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Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

By our third meeting, the Prime Minister’s skill at the public kiss had improved immeasurably. There was now definite contact between lips and cheek and no head clunking, although he still needs to work on his puckering technique. When I commented on his progress, in the library of 10 Downing Street, he laughed… which is something he does a lot, the more we meet, in-between some rather solemn moments. My teasing had come on the back of seeing his turn on Piers Morgan’s television show, and the clips of him bungling the continental double-kiss with the likes of Carla Bruni (but, really, who can blame him for being a little fazed by that?).

In the run-up to the election, the beauty contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown is hotting up. After Brown’s hour with Morgan came his opponent’s twirl with Trevor McDonald, featuring the Tory’s “secret weapon” – after Sarah Brown’s endorsement of her husband, at last year’s Labour Party conference, proved such a hit – David’s wife, Samantha. But McDonald’s gentle lack of probing did his subject no favours, and Cameron’s performance – not helped by some rather ludicrous footage of him jogging to a soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – merely reinforced his critics’ complaints that he is a lightweight.

Brown has the opposite problem; where Cameron is accused of “hidden shallows”, the PM is thought to be almost too deep. There were cavils about him looking upset (apparently there is also such a thing as being “too human”) when discussing the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, with Morgan but, on the whole, the attempt to portray him as less remote and more normal worked. So thus far, in the battle of the populist TV shows, it’s probably 15-love to Brown.

Our first day together started early with a photo opportunity at Euston station, the PM alongside Lord Adonis, to publicise the new high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North. Then on to the train, in first class, where there is the first of several amusing moments. Brown comes over to greet us and blocks the aisle to the disgruntlement of a couple, behind him, who tut-tut and say, “Excuse me”, crossly, and when the PM turns round, the expression on their faces is priceless. Sarah Brown is accompanying her husband and, although we have met socially on a number of occasions, her manner is initially a little strained. This must be “protective wife syndrome”, since there was a similar quality of watchful wariness on Samantha’s face when we met at the Camerons’ home last year.

The main event of the day is at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, a service of rededication of the Basra Memorial Wall. The original wall was built, with local bricks, outside the airport in Basra. It was constructed in the dark, in their own time, after they had finished their day’s work, by Royal Engineers, hanging it with brass plaques as each man or woman was killed.

The Browns are sitting in the middle of the front row, with the Duke of Gloucester and Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, alongside. At one end, is Cameron, slightly slouched, legs crossed over each other oddly casually, in contrast to Nick Clegg, at the other end, who looks about 12, and Brown, who looks his age (59), who are both sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead.

After the lighting of the memorial candle by Tracey Hazel, whose son – Corporal Ben Leaning of the Queen’s Royal Lancers – was killed in action at the age of 24, the readings, the playing of the Last Post and the minute of silence, the families line up to place their wreaths.

As they approach the wall, it is hard to witness their faces, convulsed in grief. They are all ages: some will have lost their husbands or wives; some their sons or daughters. Brown and Cameron are seven seats apart but, despite the bigger gulf of their political battle, there must be some communality, at this moment at least, in their thoughts of the loss of their first-born children. In the silence and the chilly air, it is impossible not to empathise with the families’ bereavement. Cameron is stooped forward, deep in thought, with a furrowed brow. Brown’s hound face looks sunken, ashen and grave. Later, he tells me, several times, “War is tragic” in an echo of what his old compadre, Tony Blair, said: “War is horrible.” But all their knockers want to know is, “Could it have been avoided?”

Next on the agenda is a “healthy living centre”. This is a Brown initiative; multipurpose centres to serve the local community, where you can drop your child at the nursery, go to the dentist, and so on, all in one place. In the nursery, Brown drops down on his knees – no hint of creakiness – and chats away to mothers and nursery aides, and their charges.

I would say, having observed both Blair and Cameron in similar circumstances, that Brown, contrary to expectation, has more of a common touch than either of them. Perhaps this is to do with his upbringing – his late father, the Rev John Ebenezer Brown, was a minster of the Church of Scotland, and the family manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was something of an open house to the poor and in need. Gordon and his brothers, John and Andrew, were expected to be kind and hospitable to whomsoever arrived at the door.

On the train back, Brown and I are left to talk, in rather trying circumstances, knees to knees, juddering china, hovering rail staff with loudspeaker voices. His voice is low and soothing but his manner is more hesitant, particularly at first, than in subsequent meetings.

It’s intriguing to hear the private reflections and anxieties of our public figures behind their impassive façades. He was worried at the service, for instance, about how much eye contact he should make: “It was very emotional. I found it difficult because I wanted to look at everybody but not in a prying way. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t trying to avoid their… so I looked at them and sort of nodded.” Afterwards, he met the families. Did they express their anger to you? “That has happened but not today… Look, war is always tragic, that’s what I wanted to say at the Iraq inquiry.”

So why didn’t you say it? “I did say it but that’s not what was reported. Tragedies happen during a period of war or conflict and you’ve got to keep asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can you justify this? What is happening to these young people?’?”

Do you sometimes feel like weeping, yourself, in a public event like this one? “Of course, of course.” I ask him, then, about his emotionalism when talking about the death of his daughter on the Piers Morgan show. Was he surprised when his feelings overtook him?

“Well, we… I hadn’t really talked about it much in public and I just… um… I mean, that’s just the way it happened. I wanted to explain what had happened because these were ten…the ten most important days of my life and I can remember almost every minute of them. And, yes, you do cherish them.”

Who can forget those pictures and footage of Brown, happier than anyone had ever seen him, as he held his new baby girl in his arms? He came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and looked like a man who could hardly believe his good fortune. And then those grief-stricken, shell-shocked photos, ten days later.

Does that personal experience connect him to the people whose own children have died, and does it also reconnect him to his own feelings of loss? “Yes, it does, because a loss is not something you get over. You just adjust to it. It’s very, very difficult, particularly when people have built their whole lives around either a partnership with someone or their expectations that they will see their teenage son prosper and then, suddenly, they’re dead, and it’s very, very sad. It is a terrible thing to lose your child.”

Moving on, I ask Brown whether he has enjoyed being Prime Minister, which startles him. “Enjoyment! It’s not the first word that you’d use,” a big laugh. “I do enjoy being in politics and, I mean, if I thought that I wasn’t being able to do anything that was of any use, I’d get out immediately. I’m not really wanting to be there if I can’t do anything. So as long as I feel there are more things to do… Yes, it is enjoyable.”

Can you give an example of something you set out to do and have achieved; something which makes you feel proud? “I think we have probably created a fairer society and rebuilt our public services. These Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, like the one we were at today… There’s now 3,500 around the country and there were none in 1997.”

He talks about the new challenges each day brings, and meetings with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, and Martha Lane Fox: “We’re trying to work out how we can move to the next stage of the internet in Britain and how Britain can lead in that.”

How good are you at the new technology? “I’m not that great.” Do you tweet? “Well, I give people messages but we’ve got 1.5 million people on it!” How are you at e-mail? “I do e-mail and you can tell it’s me, I never correct the spelling. I can’t be bothered doing spellcheck.

“My father had a typewriter and when I was very young, we [he and his brothers] all learnt to type with two fingers. That’s never changed,” he demonstrates, looking like an old-time reporter in The Front Page.

Brown went to Edinburgh University to read history at the age of 16, having been fast-tracked in an experimental educational programme, selected at Kirkcaldy West primary school, and taught in a separate class – with the other hot-housed children – at Kirkcaldy High School.

As a teenager, he wrote about how much he hated the experiment and he still clearly believes it was a bad idea: “My school life and everybody else’s was determined by this narrow, narrow measure of IQ. The kids I was in a class with, with very high IQs, were being trained to do better at university, assuming they would go to university. And, actually, most of them didn’t go because the pressures were very high on them, and a lot of them just gave up on the way.

“The idea that you can narrow intelligence down to one measurement of IQ… when what we’ve got to have is both an education system and a society that recognises that people’s talents flourish in different ways. You cannot standardise a measure of talent.”

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, was a contemporary of the PM’s at Edinburgh and recalls Brown’s successful campaign to become rector in 1972, at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of such towering political figures as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

“He wasn’t the first [student rector] – he was the second – but he was the one who made the most of it,” Sudjic remembers. “Here was someone who was quite cerebral about politics but who also managed a very populist campaign [a posse of miniskirted cuties, who called themselves the Brown Sugars, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Brown’s face and the slogan, “Gordon for me”]. It was a time when students were more interested in sit-ins and were quite snooty about that kind of thing, but he had a gift for touching different sorts of people.”

Even then, Sudjic says, “Brown had a glow, which is nothing to do with hindsight – a charisma that this was someone who was going to do something.” They worked together on the student newspaper, where Sudjic was editor and Brown was the unofficial news editor who could be relied on to come up with cracking headlines, and quickly: “He was always the centre of a group of people who wanted to be around him, and popular – of course – with women. [His girlfriend, for five years, was Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter of the exiled King of Romania.] We’d all go to a pub – the Meadows Bar – which was a notorious dive.”

When Brown left university, staying on as rector until 1975, fighting and triumphing in various thorny political battles, his plan was to be an academic. He lectured in politics in Glasgow and Edinburgh, “and I was going down that sort of road, but after I had my series of eye operations, I decided to do something a bit more useful”.

As is well known, Brown lost his sight in one eye in an accident when he was playing rugby in his final year at school. Up to that point, he was a gifted and keen sportsman. I’d read somewhere that he’d even thought of turning professional, but when I ask him, he says “No! But I was very fit and I was very fast. I was a runner, you know, so whether you’re playing football or rugby or athletics, if you’re fast, you’ve got something to offer.”

But then there were complications in his other eye and he had to spend long weeks, with operation after operation, lying on his bed in the dark with nothing to do but think: “I decided I had to do something a bit more useful, so that’s when I got more involved in politics.” But what could be more useful than teaching?

“That’s true, but I thought I was doing it just for myself.” In-between being a university lecturer and an MP, Brown had a stint as a broadcast journalist on Scottish Television. How did you find that? “I thought it was fascinating because it taught me how – well, it should have taught me how – to present a case, and it should have taught me how to say things more succinctly!”

For the rest of the journey we talked about books and poetry. Brown knew that this interested me, for several reasons, and I had the impression that he had prepared himself. We had met years ago when he threw a drinks party for Women in Journalism, in a gracious reception room on the top floor of 11 Downing Street. He may have had, even then, a slight reputation for dourness – which was nothing compared to what it became – but he was incredibly charming and seemed totally at ease surrounded by legions of spike-heeled feministas who all wanted to get close to him. His chief memory of the occasion, rather disappointingly, was the enthusiastic smoking on the balconies.

Then, more recently, as Brown’s reputation hardened – and he was portrayed, in some places, as a moody, paranoid, bitter, neurotic, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, workaholic weirdo – it struck me how distinctly at odds this was with the impression of him conveyed by other people I interviewed. Talking to them revealed glimpses of a Brown that we rarely see, and I wanted to dig deeper into this hinterland.

Terence Conran, for instance, spoke about his passion for modernist architecture and how – before the big modernism exhibition at the V&A in 2006 – Brown had asked if Conran would give him a tour of the show one evening. What impressed him was the knowledge of the Chancellor, as he was then, but also his curiosity and desire to learn more.

Antonia Fraser was struck by Brown’s cleverness but also his passionate interest and knowledge of poetry. Brown remembers being invited to a reception for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish love poetry when he was a student: “This was very funny because Hugh MacDiarmid was there [the nom de plume of the communist poet Christopher Murray Grieve, who created a Scottish version of modernism] and he was just swearing at everything. This man who had this great talent with words was reduced to the adjective, the verb and the noun of swear words. It was incredible.” But why was he swearing? “Well, I was the rector of the university, and I was a student, and the establishment was not very pleased with me [Brown had taken the university to court over its investments in South Africa, and won] and so Hugh was siding with me.”

He still reads poetry, which surprises and delights me, and he really knows his stuff. Every time I make a reference, he joins me, and so we make a bit of spectacle of ourselves, yelling, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” over the rattle of the train. (The only other politician, in my experience, who has a similar love and appreciation of language is Boris Johnson.)

I had asked Brown to cite his favourite love poem and he’s a bit stumped. About a week after our last meeting, I have the faintly surreal experience of the Prime Minister calling me at home, on a Sunday, and quoting the lines of various poems that do it for him. Clearly, he was speaking from memory, because he is unable to tell me the titles, apart from Robbie Burns’s A Red Red Rose. He also likes this one by Erich Fried and recites it:

“It is nonsense/ says reason/ It is what it is/says love

It is calamity/ says calculation/ It is nothing but pain/ says fear

It is hopeless/ says insight/ It is what it is/ says love

It is ludicrous/ says pride/ It is foolish/ says caution/ It is impossible/ says experience/ It is what it is/ says love.”

Towards the end of our train journey, Sarah came and joined us. Her husband had been talking about his book of the moment, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

What I want to know is whether the Browns swap books at bedtime. Sarah says in her dry way: “I read a lot of chick lit… and Gordon, not so much.” Really, how can you fail to like her? “Well, Sarah reads a lot more than I do,” says Gordon. “I’m less interested in reading political biographies but I do find biographies interesting; the way they try to get at the heart of people.”

We’ve arrived at Euston. Brown ushers me into his car, en route for Downing Street, where he and Sarah are hosting a reception for the heroes of different communities, and talks in an unbridled way about himself.

There is a bit of a whiff of that “They’re out to get me” paranoia when he refers to certain newspapers, but then you could say it’s justifiable paranoia because they are. More interestingly, he says that for some years he had felt restricted by a kind of image-problem straitjacket but now he’s shrugged it off and can be himself. He talks about it as though it were a liberation.

Other people have witnessed this new lightness in the PM’s step, although they say the straitjacket was of Brown’s own making. One political commentator first noticed what a good mood Brown was in on the plane to Trinidad, last November, for the Commonwealth summit. “I kept saying, ‘Why is Gordon so relaxed? Is it because he can see the finishing line?’ He’s seen off the coups, and he’s got the polls in a good position and he’s been thrown a lifeline that wasn’t there – because the public has taken a good look at Cameron and they’re not quite sure about him… So Brown’s in with a chance.”

The accusations sparked by Andrew Rawnsley’s book that Brown has “anger issues” have tended to make the PM more popular. “The country was not shocked by suggestions that the PM loses his temper, and his staff don’t regard him as a bully,” the commentator continues. “He’s not a cruel guy – he doesn’t get any pleasure by being hard on people – but he is extremely demanding. I’ve had texts from people in No 10 saying, ‘God, he’s in a bad mood today,’ and there’s no doubt that he’s really, really moody. But now that it’s been seen that he can shed a tear as well as sock people,” he jokes, “Brown’s far more interesting to the public.”

I spoke to someone close to Blair who had witnessed the two of them during some of the more tense periods. “I’ve never seen anything like bullying,” he says. “I’ve heard horrible tempers but the most difficult thing with Gordon was his withdrawal or sulkiness which was much more tedious. His main problems were shooting the messenger and sulking when he didn’t get his own way, but my impression is that all that is better now and his team seems to be working better.”

It’s possible, of course, with the election only weeks away, that no one from Labour’s inner circle, past or present, is going to put the boot into Brown since there’s no shortage of people who will be doing that for them.

Our next meeting takes place, on Sunday afternoon, in the kitchen of No 10. It’s rather pokey and old-fashioned and to get there, you go up in a lift the size of one of those saw-the-lady-in-half magician’s boxes. The Browns’ sons are nowhere to be seen but I pass their brightly coloured wellingtons lined up, regimentally, in another tiny nook at the entrance of the flat. Sarah organises coffee in a cafetiere and, again, Brown and I are left alone, to talk around the kitchen table.

This lack of control-freakery is highly unusual with senior politicians. Brown’s press person leaves a tape recorder on the table but never sits in on the interviews. When I interviewed Tony Blair a number of times last year, again with no aide present, he said that when he was Prime Minister that would never have happened. I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with David Cameron in our time together, again last year, without his press officer glued to our side. Cameron’s people were also much more anxious about what I was going to write, while Brown’s lot are almost peculiarly chilled. It’s hard to know whether this is an extremely clever ploy – see how relaxed and confident the PM is! Gordon Brown has nothing to fear! – or a bit naive and unprofessional.

I ask Brown, after all the recent focus on his personality, how he would describe his temperament. “Determined, strong-willed, impatient, wanting to do things.” Are you moody? “Yes, but, look, every day you get up with a determination to do certain things, and you can get very frustrated if you haven’t done them by the end of the day. But every morning, I’m very positive about what you can do.”

There’s been no hint of brusqueness in our time together but I wouldn’t see that, would I, since we are both sort of wooing one another for our own reasons, aren’t we? He laughs: “I don’t think I’m naturally surly but I am very strong-willed.”

When I repeat what the political pundit had said about the public being more interested in him, now, because of the tears and him packing a punch, Brown says, “But I don’t pack a punch!” He talks about his father, to whom he often refers, with a rather touching admiration: “He was a man who I never heard raise his voice once. You always knew when he was disappointed by the expression on his face but he would not get angry. And every time I get impatient or angry around others, I remember my father was not prepared to lose his temper.”

Does Sarah ever tell you to calm down? “Not those words, no.” What does she say? “Move on to the next issue.’” Do you brood? “I think about a lot of things. But ‘brood’ is not the word. ‘Brood’ is your poets we were discussing the other day.”

I ask him whether this new lightness of being – he says that it’s a consequence of him not caring any more about what people write about him – means that he is philosophical about his future.

“I’m not philosophical in the sense that people might understand it – that I’m just letting events take their course. I’m fighting as we’ve never fought before to win,” he says.

Some commentators are saying that the danger is that you underestimate Cameron. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Brown says steelily. “And I certainly don’t underestimate the Conservatives. I mean, they’re putting huge amounts of money and huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of personal… You know, sort of ‘Brown is the problem’, ‘Another five years of Brown’. I don’t underestimate them at all.”

Does he fear rejection, I wonder. Could this be the reason that he put off the election, the first time round, when he seemed to be in a much stronger position to win, even though the initial honeymoon period was over. “That wasn’t about a fear of rejection, it was about the right time for doing the right things,” he says. “And I’m not going into this election fearing rejection. I mean, if people decide not to vote for us, I’ll accept that. I have to accept it so I will accept it. I don’t think I’m motivated by the fear of rejection.”

So why didn’t you call an election at that time? “Because I’d just started the job… We’d gone through the summer with floods and terrorism, and foot-and-mouth, and I thought about it and then decided not to do it because I thought we would give people more time to see what we’re capable of doing.”

Hmmm, how very generous-spirited of you, I say. Do you despair of the fickleness of the public; the way when Blair had gone, it was all, “Thank God, no more of that dreadful showbiz and glamour – Gordon Brown is so solid and no frills,” and, pretty soon, it was you who could do nothing right?

Another big laugh. “Well, look around the world at every political leader and for most of the time that they’re in office, it’s a referendum on them. So – make a mistake [which his people admit he did on pensions, for instance], make a bad judgment, do something sort of idiosyncratic or do something a bit strange or odd or stupid, and – you know – people will mark you down.

“So most of the time, it’s a referendum and it’s only when it comes to an election – and, actually, it’s only in the few weeks before an election – that it becomes a choice. So if you’re asking people, most of the time, ‘What’s your view of the Government?’ they’ll say, ‘The Government’s done something wrong.’ If you ask them nearer an election, then they know they’ve got to choose between these two parties.

“And if I seem happy it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.”

I ask him what he’s learnt about people from his time in politics. Any surprises? “I think that in the job that I’m in there are lots of things that shock you!” Any examples? “I’d better not! I’m still shocked by some of these parliamentary expenses problems that I never knew about. There was a system that was wrong, but it does shock me how bad some of the experiences we had to deal with were.”

Are you a bit of an innocent then? “Maybe I am.” A huge laugh. “No, I think most people would be shocked by this. And when you see people abusing any system, you get angry and it made me very angry indeed.” He goes on: “I didn’t have any particular problem with my expenses but everybody suffered and it’s bound to affect the government of the day. In the last two years, we’ve had two of the biggest problems that British politics has had to face since the war. One is the trust in politics that has been damaged in a way that it’s never been hurt before by a sort of cumulative weight of public opinion against MPs – because of the expenses – which is justifiable.

“And the second is the global financial crisis – and when you ask me about why we didn’t choose to go for the election…” Do you regret that you didn’t? “No.” Why? “Because I think it was better for me to see through the global recession. And let’s see what happens in the next few months. I mean, there’s still a long way to go.”

He talks about “the tragedy of British politics”, when there are big moral questions that should be debated – such as the right to assisted suicide, genetic research, discrimination laws – that are “about the future of our culture, in some cases, as well as the future of our country”, and yet, “All you see is a sort of divisive, confrontational opposition versus government bun fight that is more reminiscent of a public-school debating society than it is of a serious chamber looking at serious issues.”

He continues: “We’ve got to do better than this confrontational point-scoring and legalistic cleverness because, that’s what it is, clever not wise. And the reason that people don’t feel that their politicians are in touch with them as they should be is that they don’t feel that politicians are debating the issues that really matter to them – like social care – how do you care for the elderly? If you could see Parliament really debating that, then people might have more trust in the political system. That’s where I’d like it to be.”

And, yet, there are obviously larger moments of shared humanity where all differences are put aside: “When people are talking in the House of Commons about the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mood is very different. Look, politicians can behave well, even if they often behave badly.”

I ask him what has been the happiest moment in his political life, and he says: “I think it was probably presenting the first Budget as Chancellor – probably because you felt you were actually doing something, after so many years in opposition of not being able to change things.

“The Budget was 3.30 one afternoon, and for some stupid reason the Conservatives decided to make points of order. And we had 18 minutes of points of order – hahahahah – and I remember turning to Tony and saying, ‘Look, we’ve waited 18 years, I suppose we can wait another 20 minutes.’?”

The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is one that has riveted the public and media alike. It has been the subject of many column inches, books and a TV drama, The Deal. Given the Conservatives’ recent, rather counter-intuitive claim that they are Blair’s heirs, it seemed a good idea to contact the man himself. Blair is harder to pin down, these days, than the PM, but he spoke to me on the telephone, in snatches, from Moscow, London and Brussels, before flying off to China.

They were both new MPs when they met – Blair was 30, Brown, 32 – and they got on instantly. “He was pointed out to me as someone who was a highly intelligent, able guy – the rising star of the Labour Party – and we got talking and I found him both intellectually stimulating and a fascinating personality and then, by a curious quirk, we ended up sharing this windowless, airless room underneath a House of Commons corridor.

“That was the start of a very close friendship because we were in a very, very small room – slightly bigger than the inside of a car, but not much – and we were there all the time. First, there was a very strong intellectual curiosity, and an understanding that the Labour Party had to change and that we were in serious trouble.

“Second, we got on personally very well together, we really, really enjoyed each other’s company, and he certainly taught me a lot about politics.”

Blair offers as an example the first press release he did, “which was very much like a sort of lawyer’s opinion, and he said, ‘What’s the headline?’ And I gave him this intellectual analysis, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the headline?’ So he was extremely good at doing that.”

Brown also helped Blair with his first speeches: “Getting a point to them and a rhythm to them that was for a public speech rather than an argument. But the most important thing was that for ten years we were extremely busy iterating and reiterating where the Labour Party had to be… what was the modern form of social democracy that would be capable of remaining true to its values but win public support.

“So it was an intellectual bond but a strong personal friendship, too.”

I ask him about the next stage, when the decision was made for Blair to become leader. Wasn’t that awkward, since Brown had somewhat mentored him? “Well, of course, these things are always difficult,” he says, and then – which felt almost too melodramatically apt – the line went dead in snowbound Moscow.

We resume, a day or so later: “Of course, it was bound to be difficult because only one of us could go forward, and we’d been working extraordinarily closely together and very productively.

“But at the time, the great challenge was how to win the aspirantly upwardly mobile in the South.” And yours was the face that fitted? “You could say that… Obviously, it was very hard for him but, yes, I think he eventually reconciled himself to it.”

Blair says that the first term was about re-establishing Labour’s credibility to govern, “and he was a tower of strength, particularly in respect of the economy, because the worry had always been that Labour either didn’t understand it or couldn’t run it or manage it. And, actually, in those ten years we were a very successful partnership. But, yes, the tension obviously remained.”

I’ve been told, as was widely speculated, that after 2005, there was a real deterioration in your relationship, is that right? “I’m not sure it was quite like that but obviously Gordon still retained a very strong ambition to be leader – and he was perfectly entitled to, which is why I always thought he’d be my successor.

“When major events happened, like September 11th and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, he was there and he was supportive. But there’s no point in being silly about it – of course the tension remained between someone who had the job and someone who wanted the job. That’s always the way it is, but it was still a very enduring partnership.”

Do you feel protective of Gordon when he is under siege? “Of course, because I know what it’s like to be under attack in that way. One of the reasons why I would never go out and criticise the person who is Prime Minister is that I know how damn tough the job is, and I also know enough about the way the modern media works to know that things can get extraordinarily exaggerated and your motives are completely traduced.

“But there’ll always be a basis of friendship for us and, indeed, respect – because on the great issues of the day, he is someone who thinks profoundly and, indeed, in an original way – which is a rare quality.”

I wait for the PM in the library of 10 Downing Street, with its rather gloomy landscapes in ornate frames, and books – lined up under august busts – which have an uncherished and unconsidered quality, dating back to previous incumbents. Only in one corner, almost embarrassedly tucked-away, is there any sense of the here and now – a photograph of a beaming Brown, with his two boys, John, 6, and Fraser, 3, wrapped up in his arms.

Sculpted into the cornices, around the room, are four tiny bees that Cherie had commissioned to represent the actual Blair heirs. The original vandal was Margaret Thatcher who had decided, in a fit of whimsical grandeur, to have four thatches attached to the stucco of the ceiling in one of No 10’s reception rooms.

When Brown arrives, I ask him what form his interior legacy will take. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he says. “What’s Tony done?”

I had asked him whether his weeks of darkness and enforced idleness as a youth had taught him more about patience or impatience: “Impatience, I think – because I was doing all these things I enjoyed, like playing rugby and football, and then that just stopped.

“So, instead of allowing it to be a setback, you think you’ll try to make something of it – and I became more impatient to do things more quickly.”

And, yet, you had to be patient for so long, waiting to become prime minister? But then you weren’t so very patient towards the end, were you?

“Well, ask Tony. We had our ups and downs but there is no political relationship, as I have said, that has survived so long as Chancellor and Prime Minister as the one I had with Tony. How many Chancellors did Margaret Thatcher have? Three or four? And I was the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years. So we worked things through when there were difficulties, and I’ve got enormous, enormous respect for him.”

He was also close to his special adviser Damian McBride, who had to resign after the e-mail scandal when he and Labour blogger, Derek Draper, fabricated unpleasant personal stories about Tory politicians and their wives. Do you still talk to him? “No, I haven’t talked to him.” Don’t you miss him and feel sad about it? “It’s a very sad example of someone making a mistake and paying very heavily for it. You can’t condone what happened but, equally, the penalty for him was very high.”

Does that mean that you’re not a good judge of character? “I don’t think so, no. One of the things about people is that you think you know them and then you get a surprise. But you think you know yourself and then sometimes you’ve got to think, ‘Oh, I’ve reacted in this way which surprises me.’?”

Well, look at Peter Mandelson, and how he bounces back. He’s gone from being the Prince of Darkness to – what? – the Labour Party’s Winne-the-Pooh? “I think people admire the way he’s fought back.”

Earlier, we had been talking about Brown’s extracurricular interests – he still plays the piano (as a boy he had lessons from his aunt, who was a music teacher) and he likes Bach, but he also can bang out some Beatles songs. What’s your favourite Beatles song? “Hey Jude.” He tells me that his older son, John, was given a teddy bear that plays Imagine when you wind it up – but it’s only later, when I compare Mandelson to a Mandy Bear, that he says: “That’s the guy who gave John the teddy bear that plays Imagine.”

What does he make of George Osborne’s claim that the Tories are the real Blair’s heirs, presumably trying to imply that Brown is a sort of Arthur Scargill throwback?

“It’s a Tory tactic to try to present themselves as centre ground and me as too far on the left. And it’s wrong because, basically, I am centre ground and they are too far on the right.”

Given that GB was as much the architect of New Labour as TB, the Tories might as well say that they are wearing Brown’s crown.

Moving on to Iraq, did he ever feel like resigning over it? “No… It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction or the issue about regime change that was important to me. To me, the important thing was, if you are creating a global community – which is what we are trying to do after the Cold War – you cannot have countries that persistently defy the international community by refusing to abide by their obligations.”

But was it our responsibility to go in? “There is a responsibility to protect – which we will have to debate – you know, we didn’t go into Rwanda when we should have done. You wouldn’t justify now the Western world’s inability to deal with the problems of Rwanda, would you? So you would support intervention in cases where it was morally justified.”

So are you saying we should be doing more Iraqs, not less? “Well, I think you’ve got to ask – what is a just war and what is a just peace.”

But, Gordon, do you understand that it’s not just the expenses scandal that has made the public turn against politicians – it’s also that thousands and thousands of people marched against the Iraq War but their opposition counted for nothing. Do you understand that anger?

“I understand the anger over Iraq, I do – because people feel that they were given information that turned out not to be correct. I understand the feeling that people have but you want me to, sort of, denounce something that I was involved with.

“Do I understand why people feel worried when there are casualties and people are killed? Yes, I do – but I can’t be in politics and be a pacifist.”

How much does the public have a right to know about their political leaders? “That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” If you had been suffering from depression, for instance, should we know about that? “I’ve never really thought about it.” But weren’t you asked about that by Andrew Marr? “That was about prescription drugs, wasn’t it?” But if I asked if you were on Prozac, let’s say, should I expect an honest answer? “I think people have got to give answers to questions, yeah.”

But do you think that’s a legitimate question to ask? “Look, I think we are in a world where every part of my private life has been investigated by someone. Every part of what I do… my house, my marriage, my children. I didn’t choose to expose the fact that my son [Fraser] had cystic fibrosis. I didn’t want people to know that. I’m not ashamed of it but I didn’t want people to know because I want to protect my sons.

“But it leaked out. Someone sold the story. But I am realistic that people will ask all sorts of questions and they do – and in the end people will judge you by what you do.”

He had said that his upbringing was one where you didn’t talk about personal things outside the confines of your family: “I was quite a shy boy when I was young and, yes, I’m probably still shy… but not unwilling to take on the things I do.”

Do his feelings get hurt by the personal comments? “I think it does affect you when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a…’ – hahahaha – ‘weird smile,’ and ‘This guy’s got something wrong about the way he speaks.’ I mean, people are pretty cruel sometimes. But, no, I don’t get hurt any more.”

Watching the Browns, over several days, one did, indeed, get the impression as the PM puts it, “We do well together – we’ve been very lucky.” He looks a bit emotional. “You’ve got to understand each other’s needs and, at the moment, she’s having to do more for me, so it’s more of a pressure on her.”

How much do you think Sarah’s changed you? “A lot, I think. She’s helped me to be more outgoing and more sensitive to things that probably I was not as sensitive to as I should have been.”

What have you discovered about her in this role? “Poise. I knew she was compassionate and very dedicated to what she was doing – but it’s a difficult job for her because there’s no official title or office that sort of backs her up. But she’s tried to do all the things that are necessary with poise and, I suppose,” – a shy laugh – “elegance.”

Can you imagine a life without children? “Not now – it’s absolutely the best thing that has happened to me, and it was never clear after Jennifer died whether Sarah could have more children, so we were very lucky.

“Working here and living here, you’re meeting your children throughout the day – so, you know, they’re running in to see you.” Are you demonstrative with them? “Oh, yes, very.” Were your parents with you? “Not so much, no. But children like that – we play a lot together and I try to read them stories… You know, it’s the softness of their skin which is just wonderful.

“I’ve been very lucky to have children at this age – Sarah is younger than me, our children are very young, and I feel younger as a result. It’s very energising to be around children.”

How does Brown think he and Sarah will get on when they have more time on their hands? “Better,” he says. “I think so because Sarah’s got things she wants to do, and I’ve got things I want to do…”

Can you imagine a life without politics? “Oh yes, I could always imagine a life without politics.” What would you enjoy? “Time to read, time to write… I have written one or two books and I love the intellectual discovery that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the moral sense that people have and how that arises, and what makes people do the things they do.”

When we had been talking about poetry on the train, Brown spoke about his favourite poem – Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, and its theme of potential never realised, the flowers never to blossom and so on, because of impoverished lives. I’d asked him, then, if he felt that he’d fulfilled his potential. “Not yet. Does anybody in the end? I don’t know.” He also said that everyone who is reported as being one-dimensional has more than one dimension: “Everybody has a hinterland of some sort.”

I spoke to Rory Bremner, whose job as a political satirist and impressionist requires him to examine our political leaders with forensic precision, and his view was that Brown was the most three-dimensional of them all. He also said that, “Brown is a serious man and a significant politician but the skills set of a modern politician is about fluency and ease and looking relaxed in your own skin, and Brown doesn’t fit into that.”

What Bremner said chimed with the general impression I had of Brown, while working on this piece that, despite, his mistakes, he is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?

Towards the end of our sessions, I put it to him that politics often seems not to be about the art of the possible but the art of the compromise. “It ought to be the art of making the desirable possible, in my view,” was Brown’s supple riposte. “Is that not what politics should be? Making the desirable possible?”

Celebrities, Comedians

Ricky Gervais in his most ‘postmodern’ interview ever

Ginny Dougary
The Times
April 2010

The comedian talks about everything from relationships to body image

It started pretty badly. At one point, Ricky Gervais said it was the most difficult interview he’d ever done – and he was using “difficult” in the same way that someone says a dress is “interesting” when they mean “horrible”.

The feeling, it must be said, was mutual but, fortunately, this encounter in his anonymous-looking office, above an estate agency in Hampstead – despite 60 hellish minutes which veered between awkwardness and outright bloody-mindedness – does have a happy, if somewhat unorthodox, ending.

To be frank, I had half-expected it to be tricky. It was the control thing that worried me. I’d heard stories, possibly apocryphal, about Gervais, dissatisfied with the way a photoshoot was going, simply taking over and directing himself himself. There was in addition something about the look in his eyes – cussedness tinged with anger, a lack of trust, maybe – underneath the hectic bravado that could spell trouble.

We chitchat about the pronunciation of his name – which is French-Canadian on his father’s side – “Gervaaayze” (as in haze), although his mother, from Reading, rolled it out with a rural burr: “Gerrrrrvayze.”

He remembers only fully understanding that his dad came from another, far-off country when various uncles and aunts came to visit and “of course, they were real Canadians and had check jackets on”. He’s been to Canada but not to visit his relatives: “Obviously, I’m interested in my immediate family [he has three much older siblings] but, no, I’ve never worried about where I came from. I don’t see the point, really.”

So you won’t be doing that Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy show any time soon? “No. Who cares who the f*** you are? Oh God, I love it when they cry when they find out their great-great-grandmother was a prostitute. Really? I mean, really, do you care? It’s all come flooding back now, hasn’t it? Oh, the terrible memories of 150 years ago.”

He is close to his two brothers, Larry and Bob, and his sister, Marsha: “I like them and I get on with them. We’ve shared a life together. So that’s why I care about them, because they’re nice and loyal and, you know, if they were all adopted I’d feel the same. That’s what caring about someone is, not someone saying, ‘By the way, you share 99 per cent genetic material.’ Do I? Oh that makes it different, then.”

We’ve barely started and already we’re into the heavy sarcasm and belligerence. I happen to agree with Gervais that those shows featuring an endless parade of weeping celebrities are a bit suspect, but there’s also something absurd about his toxic snideness. It would probably be funny on the stage, but close up it’s faintly alarming; a bit like being trapped in the back of a cab with an irate driver who’s sounding off.

My next mistake is to comment (innocuously, I think) on why he always puts his feet on his desk – does he have a lower-back problem?

“It feels comfortable,” he says, looking faintly uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t do it in your house. I do it because it feels nice and relaxed.”

Later, when we sort of kiss and make up, it transpires that this was a turning point for him – ie, when things really started to go wrong – and his reasons reveal a lot about his rather complicated personality, as well as his uneasy accommodation with fame.

His comedy – and writing, in general – works because it is true to life, and full of acute observation. There’s no lumbering exposition and he follows the good writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell.” His creation and portrayal of David Brent, The Office’s boss, resonates because his character is totally recognisable, whether the audience lives in Slough or Poughkeepsie. We all have a little bit of Brent inside us – an executive friend of mine confessed she feels herself to be cringingly like him whenever she tries to chum up to her staff.

There are discernible overlaps between Gervais himself and his most famous character, particularly his mannerisms. After our interview, I talked to half-a-dozen people about the feet-on-table business, and most of them said either that it was something Brent actually did or, at the very least, it was a quintessentially Brentian thing to do. What is intriguing is that Gervais intuited my discomfort with him sticking his trainers under my nose before I was even really aware of it. It was only afterwards that I thought, “Well, what if I were an elderly, genteel lady – would he still think it was OK to do that?” It also struck me how much it was a distancing device; with his body stretched out in an L-shape, his face could not have been further away from mine.

I ask him if he is sentimental, and he says that he is. So, I wonder, what is the stronger element in him: sentiment or ironic detachment. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand the question because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t think you can break it down to a percentage, because there’s lots of overlap as well. I’m 100 per cent human so I’m a logical person with all the attributes of being human…”

Perhaps you find me asking for a percentage a bit off-putting but… “I’ll take every question you ask very seriously.” OK, let’s try it another way: some people are completely sentimental without a trace of cruel wit in them and… “I never lose one when the other one’s happening. I don’t understand the question. You’ve gotta start again.”

Well, you have answered the question in a way… “I couldn’t have. If I did, I did it by mistake because I don’t understand the question.”

Oh dear, I sigh. The reason I’m asking the question, partly, is because your new film, Cemetery Junction – which you’ve said is very autobiographical (a coming-of-age story of three lads trapped in Nowheresville, plotting their escape) – has got a lot of warmth and heart, and feels quite different in tone to, say, The Office (or, certainly, from the one episode I saw, Extras).

Now we’re talking about “the work”, Gervais is back in his comfort zone; he knows where he’s going, he has control and there is a momentary ceasefire in hostilities. “[The new film] is more an out-and-out drama so there’s no veil of irony in it, like some of the other works. In The Office, we were laughing at the people who were delusional and un-cool, and now we’ve found people who are cool and, you know, we’re going, ‘This bloke is cool and his feathers are going to fall out one day but not this summer, and isn’t it excitin’?’

“I suppose it was quite dangerous in The Office to expect people to go from laughing at a bit of slapstick with a middle-aged man having a breakdown and then going, ‘But, really, no, he’s a real person and he’s got real emotions.’”

That’s what made it so interesting. “Of course and I think we’ve always done that.

As long as your characters are real and they resonate and there’s some sort of basis in reality and empathy to the piece, as opposed to just crazy slapstick, then I think you can shift gears.

“But it’s all in how you set up your wares, you know. We drip-fed the boy-meets-girl thing, which sometimes doesn’t work in sitcoms because they’re either plonked in or they’re cynical or they forget the jokes, so it’s quite hard to have it all.”

His accent weaves in and out of the Reading burr and a more sloppy urban-teenager-speak – “re-uh” for real; “resonaigh” for resonate; “re-a-li-ee” for reality.

When Tim, the world-weary sales rep, finally gets his girl, Dawn, the gorgeous blonde receptionist, I tell him that I felt like cheering. There had been more misunderstandings, missed opportunities and silent yearning than in a Jane Austen novel. “As soon as you realise that Tim and Dawn can’t say what they want to say because the cameras are watching them…” He snaps his fingers in a very Brent way, “…takes on a whole new level… It’s like, seething and Victorian. So all Tim had to do was look at Dawn and for her not to be looking back or look at Dawn and then get caught. It was all body language because people don’t blow up what they’re thinking anyway.”

It’s time for some more questions and, feeling flushed and anxious, I fan myself with some papers on his desk and then totally freak him out by mentioning the menopause. Do you think people are frightened of you? “Erm – um – in what way?” Frightened of your brightness or that you will lampoon them or put them down?

“Er, I think that, yes, some people are intimidated by a famous person and if they knew how, you know, how idiotic… Well, I think it’s the same percentage of idiots that are famous as not, probably more, I would have thought. So… er… I hope I’m not intimidating in a bad way. I mean, taking this example – um – you know, it’s not nice when it’s combative.”

At this point, I almost fall off my chair as it swings backwards alarmingly – practically to the ground – and I gasp, “Is this a joke seat?” (to dispatch pesky interviewers, I’m thinking.) “No, it’s Stephen Merchant’s – so it’s got a very long back.”

Well, I’m leading up to a question that I’m worried is going to make you angry but, anyway, let’s go. “I won’t be angry,” he says. “I won’t answer it if I don’t like it.” So I want to talk to you about your looks. When you were a pop star (in an Eighties Spandau Ballet-ish duo, all cheekbones, dusky eye make-up and earrings, called Seona Dancing) – “Failed pop star,” he interjects – you were an incredibly pretty boy. Do you ever look at those old videos or pictures of yourself? “No, they’re too depressing.”

Why this interests me is that, in practically every single interview he’s ever done, Gervais refers to himself, in some way, as “fat” or “ugly” or both (as in “ugly, fat git”). Is that really the way you see yourself?

“Well, I don’t think I am a fat git, looking at the national average… and certainly the world average. But I’m a fat git compared to what I was, I suppose. I went from 9 stone to, you know – and then you hit 30 and those were my eating years…” (He’s now 48.)

Do you feel any nostalgia for that pretty boy you once were? “No, of course not.” Do you not care about your looks? “Er… I don’t know. I’m not vain in that way. I don’t preen. I’ve started working out for other reasons.” Health? “Yeah, health – and because I don’t want to get fatter.

“You know. It went far enough. And it was laziness because no one gets fat behind their back. If you burn off less calories than you eat, you put on weight – it’s not a shock to anyone. The people who eat too much must be happy with that or they’d do something about it.

“And I’m eating as much as I ever did because I enjoy it, but I’ve decided to work out more. I run over the Heath and I’ve got a gym at the house, so no excuses at all – not that there was an excuse before… The only reason to live longer is to drink more wine and eat more cheese.”

He and his TV producer partner, Jane Fallon (This Life, Teachers) – the couple have been together since they met at University College London in 1982 – live in a big pile in Hampstead but have also bought a flat in New York. They don’t have children, so no schools to worry about, and what with Gervais’s burgeoning Hollywood career (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying), it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they spend more time in the States. If so, will he feel pressurised to submit to the American beautification process?

“I think you mean, Los Angeles. New Yorkers are more…” Normal?

“Absolutely.” They’re still far more high-maintenance in the looks department in Manhattan than we are. “It’s probably more to do with what you do… The Hollywood pressure is that you do have to be of a certain standard or a certain type. I see everyone doing it, even good character actors. I think, ‘Why are you starving yourself?’ The pressure is there to have white, straight teeth…”

Would you ever do your teeth? “No, they’re clean and they’re real – it’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think I would. If I haven’t done them now, why would I do them?”

And, boom, off he goes… “What is in America? Who gives a f*** what anyone thinks? I don’t give a f*** what they think and if I don’t get a film role because my teeth are crooked, then f*** them, I don’t want it. I just go, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And if I don’t get a film role because I’m not thin enough, then, ‘F*** you.Why would I f****** do that, you f****** shallow c****!’ I hate them, and I hate that people think that I would. It makes me angry. I remember when a newspaper said, ‘He’s lost three stone for Hollywood.’ I went, ‘No [his voice veers upwards], I haven’t lost three stone and I would never f****** do it for Hollywood. I did it ’cos I work out and I wanna be fit.’ And that annoys me. Someone said, ‘I saw him in The Ivy and he was having a salad.’ ‘Yeah, I had a salad. I also had f****** deep-fried scampi and followed it with ravioli, you lying f****** c***!’ So the answer is, ‘No.’”

This is a splendid rant and hugely entertaining, although Gervais is genuinely angry and not performing it for laughs. But even in Hollywood, he is now calling the shots. The Invention of Lying – in which he plays an unsuccessful film writer who is told by everyone that he’s a fat loser and, guess what, he still gets the girl – was written, directed, produced, narrated by and stars Ricky Gervais. As he says, “I create my own labour. I write my own roles and I write fat little putz roles, and now I write slightly less fat little putz roles. I don’t go for roles which demand a 28-year-old model. Why would I do that?”

The reason, I think, that he is quite often misunderstood is because his humour hinges on playing with taboos. The danger being that while the audience accepts when is on stage, his offensiveness is a parody of other people’s prejudices (made more piquant by our worry that, at some level, we battle with equally unattractive knee-jerk reactions), that comic tension doesn’t always come across in interviews. So something that he intends to be humorous – even though it may be, as Gervais says in another context (calling his friend, Stephen Fry, “a f****** bent c***”), possibly “a joke that went wrong” or “ironic humour that fell flat” – it can be reported as what he really believes.

A case in point, are his recent remarks – asked for the umpteenth time about why he and Jane haven’t had children – when he went off on a sort of sub-Loaded riff that fat chain-smoking impoverished slags in leggings should be compulsorily sterilised. As he says, coming from his background (his father, Jerry, was a labourer, and his mother, Eva, a housewife with a salty tongue; they were not well off), “it’s fundamentally the opposite of what I believe”. The thing is, he should have known better. He should have been sufficiently media-savvy to realise how bad that would look in print and, actually, if anything qualifies as “a joke that went wrong”, that hits the jackpot.

Gervais has said, in the past, that he shouldn’t need to wear a “Billy Bigot” T-shirt in order to flag up to people that he’s only joking. But when I try to get him to talk about the way we all have thoughts that pop in our head that we’re ashamed of, don’t we, he comes over all arsey again.

First of all, he says that this is a subject he talks about on his latest tour. “I love to examine it. I look at middle-class angst all the time.

“When David Brent goes up to the black guy in the office and says, ‘I love Sidney Poitier’, that was him trying to tell him he’s not a racist. I love looking at those taboo subjects that make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re brought up in an environment where people are saying, ‘Black people are lazy’, for instance, you hit an age, if you’re an intelligent person, when you go, ‘That’s just not true.’ It’s like why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Until that point I’d never questioned it and when I did, it was, ‘Of course, it’s bulls***’, because the evidence – just like the evidence of racism – is overwhelmingly wrong.”

Still, I wonder, are there any thoughts he has now that occasionally make him ashamed of himself? “That doesn’t make sense. How can you go, ‘I know that’s wrong but I like it’?” And then, “You can’t help what pops into your head. It’s how you act on those things, rationally.” Are you sometimes shocked by the things that pop into your head? “No.”

You’re frowning at me as though I’m saying something very stupid. “No, it doesn’t make sense is what I’m saying. I think you’ve made a category mistake in what the mind is, is my high-falutin’ answer. You can’t be ashamed of…” Yes, you can. “No, you can’t.” More wrangling ensues… At one point, he insists that my suggestion that there is a gap between an unbidden thought leaping into your head, and the way you believe you should think and behave, is schizophrenia. No, it’s not, I say, pretty cross and exasperated myself by now. “I dabble with those things in comedy…” Precisely. “I dabble with the worst thing to say and then I deal with it – but I haven’t got this strange sort of man with two brains sort of syndrome.” Oh God! “I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable, but I think you’ve got to realise that this is important to me. I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I don’t want you to be unclear. This is as much for you as it is for me. So if you mean, ‘Have I ever had a belief that I’m ashamed of?’, the answer’s, ‘Yes.’”

I wonder if this verbal torture is something to do with Gervais having studied philosophy for three years; perhaps he took courses in semantics and semiology while he was at it. “It’s difficult because we can’t even get our interpersonal frames of reference correct to answer the question,” he says. “But also what’s good about it is that it seems to be about how you portray yourself and how you perceive yourself. Are you worried about your press persona; are you worried about the press, in general?”

Actually, it wasn’t really about that in my mind but it clearly was in his… As I’m considering this, we have a breakthrough. He mentions a recent, not altogether friendly, interview and tells me that, despite it giving the impression that the two had met face to face (details about his body language and facial expression and so on), they had only spoken on the phone. When he sees that I am shocked and disappointed, the whole mood changes dramatically.

He goes to the next room for a glass of water, I follow him and when we resume our conversation, it’s like talking to a different person. All the aggro has dissipated and everything about him has changed: his feet are nowhere to be seen, he leans across the desk to engage more fully; even his face opens up, his eyes widen and one catches a glimpse of that younger, unhardened self.

Bizarrely, we start to discuss why the interview has been so difficult to that point. He says that the reason he does interviews is that there’s a responsibility to the backers of his various projects. Was it the directness of my questions that bothered you? “No, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she thinks I’m such a horrible, nasty power freak… She thinks I’m intimidating, she thinks I’m combative.’

“Because on the face of it, that’s how I was being. And what I should have done is sat you down and said, ‘Listen, once bitten twice shy, and I’m really worried about things being taken out of context.’” But maybe I did irritate you, anyway? “No, the situation does. Straightaway I go, ‘Why am I swimming with sharks again?’ And I’m so conscious that anything can be… So when you said, ‘You like putting your feet up’, I suppose I was on the defensive. And straightaway we got off on the wrong foot.” He’s so earnestly in the moment, he doesn’t hear what he’s just said. “I thought, ‘F***, she could think that’s an affectation or that I’m rude; she could think I’m doing a power play, like I’ve read that in a book, you know.’ And so I tried to make it clear in a weird, like honesty-type Tourette’s-type of way that I just felt comfortable because it was my place – and I said in such a weird way, ‘I wouldn’t do it in your house.’

“I feel really bad now. It must have been like walking into someone who’d just come from a harrowing experience in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it!” This, in case there is any doubt about it, is a joke.

Complicated, isn’t it? “I’ve never done an interview when in the interview you analyse the interview. This is the most postmodern, deconstructed interview I’ve ever done. I wish we could do the post mortem.

“Of course, you do that in your head. I’ll go home to Jane and go, ‘Oh my God, I said this… and I know the headline.’ But you can’t get a headline out of this.”

Earlier, before our détente, I had wondered whether Gervais fell into the Englishman’s retreat of making a joke in order to avoid talking in an honest way about his feelings. He gives an answer to a different question – one that has been on his mind, not mine – about the perils of being famous. “I suppose I came to fame a bit cynically. I wanted people to know fame was an upshot of what I did, as opposed to the driving force because, fundamentally, I probably do want to be considered above the people who do anything to be famous and live their life like an open wound.”

I ask him if he’s self-analytical; again, his thoughts wander back to fame, and at first he becomes spectacularly tongue-tied. “Er, probably no more than I ever was… I mean fame makes you – um – more… um, self-analytical I suppose because… now you’re worried about not how people perceive you but how people who don’t know you perceive you, which seems unfair because your reputation is everything.

“I’m more conscious in public than I ever was. I’m probably less of an extrovert than I was. Fame has made me a bit more of a recluse.

“I go to restaurants but they’re safe environments. People don’t bat any eyelid in the Ivy but I probably wouldn’t go to Nando’s on a Friday night in Birmingham, and I don’t go to pubs. I’ve had no bad experiences, everyone’s very polite, but you can get phobic. It’s about feeling trapped. If you walk into a shop and you see someone go [he whispers behind his hand], then you walk out again. Walking down the street with someone going, ‘Love the show’ – nothing wrong with that at all. But being plonked somewhere where there’s loads of people who you don’t know but think they know you – that’s a bit weird. We’re not really meant to be famous.”

He was walking down the street once and there were a couple of kids, about 12 or 13, and one went: “‘Hey, man, it’s you, innit? Office man.’ I went, ‘Yeah’, and I kept walking. And heard them going, ‘Who is it?’ And I kept walking and I was about 20 yards away and this kid shouted, ‘What’s your name?’ And I had to shout, ‘I’m Ricky Gervais.’”

The idea of him doing this, it must be said, is snortingly funny. “’Cos I don’t want to be impolite. They don’t know. And I never want to be that bloke – you know, when they go, ‘I asked for his autograph when I was 14 and he told me to f*** off.’ I hate that.”

It’s at times like this that you catch a glimpse of the nicer side of Gervais, and understand why his friendships are long, and why a smart-sounding woman like Fallon would still be at his side, 25-plus years on. He’s unforthcoming, which is unsurprising, on the secret of sustaining a relationship over three decades: “There is no secret.

It’s all the obvious things. Things in common. Respect. I suppose – um – you’re soul mates. You see eye to eye on everything.”

But his romanticism comes out when we talk about his idea of the perfect endings to films. When I say that Cemetery Junction has the same sort of grit-with-a-heart feeling as British films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off, Gervais says he hasn’t seen them. He only catches new films – about three a year – when he’s on the plane. At home, he watches the same DVDs again and again and rattles off a list: The Godfather, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Play It Again, Sam, Tootsie, Raging Bull. “It’s like taking a drug because it gives me the same emotion as it did the first time, and some things are made better the second time round. I’m better the second time round.”

With his new film, “We wanted to do Hollywood does gritty. It had to be glorious and glamorous in its blue-collar degradation, like Saturday Night Fever. When you watch that – he’s walking down the street, he’s looking good but he works in a paint shop and he lives for Saturday night. But most people who watched that weren’t going, ‘How sad, this fellow’s gonna fall’; they’re going, ‘Oh, look at that! He’s f****** cool.’”

The Apartment (directed by Billy Wilder) has had the biggest influence on his and Merchant’s work. When I say that two of the young guys (Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes) in Cemetery Junction are pretty gorgeous, he says “Who wants to see fat ugly people?” Oh no, don’t start that again. “No, Billy Wilder said that when he cast Marilyn Monroe alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis [in Some Like It Hot], and he said, ‘No one wants to look at ugly people.’”

He says Cemetery Junction is autobiographical in that “all the women in that film are women from my family – my mum and my nan – and all the men are the men in my family and different friends growing up. There’s a line in it that my Mum actually said to me. [Gervais plays the character based on his father, in a white vest, always being undermined by his crabby mother-in-law.] When I was 18, I said, ‘I’m going to France’, and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you ain’t seen.’ Which is very sweet.”

It was the death of his mother, nine years ago, in particular, which made a profound impact on her son: “It’s devastating when you see someone dying of lung cancer – it’s f****** horrible, dreadful. My dad died a couple of years after. He was pottering around the garden with a few cans and sort of went, just like that. When your parents die, you’re sad because you miss someone who bore you and shaped you and cared for you, and it does make you think about other things, like your health. I went to the doctor, and dragged Steve along once, and said, ‘I’ve found a lump – I’ve got cancer.’ It happened twice.”

We move away from intimations of mortality to those romantic endings.While his humour is graphic, his romances are oblique. “It’s so much more powerful when they don’t kiss. ’Cos in Hollywood they go, ‘Da da da, kiss, happy ever after.’ What do you mean, ‘Happy ever after’? What blew me away about The Apartment was the ending – he says, ‘I love you’ and she’s sort of shuffling the cards, ’cos when they were friends they used to play, and he says, ‘Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you.’ And she says, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Beautiful – soul mates – they’ve got things in common, they’ve already built it on a friendship.”

There is one especially moving moment in Cemetery Junction, when the father and son reconcile, in a tiny gesture, and Gervais – who co-wrote it with Merchant, their first feature film together – would burst into tears every time he shot it. “Yeah, it was, like, ‘Wheew’ [blows his nose], ‘That was brilliant’ [another honk], ‘Ok, let’s go again’ [clears his throat with emotion].’’

By now I am emboldened to ask him directly if he’s a romantic.

“Of course,” he says. “As an atheist, that’s all that matters. You don’t get rewarded for being nice in Heaven, you get rewarded for it on earth. So be nice to people. Make a connection – because, you know, what else is there except making a connection with someone?”

It was lucky for both of us that there were two parts to this interview and, I would agree with him – Gervais is definitely better the second time round.

* * *

Cemetery Junction is released on April 14

Music

Leonard Bernstein: ‘charismatic, pompous – and a great father’

The Times March 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

His daughter Nina tells Ginny Dougary about the joys and traumas of life with one of music’s greats

bernstein

Had you been fortunate enough to be in the company of the most charismatic American conductor-composer- teacher-broadcaster of all time for long enough, it is likely that you would have heard this explosion at regular intervals in living rooms and auditoriums across the world: “That’s STEIN!” whenever someone affronted the late, great Leonard Bernstein by introducing him incorrectly as “BernSTEEN.”

His youngest child, Nina, now 48, is talking to me about her father, whose life and art is being celebrated all year at the Southbank Centre. It’s a tantalising and illuminating process attempting to channel such an exuberantly talented man through the women who were close to him (I also speak to Marin Alsop, the conductor, who was his protégée) but ultimately frustrating since everything you hear — good and bad — just makes you wish, even more, that you had met him.

Bernstein’s appetite for life and people and music, as well as his reckless disregard for his health and the judgmentalism of the bien-pensants, can be summed up by this statement: “I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-twenties and [was supposed] to be dead by 45. Then 55.

“Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I’m over-committed on all fronts.” And this was on the eve of his 70th birthday. Two years later, the rap finally did beat him but, as Nina says: “Conductors are supposed to live for ever but he packed several lives’ worth into one. I think he had a good innings.”

It’s hard for a child, of whatever age, to see his or her parent through the eyes of the world and it becomes clear that Nina has pretty conflicted views of her father. While she obviously adored him and had huge respect for his musicianship, she still seems bruised from the fallout of his notoriously complicated personal life.

Bernstein was born of Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1918 in Massachusetts. After studying music at Harvard he swiftly claimed a reputation as a thrilling and flamboyant conductor, sometimes frowned upon, often leaping up from the podium or swooning in a lover’s ecstasy.

He brought classical music to millions — writing the great American opera West Side Story, conducting at the Berlin Wall in 1989, helping to popularise Mahler — and championed radical political causes, including, notoriously, the Black Panthers.

Nina is aware of how attractive her father was: “He was quite, yeah [“quite” in the American sense of “very”], and charismatic, and telegenic and photogenic.” But when I ask whether she was aware of his amazingly (by all accounts) sexual presence, she says, “No, not particularly.” Well, he was sexy — he even equated sex with music, famously asking a colleague, when considering whether to conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony: “I have one question. Will it give me an orgasm?” But Nina says: “That’s not the card he played. That’s not what he led with in life. At least, not as far as I could tell.”

Alsop, 53, the artistic director of the Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre, was reared on the maestro’s enthralling Young People’s Concerts, which were televised from 1958 to 1973, and describes him as her childhood hero. They met when she was a teenager and her father was playing violin in West Side Story with José Carreras as Tony.

In her twenties she played violin with the New York Philharmonic in a couple of concerts that Bernstein conducted but she was 30 before, as she puts it, “he actually acknowledged that I existed”. Alsop was one of the young conductors who was selected to work with him, and they worked closely together in his final years.

She talks about “life going into slow motion for me — whether I was playing with him in the orchestra or even attending rehearsals, I still remember every moment”. I ask her did she, like so many people who came into his orbit, fall in love with him? “Absolutely,” she says. “It was the lure of his charisma and his enormous appeal. Even at 70, when he was not in the best physical shape, there was an attractiveness to his personality. He had the ability — which sent me over the moon — of making you feel that no one else but you existed.

“That summer of ’88, when I was accepted as a conducting Fellow at Tanglewood, I felt a magical connection with him. I felt very close to him and tried to be around him whenever I could. He used to love to write poetry and he wrote me a birthday poem which was very personal, and which I have in a book at home.”

I remind Alsop of something rather less flattering that she disclosed about Bernstein’s tutelage when she participated in a discussion about women and leadership at the Southbank. (As the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she knows a thing or two about the subject; in 2007, when she became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, there was an outcry — “You’d have thought the destruction of Rome, or at least Baltimore, was imminent,” she recalls.) As Bernstein’s conducting student at Tanglewood, she was told by him: “I can’t understand it. When I close my eyes, I forget that you’re a woman.”

To this she replied, possibly rather tartly: “Well, if it makes you more comfortable, why don’t you just keep your eyes closed.” Bernstein may have been very generous with many people but, she says, “he was a man who was both ahead of his time and of his time, and he was not really comfortable with a woman being on the podium.

“He was conservative in his own particular way. Clearly, he was comfortable with being sexual in many different ways and yet he wanted a traditional life, with a wife and children to whom he was devoted. He was a complex, complex man, and complex people have complex personal lives.”

One of Berstein’s enduring quotes, perhaps because it exemplifies his approach, is: “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.” His daughter Nina’s film, which is called Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace, is part documentary — following her sister Jamie, ten years her senior (Alexander, their brother, is also a bearer of the Bernstein flame), around the world, from China to Cuba, as she spreads the maestro’s message to young musicians, while they are taught the complex rhythms of West Side Story — and part family memoir.

The old home movies show Lenny — as he was almost universally known — at the family house in Fairfield, Connecticut, being a captivating dad, rolling around with his children on the lawn, playing the prankster, tootling ditties on the piano and appreciating his beautiful wife, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress, to whom he returned from his affairs with men, again and again, until, one day, he didn’t.

Nina was 13 when her parents split up. “My mother was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one. The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity. And then he was not discreet [Felicia found him in bed with his lover, a young music researcher, Tom Cothran, whom he had met in San Franciso in 1973], and so that was that.”

Bernstein and Cothran moved in to a New York apartment together, in Central Park South in 1976, then Felicia found that she had lung cancer and, guilt-stricken, her husband moved back to be with her until she died, too young at 56, in 1978.

Nina knew Cothran (who died of Aids) and liked him. “The whole thing was terribly awkward and painful.” I say to her that many marriages do come adrift and yet, with enough care from the parents, the children can emerge relatively unscathed. But she does not agree, retorting quite sharply: “I don’t know that that’s possible.”

For all the Bernsteins, the break-up was compounded not only by it being conducted under the full floodlights of fame but, more significantly, the onset of Felicia’s terminal cancer; as though the shock of the final public humiliation had led to her premature death. And it was Nina, with her older siblings having flown the coop, who was left to bear the brunt of her mother’s despair, followed by her father falling apart after her mother’s death.

When I ask her whether she has forgiven her father for leaving her mother, she says: “That’s a complicated question. Initially it was all much too confusing for me. My 13-year-old mind didn’t really understand what was going on except that I knew my mother was in terrible pain. But then, of course, he came back after she got sick and by then it was all too late. And … it was a ghastly business, just awful.”

Are you still scarred by it? “Probably. But, you know, we’ve all had our opportunities at therapy.” Now when you think of him, is it still complicated? “Of course. It will always be complicated.” Do you swing between thinking, “You were just unbelievable” to “You bastard!” “All those things, yes.” Is there anything you would have liked to have said to him? Would you have been able to tell him that he was a selfish person? “No, because it wouldn’t have done much good. I was only 28 when he died — so I wasn’t really in a position to say that.”

What about your sister, who I can imagine being quite feisty? “She may have had it out with him. And don’t get me wrong, I was no mouse. I stood up to him a great deal and somebody even said he was afraid of me.

“I guess it was because I wasn’t shy about telling him how I felt sometimes — and that wasn’t always met with appreciation either. But it was only on a couple of occasions that we rowed.”

She talks about his depressions, as well as his manic moments, but when I ask whether he suffered from manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s called now, she says: “I don’t know whether that’s a useful question, sorry. Well, what would we have done about it? Would he have been put on some kind of medication? And then what would have happened?” After Felicia died, he was in “a slough of despond” for many months: “It was so bad. And then, I remember this very clearly, he snapped out of it and we all went on vacation over Christmas, to Jamaica, and we finally had him back.”

Fairfield seems to have been the place where, certainly when his wife was alive, Bernstein was at his most uncomplicatedly happiest; enjoying his lively young family, who kept him in his place. “He could be pompous and it’s one thing to be pompous for the fans and put on that persona, but don’t try it around us. You know, ‘Save it for the podium’, was the family credo.” There was a lot of laughter and game-playing involving words, such as anagrams.

The family also had its own language of sorts: Rybernian, which Bernstein and a childhood friend, Eddie Ryback (the lingo was an amalgam of their names) invented: “It’s basically a way of mispronouncing things — Yiddish words as well as people who just talk funny.” It’s hard for an outsider to fathom quite how it works but Bernstein would launch into Rybernian until the day he died, and his offspring still use it. “I love you” becomes “Mu-la-du”, to which the correct response, apparently, is “Mu-la-dumus”, which means “I love you more”. And when Bernstein took on airs, his kids would speak to him in Rybernian — “We’d say ‘La-lutt’ [shut up] and that would bring him right down to earth.”

I wonder what it’s like being the offspring of someone so famous; Rebecca Miller, for instance, daughter of Arthur, battled with feelings of being a “bottom-feeder” until she found her own voice as a writer.

“You grow up and all your life people are saying, ‘Are you musical? What do you play?’ It’s the inevitable question. We all took piano lessons but … Well, here I am in a line of work that is completely, diametrically, different from anything to do with Leonard Bernstein. I teach kids to cook and love food and there’s nothing about Leonard Bernstein in that.”

She is married to Rudd Simmons, a film producer (High Fidelity, The Road) — and at work she is known by her married name.

“When I fell in love with him, I was so proud because he was nothing like Leonard Bernstein — almost the other extreme. And now ten years into the marriage, I realise he’s a lot like him — not in his behaviour but in the dynamics of our relationship. How could I have known?”

All three siblings do their bit to keep their father’s name alive: Nina is the archivist; Alexander runs the family foundation; Jamie does concerts for young people “much in the style of our father; although she’s not musician enough to handle the musical examples — she does the talking, and she’s really good at it”.

What was her father like about ageing? “He was miserable about it. Terrified. When he turned 70, there was all this fuss being made and he was in a terrible mood because he felt he had reached his biblical span of three score years and ten, and anything beyond that was borrowed time.

“It might have hastened his end — but what do I know? His last words were, ‘What’s this?’ And ‘this’, of course, I like to think, was just the next big thing.”

Bernstein died without having created work on the scale of, say, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. “What he really wanted to do was the big opera, and that never came,” Nina says. He didn’t even get a Tony for West Side Story (Music Man, with its hit song 76 Trombones, did): “My father had written a big aria — you’d have to call it an aria — for Maria at the end of the show. But it got cut, and so now she just speaks the lines: ‘How many bullets are left, Chino? How many bullets can I shoot and still have one left for me?’ It was decided that it was inappropriate to have a big dramatic operatic ending. In his correspondence to my mother he writes that ‘All my favourite parts, the best parts, are being cut for being too operatic’.”

Oh dear. He sounds quite jaundiced? “I think he was plenty proud of what ended up on stage. Jaundiced? Heavens, no!”

Although it’s probably fair to say that Bernstein is still best known for West Side Story — part of the thrust of the Southbank celebration is to introduce audiences to his other works, from The Age of Anxiety to his Mass. “Of course, I don’t even need to put the CD on, as I’ve got Radio Nina in my head. Some days, I think, ‘I’ll hum through Candide from start to finish’, for instance, and that’s a lot of fun.”

In this way she can stay close to her father for ever: “I was thinking, when we were talking about the film, how damn lucky we are. Most people when they lose their parents have a few photographs or home movies to cling to by ways of remembering them. But we are so surrounded by images and videos and music; it’s like being able to visit him.

“I find it comforting and then heartbreaking because what you crave is just to sit and have a laugh with him. He was a great hugger — a real neck-breaker — and that’s what you really want because, in the end, I’m not a scholar of Bernstein, I’m just his daughter.”

* * *

Leonard Bernstein’s What Does Music Mean? is screened in the Clore Ballroom, Festival Hall, tomorrow. Marin Alsop conducts The Age of Anxiety with the London Philharmonic on April 21, and Mahler’s Symphony No 2 on May 9.

Politicians, Women

Pauline Prescott: ‘John would have resigned over his affair’

The Times March 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Pauline Prescott talks to Ginny Dougary about public humiliation, private anguish – and why her husband now does the housework

Pauline Prescott
Photo: Phil Fisk

Pauline Prescott and I have been instructed to keep the volume down by a prefectorial therapist down the corridor from our tiny “treatment” room, where we are sitting opposite one another across a table, mercifully, rather than a collapsible massage bed.

For one of us, at least, the pre-emptive admonition is redundant. Paul, as she is known by her husband (she calls him Prescott, as in, so she says, “Move it, Prescott”) has the dulcet tones that our greatest playwright celebrated, “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman.” The former Deputy Prime Minister, however, unlike Shakespeare, apparently ticks off his wife for speaking too quietly. Well, tick-off shtick-off… Since Traceygate, the balance of power in their 50-year marriage has, Mrs Prescott confirms, shifted (irrevocably, one suspects) to her advantage.

She has just emerged from a photo shoot in one of the elegantly dilapidated rooms of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, formerly a home for the homeless, still a charity, and now doubling as a pop-up private members’ club for the metropolitan chic crowd. Her appearance is, as ever, immaculate. Unaccustomed as she still is to her turn in the limelight, however, Mrs P had a slightly wobbly moment in the ladies’ loo worrying that she didn’t look groomed enough (as if) for the photos.

Pauline’s appearance is – to use her favourite word – absolutely “fab”: the familiar jeujed-up raven mane, spidery eyelashes (a mixture of falsies and natural, truly fabulash), a tailored black trouser suit and fitted cream shirt (Jaeger), and a trio of black patent-leather accessories – a wide belt with a Courrèges-ish silver clasp, faintly dominatrix spike-heeled ankle boots, and a big slouchy shoulder bag. Talk about the “wow!” factor.

Her style has often been commented on – not always kindly – but this has more to do with its almost anachronistically high-maintenance glamour, particularly in the UK, where the prevailing look is more understated. In Italy or even New York – with her Nancy Dell’Olio nails’n’lashes femininity – Mrs P would blend in just peachily.

She looks great at 71 but, boy, she was something else in her youth. The cover of her new and first book, Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking – a none too oblique reference to her husband’s two-year affair with his secretary, Tracey Temple – has a photograph of her as a wide-eyed ingénue, recalling a young Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor (whom Pauline was often said to look like, although when John was wooing her, she tells us gamely, he said she reminded him of – what a charmer – Joyce Grenfell).

In another life, although she has no regrets at all about having been a full-time mother and housewife, Mrs P would have liked to have gone into fashion: “When I get up in the morning, it’s fashion TV straight on. I love all that. Yes, well, I could have done that. That’s probably what I would have done.” As a designer? “Not particularly, well, sewing clothes – I just love to wear them. I love Valentino and if I was to choose somebody to dress me, it would be Armani – I just adore his clothes. But I’m also wearing clothes, since I can still get into them, that I’ve had for about 30 years. Vintage, you know, and when I put them on, people say, ‘Wow! Like that suit!’”

She was dead chuffed that Sarah Brown had invited her to the next evening’s Fashion Relief charity show to raise funds for Haiti, and the following day’s newspapers showed shots of Pauline alongside the PM’s wife and Naomi Campbell.

John Prescott was also handsome as a young man, the couple cutting a considerable dash as they jived around the dance halls of Chester: “He was so much like Robert Wagner. Oh very much, and Dirk Bogarde – a cross between the two,” Pauline says. I ask her, rather baldly, whether she feels he has lost his looks. “Well… ah… we all get older. But, I mean, to me, he’s my John and…” But you can still see him objectively – the weight gain and so on? “Yes, he has put on weight but he has diabetes, you know. I think he carries it well. He’s very fit, actually. [They jived together at their local Chinese restaurant the previous week.] He goes to the gym and that sort of thing. But looks are only skin-deep. That’s what they say, don’t they?”

She likes people to be smart – not surprisingly, since she makes such an effort herself – but they don’t have to be beautiful or slim. In fact, she says – and this is unexpected – John met Gok “How to Look Good Naked” Wan, the other day: “And he said, ‘He’s the most charming young man’ – they got on extremely well.” After the Prescotts’ television forays into programmes on class and the North-South divide, is it possible that John and Gok are going to do a TV show together? What an amazing idea… “No, I don’t think so,” Pauline laughs gaily but not entirely unequivocally.

Actually, her husband is full of surprises. Who would have thought, for instance, that John Prescott would have any interest in reading the seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room, by the American author, Marilyn French, which honed in on the frustrations and depressions of a generation of stay-at-home suburban moms. “It was a staggering revelation to me that someone could feel like they were in a trap and couldn’t get out of it,” he said. “It must be terrible, absolutely terrible.”

More intriguing is the question of who pressed the book on him since it wasn’t his wife, who hasn’t read it herself: “No, I didn’t make him read it, actually I don’t read books very much, quite frankly,” she says. “I’m a great television person, really.” Her husband apparently is a great reader, mainly biographies: “He’s absolutely Oliver Cromwell mad… He was his hero, and Churchill, as well.”

Pauline had her first brush with women’s lib in the late Sixties, when she worked as a hairdresser to support John, who was studying economics and economic history at University of Hull: “There was this whole women’s group sort of thing, and I was asked to join them to [protest] against this pub that men used to go to where women weren’t allowed in, but I said, ‘Why shouldn’t the men go there for a drink? I don’t give a toss!’ I mean, I go for a drink with my female friends and it’s nice to be on your own without men, isn’t it? You don’t need to be escorted. Afterwards John said, ‘You didn’t go down at all well with the sisters, Pauline.’”

After the news of his affair broke, four decades on, it was another group of “sisters” (Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, et al) who phoned Pauline to offer their support: “They’ve been great with me, absolutely lovely, and I got on well with all of them.”

Up to now, Pauline Prescott has been the most discreet and private of politicians’ wives. “I’ve always kept my distance and people have thought, I’m like a bit of a mouse, maybe,” she says. “You can cause a great deal of embarrassment to your husband when he’s in the position he was in, and if I had given my views… Well, I don’t always agree with John, you see, so…”

It was her boys, as she still calls them, who encouraged her to do the book – “Go on, Mum, go for it!” – after she had been approached by various publishers. She has two sons by Prescott, Jonathan, 47, a businessman who now acts as her agent (negotiating a fee of £350,000, not far behind his father’s £500,000 book deal in 2008), David, 40, a former journalist who is hoping to become an MP, when his father stands down after 40 years representing Hull East, and Paul Watton, 54, the son of a married US serviceman, whom she had given up for adoption. Their happy (newspaper-orchestrated) reunion, some years back, was the subject of a prolonged media blitz.

Pauline is full of praise for her book’s ghostwriter, Wendy Holden, and – with characteristic modesty – feels that it was she, not Holden, who was fortunate to be paired with such a collaborator. “You know she did Goldie Hawn’s book,” she says. “And after me, she went over to do Barbara Sinatra!”

How did she find the experience? “Well, I said, ‘I’ll probably clam up and end up stuttering,’ but it was like an unlocking – it just all flowed out. It’s been very therapeutic – we laughed, we cried – places that have been locked up for years because, of course, my boys didn’t know about my baby Paul… Lots of things like that.

“For years, people had never really asked me a great deal about my point of view, apart from my friends, and I’ve always kept quiet because of John. And I’m speaking because you’re asking about me basically, aren’t you? And so, yeah, I can let out my points of view now, without causing any embarrassment to John.”

One of the problems with this sort of book deal – the perils of Pauline, indeed – is the commercial quid pro quo, meaning Mrs P has had to invade her own privacy to a degree and dwell on matters that she would rather not have in the public domain. Although she writes about the affair in her book, she is not really comfortable talking about it, certainly not the specifics: “I don’t want to get in to too much depth about that. I have described how I felt about the affair and I accept the fact that he had it but the personal stuff – it happened and that’s it. End of story. I don’t bear any grudges and I don’t want to get into anything else about that.”

It would obviously have been easier to handle if the Prescotts had not been so much in the public eye, but she says: “When it happens to a woman, it’s devastating no matter who they are. But when you have to do it in the eyes of the media… I mean, the next day it was just bedlam outside my house – it’s in a cul-de-sac and all the camera people were there.”

How could we forget it? John had fled to Dorneywood but Pauline insisted she had done nothing wrong and was damn well going to stay put in her own home and – what’s more – go right ahead and have her new, swanky downstairs loo installed. I tell her that we all loved her for that; it might just have been her finest hour. Certainly, there could be no question that Mrs P would be leant on to do one of those grisly “Disgraced MP embraced by sorrowful but forgiving family” photo opportunities. “That was like my mum,” she says. “My mum was so feisty. It’s sort of like a northern thing… Just get on with it.

“But your self-esteem does take a hell of a battering… My boys and my daughters-in-law and my friends were a huge help and the letters I received! I tried to answer them all… But if you could just pop this in” – I’m happy to oblige – “‘Thank you to all the people who wrote to me.’ You know, you can’t run away from things because it’s always there to meet you.”

There was more northern grit in her insistence on reading every newspaper exposé: “John said, ‘You’re putting yourself through an awful lot more pain.’ I used to sit at home watching what was going to be in the papers on Sky. I saw the whole lot. You can’t confront anything until you’ve seen exactly what you are going up against, frankly.”

She holds no truck with the idea that the loneliness of the Westminster lifestyle – the late nights, work stress, separation from your family and so on – might be tough on a red-blooded man. In fact, she gives me an hilariously old-fashioned look when I go down this path. “No, if a man wants to do it, he’ll find a way of doing it. You can travel and it can happen at any time, can’t it?

“And let’s face it, I’ve been married all these years and I have never had an affair.” Have you ever been tempted? “No.” Have you never even been attracted to another man? “Oh, yes! I’ve looked at somebody and thought, ‘You’re handsome.’ You still do, don’t you? But I think about what I would be losing and I don’t think it’s worth it, quite frankly. And to lose the respect of your family, as well.”

Has John regained that respect? “Yes, he has because he was deeply, deeply ashamed and sorry. Some people thought, ‘A bit of a doormat, hanging on there,’ and that sort of thing. But you don’t throw your life away. You like your lifestyle and all that, and you’ve got your family to consider. I couldn’t have accepted it if there had been love involved – and John said there was no love, and so I have accepted that.”

You said that if it had been “a quickie in a cupboard” you could have handled that. “No, funnily enough, I didn’t really say that. I didn’t check that in the book and it was Wendy who put that in. It wouldn’t have been my terminology to describe it that way. But if it had been once at, like, an office party – I could have accepted that. What was hurtful was the deceit of the whole two years.”

The affair seemed to have happened around the same time as the newspaper revelations about Pauline’s son, Paul, about whom John had always known. “Yes, it was, funnily enough, and some people have said to me, ‘Oh, did that trigger it?’ But no, because our marriage was good. It has always been good. That’s why it was like a bolt out of the blue.

“What he did was very wrong and dreadfully humiliating, you know, and I don’t and won’t forgive him because, in my mind, to forgive is to condone. I’m sad when I think about it – I just think about what we had – but I’m not bitter. If I felt bitter about it, then I couldn’t have stayed with him – so you just move on from that.”

Do you talk about it any more? “You can’t not talk about it and we have been very open. People ask me for advice and I say, ‘Well, you know, frankly, you have to…’” She stops. “Sorry, give me a minute. It still gets to you.” Oh, I’m sorry. “No, no, it’s all right. No, it’s OK. We speak openly about these things… but you don’t dwell on it. If you keep going on about it, then you can’t move on, can you? But you don’t just say, ‘Right, I forgive you,’ and then forget it.”

Do you understand why and how it happened? “Not really, because I couldn’t have done a thing like that.” Do you believe that men are different, then? “Yes, because they can block it off and it’s sort of on one side, in a little box over there. They musn’t have a conscience. But women can’t do that, can they? I don’t know. I couldn’t.

“And I’m not judgmental about people – I’m really, really not – but I couldn’t live with myself. I’d have to tell and clear my conscience immediately. I’d want to be, sort of, ‘Forgive me, please.’”

When you insisted that he didn’t resign over the affair, how much of that was about you not wanting to give up the lifestyle? “I’ll be honest, I enjoyed it, obviously. John’s brilliant and I was very proud of him being Deputy Prime Minister. We were together as a family unit and we’d all worked very hard for what he’d done, and I didn’t want to see it thrown away, just because of that [the affair]. He’d earned it. And it was coming on to an election, so you can’t do that. He would definitely have resigned but I said, ‘No!’ And so we sat down with the boys and had a proper discussion about it.”

Incidentally, Pauline would like to point out that her husband, like the “very charismatic, warm, lovely” PM, “is so well thought of on the world stage. It’s just our own people that mock them. That is what annoys me. With John, they make him out to be stupid because of the way he can’t put his words together. No problem connecting with people, though!”

I wonder how her husband has changed towards her. She says that he has always been thoughtful – although he’s not particularly touchy-feely, more of an “actions speak louder than words” man: buying flowers and bringing her cups of tea in bed. She says in her book that, post-Tracey, she has become stronger and he has become softer. To me, she says: “I think he appreciates me more, and doesn’t take me for granted. He’s very, very thoughtful. He likes to surprise you and take you somewhere nice. He’s a very, very kind man and fond and, quite frankly, if he sees you’re tired, it’s not a case of, ‘Oh, that’s your work, woman.’

“Actually, the other week, I said to John that I was so far behind in my housework – it’s a big house, and I’ve never had any help for it – and I said, ‘I’ve got to wax this whole floor, can you put the wax on?’ So he does jobs like that. And then I said, ‘And while you’re down there, wash the skirting boards.’”

Well! That truly is a shift in the power dynamic, isn’t it? (I’m thinking Joseph Losey’s The Servant, here.) She laughs: “But it’s true. I’m not just saying that.”

What intrigues me about her husband are his neuroses behind all that strop and swagger. Just the other week, he gave a classic Prescottian performance on Newsnight – eyes blazing, jowls quivering – defending Gordon Brown against the PM’s would-be nemesis, Andrew Rawnsley. But to read about his crippling social awkwardness – an inability to enter a public room, for instance, without his wife going in first (“He gets very self-conscious, even now,” she says) – let alone the bulimia in such a big, macho fisticuffs fella, is as fascinating as Tony Soprano’s reliance on his shrink.

It was Pauline’s mother, interestingly, who first spotted her son-in-law’s odd behaviour around food. “Yes, my mum picked that up and said, ‘Keep any eye on him, Pauline, I think something’s wrong there.’” Had her mother come across bulimia before? “No, she just noticed little signs and she was very wise.”

It seems strange to me that Pauline hadn’t observed something herself, on his breath for instance. Anyway, she says, “He’s completely through that now.” His favourite dish of hers is lamb hotpot, “but in my fridge, I always say, ‘Look, you make your own choice here,’ because you can’t treat people like children, can you? There’s the naughty bits – and, I mean, I love my naughty bits, too – but there’s always loads of fruit at the bottom.”

(I ask her about her famous sandwiches – much commented on for their perfect crustless triangles. “Isn’t that funny? Do other people do big doorsteps or something? Shall I tell you who taught me? John did, because he used to be a waiter at sea and everything was done in style and, you know, even my boys do the most wonderful sandwiches. It’s good presentation.”)

Is she able to explain why her husband has these hang-ups? “I don’t really know, only John can answer that. He is quite a complex character, I suppose,” she says. “But I’m a great believer that these things stem from childhood. You know, he saw his father, Bert – a big philanderer – kissing a lady, when John was young, and he went to the police station and said, ‘Arrest my father,’ and I think it all stems from that.”

It was his mother, Phyllis, however, who told a journalist about Pauline’s baby, Paul, which is how the story got out. “Well, yes, that was upsetting. I wasn’t happy about it at all. And after all those years, yes, it was rather sad.’’ Had Phyllis lost it mentally? “No.” So she knew exactly what she was doing? “Oh, yeah.” What on earth was her motivation? “The sensationalism of it? It is strange, actually.”

But then, since it seems that her natural inclination is to be both fair and positive, Pauline lists Phyllis’s virtues: “She came from strong mining stock and was a brilliant woman and a brilliant mother. She liked to control and when I came on the scene she was not, you know, happy [particularly with an out-of-wedlock baby in tow]… But knowing all that was going on with the father, she did keep the whole family of five children together, and John was the head of that family.

“She was a very kind lady, too. I used to make my clothes, but she was a wonderful seamstress and used to make them for me, too. She worked at a mental hospital in Chester and not only did she teach the patients dress-making but she put on a fashion show for them with a catwalk and everything. She was a good mum, really, and I did tell John, ‘You weren’t very warm about your mum in the book.’”

Old habits die hard, and although, perhaps for the first time in the past four decades of public life, Pauline feels she can speak her own mind, she is still protective of her John. So when I ask her what she thought of him telling Tony Blair that the way the former PM paraded his deputy’s working-class credentials made him feel “like a performing seal”, her first response is, “How bloody stupid!” then, “Oh, I can’t really give a view on that.”

Who was on the phone more to her husband, Tony or Gordon, in Prescott’s role as a sort of marriage counsellor? “It was pretty even-stevens – it was, well, I knew quite a lot of what was going on then, but you don’t really say – but it was an interesting time, you know… to say the least.”

Like she says, looks are only skin-deep and I think her looks had distracted me from her qualities as a person. Pauline has none of the chippiness or awkwardness of her husband – who also emerges as a more three-dimensional human figure after talking to her – but is hugely appreciative of all the good things that have come her way. If he is a glass half empty, she is a glass half full, and that just might be the secret of their long marriage’s equilibrium.

She seems pretty convinced that her husband will go into the Lords – “They want him to go into the Lords and it’s common knowledge that he would like it.” So you will be Lady Prescott, how cool is that? “My God, yes! He’s leader of the Council of Europe, so he’ll still do that and he’s very much into the environment and works with Al Gore [her favourite world figure: “He is a very handsome man”] so that’s what he’ll do from the Lords when he steps down.”

Prescott used to joke that his wife didn’t need to be a Lady since she was already one, and I see what he means. She has a natural dignity and grace, with no hint of brashness. She reminded me of the actress Gina McKee, that same soft northern voice and manner, with the occasional glimpse of Alison Steadman (circa Abigail’s Party). She’s also fun, telling me how delighted she was to be told “by someone from gay liberation that I am a gay icon”.

She is having the time of her life, right now, and like “the sisters” and her sons, one wants to urge her, “Go for it, Pauline!”

“Do you know what? I’m getting very feisty in my old age,” she says. “It’s a different ball game because people know me for me now. I’ve never craved attention nor have I shunned the limelight. Parliament and so on, I just adored all that. And even now, I’m not thinking, ‘Right, where’s this going to take me?’ If things happen, they happen and, quite frankly, at my age – you know – I don’t need anything, do I? But I must say, I’m enjoying this.”

Fab.

* * *

Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking by Pauline Prescott, published by HarperCollins, is out now

Music, Theatre

Even Lloyd Webber isn’t sure why Phantom of the Opera is his biggest hit

The Times February 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

webber

As a sequel to the Phantom opens, he talks about his new ‘almost cool’ status, his father’s roving eye — and the joy of a dirty joke

Andrew Lloyd Webber has his kind face on and is looking straight into my eyes as I sing: “Your looks are laughable, unphoto-graphable, but you’re my favourite work of art . . .”

No, alas, I am not the new Dorothy and this attempt at My Funny Valentine, in the back of a black cab, is the closest I could get to being auditioned by His Lordship. “Mmmm,” he murmurs, tactfully, “it’s rather nice, actually.”

We have left behind a long queue of would-be Dorothys snaking around the block. Inside the building in London’s theatre district are hundreds more hopefuls sitting in rows behind a glass façade, and upstairs flanked against a wall are the girls who are about to be called up to sing for the cameras. Following on from his search for Maria, Joseph, and Nancy from Oliver!, Lloyd Webber’s next TV talent show is Over the Rainbow.

One of the wannabes has the number 7,402 on a label on her chest — by the time the series is ready to roll, there will have been 10,000 young women all over England singing Judy Garland’s classic tune.

There was a time when Lloyd Webber — in the wake of his divorce from his first wife, Sarah Hughill, and his marriage to Sarah Brightman, whom he refers to as Sarah 2 — was the nadir of naff. The success of his early musicals with Tim Rice — Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, et al — eclipsed some of the later flops (The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White). But, quite apart from his portfolio of properties (Cap Ferrat, Belgravia, the country estate in Berkshire), the Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Canaletto and the Picasso, his air of haughtiness, masking a certain social awkwardness, did not endear him either to the press or the public. His puggish looks, which were mercilessly caricatured, also did not help.

But now, if he is not quite a national treasure, Lloyd Webber is certainly close to being the nation’s Funny Valentine. With his arch humour and genuine warmth for the kids on his popular television shows, it is possible that he is even in danger of becoming — amazingly — almost cool.

He is certainly keen to push the bad taste envelope as far as he can, once managing the feat of fazing his TV host, Jonathan Ross. Sarah Brightman had got the ball rolling, by enthusing about the enormity of her ex’s penis, on Graham Norton’s show. “I know, and I discuss it with Graham Norton frequently [Norton and Lloyd Webber, of course, do a double act on the BBC reality shows]. I thought it was very funny but as I said to Jonathan, ‘She always had a big mouth’ — which took the wind out of his sails a bit.” Then he adds: “What I do on television is exactly what I do in my private life. What I do all the time — and if I make naughty jokes I make naughty jokes. I’m sorry but it’s what I do.”

We had been introduced at various do’s before this meeting, and the overriding impression he conveyed was of slightly bibulous campness. I can’t be the first person to have made this observation because over lunch in Rules, London’s oldest (distinctly theatrical) restaurant, Lloyd Webber jokes: “Well, you never can tell, can you? I keep saying, ‘I’ve got five children and three wives and it’s a complete front!’ But if I were gay, I have to admit that in my current condition there’s nothing much I could do about it. I would be rather disappointing.”

This is a reference to his recently operated-on prostate gland, which he decided, against all advice from his minders, to make public. You’re fine now, are you? “Yah – ish,” he says. Are you frighened of dying?

“I don’t think that’s going to happen but I’m going to have to keep my eye on it. Be a bit careful. It was a little more complicated in my case but it hasn’t migrated so far.”

Aren’t you meant to be conserving your energy? “Well, yes, but I’ve thrown myself into the busiest schedule that I’ve ever thrown myself into. I have been told that I really should look after myself a bit and not do so much but . . .”

But … well, some chance, frankly. By the time we meet, I am pretty much Lloyd Webbered out. The night before, I attended a performance of The Phantom of the Opera, still packing them in a quarter of a century on, since our maestro is about to unleash its sequel, Love Never Dies. I can’t bring myself to tell him quite what a miserable time I had, although my enthusiasm for the new project — “It’s more psychological … less hammy, more modern” — must have conveyed something.

Why does he think people like Phantom so much? “I’ve often tried to put my finger on what it is. We know that people have been to see the show hundreds of times — insane in my view — and changed their names to Christine Daaé.

“I don’t know what it is. If you sat down and analysed the story of the original Phantom, it’s the biggest load of hokum that’s ever been written … but it’s a piece of really great popular theatre entertainment and, in all modesty, it’s got some good tunes.”

I tell him that I am not really a musicals person (although, oddly, I did attempt one myself) but I do recognise that apart from Lloyd Webber, 61, and Stephen Sondheim, 79, with their rather different audiences, there is no one else alive who has created a body of work in musical theatre at all.

Quite apart from the Phantom show itself, the experience of sitting in a narrow seat at Her Majesty’s, knees rammed hard against the man in front, who had a head the size of a pumpkin, was challenging. The staging, despite the gasp-inducing chandelier swinging over our heads, felt a bit creaky and tired. But the rest of the audience, filled with young people, was clearly enthralled, with endless applause and standing ovations. It is, apparently, the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time.

The next morning, I turned up at 10am at the office of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group (RUG) to hear the new musical. It was rather eerie, sitting alone at a long dining table in an empty room, walls full of posters from Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre.

The setting has been changed from the Paris Opera House to the freak-show fairgrounds of Coney Island, New York, ten years on, where the Phantom has become the biggest and richest impresario. The original heroine, Christine, is now married to Raoul, who has turned into a bitter, gambling alcoholic, resentful of his wife’s singing talent and her status as the family breadwinner (rather a modern touch), supporting him and their ten-year-old son, Gustave. There are some creepy Mervyn Peake-like underlings, Fleck, Gangle and Squelch, as well as the forbidding Madame Giry, who organised the Phantom’s escape from the baying crowds in Paris and is busily promoting her daughter, Meg, the Ooh-La-La Bathing Beauty of Coney Island.

The music seems, to me, to be more beautiful and less showy — partly, perhaps, because the boy soprano’s voice is so affecting, as is his unfolding relationship with the Phantom. “A lot of people who’ve heard it think it’s a much more rounded piece,” Lloyd Webber says, “and what I think that Ben Elton [who wrote ‘the book’] did was to unlock the psychological area.

“The other thing for me is that the Coney Island setting is very exciting because it all burnt down and the last big park closed in about 1960. I find something very romantic about the decayed architecture of entertainment.

“The original idea was that the Phantom would be this Howard Hughes figure living in the first penthouse in America but Coney Island is much richer because, of course, he could have gone there with his deformed face and walked around the streets and people would have probably paid 25 cents to see him. So that’s the back story with Madame Giry organising the side show, and Meg as the little girl busker.”

Lloyd Webber’s own back story is pretty intriguing, too. He was brought up with his younger brother, the cellist Julian, in a rented top-floor flat in South Kensington, opposite the Tube station, paid for by his maternal grandmother, Molly, who lived with the family. The boys’ father, Billy, was the son of a plumber — “who’d won every scholarship known to mankind when he was young” — and ended up as a senior professor at the Royal College of Music and a director of what was then the London College of Music. He was also the organist at the Central Hall, Westminster.

“He clearly had this seriously academic musical talent but as a personality he was quite regimented in what he was and wasn’t prepared to do. He probably realised early on that he had a side to him that would have been much better suited to becoming, say, a Max [Gone with the Wind] Steiner and working in the film world but coming from that background, his family would have gone berserk,” he says. “The problem was that he was a composer writing out of his time, he was a High Romantic, really, and interested in musicals and what was going on in the pop and rock charts, to a surprising degree. If he had been encouraged, I think he could have been very successful.”

So how did their father feel about the success of his sons? “Well, I was going through a whole load of papers the other day, and I unearthed something I didn’t realise I had, which was my mother’s [Jean, a piano teacher] autobiography, and there was quite a long chapter about my father and his reaction to both me and, of course, my brother.

“I think he was very proud of us but got very upset, according to my mother, with so many people saying, ‘You must be very proud of your sons’. I think therefore he probably always felt that as a composer he was never ever recognised.

“The one thing I’m sad about is that he never heard The Phantom.” Would he have liked it? “I think he would have loved it but whether he would have told me so is another matter. He also had a predilection for young sopranos and particularly for young sopranos if they sang Rachmaninov.

“And what I didn’t know about Sarah Brightman is that she did this series of Rachmaninov songs. I think probably what would have happened is that I would have introduced Sarah to my father and they would have got married,” Lloyd Webber says rather startlingly, “and that would have been the end of that.”

Really? “Yes, Sarah would have been spirited into his office by the sound of his music and he would have accompanied her on her Rachmaninov songs, and the story could have been very, very different. I often think that would have been the most intriguing meeting that never happened.”

More curious still, certainly in terms of its impact on the family dynamic, was his mother’s relationship with the classical pianist John Lill. Julian met him when they were both playing percussion in the junior department at the Royal College of Music. “My mother developed this great … well, enthusiasm is probably the word for it, for a guy called John Lill, who, as you probably know, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition [a music world equivalent of the Oscars; Lill was 26] and she took him into the house.”

Why do you say “enthusiasm” like that? Did they have some sort of thing? “No, no, no, they wouldn’t have done that — but she was very, very, very fond of him … she was just obsessed with him. They were obsessed with each other. It was difficult for Julian and I, but I was away [boarding as a scholar at Westminster], so it must have been far more difficult for Julian than me.

“And it was very difficult for my father, yes, because he never had the family on his own and also he was to a great degree … well, my grandmother was the person who rented the flat, you know, so he didn’t ever really feel fulfilled.”

What does he make of Julian’s observation that with their upbringing — variously described as chaotic or bohemian — it was surprising that neither of them had ended up as drug addicts. (Latterly, it seems, their father did develop something of a drink problem, which Andrew has also admitted to battling with in the past.) “I don’t agree with Julian about that at all because my grandmother was a very, very strong personality and a very interesting woman. She was the founding member of a particularly incongruous political party — the Christian Communist Party — which intrigued me and all my more politically Right friends at Westminster would come home and we would tease her and come up with ever more irritating political solutions.

“But she loved all that. She was just fascinated by all my Westminster friends — you know, the sort of school it is, my nephew is there, and it still has that slight tone of political incorrectness.”

Neither does he recognise Julian’s description of himself as a lonely child. Their parents may have been rather remote figures, absorbed in their own private passions, but as well as his indomitable grandmother, Andrew adored his Aunt Vi and spent most of his holidays with her: “When I didn’t fit into the musical cubbyhole that my mother had seen for me, well … I was so well placed in musical theatre because my Aunt Vi was really my surrogate mum and she knew all these impossibly glamorous theatre names and they were exactly the sort of people I wanted to meet.

“And that was another reason that I couldn’t be lonely because I was in my own world and I knew when I was very small that I wanted to be involved with musical theatre. I adored musicals, they were my life. And anyone who knew me at school knew that I was obsessed with the damn things.”

No change there, then. He says that because of the very nature of its success, the prospect of working on a sequel to Phantom used to frighten him but now he considers it to be the most exciting moment of his career, “because we’ve taken everything on so much further, and I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve put everything I could possibly do into this new score, and I thought of nothing else when I was writing it”.

But, if anything, despite the richness of his life — he is still friends with his exes, as well as enjoying being married since 1991 to wife number three, Madeleine Gurdon, who is more interested in gee-gees than luvvies — there is a sense in which, musically at least, he remains more in his own little world than ever.

“I do often think how marvellous it would have been to have worked in the Fifties when you had Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the last days of Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter still going just about, Leonard Bernstein — can you imagine? All those great musicals going on.

“I can’t think of anything that I can compare Love Never Dies to … so I often feel like I’m working in this strange vacuum of a world in which there’s nobody who’s doing the sort of musical theatre I do. If there was a whole hothouse of young or, for that matter, old writers … but there’s nothing out there. The last really big hit around the world has been Wicked and it happens to have been written by somebody who’s a great friend of mine [Stephen Schwartz] but he wrote Godspell, you know. I mean, he’s older than me!”

* * *

Love Never Dies previews at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2, from February 22 (loveneverdies.com, 0844 4124651)

General

Lord Browne: ‘I’m much happier now than I’ve ever been’

The Times February 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

He was a world-renowned industrialist whose secret life as a gay man led to his downfall. For the first time, Lord Browne talks about the day he was outed, losing his job and falling in love again

Lord Browne
Photo: Phil Fisk

Lord Browne of Madingley rebukes me in the gentlest way when I make the mistake of asking a question the wrong way round. If the former chief executive of BP, once widely acknowledged as “the greatest businessman of his generation”, and now chairman of the Tate, could live his life again, would he have been happier making a career in the arts?

“I think probably not is the answer,” he says. “When I started out, I loved science. I adored it. At Cambridge, I did natural science and physics and I loved mathematics and solving problems. I was thinking about doing research until my father made a very good point that maybe I should go and earn some money. So I tried business and I loved it because the problems were bigger and I could stretch the boundaries of my knowledge. And I loved being an engineer for all that time – so I was very, very happy professionally doing that, and I wouldn’t think of doing anything else.”

My question came on the back of us talking – remarkably openly on his part – about the events that led to Browne’s resignation in 2007 from the company he had worked in for 40 years, 3 months earlier than his chosen retirement date. He had been outed by his 27-year-old former lover, Canadian-born Jeff Chevalier, who had sold the story of their four-year relationship to a newspaper.

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Women, Writers

Ruth Padel on Derek Walcott, ‘dirty tricks’, and the worst mistake of her life

The Times January 30, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry resigned amid a allegations of academic back-stabbing. So what on earth brought on her ‘moment of lunacy’ ?

How totally unboring it must be to be Ruth Padel, and that’s quite apart from the recent hoo-ha that prompted her resignation, last May, from her short-lived stint — what should have been a five-year triumph reduced to a mere nine days — as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Her interests are so varied and extensive — she is as passionate about the natural world, both exotic (alligators, tigers, now cobras) and commonplace (the domestic habits of the urban fox), as she is about filling the “poetry-shaped hole” she believes we all have.

But she also fizzes with enthusiasm about music, singing, art, Charles Darwin (her great-great-grandfather), the “soap-opera” wonderment of DNA and clothes (a guilty secret, she confesses; her sombre pinstriped jacket reveals a startling inner plumage of scarlet and puce) — leaping from subject to subject like a demented grasshopper.

The biography at the front of her new first novel, Where the Serpent Lives — ostensibly what we are here to discuss — is amusingly, if self-consciously, diverse: “she has taught Greek at Oxford, opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton, excavated Minoan tombs on Crete … sung in an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache, Paris”.

Something about her arresting, feline appearance — slight build, black hair, green fuzzy gaze, heart-shaped face — could be construed as sly. There are some contradictions: she doesn’t appear tough but you know she must be to survive as a poet, wheeler-dealering — a bit of journalism here, a residency or a lecture there — to make a living.

We meet in Somerset House, where last year Padel was writer-in-residence. Despite the breadth of her interests, she has a tendency to revisit certain themes in her work. Three of her collections of poetry explore the complications, highs and lows, of a six-year affair with a man who entered her life with rather too many strings attached elsewhere. She laughs heartily when I say that she’s minxy in her scattering of clues about the identity of her lover in Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, published in 1998, and The Soho Leopard, in 2004.

It is she, not me, who brings up the risqué Bessie Smith–influenced poem — Home Cooking (from Voodoo Shop) — that was publicly linked to the journalist John Walsh, her old friend (and alleged former lover). It was he who wrote the controversial first article about Derek Walcott’s “shadows of sexual harassment allegations”. Walcott had been the clear favourite for the Professor of Poetry post until the piece appeared.

Then, soon after Walsh’s article and just before the election, 200 anonymous letters — detailing accusations of sexual harassment made against the St Lucia-born Nobel Laureate in 1986 and 1992, by former students of his at Harvard and Boston (he had to apologise and was reprimanded; there was also an out-of-court settlement) — were sent to Oxford academics. This dossier also included a photocopied chapter from The Lecherous Professor, a book about sexual harassment on university campuses, including the Walcott cases.

Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying that he did not want to be the target of a “low attempt at character assassination”, leaving Padel as the new front-runner, and the less well-known Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra in the frame. Padel was subsequently awarded the professorship.

“On the Saturday morning, when I was being elected, an anonymous guy rang The Sunday Times and told them about a poem of mine — Home Cooking — a sexy little poem of a kind that male poets write … but it’s a woman looking at a man,” she says.

“Of course the paper jumped on it and it was very, very clever because what it ensured is that when Oxford announces that it has elected its first woman Professor of Poetry in 300 years, the poem that was flashed around the world as representative of her work is this sexy little jeu d’esprit which I had actually put in to lighten the collection, which was about my father’s death.”

Are you ashamed of the poem? (It ends with the line “a f*** the length of our kitchen table”.) “No, I wasn’t ashamed of it, but it was a way of saying, ‘She’s complaining about sex and — guess what? — she does sex, too’.”

The problem is, of course, that Padel had also behaved badly herself. “I admire Walcott and deplore what happened,” she said, before her own part in the debacle emerged, forcing her to resign. “But it does not seem to me to detract from what I can do [as professor].” And “[The appointment] has been poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with … I have fought a clean campaign. These acts have done immeasurable damage to people and poetry.”

But it was Padel, it emerged, who had started the dirty campaign against Walcott by alerting two journalists to the harassment allegations in e-mails that came back to bite her. Days before Walsh’s article appeared, Padel had e-mailed two journalists, putting the boot in about her rival’s age — 80 — his ill health and homes in the Caribbean and New York (so “how much energy is he going to expend on Oxford students?”). Then she mentioned the six pages in The Lecherous Professor and couched it most disagreeably: “what he actually does for students can be found in …”— the coup de grâce being, “Obama’s rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record. But I don’t think that’s fair.”

It’s that last line that is particularly weaselly — if you’re going to besmirch your competitor, don’t try to pretend that it’s nothing to do with you.

Her first statement after the e-mails were made public was also unsatisfactory: “Those e-mails were naive and silly of me. I do not believe it was wrong but it was a bad error of judgment.” (Where she was certainly naive was to proclaim her innocence, thinking that the journalists — who were not personal friends, like Walsh — would not reveal the contents of the e-mails.) I ask her what on earth she was thinking. She wrote the e-mails when she was in New York — she still insists that she had nothing to do with the subsequent anonymous letters — was she drunk or deranged with jet lag?

“I’ll tell you what happened. Right from the moment I announced I was standing those two particular people [journalists] had come forward and said, ‘Tell me everything about it’. One said she was writing a piece about poetry in Oxford and I entered into the dialogue — this was before Walcott came in — because I really wanted to get a public debate going about what poetry could do in a university because I think that’s so interesting.

“And then from the moment Walcott announced that he was standing, people kept coming forward to me saying they were really, really upset — because of the university record. So it wasn’t anything to do with me and I had nothing to do with it, but I was beginning to feel kind of torn. Because on the one hand, I really admire Walcott. I mean I’ve written about Omeros and I took my daughter to see him when she was doing her A levels.”

But … “and I’m not in the business of undermining other writers. On the other hand, I was listening to all these people saying, ‘It’s outrageous — why won’t someone do something?’. Then I brought Darwin [her biography of her ancestor through poetry] to America and when I was interviewed by New York journalists they had quite a different take. They were amazed that the Brits were doing this and one of them said to me, ‘The Brits just don’t know what we know over here’. So it was in that context.”

But you’re the last person who should have sent those e-mails. “I know that. It was a moment of lunacy … but I never dreamt it would be seen as making allegations. The trouble is that it was taken out of context.” That’s what Conservative politicians say! “No, the context was that this is what I can do for students, that was it. It was a sort of balance.” But the way you put it was so unpleasant: the implication being that what Padel can “do” for students is educate them; what Walcott can “do” for students is harass them. What balance is that?

Now, I don’t think sexual harassment is a trivial thing, particularly when the outcome of a student’s grades depends on whether or not she plays along with her professor’s sexual fantasies. And an abuse of power is not diminished just because it took place 20 years ago. The role of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry is second in this country only to that of Poet Laureate, and so it is only right that the person on whom that honour is bestowed should be subject to intense scrutiny. Past poet gods (never godesses) include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. And I agree with Padel that the argument that you wouldn’t have turned down the likes of the priapic Lord Byron won’t wash because, as she says, “Byron hadn’t got a track record in a university”.

But in a perfect world, if Padel so disapproved of Walcott’s track record shouldn’t she have made a public statement about it and even withdrawn from the race? “Oh, I wish you had been advising me, then I would have done that,” she says. (She says that friends did say to her, ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’) But honestly, this won’t do. Can you not see, yourself, that what you did was sneaky and underhand? “Yes, and I can’t say it loud enough. I feel very, very bad about those e-mails and I deeply, deeply regret it and it was wrong of me, and actually it’s not really very representative of how I go about things.” That is the closest the poet has come to an apology.

Her eyes water but this may be a contact lens that is irritating her. When I ask her whether she’s upset, she says, “I don’t think so”. Would you say that you are a robust person? “Yeah, I think so. I mean when it was happening, when suddenly everything went … I felt as though I had walked out the door to buy a pint of milk and found myself on a mountaintop in a blizzard. That’s what it felt like.

“But, you know, because I was reading poems all the way through it — at Hay and the Edinburgh book festival and lots of other things — the audiences really just react to the work and make up their own minds. It was a great thing for a writer to find out, really. That you are judged on your work.”

Oxford has just announced the search for its next professor of poetry. I don’t suppose Padel will be thinking of reapplying? “Oh no, I wouldn’t. No, no, no.” Have you talked to Walcott? “No.” Do you think it would be a good idea if you did? “It would. I think he is coming to Britain this year.” If you admire his work so much, perhaps he would forgive you, do you think? “Yes, I hope so. Hmmm.”

It’s hard to know what to make of Padel. She’s a highly intelligent woman who is sophisticated but also apparently unworldly. This comes to the fore when I ask her whether she had ever been anxious about people trying to guess the identity of her lover. Her work is riddled with concrete details that may help to anchor them as poems but are also highly revealing. “No, I don’t think so,” she says. “Once you’ve made a poem, it’s like having made a chair. You trust the poem and what matters is — ‘Is that adjective too soft?’ or ‘Should I take that adverb out?’”

It’s clear that she was desperate to secure the professorship and, yes, she is ambitious but mainly for the right reasons. When she was at Somerset House, Padel plastered poems — “other people’s, not mine” she stresses — in the loos, the cafés, everywhere, so that passers-by could be “enticed or disturbed, hooked, emotionally drawn in”.

She loves teaching and, since we must assume that male professors don’t have the monopoly on lechery, says: “I have never been in a situation where I have been attracted to a student, so I don’t know what it’s like.”

It is easy to see that she would have made a terrific professor, with her strenuous commitment to prove that all students — not only the English undergraduates but the scientists and the engineers, too — should be exposed to the instructive power of poetry. She must have convinced herself that it was a goal worth fighting for, by whatever means possible. It also seems clear that there is a strong element of self-delusion about the role she played; strange but not unique for the daughter of a psychoanalyst.

What is so sad is that for the first time in 300 years, the three candidates for the Oxford professorship were not the usual suspects but a black man, a woman and an Asian man — and, yet, the contest ended in such disarray. “Yes, it’s bad,” Padel says. “Everybody feels bad about it.”

Meanwhile there is her novel to promote — set in London, Devon and the jungles of India — as well as a book of poetry lectures, and an introduction to the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. She is also working on an intriguing project, combining music, poetry and science — “Music from the Genome”, comparing the DNA of a choir with that of non-musical people — for which she has written 23 new poems around the idea of cells.

When we were talking about the Walcott issue, I mention a nonfiction book by the Australian novelist Helen Garner, The First Stone, which, like David Mamet’s play Oleanna, looked at a campus sexual harassment case, and examined all the ambiguities that such incidents may involve. I was struck by what Garner said about writing: “It’s my way of making sense of things that I’ve lived and seen other people live, things that I’m afraid of or that I long for.”

Is that how it is for Padel? “Yes, it’s like what the poet Michael Donaghy said, ‘I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning if writing poems was not a process of discovery for me’.” You write to make sense of the world? “We write while making sense of the world. Every poem is a journey. You don’t know where it is going to go — that is the exciting thing.”

There’s another line that occurs to me when thinking of Padel’s muddled emotions over the Oxford professorship: “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” She told me that she hardly ever thinks about that episode (not sure I believe her) but, knowing her taste for the autobiographical, my guess is that one day she will write a poem about it that will reveal as much to her as to the reader.

* * *

Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel is published by Little, Brown on Feb 4 at £12.99. To order it for £11.69 inc p&p, call 0845 2712134, or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Travel & Adventure

Naked Greece, 30 years on

The Times January 09, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

My Greek trip brought back memories of naked fun in my youth, but would the country’s history add extra magic on my return?

zsithonia

Skinny tripping: Crab Hole beach can be reached only by boat or on foot

Floating in the cool water, the waves lazily lapping the tiny cove, all I can see are naked brown bodies.

A father attempts to inch up the ledges of one of the sculptural rock formations with his little girls; a drowsing figure with a sun-bleached red cap bobs along on a lilo; clusters of mahogany young women and men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

High above them, not far from a winding track, a more permanent sunbather has set up a small tent and a hammock. Crab Hole Beach, like all good nudist enclaves, can be reached, with some difficulty, only by foot or by boat.

My goal for this holiday is to sleep, rest and eat simply but well, without the pressure of being in a place where you feel guilty if you neglect to visit cultural sites. It doesn’t quite work out like that but the Crab Hole experience certainly goes some way to fulfilling the brief.

Our base is the Danai Beach Resort, a family-run (rather luxurious) hotel on the tip of the bluffs of the Aegean Peninsula, on the middle Macedonian finger of Sithonia in northern Greece. This is my third visit to Greece in 30 years and the only time I have not stripped off in public. The first trip was in the mid-Seventies, to the islands of Naxos and Paros as a student in my late teens.

That was the era of horrible loos, the treat of local honey-drizzled yoghurt (decades before its British supermarket ubiquity) to be eked out over breakfast and lunch (my boyfriend and I were broke), picnic suppers of feta and sun-sweetened tomatoes, and a bottle of retsina on the quay, watching the sun go down and stars come out, before we retired to our tent.

Later, we met up with friends who had secured sole residence of a beach, on a farmer’s property, and spent all summer naked, sleeping communally in a straw hut, buying vegetables from a man on a donkey, treading grapes, gorging on figs from nearby trees. The Greek beau of one of our party thrilled and appalled us by wading into the sea, armed with a spear, and returning with an octopus, all wriggling tentacles, before he bashed it against a rock and barbecued it over a fire.

Several decades on, when my boyfriend had become my husband (now former) and father of our two boys, we returned to Greece, this time to Corfu to stay in a well-appointed villa with my late mother. It was a bit more adventurous than the boys’ poor granny had bargained for.

After a day of heaving ourselves in and out of the sea to get on to our hired boat, followed by a perilous hike down a steep cliffside to a secluded beach, my aged mum cracked a heartfelt joke: “You know, there may be easier ways of bumping me off.” There was great interest in one particular painting the next term at my older son’s primary school parents’ evening: “Granny at the nudist beach.”

A decade later, while my younger, 18-year-old, son grooves it up in Mykonos,my partner and I are being driven past signposts pointing to beaches with the most un-Greek names of Goa, Bahia and Banana, now synonymous with the international rave scene. By the side of the curving road, there are a chilling number of shrines in memory of the kids who partied too hard and plunged to their deaths.

Demetri, our driver — who looks a bit of a raver himself with his shoulder-length hair, leather bracelets and cool-dude-shades, but who devoutly crosses himself every time we pass a church — points to Mount Athos on the other side of the sea.

This third Macedonian peninsula is a World Heritage Site, and self-governed monastic state, with 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. It is accessible only by boat, and women are forbidden because we are descendants of Eve and so carry the same sin-laden genes of temptation. “Jackasses,” my American pal mutters after this earnest, slightly Talebanish explanation.

The new tourism market in this area is dominated by Russians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Demetri tells us that they “come here and meet the olive and fall in love”, so there is a big olive export trade, especially to the Russians.

The best things about the Danai are the restaurants and bar, which are all close to the beach. These really come into their own at night. You can sit at a long candle-lit marble slab, savouring grilled fish or meat and salad as you hear the soothing whoosh and retreat of the waves.

You can eat more formally with all the frills one level up, or go for gold at the Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal-inspired (and slightly unfortunately named) Squirrel, where an over-pompous waiter will endeavour to perform the same nitrogen fireworks. But this occasional pretentiousness is more than made up for by the staff, who are down to earth and sweetly welcoming to children.

One day we drive past olive groves, orange earth and white houses with terracotta roofs, goats huddled by the roadside, up the mountainous terrain into Parthenonas, a cobblestoned village that dates back to the 10th century.

We stop for a beer and meze at a vine-covered taverna. It’s another family-run concern and, when we visit, is more populated by tourists than locals. But it’s charming, nonetheless.

On to the lovely Porto Koufos, with three or four restaurants at its tip. We are advised to go to the farthest one, where you pick your own fish (delicious dorado, in our case). All around is the chatter of Greek families. Boats clink and there are red geraniums and lavender at our feet. In this instructive lesson of the simple, good life we are attended by the owner, named — what else? — Socrates.

We can do nothing more strenuous than loll around on our sun-loungers, with the odd mini excursion, but once we hear that there is something really worth seeing, not that far away, the descendants of Eve succumb to the temptations of history.

First stop is Olynthus, described as the most important cultural centre in Halkidiki during the Classical era, first inhabited during the late Neolithic period (3000-2500BC). From 432BC, it was the seat of an alliance of 32 cities in Halkidiki, and played a leading role in the political life of the region for a century before being destroyed by Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) in 348BC.

It is a long slog up the hill but at the top it is incredible to step into the houses of those townsfolk, marked out by some of the original stones mixed with modern additions. You can see how the town functioned, the hierarchy of the wealthy and less wealthy, and how (mistakenly) omniscient, at that great height, the inhabitants must have felt. There are also several stunning mosaic floors.

But the real revelation, for me, is some hours away: the royal tombs at Vergina, the old capital of Macedonia, buried under a huge man-made mound and undiscovered for centuries. After experiencing the destruction wrought by Philip II at Olynthus, here is a salutary reminder of death’s great leveller — although to gaze into his burial chamber you might consider that all of us die but some corpses enjoy a more illustriously appointed resting place.

The tombs, discovered in 1976, were buried so deeply that the treasures are in pristine condition. And what treasures. There are wonderful murals, including the abduction of Persephone by Pluto with his late Rembrandt-like physiognomy; tiny ivory sculptures of Philip and Alexander’s faces, breathtakingly lifelike with all their human facial flaws; and beautiful silver urns, with the most delicate gold leaf filigree wreaths.

Visit these tombs if you can, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get a guide as good as ours (also called Demetri), who made ancient history as throbbingly alive and intriguing as the best pageturning thriller.

The other highlight is a trip on an immaculate boat, built in the style of an old schooner and controlled by Captain Stelios and his first mate, Kyriakos. The idea is to fish and eat the spoils, but we manage to catch only one tiddler between us.

Fortunately, the captain’s wife has taken the precaution of buying another fisherman’s catch of prawns and swordfish, which are fried in olive oil with oregano and lemon. Served on deck with crusty bread and a Greek salad, ripe peaches to follow, this is a feast of the highest kind. But best of all is shrugging off my swimsuit to glide through the shimmering, clear sea. It’s a brief taste of my own ancient freedom — for old times’ sake.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at the five-star Danai Beach Resort and Villas, Halkidiki, from £1,542pp based on two sharing. The price includes B&B in a junior suite, flights with British Airways, private transfers and an airport lounge pass in the UK.

Film

Rob Marshall on directing Nine

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

From steel town to golden boy of musical glitz with Nine, Marshall is the director of the moment

It was a bit anxious-making when the director Rob Marshall introduced the London audience to the world premiere of his star-studded musical, Nine. He did look appealing enough, resembling a thicker-set Tom Cruise, and he spoke mellifluously (as befits a former actor). But there was way too much lurve flowing for comfort … from “my beautiful, beautiful dancers” to the absent Sophia Loren, “here in spirit — we love her so much”, and a good deal more in the same vein.

The following day, however, within a very short time of our meeting, I was feeling pretty lovey-dovey myself — almost fantasising about being an A-list actor just so that I could have the soothing pleasure of being directed by Marshall. This is something of a first, since most film directors, certainly in my experience (from Spike Lee to Mike Leigh), are tricky customers, highly resistant to being questioned or directed themselves in any way.

Marshall knows exactly what I’m talking about. “There are directors who like to have friction or angst in the working environment, but I can’t live like that,” he says. The school of Lars von Trier? He laughs but is too circumspect, or perhaps just too straightforwardly nice, to dish the dirt.

“There are a few out there and I appreciate they do beautiful work, so it’s more power to them. But for me, it’s very important to come from a place of joy. To have an atmosphere — maybe it’s from my upbringing — where there is a great deal of positive reinforcement.”

On his way up as an actor, singer, dancer, then choreographer, before his present role (the last film he directed was the nonmusical Memoirs of a Geisha and before that the hugely successful Chicago), “I was lucky enough to observe directors, the prickly ones and also the ones that weren’t. And I just found that the best work came from the directors who were there to serve the actors and not the other way round.

“And this is true especially in something like Nine, which was so difficult because these people are doing something for the first time [singing and dancing for Daniel Day-Lewis] and it’s important to create an atmosphere where you feel protected and not judged, in a place where you can really make big mistakes and make a fool of yourself.”

The film is an adaptation (although it was substantially rewritten by the late Anthony Minghella in his final script) of the 1982 Broadway musical — starring Raúl Julia in the role of Guido Contini, and later Antonio Banderas — which was, itself, a reworking of Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning 8½.

The central character is suffering from director’s block and has everything in place to make a new film, apart from inspiration. He is derailed by the growing realisation that his own selfish artistic needs are fuelled by feeding off the love of his women — his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman) — who come close to being destroyed in the process. Like the original, the plot moves between reality, surreality and memory — shot in black and white juxtaposed with colour.

Marshall’s version is full of sensational set-pieces, all vim, quim and razzle-dazzle, created around each of the stars — Judi Dench, Guido’s wardrobe mistress, in basque and boa, stretched out on a grand piano, singing about her love of the Folies Bergères (in 1968 Dench was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End); Cruz, sexier than she’s been seen before (yes, it is possible), spreading her legs and writhing around on a circular mirror; Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Peas, as a prostitute crawling on her hands and knees, cleavage forward, on a beach for the young Guido and his pals; an incredibly affecting song by Cotillard as the trampled wife, in her own voice (as opposed to her lip-synching in Piaf), and so on. In between, Day-Lewis as Guido smokes for Italy, zips around town in his jaunty little sports car or broods in the empty set, “as he tries to figure out what his movie will be”, Marshall says, “which represents the interior of his unfinished mind and the chaos of his life”.

The original choice for Guido was Javier Bardem, but after winning his Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for No Country for Old Men, Bardem decided to take a year out. It was Day-Lewis who contacted Marshall to express interest after Dench’s agent had passed him the script: “When I got the call that Daniel was interested, well … I had never dared dream of Daniel Day-Lewis in this part because I consider him to be the greatest actor there is.”

Marshall recalls the first time that he heard the actor sing: “When he started it was like dipping a toe in the water. You know, singing quietly, but I could immediately hear that he had a musical sensibility and a lovely voice.”

Despite his initial enthusiasm, it seems that Day-Lewis inhabited his new role rather too well, finding it — like Guido — almost impossible to commit himself to the project. “If I hadn’t pushed him he would still be circling around just thinking about it,” Marshall says. “He said to me, ‘I’ll do this for ever, Rob, you’re going to have to tell me when you need to know’” So you gave him a deadline? “Yes, I called Daniel and said, ‘I need to know because we have to book the stages’, and he said, ‘When do you need to know?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow morning’.”

It’s a measure of the director’s faith in his lead, as well as Day-Lewis’s pulling power, that the filming — which was originally going to be in Montreal — was moved to Shepperton Studios because the star said that he needed the film to be shot in England so that he could be close to his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and two young sons who live in Ireland.

Marshall is still pretty knocked out that so many stars wanted to take part: “I couldn’t believe the turnout of women, especially — every actress in Hollywood came. I mean, every single one.” Really? Scarlett Johansson would have made a perfect Anita Ekberg lookalike in that famous Trevi fountain scene (there is an homage to it in Nine) from Fellini’s other great film, La Dolce Vita. But Kidman needed a few more curves to carry it off, I say. “The truth is that was big for her,” Marshall says. “She had just had her child so those were the biggest boobs she’s had in a long time! She was thrilled.”

Why do gay men love musicals so much? “I know, it’s funny. It must have something to do with the expression and the joy of it, I think … It’s a fascinating question. Certainly for me, who loved dance, that was a big part of it.”

Marshall has been with his partner, John DeLuca, the choreographer on Nine, and one of its producers, for 27 years. When I ask the director if he found himself falling for Day-Lewis on set, Marshall says sweetly: “Oh no, there is only one man in my life and that’s John.” The first time the couple worked together was on Chicago: “I told him, ‘I need you on this movie because I’m so nervous’, and to have this wonderful partner right next to me is incredible. He’s got impeccable taste so I always love to hear his side of things. I come from a more narrative background and he is more edgy and helps me to think outside the box.”

The director was brought up in Pittsburgh, once famous for its steel industry but which suffered mass redundancies and closures in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be tempting, then, to see the young Marshall as a Billy Elliot type, battling to become a dancer against fierce opposition from a disappointed and embattled father. But his background couldn’t have been more different.

Marshall’s parents are academics; his father teaches medieval English literature, and his mother is also in education. In the early Seventies the family (Marshall’s younger sister, Kathleen, has won two Tonys directing plays and musicals; Maura, his twin, is a landscape and interior designer) lived for a while in Golders Green, North London. Marshall Sr travelled to the British Museum every day, doing research while on his sabbatical, and the children went to school on Hendon Way.

“They were very, very liberal and my father worked for George McGovern’s campaign when he was running for president [and suffered a landslide defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972]. My first memories were of marching for causes with them and singing ‘We shall overcome some day’,” Marshall recalls. “When Obama got in, I sent them flowers with a message ‘You created the seed for this to happen’, and it makes me so happy that they saw that happen in their lifetime.”

When the Marshall siblings were aged 9 or 10, they would put on shows for their parents at home: “There was always an opening number from Kiss Me Kate, and then we would each have a solo — I think mine was [as if he can’t remember!] All I Need is the Girl from Gypsy, and then we would do a big second-act opener,” he guffaws, “which was usually Hello, Dolly! and we’d end with There’s no Business like Showbusiness.”

Years later, when Marshall began choreographing on Broadway, Kathleen was his assistant: “So it was like an extension of what we had done in our living-room. There we were in a studio, but instead of teaching ourselves we were teaching Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Then in 1998, when Sam Mendes took his Donmar Warehouse production of Cabaret to New York, he asked Marshall to codirect it: “Sam and I made it a darker ending where the MC reveals that [under his suit] he’s actually in a concentration camp uniform with the gold star and the pink star, and it was very, very moving, um . . .” he stops. “It is upsetting to me … but it was a beautiful production and I think it was Cabaret, honestly, that gave both Sam and myself our film careers because it was very cinematic.”

Our time is almost up and I think I have come to see why so many actors want to work with Marshall. Apart from his talent, he has an unusual quality of gentle modesty that must be rare in the ego- driven industry he works in.

This is a guy who devoted two years to developing John Waters’ Hairspray for the stage, making the difficult decision of withdrawing when he was offered the film of Chicago. But when I ask him whether his name is on the credits he says, without a trace of bitterness: “No. It’s fine. I understand.”

We end with the beginning of Nine, when Guido is at a press conference and, after many vexing questions about what the new movie is about, is asked to name his favourite pasta dish. “At last, a serious question!” he says with a grin so attractive that you can see why all the women love him.

On the night of the premiere, after bowing awkwardly to the audience, Day-Lewis left his 40-odd friends and relations, as soon as the lights went down, to escape. “I think it was too much for him to see it with his wife and sister for the first time. So I said, ‘Fine, happy to have dinner with you’,” Marshall recalls. Let me guess, the Ivy or Sheekey’s? “Cipriani, because it had to be an Italian dinner.” So, finally, maestro, what is your favourite pasta? And please don’t tell me you’re wheat intolerant. He’s not, of course. “Linguine vongole.”

* * *

Nine is released nationwide on Boxing Day

Celebrities, Music

Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction

The Times December 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better

Photo – Phil Fisk

mitch winehouse

So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”

You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”

It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.

For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”

When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.

Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.

“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”

Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”

Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”

This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.

There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”

Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”

One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”

Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.

“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”

I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”

What about his own experience of drugs?

“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”

I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.

“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”

So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)

Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”

Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”

No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”

It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)

When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”

He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.

“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”

When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”

Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.

Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”

He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”

He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”

They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.

“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”

What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”

Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”

What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”

Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”

* * *

My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday

Celebrities, Comedians, Women

Sandi Toksvig on her Christmas cracker

The Times December 05, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The self-confessed ‘show-off’ talks about her Christmas cabaret show, politics and a crush on Cheryl Cole

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig has a habit of being picked up by strange women in public conveniences, which sounds like a cheap gag but happens to be true (although not in a George Michael way, obviously). Only the other day, she was sitting in one of those cubicles where you have to push your foot against the door to keep it closed — a challenge in itself if, like her, you’re under 5ft tall — when a woman burst in, mid-flow, apologised profusely, retreated, and then reappeared, saying: “I think you’re Sandi Toksvig — can I have your autograph?”

Just before we meet another woman had approached her in the loos at the Royal Festival Hall, followed her into the room we’re now sitting in, plonked herself down and is chatting merrily away, oblivious to the tape recorder on the table. “Merrily”, it transpires, is the wrong word. The toilet stalker is saying that her boss at the Koestler Trust — whose current exhibition at the Southbank of art by prisoners has been the subject of controversy — was so moved by Toksvig’s appearance at a recent candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square that they were wondering if she could be persuaded to do some work for their charity.

The vigil, on October 30, attended by 10,000 people, was organised as a protest against hate crimes, after the murder in September of Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man, who had been out on the town celebrating a new job and was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square by two 17-year-old girls and a 19-year-old boy.

“It’s too awful, and the point about it is not that it was a homophobic crime, it is that it was a hate crime,” Toksvig says quietly. “I don’t care what colour you are, what your sexuality is, or what your religion is . . . I care that anybody who wants to go across Trafalgar Square is entitled to do so.

“Anyway, we had an extraordinary evening, with two minutes’ silence and then Sue Perkins read out the names of all the people who had died in the past ten years because of hate crimes. It’s shocking and it won’t do. It just won’t do.”

It is also shocking to hear, particularly from someone who has achieved national-treasure status, that she, too, has been the victim of hate crimes. It is almost 16 years since Toksvig, then 36, decided to go public on her private life — to pre-empt being done over by a homophobic newspaper — that she and her female partner at the time, Peta, lived happily together as a family with three small children, fathered through artificial insemination by Chris Lloyd Pack, a close married friend, with Peta as the birth mother. In the ensuing furore, the Save the Children charity dropped Toksvig as the compere of its 75th-anniversary celebrations, later apologising after demonstrations by lesbian activists.

More dismaying behaviour followed as Lloyd Pack’s former mother-in-law denounced all participants (Toksvig, Peta, Lloyd Pack and, presumably, her own daughter) as the spawn of Satan, prompting the real loonies to come out of the shadows: “I’ve probably had about three serious death threats in my career, all from Christian fundamentalists — very stressful, where we’ve had to go into hiding,” Toksvig says. The family was protected by “the very nice boys in the police hate-crime squad” but it’s not surprising to hear that Toksvig suffered from depression: “If I’ve been dealing with somebody who wants to kill me and that’s scary, to put it mildly, then I have been depressed. But having had some degree of therapy [she is vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and her civil partner, Debbie, is also a psychotherapist], I realise that depression is fair enough in the circumstances. ”

All of this is a long time ago and it’s annoying when a person amounts to so much more than his or her sexuality that — with the rise of gay bashing, on the streets and in certain newspapers — the subject of gayness is still so topical.

Toksvig dislikes, of course, being referred to as “the lesbian comedienne” and says: “When I see comedian — and ‘comedienne’, of course I hate it — I think ‘Oh, really?’ because I think of myself as a writer and broadcaster. Sometimes it’s funny but I’ve just done a piece for Radio 3 all about Mary Wollstonecraft [the 18th-century philosopher and feminist] and there’s not a joke in it.”

There will be jokes aplenty, however, as well as gaiety of the old-fashioned sort at Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker cabaret show, starring Ronnie Corbett. Toksvig has written her own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and each night the roles of Scrooge and Mrs Cratchit will be played by different well-known personalities, Denise van Outen, Maria Friedman and John Humphrys among them.

And what of her new chum? “Ronnie makes me laugh every time I’m in the room with him. He’s got that wonderful ability to make you laugh just with ‘the look’. It helps that we are roughly the same height. He refers to us as The Condiment Set of Comedy, which I quite like.”

There were a few surprises for me on meeting Toksvig. The first was the slightly singsong lilt to her voice, in person, when I’m accustomed to her frightfully British clipped accent as a broadcaster. She says that she sounds more Scandinavian when she’s tired. “Also when you’re performing you’re a different person. I think I’m much duller in real life.” (Not true.) When she’s stressed, she confesses, she dreams in her native tongue. At one point, when we are talking about romance, she breathes in such a husky, accented voice: “Isn’t loff the most fontastic thing?” that, if you closed your eyes, it could be Ingrid Bergman talking.

Her late adored father, Claus, was a foreign correspondent posted to the United States who took along his wife and young family. Toksvig, like her older brother, Nick, who works as a journalist for al-Jazeera in Qatar, and her much younger London-based sister, Jenifer, who writes musicals, was encouraged from an early age to read newspapers (The New York Times from the age of 7, in her case) and be politically engaged. Claus Toksvig wrote for Jyllands-Posten (of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons debacle) and broadcast for Danish radio and television. His elder daughter inherited his passion for current affairs, handily for her role as chair for the BBC Radio 4 The News Quiz.

Claus Toksvig was also a Danish MEP and Sandi, like him, is passionately proEuropean Union. She is also a big Liberal Democrat supporter and does not rule out the possibility of a political career when she retires from “showing off”, as she puts it. “It’s been 30 years now as a career. I’m 51. I enjoy it but I don’t need it.”

There has been some speculation that, with David Howarth departing as MP from the safe Liberal Democrat seat of Cambridge, Toksvig may stand: “Sadly, that’s nonsense,” she says. “But had it been in five years’ time, it might well be that I would have said, ‘Yes’. I want to retire from showing off but I don’t want to retire from doing something useful with my life. So I’m not saying it’s out of the question that I may have a political career in the future. Or I might work full-time for a charity.”

I wonder whether there are any politicians she dislikes intensely. “Yes!” — a big roar of laughter — “I’ve never met the man but I worry deeply that Peter Mandelson has been given so much power in this country but has not been elected to office. I worry that he seems to be the deputy prime minister, he wants to be minister of information, he wants to be foreign secretary . . . the last time I looked, the Labour Party was in favour of democratically electing those people who hold power. It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Conservative government but I am deeply shocked by Mandelson’s pre-eminence.”

I ask Toksvig if she fancied anyone in public life. “Cheryl Cole,” she says, without missing a beat. “I have a crush on Cheryl Cole.” Why? She actually blushes and giggles: “I think she’s really pretty! I should be more cynical but I hope she’s as nice as she looks. I don’t really do crushes but my children do tease me about Cheryl Cole.”

Another politician comes up in a rather different context. We talk about Hillary Clinton’s crush on “vibrant, vital, attractive … so young” David Miliband. “Yes! And about David Miliband!” … a funny look.

“Actually I met her husband once — Bill — and I did have a Monica Lewinsky moment. I thought, ‘Ooooohhhhhh, I get that! Mmmmmmm, very, very sexy’. I was in a room full of people and I was the only woman in the room at that moment. He held me for quite a long time and I would have done anything for him . . . maybe not the full cigar, but, you know . . . sorry!” suddenly remembering herself.

Back in the real world, Toksvig says she adores her partner, Debbie, but does believe that it’s possible to love more than one person: “You need different things from different people. Sometimes you don’t live well together. You can adore someone and be mildly exasperated by them at the same time.” How can you live with someone and not be exasperated by them?

“Debbie and I have a very smooth waltz through life at the moment,” she says. “I’m older now and less inclined to change somebody. We’re married in a civil partnership, which I battled long and hard for, and I hope that’s it. That’s certainly my intention.”

Was Debbie your shrink? “Don’t be so silly,” she cracks up. “ That would be immoral! She would be struck off. Hahahahaha. No, no — she’s terribly boundaried. She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients. I don’t know anything about any of them,” she complains.

This Christmas there will be a full house chez Toksvig (Debbie has taken her surname), but no bigger than their usual Sunday lunch of 14 to 20 people. “Chris [her children’s father] won’t be there because he lives in Portugal in a Buddhist retreat, so he sits around with his foot behind his ear mostly and Christmas is not a big thing for them. But my mum will be there and my brother and my brother’s kids and my sister, my kids and their various partners who now seem to be appearing, and Peta of course, who is my best friend, and quite possibly her mother, who’s still my mother-in-law, it doesn’t make any difference.

“It’s Christmas Eve we celebrate, and it’s very formal — black tie — and we have roast duck and red cabbage, and the boys light the candles on the tree, it’s very sexist, and then we all hold hands and we sing special Danish Christmas songs.”

Toksvig was surprised to discover from her two older children — daughters of 21 and 19, and a son of 15, all delivered by her (is there no end to her talents?) — that their friends think it’s “cool” that they have two mums.

“Who knew it would be cool? It would never have occurred to me. What I do think is that it is an odd team to be on.” What do you mean? “I sometimes feel like I’m the captain of the national lesbian team. But I am who I am. I am myself.

“Would I have chosen to be gay? Probably not. But I didn’t choose, it’s who I am. Am I glad? Absolutely. In fact I suspect that being gay has been the saving of me because it has kept at bay the hideous middle-class woman I would have been. It’s made me much more tolerant, much more accepting and much less likely to assume things about other people. I challenge myself to confront all my prejudices because I have been the victim of prejudice myself.”

Having experienced that pain, would she not wish it upon her children? “So far I think I’ve produced three heterosexual children. But I think life has changed and I wish that they find love wherever they find it. I hope they get giddy with it, and grin!But I would wish them not to have a public life. Today, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, actually.”

* * *

Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker starring Ronnie Corbett and special guests runs from Dec 15 to Dec 24.

southbankcentre.co.uk

Early years

Sandi Toksvig was born in 1958 in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Her father, Claus (whom she once cited as a literary influence), was a foreign correspondent for a Danish television channel. She spent most of her youth in America, a childhood that she retraced for her 2003 travel biography Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey.

Showbiz

Intent on being a lawyer, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, to study law, archaeology and anthropology, but admits “showbusiness got in the way”. She launched her comedy career at Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson as well as graduating with a first-class degree and two awards for outstanding achievement.

She moved via children’s television into broadcasting and then on to the comedy circuit.

She has appeared as a panellist and presenter on shows including Call My Bluff and Have I Got News for You. She presents the BBC Radio 4 travel programme Excess Baggage and replaced Simon Hoggart as chairman of The News Quiz in 2006.

Other strings

In 1995 she sailed around Britain on a yachting adventure with the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy. She has also canoed across Africa, written books and in 2007 was named Political Humourist of the Year at the Channel 4 Political Awards and Radio Broadcaster of the Year by the Broadcasting Press Guild.

On Ronnie Corbett

We’re just two tiny little people. We’re doing something in the show together — a very small song and dance, with just the two of us on the stage. Hopefully it will go well.

On her father, a journalist

In those days, long before 24-hour rolling news, we used to go to the airport, quite often, with a roll of film and my dad would go up to somebody who was taking a flight to Copenhagen and say: “Would you mind taking this back?” And it would be the news but it wouldn’t be the news for 24 or 36 hours.

On childhood

I have strong memories of the death of Martin Luther King. My father insisted on speaking to us about it and, most of all, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, since they had spent so much time together on the election trail.

On hobbies

I fantasise about being a recluse because I am quite hermit-like — I like carpentry, and weaving and embroidery, and jam-making. I’d like to learn how to make cider.

On her partner, Debbie, a psychotherapist

She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients, nothing at all. I’d be so fascinated. Other people’s problems are fascinating.

Artists

Subodh Gupta, India’s hottest new artist, talks about skulls, milk pails and cow dung

The Times October 10, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

His swaggering, exuberant work has made him India’s most talked-about artist, and the paintings of his wife, Bharti Kher, are also winning wide acclaim

India’s hottest contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, dubbed the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” — they share an interest in skulls — is telling me that he likes his wife and fellow artist, Bharti Kher, as a friend. Sorry, could you repeat that? “I like Bharti more like my friend than my wife . . .” Kher, who is sitting with us in her husband’s newly built concrete and glass ultra-modern studio, nods her head. Hang on a minute, when you say that you like Bharti more as a friend than you do as a wife . . . ? “Revelation!” Kher cocks her head. “No! No!” Gupta (whose English is a little approximate) exclaims. “You’ve made me confused now. When we talk about art, it’s like a friendship, no? And then domestic work is completely different, and that’s irritating sometimes . . .” OK, but let’s get this straight: you are pleased you married each other? Gupta: “Yeah.” Kher: “Oh, yeah.” Whew, just checking. “Talk about Lost in Translation,” Kher whoops. “Good job I’m here, really!”

This conversation took place during a long, sweltering day in Gurgaon — an hour’s drive southwest of Delhi — where the couple work and live with their two children, Omi, 12, and Lola, 6. Since General Electric opened its call centre there in 1997, shiny high-rise buildings have been sprouting one after the other, transforming what was once a small farming village into one of the most prominent outsourcing hubs. En route to Kher’s studio, we drove past a building site advertising a new five-star Westin; across the way a couple of pigs snuffled in a mound of rubbish, and a cow moseyed past.

While Gupta is the couple’s undoubted superstar — last year his London gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sold two versions of his Mind Shut Down for €1 million each and, as his wife says, there hasn’t been a recent Biennale that hasn’t featured him — Kher’s work is also commanding attention. She was one of the artists featured in the Serpentine Gallery’s recent Indian Highway (along with Gupta) — India having replaced China as the global art flavour of the month, with Charles Saatchi’s forthcoming contemporary Indian show (featuring Gupta again) — and has her own solo debut with Hauser & Wirth in 2010.

Gupta’s work displays a swaggering, rock’n’roll exuberance: his towering mushroom cloud, constructed from his trademark stainless steel pots and pans, at Tate Britain’s Altermodern certainly made an impact. As did his huge skull, Very Hungry God, bought by François Pinault and displayed outside the French billionaire’s Palazzo Grassi, at the 2007 Venice Biennale. This was the same month, June, that Damien Hirst showed his diamond-encrusted, deity-invoking human skull — For the Love of God — at White Cube.

When I ask the Indian artist whose skull was conceived of first, he says that he started work on his project the previous year (where it was exhibited in Paris). Aha, so should we be calling Hirst the Subodh Gupta of England? “I have a lot of respect for him,” he laughs. “Art is in the air. Theme, subject, everything is in the air. It’s just a matter of time who begins first.”

His work, like Kher’s, can be delicate and beautiful, too, but despite its authentic Indian flavour — or occasionally stinging subversion of what we, Westerners, consider to be “authentic Indian” — the effect is sometimes a bit obvious. In his new show, the referential nods are overt: a black bronze bust of Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa; the stack of Puppy boxes, emblazoned with the name Jeff Koons.

Just as Gupta’s staples are the stainless steel tiffin sets, cow dung and milk pails; Kher’s Indian trademark is the bindi, the women’s forehead decoration. She leads me into a room where one of her assistants, a slight woman in a sari, starts to peel away a plastic sheet protecting a huge canvas, every surface covered in brightly coloured swirls of what look like felt spermatozoa. The effect is dazzlingly gorgeous but also odd; like something scientific, maybe sinister, the origins of a mutating virus, perhaps, picked up under the microscope.

On the top floor, there’s a work in progress: a cascade of chairs, some stacked, others fallen; a chintzy tea cup in broken shards, a scattering of pearly teeth, a pair of high-heeled shoes; the sense of a genteel occasion that has gone awry. On a shelf, protected by a glass box, is a tarantula that I last saw resting on the hand of one of Kher’s horn-headed, fibreglass models. She strokes its furry legs and tells me how beautiful she finds it, partly, I suspect, because of its poisonous reputation.

Her parents came to England in 1967, two years after they married. Kher’s mother was 23 when she arrived, pregnant with her first child — and able to speak only Punjabi. Bharti, the middle child, made the reverse trajectory at the same age, barely able to speak a word of Indian, and says it was only then that she realised “what courage it took to just get up and leave everything to start your life again. It made me understand my parents a lot better.”

When Kher was 6, her parents separated amicably and remarried English people: “So we have this quirky, nutty family where we all meet and holiday together.” She recalls loving the flocked wallpaper in her childhood home — “I used to sit there and stroke it” — and her mother’s sari shop in Streatham, South London, where Bharti and her elder sister, Mona, would help every Saturday. The girls would take down roll after roll of material and Kher can still recall the precise sound of the fabric when it was unfurled, and the whip-like rip as they would cut it.

The privately educated Kher sisters were taught by an inspirational art teacher, Martin Shaw, at Greenacre School for Girls in Epsom, Surrey, and both went on to art college: a foundation course at Middlesex, followed by St Martins for Mona and Newcastle for Bharti. What was that like? “Very tough the first year. Newcastle [like Surrey] is also very white. I lived in a small house in Gateshead and on my first night I thought I was going to get mugged on my way home. I have never been so terrified in my life.”

After leaving college, Kher moved in with her father in Hampstead and painted in a studio that he organised for her, next door to his textile-importing office in the West End. But unsatisfied and restless, Kher decided to take off travelling: “I hadn’t been to India since a visit when I was 4, so I thought I should see my grandmother.”

Her plan was to spend some time with her family, meet some artists in Delhi, and return to England when her six-month visa ran out: “But within two weeks of being here, I’d bumped into Subodh.” They fell in love and that was that.

But it wasn’t that straightforward, as Gupta explains when we move from Kher’s workspace to her husband’s impressive studio. We break for a basic but delicious lunch: beetroot and spinach-stained chapatis to dip into bowls of yoghurt and vegetable curry, washed down with a sulphurous-tasting black-salt lime soda.

Kher takes off and her husband resumes their story. Her father, perturbed by the news that his daughter had taken up with “some kind of criminal”, flew in to Delhi and demanded to see him. Gupta recalls: “So he sits down and says, ‘My daughter wears Coco perfume which cost three and a half thousand rupees, so where can you give it to her? It’s unrealistic.’ Then he said, ‘Can you paint?’ I say, ‘Of course I can paint.’ He said, ‘Do you paint very closely or do you go distance sometimes?’ I say, ‘Of course I go distance sometimes.’ He says, ‘Well, you see my daughter very closely and now I am taking her … so you see her from a distance. And if you still like her from a distance, I will bring her back.’ So he just took her and I was suffering with shock, and she was not happy either.”

Fortunately, his beloved’s mother took pity on her pining daughter and paid for her ticket back to India. Years later, Kher had told me, her father turned to her and said, ‘Sometimes, you know, you just meet your soulmate’ and that’s what happened. But then because we were so different, it was: ‘Where is this connection?’, ‘How are you communicating?’ ”

They may both be Indian, but their backgrounds, it is true, could scarcely be more different. Gupta’s tales of his childhood and teenage years are wonderfully rich. He was born (one of six children) in the northeastern state of Bihar, which he describes as the Wild West of India. His father, a railway guard, was a drinker and died in his early forties, when Gupta was 12. His mother, who came from a farming family, sent him off to live with her brother for a few years in a remote village — “Not a single school kid wore shoes, and there is no road to go to school. Sometimes we stop in the field and we sit down and eat green chickpea before we go to school — it comes in my memory like a movie. Fantastic! My kids, when I tell them, will not believe it because they live a very urban lifestyle.”

At night, villagers would water the huge communal roof to cool it down before placing their mattresses. “So all the families, after eating their dinner, would meet on the roof and go to bed. It was good fun — fantastic! — a great memory to have.”

After leaving school, Gupta joined one of the four small theatre groups in Khagaul and worked as an actor for five years. He also designed posters to advertise the plays, which is when it was first suggested that he go to art college. He ended up working as a part-time newspaper designer and illustrator while studying at the College of Art, Patna. The day he was offered a permanent job by the newspaper, he packed it in to try his luck in Delhi, where he was awarded a scholarship by a government-run initiative, and a space to work in the Ghari Studios.

This is where Kher met Gupta, who explains that “most of the artists in India in the generation above us have been through those studios”.

At that time, Gupta was painting typical Indian scenes, but it wasn’t until 1996, and his first residency, that he came into his own. “It was a very peaceful place and I collected my childhood memory to do what I wanted to do. My first installation was called 29 Mornings,” Gupta says. “With 29 stools, where I would eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in one corner of the room there was a bulb and a black wire hanging, and some of that what the spider makes … web.”

Since then, Gupta’s career hasn’t looked back, sparked as it was by that single act of looking backwards. Part of his education was a stint in England in 1999 when, after another residency in the Gasworks Gallery, South London, Gupta was offered four months in a brewery in Kendal: “A fantastic place to be! Countryside, rain, pub, beer — I love it.”

Gupta is at his most fluent when he talks about the rationale behind his art, The relevance of the skull in Indian culture, with the sadhus who “sometimes eat the flesh of the burning human to make them powerful and carry the human skull. You don’t see that anymore so much.” Why he uses the stainless steel utensils, again and again: “The poor, the middle class and the rich use it at home. In this country, how many people have the utensils but they starve because there is no food?”

Kher returns, and I ask her why she thinks there is such interest in India. “In the way that China [was picked up on], people felt that India is a country one needs to look at … The thing is that although these shows are very useful, at the same time, you know, you shoot yourself in the foot.”

Could she explain? “It’s fantastic but no artist is ‘overall’ or ‘generic’. One wants people to go in deeper. You don’t want them to read the synopsis of the book, and then not read the actual book.”

* * *

Common Man, Subodh Gupta at Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (hauserwirth.com), until October 31

Artists, Women

Paula Rego on her museum to celebrate the brutal world of Portuguese storytelling

The Times September 19, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The acclaimed artist has been inspired by her country’s rich oral tradition. Now she is determined to keep that heritage alive

Paula Rego is talking about her love of pornography, particularly as penned by Henry Miller: “When I discovered it, I found it really quite wonderful and thought, ‘Gosh, look at that!’ ” Her sooty eyes gleam. “I used to read a lot of it and I just found it, you know . . . naughty.”

Her discovery came when she was renting a studio in Dean Street, Soho, Central London, from a woman: “Not a tart, a lovely girl.” Are you saying that tarts can’t also be lovely girls, I tease her. “No, no, no, no, but she wasn’t a tart and this was in 1959, my dear, long before you were born. [I wish.] One day I looked up and saw this book and took it down and read it and I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake! I’ve never read anything like that in my life’.”

Rego’s thoughts take off like startled birds. Her responses are unpredictable, and she can be tricky to pin down. Her art is a form of storytelling, often ambiguous and mysterious, hinting at sinister emotional or political complications. In her earlier work, particularly, you feel that something unspeakable is about to happen or has just occurred, challenging you to guess the narrative; it’s like a hard-core Vermeer.

One of the more interesting difficulties is that Rego’s interpretation of her own work is markedly different from the way most of us view it. This has been acutely observed by Marco Livingstone in an essay that the artist (as she never calls herself) pressed on me when we parted. The text was commissioned for the catalogue of a new museum devoted to Paula Rego, the Casa das Histórias, which is opening this month in Cascais, in her native Portugal.

“ ‘Darkness? What darkness?’ Rego seems genuinely perplexed whenever she hears comments about her art being disturbing or conveying a harsh or bleak view of human suffering and cruelty,” Livingstone writes. “For her it is clearly simply a case of showing life as it is . . . ”

Ask her about a certain sadomasochistic thread (as I see it) in her work, and Rego is nonplussed. The Policeman’s Daughter, for instance, with the grim-faced daughter’s arm plunged into the black leather boot as she polishes it, suggests repression but also an atmosphere that makes you think she will find a way of getting her own back somehow.

The Family, a year later, in 1988 (the year her husband, Victor Willing, died, after a long decline from multiple sclerosis), depicts a suited man with frightened eyes, rigid on a bed, being undressed by a smiling woman, a young girl pressed up hard against his groin, another young girl by the window, her hands clasped in a prayer, which could also be a strange sort of excitement. There is a sense of complicity between the women that is not altogether benevolent. “That’s not sadomasochistic. They are trying to raise him from the dead,” Rego says. “I was going to call that Lazarus.”

She continues: “First of all, I don’t get a kick out of sadomasochism and I never thought of my pictures as sadomasochistic. I mean, there are very nasty things that happen and tender things that happen. So there is brutality and there is tenderness, there is cruelty and there is tolerance and kindness. There is everything. Most of the things I do are based on Portuguese folk tales, which are not folksy. They were jotted down by anthropologists, at the turn of the century, who would go into the villages and the mountains and take down these stories which are brutal and magic as well. And it is those stories that I have adored and revered all my life. That’s why this museum I am opening in Portugal is called the House of the Stories.”

When I arrive at the Kentish Town studio she has occupied since 1993 — a former North London woodworking business, with its bafflingly inconspicuous doorway and 3,000sq ft divided into two spaces, one for drawing, one for painting — Rego is a model host, offering coffee and apple pie. She is famously mad about clothes, something she inherited from her late mother, and is wearing a fabulous jacket, made out of different slashes of patterned fabric, by the Belgian designer Dries van Noten.

Her hair is sticking up in tousled clumps, which gave her the look of a charming, if slightly wayward, sprite. She wears her make-up in a smoky smudge above and below her eyes, which she closes, for longish periods, or looks at you from under hooded lids. Sometimes, alarmingly, she will bare her jumbled teeth, in a sudden, simian snarl and break into high-pitched laughter, although it’s not quite clear why.

At the end of the hangar-like room we are sitting in is a sort of altarpiece for the Foundling Museum, with a series of stuffed figures in brown uniforms depicting scenes conjured by Rego: the abandoned children in Thomas Coram’s famous school, and the events that led up to their births. “So on the top left-hand side is a rape. Below, on the left, she’s having a baby in the moonlight. Over there, they are throwing babies down into the well. I had a well built, you see. I compose and build these things, and then I draw them. The one on the far right is throwing the baby out of the window. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson but it was before he died, so it doesn’t count.”

On various tables, every surface is covered with curious objects: a bright orange cat, dusty artificial flowers, a frightening pagan-looking doll with a grotesque phallic nose. An anatomical dummy, in tails, is splayed over a sofa and Rego zestfully unzips the fly to show me how “he” can be converted into a “she”. There are rails of clothes, including dresses that belonged to her mother and grandmother, and stacks of plastic drawers crammed full of underwear and stockings.

In the room next door Rego has created another scene; of a classroom, this time, a couple of children fighting on the floor and a desk with the seated figure’s back to us. This is a hated teacher from her own childhood, the artist explains, but the pupil has wreaked her revenge. We walk around the tableau to confront the teacher and find that her “face” is a hideous skull. On the walls are etchings — Rego’s preferred medium — some from her series on female genital mutilation. As we stand in front of one of an African girl, her poignant face shrouded in a white bride’s veil, a boat of star-scattered fabric in front of her, Rego says sadly: “You see, she is carrying the sky in her lap.”

The combination of storytelling — often around women’s bonds and bondage within the family— and the directness of her political comment is more suggestive of a literary tradition, such as the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Rego’s abortion pictures — her response to Portugal’s 1997 referendum on the legalisation of abortion — are among her toughest and most confronting to date. (The poll attracted only a 10 per cent turn-out and the vote went against; the decision was overturned only two years ago.) Her art has also been informed by her revolt against the twin oppressions of the Church — “the horrible Catholic Church”, as she puts it — and her memories of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years after Salazar came to power, where he remained until 1968. When Rego was 16 she was sent to complete her education at an English finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Her mother was appalled when she next saw her daughter. “ ‘What is this?’ she said, when I arrived at the station. ‘You look revolting!’ Quite right, I did,” Rego recalls. “I’d eat all the remains of people’s food from their plates. So she took me to Paris and forced me to eat only meat and no potatoes, and by the time Mum and Dad got back to Portugal I had lost the weight.”

Rego is a manic-depressive and there is mental illness on both sides of her family. Fortunately, none of her three grown-up children — Caroline (married to the sculptor Ron Mueck), Victoria and Nicholas — seems to have inherited the depressive gene. Her father, who was her favourite parent, would withdraw for long periods in silence. When her parents were away on business, the young Rego — an only child — spent alternate weeks, blissfully, with her beloved grandparents, and less blissfully with her mother’s aunt, who was catatonically depressed, barely stirring from her chair.

When I ask her whether her mother also suffered from depression, she roars: “Good God, no!” And then: “She loved shoes.” That’s quite an eccentric non sequitur. “Well, she did love shoes,” Rego says. “In the end we had to put her in a home with nurses. They used to dress her and she always complained when they put brown shoes with black clothes.”

The first psychiatrist Rego saw was Anthony Storr — also an eminent author — who suffered from depression himself. “He was very good and saw me for a while. But then he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m writing and I don’t have time’, so he sent me to somebody else, who I saw every week since 1973 until about five years ago, when he retired.” I wonder whether she thinks she may have suffered from some form of post-natal depression, as it was possibly years before her depression was recognised and treated. “Oh, good God, no. Having children is nothing. You open your legs and out they come.” And then, marvellously: “I mean, while I was having my daughter, I read Simone de Beauvoir all the way through it.”

She hates the word “creative”. “I’m not a literary person so I can’t explain to you why I don’t like the word. But doing art is disgusting, don’t you see? And creative is something to do with doing art.” You’ve lost me. Why is “doing art” disgusting? “I think it is.” But you’re an artist; that’s what you do! “Yairssss, that’s what I do. But really I do drawing. I like drawing best of all, like when you’re small and . . .” She starts humming as she used to do, a solitary child, sketching away for hours in her playroom.

When we were talking about Rego’s love of pornography — or erotica, more accurately — I asked her whether her discovery had made an impact on her relationship with Willing. (She said, rather primly, not.) When she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, he was already in his third year, although seven years her senior, and newly married. I had also asked her what she remembered most clearly about her time with him, and her reply was a succinct: “Bed.” Oh, was he good in that department? “ ‘Take off your knickers’ was the first thing he said to me.” That’s — ah — an interesting line. “Yes.” So did you? “I obeyed exactly. It was at a Slade party, and I was a virgin.” Crikey. “I know. It was very dramatic and dirty. There was blood everywhere,” she says through a fit of giggles.

Rego became pregnant while Willing was still with his wife — a ballet dancer and childhood sweetheart — and he married Rego in 1959, the year that their second daughter, Victoria, was born. The anxiety of returning pregnant and umarried to Portugal to deliver the news can be divined, decades later, in the rabbit paintings of 1982 — Pregnant Rabbit Telling her Parents and Rabbit and Weeping Cabbage. When Rego explained to her mother that the cabbage represented her, her mother apparently responded happily: “Why, you’ve made me look so young.”

There seem to have been some idyllic years — certainly in the photos from that time the handsome couple positively glow — when the Willings lived with their small children in Rego’s family rural retreat in Ericeira, although Victor Willing was more involved in helping to support his father-in-law’s ailing business than creating (dread word) his own art. But in 1966, when multiple sclerosis was first diagnosed, the struggles began, ending in his death in 1988.

Rego has a long-term companion — Anthony Rudolf, a writer and publisher — who is also one of her models: “He loves sitting; he’s very good.” His name comes up when we are talking about the dangers of love, and she says that their relationship is not like that. “We’re terribly good friends, which is much healthier than being in love. I don’t recommend being in love to anybody.” Why? “It’s much better to have a very good friend who takes you to the theatre. I don’t think being in love is a particularly nice thing.”

She clearly adored her husband. “He was immensely intellectual, he liked talking about philosophers and French poets and that. He was a bloody dish and I think that intellectuals, on the whole, are dishy. He was a dominant person but he also had a kind of delicate, feminine quality. Men were in love with him as well. He was incredibly charming. He really was.”

But Rego can also see that her love was “a form of worship, that came from a long way back, OK? [When he, unlike her, was the rising star in the art world.] I was a mere nothing with him, do you understand? So when he was diagnosed, we didn’t know what the hell it meant. And then it got worse and worse and I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all’. It was horrible and then your life becomes very restricted. But I was always lucky because I had Portuguese au pairs and things like that to help.”

Rego cannot say that she regrets having fallen in love but, anyhow, she doesn’t believe she had any choice in the matter. It was a coup de foudre; an irresistible force. “I did love him — very, very much — and I wouldn’t have known any other way to be because that’s how I was then. I was very young and I admired him enormously. But if you’re young and you fall in love madly, you lose a sense of yourself, as well. And it’s not terribly good for the work. But, yeah, well, it’s life, isn’t it? Life is that.”

We’ve talked for a long time; the photographer has arrived, and EastEnders beckons, one of Rego’s last addictions, now that a heart condition has restricted her alcohol consumption to a daily dose of two flutes of champagne. I check her age before I leave, and get it wrong by a year — “75!” she gasps, as though I’ve mugged her. “Four!” (I’m worried that I’ve hastened her departure) “74!” I’m all for accuracy but does the extra year really bother you so much, at this stage, I ask, intrigued. “Every hour matters, my dear. Every hour.”

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, opened yesterday; www.casadashistoriaspaularego.com

SMALL TALK

On appearances I do my best to look my best. I think that’s terribly important. When you come out of the hairdressers, you do feel better. I like dressing up and going shopping, and I like it very, very much.

On fascism Having been brought up in a Fascist country, you are naturally aware of the injustices and the poverty. Of course, my father kept me well informed as to what went on. So I was politically aware and furious at times. Most of my pictures are political.

On being Victor Willing’s model There’s a wonderful nude of me that disappeared in Belgium — somebody must have bought it, and it’s fabulous. But, you know, Vic was married.

On psychiatry What I wanted was a buzz so that I could get new ideas for pictures.

On Tracey Emin I gave her a tutorial once and it was a disaster. I think we talked about men a lot of the time. So she says.

BIOGRAPHY

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 to Maria, who had studied painting, and José, a wealthy electrical engineer. It was a privileged household, but the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril when Rego was 3 after incipient tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Art and love Her talents developed at an Anglican English school in Portugal. At the Slade in London, where she won prizes, she fell in love with the painter Victor Willing. At 20 she became pregnant with his child and returned to Portugal. He later left his wife to marry her.

Politicians

Mikhail Gorbachev: the man who changed the world

The Times September 5, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Mikhail Gorbachev is still a man who strides the global stage – and maintains a keen interest in domestic politics. He talks to Ginny Dougary about power, presidents, Putin and life after Raisa

mikhail gorbachev
Photo: Graham Wood

Mikhail Gorbachev may be pushing 80 but when he talks, people still listen, particularly (or, perhaps, exclusively) outside his own country, and that includes the 44th president of the United States. The first and last President of the former Soviet Union is telling me about his meeting with Barack Obama, during the latter’s extended honeymoon period, not so long ago, when he said: “‘I congratulate you because two months after the election your popularity was growing and your popularity is still growing.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Just you wait, it’ll go down.’” A gusty blast of a laugh. “And I liked him saying that.”

The man who was determined to modernise the USSR through glasnost and perestroika (the last time Russian words tripped off the tongue), which led to its collapse and transformed the world beyond, is now greatly in demand as a speaker in the United States. He remembers one particular lecture, three years ago during the Bush administration, when he was faced with the following question: “What would you recommend for America now that we are in a very difficult situation?” “I said, ‘Well, to give advice to other countries, particularly to Americans, would be wrong. It’s for you to sort out what you need to do.’ But nevertheless, they said, ‘What’s your advice?’

“And I said, ‘When we were putting an end to the Cold War, we said that the world needs to rethink old problems. We need to understand where we are. We need to start thinking about the fact that half the population of the world lives on one or two dollars a day. Sixty per cent of the ecosystems have been broken. The atmosphere has been polluted. Oceans and rivers have been polluted. If we just leave it as it is, if we just continue down this path, then this will end very badly. We were saying that every country needs to change.’

“I said to those Americans who were asking my advice, ‘You had this euphoria of victory, of the West winning the Cold War. You thought that you did not need any changes because everything was going so well for the West. But after the euphoria will come disappointment and you’re already seeing that it was a mistake to glory in that victory. So if you insist on me giving advice, I will certainly not give you a kind of menu or a timetable for change, but I do believe that what America needs is its own perestroika.’”

So are you saying that Obama is the new you? “Let me finish. Both me and my translator [Pavel Palazchenko, who has worked with Gorbachev for years, and attended the US-Soviet summit talks that led to the end of the Cold War] were amazed when that huge audience, about 10,000 people, gave me a standing ovation and I said to my translator, ‘There is something happening in America. Change will come to America.’ And the most important thing is that Obama identified that need for change. It’s the challenge that he felt and I really give him a lot of credit for that. I like him also because he’s very intelligent and very democratically minded – which, of course, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have firmness, because he does. He also has the will.”

Gorbachev may be our favourite Russian export but our desire to transform him into a cuddly international treasure – how stern can a man be, one might think, who tolerates his universal nickname “Gorby”? – are wide of the mark. He talks in a series of speeches, brooking no interruptions, which means our interview is peppered with impatient slap-downs: “I have not yet finished,” and “Let me say something first and then I’ll reply.”

It’s hard to know whether it is Gorbachev or his interpreter who is responsible for the occasional brusqueness of tone. At one point, when I am saying that if he wants to criticise the British as well as the Americans, go ahead, I have broad shoulders, his answer sounds quite rude: “So what? I’m sure you would find things to say to Russia so I am very frank to you…”

I ask him what has been his proudest moment and he says, “Pride is not really my feeling,” and then goes on at such length, taking in what seems to be the whole history of the 20th century, that I must have conveyed my feeling of despair. (Burying my head in my hands may have been the giveaway.) What is so frustrating is that, of all the notable figures I have interviewed, Gorbachev is the one who has done most to change the map of the world. I have so many questions but only a scant hour in which to put them. An attempt to sway him by saying he is a historical figure fails – “Don’t consign me to history” – but it does make him smile. Living history, I mean. “OK, if it’s living history, I accept that.” Later, he says: “You know, Chekhov said that one has to speak very briefly but…” You are, perhaps, more like Tolstoy, is my attempt at a Russian joke, which falls flat.

What is startling, from someone whose name is synonymous with attempting to effect far-reaching change in his own country, and who is still outspoken (although not enough for some) about its failings under Medvedev and Putin, is how angry Gorbachev feels about outsiders’ criticism. “The British, the Americans want us to be like them,” he says. “First of all, that shouldn’t be the demand, I guess, we never demanded others be like us. There should be competition and exchanges between different countries, but there are certainly certain universal values and that is freedom and democracy. We still have a way to go towards implementing those values and we can be quite critical in our own country about many things.

“We are seeing ourselves that there is still a lot to be done by us to achieve democracy. And so I say to Americans: ‘You want us to be like you but I can tell you, it took you 200 years to build your democracy yet you want us to do the same thing in 200 days.’ And I say, ‘Well, I know we are more talented than you are, but not as much as that.’ And they understand, they react to this.”

He says that Russians continue to be misunderstood, maybe wilfully so. “My first book as General Secretary was called Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, and its first sentence was, ‘We want to be understood.’ Even now, we want to be understood. And there are quite a few people for whom Russia is a hindrance, a problem, which is crazy.”

Can you be more specific? “Let me give you some facts because you may think it’s just words. During Yeltsin’s time, when he abandoned the evolutionary path of reform and used cowboy methods, shock therapy that ruined the country’s economy… Many people lost their jobs, and many people were not paid their wages or salary for months, sometimes years. During this time we had all those delegations of visitors coming to Russia and everyone applauded Yeltsin. I was watching this and I thought, ‘Well, how can that be?’ And I finally concluded that it was a kind of political activism at that time on the part of the people who actually enjoyed the fact that Russia was down.

“But you cannot put Russia down on its knees” – a thump on the table – “and hold it there because Russia will ultimately pull out. And it was that kind of attitude of the West towards Russia in the Nineties that changed the attitude of many Russians. The euphoria in favour of Europe and America disappeared when people saw that attitude, and it ruined the trust that existed. I think that was the most important thing.”

In late 1992, I travelled through Russia with a British businessman who had lost his own empire in controversial circumstances and was attempting to restore his millions in the new frontier. What was most striking was the sense of a country in transition, hungry to embrace change and enjoy the free-market benefits speculative Westerners seemed eager to offer – naturally, since there were profits to be made.

One of the business meetings took place in Brezhnev’s old shooting lodge, and in the guest book was an inscription in a babyish, perhaps drunken, scrawl to the host: “Thank you very much. You are a good man. This is me. Yeltsin. November 1991.” (The year he was elected President.) In 1993, a year after my trip, Yeltsin was impeached after relations between the President and parliament had collapsed. There was a ten-day conflict with the deadliest street fights in Moscow since 1917. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Yeltsin offered a surprise resignation and announced Putin as his successor.

Gorbachev initially supported Putin, and still does apparently (he backed Russia’s role in last year’s war with Georgia, for instance), but this has not stopped his candid criticism at various points. In 2005, Pravda reported him commenting on a controversial reform (abolishing communist-era entitlements to benefits) that enraged pensioners: “Law-makers did not think about people, when they were discussing the law. Public organisations, science – everything has been left aside. In my opinion, such an approach to elderly people can evoke only indignation for normal people.”

Yet in 2007, he endorsed Putin as President in the parliamentary elections: “It is a fact that within Russia, Putin is supported by up to 80 per cent of the population. [When Gorbachev last ran for President in 1996, he won only 0.5 per cent of the vote.] For me that is a more persuasive argument as I live in Russia. He has brought stabilisation to Russia. Not everyone would have been able to cope with the kind of legacy that he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.”

This was the year that Gordon Brown expelled four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the man suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko – the former KGB officer who had accused the Russian secret services of staging various terrorism acts in order to bring Putin to power. The Russian foreign ministry described the action as “immoral” and “provocative”. Brown said he wouldn’t allow “lawlessness” to take a grip in London. It was the first time in 11 years that Russian officials had been thrown out of Britain and marked the biggest chill in relations since the end of the Cold War. Lugovoy, a businessman and politician who has always denied any involvement in the murder, remains in Russia where he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist, was shot dead in the lift of her apartment block. She had made her name reporting from Chechnya, and was a well-known critic of the conflict and Putin’s role in it. In January this year, her lawyer was assassinated. No one has been convicted of either murder.

Earlier this year, in a stinging rebuke, Gorbachev denounced Putin and his United Russia Party as “the party of bureaucrats and the worst version of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”. But why was he not more damning of Putin two years earlier? Was he, perhaps, fearful of what might happen to him or his family?

“Why should I be afraid? No. I can say that I understand how difficult things are for the President because I was President myself. I was in his shoes, in his skin and therefore I understand the situation better. And that’s why I supported Putin and still support him. On the other hand, on certain issues, I speak out very openly and directly. For example, I’ve been saying for some time that the election system needs to be changed. I have also been saying that there’s been a lot of talk about fighting corruption but there is no real fight against corruption.

“There are things for which the government should be criticised because we have seen these terrible tragedies when journalists have been killed, so we are entitled to speak openly and recently, yes, indeed, we have been speaking very strongly to the Government. Sometimes I feel that the Government itself is pained to understand that it cannot guarantee people’s safety and security. Many crimes of this kind have not been solved, and I have been saying that it is wrong that the killers have not been found. And many other people have been saying critical things as well.”

But nothing happens. “I wouldn’t say nothing – but it is certainly true that some of the highest profile crimes have not been solved. And I say that I doubt that everything possible has been done to solve those crimes.”

Change begins with ideas, he says, which are initially heresies: “What about Jesus Christ? I say that he was a precursor of idealists; a precursor of socialists.” Does he believe in Christianity? “As an idea, yes. The ideals of communism are similar to the ideals of Christianity.” He calls himself a social democrat who is “still committed to the ideas of socialism”.

What is curious is that in all Gorbachev’s speechifying, he neglects to take the opportunity to make one for his own party – the Independent Democratic Party of Russia – founded by himself and his billionaire friend, Alexander Lebedev (the new owner of London’s Evening Standard), in late September last year. The two Russians, between them, own 49 per cent of Novaya Gazeta, the independent (read anti-Putin) newspaper which employed the late Politkovskaya, one of four of the paper’s investigative journalists who have been killed. (Lebedev has offered $1 million – £600,000 – for information which would lead to the conviction of her assassins.) According to reports, the party had planned to register this summer and hold its founding congress this month.

Gorbachev attacks what he calls “the winners’ complex… the disease of the ruling classes, particularly the beneficiaries of the previous system, who I think are the most responsible for the global economic crisis”. At the summit in Paris marking the end of the Cold War, “We said that Europe should re-emphasise such issues as fighting poverty, such as the environment. We said that society should not be based on hyper-consumption. You know, all those yachts of rich people that fill the seas and the bays…”

Oligarchs? “Naturally,” he laughs. “They became so rich because they violated certain norms of morality and certain values. They often stopped at nothing and that’s why many of them find themselves in jail.”

His friend Lebedev, a former KGB spy who fell in love with London on a posting to the Russian Embassy, where he worked undercover until 1992, is certainly wealthy and influential enough to qualify as an oligarch. He bought the National Reserve Bank, which became one of the largest banks in Russia, and his company owns a third of Aeroflot. His estimated fortune (pre-crash) was $3.1 billion (£1.8 billion) and he maintains that it’s still around $2.5 billion (£1.5 billion). He is scathing about his fellow Russian oligarchs, saying: “They don’t read books. They don’t go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht.” (Something, he is proud to say, he has never owned.)

What Lebedev certainly knows how to do well is throw a swell party. He and his almost theatrically handsome 28-year-old London-based son, Evgeny, run the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation named after Gorbachev’s wife who died of leukaemia in 1999. The charity was set up in Britain in 2006 and has since raised almost £4 million to support children with cancer. In 2008, the foundation – as part of a decision to extend its programme beyond Russia – formed an agreement with Marie Curie Cancer Care in the UK.

Every year, the Lebedevs throw a fundraising gala with a decidedly A* guest list. The first bash was at Althorp House, Earl Spencer’s family pile. This year’s do was at Lebedev’s home, Stud House – where Lord Byron once lived – in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

The fourth annual Russian Midsummer Fantasy gala is an extravaganza of positively Tsarist splendour. The women all seem to be toweringly tall and stick-thin, and although Sophie Dahl (with fiancé Jamie Cullum) and Yasmin Le Bon attend, not all of them are supermodels. Sarah Brown and Tina Brown are there, David Walliams, Alex James, J. K. Rowling, David Hockney, Boris Johnson and Evening Standard editor Geordie Greig. It is one of Vanessa Redgrave’s first public appearances after the tragic death of her daughter, Natasha, but then her younger daughter, Joely, 44, is currently dating Evgeny Lebedev. Away from the house and the exotic Thirties spiegeltent, Ukrainian synchronised swimmers in retro red swimsuits and petal caps perform complicated patterns for hours in a natural pond, while deer graze in the grounds beyond.

Gorbachev, the guest of honour, seems totally at ease in this wham-glam company, walking slightly stiffly, supported by his pretty granddaughter, Anastasia. He smiles when we meet again and delights in greeting me, on more than one occasion, as his “torturer”. My American friend, a big Gorby fan, says that he has the charmer’s knack of making you feel totally special, if only for a few brief moments.

We don’t stay for the dinner (it costs £15,000 a table), but read about it in the social columns afterwards: J. K. Rowling and Peter Kay bopping, while DJ Mark Ronson spins; Chrissie Hynde’s acoustic set; Cossacks hoofing it to Run DMC, and the amusing detail that among the items in the silent auction is the Louis Vuitton bag “as modelled by Gorbachev” in that famous advertising campaign. The former Soviet leader is impervious to suggestions that the ads may have cheapened his legacy, pointing out that he also appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial because his foundation needed money, and would welcome more work in that line. The surprise highlight of the evening was Gorbachev taking to the stage to perform a song he used to sing to his late wife, dedicating it to Raisa on the tenth anniversary of her death.

A few days earlier, in the conference room of a discreetly luxurious West End hotel, where we conducted the interview, I had asked Gorbachev if he found his bereavement any easier to cope with as the years went by. “Well, time, of course, is doing its work… But still this was the most difficult, the hardest thing in my life and particularly because Raisa’s death came so unexpectedly.

“When a wife whom one loves so much passes away, this is irreplaceable. But I’m not totally lonely. I still have a daughter and two granddaughters and now a great-granddaughter, Sasha, so…” Perhaps it is the thought of being such a substantial paterfamilias that makes him laugh so violently.

Would Raisa have wanted him to marry again? He tells a story which is not immediately to the point, but charming nonetheless. “She liked that little joke about the different ages of a woman. You know, there is a little girl, a young girl, a young lady, a young woman… a young woman, a young woman… and then the old woman is dead.

“So when she would say, ‘I don’t want to be an old woman,’ I would say, ‘You will never be an old woman.’ She was so lively; her character was so lively. She had something in her of the nature of a princess. A princess from the countryside.” A long pause. “Sometimes it’s better to speak without thinking. So of course what happened was irreparable, and I have a feeling of guilt for her.”

It haunts you? “There is still some of that feeling because it was the drama of perestroika and of our life then… That was something ultimately that she was not able to bear. She was a very vulnerable person.”

When I express surprise, he corrects himself: “She was strong but she had to endure a great deal.” The coup in 1991, when hardliners placed Gorbachev and his family under house arrest in their dasha in Crimea, must have been horribly traumatic. As were the events which led to his forced resignation on Christmas Day, followed by the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union the next day.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to die,’ and then, ‘You know, of the two of us, it would be better if I die first.’ She said, ‘You’d marry,’ and I said, ‘How can you talk to me like this!’” More laughter. “‘What’s on your mind?’ And she said, ‘Well, I just mention it.’ And when I recall that, I feel that perhaps she had a premonition.”

When Raisa was in hospital, he continues, she received thousands of letters from people, “and that was a great consolation to her. But she said something that I have included in the book I am writing now, ‘Do I have to die in order for people to believe me?’”

What did she mean by that? “She meant that quite a few people were not happy about her and had been very critical of her and the position she took because she was different. I had always said to her, right from the beginning, ‘You should behave as yourself. Just as yourself.’” When I press him to explain more fully, Gorbachev says: “For that, you will have to read my book.”

When we started the interview, Gorbachev had remarked – almost as though it surprised himself – that he is older now than Brezhnev was when he died. So does he feel his age? “Yes, yes,” he sighs. And yet he continues to submit himself, aged 78, to a punishing schedule, flying around the globe, on his mission to right the wrongs of the world. “One feels the age and, yes, sometimes one doesn’t feel too well… The body actually ages faster than the soul.” How about the mind? “I think I’m in good shape there, no problems with that.”

It’s interesting that, as an atheist, he believes in the concept of a soul: “Only 7 per cent of the human being has been studied by science. I think it has been medically established that there is a soul, but this is something that science still doesn’t understand.”

I ask whether he also believes, in that case, that he is a spiritual person, and Palazchenko’s translation takes so long that I comment on it. “Spiritual has a different meaning in Russian,” he says. “So I had to explain [to Gorbachev] what you meant by ‘spiritual’.”

The Gorbachevs met when they were fellow students at Moscow State University – Raisa was studying philosophy; Mikhail, law. His family were peasants, working the land in the village of Privolnoye in the south of the Russian republic. He helped his father operate a combine harvester and in his CV boasts: “I am particularly proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine instantly, just by the sound of it.” It was at university that he joined the Communist Party and, soon after, started his rise through its ranks. In 1985, he was elected General Secretary of the Party Central Committee, the top job, and began the process of democratisation.

When he talks about the couple’s early days together, it becomes clear both how unusual Raisa was and also the part she played – which was news to me – in shaping her husband’s desire for reform. “Let me tell you the history [of the rise of charity initiatives in Russia]. When Raisa first got involved in this, it was still in Soviet times. She visited a cancer section of a hospital for children, and young mothers rushed to her, some begged at her feet, and she came home really shocked. She was a very impressionable person and she said, ‘What can I do? I am a teacher, a professor, and I know very little about this.’ So she said, ‘You must help me. We cannot leave such pain and such pleas without an answer.’ And I think this is a test, by the way, of the spirituality that you asked about.

“If a person is indifferent to the problems of his fellow people, to children, to older people, then there is definitely a flaw in that person’s spirituality. But let’s not make this a seminar in sophistry. When Raisa took this initiative, to get involved in charity, to support hospitals and to support some cultural projects, the initial reaction in our society was that people didn’t understand. Now people understand that the state [alone cannot provide all the help] and that we need to help poorer families, and it is actually welcomed when such help is given.”

Gorbachev says that even though Stalin had been dead for a long time when he came to power, “much of the atmosphere that Stalin created still existed and people were afraid of talking to the Government”. Glasnost (transparency) came first, then perestroika (restructuring). “We said very directly, ‘Our people are free to speak their minds, free to write, free to assemble and discuss.’ We said, ‘This is the people’s right, this is in the constitution and this will be fulfilled.’ And what glasnost meant was that the entire society was set in motion. I really wanted to make people feel that they can actually achieve something, and they can get the Government’s attention – and as a result of protests [about pollution], we closed down more than 1,000 factories.”

What I want him to explain is what made him so unique. Where did his vision come from, and what gave him the strength of character to act on and implement it? But Gorbachev is unable to shed any light, other than to say that even as a young boy, he was always a leader, and that his greatest influences were his maternal grandfather (a veteran communist who narrowly escaped Stalin’s death squad when he was accused of Trotskyism), his father and, above all, Russian literature.

I had heard that Russians tend to be hyper-critical of the British, not helped by the Brown-Putin stand-off. Is that so? “I think in our society there is still the view that Britain is an open country and the land of opportunity. So I wouldn’t say that Russians rush to judgment about Britain. But you know what Bismarck once said, ‘It takes time for Russians to saddle their horses, but when they do, they move very fast.’”

He has been a visitor here, he says, maybe 20 or 30 times over the years. So which British Prime Minister has he most admired? “Well, in terms of the outcome of the results, certainly it was Margaret Thatcher. [Who, famously, said she liked him, adding: “We can do business together.”] But I also have a very high opinion of Tony Blair.”

And Gordon Brown? “I like him very much. He is very intelligent, and it seems to me that he was the person who actually alerted the world to the financial problems. But that’s not all. You know, he acts in a certain environment… There is something up above that creates that environment and in that environment, he has to implement his plans and his strategies.”

What on earth does that mean, “something up above”? Gorbachev laughs: “I’m speaking about this crisis. I think that one day we will understand what are the sources of the crisis that has now engulfed the whole world.”

So one last question. Why does he feel that David Cameron is not ready to be Prime Minister? “I didn’t say that. See, that happens. Someone quoted me even though I didn’t say that.” Well, let me ask the question and you can respond. What does he think? “No, the interview is over,” and Gorbachev and his interpreter think this is the best joke of all.

This November, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down, the most potent symbol of the collapse of communism. Gorbachev has always said that his aim had been to fix the regime, not to be the instrument of its downfall. “I am a resolute opponent of the break-up of the Union. Personally, as a politician, I lost,” he has said. “But the idea that I conveyed and the project that I carried out, it played a huge role in the world and the country.”

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in allowing the mostly peaceful revolutions that took place across the Eastern Bloc. His fellow Russians were not so impressed, summed up by the view of one minister: “We must remember this certainly was not the prize for economics.” Another view, from his supporter Lebedev is that: “He gave our people freedom but we just can’t learn how to use it.”

I would have liked to ask Gorbachev whether he felt there was something inherently tragic in the dramatic success of his democratisation leading to the destruction of the Union, which he also believed in passionately, but it seemed too complicated to put to him via his interpreter.

Perhaps he answered it, in any case, without knowing the question. I had asked him whether he considered that he had a romantic soul. He laughed again, something he did a lot, considering that I was his torturer. “I have not said that about myself, but it is a view that is common in Russia, where they call me ‘the Last Romantic’. There, they call me an idealist. And my reply is that it is the idealists who move the world.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6816872.ece
http://www.ginnydougary.co.uk

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Endometriosis, tapeworm, and an on-off love affair — the bad girl of Brit Art says she has had a tough time, but is now bouncing back

Emin

Tracey Emin is serene. That is not a sentence that comes naturally. She has emerged from her year of living dangerously — nothing to do with wild antics and everything to do with ill health — purged of both her demons and a giant, Gothic-sounding tapeworm.

We meet in Spitalfields, East London, where Emin lives and works. She was a little bit late for our interview and so I had a chance to potter around her studio. This is where her embroidery and appliqué pieces are created and the room resembles a well-stocked children’s day centre. There is a row of orange washing baskets brimming with brightly coloured fabric and a wall of plastic boxes filled with all manner of things, neatly labelled: “Bits and bobs”, “Postcards and diaries” and “Voodoo dolls”.

At the far end of the room is a trio of antique French chairs and a circular table, a glass top protecting an Emin oeuvre/tablecloth of appliquéd letters of the alphabet, and a ridiculously large bean bag on which Emin and her team of seamstresses sprawl, a (literally) laid-back sewing bee, to protect their spines and necks while they work.

A glass door opens on to a small courtyard just large enough to contain a wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs. In the corner, next to several bicycles, is an impressively full rack of wine bottles which, on closer inspection, all bear the same label: Château de Tracy (sic).

The chatelaine arrives, wet hair, gleaming tan, shorts and a fitted pale-blue mannish shirt, revealing a glimpse of a cerise balcony Agent Provocateur bra. An assistant has brought a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a quaint flower-motif cup and saucer, and La Trace decides that she will risk the caffeine — she has become, perforce, a non-wheat, non-dairy purist — to join me in a cuppa as we sit outside.

In her street there are two blue plaques dedicated to Miriam Moses, the first woman mayor of Stepney, and Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer of Spitalfields Silks. There will, surely, be a third plaque celebrating a woman after Emin has passed on. “Do you think I’m blue plaqueable?” she asks. Well, yes, actually.

In 2007 she was not only chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale (the second woman to have a solo show, after Rachel Whiteread, ten years earlier) but also joined the hallowed ranks of David Hockney, Peter Blake and Anthony Caro when she was made a Royal Academician. She is a patron of the Terence Higgins Trust, regularly donates work for charities such as the Elton John Aids Foundation, and founded her own library for schoolchildren in Uganda last year. Senior politicians on both sides are competing for her support. Forget the blue plaque, can a damehood be far behind?

Emin had been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party until her recent defection, when she voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London: “I knew that Boris would make a really good mayor. He’s dynamic, he’s interesting, he’s educated, he likes partying, he likes the creative arts … Ken should have been the ideal Mayor of London, because he loves it, but somehow he sold out, and that’s what disappointed me.” (Emin was a vociferous opponent of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for high-rise development, particularly in her own historic neighbourhood.) Gordon Brown, she says, “was fantastic about the Titians. He didn’t muck around with that, he just understood that it was important that those paintings remain here. So obviously he understands that art is important but it doesn’t mean to say that his Cabinet understands that.

“I think Sarah Brown is very interested in the arts, too. In fact, I wish she was Prime Minister!”

Emin was particularly unimpressed by the former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham: “He doesn’t know anything about art. I went to 11 Downing Street and Burnham made a speech and I said, ‘You can’t give us a glass of red wine and a patronising speech like that and think that everything’s gonna be all right! What are you going to give us? Tax breaks? Are you going to change the law for people donating works? Tell me what you are going to do!’ But he didn’t have a clue.”

This was in marked contrast, she says, to the arts dinner hosted by the Tories in the spring. What was that like? “Brilliant,” she beams, “because there were people like me who don’t vote Tory who were actually being listened to.”

A journalist recently asked her what she thought of David Cameron, to which she replied: “What do you mean? Do I fancy him? Which I thought was really funny.” (We assume, then, that the answer is “No”.) The Tories, it seems, shouldn’t count on Emin joining. “I’m too independent,” she says. “But in some countries people are having their hands cut off because they want to vote, so you do have to choose.”

We last met five years ago in Istanbul, where Emin had a show supported by the British Council, and I notice that she is still wearing the clunky gold necklace that her half-brother, George, gave her, with her grandmother’s wedding ring and the ring that Emin would give her daughter if she had one (now, at 46, she admits, unlikely): “I like the invisible worlds coming together around my neck.”

Her late grandmother, May Dodge, was like a surrogate mother since Emin’s own mother — a single parent after Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot husband, took off — was often absent working various jobs to support Tracey and her twin brother.

Later, crippled by arthritis, her grandmother became bedridden and Emin would visit her in Margate where they would lie on the bed together holding hands — or crocheting — and listen to the radio.

“My nan really liked one particular DJ on Radio Kent. So I went to the trouble to get a photo of him and get him to sign it and of course as soon as I gave her the photo she said: ‘I never thought he’d look like that. That’s not at all what I imagined.’ So that was the end of that.”

I had read that Emin never spent Christmas with her family and wondered why: “Because I’ve got my own house, my own life, and I left home when I was 15, you know. That answers your question.” Well, not really.

Christmas, it transpires, was the most unhappy time for her mother and the children. “We’d be sitting on our own waiting for our Mum to come home because she was always working like the clappers and we were incredibly poor. One Christmas the Salvation Army had to come and give us presents.

“So I always dread it. When Boxing Day comes I think, ‘Yes! I did it again. I managed to get through another Christmas and eat baked beans on toast. Fantastic!’ What’s funny is that I’ve started to invite people round on Christmas Eve. You’d think that everyone would say ‘No’ but it’s weird, from Bianca Jagger to Vivienne [Westwood], a fantastic, eclectic collection of people come and we all go to church for Midnight Mass, and then it’s back to my house, where I’ve got all the fires burning and made soup, and it’s really cosy and nice.”

One year, however, it wasn’t so nice. Her guests were about to arrive when Emin developed the most appalling stomach pains. A few people noted that she wasn’t drinking but their hostess kept on smiling, collapsed the next day and was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had endometriosis: “I couldn’t walk because of the terrible pain in my hip from all the swelling.”

This was on the back of tapeworm saga, which is a fascinating tale but not for the fainthearted. Her condition was eventually detected when she was detoxing at an Austrian clinic and the worm was dispatched with the aid of massive and prolonged doses of antibiotics.

During the period that the tapeworm took residency, Emin’s skin deteriorated, her hair fell out and she was permanently bloated. Her parasite also had a sweet tooth, and she found herself — inexplicably — eating pots and pots of jam. When she was in Australia, Emin spent four hours exercising every day in an attempt to get rid of her belly, unaware that it was caused by her tapeworm. That failed, so she gave up drinking for eight months. My God! “Yes, it was horrible. It made me much more quiet and subdued because I was so miserable.”

As soon as the worm was expelled, Emin, being Emin, went out partying every night: “I was on such a high, I was so happy — ‘worm free’,” she sings out to the tune of Born Free. And then — bang — she developed a quadruple whammy of lung, kidney, vaginal and urinary tract infections and was back in hospital. All in all her life was subsumed by illness for six months. As she says, “I had a bit of a year of it last year”.

When we were in Istanbul, Emin talked mysteriously about a man she referred to as her “Roman husband”. “Well, it didn’t work out because he’s gay,” she says, laughing her head off. For the past three and a half years she has been in a relationship with a Scottish portrait photographer, called Scott, whom she met at her favourite pub, the Golden Heart. Scott is one of the reasons why she is so happy, these days, along with her newfound respectability. Last year, however, when Emin took off travelling for four months, her boyfriend went off with someone else.

“He just presumed, ‘Well, if you want to go travelling around the world, you know, you’re obviously not interested in me.’ Which is a fair point.

“That’s what’s persuaded me to buy a place in France. So we’ve got a place together because he lives in Scotland.” (Where his five-year-old son lives with his mother. ) How does that work? “It suits me when I’m busy and it really doesn’t suit me when I’m not. When I haven’t seen him for a long time and he’s really missed me and comes to me, I’m always a bit kind of nonchalant at first — ‘You’re here, are you? Oh . . .’ But it doesn’t take long because it’s a good relationship.”

In the future she is hoping to spend most weekends in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. Her house, which is “like a Moroccan castle”, is on 32 acres of land, with views of the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Our Trace is a keen gardener and will be tackling the greenhouses next year. The property also has vines, which have been neglected, but Emin intends to bring them back to life.

Her first crate of Château de Tracy was a gift from her friend, the Belgravia art dealer Ivor Braka. It’s a delicious Pouilly-Fumé but Emin can, perhaps, do even better. Except that next time, as Emin — a notoriously bad speller — points out, it will be Château de Tracey with an “e”.

* * *

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin has just been published by Rizzoli at £40. To buy it for £36, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134

My perfect weekend

Town or country?

City.

Friend or lover?

Lover.

Owl or lark?

I’m more of a lark than I am an owl, but owls are really cute and fluffy.

Rembrandt or Rothko?

Rothko.

Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

Theatre. I last saw an art play at the Victoria Miro gallery in North London.

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

Redbush tea, without milk. I hardly every drink caffeine and never drink coffee.

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .

My telephone. It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week

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