by inappropriate thoughts when researching the book. “In order to write something like this, you have to feel pretty confident in your own sexuality and be in an almost unimpeachable state as regards that because if you didn’t, I don’t think you could physically go through that kind of journey,” he says. “One of the things I wouldn’t do is any research at all on the internet because I have no interest in getting into paedophiles’ websites. The idea was quite sickening to me. There’s so much shady stuff in my life in other ways that I had to be content that there was nothing of that sort in my inner workings.”

Welsh was helped by police officers and social workers in the States who briefed him on how organised paedophile rings work. He also read a great number of academic and clinical psychology texts and spoke to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The narrative switches from the unravelling of the Britney case in Edinburgh to Miami Beach, where the cop is on holiday with his fiancé trying to wean himself off anti-depressants. Behind this haunting are hints of something murky in Lennox’s past. Unable to heal himself in the sunshine, Lennox, a recovering addict, demolishes himself in a bar, is picked up by a pair of predatory women, goes on a cocaine binge and flees with a ten-year-old girl (the daughter of one of the women) who has been the prey of a paedophile ring.

Welsh is not comfortable with the idea that he has become some sort of instant expert on paedophilia and, indeed, the more he delved into the subject, the less clear cut it became to him. “The currents of sexuality run deep and they’re very confused. Advertising, for instance, seems implicitly to believe that there is this kind of paedophile locked in the male sexuality – the way that very, very young women are made to look even younger. Some kids seem highly sexualised from an early age and they obviously need to be protected from themselves. What is really disturbing about paedophiles is the God-like status they assume… the calculation, the long-term grooming, the idea that it’s society that is at fault and therefore they can break the rules.”

One surprise for him was how very differently people respond to abuse. “Some women can have experienced something quite minor – ‘I was touched up by my uncle’ – and it can absolutely devastate and wreck their lives. And there are other people who were kidnapped as children, serially raped and cult stuff like that and yet they seem to be coping and functioning quite well.” Here one thinks of Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive in a tiny space from the age of 10 to 18 and seems mystifyingly self-composed to many commentators. She, in turn, is angered by the idea that she must play the victim to validate other people’s expectations. “What we don’t know is how much not talking about it or repressing it is as much a coping mechanism as talking about it,” Welsh says.

He had started writing a good six months before the McCann case but after the news broke he felt unable to continue for a while: “It was just so kind of big and so horrible and obviously, like everybody else, I was distressed. I thought, ‘Should I really be writing about this?’ But the reason why I went back to it is that the story is very different and the initial draft was looking at why the guy [Lennox] is the way he is. And how when you read about a paedophile case, everybody starts seeing paedophiles everywhere – and also how appropriate is it, anyway, for adults to be around kids they have no relationship to?”

The initial catalyst for the book was something that had taken place in the writer’s own life – when a friend of 20-odd years’ standing broke down and wept in a pub, saying that he’d been abused by a close family member that Welsh and his friends all knew. “Within our Scottish working-class male culture, we were singularly unequipped to deal with it,” he says. “Our first reaction was wanting to kill the abuser, basically. But there was also a kind of loathing for this guy – not so much the fact that he might have brought it on himself but that he had involved us in this thing. So I wanted to work out these ideas of compassion and rehabilitation and retribution and what happens when you keep something to yourself for so long.”

We meet in Dublin, where Welsh has been principally based for the past four years. (He also has homes in Edinburgh, Chicago and Miami.) He has picked the venue, the café of the Irish Film Institute, which is thronging with groovy young folk. He is wearing a suit – as instructed for the photographs – but it is not one of those sharply tailored black designer numbers. If anything, he looks more like a middle-aged bank manager than someone on the cutting edge of counter-culture, where part of him still firmly wishes to reside. The first impression is of someone solemn, reserved and modest, with gentle manners but lacking a certain joie de vivre. The latter, it turns out, can be partly put down to jet lag (he has recently flown in from a wedding party in New York) and a prolonged hangover.

The cocaine binge in the new novel one can safely assume is written with the knowledge of experience. Indeed, there is a fight involving an overturned television and a smashed table which had a familiar ring. In previous newspaper stories, there are a number of references to Welsh getting belligerent in a pub and a friend’s flat – both involving karaoke – and him completely trashing both places.

“Yeah, nothing’s wasted,” he grins when I point out the similarities. Why, I wonder, does karaoke bring this out in him? “I think it’s this desperate need for attention but at the same time hating it in myself and trying to resist it. I’ve never liked people who are brash and I’ve always been fighting that in myself.”

This tension between repression and, shall we say, excessive ebullience is particularly pronounced in the Scots, Welsh thinks, and the older he has become, the more his dour tendencies have come to the fore. He calls it his Dewar (as in the late First Minister for Scotland) streak: “Donald Dewar on acid, that’s me.”

The other streak still runs strong in him. Even relatively recently, there was a drink and drugs binge which almost did your head in just reading about it. As part of one New Year’s Eve revelries, he consumed intoxicating substances that were so extreme in their variety and quantity that it seems almost miraculous that he survived such a gruelling recreational marathon. The list included: malt whisky, champagne, magic mushrooms, base speed and crack cocaine. When I ask him about this, he says: “The kind of quality control rationale thing goes right out of your head. You get into such a state that you’ll put anything in: ‘Just give me some of that, and I’ll take it.’”

He appears to have had a passing flirtation with crack cocaine and talks about visiting a crack house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Yeah, it was quite interesting,” he says, ever the observational participant. “I was there with a bunch of guys from Stoke-on-Trent – I’d just met them – and there was an altercation and shots were fired and it was the first time that I’d been so close to gunfire.” Did it frighten him? “It didn’t at the time because I was pretty wasted but it did afterwards.”

There has always been a dance between hard work and hedonism for Welsh. In his early twenties, he was a junkie himself, but only for 18 months before he managed to go cold turkey. Inevitably, perhaps, some of the die-hard drug addicts he knew accused him of being a heroin novice and of exploiting their experience for his own betterment. Most of the junkies he knew then are now dead, but he is still friendly with a couple of survivors who lead reasonably normal lives.

The bare bones of Welsh’s biography are well known: born in a tenement home in Leith, moved to the new-build estates in Muirhouse, where drug-taking later became rife. Left school at 16, completed a City & Guilds course in electrical engineering, fixed televisions and may or may not have blown one up accidentally. Arrived in London in the late Seventies, lived in a squat and became part of the junk and punk scene, playing in the bands the Pubic Lice and Stairway 13. Worked for Hackney Council and studied computing, became a minor property developer in the Eighties, buying studio flats in North London, doing them up and selling them for a profit, then (to quote his website) “cleaning up his act” and “finding a nice lassie and settling doon”. This, I take it, is Anne (Antsy), to whom Trainspotting was dedicated and who was his first wife for around 20 years; these details are flimsy because he has chosen not to make them public.

The couple returned to Edinburgh, where he worked for the city council’s housing department and studied at Heriot Watt Uni-versity, writing his thesis on equal opportunities for women. (He still talks about the “patriarchal society” and feminists’ “self-empowerment”.) Encouraged by the rave scene and loosened up by Ecstasy, he worked on a draft of the novel that became Trainspotting and sold a million copies in the UK alone, and was translated into 30 languages including Hebrew and Arabic. In August 1995, he gave up his day job to concentrate on writing full time. Ten years later, he married for the second time to a young American woman, Elizabeth Quinn, who at 26 is almost half his age.

The point about this curriculum vitae is that even in Welsh’s wildest years, the extreme behaviour was balanced by pragmatism: the work-orientated training schemes, nine-to-five jobs with local authorities where colleagues consistently described him as solid and reliable, the serious-minded thesis. There is also something almost Zelig-like about him being at the centre – or, perhaps, more edgily, just off the centre – of the Zeitgeist, in punk bands at the height of punk, seguing into a property developer during the “greed is good” Eighties, and a fully paid-up member of the Ecstasy-fuelled clubbing scene in the Nineties. Perhaps this constant reinvention explains his hang-up about ageing; the anxiety that the onset of middle age might ban him from being embraced by whatever scene is happening.

He says that he never believed he would still be alive at 50 – which he will be this September. Some time ago, there was a story doing the rounds that he had been born a number of years earlier than 1958 and Welsh was so rattled by it that he resorted to taking his passport along to interviews to prove to journalists that he had not been massaging the truth. Wasn’t this a bit uncool?

“I don’t know why but I’ve always been sensitive and touchy about it,” he says. “The dramatic thing for me was being 30 – when I was still doing loads of Ecstasy and cocaine and drinking – so everything since then has been a kind of bonus. I’ve always believed that it’s very much a young society, and that line that you can’t trust anybody over 30, you know, the older I get the more I believe it.”

Welsh’s binges, he says, are getting smaller as the distances between them get bigger. “Before, I could spend all night clubbing and I’d get in and just hit the word processor and start writing, but I can’t do that now,” he says. “And my main buzz now is my work, basically. I love working.” This is not to say that the struggle is over: “These two things are always vying. If you’re out on the tear, you think, ‘This is fantastic. This is the way I want to live my life for ever.’ Then you think, ‘I’m feeling rough. I shouldn’t do this. I’m wasting my life. I should be achieving things and making a name for myself.’ Then when you start doing that, you think, ‘This is great. I’m getting recognition and I’m enjoying this but it’s a really boring life.’ You oscillate between these two states of mind and I do this all the time.

“Even this weekend in New York – the first mad one I’ve had in a while – the aftermath was like muscular dystrophy: achey and your skin’s crawling and you’re lethargic and everything’s too much trouble, and I hate feeling like that. You make that calculation: the older you are, the less time you’ve got and you don’t want to spend what’s left of it feeling like that.”

Quite apart from the abstinence that came with the two marathons he has run (his body still looks gym-honed), he tends not to drink at all during the winter months because it makes him depressed. But come the spring and summer, that all changes: “I love margaritas, red wine [he writes a wine column in a magazine but he’s temporarily forgotten its name], anything, really.” His favourite part of drinking, anyway, is the sense of relief when you emerge from a hangover: “You just want to get pissed again because the sense of intoxication you get when your head gets cleared and your body is purified is so great.”

By now, Welsh is quite different from that rather uptight initial version of himself. When I say that I had been wondering what it would take to get him to smile, he grins and pats my knee and says, “Oh, stop it,” in a kind of indulgent, “Aw shucks, you’re naughty but nice” way. Do you feel I’m teasing you? “Yes,” he says. He has, it turns out, a ready but rather unusual bark of a laugh – his chin juts out, and the sound escapes from the corner of his thin strip of mouth, a bit like an old-fashioned ventriloquist’s dummy.

He is staring at my hair in such a strange way that it prompts me to ask whether he’s spotted something I should be worrying about. “I’m fascinated by it, actually, particularly that cascading bit at the front,” he says. “I like the different kaleidoscope colours in it.” (I should point out that this does not appear to be a drug-fuelled observation and that he has been drinking nothing stronger than tap water and green tea.) Since he has no crowning glory at all,

I wonder whether he misses it. “That’s probably why 30 was such a bad time for me,” he says. “It was going before that but I’d always had quite bad hair.” Now this is fascinating. So what was his hair like? “Kind of weird. It was black and stuck up in inappropriate tufts all over the place, and I’d always go to the toilet and apply lots of water and smooth them down. But I couldn’t have it over any length at all – so I always had a skinhead or a sort of semi-skinhead. And when it started to recede, I just started shaving it off basically so I kind of wouldn’t notice it going.”

The new Mrs Welsh is a brunette, apparently. How do you like marriage second time round? “It’s absolutely fantastic, really great.” After a year of courtship, they moved in together and got married a year after that. I josh him about being a dirty old tutor, getting off with one of his creative writing students (he was teaching a course at the University of Chicago). “That’s another myth,” he says, in an equally relaxed way. “A lot of people assume she was one of my students but she was a waitress. It’s a mother complex, really. My mother was a waitress and so I only date waitresses, like.”

I wonder whether Betsy, as Irvine says he calls her (I’m not sure he isn’t teasing me at this point), is a pure-living gal. This is greeted with a whoop of incredulous laughter. “She’s got that thing that she wants to go for it and I’m, like, ‘Oh, I’ve done that sooohhh many times.’” Well, if you will marry someone so much younger, there’s obviously a lot of catching up to do. “The converse of that,” he counters, “is that it keeps you young as well, hopefully.”

The spectre that always seemed to horrify Welsh was the idea that he might one day be somehow shoehorned into becoming Suburban Man. He is thrilled to have gone the express route from working class to upper middle class, which is where he places himself now, bypassing the ignominy of “the bourgeois thing”. After travelling first class to his various homes, he now flies economy: “Just because I’m a Scot, and at three and a half grand I’d always be thinking, ‘God, how many bottles of whisky could I buy for that?’”

Nonetheless, my big revelation is that Welsh is now a Domestic God: he goes to B&Q! He cooks! He puts up shelves! He has zero tolerance of mice! Mind you, being Irvine Welsh, his version of all the above still has a strong whiff of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He has his Black & Decker drill and he insists on putting up shelves and painting them even if it kills him: “I’m a bit of a bastard because there may be loads of holes in the walls where I’ve drilled and my hands are all cut to ribbons and there’s paint spattered all over me but I still have to go to the bitter end.

“It’s the same with cooking, and with all the cookbooks around there’s no excuse for anybody not to cook. I like the idea of having people around and cooking a nice meal and I start off all enthusiastic and I spend three fucking hours doing it and I’ve broken a dozen plates and burnt my hand…”

If Irvine is a Ramsayian home cook (“I don’t trust all that Jamie Oliver touchy-feely,” he says), Betsy is definitely in the school of Nigella: “She’ll go all transcendental and have a glass of wine as she’s doing it and it’s almost like meditation. But for me it’s definitely a struggle.”

He is still resolutely anti having children and is relieved that his wife is as allergic to the idea as him, “which is good since, whatever you say, it has to be the woman’s choice”. When he was younger he felt that children would inhibit the kind of lifestyle he wanted to lead, and now he’s too old for that malarkey.

What he witnesses among the parents he knows (he is also an uncle) is that they say, “‘This is great, it’s the best thing that has ever happened.’ But you see them completely eroded by it at the same time. This tremendous debilitating effect and the lack of a personal life they have. I mean, who wants to be getting up at three o’clock in the morning? It’s like, you know, I want to be getting in at that time!”

In 2002 Welsh wrote a powerful piece about his trips to Sudan and Afghanistan as part of Unicef’s campaign for the rights of children, encouraged by his friend, the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who had been quietly working behind the scenes with the organisation. His words were admirably direct and cut to the chase: “We have to ask ourselves how healthy it is to say: ‘OK, so my £100 a year means they save six lives but if it were used effectively it would save seven, so therefore I’m not going to give anything.’”

On the personal front, he wrote: “What I saw and felt will never, ever leave me, and what I feel has fundamentally changed me in ways I could never begin to define.”

I wonder whether this experience had not altered his feelings about children. “I don’t want to see kids die or suffering or being tampered with but that’s very different from saying you want to be responsible for kids yourself,” he says.

“One of the great things about Unicef and the other organisations that work with children is that it’s a bit like boarding schools – you can contribute without having the responsibility of having to be involved on a day-to-day basis.”

What would be ideal, I suggest, is for him to fast-forward to being a grandparent. “If someone else could take them home at the end of the day or you could stick them in the freezer and bring them out when you… Ahh, this is getting a bit like child abuse again…”

Welsh’s bright eyes are beginning to glaze over. Tomorrow he has an early flight to Mauritius where he is being put up for a week in a luxury hotel with five other judges, including writers Tim Lott, Joanne Harris and Simon Armitage, who will be picking the winner of a best love story competition. The BBC will be there filming and Welsh thinks they’re going for a sort of literary Big Brother. For his sake, I hope there isn’t a karaoke machine on the premises.

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To order Crime by Irvine Welsh, published by Vintage on July 3, for £17.09, free p&p (RRP £18.99), call BooksFirst on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst.