Archive for September, 2010

Celebrities, Fashion, Music, Opinion

The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)

Ginny Dougary
The Times
september 2010

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.

“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”

She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.

“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”

Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.

Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”

The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”

“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”

As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.

When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.

After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.

“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”

I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.

She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.

“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”

The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.

After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?

Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.

“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.

“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.

She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.

“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”

Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.

“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”

So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”

Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”

From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”

What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.

“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”

Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.

“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.

“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”

Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.

Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”

What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”

It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”

She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”

I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”

Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”

The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.

“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”

I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.

Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.

“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”

There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.

Writers

John Pawson: the man who made us minimalists

Ginny Dougary
The Times
September 2010

The architect talks to Ginny Dougary about monks, Martha Stewart and plans for the Design Museum’s new home.

John Pawson, the überminimalist designer and architect, is busily cluttering up his pristine surfaces. In between us, on a beautiful wooden table in the centre of the kitchen of his West London home, is a teapot of lapsang souchong, a plate of buttery French biscuits (with its empty packet left out — travesty! — on the sideboard) and no less than three strikingly similar creamcoloured beakers lined up for me to drink from: a Wedgwood, an original Shaker — a gift, along with an old blackened kettle on the stove, from America’s domestic goddess Martha Stewart, one of his less obvious clients — and a Pawson.

This friendship with Stewart is somewhat unexpected; his taste for unadorned simplicity (even the Cistercian monks of the Bohemian monastery he designed suggested that his plans were a little “austere”) and her rather fussy, homespun cuteseyness, would suggest that they were not the most obvious soulmates. But one of the appealing things about Pawson is that he is full of surprises.
They met when Stewart came to his home to film some sort of cooking programme, with suitably monochrome food (he remembers black squid and pasta, and a turbot and vanilla soufflé) and a table setting that included the three-pronged Georgian forks that he favours. Out of this venture came a handsome cookbook, Living and Eating — photographed chez Pawson — with the chef-turned-food-writer Annie Bell.

“It’s a proper, useful cookbook,” Pawson says. Catherine, his wife, suddenly appears with their 20-year-old son, Benedict. I get the feeling that this cookbook is a little bit of a family joke, an impression that is reinforced when I ask whether the architect is the cook of the family.

“He’s very good at toast,” Ben says. Catherine: “I said, ‘Now you’ve done the cookbook, why don’t you do the cooking!’” “But Catherine always cooks so effortlessly,” her husband says, “although I notice that she doesn’t always use my cookbook.”

His mother’s culinary tour de force was Yorkshire pudding. The family joke was that her secret ingredient was cigarette ash. “We used to have it as a first course before the beef. Very Yorkshire. It comes in a big pan and you get a big slab of it, with gravy, and it’s very good with wine [something he has given up since January]. My sisters do very good ones and so can Catherine, but it’s not the healthiest thing.”

When the couple first got together, much was made of Catherine’s former job as a designer at Colefax and Fowler, at the distinctly chintzy end of “soft furnishings”. Interviews painted a portrait of her as a much-put-upon wife whose own wishes were sublimated to the autocratic diktats of her uncompromising husband. No family photographs (only behind closed doors), art, cushions, flowers, sofas, visible soap, loo roll, books. Certainly no suggestion whatsoever of chintz.

When Pawson is telling me about his shortlived stint as a fashion designer for his family’s clothing business in Halifax, West Yorkshire, he says “I can make a dress” and Catherine jumps in: “He’s completely useless because he complains so much, say, if I pack a suitcase with too many clothes in it. He doesn’t understand women.” Pawson: “Well, I don’t understand why she wants to have a new or different outfit every day, if not twice a day.” All this family banter is conducted with the utmost good humour. What he loves about his wife, he tells me later, is her serenity; the human equivalent, perhaps, of his soothing interiors.

He is dressed today in his summer uniform of white linen shirt, chinos and soft, expensive-looking leather loafers. In winter, it’s the same deal but with charcoal-grey trousers and a matching cashmere sweater. When I ask Catherine whether the solitary flash of vibrant colour in the kitchen provided by a bowl of oranges, next to a bowl of nectarines, is her idea, she looks uncertain. Pawson: “It’s not a trick question.” Everyone laughs. Ben: “It’s Mum.”

Inside the downstairs loo, with its fiendishly impenetrable door, there is a raft of transgressions against the Pawsonian ideal: a loo brush, visible loo roll, soap and a Jo Malone liquid-soap dispenser, as well as — shockingly — art! A Picasso original drawing of a reclining nude female, with a Neptune-like figure behind her: “Catherine was worried that I didn’t have a pension, so she bought it — without even asking me!” her husband jokes. Well, I think he’s joking.

There are now Pawson pensions throughout the house, including Carl Andre copper bricks on the floor of the kitchen, covered with black fingerprints that bother both of them: “Owning art is a responsibility. You’re just a custodian and I’m the first owner of the piece,” Pawson says.
As you enter the hallway of their home (most traditional on the outside), in a side window is a shocking-pink glass sculpture-cum-vase by Pawson’s first mentor, Shiro Kuramata, the architect who hired him in Japan. Other pieces are by Donald Judd and various Minimalist artists, one a puce neon cross by Dan Flavin at the top of the house. I’m impressed by the insouciance of hanging one of Bridget Riley’s works in the bedroom of Caius, Pawson’s older son, 24, from the architect’s relationship with the Dutch art dealer Hester van Royen. Pawson continues to design her flats, while she is his art consultant.

(Caius’s discovery, the xx, a band he signed on his Young Turks record label, won the Mercury Prize last week; the competition included Dizzee Rascal and Paul Weller. His dad sent me a sweet e-mail saying: “Very nice to see Caius beaming on TV at the awards. Glad he is in charge of a minimalist band! I’m as proud as him.”) In the living room there is a now a sofa — rather spare and not one you would sink into, to be sure, again chosen by Catherine, by a furniture designer relative of Le Corbusier. There’s a trio of chairs by Wegner, who Pawson always seems to pick, though he would be happier for his guests to sit along the limestone bench that flanks the wall on either side of the open fireplace. Later, he moans about another Catherine-concession-to-comfort: the odd white cushion scattered on top of the hard surface. She is also responsible for a white rail along the vertiginous, narrow wooden stairs embedded in the wall. She installed this for her aged mother, although Pawson maintains it was quite unnecessary.

To some extent, we are all Pawsonian now: his aesthetic is part of the mainstream, with our collective taste for knob-less doors and clean lines — which partly explains why someone as formerly folksy, if not frou-frou, as Stewart has become a convert. Wandering through his home I feel a degree of design envy; his open-to-the-elements shower at the top of the house, with its Bond-ish retractable roof, is fabulous, and the master bedroom is particularly cunning in its loveliness, with a bedboard, lit from behind, concealing a buried shelf “for all our crap”, as he puts it. Less successful, he admits, was his attempt to do away with a bidet and install a bottom-cleaning flush in the loo — the jets were apparently so powerful they hurt.

Pawson is 61 but looks younger, like a slightly rumpled Robert Redford. He has a boyish habit of blowing his fringe out of his eyes when he gets a bit flustered. If something amuses him — and a lot does — he rolls his tongue around in a faintly obscene way.

When we are gazing through the glass door of the kitchen into the courtyard, which exactly mirrors the interior, he starts talking about his father: “He had a very strong influence on me.” Pawson senior was not flamboyant but he did appreciate lovely things: “It’s difficult to describe without it sounding wrong … I think he just liked quality. And I feel that I’ve got the best tool to do the job, as a designer, because I like well-designed things.” He says that his father never indulged in nostalgia, and was only ever interested in the present and the future: “When he died, he left everything in beautiful order; all his personal effects were in one box, almost like a hurt locker.”

At the beginning of our interview, Pawson said that his father never understood his son’s desire to become an architect — “he thought architects were people you employed” — but now he revises that somewhat: “I think he wanted to be an architect himself, really. He loved wandering around with plans. Of course, his taste was different to mine and he always said that he’d never use me.” He breaks into a broad Yorkshire accent, which he always does when imitating his father: “‘There’ll be no commissions coming from me.’”

Pawson himself has a rather plummy voice, and says he lost his broad vowels along the way. I wonder whether his years at Eton accelerated that process, since his school friends commented on his father’s accent, along with his own. “I thought it was flattering attention but you could call it bullying, although I didn’t consider it so because I didn’t mind. But I can see that bullying is an insidious process; very difficult to stop and very difficult to control.”

At Eton he wore a quiff — “because I thought Billy Fury was the business” — and slept in a hammock attached to the back door of his room. On one occasion, his housemaster came in “and, of course, I fell down, and he did wonder what I was doing on the floor. I did get told that I was showing off, being an exhibitionist in the wrong way, and that I should excel in academic things.” Were you academic? “Not at all. I got O-level passes for my French and Spanish A levels, which was worse than failing.”
Before we move on to his school-leaving years, I ask him about his French aristocratic roots. He looks nonplussed. “No, no, my family was definitely solid middle class. For my father, the fact that his great-grandfather was a blacksmith and employed a lot of people — for him, that was something to boast about. It’s always been trade and making things; there were no pretensions to anything aristocratic.”
I read him what he was alleged to have said in an early interview — inevitably now part of his official history: “I come from an aristocratic Burgundian ancestry, people who gave up great wealth in the 12th century to move to monasteries to set an example.” He rolls his eyes: “For f***’s sake. Burgundian bollocks. That’s just sloppy.

“I might have tried to explain how the younger son of Burgundian aristocracy would go into a monastery, like younger sons went into the army. But let me stress that I am categorically not a descendant of Burgundian aristocracy — hahahahahaha.”

His parents, particularly his mother, were non-conformist Methodists.“She was genuinely modest. She didn’t like showiness or ostentation. I had this dream that I would go and become this Zen Buddhist (and after a year I would, you know, obtain whatever). I was a complete schoolboy even though I was 24. I’m not sure if she was totally serious — although she did say it often enough — but she would have preferred me to have disappeared and quietly gone and been a missionary or something in Africa, rather than going to the top Zen Buddhist temple in Japan.” That was a bit flashy? “Very flashy. You didn’t have to be Christian but her thing was not to go to the best or the top of anything.”

His thing was to be a hippy in India after leaving school, wanting to help out with the Tibetan refugees on the border, with the idea that “I’ll just turn up and everyone will think, ‘Wonderful! He’s here! — another English public school boy [aged 17] who will solve all our problems.’ But that didn’t quite work out.”

After six months he went off to Australia, where he picked tomatoes and built a sheep-shearing shed in the Outback. Aha, a seminal Pawsonian work? “I think that might be joining up dots that aren’t there,” he says. But he has gone on to design rather a lot of, if not sheds, certainly barns for his well-heeled clients. He recalls the father-and-son team, and the former’s “incredible steel framework that he’d built. It was rather beautiful, you know, in the middle of nowhere, almost like an art work.”
At some point in his travels, a bit hard to pin down the chronology (he lasted only four days, for instance, in the monastery in Japan, and then spent four years teaching English at Nagoya University), his father sent him a telegram saying, “If you don’t come ’ome now there’ll be no place for you in t’ firm”.

Back in Halifax, Pawson found himself involved in creating frocks in knitted jersey “for the slightly fuller figure for ‘high street’ or ‘madam’ shops”. This was not at all his métier: “I was interested in design and architecture, but I never thought I could do it.” At 30, he met Van Royen and enrolled in the Architectural Association, stayed for only two years and left without qualifications but started transforming Van Royen’s office space as well as their flats.

His new show at the Design Museum is called Plain Space. He’s built a Pawson room “so everyone gets a bit of this” (waving his hand round the kitchen). And there will be a promenade where you can see four gigantic photographs, 10ft by 6ft, of landscapes in which he has worked, including the Sackler Crossing, his bridge in Kew Gardens, a beguiling curve with its penumbra of golden light. “A sinuous line of grace,” Pawson says. Are you quoting someone? “I am. Somebody’s attributed the quote to me but it’s Capability Brown! I know, it’s terrible to think of it … I’m in an anthology along with Oscar Wilde.”

There is also a cricket pavilion designed for Ben’s old school, St Edward’s. Reverse nepotism? “Exactly. Help the old dad — ‘We think he needs it’.”

This is a reference to something we had been talking about earlier, apropos of Pawson winning the international competition, a month or so ago, to transform the interior of the old Commonwealth Institute, in Kensington High Street, to house the new Design Museum in two or three years’ time.
Pawson doesn’t usually do competitions — because they’re expensive and time-consuming for a smallish firm such as his. He has a staff of about 20 who work in an office in King’s Cross — “It’s very un-Pawsonian. I think people expect a row of monks when they come and they end up rather shocked.” Is it scruffy? “It is for me. I can’t bear it.”

When I press him on what it was the judges were particularly struck by in his plans, he says something extraordinary: “Well, one guy did let slip that they thought I needed it! Hahahaha.” Needed it? “Well, I don’t know whether they meant I was ‘hungry’, you know, or that I would be able to give them my full attention,” he giggles, “but it did come over rather like a crumb from the table … as though this poor boy needed feeding or something.

“It was an off-the-cuff remark but I did think, ‘Crikey! That’s not very flattering.’” I can’t think of anyone I’ve interviewed, of an equivalent stature, who would even contemplate making public such an ego-deflating moment. Perhaps all his work with the monks, from the time he spends praying with the Cistercians in Bohemia right back to Japan, has rubbed off on him. Perhaps he is more his mother’s son than he realises — although it’s debatable whether such a disclosure demonstrates modesty or confidence. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

As the much-imitated, much-misquoted Pawson says, when talking about his parents: “I think you’re always two parts. I hope I have some of my father’s confidence and I certainly hope I have some of my mother’s modesty — but probably not enough.”

News, Opinion

Meet the Archbishop of Canterbury

Ginny Dougary
The times
September 2010

Rowan Williams

Dr Rowan Williams talks schisms, gay bishops, dope and beards.

What a funny old life the Archbishop of Canterbury leads. The ABC, as he is known by his staff, loathes our celebrity culture – when I ask him what statement he is least likely to make, he says: “Our problem is that there aren’t enough reality shows on television” – and, yet, he is bemused (and probably, more often, horrified) to find that he is a celebrity himself.

He is often stopped in the street, for instance, for a rant or a bombardment of questions although, as befits his position as the 104th leader of the Church of England, as well as symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (of 34 independent provinces, from Africa to America, hence his difficulties), the questions tend to be of an existential rather than trivial nature. This is just as well, since he doesn’t really do small talk.

When I ask the ABC how he prefers to be addressed, he says, “Archbishop would be fine or, if you feel informal, Rowan.” He’s not all that comfortable with pomp and circumstance, is he? “Not entirely.” Then, referring to his young press liaison lady, Marie, who is sitting in, he jokes: “She always calls me ‘Your Grace’ – hahahahaha.”

His Grace and his family – his wife, Jane, a theologian and writer, and their daughter, Rhiannon, 22 (in her final year at Warwick, reading French and English), and 14 going on 15-year-old son, Pip – spend every other weekend in their church residence in Canterbury. “We haven’t lived in our own house for about 25 years now. Gosh,” he says, as though it has just sunk in.

We are conducting the interview in his Lambeth Palace study, with books stacked in teetering columns on every available spot of floor space, and I ask him which place feels more like home. This came on the back of a visit to the family digs at 10 Downing Street earlier in the year, when Gordon Brown (who, true to his word, interceded on my behalf to get an audience with the ABC), Sarah and sons were still in residence, and the claustrophobic awfulness of their accommodation was striking.
“Well, I think the Church Commissioners wouldn’t thank me for enlarging on that subject – hahahahaha – but put it this way, the house in Canterbury is more homely because it’s less of an office block [a slightly odd way of describing the beautiful, 800-year-old palace]. Inevitably, here the office and the home are all mixed up.

“Anyway, last weekend we had some friends staying and on Saturday night we went out for a meal and in Canterbury you can’t avoid huge crowds of not terribly sober young people at weekends… And we came out [of the restaurant], sort of easing our way through a packed crowd, and one of them just said, ‘Archbishop!’ out of the blue. ‘So, y’know, what about evolution, then?’ Hahahaha.” What did you say? “So I stopped and chatted for a bit. That does tend to happen. It’s probably easier late on a Saturday night, if you know what I mean.”

We had first met at a drinks party at Lambeth Palace last year, where there was an assortment of church and secular types; I spotted Jane Asher, the actress, for instance, and a number of other thesps who were less instantly recognisable. The ABC had an odd effect on the latter constituency. An august and rather stern veteran female journalist melted in his presence, asking him, almost flirtatiously, if he would like a copy of her autobiography. He responded in the affirmative, with charm and warmth.
His wife, Jane, was incredibly friendly and open and talked about how their kids’ friends, after a latish night, would come home to gather around the kitchen table and quiz her husband for hours on life, the universe and everything. The point she was making was that young people, although disaffected by the political mainstream, are searching for answers to profound questions.

I ask the Archbishop whether his own children are Christian. “Yes, in terms that they both go to church when they’re with me – but I don’t think I’ll go there.” When I ask him about the curiosity of their friends, he says, “Well, I don’t sense hostility, let’s put it that way. Quite the opposite.” It seems to me that Rowan Williams, with his scruffy appearance, non- materialistic values and love of poetry, could be considered to be quite a cool dude. “Really!” he exclaims. “Can I have that in writing?”
So what seems to preoccupy the youth? “A lot of them are still quite stuck on the science and religion stuff.” Dawkins versus Williams? (Or more currently: Hawking versus the Church… the Archbishop’s response to the scientist’s assertion that God played no part in Creation was, “Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”) “Yes, that’s right. They’re challenging on that, and what’s my attitude to the Bible.” How literally you take it? “Yes, and then there are the questions about religion and violence. Is religion bad for you?”

He has always said that the English, in particular, find it awkward to talk about personal faith – and he’s right. Tony Blair, when I interviewed him, spoke far more freely about his doubts and inner turmoil over the Iraq war than his conversion to Roman Catholicism. As an agnostic, it feels slightly toe-curling even to ask questions, such as (apropos of him taking up his role – with great reluctance, as he later elaborates – of ABC): “Did you feel God was calling you?” He says the Welsh and the Scots don’t have a similar problem: “But I think in England, the interweaving of the social and religious conformity which goes back to the 16th century has always meant it’s been a bit of a political subject, in some ways.

“It’s bound up in history and intervention. But having said that I am often surprised, as I indicated, how ready younger people are to talk about it without embarrassment.” What does he consider his role is for those of us who are non-believers or fence-sitters? “Well, I can only guess. There’s still a place in the national mythology for the Archbishop of Canterbury, isn’t there? My family always tease me about my photograph being on that background collage of Have I Got News for You.”

Are you chuffed by that? “Occasionally I feel mild satisfaction until I remember what it means [ie, that he is in the news for, usually, the wrong reasons]. So there is an expectation that, y’know, somehow this is an office that gives you a platform for saying things about society. And to try to do that without clichés or without just saying what people want you to say, and to try to say it without using – and I’m not very successful at this – off-putting jargon and so on. That’s the challenge.”
It is true that the ABC can be as “clotted”, as he puts it himself, in the way that he talks – with his finely calibrated thought processes – as he can also be funny and down-to-earth or, in his poetry, capable of simple eloquence.

When we are talking about the role of the State, the language he employs is quite indirect, even obfuscatory. I ask him to clarify “associational patterns of intermediate communities”, for instance, and he says, “Sorry, I’m being a don.” You have to worry about us poor thickies out here, I joke, and he replies – the cheek of it! – “Oh, I worry all the time.”

This is a man who can speak or read 11 languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Latin and Ancient and Modern Greek, and who learnt Russian in order to read Dostoevsky – his literary hero and subject of his 2008 biography, which he knocked out while on a spiritual retreat – in the original.

Does he ever feel his intellect is a handicap – getting in the way of his heart or further obscuring rather than demystifying complex matters? “Well, let’s put it this way, the ability to see several sides of the question, which is part of the intellectual life, can be a bit of a problem in practical life.” As a communicator? “As a communicator but also as a decision-maker.” Do you find it difficult to be decisive? “Hmmmm. The obvious answer to that is ‘I’m not sure.’ ” Another big chuckle.

Are you an intellectual snob? “I suppose what I said about reality television may help to answer that.” So do you find yourself irritated by people who aren’t very bright? “What right have I? No. I don’t find that irritating. What I do find irritating is when I can see people being manipulative and the sort of entertainment that annoys me is manipulative, sentimental and trivialising.”

He recognises that people sometimes find his arguments abstruse. “I understand that and it’s part of the inheritance of having been a teacher for many years in the context where that was a virtue. But sometimes it gets in the way of making a quick decision,” he says again. People tend to want issues to be black or white and you are rather grey? “Hmm, yes,” he says ruefully, looking down at his white and charcoal-tinged beard. Then, with a sliver of steel in his voice, “I know, and they just have to get used to that.”

Before we get on to some of those fraught areas, to which the Archbishop might be referring when he talks about the difficulty of making decisions, I ask him when he last shaved. “Apart from just scraping the cheeks occasionally? Probably when I was 21.” Have you got anything to hide? “A weak chin, they always say – or spots, or something.”

The Pope’s visit is imminent when we speak, and after his surprise offer, in October last year, of a home in the Roman Catholic church to disaffected Anglicans – those who are unhappy about the drift towards women and homosexual bishops – one imagines that the prospect does not fill the ABC with glee.

His announcement must have been difficult for you? “It made things awkward, yes, of course it did.” The Archbishop seemed to sum up the depth of his feelings on Start the Week earlier this year, when he announced that he would be withholding his blessing from Anglicans who took up the Pope’s offer, saying, “God bless them. I don’t.”

So are his flock defecting in droves? “No, they’re not. One or two, and there’ll be more, I think.” Do they write and tell you why? Some do. But I don’t think it’s going to be a landslide and I never thought it would be.” One of the problems with Roman Catholicism is having to sign up to the idea that the Pope is infallible when, surely, to be human is to err? “Better ask my Roman Catholic friends about that.” But one of the reasons you chose to be an Anglo-Catholic was because of that stumbling block? “I couldn’t accept the infallibility of the Pope, no. But back to that situation last year… I think some people in the Vatican had been listening to some groups within the Anglican Communion who were looking for some sort of corporate solution – ‘Let’s all come together and be recognised in a group’ – and they’d worked out a scheme for that… I think, perhaps, slightly overestimating how popular it’s going to be.

“A lot of people in the Anglican Communion don’t think much of me and don’t think much of the way the Communion is going – but that doesn’t mean they want to be Roman Catholics.”
One of your most torturous times in the eight years as Archbishop must have been over the Dr Jeffrey John issue? “Yes,” he says in a very quiet voice. In 2003, Dr John – who is a celibate homosexual – was appointed as Bishop of Reading. After the announcement, conservative Anglican leaders in a number of countries stated their intention to split from the Communion if the consecration went ahead. As a consequence, the Archbishop withdrew his support of his friend and asked him to step down. At the same time, the Anglican Church in America voted in the Right Rev Gene Robinson, a practising homosexual, as Bishop of New Hampshire.

In May, this year, the first lesbian bishop, the Rev Canon Mary Glasspool, was ordained in Los Angeles. In July, Dr John’s name re-entered the frame, as the Crown Nominations Commission’s preferred candidate for the Bishop of Southwark. This was leaked, to more controversy, and John’s name was removed from the list of candidates.

It is hard to read or write this without feeling the hurt and dismay that such rejections must cause; both for the individual concerned but also for all gay men and women, and their friends, whether they are Christian or not. It is such an atavistic message for the Church to be sending; so out of step with the increasing acceptance of gays in most parts of the Western world. Much was made of Dr Williams speaking out against Mary Glasspool’s election but remaining silent on Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual bill that would have led to the imprisonment and even death of many homosexuals.
After her ordination, the Archbishop announced that provinces which had ignored his “pleading” for restraint would be banned from attending official discussions with other Christian denominations and prevented from voting on a key body on doctrine. What has happened to our liberal-thinking “beardy lefty”, as he once called himself?

Much of this discord hinges on the interpretation of whether or not the Bible permits openly homosexual clergy. Dr Williams’s position on this once seemed clear when he wrote, on the subject of homosexuality: “If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm.”
When I read this out, he replies: “That’s what I wrote as a theologian, you know, putting forward a suggestion. That’s not the job I have now.”

So your job doesn’t necessarily allow you to be true to yourself? “I think if I were to say my job was not to be true to myself that might suggest that my job required me to be dishonest and if that were the case, then I’d be really worried.

“Put it this way, it means that I’m not elected on a manifesto to further this agenda or that; I have to be someone who holds the reins for the whole debate. Tries to keep people at the table and to do that not just because it’s nicer to have people together than otherwise, but because there’s a real religious, spiritual dimension, saying, ‘Unity matters to all of us; we actually need each other, however much we dislike each other.’ ”

I have never read how this has felt for you on a personal level. “I was very well aware of letting people down,” he says. Letting down your friend, Dr John? “Yes, of course, of course.” Is it true, as I read somewhere, that you knelt down and asked his forgiveness? “Let’s not go there. I regard private conversations as private. But, yes, I was conscious of that as, in a sense, a wound in the whole ministry from the start… making the judgment that the cost to the Church overall was too great to be borne at that point.” Unity was more important? “Well, yes, not an easy choice. I won’t elaborate.”
One can see, as one of his old friends said, that Dr Williams “must be torn about inside”. One can also see that the spectre of the Communion being sundered on his watch must weigh heavily on him. “Yes, I believe that the Church suffers appallingly when it begins to fall apart – and its mission suffers in other ways, too. But on your specifics – the fact is that since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, every single public pronouncement on the question of sexuality has underlined the distinction between civic liberties and human dignity for gay people, which have always been affirmed, and whether or not the church has the right to bless same-sex unions or ordain people in same-sex unions. Now I know that those two are blurred but the point has always been made.”

But why shouldn’t gay couples be blessed if we are all equal? “The Church isn’t answerable to an abstract idea of equality, or rather it can certainly say everyone is equal in the sight of God. But what forms of life does the Church have the freedom to bless? The Church is obedient to Revelation. Now if you believe it’s very clear in Revelation that the only relation that can be blessed is between a man and a woman, then you’ve got a problem.”

OK, Rowan, let me rephrase my earlier question; if it’s not that you are not being true to yourself, surely you are having to fight, even intellectually, against your personal beliefs?
“I have to speak not just for myself, that’s the heart of it. But when I mention the statements that have been made about civil liberties and so forth, I think it’s important. It does mean that any local church that supports illegal discrimination or persecution of homosexuals is actually going against the Anglican Communion, and I have said that publicly.”

After the interview is over, when we are looking at the Russian icons on the mantelpiece, and a painting by a Buddhist Quaker artist who was part of a group of theologians, artists and writers that met under the Archbishop’s auspices in Wales, he told me that he’d recently returned from Uganda, where he had spoken, frankly, about these issues with his fellow Anglicans. He must have had his work cut out for him, with such views as Bishop Joseph Abura, who has said: “Christianity in Africa is under attack by gays and Christians in Europe and the Americas… The vice of homosexuality through the necessary laws in place can be checked.”

Are you still pro women bishops? “I’m pro.” So why do you make more of a plea for them than gay bishops? “The answer is, partly what I said before, that the question about gay people is not about their dignity or the respect they deserve as gay people, it’s a question about a particular choice of life, a partnership, and what the Church has to say about that.

“Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” Really? “It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”
This is both confusing and rather revolting. Dr John has been knocked back twice because he has a partner, even though they are apparently celibate. First, it is an unappealing idea that the Church makes such unnatural demands on its clergy and, second, how on earth does it expect to monitor the bedtime activity? Perhaps by installing CCTV cameras? I ask him what’s wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it…”

All right, but do you personally wish it could be overcome in some way? Silence, then: “Pass.” Is it really so difficult for you to say? “We’re in the middle of vastly difficult conversations about it, and I don’t want to put thumbs on scales.”

Later, he says, that he finds this whole area so tricky to discuss because any comment he makes is likely to be seized upon by either side and broadcast around the world. One of the problems with Uganda, for instance, is that if he were to cause a schism with its Anglican bishops, life would become even harder for homosexuals there. Well, you can see why he didn’t want the job.

When the Archbishop is talking about the dawn of New Labour and its lack of relevance to the communities he was working with in South Wales (“A region of really nightmarish deprivation… lost communities, forgotten communities”), I have a strong sense that this is where he most wanted to be; dressed in his slightly shabby black uniform and dog collar, not flouncing about pontificating in robes, engaged in looking at practical ways of making life better for the most vulnerable and overlooked sections of society. That, and having the space and time for reading and contemplation.

I wonder how much of him did not want to accept his current position. “Hmm, a fair bit, a fair bit.” Did you feel God had chosen you? “Well, it felt like a calling, and you don’t always expect callings to be comfortable or cosy.” How much praying did you do before making your decision? “A lot.” What is the point of prayer, I had asked him earlier: “Um, the point of praying is to open yourself up to God so God can do what he wants with you. You come with empty hands, as silent as you can be and say, ‘Over to you.’ So you could say the function was to make you the person God wants you to be – in the full awareness that that might not be quite the person you think you want to be.”

Does he ever swear? “I have been known to say, ‘Oh God!’ – but I do know I’m talking to somebody when I say it, let’s put it that way.” Has he suffered from depression while doing this job? “Er, clinically, no but… well, periods of fairly serious gloom.”

The Archbishop has come to terms with his role by making a balance between “the buzz and inspiration that comes from working at the grassroots level”, with the fact that, “You do have a platform to say a bit more loudly, ‘Look at what’s happening in Grimsby or Ebbw Vale.’ ”

What do you hate most about your position? “Nothing personal, as they say, but it is partly the fact the everything that is said becomes part of a political narrative.” May I say something slightly impertinent, in that case, your Grace – well, it doesn’t seem to have stopped you! A big roar of laughter. “Yes, ‘Where’s your common sense?’ ’’ He talks about some months in the mid-Eighties, when he and his wife worked in South Africa, and the people who invited them, said: “ ‘You need to be conscious that in every group you address, there’s going to be a government informer. You need to be aware of that, and then you need to forget about it’ – because if you keep it in your mind all the time, you’d just be paralysed.

“And I suppose, in slightly less dramatic ways – hahahaha – that’s still the principle here. To be aware what words will sound like but you can’t just be cowed or railroaded.”
Are you bloody-minded? “Yes. Counter-suggestible, I think, is a polite way of putting it.” He says that he has no regrets about the comments he made on Sharia, and whether it might not be practical to incorporate certain aspects of it in this country (not the more barbaric women-hating aspects, which he described in the same speech as “grim”), despite the ensuing furore. You don’t wish now that you hadn’t gone there? “No, no, I don’t. I think it was a question worth asking and most of my lawyer friends would agree.”

His new book, Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice, which he has co-edited with writer Larry Elliott, and which came out of discussions held with its contributors at Lambeth Palace (no women, I note), is a sort of call to arms to rethink the free-market, unbridled capitalism that has landed us in such trouble; both from a moral and economic perspective. In Will Hutton’s essay, he repeats the astonishingly inappropriate claim by Goldman Sachs’ chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, that bankers do “God’s work”.

What was the Archbishop’s reaction to that? “I can understand somebody saying that the creation of wealth is God’s work in the widest possible sense – the creation of prosperity that gives security for vulnerable people and so on. That I can make sense of. But that making individual wealth is God’s work seems to me a very bizarre proposition.”

Is it blasphemous? “I might say that it’s materially heretical.” People were pretty shocked by the statement. “Yes, and I think that it indicates the gulf between some of the major money-makers and the public at large. People say that religious leaders live in a cocooned world, well, you know – hahahaha – it’s not just us.”

Although he was excited when New Labour were elected – his appointment was ushered in by Tony Blair – it became clear to him, pretty early on, that it was a false dawn. “I think that new administration got into bed, very, very quickly, with an economic culture that wasn’t being questioned or challenged.

“Whoever it was that talked about being very relaxed about people getting filthy rich – well, that wasn’t language that rang many bells for me.”

He is not an absolute pacifist but was, as he made abundantly clear at the time, “angry, to be honest” about the Iraq war. “This to me is a very important thing; some of us were saying that if we embark on a military adventure in the Middle East, among the many casualties will be the Christian community in the region and I think there can be no doubt that this is part of the effect – the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Iraq. The casting of Christians as agents of the West, not just in the Middle East but by Muslim extremists generally, all of this has been made much worse.”

So what does he think of Cameron’s Big Society? “When the language first started circulating, I wasn’t sure how much content there was to it. I felt it was a party in search of a big idea. Now I can see it gradually being fleshed out a bit and some of the conversations I’ve had have been about where it does need fleshing out.

“The problem is that I’m [only] inclined to give two cheers because inevitably it’s going to look a little like a money-saving device – and if you want to keep the quality of the service you deliver, then you really do need some kind of public investment in it.”

From the political to the personal. Among the couple’s inner-circle friends, are there any non-believers? “Oh yes.” What sort of ratio? “Probably 70-30.” A lot of lively discussions? “Not unknown.” (He and Philip Pullman, the writer and atheist, get on very well.) Do you like dancing? “I’m useless.”
How about singing? (I’ve heard that he has a beautiful voice – and always leads rousing choruses of Happy Birthday for his staff; certainly his speaking voice is mellifluous.) “I like the chance to sing when I can. Just before the holiday I went down to Salisbury for the weekend to sing the Monteverdi Vespers, which was pure bliss.”

His family do musical things together. “We don’t all sing but my son does. I play the piano very, very badly – I’m not being modest. My daughter plays the piano and my son plays the bassoon, the guitar and the piano, and Jane used to play the flute.”

Have your children turned you on to any contemporary bands? “I learn about them but my tastes are all formed in the Sixties: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel but also, less fashionably, the Incredible String Band.” Oh, what a delight! I start warbling, “Stepping out of the grey day she came, her red hair falling from the sky” – was that The Hangman’s… “…Beautiful Daughter,” he finishes. (We were both wrong: it was Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air.)

I asked Mark Ellen, editor of The Word, another String Band fanatic, what this said about the Archbishop. “Actually, the String Band couldn’t be more fashionable at the moment [Robert Plant’s new band includes one of their songs as a finale to the set]. You can see why he might be drawn to them. Their dazzling mixture of influences – everything from Blake, Swinburne, Celtic hymns, blues and Indian raga – would tie in with his love of folk music and poetry. I can’t imagine the Pope coming up with anything half as original. Liking the String Band is an indicator of wide artistic interest and impeccable taste.”

So has the ABC ever smoked dope? “No – hahahaha – since you ask and I don’t have the least desire to.” Do you ever drink too much? “I like a glass of wine, but that’s about it really.” No misbehaviour of any sort? “Not in any of the ways that would interest the press, I suspect. My sins – and they are manifold – are all undramatic, daily and prosaic. Ordinary selfishness.”

Are you messy? “Well, look around you!” How about Jane? “Um, I don’t think we’d get into an Ideal Home exhibition.”

Favourite contemporary novelists include Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan (“I thought Saturday was fascinating”), A. S. Byatt, Jane Gardam, Marilynne Robinson (“Stunning – I did a review of her new book [on science and religion] a few weeks ago. Her fiction is fantastic – every word counts”) and the late Alice Thomas Ellis. His current bedtime reading is an Agatha Raisin detective novel by M. C. Beaton.

In what ways are you materialistic? “Hmmm. Two things, I guess. One is that in a room full of books it’s rather difficult to deny that there’s an element of acquisitiveness about that. And I suppose the other is naturally I’m concerned for my family’s security.”

What’s the last extravagant thing you bought? “Probably a theatre ticket [to La Bête, starring Mark Rylance; the ABC is gutted that he missed him in Jerusalem].” What’s the last thing you bought? “Either a second-hand book on holiday in Wales or a pair of walking shoes.”

Do you have a guilty pleasure or habit you’re not terribly proud of? “Well, I suppose nail- biting but it’s not a pleasure. There’s a wonderful line in a letter by Flannery O’Connor who talks about a photograph on her latest book: ‘It makes me look as if I’ve just bitten my grandmother and as if this were my one pleasure in life.”

(During the Pope’s visit, his office gets back to me to say that, after much thought, the ABC does have a guilty pleasure, fish and chips.)

Any serious illnesses? “Not since I was little, with meningitis.” (Which left him deaf in one ear.) Are you fearful of death? “Actually, I don’t think I am.” What are you afraid of? “Hurt more than death. Being hurt in relationships – giving hurt and receiving it.” In your marriage? “Friendships.” (Which takes us back to that “wound”, with Dr Jeffrey John, at the heart of his ministry.)

The Archbishop knows what it’s like to face death. He was in New York, less than a block away from the World Trade Centre, on 9/11: “It was the nearest to death that I’ve been.” Were you frightened? “Oddly, no.” He was with a group of clergy, on the twentieth floor, engaged in a day of reflection. “We heard the first plane go into the building and it was an enormous kind of metallic thump. None of us knew what was happening. We looked out of the window and the air was full of what looked like snow, but it was bits of paper.

“After about 20 minutes, we heard the first building come down – that was the worst moment because no one knew what was happening. It was a sound like nothing else – the closest sound was a train rushing through a tunnel. That was when we thought we’d better get down from the upper storey.
“The building was already filling with debris and smoke. So we walked down to the basement, and on the way collected the pre-school children – about 20 under-5s – who were at a crèche.” Do you think that looking after the children, in a sense, made you forget about your own peril? “I think we all felt a personal responsibility to one another.”

Once they were ensconced in the basement, what did they do? “We prayed and talked [he was leading the prayers]. We prayed for calm for ourselves and, well, it was almost impossible to think of what to pray for the people in the middle of it.”

He says that he still lives with the memory of that awful day although, in time, it has lost a bit of its edge. I push him to express what he learnt from it, since I don’t know anyone who survived that experience, including myself, who hasn’t been changed by it, at some level. “It’s very, very hard to pin down but, perhaps in addition to coming close to death and finding it ‘liveable’, also one of my first feelings on that day was, now I know a little bit of what it’s like every day in Sudan or Palestine, you know, where life is on the edge every day. It sharpens up the sense that most of the time we just forget how intolerable life is for a lot of people in the unprosperous world.”

We finish our interview on this sombre note and Dr Williams goes off to be photographed, which he likes even less than interviews, in the huge gardens of Lambeth Palace. He stands in the shade of a magnificent black walnut tree planted by Queen Mary in 1930.
People have asked me whether the ABC seemed holy – but that’s a difficult question to answer, if you’re a non-believer. What I can say is that, talking to him, I felt the same sort of modesty and love of self-deprecating humour – a strong sense of goodness and humanity, if you like – which struck me, years ago, when I heard the Dalai Lama talk and, on another occasion, Archbishop Tutu.
I spoke to an ABC watcher from way back who told me a great anecdote about him. When his son, Pip, was a small boy, he was at a friend’s house watching the telly, when Rowan Williams suddenly appeared on the screen: “Oh look, Pip,” the friend said. “It’s the man who does the hoovering in your house.”

0.He told me, when I asked him if he would stick in the job for its full term, “No, I will not be doing this job when I’m 70.” That’s in ten years’ time; let’s hope he changes his mind.