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Fashion, Women

Celia Birtwell’s flower power

The Times, October 04, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Celia Birtwell’s floral designs defined a decade – and now they’re in vogue again with the Topshop set

Celia Birtwell, a name that once seemed firmly consigned to the past, is enjoying a prodigious renaissance – and her new fans, legions of them judging by her sell-out collections, are the daughters and granddaughters of the generation of women in the late Sixties and early Seventies who once wore, or could only dream of wearing, those gorgeous epoch-defining frocks, the fabric designed by herself and tailored by her ex-husband, the late, murdered Ossie Clark.

It’s rather marvellous to think of 16-year-old schoolgirls stampeding Topshop – where Birtwell’s limited editions tend to sell out quicker even than the Kate Moss range, in minutes rather than a day – to buy floaty mini and maxi dresses in the very same prints, the styles only slighty updated from the originals, which were worn by the likes of Bianca Jagger and Marianne Faithfull in their own dewy youth.

This summer marked Birtwell’s fourth season with the high-street chain since her debut collection in 2006, and she was chuffed and amused to have a window devoted to herself in Oxford Circus, “With all my daft little girls and skirts that come down just past your knickers and banners – a bit like a carnival. It’s called ‘Young and Cool’, I think.”

There was another collaboration, with Millets – perhaps even more unlikely, given that “happy camper” is not a phrase one would readily associate with Birtwell, certainly not in the outdoors sense – in the spring, featuring tents and wellies, sleeping bags and golf umbrellas, all looking weirdly desirable in subtle colours and delicate patterns. There was her cover of an Elizabeth Taylor novel for the 30th anniversary of Virago Modern Classics earlier in the year, a forthcoming BBC Two documentary made by the same team behind Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain which charts “Celia’s survival”, as her assistant puts it, from the late Sixties to her current rebirth, and her contribution – a homage to Manolo Blahnik, who designed shoes for Clark and Birtwell’s runway shows – in the recent 20th anniversary issue of Marie Claire magazine.

More licensing deals are in the pipeline, the Celia Birtwell range of “girlie toiletries” for Boots, wash bags, and little bags for brushes and emery boards and eyelash curlers – “Not that I’ve ever known how to use them” – and sunglasses, engraved with Birtwell’s distinctive flowing signature and various designs from cat faces to stars or stripes in charcoal and powder blue. She agrees that the Birtwell brand seems to be everywhere at the moment, and says that a lot of it’s down to Antonia, her publicist, and her daughter-in-law, Bella, who decided that, “Celia Birtwell ought to be licensed while she’s become something in her older life.”

But Birtwell has her own secret (not for much longer) agenda, which emerged when the Queen of Prints said that she hasn’t worn prints herself for a good few years. Isn’t this admission a bit close to “doing a Ratner”? She laughs, and it’s a surprisingly dirty chuckle escaping from that rose-red cupid’s bow.

Despite her doll-like demeanour – she still looks strikingly like the young woman in one of Tate Britain’s most popular paintings by her old friend David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71, reproduced above), the same limpid gaze and topknot of cherubic curls – there’s nothing mimsy-pimsy about Birtwell. She has that same no-nonsense strand shared by other creative northern types of her generation: Sir Ian McKellen, Hockney and even the bossy former schoolteacher occasionally glimpsed from under Vivienne Westwood’s veil of eccentricity.

When I ask Birtwell whether she has a beauty regimen, for instance, she says: “I think we’re told an awful lot of rubbish about make-up, actually. Do you remember that Boots thing [they are selling her products, remember], when they all went bonkers and sold out of this stuff… I mean, if it’s really serious, it would have to be on prescription. It can’t work. It’s not going to, you just believe it does. Anyway, I’ve always used soap and water on my face.”

How does she feel about Botox? “No, no, no – I think that’s far too vain. I would not do that. I feel there’s a conscience within me in a way, and I’m also quite a coward. I wouldn’t do it because, when one reasons it out, how fortunate are we to get to my age and actually be well? And I think, in the end, you really shouldn’t do it. I don’t really agree with it.” You think it’s a bit immoral? “I do really, yes.”

Warming to her theme, she continues: “This whole business of vanity… You know, what is beauty? We always reflect so much on youth and then it all disappears. You just live, don’t you, after a certain age? You’re just a being. And we don’t really have many icons that are older. Very few. And you see people of my age, I’m afraid, and they’re probably quite a bit younger than me, but what do they look like?

“The ones who haven’t got any style at all and they’re all out there, aren’t they? I think it’s rather sad, actually, when you look around. I sometimes think the Queen is quite an advocate of how those women look – when you see the grey hair curled up and those clothes… I don’t know who they want to look like or… I can’t get to the bottom of that one.”

Birtwell certainly manages to look stylish, despite her own shopping frustrations. She is all in black, an Agnès B chiffon blouse, tailored trousers, “a very old” pair of Charles Jourdan shoes with a delicate heel, a Topshop tasselled bag for her mobile phone, and a splash of red in her own Celia Birtwell scarf.

All her designs at the moment are for young girls and yet, “There’s a huge market out there for people like myself who would wear patterns if they could find them in suitable styles. I really feel for my generation, because we’re starved of suitable clothes that aren’t skimpy. I mean, you don’t really want to show your arms, for instance, when you’re my age. Mine aren’t bad, actually, but they’re not wonderful. And my legs are still good with a stocking on, but I always wear trousers.

“We’re all vain, really, but it’s very depressing because I can’t really be bothered to diet any more. I really can’t and yet if I ate everything I wanted I would be the size of a house. And what is there around for women in bigger sizes? Evans?” she laughs. “I’ve got lots and lots of friends and colleagues and acquaintances who say the same as I do, and that is that there’s everything for youth and beauty and nothing for the older woman. And it’s a bloody shame. Even my doctor, who’s quite a big woman, said the other day that she’d love one of my blouses from Topshop but there was nothing that would fit her. So it’s a cry and I think, ‘Well come on Birtwell, you can be a bit of a pioneer and do something about it.’”

Her fashion tips for the older woman (and she doesn’t consider herself a fashionista, saying: “Fashion can be very lightweight, can’t it? And silly”) are to wear blocks of plain colour and restrict your patterns to details in the cuffs or hems or in a scarf.

During her long years out of the limelight, Birtwell brought up her two sons, Albert and George, by Clark (the couple divorced in 1974) and opened a small shop in Westbourne Park Road in 1984 selling her fabrics, conveniently up the street from her house. Next year will mark the shop’s 25th anniversary, but she is fighting off Bella and Antonia’s plans to organise a big celebration: “No, I’m not going to do that,” she says staunchly. “I’m not agreeing and I’ve said to Bella I don’t want to because I don’t like anniversaries or celebrations – I like going to other people’s but not for me. I’ve never liked them, even when I was 21.”

Has the area changed a lot? “Just a bit… what do you think?” Birtwell laughs. “It’s the hub of the universe, I think they think.” “They” being the Notting Hill set who’ve moved in. “It’s amazing… amazing. Well, I’m not the right age group any more, so you have to keep a low profile, really – because it’s all to do with youth and beauty.” A lot of serious money splashing around? “Tell me about it,” she says, more dazed than disapproving. “You see these cars and I mean the most stylish girls – incredible looking, so pretty, beautifully groomed with little frocks on. The pick and it happens to be in my street. I lived in Notting Hill for a long time and when I moved to Westbourne Park Road and first had the shop, it was really quite seedy. It was… poor, quite poor.”

Hockney – who was always close to Birtwell, his muse as well as one of his dearest friends (in spite of an early fling with her husband) – helped her raise the necessary funds by arranging for his studio to take one of her drawings by him, and holding it until she could repay a loan of £20,000. She’s not all that keen on the endless recyling of this story for some reason; perhaps because it reminds her of when life was a bit of a struggle.

Certainly, apart from the financial uncertainties, her ex was problematic. His response to her asking for a divorce was to kick her and punch her so hard in the face he broke her nose. [This was an entry in his diaries.] When I ask her if he was often violent towards her, Birtwell says: “He wasn’t very nice to me.”

Clark had custody of the boys each weekend: “I couldn’t really rest because I was alarmed by his unpredictability [the boys were only five and three when their parents divorced] and irresponsible behaviour isn’t really what you want for your children.” Was he drinking with them? “God knows what he was doing. I don’t know. I kept very much away from it. I could never quite work out what it was that I was frightened of, but he did frighten me.”

Birtwell would prefer not to dwell on these difficult times, mainly for the sake of the boys, who are now approaching 40 and have children of their own. But neither was she thrilled with their decision to publish their father’s journals in 1998, two years after he was stabbed to death by his young former lover, Diego Cogolato. The Ossie Clark Diaires, described by one commentator as “relentlessly miserable”, focused not on the designer’s glory days when he hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton and Mick and Bianca, but his fall from grace: the struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression, bankruptcy in 1983, feelings of failure, his search for casual sex and increasing rejections, lack of money and reliance on Salvation Army meals. Did she warn her sons about the likely content? “I did try and it wasn’t something that I recommended, but how do you spell something like that out? It’s too difficult.”

When I comment on how much the obituaries made of him living in a council flat [in Notting Hill, after all, hardly a ghetto], she says: “It’s the whole image, isn’t it – of building a situation where somebody who could have been living in a château… Well, it’s sort of spelling it out, really.” Did she have any presentiment that his life could end so abruptly [at the age of 54]? “I don’t know… I didn’t really see him for quite a long time before he fell apart. He would come into the shop occasionally and get fabric from me sometimes. But he was pretty removed. I didn’t really find that we had much to say to each other. He was very bitter. People rescued me and I just think I was very glad of that.”

I wonder whether she can see anything of Clark in her sons now to remind her of what made her fall in love with their father before everything turned sour? “Yes, when you see one of them smile and they look a bit like him. Yes, you do – of course you do – or the way they move or do little things.”

Birtwell is funny, as she often is (I can see why Hockney finds her such amusing company), about the alleged glamour of hobnobbing with the great names of the Sixties. The closest she got to Jimi Hendrix, for instance, was shaking his hand in a basement Indian restaurant in the Fulham Road and clamping a pillow over her ears when Ossie played his records all night long: “I used to think, ‘Oh God, I could do without him at 2.30 in the morning.’”

There was also the time that her husband’s girlfriends in New York, “who were really Jimi Hendrix groupies”, turned up to stay in their pursuit of their hero. “So I had the groupies but not Jimi Hendrix,” she says drily, adding, “Ossie was always very generous with his friends and inviting them to stay at our place.”

She was pleased to have met Talitha Getty through her husband, another beautiful casualty of that excessive period: “I remember thinking, ‘You’re really lovely to look at and rather interesting and exotic, too.’

“Ossie had nice taste in people and I would have them round for tea. He was quite a butterfly in as much as he wanted new stimulus all the time. And new people. He was very, very easily bored. My mother [a former seamstress who used to discuss dressmaking with the teenage Ossie in Manchester] always said about him that he considered himself to be an artist and rated himself alongside Mick Jagger and David Hockney. He was actually rather furious that the pay and the accolades and the whole being was still probably ‘ragtrade’.

“There was nobody who could cut like Ossie, nobody. He was really inspired by the bias-cut chic of those fabulous old Hollywood films. They were never like ‘fancy dress’ – they were properly constructed, serious clothes. But he didn’t have a very good discipline. He didn’t realise that you have to work all the time. You have to keep at it.”

Birtwell is a forward-looking person, not given to nostalgia, but she did feel it was important to rise to the challenge of honouring Clark’s name after his death. In 1999, a relation of her late ex’s suggested she put together a show about him in a museum in Warrington. (Clark was actually from nearby Oswaldtwistle, hence his nickname; he was christened Raymond.) So she got her collection of old clothes out of the attic and set off with her designer friend, Brian Harris, to transform the space: “The little museum was a bit grey. so I insisted it was painted in a really bright pink and a strong green – which was rather Ossie – and they said, ‘Can’t we just do a little bit?’ and I said, ‘No, you’ve got to do it all – otherwise it’ll look frightful, just believe me.’ You know, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well.”

It was four years later that the V&A held a mini-retrospective dedicated to Clark with a launch party attended by the old guard of Faithfull, Pallenberg, Andrew Logan and Zandra Rhodes, as well as the new guard of Sadie Frost, Kate Moss and Brett Anderson.

Our first meeting, at Birtwell’s request, is for afternoon tea in Claridge’s – one of the hotels, along with the Lanesborough, which have bought her fabrics over the years to decorate their suites. Some weeks later, I drop into her shop unannounced and she kindly takes a break from preparing dinner for her agent (chicken pie) to show me around. It is a tiny space, with rolls of highly decorative material from all the different eras: mythical beasts dating back to 1984, the year the shop opened; lovely silks from the late Nineties, with Cocteau-esque animal heads and gold swirls (Orphée); Mystic Daisy and Candy Flower in pop-art colours from the current range.

In the loo at the back, there’s a Hockney drawing of Celia although she says: “He wasn’t all that keen on me opening the shop. He couldn’t have cared less about it – he’s probably only been here about a dozen times. He’s got my fabrics in his house in Bridlington and he likes my style and he’s always very sweet about the way I look and he thinks I’m a bit ridiculous, which I don’t mind at all.

“We have a very nice time when we’re together and I like the way I can amuse him because he’s great when he laughs. He’s horrible when he’s miserable. You want to be in another room. He can be depressed and be quite depressing. He’s a bit like a little boy, terribly sweet, cramming everthing in and then he collapses and wonders why. I think probably people of his quality don’t realise as you get older, you get more tired.”

At one point, Andrew Palmer, her boyfriend of the past 21 years – (she loathes the word “partner”) – drops in with one of the grandchildren’s old high chairs all packaged and ready to be sent off to an eBay purchaser. Twenty-one years ago, he was hired to renovate Birtwell’s house and never moved out. She had told me that he was a lot younger – by 15 years – but said, “He’s much older than me in the head. It’s unfortunate that I’m older in the body – hahahahah – but that will never change. It’s just the way it is. He’s also a redhead and they don’t age very much. Just my luck.”

Andrew, “who is really rather an outdoors person, he likes insects and beehives and nature”, as well as Bella, who is of the same bent, have been responsible for Celia’s recent weekend in, rather unbelievably, a campsite. “The only problem was my hair, you see – which always has to be Carmen rollered,” she says. “And after the wind got it a few times, I had to keep this beret on because the hair was so gone. I don’t know what I looked like.” She did not bed down, as it happens, in a Celia Birtwell family tent, but alongside one in a camper van, “trying to watch my little grandchildren go to sleep”. There were logs for a fire and fresh water and a steep walk up to the White Horse.

Sensible shoes? “Clarks ballet shoes. Not very sensible but it was a bloody hot day, Ginny, and I didn’t have my boots on. I should send you a picture of my rock-climbing days. They were long ago, but anyway…”

Anyway, it was “jolly nice, sitting under the stars” with Andrew and her children and children’s children, and a dram or two of whisky.

The main reason that Birtwell is working so hard on all this branding and packaging, it transpires, is that she would like to buy a small house in the country, preferably near Ludlow where she and Andrew often go for weekends. She’s always really been indifferent to how she is perceived, and was quite content being out of the public eye, although she wishes she had done a bit more with her “’furnishing” – another “dreadful word, which I’d rather you didn’t use”.

There’s no question that she still likes the buzz of London but, “I do want a semi-rural life now. I think as you get older, you appreciate nature in a stronger way – it doesn’t argue with you as much as people maybe? And I think you need quieter times. Maybe I’m greedy but my dream would be able to afford a little retreat.” So forget the chiffon ruffles and pussy-bows, after the Celia Birtwell cagoule, can the hiking boots be far behind?

Celebrities, Women

Kay Saatchi on life after Charles Saatchi

The Times, July 26, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

Kay Saatchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Women, Writers

Lady Antonia Fraser’s life less ordinary

The Times, July 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

Lady Antonia Fraser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


The gentrification of Irvine Welsh

The Times, June 28, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Celebrities, Radio

Is John Humphrys really the pussycat of Radio 4?

The Times, June 14, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

John Humphrys has a reputation as the rottweiler of Today. But interrogating the interrogator, Ginny Dougary discovers a self-critical soul who talks of life, death, fear and fatherhood

John Humphrys

John Humphrys, the so-called rottweiler of Radio 4, is in fact a pussycat. This would have been more of a surprise if I were one of the six million-odd regular listeners of the Today programme, where Humphrys has honed his interrupting skills with filibustering politicians over the past 21 years, but since I can think of nothing less soothing than starting my day with the soundtrack of argumentative discourse on governmental policy, this is not the case.

Journalists tend to be the most unrewarding interviewees and in some respects Humphrys is no exception. He is more careful than the most circumspect politician, super-alert to the possibility that he might be tripped up by a trick question into revealing more than is good for him. I had no idea, for instance, that his job would make him quite so paranoid about discussing politics in any shape or form – which is a bit like interviewing Peter Hall and discovering that he will not comment on the future of theatre.

This means that we cannot talk about the rise of the New Tories other than in the blandest terms: “It’s exactly what happened in 1997, isn’t it? It’s the political wheel turning. It’s what happens. Whether it will continue…” Do you think it will? “Well, I wouldn’t like to offer a judgment about that. I can’t because I’m making a political judgment. I can’t. I really can’t. Do you see? I know it’s silly of me. It isn’t silly of me. No, it’s sensible.” Not for the first time, I have the sense that he is arguing with himself. “I know it’s boring.” It is a bit boring. “I’m sorry, but I can’t honestly say to you, ‘Yes, I think David Cameron is going to smash Gordon Brown at the next election.’” What he will say is: “We’ve had 13 years effectively of New Labour ascendancy – only 11 years in power, admittedly [he includes the last two years of Major’s reign] – but it will be 15 years by the time, if Brown is thrown out at the next election.” Which will be? “My guess is May 2010 but…” Are you good at such predictions? “Hopeless. Almost always get it wrong – hopeless.”

This “I’m hopeless” refrain is another surprise. I’ve never come across a man who puts himself down so frequently in a series of pre-emptive strikes against himself, and I had rather thought, but this was before our meeting, that Humphrys might suffer from a certain smug self-regard.

Referring to a live interview he did with Tracey Emin – who apparently told him that he was the rudest man she had ever met – he said, “I – with brilliant, startling originality – suggested to her that maybe she hadn’t won [the Turner prize] because it was an unmade bed and, you know, with the vast depth and knowledge that I have of art, was this hard?” They met again on Have I Got News for You when Humphrys was presenter – “I wasn’t very good. Well, they didn’t ask me back which proved I wasn’t very good. It was good fun but I was nervous. I was all right but I don’t have that… I don’t have the Boris [magic?]…” Another unfinished sentence. He doesn’t get to see the programme very often, he says, because (with his 3.30am wake-up call for Today) it’s too late for him.

We have a long verbal ramble around the tricky task of interviewing politicians. Why Humphrys continues to be essential listening for many journalists – and the reason why he is so popular with listeners generally – is that he simply will not allow politicians to waffle on without answering his questions. The alternative to not interrupting them would be to allow them to use their alloted slot to get their point across unchallenged. What is interesting is that Humphrys himself is a bit of a waffler.

His conversation is peppered with “Here’s another little digression” and “I’ll answer your question in a minute”. At one point I’m exasperated enough to interrupt The Great Interrupter himself: “Where is this going, John?” And several minutes later (bewildered): “I’m getting a bit… I don’t know where we’re going with this…” “I know. I know,” he says, then, “That’s not my fault, that’s your fault – you’re the interviewer,” which is a fair point, but then my rottweiler skills are clearly no match for his.

The point Humphrys seems to want to get across is that he has been unfairly cast as an aggressive interviewer. When he started out he admits that this was true: “I suppose I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a name for myself and prove that I’m tougher than anybody else.’” He still winces when I mention an interview with John Hume, then leader of SDLP, in 1993, which commentators described as particularly bullying. “It’s hard to bully John Hume because he’s a very tough guy and bright but, yeah, that was bad. I was trying to make a name for myself and I was showing off. The audience has an immense sense of fairness, spotted it instantly and quite rightly ripped me apart.”

He goes on to say: “There is a great myth, I think, about interviewing – and you’d expect me to say this, I know, and it’s a bit self-serving and the rest of it, given the kind of interviewer that I am seen to be – which is that if you were only a bit nicer to politicians and treat them with, give them…They will tell you all kinds of things they didn’t intend to say. That I think is absolute tosh because the kind of people that are likely to be interviewed, the ones in Cabinet or whatever, are very, very bright by and large, and know when they come on exactly what it is they want to say.

“And if you looked at every serious political interview I’d done over the past 21 years, a handful of those would have been pretty devastating for the politician, a handful will have resulted in utter demolition of the interviewer, and most of them will have been neither – which is a very ungrabby answer from your point of view, but it’s honestly the way it is.”

He says that learning about policies is secondary and that his primary mission is to leave the listener with a bit more insight into the character of the politician. There are plenty of political commentators who know far more than he does about what’s going on in Westminster. Humphrys has always maintained an outsider’s distance from those particular corridors but, “even if I do an interview that is information-light – where you don’t learn anything that will make a front-page splash on your newspaper the following morning – if I’ve done my job properly you will still have learnt something because what I try to do is get under the skin of the politician.”

In a chatty telephone conversation we had before meeting up, Humphrys mentioned a smart party he’d once attended with a girlfriend he was trying to impress. The host was David Frost, who welcomed him like a long-lost friend – although they had never met – asking about his two grown-up children by name. This was useful for gaining kudos points with his date, but what intrigued Humphrys was that Frost had been similarly briefed to greet every guest as he worked the room. Part of him was clearly impressed by such conscientious schmoozing but, I suspect, a greater part of him rather despised it. Certainly, he seems to have a bit of a thing about Frost since he has beefed about the man’s interviewing technique many times over the years.

He has no problem, he says – this is clearly, to use his own word, “tosh” – with the sort of interviewing that takes the form of “an agreeable conversation” where the Prime Minister or Chancellor is allowed to say whatever he likes: “Although I used to find it incredibly frustrating when I did On the Record and Frost came on before that and they got the biggest interviews, almost always.” You think it was an extension of public relations? “Well, that’s being a bit unkind, but it is, sort of.”

The most common complaint about the Today programme, he says, is that politicians never answer the question, so what is the point in having them on. Humphrys’ view is that a politician’s very inability to respond to a reasonable question reveals something about his or her character. He mentions a particular woman politician – “I’m not going to use names because I can’t, but everybody knows the particular minister – you only have to say her name and every editor and presenter would say ‘Oh God’ because of the way she handled interviews.

“It’s not only women, but this particular one treats the interviewer like an idiot and by extension treats the audience like an idiot, and the effect on her is immensely damaging. Patronising. ‘Look, I really have answered the question’ – ‘No you haven’t, so let me ask it again.’ What they’re doing is deliberately not answering the question and they’re fighting off every attempt on your part to learn a bit more about them and their approach – in a way that somebody like Thatcher, for instance, never did.”

Before we get on to Baroness Thatcher, I try my damndest to get Humphrys to reveal the name. My guess is Harriet Harman because of the interview she did as Social Security Secretary (1997-1998) when she refused at least 13 times to answer questions put to her by Humphrys after a leaked government document revealed plans for sweeping cuts in disability benefits. But when I ask him directly he says: “I’m not giving you a name – no, no, I’m really not – but, actually, no, I wasn’t thinking of Harriet Harman.”

He has had a number of journalistic heroes over the years. Brian Redhead, whom he joined on the Today programme, was a “superb interviewer” – he rolls out the word “sooopurb” sounding very Welsh – “the best all-round broadcaster the BBC’s ever had. At his peak, he was my role model. And to be sitting next to Brian Redhead! My God, I couldn’t get over it. Brian Walden was another kind of hero, quite different, but also superb.” Charles Wheeler, the BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent (whose barrister daughter, Marina, is married to Boris Johnson), is up there, too.

Wheeler’s name comes up in the context of Mrs T – “I don’t know whether Charles will thank me for telling this story…” Do go on. “It was when she was doing her Iron Lady thing and made that extraordinary trip to Moscow. A British prime minister going to the heart of the communist enemy’s camp – you know – and they came out in their thousands. She’d left London at four in the morning, flown here and there, meetings, doing all those walkabouts. She was making history and Charles and I were both waiting to interview her at the British Embassy.

“It must have been about midnight when she came into the room, walked straight up to Charles – ignored me totally – and you could see the electricity flowing. Charles is a man who holds a certain appeal to women – always has done anyway – and you could see the sparks bouncing between them. They might almost have been making love. It was wonderful and I just sat there going, ‘Wow!’” Did you say anything to him afterwards? “God no! He was one of my heroes. I was intimidated by him.”

He was also intimidated by the lady herself. This was pre-Today, in the years when he was a foreign correspondent and he was keenly aware that there were big gaps in his political knowledge: “I’d never worked in Westminster, I wasn’t part of that scene… She had a fearsome reputation obviously and she was, indeed, terrifying. She really did have that aura of power around her.”

Can you convey that to me? “The way she looked at you was interesting, because once you started the interview, she would not look into your eyes but at a point in the middle of your forehead and she would talk to you like this [gazing at my forehead] ‘I really think, Mr Humphrys, that was a very foolish question.’ Oh…” he almost shudders, “she was just terrifying and took me apart. Oh yes, absolutely. It doesn’t help if you begin the interview scared of the person you’re interviewing because you will blow it.”

All these references to Humphrys being terrified and intimidated go along with his anxiety to prove that he is not as aggressive as his reputation. Being a clever chap, he is probably aware that humanising himself by displaying his own vulnerabilities might make for a more sympathetic portrait. There is something else going on here, too. One of his more interesting questions to me was whether I thought he was still a bully, and I pointed out his first words when I arrived at the Hammersmith home he shares with his partner, Valerie Sanderson – a News 24 presenter – and their eight-year-old son Owen. He had asked me how I was and I said “Good, thanks.” “Oh,” he said. “You’ve obviously not read my books [on the abuses of the English language]. I hate that Americanism.” I retorted that this response was, in fact, an Australianism and a good-natured wrangle ensued. But if I were a different sort of personality might this “welcome”, at the very least, not have been almost guaranteed to put one off one’s stride? He says that as a reader of my pieces (another adroit ego-massaging touch), and having spoken on the phone, he knew that I was not the timid type. But the longer we spoke around the table of his Country Living kitchen, the more biddable he became. At one point, when he had got up to answer his phone for the third time, I said crossly: “Could you please turn it off, you naughty boy,” and he meekly replied: “I will.”

Bob Humphrys, one of John’s three siblings (the youngest, Christine, died when he was four), gave a joint interview back in 1995 and talked about how they had recently spent a couple of weekends together, “talking about how our background has made us what we are today. Occasionally I become very morose and introverted, and John revealed he feels the same way.”

When I asked him what his brother meant by this, Humphrys said he had no idea. But, as he admits, he has a shockingly bad memory. On the telephone, he confessed that he had recently forgotten the name of one of his guests on the Today programme and had an awkward moment trying to cover it up. “I do not have a very good memory,” he said, “which is one of the reasons why I try not to tell lies.”

There is nothing remotely morose or introverted about the Humphrys I meet. On the contrary, he is immensely likeable – warm, engaged, with a ready smile and great bursts of laughter. He does have a sense of humour, although his own attempts at jokes are a bit awkward, something I remember from his hosting the press awards one year. In our interview, he launches into a bizarre riff about his radio personality: “Everybody knows that I am a sunny, eternally optimistic, switched on, ‘down there with the hoods’ or whatever the expression is, so I don’t attempt to conceal it. Frankly the difference between Evan Davis [the openly gay presenter of the Today programme] and me, well you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between us. Me and Evan, we’re out clubbing every night, we go to the same kind of clubs, we enjoy the same kind of music…” What is this very long joke? “Yes, all right,” he says. “It’s not very funny, is it?”

But it is only when we move away from the politics to the personal that he really opens up and, in particular, about that background which cannot help but have formed him. He was born and brought up in the unlovely-sounding Splott, a working-class area of Cardiff. His mother, Winifred, was a hairdresser and his father, Edward, was a self-employed French polisher who voted Tory until Thatcher. Despite both of his parents working long hours, there were times of real hardship when the children went to bed hungry. He has said that the priority was always to make sure the breadwinner – his father – was fed before anyone else. He grew up to the sound of his parents arguing (nearly always about money), and he never remembers them once addressing each other by name. There was one particularly dreadful night when his father wept, which Humphrys now assumes was the start of a nervous breakdown.

John was the bright one of the family who got into the local grammar school, where he was miserable (one of the reasons he left at 15 to become a reporter) and keenly aware of being the only boy in his class to have an outside loo, as he probably did not call it then. In his street there was never a question of going into each other’s houses for the luxury of afternoon tea, so when he was invited to a classmate’s house – he even remembers the boy’s name, Bolton; it was the sort of school where pupils addressed each other by their surnames – the experience made quite an impression. “It was a beautiful place with a lovely back garden and I remember a stream. From the point of view of somebody who’d been brought up the way I was, it was indescribably comfortable. There was sugar in a bowl and milk in a jug and jam, jam in a nice thing, and different sorts of jam and… It was wonderful. I was enormously jealous, of course.”

He describes his father as always being “a hard man. There was no sense of being loving – I mean he never hugged me.” Are you huggy with Owen? “Oh yeah, all the time. He probably gets fed up with it. No, actually, I don’t think he does. He likes it. Well, anyway…” Whenever Humphrys talks about his boy, his face creases with tenderness. He admits to being completely besotted.

Back to his father whose ghastly final years have prompted Humphrys to write a new book on dying. Although alcoholism runs in the family – both his grandfather and uncle died of it, and he reckons he was in danger of becoming one himself back in the double-martini-lunchtime of journalism – Humphrys’ father was never a big drinker. But after his wife died, Edward’s personality changed and he started drinking a bottle and a half of Scotch every day. It took a while for the family to realise that he was descending into dementia. He wasn’t forgetful or walking into the street half-naked, but “he was incredibly cruel to my sister, who cared for him and was a wonderful, fabulous woman”.

Did you ever feel like punching him? “Yes.” Did you? “Good God, no. Towards the end, I disliked him intensely at times but because he was so incredibly strong physically we didn’t recognise what was happening to his brain, and his last years – and it was ten long years – were awful, absolutely bloody awful.”

Towards the end, he refused to live with anyone, refused to go into a home, tried to drink himself to death, collapsed and was rushed into hospital where he stopped eating in his desperation to end his misery. But, of course, this was not an option so in went the drips and his father carried on surviving. He lasted six weeks in a home before being transferred to a mental hospital “which was hideous. He spent most of the day shouting, just shouting. It was hell.

“In the end, we did find him a home where they were good and humane and decent but still… It shouldn’t have happened. He was a man who prized… he went blind when he was young and all those things, and dignity mattered to him more than anything. They used to call him The Count.” Was he aware that he’d lost his dignity? “Absolutely. It was the ultimate torture, in some ways, utter helplessness and I know that if I’d been able to give him a glass of something…”, a sentence that doesn’t need an ending.

He remained friendly with his wife, Edna, after their split in the late Eighties (some years after he first met Val) and he says: “I will always feel guilty because it wasn’t all that long after we divorced that she got cancer.” He was in the room with her when she died. “I couldn’t talk to her because by the time I arrived she was unconscious but they are so bloody brilliant in these hospices. It was a big room that she was in and it was nine o’clock at night. They hadn’t turned on the lights and there was this soft light coming in from the corridor. I was sitting at the window in the corner and the nurse who came in didn’t see me. She bent over to her and stroked her forehead and talked to her and obviously my wife couldn’t hear her but she just said something and, you know, it felt like… love. If I could have done, I would have gone over and hugged the nurse. Every so often there was that sighing noise that dying people make, fairly steady and then ‘ahhhhh’ and then…”

Do you fear death yourself? “Yeah. I think most people do. It’s a cliché but you fear what’s going to come afterwards, even though I don’t think anything will come afterwards. Fear is probably the wrong word but I don’t want to die.” Humphrys will be 65 in August. He still runs regularly, plays tennis – there are courts opposite his home – and with second dadhood he seems to have shrugged off much of his grumpy old man persona. He bounces around the kitchen in his black jeans and trainers like a super-energised Tigger. His present contract with the Today programme ends in February 2009 but he sees no reason why he shouldn’t continue doing what he’s doing until he’s 80: “Assuming I could contain the dribbling.”

He admits that he was nervous about starting a family all over again, “whether I might resent this little kid for buggering up my life as it were.” But this time round, he was there for the birth and “it was a wonderful, yes, wonderful thing to see and to be handed this little bundle.” It’s Owen, he says, who has reversed the inflexibility that tends to come with the onset of later years. “The opposite has happened to me because of him. He’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

* * *

John Humphrys speaks at the Althorp Literary Festival on June 14; for further information, call 01604 770107. In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist, Hodder, £7.99


Music, food of Hove: Ginny Dougary prepares some shockingly filthy numbers

The Times, May 16, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary on the pleasures of writing dirty songs for the Brighton City Singers

Artists, even those who are not fortunate enough to be represented by a gallery, can show their work in art fairs, restaurants and shops. Writers get to see their words in books and magazines. But what of poor composers, many of whom never have the chance to experience their pieces coming to life?

For the past five years, the director of the Brighton City Singers (of which I am a founding member) has commissioned new choral works to be performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival. The results are often challenging, to put it diplomatically, and not all the members embrace the concept quite as enthusiastically as their choir mistress. Our usual repertoire is eclectic – Mozart to Abba, swing, musicals, gospel, Kaiser Chiefs.

As I write, we are in the throes of last-minute – it is always last-minute – organisation for this year’s concert. The theme is Food of Love and the pieces are the most appealing yet. The director has been more ruthless, rejecting anything that does not focus around love, food and sensual combinations of the two. The decorating committee is having fun transforming a rather sterile space into a scene of bacchanalian debauchery: men in togas reciting Shakespeare! Flimsily clad damsels offering grapes and Turkish delight on platters! Oyster shells, champagne bottles and dancers swirling in a half-crazed trance.

The choral pieces range from the lubricious – Pizza in Bed, with its references to gobbling spicy pepperoni, has divided some members of the choir – to the more intriguingly rhapsodic, a sort of electronic South Seas piece, set to a couple of Byron sonnets, with an overlay of African chanting.

There is a mad, madly operatic number about greedy Valkyries and a humorous tale of a food inspector whose job leads to a spectacular dental downfall. And – alas – I am writing this article instead of completing our song, which is a sexy number in the vein of the Bessie Smith “I need a sausage for my roll” genre.

The old blues numbers were shockingly filthy – men were keen to get their bananas into fruit baskets, women longed to get some sugar in their bowls, and both sexes yearned to churn butter and cream. My thought was to have the men champing at the bit – “Baste me in your oven ’til my juices start to flow” and needing their meat to be tenderised and marinated but, for God’s sake, get on with it. While the women would be quite happy for some slow cooking until they’re good and ready for the heat to be turned up for a final explosive blast, so to speak.

My elder son is a composer, as is my partner – but I only started writing the words to songs and choral pieces myself around three years ago. My first stab – a fledgeling musical based on the life and loves of David Blunkett and the Spectator shennanigans – was not dissimilar to my day job as a journalist. Writing an extended profile for The Times involves research. You look for what interests you about the character, clues and hints, as part of a narrative handle. For the musical, the idea was to create a version of actual people in which certain traits were amplified. The composer then used my notes and “read” about the individuals to create a musical character.

The process of editor and writer was reenacted but with an additional layer of me having to find words that would precisely fit the inflexible rhythym of the line. The difficulty arose when a phrase that might sound witty or eloquent when spoken simply would not work when sung. This sometimes led to a creative tug-of-war, with the writer and the composer debating the merits of the words over the music. In my experience (sigh) the music nearly always wins.

The next attempt was a commission by Terence Conran and Bluestorm, the managing committee of Embassy Court – a Modernist building on the Brighton sea front which had been restored to its former glory after years of neglect. What a high when we performed the piece with a 100-odd singers, accompanied by a brass band and a dozen Djembe Divas, as night fell and thousands of people gathered on the Hove lawns, before the fireworks cascaded down from the roof and balconies.

The new piece, juices and all, is still a work in progress and we are running out of time. But if we don’t manage to complete for the Brighton Festival, we will perform the piece for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall as the South London Choir and the Brighton City Singers – hurrah! – have been picked to launch the new season of free choral concerts on June 8. Food and love – well, it is such a winning combination, don’t you think?

Food of Love by the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir is on May 24 2008 at City College Brighton, Pelham Street (01273 709709), 7.30pm.


Really good snares, Mum; how Shlomo taught my son and me how to beatbox

The Times, May 14, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

Shlomo, beatboxer extraordinaire, is a courteous, cleancut young man with good teeth. This I know because he bared them repeatedly while demonstrating the basic skills of a percussive vocalist – a lip-smackingly resonant “B-uh”, followed by a wide-grinned “T-uh” and the finale of an open-mouthed primal pout “K-uh” – in a masterclass conducted for the benefit of my 17-year-old son and his mother.

This event came about because I thought it would be, you know, “wicked” to take my teenage sons – whose favourite mode of communication with one another is beatboxing – to experience Shlomo and his vocal orchestra presenting the world’s largest beatbox choir, alongside a beatbox chorus made up of 40 local schoolkids. On the morning of this Saturday’s concert at the Festival Hall members of the audience have been invited to a mega-workshop to prepare them for the finale of the evening gig. Now I have a head start and, boy, do I need one.

We meet in Shlomo’s office at the Festival Hall, where he is artist-in-residence with a brief to think ambitiously in every way. He has drawn up a list of world-class peformers with whom he would like to collaborate, three off the top of his head: Stevie Wonder “just a genius”, Brian Eno and Michael Jackson – “Well, about 30 years ago, before he started to go crazy”.

When Shlomo, 24, was a child he played percussion on pots and pans and was presented with a drum kit on his eighth birthday. His father, Jeremy Kahn, who is also his manager, is a jazz musician, and Shlomo started playing drums in his quartet from the age of 14. He also played in a local orchestra. “The timpani was my favourite, with the massive drums, and I would do my best to show off, basically.”

He has big issues with music in schools and music education in general: “Yes, the Government is pouring money into schools – it’s all about singing and it’s good stuff but at a city school, where you’re lucky if the kids even show up, you can turn up with a sound system and start beatboxing and straight away you can hit them because a) it’s cool and b) it’s something that everyone can do. They see one guy up there and it’s just his mouth – so there’s nothing they can’t do and have.”

As part of his mission to use beatboxing as a force for the good, Shlomo has set up a Beatbox Academy at the Battersea Arts Centre: “It’s only been going for a year but even if it’s just three hours when the kids aren’t on the streets stabbing each other, you’ve given them something they can take on elsewhere. Anything positive is going to reverse the spiral.”

He was “discovered” in his first term at Leeds University in 2003 having been persuaded by his parents and teachers to study astrophysics rather than go to music school. “The problem was that I used to smoke weed – don’t do that any more,” he adds hastily, “and that didn’t go with numbers and maths but was perfect for the music.” Foreign Beggars, the hip-hop crew, heard him performing outside a club and took him off on tour around Europe and Canada. “I didn’t think of it as making music, it was more like showing off with my solo party trick.”

A year later Björk asked him to perform with her at the Olympic Games “which blew my mind and changed my approach. That’s how I became hooked on the collaborative process”. Since then, he has worked with the comedian Bill Bailey, and Damon Alburn invited him to beatbox with Shlomo’s heroes, the Specials, who reunited at Glastonbury to sing A Message to You, Rudy. “Damon asked me whether I knew it. I said: ‘Do I know it? I only played it until it broke!’”

Shlomo is genuinely inclusive. I express some surprise about his collaboration last year with the Swingle Singers, for instance, because they seem so, well, square. He agrees that they are certainly “posh” and used to playing very formal concerts but what was “so wicked” was melding their harmonious “dabadabadabbadabbadoooos” with beatboxing underneath, and then slowing everything right down. I have to say that my boys seem to get a kick out of beatboxing to Nessun Dorma, so he’s obviously on to something here. And when the Swingles and Shlomo performed at the Big Chill Festival, 10,000 ravers just screamed their heads off – presumably in delight.

This summer Shlomo has a new commission for Wembley Stadium to create seven choirs representing different ethnic backgrounds with beatboxing as the common glue. The same choirs will be coming together in September for the Olympic changeover. But as Shlomo admits: “I’m never really satisfied. Everything I achieve is just the start.”

Off for our class in a recording studio in the bowels of the Festival Hall. Shlomo agrees that beatboxing is particularly alluring to teenage boys: “I don’t know why. It’s a bit of a boys’ club which upsets me because with the educational projects I do I’m not seeing many girls.” This interests me because it’s the polar opposite with choirs (I’m a member of two, the Brighton City Singers and the South London Choir), where women, including young girls, tend to far outnumber the men. At the Beatbox Championships there were more girls than boys in the audience but they don’t seem to have the confidence or inclination to perform themselves.

“I thought that one of the reasons girls don’t do it is that it’s too low for them, but there’s one girl in our choir – Belle (short for Bellatrix), who is 18, and she is phenomenal. She has made me realise that the really low bass stuff you do isn’t actually to do with your voice and how low you can sing, it’s all in your lips and resonance. I’ll show you how.”

First, a quick history of beatboxing. It came out of the hip-hop scene in the 1980s in America with the rappers and the breakdancers on the streets of the Bronx and Harlem, using their ghetto-blasters for the background beat. When the machines broke down, the human beatboxers took over. In the Nineties, beatboxing moved centre stage, Shlomo explains, with the likes of Rahzel and it was all “Wow! How’s he doing that with his mouth? Very kind of impressive. And now, with my generation, we’ve got past the point of it being impressive with solo performances and started to make it into music.”

The idea, I think, is to re-create the rhythm and sound of drums through the chamber of your mouth. So you replicate the kick of the drum (that sonic B vibration), then the high-hat of the cymbals (the T-uh) and the snaredrum (the K-uh). Listening to the tape it sounds more like the beating of metal against metal than something vocal. You then have to think about experimentation and independence. Both are tricky. The independence is like that exercise where you tap your head and rub your stomach, which some of us find challenging.

The experimentation is more tricky still: as I try to speed up, I just lose it and start drooling and making gibbering sounds, which may explain why young girls don’t do it – it’s exposing and quite unladylike. Breath control is the killer. Shlomo is always being asked how he does a song without seeming to pause for breath. He gives me various tips, such as drawing in breath while making an interesting sound so that it sounds like part of the beat. The problem is that I can’t create the beat in the first place.

There’s a eureka moment when he hands me a mike, teaches me to cup the end so that only a tiny circle of the head is revealed and then I lean over and “B-T-K-T” for all my worth. “Whooooohooo,” Shlomo says, “you’ve got really good snares going. Wicked.” I make kissing sounds out of the side of my mouth and horse whinnies and for a moment I feel as if a beatbox version of Damien has entered me. Even my son looks fleetingly unembarrassed.

When Shlomo finally gives us a demonstration – singing and drumming simultaneously as though he has two mouths in one – we are all enthralled. I’ve got a very long way to go but I’m willing to work on being the mother of all beatboxers.

* * *

Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra: the world’s largest beatbox choir is on Saturday, 8pm, at QEH, Southbank Centre, London (0871 6632500)

Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he’s closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.'” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean’s Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.'”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11


The need to share a dark secret

BBC News, Friday, 4 April 2008
– Julian Joyce

Multi-millionaire poet and publisher Felix Dennis has retracted a drunken murder “confession” made to a newspaper journalist.

But even if Mr Dennis’s words turn out to be – as he says – “a load of hogwash”, how unusual is it for genuine murderers to risk their freedom by sharing their secrets?

According to the Times, Mr Dennis – one of the original founders of the counterculture magazine Oz in the 1960s and now a publisher with an estimated £750m fortune – confessed to a murder “about 25 years ago”, in order to protect a woman.

After several bottles of wine were shared, he told writer Ginny Dougary: “I’ve killed a man… pushed him over the edge of a cliff.”

Read the entire story on the BBC site >>


Did maverick magazine mogul Felix Dennis murder a man 25 years ago?

Daily Mail, 3 April 2008

‘I killed him,’ Dennis told interviewer Ginny Dougary from The Times at his Warwickshire mansion. ‘That’s all you need to know.’

Read the entire story at The Daily Mail >>


Felix Dennis: ex-addict, poet – and murderer?

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Esther Addley

He has been jailed for obscenity, overcome an enthusiastic addiction to crack cocaine, and become a best-selling poet. But has he also killed a man? That was the dramatic claim made by the multimillionaire publisher Felix Dennis in a newspaper interview published yesterday, a statement he has since retracted, describing it as “a load of hogwash”.

The publisher, who has amassed a personal fortune estimated at £750m through a global publishing empire that includes Maxim, The Week and Viz, made his apparent confession in an interview with the journalist Ginny Dougary, which was published in the Times.

Read the article at The Guardian >>


The fine art of extracting an interview bombshell

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Stephen Moss

‘I once killed a man.” It’s not a bad headline to put over an interview – in this case the estimable Ginny Dougary’s interview with Felix Dennis in the Times yesterday. Her paper obviously thought it was pretty good, too, as it slapped a photograph of the millionaire publisher on the front page with that quote underneath – a plug doubling as news.

The interview explained how, in the course of a five-hour meeting and after “drinking a number of bottles of excellent wine”, Dennis had confessed to once pushing a man over a cliff because he was abusing a woman Dennis knew. “Weren’t ‘ard,” Dennis is quoted as saying. Later, on the phone, he retracted his story – “It’s a load of hogwash. I was drunk. I withdraw it unconditionally” – but Dougary decided that vino probably was veritas and published the first version.

Read the entire article at The Guardian >>


Murder, she wrote

The Guardian, Monday April 7 2008
– Ginny Dougary

When Felix Dennis ‘confessed’ to Ginny Dougary that he had killed a man, the interviewer faced a decision: file the sensational exclusive or fast-forward the tape. She has no doubts that she made the right choice.

My phone was pretty busy in the after-math of the publication of my interview with Felix Dennis, in which he confessed to killing a man; a “confession” that he later retracted. What colleagues on other newspapers wanted to know was whether the story – the publisher claimed that 25 years ago he pushed a man off a cliff – was true and why the publisher talked about such a thing in an on-the-record interview with a journalist.

Most questions were answered in the piece and it is clear that the Times went to great lengths to ensure that it behaved responsibly and fairly with such a sensational revelation. As a champion of free speech – he is still most famous for the Oz trial, which centred on that very issue – it would presumably have gone against the grain for Dennis to attempt to suppress something he said in an interview. He did write the next day suggesting that I “forget about one particular episode”, but nothing at that stage more heavy-handed.

What is the correct way to behave when an interviewee tells a journalist something that he or she is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for the past 16 years, and there have been a number of occasions when their revelations have become newsworthy.

Back in 1994, the former chancellor Norman Lamont let rip with an attack on the then prime minister John Major and his comments duly appeared in the Times. The fallout lasted for months. Five years later, Michael Portillo, another Tory former minister, talked about his homosexual past. In recent months he has referred to that interview, and his suspicion that it lost him the leadership of his party.

An interview with Martin Amis, conducted a year or so ago, has been picked over in recent months because of the comments he made about Muslims, and he now finds himself having to rebut charges that he is a racist in every interview he does.

Sometimes the consequences are short-lived or even amusing, as when the author Jeanette Winterson told me about a stint in her youth when she had sex with ladies from the Home Counties who showed their appreciation by presenting her with Le Creuset casserole dishes. (Rather delightfully, it was the Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, who suggested that it might be fruitful to ask Winterson about this.)

After the Lamont experience – when he made some of his more extreme comments over lunch and later claimed that they had been off the record – I decided that I would never again allow a subject to attempt to shield themselves behind the cloak of unattributable quotes. This has frustrated some people who long to offload their bitterness or secret agendas but don’t wish to expose themselves in the process. In other words, they want to use a journalist to create waves without getting wet themselves.

This was not the case with Dennis. One of the joys of interviewing him is that you can ask him anything and he will not be fazed. However, for the interviewer – as I have discovered – this is not without its pitfalls.

When I started out in this profession 30-odd years ago celebrities were less precious about the interview game. There didn’t appear to be rules then and agents did not wield the kind of power they do now. So if a journalist wanted a lengthy interview with the subject – and the subject found you good value – you could get almost unlimited access. The prevailing line now is that you can sum up a person just as easily in a one-hour encounter, which is often the maximum time that an editor can bag for his or her writer. This is absurd, of course, but most of us, increasingly, have no option but to settle for it. There are still exceptions.

When I flew to Detroit, a couple of years ago, to interview the crime writer Elmore Leonard, I spent the whole day with him and then had dinner with him and his wife, followed by a visit to a jazz bar that lasted into the early hours. I have spent a week with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines; 10 days with Cherie Blair in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is tough on the interviewee, because it’s hard to project a certain image of yourself while under constant scrutiny for such a length of time. All of this is to give some context to Dennis’s revelation (over a five-hour interview, followed by dinner).

Janet Malcolm wrote a book in 1990 called The Journalist and the Murderer in which the opening line was: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Sometimes when you are sent off to interview a famous person you do have your own agenda – usually when there is something generally known (or thought to be known) about the subject which they have up until this point not declared publicly.

In these circumstances, the interviewer is employing whatever legitimate resources are at his or her disposal to elicit information. This does not seem, to my mind, “morally indefensible”, particularly when the subjects are seasoned politicians or individuals who have been in the public eye for a long time and are absolutely aware of the rules of the game.

But I wanted to interview Felix Dennis for no other reason than that he is colourful, flamboyant, rich and powerful, and has been outspoken already about his louche past.

Some weeks before our encounter, I was asked to write a piece about the pitfalls of interviewing, in which I wrote: “Most celebrities these days are too fearful of letting their guard down to have a drink with their interviewer. If you are lucky enough to get a good scoop out of such an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied their subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature. This is irritating but also nonsense. Revealing interviews, in my experience anyway, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief to vent or unburden themselves.”

This could be one reading of the Dennis interview – another is that he was simply trying to shock. Although he did suggest that I might want to forget his “confession”, it is striking that he did not put this more strongly. It is entirely in keeping with his character that, having made such a shocking claim, Dennis would almost be embarrassed to deny it. However, in a subsequent telephone conversation with me, Dennis did deny the story, blaming it on the wine; five or six weeks later, in one of his notes to the editor, he remembered that he had also been on medication at the time.

There is no rule book about how to deal with such a bizarre turn of events. To my knowledge, no public figure – and certainly not one with such an extensive knowledge about the way the media operate – has ever insisted on telling a journalist that he has killed someone.

Another question I have been asked is whether I liked Dennis. That is easy to answer. I had more fun with him than in almost any other interview I can think of – and even in our subsequent dealings he has, for the most part, been the very model of grace under pressure. Indeed, one of the reasons why I tried to get him to retract his damning words during the interview was that I felt oddly protective of him – aware, however heedless he seemed to be about the implications, what their impact might be upon publication.

What I was not prepared to do – and it would be an odd sort of journalist who would not adopt the same position – was to participate in a charade of pretence, where something that was said could be conveniently unsaid afterwards. An on-the-record interview, after all, is exactly that.

In the published article, there are many compelling explanations as to why Dennis erupted in the way he did – including his own. But as for the question that may still linger, there is only one person who really knows the answer, and it certainly isn’t me.


Maxim publisher Felix Dennis: ‘I’ve killed a man’

The Times April 2, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

The Oz trial defendant who is now a billionaire publisher with an empire that includes Maxim and The Week talks about poetry, whores, his past addiction to crack cocaine and the time he killed a man – a confession he later retracts

Felix Dennis is brilliant, aggressive, generous, ruthless, and quite possibly a bit mad. I don’t mean mad as in “crazeeeee”, eccentric, “zany”, although all these apply, but in the other sense of not being possessed of an entirely sound mind.

How this squares with him being one of the most successful self-made entrepreneurs in the world – worth between $400 and $900 million net (£750 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List); five homes; three estates in Mustique (where he spends half the year), Connecticut and Warwickshire; fancy cars; private jets; thousands of acres of land, including his vast, ever-expanding Forest of Dennis; a legendary wine cellar; a personal retinue of more than 50 staff; libraries stuffed with first editions, all specifics helpfully passed on to the readers of his own bestselling (of course) book How to Get Rich – is another matter.

But what sane person – a magazine publisher, no less, even if he were on medication, would tell a journalist (of all people) on the record, even after drinking a number of bottles of excellent wine, that he has killed a man? Dennis is such good company and a wonderful host that it feels bad- mannered to repeat his astonishing claim, but if this was a strange flight of fantasy – and in vino it’s not always a case of veritas – to pretend that you have killed someone, is a very questionable form of either humour or braggadocio.

This bombshell came towards the end of a long interview in the conservatory of his Warwickshire home – almost five hours of taped conversation – at a point when I did not think it possible to be shocked by anything Dennis could say. We had covered: publishing in this country and the US, religion, marriage, hookers, wine, trees, politics, bonobo monkeys, his sex and crack cocaine addiction, the environment, poetry, the Oz trial, prison, his mother, his late estranged father, childhood and death, to name but a few of the topics. Before even the first bottle had been drained – a lovely 1996 Chablis – it was clear that there was almost no detail that Dennis felt shy about sharing.

He told a story about how he spent three years attempting and failing to save the life of a young prostitute “who could walk around naked as easily as if she was dressed to the hilt and had that insouciance which only comes from tremendous beauty with a kind of rabid intelligence… I could not bear that this orchid was going to be flushed down the lavatory with the dead chrysanthemums.” But flushed down she was: “Heroin. I was enraged. You know, I. Do. Not. Fail. I was absolutely determined because rich men can do anything. We rule the world and we can do anything. There is nothing beyond us. But this turned out to be well beyond me.”

This business of rich men feeling that they are gods is something of a running narrative. Dennis says that he has been scarred and damaged by his crack years – although he doesn’t say how – “but, you know, when you get too much money and you’ve never had money before, where does the training come from? Well, you’ve got none. So it’s the usual dreary afflictions of people who suddenly get too much money.”

Before we met, I watched Dennis in a number of television interviews. Even as he was clearly having a ball with Melvyn Bragg there were moments when his ricochet of laughter, coupled with a strange glint in his eye, went on for just a fraction too long for comfort. More than that, there was something haunted about him, which may sound melodramatic but was even more striking in person. Perhaps it has something to do with the scars he refers to. Possibly you can’t experience the excesses of 14 naked hookers catering to your every whim – however enjoyable that might have been at the time, and Dennis said it was very much so – without being spoilt in some deep way. He also drove himself mad with the amount of crack cocaine he consumed in those days.

One of the arresting aspects of the crack years is that Dennis was able to restrict his addiction to the weekends. “It was only ever two or three days at a time,” he says. “A long weekend, then straight back to work and nothing for five days.”

Just as he will drink only the finest wine and has all manner of oenophile paraphernalia, Dennis was punctilious about the quality of his supplies and kit. “My equipment was of the absolute finest, and I got to the point where guys were blowing glass vessels for me because I discovered that it worked better with different types of glass vessels,” he says. “I was literally a crack connoisseur.”

When he talks with a measure of domestic pride about how his 20-odd pipes would emerge scoured and sparkling from the dishwasher, I burst out laughing – and Dennis looks a bit hurt. “Well, it is domestic, sorry,” he says. “Because that’s where it becomes disgusting, when it looks all dirty, and there was none of that.”

He took up crack cocaine in earnest in 1995, the same year he launched Maxim, his hugely successful men’s magazine. Two years later, while still deep in his addiction, Dennis took the high-risk decision to unleash his older lad mag (average age of readership is 29) on the American market – cocking a snook at more toney competitors such as Esquire and GQ, with the latter’s editor responding loftily that Maxim appealed to men who “not only move their lips when they read, they drool”. If so, it transpired that there are legions of drooling men around the world. Maxim swiftly established itself as the market leader in America, outstripping the sales of GQ, Esquire and Details combined.

Whatever throne Dennis believed he sat upon, he is certainly the king of this particular strand of publishing – with Maxim’s claim to be the largest men’s magazine brand in the world (35 editions in 45 countries, an international readership of more than 17 million, etc).

Last year, he sold his US magazine operation, including Maxim, for a reported $240 million – but hung on to his American edition of The Week, launched with plaudits from Tom Wolfe and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of all the magazines in his empire – Dennis Publishing owns more than 50 titles, mainly bloke-ish: cars, computers, gadgets, men’s lifestyle, and Viz – the one closest to his heart is The Week, a sharply edited distillation of current affairs and good writing from the British and foreign press.

Dennis says that perhaps the reason why he’s never taken the decision to have children is that he would have been an appalling thrusting father and given his offspring Napoleon complexes: “You’re going to conquer the world whether you like it or not.” With so many sexual conquests, can he be sure that he has not unwittingly fathered any Dennis juniors? “One or two,” he says. “There are several claimed.” Wouldn’t he want to see them? “That’s never really been a part of it. All they [the mothers] ever really want is money to bring them up, which is fine.”

Still, I ask him whether he ever feels sad that he didn’t have children that he could claim as his own. “When you lack courage, that’s what you get,” he says. “In the end, you get what you deserve… you know. But I do have 22 godchildren and I’m delighted with all of them.”

I spent a great deal of the interview trying to get Dennis to talk about his mother, who lives on the Warwickshire estate. She sounds a formidable and impressive woman and if anyone has the power to frighten her son, my guess is that it’s her. He says this is nonsense: “I’ve never been frightened of my mother – from the age of 7, I was the alpha male in the house, taking the spiders out of the bath.” In his book, he jokes (but it’s a revealing joke): “My mother will not be pleased to read about herself in this book. But hey! I’m 59 years old. A man has to stand up to his mother sooner or later. Right?”

He tells me, when we’re discussing his imminent death (he believes he will die before he reaches 70) that “I sometimes think the only reason I’m hanging on is so my mother goes first.” In 1999, nearly two years after quitting his crack habit, Dennis almost died when his thyroid packed up “and everything else seemed to pack up working at the same time”. This is when he took up writing poetry, from his hospital bed, which he believes saved his life. He swears he hasn’t got a terminal illness, when I ask him how he can be so sure that he won’t be around for much longer, and says the reason he knows is that “although this sounds tremendously like boasting, I live at two or three times the speed of ordinary mortals. And I will die young, my dear.”

The reason he adores women, he says, is because he was brought up by a very unusual woman. “I adore my mother because she had the courage in the 1950s to walk away from a man, and to divorce him.” When I say that I thought it was his father who had left the family when Felix was 2, he says: “Well, he went to Australia to create a life and I don’t know what happened and I don’t want to know because I’m totally loyal to my mother and I don’t wish to know the other side.”

Dennis’s mother – whom he doesn’t mention by name other than to call her Mrs Sawyer, from her second marriage to David Sawyer, an engineer on Concorde – brought up her two small boys on her own in an era when divorce was frowned upon. He remembers a poor childhood – although he didn’t know it at the time – but a happy one, all living in his grandmother’s two-up, two-down terraced house. And then, seemingly overnight, his family became middle-class and Dennis can still recall showing his younger brother, Julian, the new-found joys of the light switch.

His father did try to get in touch with him but Dennis refused to respond. When I ask him if he would have gone had his father asked for him on his death bed, he says he would “because what I did was wrong in the first place. Nevertheless, if you knew the sacrifices my mother made to bring up my brother and me, the difficulties she had to overcome to become a chartered accountant by going to night school, and the appalling things she had to face, you too would have been tempted to become partisan.

“But I had even been thinking that I ought to go over – when my aunty, his sister, called me up and said, ‘Your father has died.’ It was the first time I’d heard anybody use the words, ‘Your father’.”

I wondered how important his wealth was to him. Had he never married, for instance, because he was worried about his millions being taken away from him? “No, that’s never been the consideration,” he says. “I could always make more money. There’s one very simple reason I’ve never married and that’s because I’m not monogamous. I just don’t get it.”

Does he believe that women are as non-monogamous as men? “The short answer to that is ‘yes’ – I don’t think it’s true. I know it’s true.” And you don’t mind if your principal partner has other partners? “Good God, no. I’ve occasionally been discommoded because somebody I was seeing maybe at that time was busy seeing someone else, but the correct word is ‘discommoded’. So, well, I just wasn’t seeing her that night.”

One moment we’re talking in a relaxed way about the whys and wherefores of sexual fidelity and the next… Felix Dennis is telling me he’s killed someone. Listening to the tape, it was as though he had suddenly flipped into being another person. His voice changes, grows darker and deeper and cockney – but there’d been a bit of that before, prompting me to tell him to stop staring at me as though I were the enemy.

So I am wittering on about the spirit of the Sixties, and Dennis interrupts with a growl: “Except for one thing. That if they’re in trouble [his women], if they’re harmed or threatened… God help the person who’s threatening them.” God help them, he keeps repeating. What follows are excerpts from a transcribed tape of our interview.

He looks so intense that I ask him whether he’s ever fought with a man over a woman. “I’ve killed a man,” he says. What? “I’ve killed a man.” What do you mean, you’ve killed a man? “I killed him.” Does everyone know you’ve killed a man? “No, and they’ll never find out, either.” Are you kidding me? Are you winding me up? Where? In what country? “I killed him. That’s all you need to know. I killed him.”

Oh Felix, you’re having me on. “No.” Promise me. Swear to God… “He hurt her and I told him to stop and he kept on.” What did it feel like, then? “He hurt her.” What did you do? “Pushed him over the edge of a cliff.” In the Caribbean? “Don’t matter where it was. He wouldn’t let her alone. She told him to stop. I told him to stop. Many people told him to stop. Wouldn’t stop. Kept on and on and on. Made her life a living misery: beat her up, beat up her kids, wouldn’t let her alone, kept on, kept on – weren’t even his kids, so in the end, I had a little meeting with him, pushed him over the edge of a cliff. Weren’t ‘ard.”

Are you sure you want to be telling me this? “Don’t care. Anybody harms one of mine… if they harm one of mine, they’d better know what they’re doing. And they’d always be warned. I wouldn’t attack anybody without reason. I’ll attack nobody without reason. Without trying again and again to bring this thing to a much more satisfactory and sensible, more rational conclusion. But if they keep harming one of mine, then I have no option.”

What decade are we talking about? “About 25 years ago.” Crikey, I say, I’ve never met somebody who’s killed someone before. I pushed and pushed Dennis to retract this story – saying how much less awkward it would be for both of us if he did – but the stubborn man refused to budge. So in the end, we carried on with the interview for a bit, and warbled a few duets – we were particularly proud of our version of Little Feat’s Willing, so much so we sang it three or four times, and all thoughts of pushing people off cliffs evaporated in the revelries. When I eventually got home – after shepherd’s pie in his rather cosy 16th-century home, cooked by his lovely and forbearing Marie France, whom he describes as his “beloved” and “the companion of my heart” – I was touched to see that Dennis had secreted the Little Feat CD in my bag.

The next day, he sent a note by e-mail thanking me for a really enjoyable afternoon and evening but suggesting “you should forget one particular episode I recounted to you after the third or fourth bottle in the conservatory”.

The rest of the note was about Keats and his attempts to concentrate his poetry now on “mining feeling and experience” rather than focusing on form. His trees were also mentioned – he told me the attraction was watching small things grow – which he felt we hadn’t covered: “I’ll be planting 280 new acres of native broadleaf trees this winter in my Heart of England forest project. Next to writing poetry, trees and the planting of them ranks alongside the thrill of the chase in making money in business for me.”

What can be made of this? I have puzzled over it a great deal. Dennis quit crack cocaine, in November 1997, on his own (and has never, he says, slipped back into drug abuse since). “I went cold turkey because when I want to I have quite exceptional will power.” Can you remember what you went through? “No, I suspect I block things out. I know it was difficult,” another manic laugh.

He has no time for Narcotics Anonymous because of its religious affiliations and, in his case, he says that his liking of wine has not led him back down the slippery path. Is it possible, I wonder, that drinking heavily Рeven if it is no longer a bottle of R̩my Martin a day Рcan somehow flip the mind back into the sort of delusional state Dennis experienced on crack cocaine? Could this explain his outburst and the way he seemed to transmogrify into another character?

Another explanation for his aberrant behaviour is set out in a letter to the Editor which arrives months after the interview. In this he explains that his doctor has only just reminded him that at the time of the interview he was suffering from a form of anaemia and thyroid imbalance. His doctor had prescribed him Prednisolone and Carbimazole which, with generous lashings of wine, can cause mood swings, severe exaggeration and a kind of manic or psychotic behaviour.

So what is the correct way to behave when the subject of an interview is on medication but still tells his interviewer something about his life or exaggerates an episode that he is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for this newspaper for the past 18 years, and there have been a number of occasions when certain revelations have become newsworthy: Lord Lamont of Lerwick’s bitterness towards John Major, Michael Portillo’s admission of homosexual encounters as a young man, Jeanette Winterson’s recollections of being paid in Le Creuset saucepans for saucy encounters with ladies from the Home Counties, Martin Amis’s comments about Muslims which have been construed in some quarters as racist, Lord Tebbit’s mischief-making observations about David Cameron and Gordon Brown (as Thatcher’s heir), the late Benazir Bhutto’s thoughts about death.

But the interview with Felix Dennis is of a completely different order, and, indeed, probably unprecedented. There was no killer question to put to him, let alone any question of killing. I had absolutely no idea about an episode, however exaggerated, in his life when he may or may not have pushed a man over a cliff. So it came to me as a complete shock when he imparted the information.

One of the attractive aspects of the man is that he commands huge loyalty from his staff and former employees. Gill Hudson, who edits the Radio Times and was the launch editor of Maxim, had nothing but praise for her former boss but did say (not knowing what he had told me) that he would say anything to shock.

Most revealing interviews, in my experience, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief – at some level – to vent or unburden themselves. But I didn’t really get that impression with Dennis, although I certainly did feel that he was haunted by something. He is not keen on armchair psychology but did say at one point, when we were talking about addiction, that “I suppose everything is to do with psychology and psychiatry in the end.”

Could it be possible that the unpleasant man that Dennis talked about did exist, and that the publisher would have dearly liked to expunge the individual – maybe even threatened to do so, and had a fight with him, but the medication he was taking caused him to believe that what he would have liked to have done actually took place? Is it simply a case of him confusing fact with fiction? In the interview, in a different context (communing with a whale) he refers to being in America at that time (25-odd years ago) and being “out of my box – God knows what I had been taking, I can’t even remember – but everyone else had collapsed.” This was long before his crack cocaine habit – when he admits to becoming delusional – but it’s safe to assume that he was indulging in some pretty wild recreational drug use even then and who knows what this might have led him to believe occurred.

While it is hardly exceptional for journalists to interview their subjects over a bottle of wine, the encounter with Dennis involved rather more bottles of fabulous vintage wine than is customary. He is, after all, famous for his excellent cellar and many journalists, as well as members of the public (his poetry tour was called “And Did I Mention the Free Wine?”) have sampled his generosity. In one of his recent notes to the Editor, he referred in a friendly way to “both of us behaving like schoolchildren who have got at the sherry cupboard, singing and carrying on”.

Felix may think it exceptional to sing with an interviewee. But I have to say that, as a self-professed singing nut, I often encourage my subjects, where at all possible, to burst into song. My duet with Imelda Marcos doing My Imeldific Way was a stunner. And as for the sherry cupboard, only Dennis was in charge of the keys.

In the circumstances, perhaps it would be too much of a loss of face for a multimillionaire with a Master-of-the-Universe complex to retract the story but when I told Dennis on the phone, prior to publication, that we would be including the section about him killing a man, ultimately that is exactly what happened. “It’s a load of hogwash – I was drunk,” he said. “I withdraw it unconditionally.”

Dennis is probably still best known for something that happened to him in 1971: the school kids issue of the counter-culture magazine Oz, which led to the legendary obscenity trial at the Old Bailey when all three defendants were jailed, despite the best efforts of a young defence lawyer called John Mortimer. Dennis was given a shorter jail sentence than Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, on the ground, according to the judge, that he was “very much less intelligent than the others”.

If there are scars from his crack addiction, the memory of his fortnight in prison has also never left him. He was in Wormwood Scrubs banged up with murderers and rapists whose initial thought was that the Oz trio had been “interfering with kiddies”. There was a National Front “geezer” – Dennis is in hard-man cockney mode – who kept saying “I can’t f***ing stand guys that mess with kiddies and that.” They were rescued by an Irishman who slung across his copy of a tabloid and said: “These ain’t fucking perves, you arse, these are political prisoners. Read that, you c***.” Their in-cell reprieve was granted when the news filtered through that John Lennon, the working-class hero, was marching in the streets to free The Oz Three.

But until that moment, it was “really really nasty,” not least to find himself befriended by genuine paedophiles who claimed him as a fellow soulmate. He learnt how to make a lethal weapon out of a packet of cigarettes, some Swan Vesta matches and a bar of soft soap, and in the psychiatric hospital rented a telescope concealed in the wooden leg of an inmate to ogle a woman – five minutes for a cigarette – taking her clothes off in the tower block opposite.

When I ask Dennis, towards the end of the interview, whether he thinks his mother is proud of him in this new calm era of his life, he looks shocked: “I have absolutely no idea because my mother and I do not have the kind of relationship where I would ever dare ask her and she would never tell me if she was,” he says. “And I would be disappointed if she did.”

I never did get to see his Garden of Heroes, an avenue lined with lifesize bronze statues of various different figures: Charles Darwin on a Galapagos tortoise, Bob Dylan with Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry and – between Stephen Hawking and Oscar Wilde – a young Felix Dennis circa Oz, which suggests that even he thinks this is how he should be remembered. I did have a walk around his ritzy leisure centre, a cross between Disneyland and Hugh Hefner’s playmates den: lots of wood and buccaneering pirate accoutrements. Dennis himself rarely goes there but he built it for his guests and friends, just as he regularly offers his Mustique residence, formerly owned by David Bowie, for free holidays to his employees.

He told me that for years he wanted the epitaph on his gravestone to read “Everything. Full stop. All the time. Full stop.” So what has it been changed to now: everything in moderation? “No, no, no, it won’t be that either because I’m not a hypocrite. I think the bottom line is that I’ve always known that I had no time and that I wanted many strands to my life. I could not bear just being a publisher or a planter of trees or just being a mad hedonist. I’m immensely greedy and I want it all. I’m just trying to have a bloody good time filling in the gap between being born and dying. So – you can accuse me of anything else but if you call me a hypocrite, I shall get cross.”

Celebrities, Comedians

Omid Djalili, seriously funny

The Times – March 22, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From terrorism to spirituality, no topic is off limits for Britain’s hairiest comedian

Omid Djalili, as a British-born Iranian comedian, offers many illuminating insights into disparate strands of different cultures. Did you know, for instance, that the BBC took a view on the hirsuteness tolerance of its audience? This emerged when Omid – it surely won’t be long before he becomes a one-name brand like Oprah, Delia, Madonna – was advised to move a flesh-revealing shot from the first episode of his television series to the last.

“Listen,” he says in defence of the Beeb, “they knew it was a huge, huge risk for me to be on BBC1 on a Saturday night because to have an Iranian guy for a lot of people is too much, and, ‘A hairy chest is pushing it,’ they said. ‘But a hairy back for a primetime audience is so obviously Middle Eastern…’ They felt this would be a ‘switch-off moment’ for the Christians and the over-fifties.”

The hairy back is something of a running theme – indeed, it prompted him kindly to present me with an opening line for this piece: “At one moment, I thought the talent had his hand up his backside, but he was scratching his rather hirsute back, which has given him a lot of trouble, especially after the sleep apnoea machine didn’t work.” Although as a performer he is fidgety, this is nothing compared to him off stage. Sitting on the sofa of the living room of his home in East Sheen, “the talent” is either massaging his wrist (a tennis injury), twisted awkwardly with his arm agitating behind his back, or yawning every few minutes after his sleepless night – which makes it quite hard to concentrate on what he has to say.

The first time I caught sight of Djalili was last November, when guffaws from my living room drew me in, and it was instant beguilement. His show is the old Dave Allen format of stand-up and sketches, and has the cross-generational edginess of Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais, with the more comforting, nostalgic appeal of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies. He is funny on so many different levels: the way he moves his body (his belly dance, with his mic transformed into a swinging dick, has become a cultish physical gag), his acute observations of Britishness versus Iranian manners, and best of all – since he is almost uniquely placed to do this – is his terrorism humour.

It is Djalili’s wholly serious belief that, as an entertainer, the most effective response to the extremist bullies is to diminish their power to threaten and haunt us by laughing at them. And what could be more British? (“Hitler has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall…”) It is tricky terrain, of course, because the subject is so sensitive – which is what makes it courageous, in many different ways (not least his own safety), of him to wade in.

There’s a long list of the potentially offended: Brits who think he’s being disrespectful of the victims of the suicide bombers; members of the left who are wary of any negative comments about Muslims, even if they are only aimed at those who seek to destroy us; Muslim fundamentalists; the terrorists themselves and their supporters.

But even the terrorist jokes are leavened by their gently absurdist delivery. Djalili refers to this as his “warm and fluffy” quality, but I think it’s more that the sharpness of his jokes is shot through with a very humanist understanding. So his routine on the 7/7 bombers was to point out how strange it was that of all the places the terrorists could have picked, they went for Edgware Road Tube station, “which, after Mecca, is probably the most Islamic place on the planet. And these were British-born Muslims, which made it a very bizarre choice and showed that there’s still a cultural dislocation with certain people.

“I’m a British-born Iranian [but not a Muslim] and I may have been brought up between Ayatollah Khomeini and Dickie Davies but at the same time I know who and what I am. What is it about these people to have completely dismissed Britain, and how stupid were they to hit an Islamic spot anyway? What point were they trying to make?”

His humour also mines his own occasional sense of “otherness” – the disbelief that accompanied his realisation that, in this climate, Djalili can be viewed by his fellow Brits as “the enemy”. In the aftermath of one of the terrorist threats, he was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow and felt rather anxious about two “suspiciously” bearded and muttering men, looked around to make reassuring eye contact with the other passengers, only to find they were staring at him.

“That actually happened and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I shouted at people and said, ‘What are you looking at me for? Can’t you see those blokes over there?’ I had a real go at them, which made things worse. People just got upset and averted their eyes and I ended up muttering to myself.” One slight problem with this is that his bearded brethren were doubtless just as innocent as Djalili. But it’s still a relief to hear a comedian having the guts to examine prejudice from his own perspective, only to demonstrate how he is also the victim of the same nervy thought poison.

Of the four million people who watched the post-Heathrow episode, Djalili says the BBC received only 26 complaints, along the lines that the viewers couldn’t believe that the corporation had allowed “a well-known Muslim fanatic” – “I don’t know where they got that,” he says – “to make jokes when people have lost their lives”. His point, as we talk in the middle of a national tour, is that he addresses this new taboo through humour because: “If you laugh and make jokes about the suicide bombers, it helps to remove the fear. I like to think that the hundreds of people who are coming to the show and laughing a lot take away less fear about the Middle East.”

In 1957, his parents moved to London – Omid was born eight years later – where his father worked as a photographer and correspondent for Kayhan, a newspaper read by Iranian expatriates. This career came to an abrupt end with the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the new regime’s official campaign of persecution against followers of the Baha’i faith, which include Omid and his family.

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Kensington – where Omid was born and brought up – was not as chi-chi as it is now, and the Djalilis were able to buy two flats. After his father lost his job, the family home was transformed into a sort of pension for Iranians who travelled to Harley Street for their medical treatment: “My parents would put them up, feed and nurse them, drive them to their appointments and act as translators.”

When I hear that Djalili was sent to Holland Park School – the trendy comprehensive at the time (known as the socialist Eton; all Tony Benn’s four children went there) – I am imagining a sort of arty, bookish household. “No, no, it was the absolute antithesis of that,” he says. “My friends lived like that, but we were a very traditional Iranian family and there were no books.” But your father was a journalist; what do you mean, there were no books? “He wasn’t really into books. He was a pretty crap journalist, I’d say.”

Since his father is still very much alive and well and living in Kensington, I rather wonder how he’ll take that. “He was a crap journalist but he is good with words. I only discovered this about 10 or 15 years ago, but I come from a long line of poets. I was saying to my dad that it’s quite funny how I’ve ended up in stand-up comedy and he said, ‘It’s quite natural,’ because my grandparents and great-grandparents were kind of poet laureate types – very high-level, very well-known travelling poets of Iran. There were five of them who used to pitch up in different towns – like stand-up comedians – and thousands of people would turn up for an evening of poetry. There were two brothers in particular, Nayyir and Sina, who were like travelling troubadours. I haven’t seen the poems myself but they’re printed in Farsi and people say they’re brilliant.”

Both his parents were naturally funny people and great storytellers, traits inherited by their younger son. His mother, a dressmaker, died in 1995: “She was a very sweet lady,” Djalili says. “Very outgoing and bubbly. People are always telling me, ‘It’s no wonder you’re a comedian because your mother was so entertaining,’ that kind of stuff.”

There is something slightly wistful about Djalili when he talks about Iran, which he has visited only once, when he was six: “It’s one of the most amazing countries on the planet – it’s seasonal, it’s mountainous, it has everything.”

A few years ago, he appeared on Channel 4 as part of its Iranian film season and was asked to go back to Iran: “I said, ‘Well, what have you done for security?’ and they said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ So I said, ‘Then I can’t really go.’ But I know through the internet that they’re very aware of me over there and like the show.”

He has not, however, had any contact with the Iranian government and is unlikely, he thinks, to be invited by President Ahmadinejad to be the new friendly face of Iran (the country could hardly do worse) – although he has had messages and letters from the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar (as well as Prince Charles), saying “great show” and “loving it”.

One of the details I recall from the avalanche of coverage following the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly was that he was of the Baha’i faith. This surprised Djalili at the time: “I understand that he was a declared Baha’i but it’s very strict in the faith that you do not take your own life so he must have been really…”

Baha’ism was founded in Iran in the 19th century by Baha’u’llah, a Persian nobleman from Tehran, and seems to be a universalist, all-encompassing spirituality: “One god, one human race – the Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

Djalili, who embraced the faith of his parents in his early twenties, says that, “It grew out of Islam in the way that Christianity grew out of Judaism. We believe that there is an unknowable essence who cares for us and sends enlightened teachers – people like Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Krishna, and basically that all religions are different chapters of the same book.

“The first two people to become Baha’is in our family were the famous poets, who then became ostracised and beaten by the Muslims in the same way that Christ and Christians were persecuted. Even moderate Muslims today, when I say I’m Baha’i, go, ‘Oh God, I should leave the house.’

“I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to convert people or proselytise, but I do espouse it and talk about it in the new show. The main thing that attracted me is that it’s a faith that says we are all one. But because it’s a community, you’re sometimes forced to socialise with people you can’t stand because there are some brilliant Baha’is but also some weirdos. It is very demanding.”

It’s entirely in keeping with Djalili’s desire to tackle taboo subjects that he would even consider examining spiritual matters in a comedy routine. What interests him is why spirituality is such a lowly, almost embarrassing word in Britain. “People say to me, ‘I’m an intellectual, why must you use words like spiritual? Why can’t you say, ‘The Baha’i nature is striving to achieve more of our humanity’? Why must it connect with God?'”

Despite all Djalili’s new-found success – the BBC has commissioned the all-important second series, to add to his port-folio of films and awards; the new stand-up show has pretty much sold out everywhere – it has been quite a slog to get here. As a teenager, his future did not look promising at all. He even managed to get kicked out of Holland Park School, which must have been quite a feat. What on earth did he do? “I was a bit naughty,” he says. “I kept running into the staff room and playing the piano just to upset the teachers. I also used to chase first years on my moped and in my last year I just caused havoc.”

He went off to live with his grandfather in California with a grand design of enrolling at UCLA, but he was miserable and bored hanging out with the old folks in Orange County so came back with his tail between his legs. Any chance of rejoining his old school in the sixth form was scuppered when the headmaster told him in no uncertain terms that, “We certainly do not want you back!” He attempted to take three A levels in one year and failed them all; a dismal record which was repeated the following year. “It had a very bad effect on me, actually. In the end, I got some scrappy grades and ended up somewhere that no one wanted to go to – the University of Ulster in Coleraine, reading theatre studies and English.”

It was as a student there in 1988 that Djalili had his own taste of sectarian violence. He was throwing stones in the sea one night and heard some locals shouting at him. “I said, ‘Did you call me something?’ and they said, ‘Do you want your kneecaps blown off?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’m the one with the stones; I’m the one with the power here.’ Then they came out with rifles and took three shots at me and I ran and hid. It was the same week that those two soldiers were pulled out of a car at a funeral and beaten to death. It was a very tense time and my professor said, “I wouldn’t recommend reporting this because the RUC will probably know the people – they’re probably all inter-related and it won’t achieve anything. So just keep your head down and consider yourself lucky.’ So I did.

“I was the most shit scared I’ve ever been. What I remember is that they kept calling me Seamus because if you’re dark, you look like you’re a gypsy from southern Ireland.”

After leaving university, Djalili was rejected by no fewer than 16 drama schools. His response was to take off to Berlin, ending up in the former Czechoslovakia in productions of Ionesco and Brecht and spending four or five years in Eastern Europe. In 1992, he married Annabel Knight, a Scottish actress and fellow Baha’i, to whom we must be grateful, for it was she who persuaded her husband to have a crack at stand-up comedy. In 1994, she took him to the Comedy Store to see Lee Hurst, which inspired him to write his own stand-up act for the Edinburgh Festival. By the end of the Nineties, while still performing stand-up, he was also in demand for films: The Mummy, Notting Hill, The World is not Enough in 1999. Then Gladiator, Casanova and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It may sound unpalatable, but Djalili’s career really took off after 9/11 – as more people seem to crave a friendly face from the Middle East than wish to demonise that region. But none of this would work if “the talent” was not seriously talented. Whoopi Goldberg approached him to appear as one of the four principals, a handyman, in her NBC hotel sitcom, Whoopi, which ran from 2003 to 2004. She became aggravated with the kind of lines the scriptwriter was coming up with for Djalili’s character: “She told the scriptwriter, ‘We have someone who’s a Perrier-nominated comedian and all you can write for him are Ayatollah jokes. Is that all he’s good for? It’s my show. Write him some proper shit.'”

David Baddiel has written a film with Djalili at the centre of it, in the role of a Muslim man who finds out late in life that he’s adopted and of Jewish parentage. Baddiel first noticed him in Gladiator and was subsequently surprised to see him perform at the Comedy Store, but was really struck by him at the Palladium. “He’s intrinsically funny-boned – like Eric Morecambe. He’s short and squat and yet very graceful, married to this very modern, multi-ethnic thing. It’s a potent combination. He’s a really good actor, which is unusual for a comedian. He responds very well to collaboration and if he works with the right people, he’ll be a really big star. “He does sail quite close to the wind. In his last BBC series, there was a sketch with Osama Bin Laden with a slight suggestion that he is gay. So my primary hope is that he won’t get a fatwa on him and that he’ll still be here in 20 years’ time.”

In his next BBC series, Djalili will be sailing even closer to the wind if the new material at the show I saw is any indication. At times, it seems that he’s almost inviting some fundamentalist madman to have a pop at him. These guys, he says, refer to the Samaritans as their recruitment centre: “You say that you want to kill yourself? Very good, the bus will be there in five minutes.”

He covers many other topics – including the sketches he did for Prince Charles (both he and his sons are big Djalili fans) and, too much for my taste, football (he supports Chelsea) – but then he says, “I’d like to lighten things up a bit and talk about suicide bombing.” At which point he talks about someone shooting him on stage and his blood spluttering “ironically” in the shape of the star of David. “It’s not that I’m anti-Muslim,” he says. “I’m just anti-nutter.”

He told me that his wife is always worrying that he’ll make himself a target but that he feels that it’s imperative to stick his neck out. “Current affairs and everyday issues interest me intensely,” he says, “and I do think that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. Even me doing stand-up is a political act because I’m about the only person from my background doing it.”

He admits that he sometimes shares his wife’s fears. “But I’ve had Muslim fundamentalists come to my show and laugh. They’ve sat there stone-faced for 30 minutes and then I do something silly like a Godzilla impression which gets them going. So if you’re wondering about killing Omid Djalili, you might think, ‘Actually, he’s quite funny,’ and think again.”

* * *

Omid Djalili’s UK tour culminates at the Hammersmith Apollo on April 19. For more information, go to

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