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Goldie’s Bittersweet Proms Symphony

The Times July 18, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Raised amid violence, fostered at the age of 3, addicted to cocaine… Goldie has had his fair share of demons. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that, in his forties, the drum’n’bass pioneer enthralled the nation as he took up the baton in Maestro, the television conducting competition. As he prepares to unveil his first classical composition at the Proms, he talks to Ginny Dougary

goldie
Photo: Jude Edginton

Goldie is the very model of concentration, his wide topaz eyes taking everything in. There’s a massive thunderclap of drums rolling, followed by a spooky whispering, hissing sound from the 70-odd sopranos and altos of the London Philharmonic Choir, the basses come in, quietly at first, their voices gradually swelling to another crescendo, a banging of a metal sheet, the BBC Concert Orchestra builds as one, as the whole choir sings out in full majestic force… and then silence, followed by applause.

The drum’n’bass pioneer, who experienced the harshest start in life, has just heard his first orchestral piece, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Proms. Sine Tempore (Without Time) – only seven minutes, but each one a thrill – is his response to the concert’s theme, evolution; not one big bang but a series of explosions heralding the birth and growth of new life. Just before the orchestra started up, he and his Maestro mentor, Ivor Setterfield, gave each other a quick hug. It was hard to tell from their expressions which of the two men was more excited – and apprehensive.

Straight after the performance – which is the first time the work has been heard, live, in its entirety – the team is back to work, honing and polishing and adjusting. Goldie is hands-on; no question of him not knowing what he wants, as he stands over the huge pages of the score (converted from his own musical “map”). The tempo isn’t quite right for him, so he sings out the notes to illustrate where he wants them to fall. Setterfield jumps in and asks for more “pungency” in the sound, and “protein” from the basses. “It should be looser, but not sloppy,” he says, and refers them to Goldie’s instruction that the sound needs to be “creamy”. There’s a titter at that but not a disrespectful one.

The rehearsal is taking place in Henry Wood Hall, a Grade II-listed converted church, with handsome columns and vaulted windows, which has been used as a recording space by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel and André Previn. Goldie has joined their ranks because of his commission on the back of his appearance in Maestro, last year’s hit TV series, where eight celebrities competed for the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in the Park. Comedian Sue Perkins won, but Goldie – the runner-up – was the undisputed star of the show.

We had met a couple of weeks earlier at his home in Bovingdon, near Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire. He opens the door, flashing his gold-toothed grin and shaking my hand. I’m a bit early so he tells me to make myself at home while his own Man Friday – a role which, until recently, was performed by his kid stepbrother, Stuart, 12 years his junior – fixes him an old-fashioned Mothers Pride sandwich.

It’s a perfectly comfortable home but no rock-star mansion. There’s a slight bachelor-pad feel, with lots of stuff lying around, including a Ducati motorbike (a gift from Val Kilmer) as a sort of sculpture on wheels. The walls are taken up with Goldie’s art – canvases of collages and a large work which looks like a psychedelic reading of a heart-monitoring screen. We sit at a substantial wooden table, at one end of the living room, and Goldie kicks off with a history of the drum’n’bass movement which, frankly, loses me completely.

What is clear is that he doesn’t suffer an iota of self-doubt on this front – “I became the picture boy of the Nineties in terms of the PR machine… that I didn’t employ… because I didn’t need one,” he says. Now 43, he is also knowing enough to be aware that part of his appeal, notwithstanding his talent, was that he had street cred, in spades.

We have barely touched on this, when he’s into the nitty-gritty: “People used to ask me, ‘How can you make music that’s so uncompromising and wear your heart on your sleeve, and bare your soul to the general public?’ and I’m like, ‘When you’re in a children’s home with 25 kids and you’ve gone from foster parent to foster parent, and all these different things, do you think that sitting in a roomful of critics is really gonna make a chink in my armour?’”

This is followed by another challenging stream of consciousness about Goldie’s spirituality, delivered with enthusiasm in his flat Brummie accent, while he endeavours to explain (actually, I’m not sure that he’s all that concerned about my receptivity) how he has exchanged that armour for a more translucent way of being.

He stops off, en route, with the memory of a very old astrologer who lived in a flat above Waitrose in Finchley Road – introduced by his then girlfriend, Björk, a major influence on him – who warned that he was going to burn himself out: “You are burning all the time and you cannot stop giving.” Thence the parallels between him and jellyfish: “If you see them in their environment, not washed up on to a shore, and you think about how ghost-like and beautiful they look, how they reach out with all these different tentacles, all electrifyingly dangerous and pulsating, but overall they just have a spiritual feeling of wanting to be left alone in this ocean… to be able to absorb everything and not just see everything but be able to sense everything…”

You are saying that you are like that jellyfish? “In a funny way, I am a little bit. I think I’ve just learnt that I’ve had to keep the depth around me to survive. If Goldie came along and made Timeless, which he did…” (This was his 1995 album, which went into the mainstream charts at No 7, a first for drum’n’bass.) I stop him abruptly because what interests me is the way he has started to refer to himself in the third person. “My persona has been created by a boy wanting to create a protective shell around himself, but the boy has always been there. When you look at me… [he meshes his fingers together in front of his face, opening and closing them so that his features go in and out of focus]… Goldie’s here but underneath that façade of everything, there’s still this little boy underneath that you can sometimes get a glimpse of.”

When Goldie was that little boy, his name was Clifford Joseph Price and he lived in Wolverhampton with his older brother, Melvin, and their Scottish mother, who was finding it difficult to cope: “She was getting beaten by one boyfriend and my dad was flitting around England, working in foundries in Leeds, not turning up when he was supposed to, disappearing for days and days,” he explains.

He remembers playing on a three-wheeled trolley with his brother, rolling down a steep road called Coronation Street, when a woman approached them to say they had to go home. Miss O’Connor, his first social worker, was there smiling. She beckoned him into a car and drove him away to a children’s home, the first of young Cliffy’s many new homes. He was 3 at the time and didn’t understand why he’d been sent away. Miss O’Connor, he says, was very kind to him but was taken off his case for becoming too emotionally involved.

Goldie’s family history is one of those grim cycles of abuse, anger and violence that is passed on, like a poisonous mantle, from generation to generation. When I ask him what has become of Melvin, the brother who remained with their mother, he says: “He’s in the Midlands, not really doing anything… just waiting. Well, no, he’s a fitness fanatic. He’s shorter than all of us and I think he’s got a little man complex because he’s like a maniac with his body building.”

Does his brother have problems containing his anger? “I think that’s why he trains so much.” While Clifford was dealing with his own problems in care, he says Melvin was being “beaten like crazy” at home by his mother’s partner.

For most of his adult years, Goldie has been unable to forgive his mother for sending him away. The difference for him now is that he understands and – the really deep change – empathises with her. He corrects me, for instance, when I assume that she had a drink problem. “No, she didn’t,” he says firmly. “When I readdressed that, it was her boyfriends who had a drink problem. She was just a victim of that, where she would just say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna have to drink to get rid of this…’”

What was her upbringing? “Bad. Really bad. A father who beats and hits her, who beats all the kids. She was one of many children – 11 brothers and sisters, something like that – and she was the one that ran away. But then she fell in love with two black men at the same time because they both, you know, promised her the earth.”

How about his Jamaican father, what was he like? “Very, very charismatic. I went to see him in Miami many years ago [Goldie was making jewellery there, including his ‘grills’ (gold teeth), got involved in a cocaine cartel and later became addicted to the drug], and I was, like, ‘Do you know what? I used to think that my mum was the one here and, to tell you the truth, you’re the one that really washed your hands of all responsibility. And then you tried to blame it on a woman who you promised the earth to and you couldn’t deliver.’”

Who does Goldie think he is more like, his mother or his father? “I think my mother, more than I’ve ever felt.” How? “Just very sensitive and…” Is she a lovely person? “She is lovely.” Do you wish you could have rewritten her life for her? Goldie yawns. Is this boring you? “No, it’s just… emotional… It’s fine, but sometimes I think that if my mother hadn’t gone through what she’s gone through, then I would not be half the man that I am now.”

It was so odd that he yawned at that point, something he does again when a question hits a nerve. I ask him whether it’s some sort of reflexive reaction to me delving too deep.

“I think so,” he says. “I really was condescending sometimes towards her,” he continues. “And that was really terrible of me because when I think of what she’s gone through and when she comes down to stay some weekends, and I just see this woman who has been in and out of hospital with various cancers and things like that…

“But whatever she’s been through, she still has her sense of humour. I think that’s what’s kept her on her toes. When she’s with her grandkids, I can see her really enjoying it. More than she ever did. I always try to think to myself, well, you know, the Eskimos say there are 100 words for snow, and there are 100 different kinds of loves and I love her in my own way, which is very special to me.

“It’s only recently, because I never really knew, when I started to ask, ‘Mum? The music… where does it come from?’ And, you know, she’s a singer! Yeah, she used to sing in bars, and she had a beautiful voice but I almost dismissed it for some reason.”

He says that his brother, Stuart, to whom he is very close, helped him to see that the way he treated their mother was wrong. “He was always, like, ‘Come on, man, you really give Mum a hard time.’ And that’s why I wanted to do the Hoffman [an intensive therapy course which he credits for turning his life around] because I needed to address a lot of stuff.

“I felt so angry toward her. I couldn’t hold a conversation with her for longer than five minutes, it would be so f***ing painful…” Another yawn. “And I really do have that relationship now where I call her up out of the blue and… well, God forbid, you know… I just need to make the most of that.”

Part of what made Goldie so watchable in Maestro – apart from his sinewy grace and the electrifying way the music seemed to course through him – was a lurking edge of danger. There was an air of grave intensity about him, quite unlike the other contestants, in the way that he stared so intently at the judges – who were bowled over by his musicality – as they advised him how to improve his conducting skills. Only once did his anger threaten to flare up, when the sassy cellist, Zoe Martlew, tempered her praise by gently mocking his “flip-flapping” non-conducting hand, and recommended he use a baton.

I ask him why his response had been so bolshy – he had snapped back that the orchestra understood exactly what he required them to do. “I think it’s because she fancied me. You wanna talk about being Freudian?” I hadn’t actually but… “Yeah, probably.”

But your conducting did improve when you had the baton. Another slightly torturous response: “That was probably the best thing to happen because what she’s done is to tell me to contain the method used to get my being misunderstood across. So back to that again, aren’t we? Back to those issues of what I wanted. So I took it on board.”

I ask him why he had looked so aggravated. “Because I was being told to by a woman. I probably had problems with that where, you know, this button’s been pressed, now what do you do? Press this one, that one. No! Don’t press them, wait. OK, engage. I’m going through the real process of doing that. So answer then, instead of going, ‘Well, f*** you!’”

“But I’m thinking even though this is television, I’m really looking at the one-on-one help thing, and I don’t need a teacher to go, ‘Stand up, Price, let’s all laugh at you.’ Because I know women. I don’t care what anyone says, a guy wouldn’t have said it like that.”

It took Goldie two years to kick his cocaine addiction – at its height from 1996 to ’98, when he was dating the likes of Stella Tennant and Naomi Campbell, and he and Noel Gallagher would indulge in 20-hour snortathons – but he says that he was still left with “an anger that was overwhelmingly too powerful”. In fact, for him, cocaine acted as a mood suppressant rather than an agitator, “and when I stopped all these emotions came out”.

The therapy has helped him understand that he cannot go on punishing women for what happened to him as a child. “All those years of never being able to really settle down with a woman ’cos I never trusted them. What would happen is I would pull them in and I would let them love me and then I would just… get rid of them.”

His chief regret is the way he ended his year-long relationship with Björk – “the only one that was really the most fascinating woman. And I ended that situation because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to carry it through. I was very, very scared and I also felt that I hadn’t evolved enough. Why couldn’t I love this person who was all-encompassing, musical and everything? Why couldn’t I?

“She was a woman who had every guy at her feet, in a sense. I was the person who ended it and everybody was, like, ‘You’re mad! You’re crazy!’ After many months, I called her up and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry for what I put you through because I just felt I wasn’t ready. I felt that you could have been everything but I felt I had to move on…’”

He sounds so regretful that I ask if there’s no hope of a reconciliation, “Oh, I’m in love,” he beams. “I’m in love with a woman I’m very happy with, a lady called Mika.”

Before we get on to Mika – who, in the photograph he shows me, bears a marked resemblance to Björk around the eyes (Goldie is shocked when I say this and cannot see it at all) – there’s a lovely moment when he talks about Björk introducing him to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Polish composer Górecki’s response to the Holocaust.

“I was in Iceland, where it had been snowing for a week, and I was in this house, sitting on the windowsill looking out at the port which was covered in snow, listening to this symphony of sad songs and I never got so moved by a piece of music. It was terribly beautiful and terribly sad, and hopeful – and I wanted to do something in the same vein. That was why I made Mother [an hour-long track on SaturnzReturn, which looks pretty disturbing on a YouTube clip].”

When he heard the Górecki symphony with Björk, the words were in Polish and he didn’t know what they meant. It was only much later that he saw a DVD of the work performed in Auschwitz, with subtitles, and: “Do you know what the opening line is? ‘Mother.’ She’s actually singing about her mother. And it’s all to do with lamenting the mother but I didn’t know that when I wrote it.”

We talk about Mika, whom Goldie met some years ago on one of his lucrative DJing gigs in Shanghai. She’s a half-Japanese, half-Dutch-French-Canadian, who moved from her mother’s home in Montreal six months ago to be with him. They met at a dinner and Goldie was “fascinated by her. She just has this glow… She’s not into fame or any of that; she’s made up of different stuff, very much like a Buddhist. I asked her what she does [she works in the fashion industry] and she said, ‘I make lots of clothes that people don’t need.’ Do you know what I mean?”

They were apart for the next year and a half, while Mika stayed on in Shanghai, and wrote love letters to help fill the longing. More letters flowed between them when she moved back to Montreal and “the great thing about letters is when you read them, they’re like pockets of air in your mind, and you’re reminded of who we are,” he says.

Our interview covered so much more, from his failed marriage to Sonjia Ashby (the wedding appeared in Hello! with its fabled kiss of death; “It was like I got married almost to upset my mother”) to his regrets about his abandonment of his own four children and his attempts to rectify the damage. Chance, his daughter, and he “are as thick as thieves, but I’ve still got unfinished business with some of my other kids”. One of his sons is slightly autistic and Daniel, his second born, is lead singer in a punk band: “Yeah, unbelievable! He’s doing remarkably well. I’m probably going to end up producing him next year.”

Before I leave, Goldie shows me an album of Mika and his billets doux, with groovy stencilled hearts, a long scroll-like letter written in his italic script thanking the dead composers who inspired him in Maestro, and most amazing of all, the map of his composition, an artwork in itself that perfectly explains everything he needs to convey to the second.

We hang out in his office, sitting on the carpet, while he plays some of his drum’n’bass tracks – Sea of Tears is a good one, the music whooshing over us in amniotic waves, a sub-sonic sobbing in the background – and he kindly makes me a mini-compilation to listen to later. How could one not warm to him?

Some journalists have felt uncomfortable about the ease with which Goldie talks about his horrible upbringing, as though there were something suspect and manipulative about it. But my impression was of someone who had learnt to look at the broken shards of his childhood and piece them together, so that he could now see the picture as a whole and move on with the rest of his life.

From the moment that he could be creative – be it his graffiti art (featured in a book and a Channel 4 documentary, Bombed), breakdancing, DJing, drum’n’bass, and now his entrée into the world of classical music – he has been so hungry to absorb and learn everything he could and he has soared. During the rehearsal of Sine Tempore, Goldie turned round and looked up at Mika, with such a dazzling smile; he didn’t need to say, “Who’d have thought it, ay?”

I ask Goldie, finally, what he thinks it is about him that has allowed him to flourish. “What I think about it is that – innately – it is a gift of some sort. And part of my gift is a seanceability – I’ve never heard anyone say that word – but I will get musicians together and I will pull something out of them which they would never have thought possible.”

But the gift is not much good without the grit? He agrees: “It’s determination that comes in my path of wanting to be somebody and wanting to stand out.”

And there’s something else, too: “Music and art are fundamentally the two greatest saviours I’ve ever had. They’re the last bastions we can all have. If we take away either of those two things, we’re completely f***ed.” I’m sure that Daniel Barenboim, Peter Maxwell Davies, and all the hundreds of Goldie’s illustrious fellow musicians at this year’s Proms, would agree.

* * *

A two-part documentary, Classic Goldie, is on BBC2 on July 31 and August 7. His orchestral composition, Sine Tempore, premieres at the Family Prom on August 1

Artists, Food

How friends Ferran Adrià and Richard Hamilton inspire each other

The Times July 11, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Food and art fusion cooks up surprising results

There are several moments in my interview with Ferran Adrià, the head chef of El Bulli, and the artist Richard Hamilton, when I feel like screaming very loudly or simply giving up.

We are here to discuss the surprising friendship that has grown up between the two men over the past 25 years.

First, for those who have not already read about Catalonia’s El Bulli phenomenon (with its three Michelin stars; regularly voted the best restaurant in the world): this is “an experience” rather than a meal, with an entirely new menu every year — the restaurant closes for six months while the chefs reinvent — and where nothing is what it seems to be. The dishes are beautiful, sculptural, outlandish and mess with your head. An “Oreo cookie”, for example, is made out of artichoke caramel, black olives and sour cream.

Hamilton is still probably best known for two memorable works — Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? in 1956 (cheeky collage, Mr Universe man; pin-up woman on sofa, with a lampshade hat, clutching a perky breast), and Swingeing London 67 (different tinted versions of the photograph of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Robert Fraser in the back of a police car, after the infamous drug bust). In the intervening time the artist has been honoured with three retrospectives at the Tate, represented Great Britain at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and, at 87, is still hard at work. (In his faded jeans and trademark cap, Hamilton remains as switched-on and “now” as that other octogenarian cool old daddy, Elmore Leonard.) His latest pieces are protest pictures (the name of his show last October), continuing a theme that has been a constant in his career: a television screen depicts the tanks of Desert Storm, blood dripping from the bottom of the set; Tony Blair, an anxious-faced little boy, is dressed up as a gun-toting John Wayne cowboy.

The first problem with our conversation is that Adrià doesn’t speak English and talks muy rápido, but with a stammer, which means that his interpreter helps him to finish sentences, so they end up talking over one another. The interpreter’s Spanish accent, alas, comes with such a frothy lisp that it is quite difficult to understand her translation. (It took several attempts of “newellequeetheeen” for me to get “nouvelle cuisine”.) Hamilton, who doesn’t speak any Spanish, also talks into my ear, usually to correct Adrià’s dates: “No, that’s not right at all” and so on. Then there is Adrià’s press man, who feels the need to reinterpret the interpreter’s translations . . . and thus no fewer than four different voices can all be competing at the same time.

In addition, we are sitting around a table in a disco with oppressive black walls and ceiling, enlivened by a fluorescent palm tree and a number of suspended silver glitter balls. The only illumination is the hostile glare of a makeshift lighting rig and the total effect is similar to an interrogation room in a country run by a tinpot dictator.

This sense of dislocation would doubtless delight Carsten Höller, the German artist who created the slides at Tate Modern and also this venue, the Double Club — a temporary six-month installationcum-nightclub-cum-bar-cum-restaurant in Islington, “produced” by Prada and funded by a Nigerian bank. The idea behind it, to quote from its website, is that each space (hello Pseuds’ Corner) “is divided into equally-sized Western and Congolese parts on a decorative and functional level, generating an inspiring perspective on double identity as well as on cultural co-existence”. Whatever else it is — and, at night, it’s as absolutely fabulous as New York in its clubbing heyday — it is most certainly a “vanguard” experience, which is Adrià’s interpreter’s quirky version of “avant garde”.

We are celebrating Adrià’s transcendence from cook to artist, after his controversial 2007 inclusion in Documenta, an art show that is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Spanish art critics fumed: “Adrià is not Picasso.” Robert Hughes pitched in with: “Both Adrià’s participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me. Food is food.”

The new double-titled book inspired by the Documenta show, Food for Thought. Thought for Food, which is being launched at the Double Club (its own delicious food masterminded by Mourad Mazouz, the restaurateur behind Momo and Sketch in London), includes a photographic panoply of 1,500 dishes that Adrià has created over the past 25 years, round table discussions of the cuisine — featuring Anya Gallaccio, Heston Blumenthal, Bill Buford and Höller — and various maps charting the cook’s revolutionary development (“jellied molluscs”, 1992; “hot jelly”, 1998; “foie-gras as butter”, 2008, etc), as well as a section of responses from the lucky Willy Wonka-like winners of Documenta attendees who were selected by its director, two a day, to dine at El Bulli.

The book’s editors are Vicente Todoli, the foodie director of Tate Modern, and Hamilton, who has also written an elegantly persuasive introduction.

Hamilton has been eating at El Bulli since maybe 1963, possibly 1964 or even 1969 — it’s one of those debatable dates — at least once every year, long before Adrià’s arrival. He first visited nearby Cadaqués, where Salvador Dalí had a home (other artists who spent time there include Picasso, Miró and Marcel Duchamp) in 1962 and bought his own house in 1968.

His memory is of going to El Bulli for the first time with Duchamp’s widow, Teeny, when it was little more than a shack on the beach where you could enjoy a picnic lunch. He would arrive in his Zodiac inflatable boat, 25 minutes by sea from his home, and “they had a nice toilet, so I would go in and squeeze the water out of my shirt and put it on again. I looked pretty disreputable. The food went up and down over the years (according to the ability of the chefs) and then one year it was up like that,” Hamilton points a tapered finger to the ceiling, “and that was when Ferran had arrived.” How dramatic was that change? “Suddenly it was, ‘This is the best food I’ve eaten anywhere’.” Later, as part of a panel of Adrià aficionados attended by an audience (including Blumenthal, Antony Gormley, Bianca Jagger), he says: “There came a time when it was difficult to get in, but I developed a relationship with the staff and that helped .”

One of Hamilton’s abiding pleasures — not that his lean physique and long El Greco face would betray it — is eating. When he was a child his mother worked long hours waitressing at banquets in the City, and the young Hamilton would always ask her: “How many courses did they have, Mummy?” He was recently reminded of this by his artist wife, Rita Donagh. He supposes that he got the idea then that the more courses there were, the better the meal: “And at El Bulli [35-odd courses] I will sometimes say, ‘How many courses have I had now, Rita?’ and she will add them up. But then I can be there for three hours, and I rarely say, ‘Have we got to the dessert now?”

He recalls his first impressions of Adrià: “In the early days, Ferran wouldn’t appear very much and if he did he would come out of the kitchen and stand on the terrace, with his legs slightly apart and look out over the bay,” he says, his voice descending to a basso profundo, hinting at a certain gravitas. “I always felt that he should have had his hand in his jacket, like Napoleon. He didn’t speak to anybody. I don’t think he smiled much. He just looked. He’d had a long morning’s service and he was tired and wanted to get some fresh air.”

The chef, with his plumpish, morose José Mourinho good looks, can still appear solemn, chewing gum glumly (one audience member asked about its flavour but was not enlightened) and coming to life only when he understands the odd word — Hamilton’s mention of Henri CartierBresson, for instance, elicits an enthusiastic “fantastique”.

I ask him whether he had been aware of “Richard Hamilton, the famous pop artist,” when he took over as El Bulli’s head chef in 1984. “There was a type of customer who came every year — maybe 50 of them, not all at the same time! — and Richard Hamilton was one of them. He always used to come by boat, which was unique, and he was someone I already had a lot of love for. He never gave us any problems.

“Juli, my partner, told me that he was an artist, but I was 22 years old and I didn’t have any relationship with the world of art. But over time, slowly, I have become a fan.”

He tells a story of the time when the artist asked him to take a Polaroid photo of him for a book, which he thought was “loco!” This was for the final volume of Polaroids of Hamilton taken over the decades by an incredible roll-call of artistic heavyweights, from Brecht and Man Ray to Yoko Ono. Not long after the loco photo session, Adrià was in Barcelona, where he saw a book called Pop Art. “I read, and discovered exactly who that Richard Hamilton is. I phoned Juli and said, ‘Did you know what type of artist is that Richard Hamilton? He’s an incredible man!’ And whenever I spoke then to people in the art world about Richard, they said that he only talked about El Bulli.”

Others may label Adrià an artist now (Hamilton prefers to call him a poet), but Adrià insists that he is a cook: “Cooks shouldn’t become painters and painters shouldn’t become cooks. In the world of art, I’m only there as a fan, to learn, watch and listen. But cooking is a different matter because that is my world.”

I ask him what prompted his revolutionary tactics and his cryptic response is: “Things happen and one doesn’t know why they happen.” On reflection, he says: “I am a cook and that is not my business — it is my passion. It is a way of understanding life through the kitchen. The chefs and I cook so that we ourselves are happy, and we need a challenge to be happy. The great revolution that happened in 1993 was when we started to play out our very own language, whether people liked it or not. So after we are happy ourselves, we share this happiness with the people.” He points to Hamilton and says: “Richard was the first man to talk about El Bulli as a new language. I never thought of it that way, but he gave me this explanation and he opened the world for me.”

The shock of the new, however, was far too shocking for some of El Bulli’s customers when Adrià unleashed his first new dishes. A deconstructed chicken curry from 1995, for instance, emerged as a savoury ice-cream in a puddle of garlic jus, coconut and electric-green apple froth. Many of the punters reeled in horror, saying the chef had gone “loco!” and walked out. Hamilton, however, embraced the changes.

But even Ferran’s biggest fan has his limits: “The only thing I’ve had there that I’ve had a bit of a misgiving about was a rabbit’s ear. It looked like a rabbit’s ear although it didn’t have fur, but it’s the skin, the tissue. Even when I tasted it, I didn’t think ‘This is a great experience’, but I wouldn’t complain. On the whole, I think, ‘I trust Ferran and he would not suggest I eat this without being right’.”

Not yet having had the pleasure of eating at El Bulli – it is £200-odd for a meal, and a two-year waiting list — I am unable to comment on the food. (Although I have enjoyed several meals at the Fat Duck, a close relative.) What is certainly the case is that Adrià’s gastronomic experimentalism can be a culinary disaster in the hands of less skilled disciples. I once had the worst meal of my life, cooked by a bullishly arrogant El Bulli wannabe in Oman, of all places. Imagine, if you will, the taste sensation of over-brewed Earl Grey tea bursting out of a cold jelly tablet, and a frozen sorbet of dog-food pâté.

“This is not something to do with El Bulli,” Adrià says. “Richard from the art world could say the same thing. A lot of people did very bad Pop Art. Some people did it very well. It is not the problem of the type of cuisine. How many good paellas can you get in London? Or a great osso buco?”

I say that it is a bit different; there’s not the same amount of fanfare over that sort of eating experience. “No-no-no-no-no-no,” Adrià flashes one of his rare but engaging smiles. “A bad paella is a bad paella.” And you can bet he cooks a mean one of those, too.

* * *

Food for Thought. Thought for Food is published by Actar

Theatre, Women, Writers

The many lives of Rebecca Miller

The Times July 4, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Daughter of Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis… It would have been easy for Rebecca Miller to be overwhelmed by the male presences in her life. Here she talks about how she found her own creative voice, and explains why her stories are filled with echoes of the family and relationships that have shaped her

Rebecca Miller
Photo: Mark Harrison

About five minutes into the interview, Rebecca Miller starts to cry. We had been talking about writing, and I read out a line from the end of one of her short stories about different women’s lives which touched me. Louisa, a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after an emotional collapse in New York. The family are around the table and her mother is drinking, as usual, which enrages the daughter, but when she looks up, “Her mother was looking at her with such love that Louisa could hardly bear to see it: it was like looking into the sun.”

I am saying how much I like Miller’s spare, economical style and suddenly her blue eyes fill. Oh dear, I’m so sorry, was it that line, oh goodness me… “Yes, yes,” a big sniff, tears coursing down her cheeks. “It came as a surprise, because I wrote the story before my mother died.”

Miller’s mother was Inge Morath, the Austrian-born Magnum photographer, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 78. Famously, she met Rebecca’s father, the late playwright Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits – the screenplay he wrote for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1962, 13 months after Miller’s divorce from Monroe, and Rebecca was born not long after.

I had met both Rebecca’s parents in the autumn of 1996 when visiting the Millers’ home in Roxbury, Connecticut, to interview the playwright shortly before a National Theatre production of Death of a Salesman. The next day, Miller had been meeting journalists to publicise the film of his play The Crucible – its star was Daniel Day-Lewis, who had met Rebecca at her parents’ home, and the two married in November that year.

Arthur Miller had graciously shown me around the property where Rebecca, a most cherished daughter, grew up, with its 380 acres of lovely land, its woods and the lake where the couple swam every day in the summer, Morath’s photographic studio and Miller’s cabin in a field to which he would retreat to write. He pointed out the furniture he had carved and hewn – a lifelong passion for making beautiful, useful things out of his hands that his son-in-law, Daniel, shares – and paintings bequeathed by friends. There was a photograph of Rebecca, aged 5, in a sailor suit, white tights on stocky little legs, and a pair of shiny buckled shoes. In pride of place was a poster from Rebecca’s prizewinning debut film, 1995’s Angela.

“I think I look more and more like my mother as I get older,” Rebecca supposes when I say that you can see a little of both her parents in her. She has the height and rangy limbs of her father, and the phosphorescent gaze of her mother. But her manner is unlike either of them. Morath, as I had described, was “a tiny tornado of energy.” Miller, in contrast, was still vital at 80 but a calmer presence.

What impresses about their daughter’s authorial voice is its unshowy confidence, and a steady authority about her storytelling which is a pleasure to read. Personal Velocity, a collection of short stories, and her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – now a feature film directed by Miller and starring Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves – are filled with wry observation and a great sense of emotional acuity. In person, although she has a winning and rather surprising lusty laugh, there is something curiously approximate about Miller. She often struggles to express herself with a sort of urgent hesitancy. It may be that interviews for her are a nerve-racking business, particularly since Vanity Fair’s revelations in 2007 about Arthur Miller’s decision to institutionalise Rebecca’s younger brother, another Daniel, now 42, as a baby because he was born with Down’s syndrome.

Family secrets

Reading the Vanity Fair piece, it became clear how traumatic this unearthing must have been for Rebecca in particular who, with both parents dead, became the person to whom the world’s press turned for an explanation. How could it be that this towering figure of humanity – the man who made such a courageous stand against the tyranny of McCarthyism – was capable of hardening his heart against his own child?

One devastating detail in the article was that Inge Morath tried to bring her son home when he was two or three, but her husband would not allow it. (She visited him almost every Sunday, apparently, in the Southbury home for mentally retarded children ten minutes’ drive from Roxbury – but never with her husband.) Miller’s rationale, according to the VF writer who spoke to friends of the family, was that it wouldn’t be fair on Rebecca to have her childhood constrained by the difficulties of sharing her home with a “challenging” sibling.

You don’t have to be a shrink to imagine the guilt you might inherit, especially for a sensitive child, if you sensed that you were the reason for your baby brother’s absence.

Rebecca Miller has said that in her short stories, the characters were “all mixed up with myself”. But as with most writers, her fiction is a literary knitting of fragments of different people known and imagined, and there are some parts of herself – buried or otherwise – that she is more willing to own publicly than others: “There’s always a temptation to reduce fiction to its autobiographical links and that’s important and also not important because, finally, it just boils down to turning writing into gossip, to be honest. To always say, ‘Is that this person or is this that person?’ is a dead end.”

But if you are interested in a writer or an artist, how can you not be struck by the way their life informs their work? Particularly when certain themes keep emerging; particularly when they seem driven by a certain haunting. In her slim oeuvre, there is a palpable sense of sadness about a missing brother (a dead twin in Louisa, and her comforting sibling closeness with a former boyfriend). It’s also there in the difficult relationship between Pippa and her photographer daughter, Grace, in the novel – the daughter always sensing that her mother loves her brother more or, at least, in a more straightforward way.

“When Louisa was 12, Penny [her mother] started changing. She sank into reveries and sighed a lot. On rainy afternoons Louisa would hover uneasily at the door as her mother sat in the darkened living room listening to Peggy Lee… Louisa guessed that Penny’s sadness had something to do with the missing baby [Seth]… Louisa knew that Seth still pulled at her mother’s memory even though nobody in the house ever mentioned him.” And later, around the dining table: “Automatically Louisa’s eyes went to the empty space beside her, Seth’s place. He was there. He was always there.”

I ask Miller about that story: “I think the idea of a missing brother probably came from my own life, but Louisa felt that she had survived and felt that she shouldn’t have survived, and having a twin would have been a bit of a different situation.” We talk about her much older siblings, a sister and a brother, from her father’s first marriage and she says that she is very close now to her half-sister, who lives on the East Coast.

It was Daniel Day-Lewis who was apparently responsible for facilitating a rapprochement between Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, and Arthur Miller, who left an equal share of his estate to his youngest son. “Danny is very much part of our family,” Rebecca said in 2007, and “leads a very active, happy life, surrounded by people who love him”. At that time, he was living with the elderly couple who had cared for him since he left the institution in his teens. Rebecca said that she visits her brother with her family on holiday and during the summer.

I wonder whether she remembers him being taken away. “I’m sure I did,” she says. Do you remember what you were told? “Ummm. Is it OK if we don’t talk about this any more? I don’t feel like talking about it.” Sorry, I say, a bit stricken, since it’s obviously still quite raw and painful. There are no more tears but she gets up and crosses the room to fetch a glass of water.

Transatlantic currents

We are conducting the interview in a hotel room in Dublin; for the past three years, the Miller-Day-Lewises have been living a rural life in Co Wicklow with their two sons, Ronan, 11, and Cashel, 7. Miller has a bad cold but, being a trouper, she is soldiering on with the publicity campaign for her new film.

There is something both graceful and awkward about her. When she poses for photographs at the end of the interview, for instance, she crosses the room with the natural elegance of a dancer in her ballet pumps and drainpipe jeans, and is quite unselfconscious in front of the camera. She is also remarkably unvain, not even bothering to check her appearance before the shoot. There is a delicacy about her features, but also a sort of wounded quality to her Pre-Raphaelite loveliness, particularly around those startling eyes.

She is most strained at the beginning of our interview, almost apologising for the slight strangeness of her short, flattened fringe: “I am naturally ringlety, but I straightened my bangs [fringe] because I looked like a poodle this morning.” As a child, she says, “I was kind of haunting looking. There were kids who said I looked like a witch, and I remember there was a period when they were afraid of me because of my eyes, which I think come more from my father’s side – Polish Jews.”

There have been a number of different, sometimes overlapping, Miller careers to date. She studied art at Yale (there are strikingly vivid descriptions of paintings in her fiction): “I painted on wood a lot, big kind of abstract paintings… I had a kind of repetitive dream cycle for years…” It wasn’t about a bull, was it? I am thinking of a grotesque series of paintings in Louisa – which precipitates the character’s suicide attempt – of a white bull trapped in a grotto by two men, its sperm spraying the walls, before they slash its throat and blood spatters everywhere. “I did actually have that dream, yes,” she says.

Wow, I say, no wonder you needed go to a therapist! “I probably was in therapy then.

I definitely had a few. But I haven’t gone for years and years – I don’t have time.” We both laugh at that and I ask her whether in that case she considers that it was a bit of an indulgence. “I remember talking to my father about it, and saying that I was angry because my psychiatrist or therapist or whatever hadn’t congratulated me on the birth of my first child, which I thought was terrible, and he said, ‘But you can’t expect them to love you. They’re not going to love you.’ And I never went back to any psychiatrist after that. I’m both fascinated and repulsed by that whole process. Actually, I just wrote a story about a psychiatrist.”

Her father seemed to be so secure in himself and grounded – although, of course, I had no idea when we met about aspects of his private life that must have weighed on him – that I couldn’t imagine him unburdening himself to a therapist. “Oh yeah,” Miller says. “He did.”

There’s something of his looks at least, I suggest, in the main character of Herb, the 80-year-old publisher, in Pippa Lee.

When we first encounter him, married to the 50-year-old Pippa, Herb has made the eccentrically unbohemian decision to sell their Manhattan apartment and Sag Harbor beach house, in a Lear-like unburdening, to move into a retirement community. Herb has massive hands and a lopsided grin and is, “A darkly funny man who despised religion, all exaggeration, and musicals… He mistrusted extravagant metaphor, favoured the driest prose.”

She says the hands and the grin may be her father’s, but “Herb is a real amalgam: the cadence of the Jewish intellectuals coming through New York – I could hear that partly because of my father, but also other people that I grew up with. But the big difference is that Herb isn’t an artist and he’s a wilier character.”

Pippa Lee is the perfect artist’s wife – even though she isn’t married to an artist. One of the writers in the book, Sam, describes her as, “The icon of the Artist’s Wife: placid, giving, intelligent, beautiful. Great cook. They don’t make them like that any more.”

What fascinates Miller, an avowed feminist, about this dying breed of women who support the careers of powerful men, is what they bury of themselves in order to fulfil that role. Pippa’s past, for instance, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel, was defined by a suffocating relationship with her amphetamine-addicted mother, a troubling relationship as a teenage girl with an older, married man, her escape to New York and descent into a drug-fuelled rackety life on the Lower East Side before she is rescued by Herb.

The novel is much darker than the film and more interesting because of it. The film, I suggest, is Miller-lite – avoiding the more troubling and challenging complexities of character. “It’s one thing to write about a woman crawling across the floor and eating out of a bowl of spaghetti,” she says (referring to the scene which leads to Herb taking Pippa to bed), “but it’s another thing to see it. If I had gone down the dark street, I would have had a very dark film. My other films are probably darker, but the philosophy behind this one is of lightness and forgiveness.

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

What Miller finds so attractive about her heroine, Pippa, is her lack of ambition: “What I love about her is that she really doesn’t have any need to make something outside of herself.” Her prototype in Personal Velocity is Julianne, a poet who realises, “She would never write a great poem, she had married a great man instead.” Miller compares herself, in contrast, with another of her characters, Greta, a publishing minion who, offered the chance of a quick route up, discovers she is “rotten with ambition”.

She has both written and directed all of her films to date. Is that because she is a control freak? “Ahhh… I’m greedy for experience and I don’t necessarily want to give it away to other people,” she says. “There’s something about the totality of that experience that’s very nourishing and very exciting to me. Although I have to say that I would like to write my own screenplays of someone else’s book.” (Top of her wish list would be Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Miller has made overtures but Tartt is unwilling to let anyone adapt her novel.)

Of her own mother, who was very much an artist in her own right, Miller says: “She kind of split the difference, you could say. She worked throughout her marriage but she was the one who made the house a home.” In her own marriage, “I would be the person who would do the logistics of childcare, parties and who is going to whose house and all that stuff.” (Earlier, she had broken off from the interview to text a friend about arrangements to pick up her boys.) “But at the same time,” she continues, “Daniel is very involved with the actual children.” Can he cook? “Yeah, he can, but he’s more of a short-order cook.” His sister’s pretty good, of course (the food writer, Tamasin Day-Lewis). “Oh yes, his sister is very good,” she says, with a sideways smile. “None of us are competing in that department.”

Literary influences

Miller says she is also like Greta in Personal Velocity because of the way she “compulsively edits everything. When people are talking, she can’t help but see how things could be simpler and more powerful.” The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity: “I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bulls*** that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again.”

Apart from Donna Tartt – who is a big favourite – she admires Rachel Cusk and Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Franzen and the late John Updike, to whom she pays an unusual tribute: “I was so excited when someone compared me to him once, I nearly peed my pants.”

She is not a fan of the upholstered writing which is in vogue now – the return to the 19th-century novel, as she puts it, as though modernism had never existed: “But when you have someone like Raymond Carver or Hemingway… the greats, where the writing is simple, real, hewn to the bone… I feel that’s where the power is. And sometimes that writing is almost not thought of as good because it doesn’t seem fancy enough.”

At the moment, she is re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird: “My 11-year-old son was reading it and I was thinking, ‘I want to read that again so I can talk to him about it,’ and I was also thinking, ‘What is it about that book?’ Is it that it comes directly from the heart, directly from someone’s deepest beliefs? But also that the language is extremely simple.”

I had wondered, with a pronounced thread in her fiction of mothers who are pill-poppers or drinkers, whether there was something of this close to home. She says not: “That didn’t come from me but I did have a very close friend [who did have that problem] and so I feel almost as though it was me. I was always quite sensitive to other people’s needs… I think that if you don’t become the people you’re writing about then you probably can’t get very far towards the truth. For the writer, it’s a kind of channelling. You’re almost at the mercy of other people, and there’s a danger to that, too.”

Her father had also talked to me about the dangers of writing, although he expressed it differently. For him, a writer had to lay himself open to the mysterious force of inspiration: “I often think of the image of someone walking around with a metal bar and waiting to be struck by lightning,” he said. “Of course, it can kill you, too.”

The mother and daughter conflict, without giving too much away, reaches a sort of resolution in Pippa Lee with the heroine thinking about the long pattern of problematic relations: “The chain of misunderstandings and adjustments, each daughter trying to make up for her mother’s lacks and getting it wrong the opposite way.”

I wonder whether Miller is relieved that she hasn’t had a daughter of her own. “In some ways I’m kind of sad that I don’t have one, but in other ways I think maybe it’s for the best.” Why do you say that? “I wonder if maybe I would have been a little intense. Or maybe that the daughter that I would have produced would have been… such a strong personality. I kind of miss having a daughter sometimes, but I love my boys. What I think is that I’ll be a really great grandmother… if I survive long enough.”

She’s pretty accepting about ageing: “But what I’m afraid of is losing my mind. Because to me, that’s what I really have… I mean everyone wants to stay pretty and young-looking and all the rest of it, but I don’t sit in fear of creases all over my forehead or whatever.

“But to go senile, that’s what really frightens me. You’d be in the middle of the sea and you couldn’t touch the bottom, you know.”

Miller’s working on a new novel now. I think I can guess its theme.

* * *

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee will be released in cinemas nationwide on July 10. Rebecca Miller’s books The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Personal Velocity are being reissued by Canongate on July 7 (£7.99)

Travel & Adventure

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

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, Travel & Adventure

A hip-hop tour of New York’s Harlem

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

ginny and sons at the wall of fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting there

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to MJ rehearse Slow Cook Me

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

Listen to Ginger Chorale by MJ and Ginny Dougary

Politicians

Who is David Cameron?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

David Cameron
Photo: Tom Stoddart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man behind the scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artists

David Hockney on why iPhones are the future for art

The Times May 09, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

Theatre

Peter Hall – my memories of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett

The Times April 04, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Nudging 80, he’s full of memories of his theatrical past, but the great director’s love of work – and family – is undimmed

Almost two decades have passed since Peter Hall and I last met. The baby that his fourth wife, Nicky Frei, was expecting then is now a 17-year-old bright spark, Emma, who thrills her father with her scholarship and enthusiasm for theatre, and occasionally appalls him with her use of language. Emma Hall’s accolade of “awesome” for a performance of Hamlet by a scion of another notable dynasty, Will Attenborough, made her father blanch. “I said, ‘Don’t use that word. I hate ahhhh-soom,’” he drawls, like a septuagenarian valley-girl .

The junior members of the Attenborough and Hall families will be combining forces in Edinburgh this summer in a late play, Celebration, by the late Harold Pinter. There is something poignantly circular about this cross-generational appreciation of the playwright as it was Emma’s father who discovered and championed Pinter, when Hall was barely in his mid-twenties, after he had performed a similar role for that other towering figure of modern theatre, Samuel Beckett.

So much has been written about Hall in his own right, and among the wealth of his achievements (founder of the Royal Shake- speare Company; 15 pivotal years estab- lishing the National Theatre in its present South Bank home), one can detect an underlying theme of insecurity and self- doubt, which contributed to several breakdowns and thoughts of suicide.

In our 1992 interview, Hall told me that he felt he was unpopular at Cambridge – where he had a scholarship to read English – and was often patronised because he was poor. I ask him now what gave him the intellectual confidence to recognise the worth of Waiting for Godot, a play by an Irishman who was then unacclaimed, when the manuscript landed on his desk in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London.

“Answer – I don’t know,” he says.

“Except it happened. But when I read the script I didn’t say to myself, ‘This is the key play of the mid-20th century’ because I didn’t. I said, ‘It’s poetic, it’s beautifully written, it’s funny, it’s very arresting. I think it will work on an audience and I think it’s very moving, so we’ll do it.’

“So then you cut forward, and there’s a letter in the mail from someone unknown and it says, ‘Dear Mr Hall, I saw your production of Waiting for Godot last night and I enjoyed it very much. I wonder whether you’d like to look at my new play which I’m enclosing called The Birthday Party, Yours ever, Harold Pinter.’ And I didn’t know who Harold Pinter was because Harold Pinter wasn’t ‘Harold Pinter’ then. But, I mean, what a lucky boy I was to have those two giants.”

The impact of Pinter’s death in December is still all too raw and recent: “I find it quite difficult to talk about Harold because I’m so upset,” Hall says, his voice wobbling for a moment. “I suppose in a way he left us an extraordinary legacy so one shouldn’t be silly and one should see it as constructive, not destructive. But he meant an awful lot to me as a friend and a colleague as well as a dramatist I wanted to serve.”

Does he understand why Pinter lost the urge to write plays and transferred his creative energy to writing poetry?

“Harold’s plays are like most men’s poems,” he says. “And they always came from an inspirational energy. I can remember him saying to me, ‘I think I’ve got a play’, and I’d say, ‘Really?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I don’t know what it’s called yet but I’m going away for a couple of weeks and I’ll see if I can write it.’”

Would that be exciting for you when that happened? “Oh, yes, of course – because then you cut to him ringing the doorbell one summer evening and he’d just driven up from somewhere and he’d say, ‘There it is’, and it was The Homecoming, which was the first specific play he wrote for me and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I still think was – is – his masterpiece.”

Hall says that Pinter was the man “who made me believe in inspiration because he didn’t know why he couldn’t write a play – and he certainly had years without writing one and would write film scripts during that time [collaborating most fruitfully with the director Joseph Losey]. He wanted to write a play but there wasn’t a play to be written until, suddenly, he had something.”

Hall was 61 when we first met. He was 6ft 2in then and shrinking, he had said, with the onset of old age. Now that he is pushing 80 there is something etiolated about his monumental frame. He still has style and is dressed like an ageing Beat poet – black leather jacket, tapered shoes and a rather chic black wool cap. But he seems a bit deflated now and the infectious giggle is less ready than I remember. A couple of years ago he had a cancerous kidney removed but his health has been fine since then.

Does he feel his age? “I get terribly tired, which makes me angry,” he says; so now he has naps and tends to do full mornings, handing over to an assistant in the afternoons. His memory started going at about 60 and, he says, “if it’s possible to forget something I do”. Are you frightened of diminishing powers? “Yes, yes,” he says. “I don’t think it’s happened yet but I will be told – my colleagues will tell me and when they say, ‘You can’t do it any more …’”

Hall has no plans, himself, of letting go any time soon. He has been directing Feydeau’s farce Where There’s a Will, adapted from the French by his wife, for the English Touring Theatre (ETT). Rachel Tackley, the ETT’s director, tells me that what impresses her about Hall is that he doesn’t miss a beat and is alive to every nuance and rhythm of the text.

In June the Peter Hall Company returns to the Theatre Royal Bath for its seventh season there, with half a dozen plays, and Hall will be back in the director’s seat for three of them, including Shaw’s The Apple Cart: “It’s a political play and extraordinarily prescient, from the rather minor level of the Prime Minister saying, ‘You know, what’s wrong with this Cabinet? There are too many Scotsmen in it!’ The audience will think we’ve put that in,” he says with a laugh.

Hall famously voted Tory, “out of desperation”, early in his tenure at the National as a protest against the unions, who seemed hell-bent on disrupting the opening. He reverted to Labour but was not a Blair fan: “I never believed him. We saw him giving a speech on television and I said to Nicky, ‘If he came and did that as an audition piece I wouldn’t hire him because he’s not telling the truth.’

“He’s acting badly and he’s a very bad actor. He’s also got the capacity to be a very good actor but he has to be somehow wired up correctly because he’s very false. The worse one was the Diana [Princess of Wales] funeral. Bad acting … ‘sob, sob’. ”

How about Gordon Brown – not much acting there? “No acting at all – just desperation.” At last, a Hallmark giggle. “No, honestly, I think things are pretty bad – worse than they were when we saw each other by the Avon.”

Our last interview had been rather dominated by intimations of his own mortality after I had heard Hall tell the late Anthony Clare, the psychiatrist, that he feared death every single day. Does he still have that morbid dread? “Oh, yes,” he says. “How can you not? What is it all about? Where do we go?”

Now that he is approaching the end of his life, as he would emphatically not put it – “I could go on for the next 20 or 25 years” is his optimistic position – Hall never entertains those early thoughts of doing away with himself. There’s so much left for him to do, so many people he loves and would hate to leave behind.

He said all those years ago that Frei was the one for him and so it has proved. They have been together now for 19 years: “If you talk to her now she’ll say, ‘I’m the longest-serving Peter Hall wife.’”

His first and third wives, Leslie Caron, the film star, and Maria Ewing, the opera singer, had huge careers of their own. Jacqueline Taylor, his second, was Hall’s secretary and Frei worked in the publicity department at the National. It’s “terribly difficult” when a marriage has two huge egos – “Nicky was trained as a lawyer and has a brilliant mind and should be able to sit down and write that novel or that book of short stories – but she doesn’t because she spends so much time on Emma and me and she makes our lives very, very comfortable.” Perhaps she’ll write a memoir about life with you after you pop off? “Exactly,” he says, only a little uneasily.

He gives Frei the credit for making him less obsessed with work; she has even persuaded him to take the odd holiday. What’s her secret? “She just treats everything terribly calmly and reduces everything to common sense and logic.”

Calmness is a quality lacking in Hall, which is why he must prize it so highly in others. When we talk about his actress daughter Rebecca (from his marriage to Ewing) – the fifth of his six children – he says, “She’s quite calm, quite a different sort of animal to me.”

He plainly adores his children – all of whom have carved their own successful niches in the arts – but he seems to have been particularly besotted with Rebecca as a baby, perhaps because it was the first time that he was a hands-on father. “It was largely because her mother was an opera singer and was a great traveller as a consequence, so there was quite a lot of time when I was the nanny,” he says. Er, house-husband? “House-husband, I’m sorry – get it right!” he smacks his hand. “I don’t mean that Maria was in any sense a delinquent mother because she was a terrific mum – but it had to be done and I loved doing it.”

He goes on: “Rebecca was a particularly beautiful baby, and babies are usually not very beautiful. She was also … passive is

the wrong word … she was very calm, and still is.” At that point, I had only seen her in a Poliakoff television play and Frost/Nixon, where she plays Frost’s decorous and decidedly pukka girlfriend. “Well, that’s no part at all,” her father admonished. “No, you must see her in the Woody Allen [Vicky Cristina Barcelona; she plays Vicky, for which she got a Golden Globe nomination]. She’s terrific in that.

“What’s interesting is that Woody obviously took a great liking to her and fed her lots of extra lines – so she does speak like a Woody Allen character – ‘East Coast ambiguous’ – and she does it terribly well.”

Did she really want the part? “Oh, desperately, desperately. It was one of her ambitions in life to be in a Woody Allen film and I said, ‘Well, not like the recent ones!’ Hahahaha.” Penélope Cruz and Scarlett

Johansson may look gorgeous in the film “but they’re not very funny and Rebecca is”, her father says stoutly.

Later I get to see his daughter in the Allen film and she is, as her father promised, terrific and utterly credible as that “East Coast ambiguous” type. But what, I wonder, is Rebecca Hall’s real accent? “She can be anything you want,” her father says, “but, no, her normal accent is a bit more ‘Essex’ – a little sloppy.”

Oh dear. One daughter talks like a Valley Girl, the other like an Essex Girl. What a disappointment for the creator of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As if. I’ve never interviewed a father who was more obviously delighted by his offspring, from his 52-year-old television producer son, Christopher, to Edward, “probably one of the best directors in this country”, and all the others. At one point Hall begs me not to write about his glowing tributes because it will embarrass the recipients. There is no question that he is proud of what he has achieved in the theatre but as he says, rushing off to meet Emma from school: “Whatever else, at this moment in time what I’m really proud of is my children.”

Where There’s a Will by George Feydeau finishes tonight at Liverpool Playhouse, then is at Oxford Playhouse (01865 305300), April 7- 11; the Peter Hall Company’s residency at the Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844) runs from June 25 to August 29

News, Writers

British Press Awards 2009:nominations

Interviewer of the year
Cole Moreton, Independent on Sunday
Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian
Elizabeth Day, The Observer
Ginny Dougary, The Times
Lynn Barber, The Observer
Robert Chalmers, Independent on Sunday

Actors, Theatre

Steven Berkoff: angry man or cursed by the past?

The Times March 21, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Slovenly, ignorant, inept – his attacks on fellow actors are legendary. Does he have a softer side?

Steven Berkoff

You definitely don’t want to be around Johnny Friendly when he smiles, and the same could be said of Steven Berkoff, who plays the murderous, most unfriendly, union boss in his play of Elia Kazan’s classic film On the Waterfront. The acting-directing-writing-theatre-company-founding polymath has his own intimidating form when it comes to interviewers (particularly women) as well as theatre critics, whom he has abused in various ways, with insults, bannings, even a death threat.

With the rapturous reviews of his new production (he is director as well as actor) one might have expected to find Berkoff in a sunnier disposition than usual. But not a bit of it. His mood matches his clothing and setting – black jogging gear, black table and chairs, huge black and white photographs of East End characters (taken by him), more gloom in the monumental canvases of rough-hewn faces by Peter Howson. Even the water lapping against the deck of his Limehouse office, a wall of glass looking out on to the murky Thames, fails to soothe.

Berkoff may be the most charmless person I’ve interviewed, eclipsing even Madonna, which is no mean feat. Eye contact is minimal. Small talk non-existent. Manners have been bypassed altogether. “What’s this about?” he raps out by way of introduction, plonking himself at the head of the table. “What is it called, the thing? Does it have a title, this piece?” About 20 minutes in, more barking: “What’s next? Anything else? Get on with it.”

Actors who have displeased him (because it “tends to be a little bit of a cross to bear being a perfectionist”) are often those who have come through the major theatres – which rejected Berkoff (but, no, he’s not bitter) – pain him with their “slovenly ineptitude…their flaws…and ignorance”.

He says that he has never been snide about a director and I remind him of one that he described as a dictator: “Oh, he was a ghastly kind of power-mad lunatic. I didn’t want to hit him – kill him, maybe – no just avoid him and not look at his ugly…loathsome…smug…smarmy little face,” each word weighted in the verbal equivalent of GBH. The film was called Fair Game. “It died a thousand deaths. I felt the poor man may have been bullied by his producer but he was sarcastic and that’s the worst thing.”

He was bullied himself as a child growing up in the East End; son of Albert, a tailor, and Pauline Berks. Steven was christened Leslie, which he loathed almost as much as Berks. He switched to his middle name, adding “Off” to his surname to preserve the ethnic ring without reverting to Berkovitch, which Albert had abbreviated to assimilate in the adopted country of his Russian forebears.

What with Berkoff’s descriptions of his colleagues in the theatre, and his behaviour towards my sisters in the press – he has described them as “angst-ridden bitches” with “second-rate minds” – I wondered if the bullied had not turned into a bully. But he says: “I’ve never needed to or had the desire to bully because I find the opposite is much more satisfying. To be gentle, loving, caring,” a slow icy smile. “But, occasionally, if something really strikes you as being unjust, to express a little bit of anger is all right.”

There was more than a little anger between his parents, which the young Berkoff witnessed often and absorbed. His father was a gambler, a womaniser and absent for long periods. Rejection and disappointment became leitmotifs in his son’s life and on a personal level, with his 72nd birthday on the horizon, all his memories seem to be pickled in bile and a lot of pain. “As Ibsen knew very well in Ghosts, we inherit the curses of the past. And it could be that the pattern and behaviour of my father or his father has created in me a distrust of marriage, and that, in turn, did not perhaps make me the most perfect passer of the baton to the next generation.” They f*** you up your Mum and Dad? “Well, I think you inherit that pattern of conflict. I always saw them fighting and horrible, horrible shouting when I was young. I can remember it vividly, 5 or 6 years old, and there would be screaming and terrible language. But anyway I think that might have affected me.”

I ask him whether he believes that people’s faces reveal their characters; he does, but says it’s for others to decide what secrets to the soul the Berkoff features might reveal. It is a face, coupled with a certain atmosphere its owner projects, that has provided a lucrative income in an array of cinematic sadists: from the Krays to Rambo (as opposed to Rimbaud, the French poet, whom he had rather hoped the film might be about) to Octopussy.

Berkoff says that he hopes his face denotes trustworthiness which, to him, is the most precious quality in a person: “Trustworthiness – to believe in someone, and you, yourself, to be believed in. Not to be betrayed. That may be a little extreme, to talk about words like ‘betrayal’. But within this industry you need to have people that you can believe in and who believe in you.” His father, he says, betrayed his trust: “Oh totally. Absolutely and utterly, unfortunately. And that’s why I’ve always sought it in other men and sought – perhaps too eagerly – honesty and integrity and response in other men. When I find somebody who’s even remotely loyal or decent to me, I will move heaven and earth to fulfill his needs and I will love him for the rest of my life. When I don’t get it, sometimes I’m apt to become a little more disappointed than I should be; when a man is busy and he’s got other agendas – I can kind of really take it too much to heart.”

His mother was a pianist but even she let him down, he says. “Could you believe that I begged for a piano, every year since I was 4 or 5, but she said, ‘No, you’ll get over it’ or ‘We’re going to be moving away’. My parents were rather ignorant of my desires or not prepared to fulfil them.”

There were a couple of failed marriages early on, but the most abiding relationship of his life has been with his German partner, Clara Fischer, a handsome woman who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a classical pianist. They were introduced through a mutual friend, about 20 years ago, when Berkoff finally bought a piano and needed lessons. “I practised very hard for some months but by then it was too late and I knew it was too late. Eventually I couldn’t bear it; it was a threat to me so I had to give it up.”

What a curious, cussed cove he is. At some point during the interview I actually begin to enjoy the challenge of the Berkoff experience and not in a masochistic way. There is something oddly relaxing about being with someone who is so utterly careless about conventional conversational decorum. And unlike Madonna, he does have real talent. We had met, years ago, at a party hosted by one of the few women journalists he appeared to like. We stood on a tiny roof garden of a flat in the heart of Soho and he was a different character then, stylishly dressed in a tailored gangsterish suit, like the Zoots that were his father’s stock in trade, and warm, chatty, friendly and engaged. The difference between him then and now left me wondering where he’d lost his mojo; was it age and fatigue or was this cantankerousness a form of play-acting. When I mentioned the occasion, he did not remember it and could barely summon any interest in the woman who was once such a close friend.

For many years Berkoff was a keep-fit nut: swimming in arctic conditions, yoga, a passing flirtation with break-dancing. Now he calls himself “a bit of a lazy slob”, restricting himself – merely – to a few daily sit-ups, press-ups and a walk, as well as the 20-mile weekend hike, “sometimes a run”, along the seafront in Brighton.

When I ask him about his health he says: “It’s excellent. Touch wood.” No ghastly illnesses? “I have had them all but I reject them all.” You haven’t had cancer? “Everything. I had a brush with that when they thought… but it’s gone. I just plain willed it out.” Minor ailments? “A few little niggles. I can’t run as fast as I used to, a little problem in my knee, a dimming of the eyes. All my teeth, except one. But no pains, no arthritis. I think the reason for that is to lead a balanced life. Not to indulge – and to live with another person.”

I say that this Clara seems to have suited him well, and his faded eyes light up. Her concert days are behind her now, but still she plays for him on the gleaming black piano in front of the glass wall opening out on the river. Does it move you? “ Oh, indeed, yes, of course, it’s lovely to listen to her. When she plays it’s phenomenal.” They share a new passion, in any case. “When she got tired of practising seven hours a day, her energy had to go somewhere else and she is a kind of genius of a cook. She’s got about 100 cookbooks and she can do anything: Greek, Turkish, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Italian. And her sushi…” he sighs. “It’s incredible, as good as a Japanese chef.”

For the most part, these feasts are conjured just for their own pleasure. But occasionally friends will be invited: actors – “I’m not one of those actors who says”, he puts on a theatrical voice, which is not a far cry from his own, “‘Oh, I don’t mix with luvvies’”) – but also the odd writer and lawyer, even a couple of old schoolfriends. Is it her cooking that is responsible for his compact but quite pronounced little belly? He roars, and this time with genuine good humour, “Yes! Yes! It’s too much!”

What, I was wondering , would be Clara’s recipe for handling the Berkoff ego. If one were to do the physiognomy test on her, judging from the one photograph I’ve seen of her dating back to 1991 – full lips, strong nose, an open forthright gaze – she does not look like a pushover. “She’s very relaxed but she does have her moments and can be a bit…temperamental,” her boyfriend says. “She’s also a very, very good mimic and does impersonations constantly.” Does she do you? “Yes, she does and then I’m on the floor because she does them when I’m getting angry or in a mood and then she does me and I find it intolerable because I collapse.” Ah, I see, because then she’s won the argument? “Yes,” Berkoff says, “yes, of course.”

On the Waterfront, Theatre Royal, London; 0845 4811870

Politicians

Tony Blair on Gaza, Catholicism, Iraq and Cherie

The Times, January 31, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Since leaving office 19 months ago, Tony Blair has rebuilt a life almost as frantic and globetrotting as the one he lived in Downing Street. Amid criticism of his role in the Middle East peace process, Ginny Dougary and photographer Nick Danziger join the former Prime Minister on the road to discuss Gaza, Catholicism, doubt, Iraq, money and Cherie

Tony Blair
Photo: Nick Danziger

It’s an exhausting business interviewing Tony Blair. For a start, everyone has an opinion about him and feels the need to express it, usually with some force. Cab drivers, handymen and the like – certainly in the UK – call him all sorts of unprintable names. Their main complaint is Iraq, as is everyone else’s, but they also blame him for the spend-spend-spend culture which in their opinion has landed us in the mess we’re in now.

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Move from the hectoring to the chattering classes and the arguments against him become even more vociferous. The general impression, however unfair, is that he has singlehandedly failed to bring peace to the Middle East, has achieved nothing in his role there as special envoy, earns far too much money, owns too many houses, and swans around the world raking in the loot for consultancies and speeches, probably at the taxpayers’ expense.

This anti-Blair hostility could not be more different to the reception I witness him receive in Israel and, indeed, more surprisingly, Palestine – such as it is – where he is hugged, kissed, implored to pose for innumerable photos and sign autographs. All of this is before the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza. When I ask him what it feels like to be so love-bombed, he mutters, and it is hard to read the expression on his face: “Well, someone’s got to love me.” One of his bodyguards tells me that these pop-star scenes happen wherever “the Boss” travels in the world, except for one country. But even here, Blair says, it’s better than it was.

His staff – there are 70 of them around the globe – are all young and dynamic and fiercely bright. They seem to do everything – think, talk, move – at three times the speed of normal human beings. Blair’s team in Rwanda, one of two charity-funded African projects, whose brief is to assist President Kagame in modernising his country, is particularly peppy. Then there is Blair himself, who has positively bionic energy levels and sometimes gets a kick out of other people’s failure to keep up. He doesn’t like it much, not surprisingly, when I teasingly (but truthfully) say that, in this way, he reminds me of Jeffrey Archer.

Blair has always struck me as a man in a hurry, only now he seems to be in a race almost against himself. In one of our interviews, I ask him the childlike question: does he want to save the world? (This was also before Gordon Brown inadvertently revealed his own Superman aspirations.) Blair, who quite likes the simplicity of such questions, laughs and replies: “I wouldn’t be in politics unless I thought there was a specific purpose of making the world a better place. So the childish answer to the childish question is, ‘Yes.’” He goes on to say something that would have been rather unpolitic to express when he was Prime Minister: “I don’t actually like the business of politics at all. Some people like the political interplay of working it all out. Even though – although I say it myself – I can do the political campaigning pretty well, I never actually enjoyed it. I’m far more interested in the problem; in solving the problem.”

Those problems take on tragic proportions a month after our trip, when Hamas fails to renew the six-month ceasefire and sends more rockets into Israel, with devastating repercussions. Blair was at home in the country with his family over Christmas but, he tells me, “I was on the phone to the Arabs, the Americans and the Israelis the whole time.” He returned to the Middle East on January 2 and says, when he phones me later from Abu Dhabi, that he has been on four or five separate visits to the region in a fortnight.

I ask him whether he is surprised by what has happened, since the previous month he had been cautiously optimistic about progress, but he says: “No. I’ve been saying for some time that what was needed was a completely different strategy. What has happened has been very shocking and very sad – the scenes of carnage – but that is war, I’m afraid, and war is horrible. But although it may sound absurd, on one level, to talk about the possibility of peace, we have got to get that process right back on track.”

That process should be helped immeasurably by President Obama’s early appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as full-time envoy in the Middle East. Mitchell and Blair go back a long way, having worked closely together on brokering the historic peace deal in Northern Ireland, and when I meet our former PM for a final time as we go to press, it is clear from the tenor of his conversation that he believes this will strengthen rather than sideline his position: “First of all, it’s obviously good for me because we’ve worked together so closely, but also because I think he’s a very sensible, wise, but also tough person. And in relation to Gaza, we will have a better chance of getting a strategy there that offers people the possibility of rejoining the West Bank on the right terms.”

During our five days together in mid-November, and in several meetings subsequently, there is ample opportunity to observe the former PM at close quarters – and we speak often, in short, snatched bursts and longer one-to-one sessions. Although he is always relaxed – as he seems, indeed, in all the sessions that I am able to witness with the heads of state of the various countries on our trip – it is only when he has a chance to unwind, without constant interruptions, that you glimpse his humanity unmasked by that slightly all-too-ready actorish fluency.

Blair’s schedule is as lunatic, if not more so, than when he was in office, but he’s a different man to the one we were accustomed to seeing in the final stretch of his tenure. The look of bruised defiance and exhaustion which shadowed his eyes has been replaced with that old bright blue sparkle of optimistic certainty. He seems happy.

There is something about him that makes me think of a man caught in the grip of a postponed midlife crisis, in a positive as well as a disconcerting sense. He has the glow of the newly-in-love; in love with the world and, for the most part, the feeling is reciprocated.

There is also something of a grand folie – however important the work and the seriousness of his approach – about the Herculean scale of the task he has set himself: sorting out the Middle East, Africa, climate change, his sports foundation, his faith foundation, “making a case for faith as a force for good in the world”. And in order to be able to do this work pro bono (as well as keep up his hefty mortgage payments and make good his debts), he needs to generate an enormous income – estimated at £12 million since he left office. He’s achieved this by giving speeches (Blair is said to be the highest-paid speaker in the world, earning a reported $250,000 for a 90-minute talk), a teaching stint at Yale (on faith and globalisation), as well as delivering what he describes, with an almost embarrassed ironic flourish, as “my memoirs”. All of which might help to explain why, at 55, he’s in such a hurry.

When I ask Blair how often he manages to see his wife and son Leo, now 8, he replies: “At the moment, not nearly as much as I should. I know…” Honestly, Tony, I scold him, do you want your marriage to fail? “No, I don’t!” An easy laugh. “There’s clearly got to be a major recalibration.” Is Cherie not saying to you, “Hey!” More laughter: “Yes, she is.” Don’t you miss her? “Of course I miss her!” I say that he’s always seemed to go at things at a breakneck speed, but now there seems to be an added urgency to his frenetic pace. “Well, it is partly true,” he concedes, “but it’s also because I’m building a new life. When we left [Downing Street], all I had was a mobile phone and Vic and Catherine [his old staffers] and even they weren’t getting paid.

“Eighteen months on, we’ve got 70-odd people around the world employed in various guises, and offices in the centre of London, and my two foundations established. So I’m starting, like, a whole new enterprise. But I wouldn’t be happy any other way.”

If there’s one, somewhat irreverent, lingering snapshot that exemplifies Tony Blair’s time management, it’s of him walking past my seat on the James Bond-ish Gulfstream IV – all cream leather upholstery and burnished gold accoutrements – distractedly undressing on the way to the loo, white linen shirt out, flies undone, although he flatly denies the latter when I later point it out.

His body language is interesting. Although recent photographs reveal a slackening of that resolute jaw line, Blair still manages to retain a movie-star glamour. But when he is tired or off-guard, his left foot has a tendency to turn inwards which gives him an oddly vulnerable, pigeon-toed gait. Sitting behind him on the plane, with his socks runkled down to reveal a stretch of bare ankle, this was particularly pronounced, and as he scribbled and scratched away revising a chapter of his memoirs, he resembled a schoolboy swotting away at his homework.

All the hours in the gym have paid off – the Blairs have installed one in their London home – and our former PM now has a positively streamlined physique. He holds himself occasionally like someone who has recently shed a lot of weight; with a mixture of pride but because he is temperamentally disinclined towards strutting, also a slightly conflicting awkwardness.

I am surprised by an occasional theatrical tendency: he calls his female staffers “darling” and, by day two, I, too, have become one of his darlings. I also catch him using the c-word to the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (the punchline of a jokey anecdote) and he reveals that what I had apparently mistaken for flashes of intolerance are what his son Leo refers to as “a Daddy moment”, when he “zones out… which drives Cherie mad”.

There is a new sense of weightlessness at a deeper level, as well. Unshackled from the burden of office, Blair should be free to express himself in whatever way he pleases, but he is still feeling his way in this regard. It’s an intriguing time to capture him; the wings are definitely unfurled but he hasn’t quite got the confidence yet to take flight. I still feel the intervening presence of Alastair Campbell admonishing him that, “We don’t do God!” when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism, for instance.

Still, he does eventually talk in a far less buttoned-up way about various subjects that were off-limits in the past – from what attracted him to Cherie to his doubts and deep anxieties over Iraq and Dr David Kelly’s untimely death, his own background and what formed him, and so on. We spend a great deal of time, inevitably, discussing the seeming intractability of the Middle Eastern conflict and his view of the new world order.

It’s important to remember, when reading the criticisms of Blair not making an impact on the peace process, particularly in light of the past weeks’ warfare, that his remit as Quartet’s special Middle East envoy is to work for the Palestinians on law and order, strengthening its security capability and developing its economy, to prepare them for statehood. “It isn’t to do the political negotiation,” he says. “However the whole thing is so intermingled and the one thing I never have a problem with is talking about politics with anyone.”

Our first full day together starts with a breakfast meeting with Ehud Olmert. When Blair introduces us, Olmert wraps his guest in a bear hug, strokes his neck and declares, “I love this guy!” TB then has short sessions with all the key players: Benjamin Netanyahu (former Israeli Prime Minister, chairman of the opposition, and hardliner; tipped to be next PM); Tzipi Livni (foreign minister, and acting Prime Minister); Lt General Ashkenazi (Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces); and Ehud Barak (Defence Minister).

What does Blair hope to achieve by such brief encounters: is it just a general bonding exercise to facilitate better communications? “Particularly at this moment in time, when you’re working up to an Israeli election and a new President of the United States, it’s about working out where people really are, what it is they’re hoping for and what are the prospects of them being serious about negotiation for peace,” he says. “And, actually, today has been good in the sense that I’ve met all the key Israeli players and all of them are saying at least – and I think meaning – that they want to continue with the process of negotiation, and that they understand the need to make the changes to help the Palestinians do it.”

This was just six weeks before the outbreak of war. When I later ask Blair about the Israeli action, he says, “The Israelis did not want to go in at this point in time, but it was Hamas who did not renew the truce and it was Hamas who started firing rockets.”

Is it right to think that the key to moving ahead is to get both sides – and, crucially, Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist – to concede to the two-state solution and then to build on the precise terms from that base? “That is one thing, but if I have made any contribution to this in the last year in terms of strategy, it is an understanding that that in itself is not enough. The difficult thing is that what each side says about the other is true,” Blair says. “The Israelis have a genuine security problem and the Palestinians have a genuine problem with the Israeli occupation, and those two things are linked, so unless you find a way to work out that problem you’ll never get a political negotiation to succeed.”

There are useful parallels, here, that can be drawn from the long, frustrating years of negotiating the peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland – which once seemed as impossible to resolve as the Middle East conflict does now. “In the end, we got the IRA to a minimum point – and the minimum point was an acceptance that a united Ireland could only be achieved by exclusively peaceful means. Some people would say the sad thing about Northern Ireland was that it took a state of exhaustion on both sides for them to eventually agree, but I think it’s more that the IRA came to an understanding that, just as the British couldn’t beat them militarily, they couldn’t beat the British.”

When will you feel real frustration if you don’t see real progress? “We won’t get a new Israeli government probably until March – so probably this time next year [November 2009]. But in the meantime, there’s lots you can do.”

The next day offers an opportunity to witness what Blair means. We head off in convoy through the arid, stubbled landscape, pale ochre earth dotted with olive and almond trees, the homes looking more ramshackle and poorer as we approach Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Blair is to address the leaders of the new security force, as part of an initiative he has been working on with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and the US generals Jim Jones and Keith Dayton. The atmosphere is sombre, even uneasy, and Blair is going to have to work hard to convince his audience that he really is on their side.

As he takes to the stage, Blair opens with the greeting of “Salaam alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) and a few of the men smile as they reply, “Alaykum as-salaam” (“And upon you be peace”). It’s an extraordinary speech, with no notes, and demonstrates our former PM at his most heartfelt, engaging best.

After explaining his role in Quartet (a grouping of the UN, EU, Russian Federation and the US set up to encourage the Middle East peace process, for which Blair acts – unpaid, he says – as special envoy), he talks about his work over the past year and how well he knows “the problems, the challenges and, indeed, the injustices that the Palestinian people face”. He highlights the importance of people being able to live freely in their own land but notes that, “A state is not just about a homeland, it is not just a map; a state is also a frame of mind,” and draws on the role he played in Northern Ireland, establishing an agreement and an authority and rule of law that was recognised by all the people, not just some of the people.

“There will be many challenges ahead, not least the occupation – but I know you have the will and determination to take your place in the community of independent nations… and I want to say to you that whatever we can do to help, we will… and that our desire in the international community is that bit by bit the occupation will be lifted, and that our aim is to support you as you build your state.”

After respectful but unecstatic applause, he is asked: “Why didn’t this happen when you were in power, Your Excellency?” which gets a big laugh. Blair joins in and pulls one of his Rory Bremner gee-whiz facial shrugs: “I knew I was going to get some interesting questions! Actually, I was interested in Palestine but I had quite a lot of law and order problems in my own country,” which gets another laugh, and the mood of the audience shifts towards him. “It was my aspiration as Prime Minister [to address the Palestinian predicament] but now it’s my mission.”

As more questions are asked, Blair rattles off the funds that have been raised to illustrate the level of support worldwide and addresses the humanitarian suffering in Gaza. He mentions his talks with the Egyptians in Sharm el-Sheikh, whose leaders are acting as go-betweens with Hamas, as well as his communications with Barack Obama, “who has assured me personally that the issues here will be a priority right from the beginning of his administration”. By now, his suit jacket is undone, his eyes are wide with conviction and the hand gestures are multiplying. After many more questions, he concludes: “We have got to be the people here whose hearts are up and that is the only way forward.” Afterwards, there are amazing scenes as Blair is surrounded by the men who looked so leaden and impassive when he arrived. They all want to shake his hand, and everyone wants to be photographed with their heads cocked towards his. He grins and grins; his teeth clenching and unclenching.

Later we reconvene for another interview back in the American Colony hotel, Blair’s apparently luxurious digs, an oasis of slightly faded splendour surrounded by potholed, derelict streets. Before we return to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it seems worth revisiting how Blair’s views have developed towards the region from his early days as Prime Minister. It is clear, at least, that he wasn’t doing some sort of PR spin when he told the Palestinians that he was always interested in their plight.

In 2002, for instance, Blair was at odds with George Bush over the Middle East – despite being called his poodle – and distanced himself from the US President’s call for Arafat to be ousted, saying: “It’s for the Palestinians to elect their own leaders. We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians.” Blair was criticised for his pro-Arab stance after urging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue peace talks after suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. In 2003-4, the Israelis under Sharon withdrew from Gaza; Israeli settlers who refused to budge were forcibly removed by Israeli soldiers and their homes were demolished. In 2006, Hamas won its surprise victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The following year, Fatah was driven out of Gaza by Hamas.

Blair’s take on his initial distancing from Bush is, “What happened really was this: Bill Clinton tried heroically to get an agreement, couldn’t get one and then came the intifada [September 2000], which is the most important thing. It’s important to emphasise that because I hadn’t quite appreciated the degree to which the intifada altered everything.

“Therefore I understand why, when George Bush came in, he thought there wasn’t much point. However, the fact is that you were always going to have to return to the peace process at some point, and my basic view about these situations is that you never fail to grip them. You grip them the whole time.

“The bigger point,” he continues, “is that in 2004, when Sharon withdrew from Gaza – which was extraordinary – there were only two people who welcomed it at the time: Bush and me. And because it was done unilaterally, everyone else, basically, condemned it.

“It was an interesting example of the degree to which I was often pinned between a view from America that was not always expressed in a way that I would express it, but actually had some point to it – namely, that there is a real threat and we do have to be serious about this – and the rest of the international community who, at that time, almost didn’t want to acknowledge the threat.

“It was a middle ground on which I was standing, which was fairly lonely for most of the time.”

Last July, Blair was to have visited Gaza but the trip was curtailed at the last minute because the Israeli security service had received “detailed and credible” intelligence that there was to be a planned assassination attempt on his life by a militant organisation.

After the three-week war, I ask him again whether he will reconsider visiting Gaza and he says, with some steel in his voice, “I will go into Gaza now because it’s terribly important that the community there knows that the international community cares. I would have gone in before, but when you are with staff, you have to think about the safety of the people who guard you, let alone mine, and the intelligence was completely credible, I’m afraid.”

Given that he criticised Bush for trying to remove Arafat back in 2002 – I repeat his quote, “We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians” – does that mean he changed his view when Hamas was elected?

“Erm… certainly my basic predisposition is that in a situation like this you talk to everybody,” but he repeats the Quartet position that there can be no talks, official or unofficial, with Hamas until they renounce violence and recognise Israel. “I have always thought that there is a distinction between the difficulty of negotiating with Hamas as part of the peace process about the two-state solution if they won’t accept one of the states, and talking to Hamas as the de facto power in Gaza.”

Could I say, perhaps, then, that I suspect that you have spoken to Hamas in an unofficial capacity and you could give a Francis Urquhart-type response?

“Er… er…” Blair smiles. Is it tricky? “It is tricky, yes.” OK, I’ll just smile back at you then.

When Blair talks about America as not expressing views in the way that he would necessarily express them, I take it he is referring to Dubya’s “Let’s go get those bad guys” cowboy rhetoric and the neocons’ comic-book melodrama of the “Axis of Evil”. Although Blair is too sophisticated to use this lingo, he does seem to see the world in pretty black and white terms. Unlike David Miliband, who believes there is a series of un-unified, quite independent armed struggles, Blair’s view is that it is a parabola of implacable hostility.

As he tells me: “I think we still have our eyes closed to the nature of what is going on and I see a complete link between what is going on in Palestine with what is going on in Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia – and this is one fight, basically. Terrorism is now a very powerful weapon of war and conflict.”

So I ask him another childlike question: does he believe in good and evil? “I do believe in good and bad, yes, good and evil, I suppose,” he says. “Obviously, I believe they [the terrorists] are bad and I think our basic values system is good. But from a practical, political point of view, it’s more sensible to see it as a struggle about modernity and globalisation. Fundamentally, I think theirs is a reaction against the modern world, which is why their attitudes to women and to how people live and work are so backward.”

We revisit this battle between good and evil when we are in Rwanda. It is my first time in an African country and the photographer, Nick Danziger, who has travelled widely in the region, points out its eerie silence in comparison to any of the other countries we have visited. As we drive through the deep valleys flanked by emerald mountains, there is a hushed solemnity about the people we pass – including prisoners from the genocide carrying long trunks of wood, still rebuilding the homes they had destroyed – and I am struck by the fanciful notion that the majestic landscape itself is still in mourning.

On the plane journey, I ask Blair if his Tigger-like optimism is ever dented by Eeyore-ish gloom. Does he ever descend into depression? He says that, of course, he has his dark moments. When we talk in the hotel, I ask him about this in the context of the genocide: does he sometimes despair about our endless capacity for brutality and bloodshed?

“Yuh, absolutely,” he says, and talks about his visit to the genocide museum in Rwanda. “What is fascinating about it is that you see the extraordinary capacity to do evil that humankind has, but there are also stories of people who sheltered people, who gave their own lives to other people, who did the most selfless things. And so I deal with the possibility of hope in the sense that I am convinced that people, given the right circumstances, want to live peacefully with each other. I am personally convinced of that.”

Those who cannot forgive Blair for Iraq – and there are plenty of them, not counting the extremists – say that he is responsible for atrocities of his own. That there is nothing he can say now or do to justify the actions he took and the subsequent loss of lives. I ask him whether he believes that history will vindicate him over that decision to invade, and there is a big pause before his weary answer:

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. So there’s no point in answering it in the end.” Are you ever haunted by it? “I’m not haunted by it, but of course I reflect on it, and am troubled by it, and feel a great sense of responsibility for it. Of course I do.”

Blair has experienced the extremes of being both the most loved and subsequently most hated Labour Prime Minister since the Second World War. I wonder what such a dramatic fall from grace feels like. “It’s not nice particularly to have people distrusting your motives or saying you’ve lied about things, but the most difficult thing in any set of circumstances is the sense of responsibility for people who have given their lives and fallen – the soldiers and, indeed, the civilians.

“If I didn’t feel that, there really would be something wrong with me, and there is not a single day of my life when I do not reflect upon it…” his voice goes very quiet, as though he had retreated into his own private thoughts, “…many times. And that’s as it should be.” But after another moment of silence, he bucks up: “On the other hand, you have to take the decision – and I look at the Middle East now and I think, well, if Saddam and his two sons were still running Iraq, how many other people would have died and would the region be more stable?”

I can still remember the moment the former PM first entered my radar; it was back in 1994 when John Smith was leader of the Opposition, and this young Labour MP appeared on Question Time, blue eyes blazing, fiercely articulate, firing on all cylinders. Significantly, perhaps, I can’t recall anything he said but was struck by him having a weirdly Thatcher-like aura of conviction and moral certainty.

For all Blair’s achievements, it is that unshakeable belief in the rightness of his views that has bothered me ever since. Back in London, I ask him if he ever suffers from doubt. “Do I ever suffer from doubt?” he repeats. “Who doesn’t suffer from doubt? Of course I suffer from doubt.” Do you ask yourself whether you have done the right thing? “Of course!” But never about Iraq? “Of course. You ask that question the whole time. You’d be weird if you didn’t ask that question.”

Is your conscience clear over the death of Kelly? “Absolutely. That was utterly tragic but, you know, we did put ourselves through six months of the most intensive inquiry that any government has ever submitted itself to.” Was that one of your dark moments? “Yeah. Yeah… because I felt very, very sorry for him and his family. It was a terrible time.”

Although most of our interviews focus on knotty issues, there are lighter moments; while Blair enjoys locking horns and being challenged, he is also quite playful. On the plane we talk about Cherie’s book and I tease him about her disclosure about Leo’s conception in Balmoral. I ask him to repeat his response, since it had tickled me, on the record: “Yes, ‘Shock horror! Married politician has sex with wife!’ It’s like everything to do with Cherie… people go over the top. I don’t know why but they’ve got a thing about her.”

I wonder whether he remembers what it was precisely that attracted him to Cherie when they met as young lawyers all those years ago. There is another longish pause, and then, “Yeah, she was a mixture of obviously very smart and serious and knew far more about the law than I did, but she had quite a feminine, almost giggly side to her as well. So there was a combination that I really liked of someone who was both smart and fun.

“I don’t think I could have settled down and lived with anybody I didn’t respect in terms of the mind and a capable human being and all the rest of it. No, yuhhhhh, we had a very good time…” he smiles.

It is noticeable how often Blair mentions the people he admires in terms of their braininess. He says that his wife definitely has the better brain: “Cherie’s just really clever. She got the top first at the bar exams and was streets ahead of me in brain power. But although she is more confident intellectually than me, I think I might be more confident than her in other ways. She’s got a certain insecurity as a result of her background. In one sense, I had quite a difficult childhood because of all the illness there was [his father had a stroke at 40, which robbed him of his speech for three years; shortly after, his sister was hospitalised for two years with a form of rheumatoid arthritis] but, actually, it was a very settled childhood in terms of my family.”

When we talk about Clinton, Blair wants to point out something about the former US President that he believes gets overlooked: “The thing that is most remarkable about him – and he has many remarkable qualities – is his intellect. The quality of his intellect is extraordinary.” In what way exactly? “His ability to grasp an issue, then mould and remould and explain it – it tends to get eclipsed by the fact that he is also a tremendous politician and so, because he expresses himself in very simple and direct ways because he is a great communicator, people miss the intellect. I think Obama has something of the same quality, actually. I think he’s got a high-grade intellect.”

How can he explain the conundrum of George Bush; just how dumb or smart is he? Blair becomes uncomfortable, his eyes darting away. “Um… Well, people say that they want a politician who just speaks his mind, and then he speaks his mind and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t want that – we want someone who speaks like we expect a politician to speak.’ So I think that’s a problem for him.”

When we speak on the phone after Bush has presented Blair with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his support in the War on Terror, I ask him whether it is slightly awkward for him to have that relationship reinforced at a time when the outgoing President is so unpopular around the world.

“Firstly, I am not a fairweather friend,” Blair says. “And also it is the greatest civilian honour that can be awarded. I’m not a great one for honours but it was very kind of him and I was proud to accept it on behalf of all the people who took military action.” He then reiterates the comments he made in our interview in London: “I think that people will eventually understand the nature of the decisions he took at an extremely difficult time. The fact of the matter is that decisions like those made after 9/11 are really, really tough. And I think that people will find this out as we get into the Obama presidency, because the expectations change but the problems don’t and the problems are tough.”

Blair is confident that he will enjoy a good working relationship with the new American President. They have met half a dozen times since their first encounter, when Obama was on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “He was introduced to me then,” Blair recalls, “as someone who was very clever and a great prospect for the future; it was always obvious that he had something different about him.”

Prior to the inauguration, it was Obama’s speech on race that particularly struck a chord with Blair. “I found that very, very moving. I think that was when I understood that he had real political depth and imagination because it was not an ordinary speech. It showed a complete understanding of why people might feel as they feel but that actually it is time to move on. The thing he does really brilliantly is to explain why certain sentiments are inconsistent with the future and can be put to one side.

“Prejudice, certainly, but also that he understands that very partisan politics doesn’t really work any more and doesn’t meet either the needs of the time or the mood of the time.”

Isn’t that a bit like your philosophy, I ask, thinking how human it is to find someone especially brilliant if their approach seems to mirror your own? On the evening of Obama’s inauguration, at least one American pundit compared the euphoric mood in the United States to that of Britain in 1997. “Yuh, I think there is a new generation of political leaders who find the very traditional pigeonholing rather redundant, actually. Who have undergone this strange experience – certainly for me, but I think in a sense for Obama, too – which is growing up with a Left politics that was the politics of ideology, and then as we’ve grown to political maturity and taken positions of power, we find that it’s the Right that’s got ideology. Over time, the Centre Left became quite practical and the Right suddenly got ideology which I think still dogs it today.”

Although Blair is in a new mood of openness, there are limits, as I find when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism – which is almost on a par with his response when I ask him whether he has, like Jimmy Carter, ever “committed adultery in his heart”. (“Now, Ginny, this is one place we’re really not going to go… That’s private! There are some human questions which it’s better not to answer.”)

But before we deal with matters of the spirit, I need to address the more worldly concerns of mammon. We know that Blair has never had a problem with champagne socialism and he reiterates his view that, “It would be disastrous if the Labour Party ever went back to the days when they had a problem with people who are wealthy supporting them.”

As for his own considerable earning power, he does not feel uncomfortable, he says, because, “I left office with a lot of debt, and I’ve got a big operation to support, and I do a lot of stuff pro bono and it’s not coming out of public funds.” He does not, he says, have a property portfolio: “I’ve got a house in London and a house in the country, and I’m probably not alone in that regard. It’s true that I have a place in the constituency [Sedgefield], but that is now the centre for my sports foundation.

“I suppose people disapprove of the country residence because it seems to be rather grand, if not grandiose. “They mistake the pavilion for the stately home which gets photographed but is not, in fact, the place we live in. I mean, it’s a very nice house but it’s not the stately home! Anyway, to be honest, I’m very happy with it, so I don’t feel guilty about having it. Sorry, but it’s as simple as that really.” Have you still got the Bristol flats? “They’re either sold or in the process of being sold… yuh.” How can you not know! “I do actually, but I don’t really want to talk about it because you get a whole load of ridiculous stuff out of it each time.” Have you still got mortgages? “Of course, I’ve got mortgages and I also bought at… [A big, rueful laugh.] You can almost spot where the housing market is by seeing what I do and doing the opposite. So, yes, I am being affected by the credit crunch.”

In Rwanda, when I asked whether he found his faith a solace, he said, “Yes, I do, but I find it more of a strength than anything else. But my view of faith is not a very exclusive or narrow one. I think what people find difficult nowadays is to reconcile faith sometimes with very strict interpretations of doctrine of organised religion. But I think people can understand faith a lot more easily, and a level of spiritual values.” All of this was delivered with a great deal of swallowing and mumbling into his chest.

But what was it about Catholicism that had persuaded him to convert? First, he seems to suggest that his conversion was really a pragmatic matter to formalise him tagging along to church with the rest of the family. I understand why he couldn’t have “come out”, so to speak, as a Catholic when he was Prime Minister, as he says: “If I hadn’t been Prime Minister, I would have done this several years before” – he tells me he had been attending Mass for seven years – “but it would have caused the most extraordinary rigmarole. There would have been no end to the speculation.” But that doesn’t explain his reticence now.

Back in London, in the snowy-carpeted Hempel-esque plush of the Belgravia office, we return to this and I say that he sounded rather glib about the whole business. Can he try harder to explain? After some flailing around, he says, with a struggle: “Look, the thing that motivates and drives me is my religious faith. I am a member of the Catholic Church but you would misunderstand me if it became defined in terms of specific rituals or acts. It is about values and beliefs; it’s about God and humanity.”

As we go to press, there is a prevailing mood of excitement as well as anxiety as we watch every move of the newly inaugurated American President for signs of how the world is going to reshape. A spokesman from Mahmoud Abbas’s office claims that Obama has spoken to the Palestinian leader before any other world leaders. The Israelis declared a unilateral ceasefire; joined by Hamas for a seven-day period only. Blair makes it clear to me that he feels his hands have been tied by his role with Quartet, not helped by “the US administration being at its very tail end and Israeli politics being in a state of paralysis since the middle of last year because of all the allegations [corruption charges against Olmert which precipitated his resignation].

“Although we did achieve things in the last year, it was obviously frustrating and I was on a steep learning curve. It took us ten years to deliver peace to Northern Ireland – so, of course, you can’t deliver peace in a situation as complex and as difficult as the Middle East overnight. That’s not gonna happen, but I think that the bitterness and grief of the last few weeks will fade eventually and, at last,” says Tony Blair, who, like someone else we know, chooses to be audacious about hope rather than resigned to despair, “we have now got the possibility of a quantum leap forward.”

News

Tony Blair

Women, Writers

Arianna Huffington: The superblogger

The Times, November 01, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Born in Greece, educated at Cambridge and now the queen of Capitol Hill: Arianna Huffington’s superblog has made her one of the most influential political commentators in America

Arianna Huffington
Vince Bucci

There’s a perfect Arianna moment during our long interview in the heat of the Los Angeles summer, when I ask her whether she’s seen Swing Vote, a highly topical film that had just opened in America, starring and bankrolled by Kevin Costner. “Yes,” she says. “I am in it…” Pause. “I play myself.”

Well, of course she does. In a film whose central premise is that the outcome of a US presidential election hangs on the vote of one “ordinary American” – that most sought-after coupling of words in this charged real election – the extraordinary Arianna Huffington with her hugely influential political blog (key postings by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), The Huffington Post, aka HuffPo, practically commands a cameo role.

There are a number of reasons why I laugh out loud. La Huff’s slightly huffy (forgive the pun but it happens to be true) presumption that, surely, I should already be aware of her small but significant part; her insouciance about the obviousness of her role as a player in Hollywood; the whole slightly nutty reality TV idea of it is funny. It’s just too much, don’t you agree? Probably not, judging by Arianna’s blank response: “I thought that was why you were mentioning it.”

Our day together started chaotically. I arrived bang on time at Huffington’s home, a Mediterranean old-style villa in the swish Bel-Air borders of Brentwood, which once boasted Hollywood royals Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as residents, and latterly O.J. Simpson. The photo shoot was supposed to have finished but had not even started, which offered the opportunity for a longish perusal of the property.

The somewhat madhouse atmosphere, full of keen interns declaring their work is “awesome”, is amplified by a singsong woman’s voice on an endless loop – the Velvet Underground, it turns out, by way of the Juno soundtrack: “I’m sticking with you, ’cos I’m made out of glue, Anything that you might do, I’m gonna do too.”

Beyond the impeccably green collection of Prius cars (or Prii, as Huffington tells me her daughters call them), the front door opens into a vast hallway which would be perfect for the high-powered networking gatherings that were once considered, but no longer, to be Huffington’s central raison d’être. The French windows open out to an extended courtyard with steps leading down to a swimming pool and cabana, flanked by guest houses with wings for the various members of Arianna’s extended family – her late mother, Elli, used to live with her, and her younger sister, Agapi, 56, still does – whom she describes as her “tribe”.

A large dining-room table is covered in platters of fresh fruit and plates of honey-oozing baklava – Arianna has inherited her mother’s hospitality gene – which are intermittently snarfed by the great traffic of people passing through the house. Lempicka lookalikes are on the walls, and a blue portrait by Françoise Gilot; Arianna insists that it was Picasso who copied his ex-wife during his Blue Period, rather than the other way round. There are many, many photographs – almost all of family but also one of Barack Obama who seems, at first glance, to be stroking Arianna’s neck in a gesture of infinite tenderness, while she gazes at him. When I bring this to her attention, Arianna says he was merely gesticulating (which is clearer on close inspection), and then she points out her 19-year-old daughter, Christina, in the background.

Half an hour passes, and Arianna appears, trim in black, only to disappear again, stripping off her shirt to reveal her bra as she jogs up the sweeping staircase. Hair recoiffed, a change of clothes for the last lot of photos, poised on a column of her dozen books, ranging from her early biographies on Picasso and Maria Callas to her recent self-helpish bestseller, On Becoming Fearless, via the political – Right is Wrong, with the longest subtitle: How the lunatic fringe hijacked America, shredded the Constitution, and made us all less safe (and what you need to know to end the madness).

Finally, La Huff has done posing and sits to talk by my side at the giant table. Among the flurry of interruptions and disturbances, there is a sense of contained stillness and calm about her, as well as an unusual quality of simultaneous engagement and detachment. I wonder whether this is a result of so many years of New Age training or because she sometimes doesn’t quite catch the nuance of a question or maybe it’s just a technique for remaining unflappable. I had caught Arianna being grilled by Paxman on Newsnight a week before we met, and his incredulous eyebrow and withering tone didn’t faze her in the least. If anything, she got the better of him.

At 58, she still has the looks of a woman who might flick her burnished mane but she does not. In fact, there is something strikingly unanimated about her. The only tic Arianna seems to have is to knock on the table whenever she says “touch wood”, which is her response to anything from her hope that America is well and truly ready for change to her younger daughter overcoming anorexia.

She is the coolest warm person I have ever met, with a tepid social laugh and a constant refrain that many of her natural inclinations are to do with her “Greek peasant” stock. There are certain contexts where this works: her shrugged-off explanation for the youthful glow of her unstretched skin, and some which make her sound rather less empathic.

When we talk about Isabella’s anorexia, for instance, which she wrote about (with her daughter’s permission) in Fearless, I ask her whether she has ever suffered from anything similar: “No, it’s not a Greek peasant girl disease,” she says. “I always consider myself from Greek peasant stock, I don’t know if I am or not, but I feel I have this earthiness and there’s a sense of perspective that food is precious and I don’t suffer from all these diseases of civilisation.” One takes her point, but I wonder how helpful this robust distaste for modern-day afflictions might have been when her 11-year-old daughter, now 17, was suffering.

Since her intention is to create the first internet newspaper, rather than a mere political blog – the liberal Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) is the most talked about of these – I ask her baldly whether she thinks that America really is unracist enough to vote in a black President. “I don’t think that’s the issue at all. Sure, there’s residual racism but it’s marginal and nobody expects Obama or anyone else to be elected unanimously.

“What happens in elections, unfortunately, is that fear-mongering works. That’s what happened in American politics in ’04; there’s no earthly reason why George Bush would have been re-elected after it had been proven that there were no WMD, after it had been proven that we had tortured people in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and despite all that he was.”

The fear factor prompted Arianna to write three posts dispensing her advice to Obama. She doesn’t hold with my reinterpetation that one of her lines is that it’s important for her candidate not to dilute his position – to become Obama-lite – and shift to the centre. “It’s not about moving to the centre in the sense of abandoning any particular progressive position; that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about not being true to yourself.

“When you’re not seen as being true to yourself, then you’re not the leader who can unite a country and bring about real solutions. You are another pawn who listens to the polling data which has been proved so completely wrong again and again. So he must not surrender to the siren songs of consultants, pollsters and caution. He must follow his own drama and create a new consensus around what needs to be done. That’s leadership.”

There is strong evidence that negative campaigning, however unpleasant, works but Arianna’s view is that what Obama’s team needs to do, instead, is concentrate on galvanising the great abstaining swaths of the electorate, rather than focus on the unreliable whims of the swinging voter. “I’m saying don’t fight with John McCain over them – the oscillating ones who are most easily fearmongered. Run a campaign which is predicated on expanding the electorate: the almost 50 per cent, over 83 million Americans, who did not vote in the ’04 election. If he can get five per cent of these millions who did not vote, then he’s there… and I absolutely think it’s the likely outcome.”

There has been much comment about how the democratising power of the internet has shaped this election and transformed the nature of those in the future. Arianna, as one might expect, is enthralled by the potential of using the internet as a tool to reach out to so many people: “That is what is great about now; you can just keep giving great speeches that go on YouTube which people download. Obama’s speech on race – which was a great speech – has been downloaded in its entirety millions of times.

“And, by the way, this idea that John McCain and so many people in the media are contemptuous of eloquence! Rhetoric has always been a part of great leadership, whether it is Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela being able to move hearts and minds through words. I mean, how else does change happen?”

She, of course, has been famously open to change, having swung from being a darling of the right – at Cambridge, where she was President of the Union, a conservative commentator when she was the girlfriend of Times columnist the late Bernard Levin, courting the neo-con likes of Newt Gingrich when she moved to the States, promoting the political career of her ex-husband, the Republican oil scion Michael Huffington, who came out as a bisexual after their marriage ended – to a most outspoken champion of the liberal left.

It’s the sort of journey, one imagines, that has left numbers of her former friends and allies feeling betrayed. But Arianna points out that her core values have always been liberal: “Even during my Republican interregnum, I was always pro gay rights, pro choice and pro gun control. So if you take these three major social issues in American politics, I have always been progressive and I haven’t changed. The only change which has been fundamental is my understanding of the role of government.”

It is she, indeed, who feels let down by her former political soul mates who have changed – in particular, John McCain. Coming from a culture that venerates age, Arianna would never use the age card against him but says: “The problem with McCain is not his chronological age, it’s the age of his ideas: his views on gay marriage or Iraq or what we should do with the economy.

“He has given up all his core beliefs which had to do with ‘the agents of intolerance’, which is what he had called the religious right – and now he’s kissing their rings. On taxation, he had voted twice against George Bush’s tax cuts, and now he wants to make them permanent. On immigration, he had a very sensible bill but now he’s saying he will vote against his own bill. Torture was the ultimate surrender. This hero who has been tortured, voted against a bill that would have banned the CIA from using torture.

“So that has been his Faustian bargain and that is why he sounds so discombobulated because he has no compass. He goes wherever they need him. It’s really sad and I don’t mean that just as a phrase. This is a really noble man who’s fallen.”

The Sarah Palin curiosity show was not yet in play when we spoke but Arianna subsequently made her views plain on HuffPo, where she posts an editorial four times a week. (She still writes her weekly syndicated newspaper column for the Tribune group.) After watching the vice-presidential debate – as a member of the audience, naturally – she wrote about Palin coming across as an “over-wound-up doll, sporting a pasted-on smile that never varied, except when she winked”. She was also alarmed by the extent to which the neo-cons, her own former political bedmates, had been apparently grooming the moose-queen behind the scenes.

In one of my e-mailed questions for a last-minute update, I asked Arianna whether she considered Palin had done less or more for women by coming this far, and was impressed by the thoughtfulness and speed with which she replied. “In one way,” she said, “she’s been a throwback – relying on a flirty charm rather than knowledge, intelligence, insight. But her candidacy has been good in that it proved that just being female is not enough to attract women voters. Indeed, Palin has fared particularly poorly with women – especially women under 50.

“When the dust settles, I believe Palin will be remembered as a disastrous – and ridiculously risky – selection for McCain to have made. And she’ll go on to do what she seems to like to do best: perform. I think she’ll become the wildly popular host of a TV reality show.”

Arianna chose not to support Hillary in the primaries principally because of her position on the war. But her disappointment with the Clinton regime goes deeper: “The attempt to reform healthcare was the last bold position of the Clinton administration. Yet the Nineties was a very prosperous, good time in America; a time that we could have come together for a great collective purpose.

“To come together and try to reform healthcare again. It’s, like, you don’t give up the first time. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘Well, Lyndon Johnson said we don’t have the vote. So, OK, let’s move on’! When was reform ever easy?”

So why should we attach any importance to the opinions of a self-declared, if extensively reinvented, Greek peasant girl? La Huff is hardly a household name in this country although older readers may remember her as Arianna Stassinopoulos. But, now more than ever, she is undoubtedly a big deal in America (making Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006) – where she moved first to New York with her mother in 1980 at 30, realising after an intense 9-year relationship that she had no future with her mentor and first big love, Bernard Levin, 22 years her senior.

It was Lord Weidenfeld, the publisher, who had advised her to befriend the wives not the husbands of the powerbroking set on the Upper East Side, arming her with a list of contacts. He had encouraged her to write the Callas biography, which was serialised by Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, husband of Tina Brown, who has recently launched her own internet venture in America, The Daily Beast; they all remain the best of friends, wheels within wheels.

I had said to Arianna that while I did not wish, personally, to be bamboozled by her legendary charm – “No chance of that!” she had said rather sharply – nonetheless it was interesting how she had set about cultivating friendships with such powerful and influential women, and with such stunning success. (Ann Getty, who not only found her a husband but paid for the wedding in 1986 which, by most accounts, stretched even her own customary extravagance; Barbara Walters was a bridesmaid.)

“There was no five-year plan,” she says. “And there isn’t one now. So many of the good things I have in my life were the result of coincidence… of things that came to me. For instance, the Maria Callas was a tiny book, with a much smaller advance than the Picasso, but Harry Evans got into a bidding war with The Observer and paid more money than any previous serialisation, which was what made the book. All those things I did not cause. [The subsequent kerfuffle about a now settled plagiarism charge only served to swell the sales.]

“So the idea that you charm your way into great things happening to you would be untrue and it would also not be good advice to anyone who is listening. I feel that the only advice I can give in terms of quote unquote ‘charm’ is that if you really like people and genuinely care to know more about them, it’s just a great way to go through life.”

During her Manhattan years, Arianna became a fixture on the social scene and was written about in not always flattering terms which tend to get recycled, being memorable if cruel, in profiles such as this. My favourite is the one about her being the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus. We have a slightly surreal moment competing to remember the cleverest Arianna put-downs. “There are some good lines,” she agrees. “Do you know the one Henry Kissinger said about our wedding?” (That it had everything but “an Aztec sacrificial fire dance”.)

Just as I’m thinking this bland equanimity is almost too good to be true, she makes a spirited rejoinder: “Henry Kissinger was out as much as I was, and I didn’t hear anybody calling him a socialite! There were many men around at those same dinners – as much if not more so than I was – but you’ve never heard those adjectives attributed to men. Never.”

Did the comments bother her at the time and do they still? “At the time, they did, yes, but if at 58, I still minded those things I would really worry about myself because it would mean I was completely missing out on the point of life.” And the point of life is…? “The point of life is freedom,” she says. “And the more free we are, the less we care about what other people think of us.”

Earlier, I had asked Arianna whether she could imagine dying for anything she believed in. “Yes, yes,” she says. “Definitely I would die for my children. There’s a lot I believe in, but we have to be more concrete otherwise we sound a little bit melodramatic.”

I explain that I’m asking because both her parents put their lives at risk, driven by their beliefs. “Ultimately it has to do with big words and big values, and with me of all the big values, it would be truth – but then what is the concrete manifestation of that big value?”

OK, say somebody tried to make you write propaganda? “That would be a very good example, yes. To lie about something which would inevitably put people at risk.” Does she consider herself to be physically courageous? “I’m not in the athletic sense of scaling mountains or anything like that. [She is a keen hiker, however.] But I think I’m courageous in terms of challenging the conventional wisdom… of speaking truth to power. Actually, I don’t even consider it courageous.”

Her mother, Elli, worked for the Red Cross in her early twenties during the Greek Civil War and was up in the mountains hiding Jewish teenagers. One night they found themselves surrounded by German soldiers demanding that they surrender the Jews. Elli, who apparently spoke many languages, all self-taught, “in an accent stronger than mine”, her daughter says, came forward and boldly told them in fluent German, “We have no Jews here, put your guns down,” and, remarkably, they did. “She said it with such authority and she was really fearless, all her life and fearless for us, too, which is why I took that name for the book from her. She was definitely the foundation of everything for me… but that’s another story.”

Constantine Stassinopoulos, her journalist father, edited a Resistance newspaper during the occupation, and was caught by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. After the liberation, while regaining his strength in a sanatorium, he met Elli who was recovering from TB and coming to terms with the sad news that she could not have children as a result. The two had an affair, whereupon she promptly fell pregnant and was fully prepared to bring the baby up on her own. “Yes,” Arianna says rather proudly, “I was a lovechild.” Eventually there was a wedding, with Elli “and her substantial belly”, but Constantine’s idea of marriage, when his wife complained about his endless affairs, was, “You should not interfere with my private life.” It was a sense of entitlement, his daughter explains, “‘I survived and life owes me.’”

It was Michael Huffington who persuaded Arianna’s father to write a book about his experiences, and paid for it to be published and translated: “They were really close, even though my father did not speak English, and it was beautiful to see these two people who did not have a common language but still had this incredible bond.”

The Stassinopouloses split up when Arianna was 11 and Agapi was 9, although they never divorced and died within months of each other in 2000. Elli sounds like a wonderful character, padding around the Upper East Side apartment in a fur coat and bare feet, smoking cigars. Her idea of a humdinging party was inviting the plumbers and handymen to mingle with the statesmen and bankers. “She had no sense of hierarchy and could not have an impersonal relationship. If you went shopping with her, she would engage with the shop assistant. Not to be nice or because she wanted something; it’s just the way she was.

“She never dyed her hair or wore make-up, she was just totally real. I’m not advocating that, I’m just saying what a role model she was,” Arianna says.

The other way she influenced her daughter was her interest in spiritual matters and alternative ways of thinking. Long before it was mainstream, Elli was practising yoga and meditation and sent her daughter off at 16 to study comparative religions in Calcutta. (The following year, mother and daughters moved to London so that Arianna could pursue her dream of going to Cambridge, where she was awarded an exhibition to read economics at Girton.)

“She was completely grounded in reality but at the same time understood that there is more to life than this material reality. She would quote Socrates who said, ‘Practise death daily’, not in a morbid sense but in a sense of bringing perspective into your life,” Arianna says. “It’s stunning, when you think about it, that we live life as though we’re never going to die when the one absolute reality – whether you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a believer, whether it’s tomorrow or in 30 years – is that we’re all going to die, right?”

There was a period in the mid to late Seventies, in the UK as well as the States, when self-discovery became the buzzword. You could take your pick from est (whose guru, Werner Ehrhardt, was one of La Huff’s boyfriends), Insight, Exegisis and the latterly disgraced Bhagwan Rajneesh with his followers in their flame-coloured clothes; Arianna enthusiastically did and, indeed, only recently participated in an Insight seminar in Los Angeles. She says these accelerated therapy sessions – and, perhaps, California was always going to be her spiritual home – have helped her to realise that: “It wasn’t enough for my life to be about me and my children and my work, it had to be something about being connected with a larger story, the story of our time.”

I can still recall the shock of seeing a drawing of the towering intellect Bernard Levin dressed in a tutu, illustrating an article by a playwright, Snoo Wilson, who had seen him thus transformed at one such course. Arianna also remembers it and the publication it appeared in, Time Out. While Levin may have been her teacher in so many ways, it was she who was responsible (and blamed) for encouraging him to explore the instant therapy route. So was he wearing a tutu and if so why? “He was in Jungian analysis and it was his way of illustrating his feminine side,” she says. “It was the side of him that he felt he had suppressed. For him, it was really about breaking taboos to do with tenderness and intimacy, all the problems that he had with intimacy and relationships.” Did he find it helpful? “It was Insight and, yes, he found it incredibly helpful.”

It was this problem that, despite young Arianna’s best efforts, led to the break-up. Although it is long ago in her past, when she talks about the pain of that rejection, falteringly rather than in her easy eloquent flow, it still seems sad and smartingly real. “He was so committed to our relationship – that was what was so hard,” she says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t want the relationship to last for ever, he just didn’t want to have children. Obviously I would say his own childhood… well, he had a lot of problems and he desperately wanted to break down those barriers to intimacy – emotional intimacy – but he couldn’t, he had such a hard time.”

On Levin’s death in 2004, after a long descent into Alzheimer’s, Arianna wrote a moving piece in which she recalled the way he would retreat into himself when faced with confrontation. “Yes, and for me it was always to engage,” she says. “It was very hard because I was very much in love with him so, you know, it was painful when he would withdraw.

“But although it did feel like an incredible rejection, and it was very painful, which was what made me decide to move to New York, it taught me a lot about the mystery of life. Because when I look back, everything that’s happened in my life happened, in a way, as a result of that rejection. My children, The Huffington Post, my whole life here would not have happened – so that is how I see it, however painful and hard it may have seemed at the time.”

She is, understandably, less open about the failure of her marriage. Arianna was seen by her critics – who were legion – to have been harnessing her own social and political ambitions when she worked so indefatigably to promote her husband’s career. In 1988, when Michael was deputy assistant secretary of defence for negotiations policy under the Reagan administration, the Huffingtons moved from Washington DC to Santa Barbara, California, where he ran for and won a seat in Congress. In 1994, he spent almost $30 million of his own money – a record for a non-presidential campaign at the time – but lost in the general election by 1.9 per cent of the vote to Dianne Feinstein. Three years later, the couple separated and in 1998, Michael Huffington disclosed his sexuality in an interview in Esquire. In 2003, when Arianna stood as an independent candidate to be governor of California (later withdrawing), her ex-husband – who remains a staunch Republican – chose to endorse her opponent, the present governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is a bit of a cloud around how much or how little Arianna knew about Michael’s sexuality when they married. She has said, in the past, that she wasn’t aware of his inclinations. For his part, he states things very clearly in a recent New Yorker piece: “In December 1985… I sat down with her and told her that I had dated women and men so that she would be aware of it. I didn’t think it fair not to mention my bisexuality… And the good news was that it was not an issue for her.” He is now a film producer whose projects include We’re All Angels, about a gay Christian pop singer combo, and earlier this year, Bi the Way, a documentary on bisexuality.

There were a lot of ups and downs in the divorce years, Arianna says, but they’ve come through it as friends. They have weathered storms before, after all, when they lost their first born baby, a son they named Alexander Roy. Arianna says that she and her daughters often wonder what he would have been like: “He’d be 21 now and we have this thing that he wouldn’t be intellectual like the two girls; he’d be at college on some jock scholarship and intimidated by his really brilliant sisters, you know!”

Michael lives in Boston now but only the other evening came round for dinner. “He’s a very good father and we were determined to put our children first,” she says. “So we’ve always had birthdays and Christmas together, just the four of us – and at times it was harder for the two of us – but it’s reached a point where it’s very natural.”

Their daughters, she says, “are very resolved about their father’s decision to come out and they’ve dealt with it. I should never have discussed it when I did and it was really my mistake but he and I have agreed, for the sake of the children, it’s not something that anyone can benefit from, going back and forth on that.”

Later, when I’m wondering how the couple could bear to have been mixing with the neo-cons and their toxic homophobic hatred, Arianna counters: “But there have always been pro gay rights Republicans. That’s just one of the many contradictions in the party.

“Michael was always pro gay rights when he was a Republican congressman and now. He’s involved with this group called the Log Cabin Republicans and they’re gay Republicans advocating gay rights within the Republican party.”

Arianna says she is single at the moment, “but I am very open to having a boyfriend and falling in love again although I’m not looking for it.” I ask her whether she would like to remarry and she says, quite revealingly: “I think it’s very unlikely. I feel marriage was for me about having my children and right now, again I’m not ruling it out, but I definitely don’t see it on the horizon.”

In the meantime, there’s more than enough to occupy her time with her new baby The Huffington Post, which goes from strength to strength. In last week’s e-mail she tells me that it has seen “remarkable growth” this year, “with 19.5 million unique visitors in September, the highest number ever for the site and October will be even higher”. This is all double Dutch to me but I do note the New Yorker’s reference in mid-October to its importance as a liberal foil to the Drudge Report and that in February “according to Nielsen Online, it drew 3.7 million unique visitors surpassing Drudge for the first time” and that in August, the site logged 5.1 million unique visitors. So, yes, “remarkable growth” sounds pretty accurate.

Arianna chose not to answer my questions about profitability or valuation (the latest estimation was a sale price of $200 million), other than to point out that she has not invested any of her own money in the project, only her time. But she did tell me that, “We are not consistently making a profit. There are profitable months and not profitable months, depending on the combination of expenses and advertising we bring in.” She and her partner, Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL executive, who launched The Huffington Post in 2005 have already set up a Chicago office, and Arianna – never known for the limitations of her vision – seems set for global domination: “Ideally we want to expand around the world.”

She’s very glad to see that her “great friend” Tina Brown is “diving into the internet” and she doesn’t appear to be at all bothered by the competition: “The more sites there are offering smart, compelling content, the more people will get their news, opinion and entertainment online. That’s good for all of us.”

When I asked where she will be on election night and with whom, she replied, “I will be with our Huffington Post team, covering the results second by second!” On a second e-mail, she added that her younger daughter would be with her, as the older one has just started at Yale: “I’m on my way right now to my first parents’ weekend!”

My final late question was, knowing how sceptical she is about the veracity of the polls: are you more or less confident that Obama will be the next President than you were in the summer? “More,” she wrote. “In tough times, we need someone with a steady hand on the tiller. By that measure, Obama has been the clear winner. He’s been centred where McCain was scattered. Forceful where McCain was forced. Presidential where McCain was petulant.”

And her sign-off was pure Arianna: “Of course, at heart, I’m still a superstitious Greek peasant girl, so I’m not counting my chickens – or my lambs – yet.”

Food, Writers

Heston Blumenthal: the alchemist

The Times, October 25, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

You don’t just eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, you have a whole sensory experience. Ginny Dougary drops by his laboratory to talk the science and psychology of food, families and uncontrollable fury

For those of us afflicted with vivid imaginations, it can be disturbing to hang out with Heston Blumenthal. Odd thoughts cross your mind such as what would it be like to be served a life-sized head of the chef-owner of the Fat Duck. First: you and your fellow diners would be invited to insert earphones connected to iPods which would play barnyard sounds of contented chickens clucking. A waiter would waft a distilled essence of something suitably earthy: fresh hay, say, laced with something borderline unpleasant to stimulate the senses. You would then be presented with a silver spoon and instructed to tap the patron’s bald pate which would crack open to reveal a rich brew of truffled brains, which you may or may not find delicious depending on how easily you could overcome your conditioned resistance to cannibalism.

This tasting menu special came to me on the back of a highly unusual voyage of discovery that managed to eclipse even the extremely high standards set by the usual Fat Duck experience.

The punishing brief was to spend a day with Heston, half of which would be devoted to eating the 17-odd (in both senses) courses on his legendary menu, accompanied by my elder son, Tom, who had previously picked the Fat Duck as the restaurant at which to celebrate his 18th birthday. The thinking behind this mission was that there is something about the chef’s experimental approach to food, with his test tubes and lab, that is particularly appealing to rather clever adolescent boys. Tom was clearly up for the challenge, with his pronouncement that “Heston is really safe” (ie, “cool”) and that he was “totally psyched” about the whole prospect.

The first person we see by the narrow road that curves through Bray is the man himself, in his white chef’s jacket, nursing a broken hand from a recent cricket injury. This, so his wife Zanna tells him, is someone’s message that her husband should be spending more time at home with his family. Not much chance of that, however, with a hefty book to promote (The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a compendium of his life’s work), a television series in production, a new menu to create for the Fat Duck, as well as an intriguing commission to transform the Little Chef motorway chain into an altogether different dining experience (also to be filmed for Channel 4). There is something fitting about this last project given Heston’s parents’ admirably – if true – left-field decision to name their son after a service station near Heathrow.

He is every bit as friendly and blokey as his television persona, with no immediate signs of the rather more complicated personality that emerges in our interview. We chat about Feast, the first of his Channel 4 commitments (he defected from the BBC earlier this year), which is proving to be quite time-consuming. The idea behind it is to recreate various dishes and experiences from different periods in history, and we will get a chance to sample some of these works-in-progress in his “laboratory”.

Tom is riveted by one that is recorded in the new book, which is spectacular, but not in a good way. This involves plucking the feathers of a chicken while it is still alive – not so dissimilar to a Brazilian perhaps – then somehow lulling it to sleep (presuming it has not already passed out in shock), whereupon it is placed on a giant platter surrounded by his fellow fowl who have already been roasted. The poor creature’s rude awakening apparently comes as the host starts carving, and the pièce de résistance – oh what japes – is to watch the bald, freaked-out chicken run amok down the table. Heston wishes the Channel 4 production team had never got wind of this particular blast from the past since they keep badgering him to stage a re-enactment. We agree that he should hold firm.

The lab is no longer in the garden shed behind the restaurant where Heston and his team conducted the experiments that led to the creation of his first astonishing taste-sensations: the nitro green tea and lime mousse in 2001, for instance. He bought a neighbouring pub, the Hinds Head, principally because it came with a house – formerly used for staff accommodation and now containing an overspill kitchen, various offices and the new laboratory. As it turns out, the pub has been a great hit, too, with its more conventional (and affordable) bangers and mash and steak and chips, allowing him the freedom to be ever more recondite in fine-tuning the menu of his flagship restaurant.

We meet the lab team and the head chef-technician, Kyle Connaughton, arms covered in tattoos, who is not given to small talk. On the main table there are bowls filled with chopped truffles and pomegranate seeds and a sort of home-made Rice Krispie concoction, as well as the aforementioned dishes for the TV series. Heston, who has two or three tasting sessions here a week, reappears and tells us about one of his many collaborations.

It is important here to stress, perhaps, that although his ability to cook has been internationally recognised (three Michelin stars for the Fat Duck, and voted best restaurant in the world), Heston is also an inventor, a pioneer, alchemist, teacher and explorer, as well as being fascinated by history and psychology, science and the arts. He may be something additional for which we have not yet created a word, since he is pushing all sorts of boundaries in his curiosity to see where this might lead. All of which could make him sound a bit annoying – particularly in England where we don’t like to be in awe of individual virtuosity – which is where his natural, unassuming manner comes in handy.

He is continuing his Odorama investigations, which have already gone down well, as I remember from our first visit, with his introduction of a sort of bosky woodland smell to accompany one of the starters of oak moss and truffle toast. Now he’s working with a guy to produce a blast of campfire smoke, a vanilla-scented cloud intended to summon the memory of an old-fashioned sweet shop, and the fresh hazelnut blissfulness of a newborn baby’s head. He produces a vial of the final one but, alas, it has curdled and (rather spookily) replicates that precise tang of regurgitated breast milk that I last smelt coming at regular intervals from someone standing not very far… happily, a veil of discretion descends.

We join the tasting team for Frog Blancmange, a Heston tweak of a Tudor recipe: a beautiful vast wooden bowl, with a giant water lily settled on a bright green resin, a puddle of some kind of white cream, the Rice-Krispied frog legs rising up like little spears, and a scattering of rosy pomegranate seeds. The maestro is not happy with the cream-cheesiness of the taste and says it needs more work.

Then Blackbirds in a Pie, which after six weeks on the job is declared to be perfect. The question is: will Channel 4 release four-and-twenty blackbirds (probably not) when the pie is cut. Next come a Roman dish of doormice (sausagemeat) that still leaves a lot to be desired, a Victorian edible garden (to be served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower), and an incredibly complicated business that combines Mock Turtle soup with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, involving templates of a fob-watch encasing an intense broth, wrapped in gold leaf, which dissolves in the teacup when boiling water is added, so that the heady black liquid is flecked with specks of gold, which is simply the accompaniment for another dish which… well, you get the general idea.

Our time in the lab is over and it’s off to the restaurant for lunch. I’m wondering how the menu, as well as the whole drama of the event, will stand up to a second tasting, particularly only a couple of years after the last visit. I loved it the first time round but had looked upon it as a once-in-a-lifetime treat – rather like a visit to another planet, say – and not just because it’s so expensive. What was striking then was that despite the number of courses, the portions were mercifully small so we left the restaurant feeling rejuvenated rather than torpidly overstuffed.

The food was as delicious as ever but I had to fight the urge to ask the waiters to skip the introductions, which were perhaps necessarily elaborate the first time but redundant on a second visit. We both loved the Sound of the Sea, the dish Heston says is his pride and joy. Conches are deposited on the table into which iPods are secreted and as you push the plugs into your ears, you hear the rhythmic crash of waves and the intermittent cry of a seagull. Before you even taste what’s on the plate, you are instantly transported into some childhood seaside resort of long-distant memory with your parents placing a shell to your ear. It’s the oddest, intense feeling suddenly to be driven into your own private, interior world while you are in a most public place. Heston recently tried this out in a dining room full of captains of industry and they were all reduced to being little boys.

There are other mind tricks, an integral part of the Heston experience, which is a lot to do with perception and breaking habitual ways of thinking. I seemed to remember not liking the salmon poached in licorice gel because I loathe licorice (although love fennel) – and the idea of the combination was pretty unappetising. This time round, at any rate, it was delectable but it could be that it was on the first occasion, too, only the unappealing concept is what lingers rather than the actual taste.

Four and a half hours later, we finally emerge from the Fat Duck, waddling after all the wine pairings and extra dishes Heston has had the kitchen serve us. (Tom declared the new puddings, in particular, to be “totally bad-ass”.) No time to digest, however, as it’s straight into the interview. Since Heston has worked with so many different scientists from Bristol University, Oxford, Nottingham and Reading – where he was awarded an honorary degree – I wonder whether he has any regrets about not going to university himself. He was a studious grammar-school boy, with six O levels, who devoted his Friday nights to homework but became “distracted” in the sixth form and left school with one A level in art.

Heston mentions his father, who studied architecture and did a furniture restoration course, but did not go to university or encourage his son in that direction. The difficulty is being forced to make a decision at too young an age, Heston says looking at Tom, and he thinks now that he would have liked to have studied psychology or history.

The distracted years – which Heston dismisses as being the usual “bloke stuff” – also coincided with his discovery of gastronomy when his parents took their sixteen-year-old son to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Provence. It was, as he writes in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, “love at first sight. I fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.” Most of his spare time back home was devoted to poring over the Guide Michelin and Gault Millau, “cross-referencing three stars against high marks out of twenty… with the focused intensity of a cipher-breaker”.

Another obsession was martial arts: karate until he was 16, then into full-contact kick-boxing to which he devoted 20 hours a week. This was when Heston first became aware that he had a problem controlling his anger, and that exercise helped: “There were a load of Wycombe hard nuts down there [in Buckinghamshire, where the family had moved from London], potentially quite dangerous people but I was the youngest person and the moment they saw I wanted to learn, they took me under their wing and it was a really great feeling of camaraderie.”

Before we move on to his anger, I ask him whether he has ever suffered from a lack of confidence. “I have had big confidence issues, really big,” he says. “Although I wouldn’t say I had a serious lack of confidence now, I would certainly say that fear of failure was always a bigger driving force than the will to succeed.”

It was becoming a parent himself that prompted Heston to look back on his own childhood to search for clues about his character flaws. Two years ago, a back operation forced him to abandon the restaurant for a time and recuperate at home. “My wife had bought a Christmas tree and I’m standing there doing the decorations and my son [Jack], who was 13 at the time, said, ‘This is great, Dad, it’s the first time you’ve been here to do this with us.’

“My initial reaction was, ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ and then I thought, ‘Hang on a second, what he’s really saying is, “You haven’t done this before,”’ which gave me a big lump in my throat. This goes back to the confidence issue. From that moment, I started thinking a lot more about my upbringing which on the surface was a great childhood. But it’s amazing how your actions – even when you think they’re fine – can be subconsciously damaging.”

So what was it, growing up, that dented his confidence? “What is interesting, you might disagree with me on this,” Heston addresses Tom, “is your parents will always be your parents. Even if you’re 50 [Heston is 42], you are still their son and you still seek recognition and support and approval and compliments from them. It’s the most powerful source of compliment you can get.

“I realised I had this thing a couple of years ago – got the three Michelin stars, got the honorary degree, got the OBE, got the best restaurant in the world, and the doctorate from Bristol, and the one from Reading, got entered into the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry, when the only other two people were Nobel prizewinners…” all of this said at a gallop as though he is a bit embarrassed about listing his laurels, “…and these things were amazing, absolutely amazing, and yet my old man could say something like, ‘They mentioned so-and-so in the papers and not you – why have they got a thing against you?’

“And I’m thinking, actually, all those amazing things that happened have just disappeared. You think it’s not going to affect you but it does, even though you know they’re saying it to be protec-tive… It’s things like that and the Christmas tree… And I had a really, really bad – ah – temper and I fought really, really hard to control it, and then there’s this thing that only happened two weeks ago…”

He proceeds to tell a story about a bloke outside his house – “and we live in a nice road in Marlow now”, he adds – who was screaming at his wife or girlfriend “really aggressively” and Zanna and the three children are out in the garden, running after the chickens and the screaming is getting worse – “He’s going really mad” – and his wife, he continues, said to the kids: “‘Oh my God, imagine being married to that!’ and Jack turned round and said, ‘You were.’ Zanna came into the kitchen and said, ‘You’ll never guess what Jack’s just said.’ And that was just out of the blue.”

It was Zanna who insisted that Heston do something about his temper before something truly dreadful happened: “It was just getting worse and worse and worse. It’s a long story but she probably stopped me being jailed twice – actually pulled me back – an incident with a shotgun… an incident with a bottle…

“It was awful but it’s easier to talk about now because I’ve absolutely dealt with it. But it went on for five or six years. What was dangerous was the aggression was going down and the more cold, calculated feeling was getting stronger. It was an uncontrollable feeling and when it starts to feel…” he pauses, “…good… when that feeling starts to feel really good, it’s not good news. What’s bizarre is there’s a difference between being aggressive and starting to feel good about anger and violence. Zanna read about cranial osteopathy and it just gave me the impetus, although it might have been psychosomatic, to do something about it.”

It all started when Heston was a teenager and someone provoked him at a bar, and then leading up to the restaurant, “It was a situation where I had bitten off more than I could chew and I wasn’t in control.” I ask him, with some trepidation, whether he’d ever wanted to kill anyone. “Ughhh… yessss,” he says. But you haven’t, have you? “No, no, no,” which is a relief.

He says that he was a “very aggressive fighter” – probably an intimidating one, I imagine, with his muscular bulk and all those martial arts skills – and also suffered from really bad road rage. As it happens, the previous night, Tom had shown me a clip on his computer of Heston talking about a car-ramming incident on Griff Rhys-Jones’s two-parter on anger, Losing It, but it was the chef who brought up the subject, not me.

When I ask him why he thinks he was so angry, he pauses and says: “I don’t know. I have asked a lot of questions [and seen a therapist and faith healer]. I’d like to do some work on it and I did work on it because I haven’t raised my voice for years but I still don’t know why.” He’s particularly proud that the kitchen – where there are 43 chefs to an average of 42 diners – is a far cry from the notoriously abusive hellholes of some of his confrères. “Now, there’s no shouting, no screaming and no tantrums.” One of the many waiters who served us did say, however, that genial as he found the boss, he certainly wouldn’t want be on the wrong side of him.

Tom takes over for a bit and the conversation shifts into the more arcane territory of synaesthetic responses… much chat about learned associations, the effects of a crunch versus sizzle on the palate, the way a sound can stimulate other senses, and so on. As a music student, my son is interested in whether Heston has thought about working with composers and, of course, Mr Collaboration is already planning an event with David Coulter, Damon Albarn’s music supervisor on the opera Monkey: Journey to the West.

Back on the domestic front, I wonder how Heston’s wife has handled this long journey from sharing her life with an obsessive self-taught foodie – after the briefest of stints, Blumenthal famously turned down the offer to be an apprentice at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (two Michelin stars) – to being married to a world-famous chef. He speaks of her in the warmest and most generous way – as well he might – saying that, “In the whole time since the restaurant opened and the build-up as well, she has literally never moaned about the time I’ve spent at work.”

For 15 years, Zanna has “reared”, as Heston first puts it before correcting himself, “brought up” their family more or less as a single parent. He attended his first parents’ evening at his children’s school during that back-break, and put up with being ribbed by the teachers when he attended his first carol service that same year. When I ask him whether he ever socialises, he says: “Errrrrr… probably a couple of times a year. Even my son says, ‘Dad, you’re sad – because all you do is work and don’t go out.’”

There was a time when his wife was lonely but Heston says that she’s well past that stage. There are consequences, of course, as he discovered when he spent time at home this year writing his book in the evenings. “It was like walking into somebody else’s family,” he says. “They had their own routine of homework, dinner, getting ready for school and, with the exception of my son, all of them love watching EastEnders. So I would stand and watch this whole routine which exists without me.” Did it make you feel unwanted? “At first it did, yeah.” Did you talk to your wife about it? “Not at first. I kept quiet about it and then I said, ‘Look…’” She’s not resentful of you? “Not at all. She’s always been really, really supportive.”

When the news came through about the third Michelin star, Heston was in Spain conducting a demonstration at a symposium. The Fat Duck was on the verge of financial disaster – something Heston had kept from his wife. That night, fairly typically, there were bookings for only two tables. “Another week and we would completely have run out of money,” he says. “I couldn’t even pay the wages. I remember calling her with the news, and her screaming, just screaming at the other end of the telephone, with joy.”

Heston flew back from Spain straight into Friday night service, and got home at about midnight. “I walked into the living room and Zanna had cut out the front page of The Times – Harold Shipman was in the margin…” a splutter of laughter, “…and that was in a frame with three balloons blown up and gold stars and cards, which made me shed a tear. My family were all asleep. I poured myself a glass of wine and just sat there, and there are very, very few times when I wake up and smell the roses and I don’t know if I said it at the time, but I thought, ‘It’s all been worth it.’”

Since then, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength and last year, for the first time, Heston ploughed money into his own family, buying “quite a big house”, rather than back into the business. I wonder if he’s anxious about the effect of the credit crunch on the Fat Duck. “It’s funny, well, actually not funny, that I’ve had years of real financial struggle – all because I was pursuing my own selfish wont to make the restaurant better and better and better – and for the last two years, touch wood, everything’s started to, you know…

“But people have had hunger issues for years and years, so what we’re talking about is the credit crunch affecting people who already have money, and hopefully we will continue through it. So here’s a restaurant that costs 130 quid for a menu but that’s the price because that’s what it costs to produce that food. A car manufacturer will still be selling their new cars for the price of a new car.”

What is clear, as he told his son, Jack, when he accused his father of being “sad”, is that in the past 14 years, he’s got into the car to drive home, exhausted, drained and stressed, maybe, “But I’ve only once got into the car in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t wanna go to work,’ and I think that’s a really lucky thing.”

As we pack our bags to go, Heston tells us that his wife has started an Open University course this week. The subject? Psychology. I ask him why he’s smiling. “Oh, I was just thinking that I might make quite a good case study for her.”

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal is published by Bloomsbury and is available from BooksFirst priced £90 (RRP £100), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

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