Archive for May, 2009

Travel & Adventure

Driving San Francisco to LA – Chlling out in style on the West Coast of America

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Where better to start than Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco centre of the Summer of Love? At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that this was 1968 rather than 2008

The main drag is dominated by “head” shops selling crazy-looking bongs, and the boutique windows are full of tie-dye T-shirts. The pavement panhandlers, however, are very much the new generation of dropouts, mostly in their teens and twenties.

Our cheap and immensely cheerful digs were around the corner, also close to the great green swath of Golden Gate Park. These quiet streets are lined with grand old houses painted in dark aubergines and greys.

I had hoped to find suitably idiosyncratic accommodation, along the lines of Anna Madrigal’s guesthouse in Armistead Maupin’s epic tribute to San Franciscan life, Tales of the City — and Inn 1890 was the next-best thing: amusing fellow travellers, laid-back management and big breakfasts around a communal table, with a view of an ancient sprawling fig tree.

We made various sorties: to goggle at the giant redwoods in the national monument of Muir Woods; take vertiginous trolley rides; a Sound of Music singalong at the Castro Theatre; and to worship at the foodie shrine of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse.

Off on our road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles; no Beach Boys soundtrack, alas, but the boys were gobsmacked by the views. Monterey’s 17-mile peninsula was so beautiful, the beaches black with a mass of sea otters and lions, we had to keep jumping out of the car to take a closer look.

New Year’s Day was at the knockout Post Ranch Inn, which is firmly at the well-heeled end of hippydom. My sons wallowed in the open-air hotbaths, while I went for a hike through the woods and valleys of the extensive grounds.

We arrived late in LA having stopped off at the kitsch spectacle of William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon. It’s worth checking out for the vanity of its vision but it’s a bit of a mission: advance booking strongly advised, a 15-minute bus ride from the car park, and so on.

The sightseeing in LA was unashamed gawping, with a tour of celebrities’ homes — the Beckhams are the No 1 top sighting — and Universal Studios, where a creepy Norman Bates lookalike ran after us with a shower-scene-from-Psycho knife (ho-ho). Venice Beach offers free freakshows, if watching men jump on shards of glass is your thing.

I used to be a Mondrian loyalist but have recently defected to the Sunset Tower hotel next door. No hippies or hip-hop artists there, but a perfect, soothing ending to a West Coast holiday.

Music, Travel & Adventure

A hip-hop tour of New York’s Harlem

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary and teenage sons take a guided tour of Harlem and the Bronx to find the roots of hip-hop

ginny and sons at the wall of fame

So there I am with my solid crew, two teenage sons and me in Kangol berets, dripping in bling, on loan from our hosts Grandmaster Caz and Reggie Reg, the grandaddies of hip-hop, manoeuvring our way through Harlem and the Bronx in a tour bus rapping to “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”.

What a great way to start a family holiday in New York. Caz (short for Casanova) is an A* teacher; no slacking permitted as he fires out questions, checks whether his pupils have been listening, points out places of interest — where such and such a gangsta rapper was shot dead (“We always pause here to pay a little love . . . a little respect”) — and lists the four cornerstones of hip-hop culture: the DJ, the MC, breakdancing and graffiti. And then there’s the clothes.

“What’s the difference between fashion and style?” Headmaster Caz asks. To my astonishment, son No 2 puts up his hand: “Style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” “Excellent answer,” Caz replies.

Our first stop is the playground of an empty school in Harlem, walls ablaze with cartoon figures and slogans, which has been dubbed the Graffiti Wall of Fame. Caz, who does most of the talking, finds it amazing that what was once considered an “outlaw” activity has been transformed into Art — depending on who’s doing it and where it’s displayed.

We learn how hip-hop started on August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc (whose father was a DJ in Jamaica and taught his son that James Brown was god) decided that his Party Must Go On.

After several nights of booming music that could be heard three blocks away, “it started getting out of hand”, Caz says, and the party moved from a tiny living room to nearby Cedar Park, which is where things became creative.

He leads us to what looks like a lamppost and says: “We needed electricity so you open this up and inside is a ‘thingummyjig’. You go to a hardware store and get a ‘thingummybob’ and you plug the thingummybob into the thingummyjig and you’re away. So the authoriteee of New York Citeee unwittingleee kickstarted hip-hop.”

Soon hip-hop parties were taking place all over the boroughs, from its birthplace in the Bronx to Brooklyn and Harlem — the boom box became known as “the Harlem briefcase” — while the Manhattanites remained in thrall to square old disco.

The first hip-hop single to enter the Top 40 was the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979, and the original words were written by none other than our tour leader who performs the number for us on the bus, urging us to sing along to his “signature” line: “I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, the rest is F-L-Y”. Grandmaster Caz fought successfully to get a writer’s credit but has never received a cent in royalties; all the more reason to book a ride on his illuminating, and massively fun, tour.

After we are deposited, now sadly bling and beret-less, the boys (boyz?) and I walk down the streets of Harlem, all the way to our serviced appartment near Times Square. This is something of a nostalgia-fest since the last time I spent any time in Harlem was back in 1981 when the boys’ father, Bruce, and I were in New York as part of an extended honeymoon.

He ended up working on 125th street, the main vein of Harlem, selling fruit and vegetables from a stall with Gillie who — a quarter of a century later — is the photographer for this trip.

Harlem, then, was considered something of a no-go area for many native New Yorkers. Bruce would always take the subway to work from our studio sublet in Greenwich Village, since most yellow cab drivers simply refused the fare.

Our Harlem circle of friends and acquaintances tended to be in a less respectable line of work than our downtown gang, and their recreational habits were more self-destructive. Manchu, the fruit-and-vege boss, was an engaging figure who lived on a diet of Thunderbird wine and various heavy-duty drugs which, sadly, did for him in the end.

The Apollo Theatre, Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, whose heyday was in the 1930s, are still in operation and thrive under the new tourism, as does Sylvia’s famous soul food restaurant.

The Body Shop, The Gap and other international brands have long since moved in, along with Bill Clinton’s headquarters, and the magnificent brownstone terraced houses that were once derelict and used as shooting galleries for junkies (Manchu once offered me a look around, but I declined) are restored and selling for millions.

On Sunday we returned to Harlem on a gospel tour. On our way to church we stopped to admire a number of striking historical buildings which, rather shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of as a twentysomething. Sylvan Terrace is a double row of wooden two-storey houses, very quaint with their ivy-green shutters, built in 1882 across a cobblestoned street.

This was the carriage drive for a substantial Georgian mansion, Mount Morris, built in 1765 for Colonel Roger Morris, a Royalist, and his Dutch wife. George Washington used it as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. In 1810 the wealthy French-Caribbean wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza Bowen, restored it.

Jumel died in mysterious circumstances, according to our guide, and his widow — who had become the richest person in New York — went on to marry Aaron Burr, Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson, in the front parlour.

The church service, itself, was a bit of a letdown and too long for our unGodbothering tastes. I loved the way the congregation dressed up and the warm, sprawling family atmosphere. But the gospel singing was distinctly tame (its members, we were told, are recovering addicts) and not a patch on the choir I saw at a gospel brunch in Jimmy’s, a celebrity hangout in Harlem in the late Nineties. The singers were ultra-lively and rejoiced in such bonkers lyrics as “My Lord is a washing machine”.

The rest of our week was packed with all the enjoyable New York clichés: the free entertainment of opera-singing, rollerblading show-offs in Central Park; carb-filled breakfasts in the Empire Diner; oysters in Grand Central station; the Rockettes in Radio City Hall; jazz in the West Village; Polish food in the East Village; ice- skating at the Rockefeller Centre.

After a break in Philadelphia we returned for a last night at the Mandarin hotel in a suite of Madame Jumel-like luxury. The boys were thrilled with their eyrie views of Central Park. The staff, with the minimum of fuss, converted the sofas into beds while we were dining downstairs and both sons pronounced the hamburgers “excellent” and the female diners “fit”.

Earlier, I had a half-a-day in the company of a personal shopper, Deanna, who picked me up in a white stretch limo. We were, alas, a mismatch; she being a willowy Sex and the City girl, while I am more Rosemary and Thyme (not Felicity Kendal, the other one).

Deanna was frank: my look “definitely needed updating”. Thus I found myself, in slight panic mode, buying absurdly feminine shoes, a white coat and Prada boots, most of which have remained in the wardrobe. I should have listened more carefully to the hip-hop headmaster or, indeed, my son: “It’s not what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it.”

Bang that, shoppers, to the boogie, boogie beat.

Getting there

The Mandarin Oriental (001 212 805 8800, www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork), 80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, has double rooms from £515 a night including breakfast.

Hush Hip Hop Tours (001 212 209 3370, www.hushhiphoptours.com) of Harlem are $50pp.

Fashion Junkie (www.fashionjunkie.com) offers four-hour guided walking tours from $100pp, and private shopping from $275pp including transport.

Further information NYC & Company (020-7367 0934, www.nycgo.com).

Virgin Atlantic (0844 8747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to New York from £315 return.

Music

How do you pen a song for the Brighton Festival Fringe?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

It’s taken a year, but Ginny Dougary’s latest song is about to be unveiled in public. It’s been a steep learning curve

(Scroll to the bottom of this article to listen to the songs)

This time next week, 150 singers will be on a stage crooning a song that has taken a year to write. Why has the gestation period been so extended? Is it because the piece is unbelievably long and complex? Or that the lyrics came from some deeply angst-ridden place? Could it be the case, as Nick Cave once told me, that: “In order to write a worthwhile love song, it needs to have within it the potential for pain or an understanding of the pain of whatever you’re writing about. I don’t think they allow themselves to be written until I’ve fully experienced what it is I’m writing about. They wait patiently to be finished.”

The answer is, unfortunately, rather more mundane — the occasionally fraught business of collaboration. As a team, the composer MJ and I are pretty new to this game, with maybe a dozen songs to date, some performed by professional singers and actors but mainly by amateur choirs.

The composer, as an experienced songwriter, more often than not, has the upper hand. This can be a frustrating process, particularly as she has not had to deal with a writer’s ego before.

This is the sixth year that the Brighton City Singers, now joined by the South London Choir (both directed by MJ), have performed new choral works commissioned by her for the Brighton Festival Fringe. The pieces come from composers all over the world who are thrilled that their work will be performed in public. Even with the current widespread interest in singing — choirs being the book clubs of the Noughties — contemporary composers, and that includes established ones, don’t get much of a platform.

There have been some terrific concerts: one of the most memorable was Vocal Tango; the title song had a fabulous troupe of ageing tango dancers performing, and the choir replicating with their voices the plucking sounds of the violin and the swooning strains of the accordion. This year it’s Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll — which is a suitable challenge to most people’s idea of what choral music can be.

The first song we worked on was intended for last year’s festival — Food of Love. My idea was to write a sort of pastiche of (or homage to) those 1930s Jelly Roll Morton/Bessie Smith numbers that were laden with sexual innuendo while ostensibly being about the joys of food (“I wanna put my banana in your fruitbowl”, etc). What I find challenging is that it’s almost impossible to write the lyrics without having a tune in your head — but the composer, naturally, has her own views about the musical style. Before I put the words down, we talked about the theme of the song: the idea that women tend to prefer slow cooking while the men are after a quick bite.

Sometimes — although surprisingly rarely — the sound of the song is so wildly different to the one that started out in my imagination that it becomes hard to reconcile the words to the music. The first version of Slow Cook Me last year sounded too squeaky clean and “choral” when the lyrics were so dirty. The new one works well because it has that languorous bluesy sound and, even better, it is not a pastiche but something original.

It has been a bit of a learning curve for someone who is used to being the mistress of her words to discover that if there’s a contest between a cracking tune or scintillating lyrics (one lives in hope) — the tune will always win. This means that I have had to learn not to become too attached to a phrase or a couplet because if the words don’t work in the rhythm they will be ruthlessly dispatched. For example, certain vowel sounds will be more pleasant to the ear — such as “when”, which people tend to say or sing brightly — and others will be less so — “what”, which can often sound very Brooklyn, and not in a good way. Apparently it’s something to do with the position of the tongue and the palate.

The composer will tend to use as many of my rhymes as she can easily mould into her music, and fill the rest with her own just so they fit, before handing the lyrics back to me to rewrite. My first job in journalism was as a sub-editor, inserting characters into a headline whose length had been dictated by the designer. This has proved invaluable for our method of songwriting, as I beat out the rhythm of the line, write the stresses on a piece of paper in a series of dashes, and then make the words fit into that pattern. Once the words have been agreed, the composer transforms them into fourpart harmony, and records each part on computer as a rehearsal aid for the choir.

As someone who is not naturally musical but loves to write and sing, I find the next stage quite magical. To hear the song taken up with enthusiasm by a room of singers, tentative at first but growing in confidence until the song really comes to life and takes off, is thrilling. It’s also fascinating to discover how malleable a song can be. This Moment, a love song we originally wrote for a musical as a duet, sounds, strangely, almost as intimate now that MJ has adapted it for the choir.

What makes a good song? Jarvis Cocker is considered to be pretty hot stuff as a songwriter (“This is our music from a bachelor’s den / The sound of loneliness turned up to ten”) but he told me that he prefers people not to read his lyrics when they are listening to his songs because it interferes with how they experience the music. Besides, he said, some of the greatest pop songs have rubbish lyrics.

While some of my all-time favourites are undoubtedly as much about the words as the tune — Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man, Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows — just as many are not.

Louie Louie, a song that is so successful it even has a festival dedicated to it, is a case in point. It was written in 1955 by Richard Berry (no relation to Chuck) as a firstperson story of a Jamaican sailor returning to see his girl. It would be fair to say that this is a good example of the tune beating the lyrics hands down. In fact, it has been rewritten by several groups and recorded more than 1,500 times. One version by the Kingsmen in 1963 prompted an FBI investigation into the alleged obscenity of the lyrics. It inspired a number of pop hits, including the Troggs’ Wild Thing (they also did a version of Louie Louie) and You Really Got Me by the Kinks, and ranks 55 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs.

When I bought my flat in Brighton I was told that the previous owner was a a big deal in the music business. He didn’t leave a forwarding address and continues to be sent royalty statements — which I must confess to opening once, and was delighted to discover that the songs were ones that I knew and once loved: Baby Come Back (recorded by the Equals in 1968) and Hold Your Head Up (Argent, 1972). The Pollyanna bit of me hopes that those same sea views will one day inspire a similar success.

Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll, Hove Town Hall Centre (www.brightonfestivalfringe.org.uk ), May 23.

Listen to MJ rehearse Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll

Listen to MJ rehearse Slow Cook Me

Listen to This Moment (Soloists – John Savournin and Katharine Prestwood; Chorus – Jonathan Mudgridge, Rosalind Strobel, Jake White, Rosamond Lomax, Mary-Jane Harris, Belinda Bunker, Rebecca Rocheleau; recording/ sound engineer – Tom Stone)

Listen to Ginger Chorale by MJ and Ginny Dougary

Politicians

Who is David Cameron?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The past year has been a momentous one for David Cameron. As Gordon Brown’s Government stumbles from crisis to crisis, Cameron has reaped the political reward, as his target narrows on No 10. Yet alongside this public ambition has been private grief as he suffered the devastating death of his eldest child, Ivan

David Cameron
Photo: Tom Stoddart

If David Cameron wants to survive to become the next prime minister, he should avoid being driven at all costs. We are hurtling through the narrow, winding country roads of West Oxfordshire, having left his constituency headquarters in Witney (Tory-blue carpet and chairs; wobbly round table; rough Cotswold stonewalls) a fraction behind schedule for the 20-minute journey to Chimney Meadows nature reserve, where Cameron is to deliver a speech.

He is still tanned from his holiday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – “Yuh, Tony Blair territory” – and looks slimmer and, strangely, after all he has been through in recent weeks, even more fresh-faced and youthful than when we last met. “Really? I feel a lot older,” he grimaces when I tell him. He is definitely, however, more uptight, barking at the poor chauffeur: “Are you sure this is the right direction?”; “This isn’t the way I would have gone” every few minutes; continually worrying about running late. After our white-knuckle ride, Gabrielle Bertin, Cameron’s press officer, confides that her boss is always a bit of a nightmare passenger. Here is a man who hankers to be in the driver’s seat in more ways, clearly, than the big one.

The occasion, described to me by Cameron as “very birds and trees”, is attended by 100-odd local wildlife enthusiasts in green wellies, Barbours and fleeces; not all of them Tory voters. By the time he is called upon to speak, the leader-in-waiting has regained his customary composure. He starts with a little joke that this is the first time he has given a talk in a barn which means that there’s less risk – what with the fresh air and open doors – of his audience falling asleep.

The speech is an opportunity for him to underline his green commitment: “Some would say that in a recession we can’t afford to go green, but I would say quite the opposite… Some people find the greening of the Conservative Party rather peculiar but…”, and says that he wants to make it easier for local communities to take over disused land, in a move that would echo Thatcher’s “right to buy” homes policy.

He finishes by drawing on the theme of a Dr Seuss book, The Lorax, which is the Camerons’ current bedtime reading for their children, Nancy and Elwen. It is a fable of the dangers of destroying biodiversity: “The effect of deforestation, smog and pollution – gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlopp to Dr Seuss – are all too familiar… The moral of the story is all in one word: ‘Unless’.” Cameron adopts a singsong voice: “‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, It’s not going to get better, it’s not.’”

It is six weeks since Ivan, the Camerons’ eldest child, died. David Cameron had agreed that we should meet to talk briefly about this sad event, before our drive to Chimney Meadows. It would be fair to say that we were both rather dreading the intrusion into such a private realm of loss. We had, however, spent months talking on and off for this profile, during which time I had met Ivan in the family’s London home, and the grieving father must remain a pragmatic politician.

First, we catch up on the big news of that week: McNastygate. I’m most interested in what he thinks the whole Damian McBride affair says about Gordon Brown’s character, but the question confounds him: “I don’t know; I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t think you can just say that this is a one-off problem. There is a pattern of behaviour but I profoundly believe politics doesn’t have to be like this.” Cue predictable guff on how much healthier the political culture would be if the Conservatives were in power.

I wonder which of the prevailing theories about Brown rings truest to Cameron: is the Prime Minister a Jekyll and Hyde character (donnish introvert alongside bruiser bullyboy) or someone who needs the likes of McBride because he doesn’t have the requisite toughness for that sort of gloves-off fight?

“I just don’t know the man well enough to answer the question,” he sighs. “But you choose the people you want for the skills they have and what you want them to do so… it’s like the scene in Casablanca, as Andrew Neil put it, when the barman says, ‘I’m shocked that people have been drinking in my bar.’ ”

Politics, he agrees, sometimes – quite often – means being unpleasant (as anyone who has witnessed recent Commons confrontations between Brown and Cameron will attest). “Yes, there’s rough and tumble; yes, there’s argument; yes, it can get very heated; yes, sometimes it does go into… um… what people’s motivations are…” And nasty? “Yes, but it’s a world apart from what’s been going on here, (a) because it’s all untrue, and (b) because it’s going after people’s wives. I felt really very angry about it because I thought, ‘How can these people say that about someone’s wife?’” (The leaked e-mails contained below-the-belt comments about George Osborne’s wife.)

Did it make Cameron want to punch him? (I meant McBride but Cameron clearly thought I was talking about Brown which makes his response even funnier.) “You want to get the sort of mud wrestling scene from D.H. Lawrence! No!” he laughs. “I just felt really angry and the point about me saying, ‘I want him to say sorry,’ was not a ploy to be clever. I just thought, ‘I bloody well want him to say sorry. I’m really angry about this.’

“And it’s no good saying he didn’t write the e-mails. This happened in his office in Downing Street, he’s the leader, he’s the head of the culture, so you have to say sorry. He did eventually, and good for him, quite right.”

Cameron, of course, has first-hand experience of spin; in his one break from politics, he was Michael Green’s director of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications from 1994 to 2001. I say that he seemed to be universally unpopular in that role and he erupts into laughter: “It was pretty impossible because I worked for someone whose view – particularly when you’re dealing with market-sensitive information – was that you should say very little. I was perennially known as saying, ‘No comment,’ to everyone about everything.”

The Carlton chapter in Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s (newly updated) unauthorised biography makes you sound a good deal more disagreeable than that. “It’s very bad,” he splutters. “It’s a long time since I read the book but it’s not right at all.” But all those quotes were attributable to journalists who wrote about what a s*** you were! “Butbutbutbutbut… [snorting with laughter]. I don’t accept that, I really don’t.”

What? David Cameron says, “I was not a s***”? “Of course I was not a… you know,” he says, hyper-alert to the possibility of providing the wrong sort of soundbite. “The point is there are a lot of people you could talk to who would say that I did the job very fairly and in a very honourable way.” (He plucks out one name and says, sounding slightly desperate, “I’m sure she would vouch for me.”)

So is there nothing you’ve done in your professional life that has made you ashamed of yourself? “Of course, I’m sure there are things that I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done,” he says. “But what Damian McBride did is just in a different world.”

We move on to Ivan. In our early meetings, I was struck by how often Cameron talked about his profoundly disabled first-born child. What was striking is that although I found Cameron to be frustratingly reticent in some ways, he always seemed utterly relaxed talking about Ivan’s condition – an extreme form of epilepsy and cerebral palsy – almost as though it were a relief to speak openly about what it is like to be a parent of a disabled child.

I had asked him whether, on hearing the news about the extent of his son’s disability, there had been a moment where he feared he might not love him because of it. “That’s a very deep, big question,” he replied. “But I never worried that I wouldn’t because when your first child is born, that’s an incredibly precious feeling that you have and you love him from the moment he pops out.”

We had been talking back then about his faith – which he described as “good, solid Church of England… sort of full of doubts and worries and concerns and I don’t think I’ve got a direct line to God! But if something goes wrong in life, I’m more inclined to try to be rational and sensible and practical…” – and, again, his thoughts led inexorably back to Ivan.

“I suppose with Ivan, on the one hand it does sort of shake your faith but on the other hand, I don’t know, in a rather strange way it also reaffirmed it.”

It is still very early days since the death of his boy and, of course, “It’s not a straight line where every day gets a little better. Some days, you think, well, this is getting a bit better, and other days you feel completely miserable and it’s not getting better at all.

“I try to think of… The fact is that he did have a lot of pain in his life and he did suffer a lot, and so I try to think of that because it makes me think that he’s in a better place – but you just can’t get over the fact that we miss him a lot, you know. That’s the really difficult thing.”

In one of the many, many pieces that have been written about Ivan, I was struck by the description of him being a presence in the room that pulled people, particularly children, towards him; almost as though his stillness radiated a sort of calmness which you wanted to be near. I felt it, to a small extent, myself. “I think because he couldn’t move, if he heard a new voice, his head would turn and he would look at you and you would just be drawn.” And he was beautiful. “Yesssss,” a sharp intake of breath; his eyes redden and so do mine. We’re going to find this… “Very difficult…”

Cameron pulls himself up. “The letters were amazing, I got 11,000 letters… I didn’t read every single one but I did read a huge amount. I read all the ones from people who had children like Ivan, because they were amazing stories, and all the ones from people who’d met him and what their impressions were and that was very touching to read.”

He and his wife Samantha watched Gordon Brown’s speech: “I thought it was very good and I wasn’t expecting it at all because, you know, I thought Parliament will carry on, as it were, but it was very touching that he and William Hague did what they did and said what they said.

“The Houses of Parliament are extraordinary in that one minute everyone is having a go at each other, and the next minute because of bereavement or an event it suddenly stops. It was odd watching television that night – the mood was very striking – but we were watching it because it was lovely seeing…” Cameron emits a piercingly grief-stricken laugh, “…you know, pictures of Ivan.”

I mention the lovely one of him and Ivan that was on the front of every newspaper and he says that someone did an incredible drawing of it and sent it to him: “Absolutely beautiful… a little pencil drawing, really the loveliest thing. I’m framing it and I’ve brought it down to Dean [his Oxfordshire home] to put it on the wall because it’s so lovely.”

The Camerons haven’t even thought about how to deal with their London home, with its basement converted specifically to cater to Ivan’s needs. When does life move on to deal with painful practicalities of that sort? “Very slowly. That expression – time and space – is very true. Because you do need time and you do need not to rush these things. There are all those sort of things which we haven’t changed yet and it will take a very long time to do that.”

Is it the case that Samantha is finding it particularly hard because of the bond – even a sort of cocoon – that mothers are said to have with severely disabled children? “The point is that it was not just because he was our first child that life evolved around him an enormous amount, but Samantha had arranged a life for him and care for him and everything for him so brilliantly and beautifully and that not being there any more is… an enormous vacuum… and that will take a very long time to come to terms with.”

Was there any moment when he thought that he didn’t want to be in this game any more, that there are more important things in life than politics?

“It was more like just the world stopped and nothing else mattered; it’s more like that. It doesn’t suddenly change everything you think but… it’s the only way I can describe it. This happened and suddenly the clock stopped,” he says, echoing Auden’s moving love poem of loss, “and the next few days and weeks were just very different to anything that had gone before and then, slowly, you emerge.”

He continues: “You’re quite hyperactive, too. Funerals are very cathartic things because the arrangements and everything are tremendously important because it helps you understand what’s happened and then afterwards you feel a bit low because… as I say, it’s not a straight line. It’s not a bit better every day – it just comes and goes.”

Do you think it’s made it harder for you because you’re so much in the public eye? “I don’t know, because I am what I am and what I do, and there’s nothing to compare it with.” He stops and thinks. “There are ups and downs. The positives are the letters I’ve had, and the extraordinary contact I’ve had with people has been very helpful – because it’s lovely to know that people are thinking about you, and it helps that other people who’ve been through the same thing write to you. But on the other hand, the fact that people do come up and say lovely things sometimes just sets you off again.”

It was only afterwards when I listened to the interview that I realised that Cameron had hardly mentioned Ivan’s name, as though to say it might make him fall apart.

The man behind the scenes

We had spent a very long day together at the beginning of January, travelling up by train to the unTory North East heartland – Stockton-on-Tees, Sunderland, Newcastle, Tynemouth, North Shields – from eight in the morning, not getting back to London till after midnight.

There were a number of train journeys, car rides, hanging unglamorously around Doncaster station in the dark and freezing cold (he had, imprudently, forgotten to bring a coat) for a delayed connection, and so on

– but, as many a sceptical interviewer before me has found, Cameron is good company, not at all arrogant or pompous, relaxed, with the sort of easy charm that can make you want to forget you’re being charmed.

This Cameron swears, likes a drink, sings Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne in a bad Geordie accent as we approach Newcastle, and speaks refreshingly openly about other political figures, both in the UK and overseas – but then worries terribly that his off-the-record comments might somehow resurface. (He is a bit of a fretter, I think.) I have to reassure both him and Gabby Bertin – oh, about half a dozen times – that not a word of his indiscretions will see the light of day.

The next meeting was at his home – another early start – a week or so later, and it was clear that Cameron was as keen as me that I should catch a glimpse of him being a modern father with Samantha, creative director of pukka stationer Smythson, clearing up breakfast, getting their three children ready for school, before setting off to work.

When Cam’s Gang – the New Tory brat pack – was first written about in 2005, much was made of its members’ proximity to one another in fashionable Notting Hill, West London – a not altogether helpful (at least not to them) shorthand for a certain fast-living, trustafarian lifestyle. The Camerons’ home is not one of those gorgeous white stuccoed piles within walking distance of bijoux boutiques and foodie restaurants, but a rather more ordinary Edwardian house in an unremarkable street near tatty Latimer Road Tube station. Admittedly it did cost more than £1 million, which is not hard in London, and that was before its architect-designed, environmentally friendly makeover, but there’s very little to distinguish it – apart from, perhaps, a number of large nudes by Samantha propped against a wall – from any other metropolitan upper-middle class family home.

When I arrived, Samantha was sitting on the sofa with Ivan on her lap, putting on his socks, while David was perched in front of the computer watching clips of Ben 10 cartoons on YouTube with Nancy, 5, on one knee and Elwen, as the family call him, although he was christened Arthur, 3, on the other. Later the couple switched and David told me, as he carefully arranged his eldest son’s floppy limbs into his mechanised wheelchair, that he got a smile from Ivan earlier on when he kissed him on the back of the neck. With so little else to gauge how your child is feeling, one can see how a smile – particularly since they were rare – must have been cherishable indeed.

Cameron has been accused, from both within and without his party, of using his family, particularly Ivan, for political leverage. The Browns, for instance, also have a disabled child, Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis, but they have made the decision to keep their boys out of the public domain.

I don’t happen to feel that Cameron’s approach was wrong, even if there were an element of expediency about it. To see an extremely handicapped child cuddled up with the rest of the family – being cared for by a loving father, one who has his sights set on the most senior post in the land, in an unselfconscious way – must help to remove the stigma and fear around the disabled.

The Leader of the Opposition is used to hearing the criticisms and handles them with equanimity, explaining patiently when we first met: “For one thing, my family is very important and – as I’ve put it before – I’m asking people to do a big thing and make me Prime Minister and they have a right to look at you and what you’re like.

“But I also agree with people who say that you have to think about privacy and to me it’s a judgment you have to make, and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. And I’ve said this about Ivan: he’s my son and I love him and I’ve learnt a lot about disability through him and I do talk about him… [on the train, he proudly showed me a photograph of Ivan on his mobile phone, a beautiful pale face with thick black eyelashes and silky dark hair]… and if sometimes people say I talk about him too much, well, people have a perfect right to criticise me. I might sometimes get it wrong and if people want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should’, fine. I’m very relaxed about it because it is a judgment you have to make all the time.”

Character study

By the time we spoke in Cameron’s office in Portcullis House, London, some weeks later, I was feeling rather too well disposed towards him for comfort. Still a suspicion lingered that the Prime Minister in waiting might not be quite as reasonable and compassionate as he seems. And how important is “niceness” anyway in a political leader – unless it’s part of the detoxification process, as Cameron doesn’t like to call it; convincing the voters that your party is no longer “the nasty party”.

Cameron had said to me on the train that, “Character is often more important than policy in some ways,” and in the absence of a strong ideology, it is his character and judgment that demand particular scrutiny. The appointment of Andy Coulson – the former editor of the News of the World who resigned when one of his reporters was caught tapping the Royal Family’s telephones – as the Tories’ communications supremo was thought by some to send out an odd message, especially given Cameron’s vocal anti-spin position.

I had a couple of niggling doubts about Cameron’s character before the Portcullis meeting, when I’d put in a few phone calls to contemporaries of his at Eton and those who knew him subsequently. The Old Etonian said that from what he could gather, Cameron had been “a bit of a bully, the type of boy who might try to stub out his fags on friends’ younger brothers”. When I repeated this, Cameron looked shocked and said, “That’s an appalling thing to say and also completely untrue.”

At his prep school, to which he was sent off to board at the age of 7, there was “teasing… which could become a bit cruel… But you all had a bit of that dumped on you… It wasn’t particularly bad… Sometimes it just goes over the top and has to be pulled back. How do you cope with it? I suppose it’s just one of the things that you have to sort of learn.”

During the period Cameron worked at the Conservative Research Department and beyond, he was described to me as a “toadying suck-up” to those above him and a “petty tyrant” to those below. Another contact added, “There were, of course, numerous stories of him behaving like that at Carlton.”

But what really irked me about Cameron when we did our interview in his office was the smoothness of his transition from regular human being into professional politician. Within seconds he’d started talking like a parody of himself on television: head tilted, a slight sheen on his baby’s-bottom cheek, the exaggerated tone of eminent reasonableness, and that curse of the politician when under the spotlight: the uninterruptible platitudinous flow.

It didn’t help that we had started talking about his attitude towards the importance of restoring family values to mend so-called (by Iain Duncan Smith) “broken Britain”. By family values, Cameron really means a conventional nuclear family with a mummy and a daddy, whom he seems to believe will be encouraged to stay together if his government pays them £20 a week as part of a married couple’s allowance. However much Cameron strives to dress this up differently, it does recall the last Tory era when the likes of Peter Lilley were blaming all the woes of society on teenage single mums.

Off he goes into speech mode: “Of course we should help every family and there should be benefits for single parents. Of course that’s true, but what I’m saying is let’s not ignore what is, I think, clear: that, on average, overall, looking right across the piece, children benefit from having Mum and Dad bring them up… You’re just trying to say, let’s have a tax system and a benefit system that at least sends a positive signal about commitment and staying together. Now of course nobody gets married for £20; I’m not saying that. But we shouldn’t have a system that actively encourages people to break up.”

There is an interesting schism here. If you look at what Cameron has said in his public speeches, there is something quite brave and bold and empathetic about his words. In his 2006 conference speech in Bournemouth, this is what he said about single parents: “Those of us who don’t live the life of a single parent, just try to imagine it for a moment. Trying to get a job… trying to hold down a job with an employer who isn’t understanding about the fact that you might have to disappear at a moment’s notice because there’s no one else in your child’s life and you are responsible.”

It was this same speech that demonstrated Cameron’s dramatic evolution from traditional (he was an enthusiastic early supporter of the homophobic Section 28) to modern Tory when he defined the importance of marriage thus: “And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships and I’m proud of that.”

In June last year, he reiterated this theme in a lecture for Relate – and was applauded for doing so by the chief executive, Claire Tyler. She is unswayed, however, by the thinking behind the £20 married couple’s tax break, believing it more important to target “properly funded services” at those who really need them.

So far, so right on. And, yet, when Cameron talks to me, he continually emphasises the benefits of the conventional mum and dad set-up. It’s as though, rationally (or pragmatically), he knows that the right thing to do is to adopt a more inclusive approach but at a gut level remains unconvinced. The explanation for this, I think, is part of the Dave/David Cameron conundrum – the way in which he is a throwback to a much earlier, pre-Thatcher Tory age, while striving to be his party’s most radical modern transformer. One of his friends has described him brilliantly as “Alec Douglas-Home goes to the Glastonbury Festival”.

Thus “Dave” employs teenage lingo like “bigging up” and “whatever” even when addressing an audience of ancient, tweedy Torygraph readers, although he doesn’t fall into Blair’s trap of modifying his accent, wears his colourful Converse trainers and gets up Baroness Thatcher’s nose for not wearing a suit and tie. David is rather stiff-upper-lip and feels uncomfortable being drawn into any navel-gazing. “Dave” knows his Killers songs, and the references in his speeches are not Shakespeare and Byron but television shows and films – a post-modern Tory, if you like – although it tends to be old-style action stuff such as The Guns of Navarone (he’s seen Where Eagles Dare 17 times) rather than, say, Pulp Fiction. David has a sort of noblesse oblige attitude to the have-nots in society that harks back to Harold Macmillan; when I say this he nods and points to a far wall of the room: “There’s a picture of him over there.”

Family values

Cameron is a bastard from way back – something he tells me on the train. His lineage can be traced to William IV (1765-1837) and his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan, who had ten illegitimate children. Samantha goes back even further, to the first Duke of St Albans, one of two illegitimate sons by Nell Gwynne and Charles II.

His own family background, unlike that of his wife, seems to have been conventionally settled and down-to-earth. His father, Ian, sounds admirable: a man who, despite being born with badly deformed legs (he has now had both amputated and is blind in one eye), never let his disability stop him doing anything he wanted in life – from playing tennis to securing the hand of the well-connected Mary Mount who, at 19, judging from an early photograph of her in a ball dress, was something of a bobbydazzler.

I suspect that David’s emphasis on the importance of marriage and a stable family has been inherited from his father, who apparently had a wretched time as a child when his own parents divorced. Samantha’s parents, Sir Reginald Sheffield – former owner of the 300-acre estate of Normanby Hall, outside Scunthorpe – and Annabel Jones, divorced amicably in the early Seventies. She became Viscountess Astor when she married William Astor a few years later.

But let’s return to that interview in Portcullis House, where Cameron’s inner politician had the effect of unleashing my inner Paxman, prompting him to say, “You’re meant to be interviewing me, not attacking me…” Then, “Actually, I’m enjoying this.”

To my complaint that he was so much more irritating in politician mode, Cameron said, not unreasonably, “Well, I am a politician, for Christ’s sake, what do you expect?” At one point, hilariously, he and his personable press secretary, Bertin, who was sitting in with her own tape recorder, started applauding my technique; Cameron: “You’re just trying to get stuff out of me; it’s a very clever tactic.”

What neither of them seemed to understand was that my bad temper was absolutely genuine. From the moment Cameron donned his politician’s mask, everything that came out of his mouth sounded phoney. He trotted out his favourite soundbite several times: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state,” which is annoying on so many different levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s a blatantly tricksy device to distance himself from the Thatcher era, when her line “There’s no such thing as society” became synonymous with uncompassionate Conservatism. But the rest of that line, which was rarely quoted from her interview in Woman’s Own, was, “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” And so while pretending to turn his back on nasty, selfish old Thatcherism, he is actually reconfirming her belief that it is up to individuals to sort out social problems, and not the responsibility of government.

“Broken Britain” is another maddening slogan which panders to the worst sort of Daily Fear prejudices, taking a few black spots and violent crimes to paint a distorted picture of widespread and irrevocable breakdown which is, surely, unrecognisable for the most part to most people.

Cameron’s response to this, when I say that there is much evidence that the British are plenty caring and compassionate without needing any guidance from the Conservative Party, is, “I’m not saying that every part of our country is in a broken state… My constituency is a wonderful part of the world where there is a very strong society and people do look after and out for each other.”

What I believe Cameron really thinks, but feels it would be too unpolitical to emphasise, is that profound social problems are almost universally linked to profound economic problems. He does actually address this himself, saying that society is too unequal and his real concern is the gap between the bottom and the middle, and that “part of what my whole leadership of this party has been about is reconnecting the Conservative Party with its heritage of caring about inequality, poverty, the causes of poverty and the two nations of a country that…” a nod to me, “in some parts is broken.”

So, I put to him, when he keeps linking divorce or the lack of fathers to the collapse of society, wouldn’t it be more honest to acknowledge that where this makes a particular impact is on those who are already struggling to survive. After all, he must know plenty of people – his wife, for one – whose new extended families, post divorce, have successfully reconfigured into perfectly happy and functional tribes.

“It’s much easier to get on if you have the resources to do so,” he agrees. “So if you’re saying, ‘Does relationship breakdown particularly disadvantage people in less well-off communities?’, the answer is probably yes.”

Part of Cameron’s charm is to use self-deprecation whenever possible, which is also useful for warding off an unwelcome line of inquiry. He seems to find it particularly difficult to respond to questions that attempt to delve, which leads to more combative banter. So he will say that he is “boringly” uncomplicated and straightforward, and I say, “So no hidden depths, only shallows?”

He does admit to having been in the shadow of his older brother, Alexander, three years his senior, a barrister and “probably” a Conservative voter – unlike his elder sister, Tania, “who was always a Labour voter… I don’t know whether I’ve swung her; I’m working on it.” As for his younger sister, Clare, through whom he met Samantha, he has no idea what she votes. Alexander, he says, was always better at sport than him, very popular, and a “brilliant actor. He was in every school play – he’s a really, really good actor.”

He also has a fear of failure which he finds hard to explain: “I don’t know… I just don’t know what I feel. I hate letting people down. I hate failing.” Perhaps if you have a flaw it is that you don’t care to scrutinise yourself too much? “I try to scrutinise if I’ve got something wrong. I try to go back and think, well, why? And sometimes that can be something that’s part of your make-up that you failed. It is something that you have to ask yourself. When you let people down, you have to go back and say, ‘Well, why did I do that? Where did I go wrong? How was I… I don’t know, whether… was I being insensitive or…?’ So I can do a bit of self-analysis, I hope.”

This has such a personal tinge, I wonder whether he and Samantha argue much. “Yes, of course we argue. Not absolutely throwing-the-furniture arguments, and we try to never go to bed on an argument… try to make it up before you sleep. But, yeah, relationships are very good for discovering about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.”

When Cameron was telling me about his Eton days, where he was a self-confessed late developer, he made a point of saying how much he enjoyed spending time in the art department. “I just sort of quite liked trying out different things – printing and silk-screening and so on.” He says that he only got a C at O level, “but was quite proud because

I did it on my own, outside the curriculum, because I really enjoyed it”. What does Samantha think of your efforts? “Terrible. She’s the artist and I’m not.”

When I ask him whether he had girlfriends as a young man, he says: “Lots.” Any serious relationships before Samantha? “Yes, but none I’m going to particularly tell you about.” Cameron could have picked any number of conventional Sloaney Tory girls to be his mate – he has a certain plumped-up Rupert Brooke appeal and is bright, although not dazzlingly witty, comes from good stock and so on.

I wonder, given that interest of his in art, and the slightly wistful way he talks about his brother’s brilliance on the stage, whether his attraction to Samantha was his own small form of rebellion. For all that is made of his wife’s aristocratic background, we also know that she chose not to conform entirely to its expected norms. As an art student in Bristol, for instance, where one might have expected her to live in well-heeled Clifton, she picked Montpelier and St Paul’s – which had been the centre for the race riots during the Eighties. Much has been made of her friendship with the trip-hop artist Tricky, her dolphin tattoo, and so on. But she also seems to have had some sort of grit in her personality that impressed Cameron then – enough for him to travel from London to Bristol every weekend, and be ragged mercilessly for being a weird young Tory – and still does.

What does Cameron think? “It’s a good theory but I’m not sure,” he says. “Something just clicked and it got better. When you really love someone, you can’t always explain why – you just do.

“Now, you know, she is a very hardworking career woman with a great job and big responsibilities which she loves and she’s incredibly organised and brilliantly efficient, but there’s still the bohemian lurking inside.”

When I visited the Camerons’ home, three months or so ago now, I could not help but be impressed by the way they seemed to deal, with great fortitude and grace, with the daily vicissitudes of coping with a very disabled child. I asked him then – since I gather it’s what some of his closest friends believe – whether there have been two factors in his life that have been the making of him. First, Samantha: “She’s been a good influence on me, so that’s definitely true. What’s the other?” Ivan? “Yes, I’m sure he’s had a big effect. I mean, I hope that had neither of these things happened, I wouldn’t have been a truly awful person, but I think you have to add it all up – a bit of nature, a bit of nurture, a bit of circumstance, that’s what makes us what we are.”

Where Cameron has a real Achilles’ heel is his hang-up about the privilege of his background. Another of his slick slogans is “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going”. This may be intended to reassure those who have been born without the advantages Cameron has enjoyed that he wants to create a meritocratic society in which they, too, can flourish. But, in my dealings with him, what is really noticeable is how he wants to distance himself from his own wealth and how often he “bigs up”, as he might put it, the way his party has recruited people from very different backgrounds to his own. At times, he and his associates sound like the posh girl Jarvis Cocker sends up in the blistering Common People.

I wanted to know when he started caring about the poor. Did he ever come across poor people growing up? “Yes, of course.” When and how? “Well, in my home life, where I lived, you were very aware of the country you were in.”

Where in your home life? “I’m trying to think…” Did you know any poor people? “Yes, of course. People who are less well off than me, yes of course.” Where did you meet them? You didn’t meet them at Eton, did you?

“No, but at home.” How did you meet them at home? “I don’t want to disinter my entire childhood and who I played with and what it was like…”

He knew as well as I did that this wasn’t really a satisfactory response and so, a week later, sent me a longish e-mail attempting to make a link between his views now and how those seeds might first have been sewn.

“Here’s what I think. I was brought up in a stable and prosperous family. But we were always aware – and made aware – of just how fortunate we were. Mum was a magistrate for some 30 years and very plugged in to the community. We’d talk a lot about what she did and in many ways she embodied that sense of giving something back and public service that I believe in. Of course, the schools I went to were quite exclusive, but we weren’t cut off from the rest of the world and had quite a free country childhood in a busy and socially mixed village.”

He went on to say that he’d done some social work at school, visiting an old lady and doing her shopping, but that his view of social responsibility – a bit like his view of politics – “didn’t leap fully formed… in some cathartic moment… It just emerged as I got older… For me a really big part of wanting to be, and being, an MP is the social work. I love it and still do now with everything else going on. Some might see this as rather an old-fashioned view of public service – and I accept it can sound a bit patrician, but it’s what I think.”

I only get one flash of that Mr Nasty streak in Mr Nice when I raise the question of the Camerons’ various properties. We had been talking about his bewilderment about the depth of dislike that some people in the Labour party have towards the Conservatives: “Where I think Conservatives tend to feel Labour are misguided and wrong, there are some people in the Labour Party who just think the Tories are awful and evil, which is ridiculous and wrong.”

In my attempt to explain why they might have these feelings – I confess to shuddering whenever I see that photograph of young David and Boris in their Bullingdon Club regalia – I mention the four houses: “The four properties thing is rubbish. Touching that you believe everything you read in the newspapers!” You patronising git, I exclaim.

“I don’t mean it like that, but…” So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be… Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

The rest of the interview was punctuated with Cameron’s nagging anxiety about how this exchange was going to make him sound: “I was wondering how that will come across as a soundbite”; “‘Not that I can think of’ makes me sound… I am really worried about that…”; “I am still thinking about this house thing”; and his parting shot was: “Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got.”

At the end of our interminable day all those months ago in the North East – visits to factories, including Nissan, which had just laid off 1,200 workers (on Cameron’s walkabout, he came across as a paternalistic factory owner in the Lawrentian mould, which bewildered the remaining employees), a college where unemployed adults were offered retraining courses, a meeting of the party faithful (a scattering of spiky-haired youths among the tweed-and-pearls set), a Cameron Direct, where the public get to ask the would-be Prime Minister any questions, public or personal – Cameron himself seemed a little vanquished by the ceaseless grind of it all. As we sat in the train – first class, but still pretty grim, with its glowering lights and sweating paninis – he wondered what the day had achieved.

In an effort to cheer him up, I said that, come what may, he has achieved something, has he not, by bringing a party back from the wilderness and making it, for the first time in years, seem electable. In some ways, Blair – to whom he once said he was the heir – had it easier because getting rid of Clause Four was such a symbolic gesture of change. I asked Cameron if the former PM had been an inspiration: “I wouldn’t put him down as one of the people who inspired me, no,” he said, but I’m not sure I believe him. “I do think that his success in transforming and modernising his party was impressive and what he did was an important achievement for the country.

“Clause Four was totemistic and it was a great totem for him to have. I haven’t had anything like that but I like to think that all the changes I’ve made to the party and policy and modernisation – the attitude towards people’s sexuality and life choices, more diversity – does accumulatively present something exciting. But in the end it will be up to the voters to decide.”

It’s clear that for Cameron, it’s not enough to make his party electable; what matters to him is getting elected. And now, more than ever, as Gordon Brown lurches from crisis to crisis, it seems that the voters are inclining towards the devil they don’t know rather than the one they think they do. Cameron appears to have learnt a lesson from all those Dave-ish action films he loves: who dares wins.

Artists

David Hockney on why iPhones are the future for art

The Times May 09, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

As a major exhibition of new landscapes opens, Britain’s best-loved artist talks about mortality, family, his return to his beloved Bridlington, and why iPhones are the future for art

David Hockney is a very funny man. If he ever wanted to give up the day job — about as likely as Bridlington becoming the new St-Tropez — he would make a superb monologist; Spalding Gray, perhaps, channelled by Alan Bennett.

He may have lived in Los Angeles for the greater part of the last 30 years but his humour, and accent, remain dry and forthrightly northern. His mother, Laura, who died in 1999 at the age of 99, was quite religious, he tells me, and was wont to refer to her late-beckoning mortality thus – “I haven’t been called yet.” Her son would sometimes joke: “Well, stay by the telephone.” He continues: “When I told that story to a friend of mine he said, ‘You might live longer than her, David, because you won’t hear the call’.”

Hockney’s current pair of hearing-aids — he’s been experimenting with them for three decades — are small and neat. They also seem effective. He doesn’t strain to hear but he is still in the habit of going off on curious tangents, or taking a thought and running it into the ground, which may be a legacy of being deaf for so many years.

The last time we met, in 2005, I could not get him off the subject of smoking — he is passionately pro — although we were meant to have been discussing his curation of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. It still appears to be Hockney’s favourite subject and I have to firmly reroute his conversational drift.

He’s been living in the old guesthouse — with his partner and French assistant — which he bought for his mother in Bridlington, the East Yorkshire seaside resort, for the past three years, with another three to go, while he completes a monumental group of landscape paintings. We are strictly not to interpret this as Hockney coming “home”, since he still views Los Angeles as his base. “There’s a side of England I don’t like at all, I must tell you,” he says. “The meanspiritedness gets me down.” Of English people? “The smoking is one thing,” he says. “It’s outrageous and I won’t stop attacking it anyway.”

What would he say if he met Gordon Brown? “I would not be polite, I’m going to tell you. Four or five years ago Paul Johnson told me that Gordon Brown was talking about making it [England] smoke-free. He didn’t say we’ll make it convenient for anybody. This is Stalinism, practically.”

Is this the only reason you’re cross with him? “Well, I don’t think he’s got any vision.” Do you think David Cameron is any better? “Not much, no. Of course I don’t.” Hockney’s never been one much for politics anyway: “But somebody’s got to decide which way traffic goes and who picks up the rubbish and I’ve left that to other people. I don’t mind the taxes, I’ll pay whatever, but when they begin to affect my life personally, I think, ‘Well, wait a minute, what is this about?’ It isn’t about smoking; it’s about them telling me what’s best for me.”

He’s not even excited about Obama “although Bush was pretty ghastly and I think he [Obama] is rather good. But I’m not political — in fact, I’ve rarely voted, to be honest — and I don’t want to be either. I’ve something else to do.” That “something else” is his work, by which he is more consumed than ever before.

We are talking in a lovely light-filled private gallery, the Kunsthalle Würth, converted from an old brewery in the medieval town of Shwäbisch Hall, near Stuttgart. A handful of English journalists have been flown in, joining a horde of German media people, to look at 70 new works produced by Hockney in the past couple of years. It is the largest and most comprehensive museum exhibition of the artist’s Yorkshire landscapes to be shown to the public for the first time.

At the morning press conference, before our interview, Hockney anticipates the obvious question — so why Shwäbisch Hall? — although no one has been tactless enough to ask it. “Why did I do this exhibition? I’ll be frank, I did it for myself to see all the work together.” And on he goes in his marvellously undiplomatic way. “At first I didn’t take much interest in it, but when I came here I thought, ‘It is a lovely area . . . with individual trees and every one is different, just like we are’ . . . Also I knew that journalists would travel to see an exhibition. It’s an opportunity you don’t get often, and I am an opportunist I must admit.”

The best-known British artist of his generation is 71, and is often described as a national treasure. Despite his determined efforts to come across as a grumpy old man, he still retains the mischief and curiosity of a boy; an impression reinforced by the way he peers wide-eyed over his spectacles, and shuffles his feet impatiently under the table. When you laugh at his more preposterous statements, he joins in, which suggests that his curmudgeonliness is partly an act. There is a sense of fun in the way that he dresses, although his flamboyance, these days, is restricted to the odd detail: a flat white cap over his undyed hair, a red and white spotted handkerchief dangling elegantly from his jacket pocket.

After the conference, when we follow Hockney around the exhibition in a clingy pack, he explains that his suits are especially tailored to include an inside pocket in the jackets large enough — he gives us a quick flash — to accommodate a sketchbook and brushes that he always carries.

He is well aware, as he says, that “the art world thinks that this is a genre that’s quite exhausted – but nothing is quite exhausted”. Images, he says, help us to see the world: “I keep thinking that people have stopped looking at landscape . . . and I’m very interested in how we see; seeing is memory and memory is now. We don’t all see the same things even if we’re looking at the same thing . . . looking is a positive thing — you’ve got to decide to look.”

In the northern hemisphere, “you’re hit over the head with seasons, and each season I see more . . . how early spring begins at the top of trees, for instance. And I’m eager to get back right now [to Bridlington], as it’s just coming up for ‘Action Week’, which is what I call early spring.” In East Yorkshire now, Hockney says, he would be up at 6 in the morning, when the sun comes directly up over the sea: “The best light is between 5am and 8am, with the long shadows and the sun lighting everything from the front. Everything is very, very clear, whereas in the afternoon it’s all silhouettes.”

Marco Livingstone, a Canadian-born curator, writer and friend of Hockney, has contributed an illuminating and charming essay for the show’s handsomely produced catalogue. He told me about a recent visit to the artist’s Bridlington home, where he and his partner had been invited to stay the night. After a jolly dinner, the guests had retired at 1am and woke in fright a few hours later, with a loud banging on their door (the old guesthouse numbers have not been removed, apparently). Their host insisted they get up immediately and drive with him to a particular copse because the light was so magical, and he didn’t want them to miss out on the treat.

If this could be described as Hockney’s love affair with the landscape of East Yorkshire, it has been a slow burn rather than instant infatuation.

In the last ten years of his mother’s life, her son came to visit every three months: “And I never went there without drawing her because at that age you think, ‘Well, how long will she live?” Did she like the results? “Well, she’s your mother,” he says, throwing me the sort of look that suggests he’s thinking, ‘You daft brush’. “She’s going to like what her son does, yes, of course.” They were close and he misses her but the drawings comfort him: “I’ve still got them and there are lots of them and I won’t let them go, so that makes a big difference.”

They used to go on drives down the empty lanes and Hockney found himself responding to the subtle, undramatic landscape — so different from the showy lushness and bright light of California — and now that she has gone he feels even more deeply connected to the countryside of his youth. It’s tempting to see this as a way of bringing his mother back to him, especially with him moving back into her house, but he says not.

He describes his neighbours, pithily, as “modest and not too disappointed because they never expected much.” Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his assistant, is probably the only Parisian, Hockney says, to have visited Bridlington. It is Jean-Pierre, I admit, who responded to this comment with the joke that it was the new St-Tropez, which was too good not to appropriate. There’s a picture of JP, in Hockney’s Photoshop computer works now on show in London, in formal black tie that, he jests (presumably), is normal dinner dress for the Bridlington ménage à trois. There’s also one of the artist’s partner of the past decade, John Fitz-Herbert — a former chef. What an honest face, I say, as we flick through the book of the exhibition. “He’s an honest human being,” Hockney replies.

There are several drawings of Hockney’s brother, Paul, and his sister, Margaret; and in each picture the subjects seem mesmerised by a small gadget in their hands, which turns out to be an iPhone — Hockney’s latest enthusiasm: “Yes, my brother and sister sat there for three or four hours, totally engrossed.” Hockney is thrilled that he has finally persuaded Celia Birtwell to buy one so that he can send her pictures: “I draw flowers on them and send them out every morning to a group of people.”

He demonstrates, tracing his finger over the tiny screen with such absorption that I worry he will stop talking altogether. “Who would have thought the telephone would bring back drawing?” he exclaims with glee.

“It’s such a great little device, it has every Shakespeare play in it and the Oxford English dictionary. In your pocket! But it’s also amusing, look at this.” He blows into it and his new toy becomes a harmonica.

At the other end of the scale are his epic landscapes, including the one created out of 50 separate canvases to form an enormous painting, which took up an entire wall at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The most striking thing about these landscapes, initially at least, is their size.

Perhaps it is still too early to judge to what extent — apart from the obvious technical differences — Hockney has made them his own.

As a student at the Royal College of Art, Hockney’s famous complaint was, “I’m not doing anything that’s from me”. Then came the light-saturated Californian pictures of palm trees, swimming-pools and naked boys in the 1960s, which made an instant (bigger) splash and are still instantly recognisable as Hockneys; as are his beguiling portraits through the years, set designs and elegant book illustrations. But in these oil paintings, there are constant refrains of other painters; a forest scene that makes you think of Matisse, another of Rousseau. Here and there, in certain details, you detect the free brushstrokes and wild exuberance of Howard Hodgkin.

These echoes may be deliberate. Back in 1976, Hockney wrote: “I am very concious of all that has happened in art during the last 75 years. I don’t ignore it; I feel I’ve simply assimilated it into my kind of art.”

In January 2012, Hockney says, there will be a big show of his work at the Royal Academy, mostly landscapes: “Just before the world ends on December 21st.” Sorry? “That’s the Mayan calendar and that’s when the sun will be at its fiercest. Look it up on the web.” He proceeds to go on at great length about a book he found in his favourite bookshop in LA — Book Soup — and the riveting new information it contains about the edge of the Universe and time and the Sun being at a certain pitch. All of which makes me think that you can take the boy out of Bradford but you can also, clearly, take Bradford out of the boy.

When I ask him whether he truly believes it’s going to be the end of the world, he says: “What I suddenly realised is that it could just be me — the end of the world for me.” But, unlike his mother, Hockney is not waiting for the call. “I don’t think about it much,” he says. “I assume I’ll just work until I fall over.”

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Drawing In a Printing Machine is at Annely Juda Gallery to July 11 (020-7629 7578). Just Nature is at Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to Sept 27. Imagine on Hockney, BBC One, June 30.