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Travel & Adventure

Return to Indochine

The Times – January 19 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From Graham Greene to Apocalypse Now and the vanished world of French colonials, in Vietnam Ginny Dougary encounters a land of haunting resonances

My travelling companion, a most unquiet American, was beginning to feel picked on. You would think that she had become accustomed to it by now, having weathered the anti-Yank onslaught of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, anyone really in Europe who on hearing her accent would launch into a diatribe about those arrogant, swaggering, ignorant folks across the pond who had the most stupid president in history and had landed us in all this unwanted aggro.

But in Vietnam, it was a whole new level of awkwardness for, perhaps, the obvious reasons, and all the more disorientating because of the friendliness of the people. The different perspective on recent history makes an immediate impression from the moment that you hear what we have always known as the Vietnam War referred to as the American War.

Wandering around the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a popular setting for wedding photos (six different couples when we were there), the museum’s guide points to a photograph of a local hero. It was the first stop of our trip and we hadn’t yet adjusted our mindset, so we asked what act of heroism the man had carried out to receive this commendation and were told, with an earnestly helpful expression, that he had come very close to succeeding in blowing up Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Vietnam (or American) War. The young woman nodded her head and smiled and we smiled and nodded back.

Since the early Nineties when Vietnam first opened up to tourism, the promotional emphasis has been on Vietnam as a country, not a war. And, boy, from what we went on to see, what a country it is. I was particularly struck, further on in our trip, when we escaped from the already slightly tarnished strip of Nha Trang’s extended beaches in south central Vietnam, by the beautiful drama of the sweeping cliff-drive views – an implausibly stunning amalgam of Byron Bay, Big Sur and the Côte d’Azur.

Hotels and restaurants have been privatised and various international companies are now marketing Vietnam as an exclusive holiday destination. The problem is that the staff simply don’t have the necessary language skills yet to be able to provide the seamless service they would like. But they are so very willing and sweet and anxious to please that even I, with my princessy tendencies, felt rather ashamed of my spoilt Western ways.

The smiling warmth of the people makes Vietnam an extremely appealing place to visit and is all the more striking because of all the horrors its people have had to endure – from the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and, of course, the Americans.

I re-read Graham Greene’s story of The Times correspondent’s betrayal of a quiet American agent provocateur and re-read the story of his Fifties Vietnam war (the French War?) in my hotel room, the palm trees waving in the tropical downpour, down the road from where he wrote his book in the Continental in what was called rue Catinat. I was struck again by the power of his recoil from the repugnance of war – the description of the canal stuffed with bodies over which their boat got stuck into the human clay. The horrid sight of a mother and her boy: “He was about six years old and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up.… He was wearing a holy medal around his neck, and I said to myself, ‘The juju doesn’t work.’ There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, ‘I hate war.’”

In the tunnels, Michael Herr’s Dispatches came back to me with some force. I had read it when it came out in the late Seventies and when I saw Apocalypse Now it reminded me of the book – not surprisingly as Herr co-wrote the script. Herr hung out with the young infantrymen known as “grunts” and wrote their stories, as well as those of his photographer comrades, the likes of Tim Page, Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone. Flynn and Stone are among the roll call of the dead in a series of rooms, sponsored by the state of Kentucky, at the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the War Crimes Museum.

It would seem to be almost a dereliction of – what? – I struggle to find the right word – responsibility? morality? historical rectitude, even? – not to visit these places when you come to Vietnam. Visitors are actively encouraged to go as a sort of recognition of what the Vietnamese have gone through and suffered (and continue to suffer, more than 30 years on, from the devastating after-effects of Agent Orange), and to marvel at how they have endured. But it is also part of Vietnam’s “moving on” that America’s losses are recognised, too, and that after you have absorbed these horrors, you should go on and enjoy the ancient temples and buildings that have remained unscathed and the loveliness of the landscape.

There is so much that is upsetting at the museum that it is hard to isolate what is worst: the big books filled with small biographies of each family’s son or daughter who was killed in action; knowing that some day there will be another book like this when another war has ended; the bottles of foetuses in the Vietnam wing; the report written after the My Lai massacre, with its stark list of 504 civilians killed – most of them women and men over 60, babies, young children, mothers and expectant mothers.

We drive out of the city, with its fronds of electric cables hanging in great garlands over the narrow buildings and its small armies of scooters, into the green and gold rice paddies, the sun glinting over the water buffalo and men and women in their ao dai trouser-dresses up to their knees in water, faces shielded by their cone-shaped hats. Past the trees with their seeping sap of rubber collecting in bowls, into an area associated with the most intense warfare, the Cu Chi tunnels and the headquarters of the Vietcong.

It is eerie to wander through the muddy forests – with that nightmarish sense of recognition from seeing precisely this setting in Hollywood’s version of the war – hearing the sound of distant gunfire (from tourists at the shooting range), as V points out the trap doors concealed under foliage, and the booby-traps which left young American soldiers mangled or crushed. “Ingenious” you say, as you listen to the names for different inventions, such as “The Leaving Present”, and I think of Michael Herr’s words about “the lean young men, with only the teenage fat of their innocence to keep away the chill; and then they lose that”.

As for the tunnels themselves – they may have been widened for the big-bottomed tourists but I had visions of being stuck like Winnie the Pooh, with my legs wiggling in comic desperation, and decided there were some experiences better left to the imagination.

After all this reality, we were looking forward to a dose of nostalgic escapism in Dalat – the Vietnamese equivalent of India’s hill stations where homesick French colonials built their Normandy mini-manoirs and tried to be elegant against the odds. The odds being, as we discovered: heavy and unceasing rainfall, muddy walkways, damp. We stayed in a curious compound of painstakingly restored Twenties villas – one vast pad all to ourselves, with a claw-footed bath in our bedroom, a triple-size bed swathed in mosquito nets, dark wood floors and views of the dripping, mulchy green highlands beyond. In the retro restaurant, we ate delicate meals in dim lighting to the mournful strains of Edith Piaf.

We did what we could to enjoy our sodden summer holiday, aided by daily massages, but Dalat post-colonial and in a deluge is not a place that offers endless divertissements. So we boarded a train in a station that was a gaudily-painted, possibly once splendid Deco delight, visited a village chief who played some pipes and offered a suck on some sort of fermented honey brew, and sampled noodle soup in a street café.

How interesting it would have been to talk to the descendants of locals who had serviced the French colonials who had come to Dalat on their weekend and summer retreats. How did they entertain themselves, what sort of intrigues unfolded, did it bear any resemblance to the glamour and casual cruelty depicted in the videos of Indochine and Les Amants we watched at night by the stoked fireside on the weirdly chilly summer nights?

In the end, we were dispatched to a safer prospect of sunshine in the Robinson-Crusoe chic of another resort, where we spent our days lolling around in our own private infinity rock pool. This was the closest thing to paradise. And still what surfaces from my “Vietnam is a country not a war” holiday is the image in the War Remnants Museum of a little girl’s schoolbag, retrieved from a French crackdown, next to a picture of her hopeful face and a pencil case, and I thought how useless it is to think, “I hate war”.

Politicians, Women

I asked her whether she felt immortal. No, she answered

The Times – December 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

The last time I communicated with Benazir Bhutto was via e-mail in October after the first attempt on her life when she returned to Pakistan to fight the free elections which General Musharraf had promised.

She escaped unscathed on that occasion, although hundreds of her supporters did not. I wrote to Benazir (or Bibi as she preferred to be known informally) scarcely knowing whether the message of support would even reach her amid such turmoil, let alone expecting a reply – and such a swift one at that.

“Thanks a million for writing to me,” she had typed. “It’s been quite terrible. Hope u [sic] come back and we visit again here.”

I’m not sure whether “here” was Dubai, where we had met on the first occasion, or London (the location of our second meeting, this summer, when she held a sort of salon of old and new friends in a safe house in the West End); or, indeed, Pakistan which I had hoped to revisit at some point in the future with Benazir back in power. The extraordinary thing is not what she wrote, but that she had found the time and had the courtesy to do it.

Our friendly relations were not neccessarily expected after our four-hour interview at her home in exile in Dubai in the spring. Of course, I had admired and respected her in advance of meeting her and was riveted by the part she could play in shaping Pakistan’s future at such a critical moment in its troubled history.

Although the corruption charges that plagued her were not insignificant they seemed far less crucial than the political impact she could make on a country that was at the forefront of her mind throughout all the long years of exile; a country to which her family has dedicated the lives of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded and led the Pakistan People’s Party before passing the mantle on to his daughter, two of her brothers and now Benazir herself.

We spent four hours together, just long enough for me to experience a potted version of the Benazir Bhutto package. She did have a tendency – not unknown among politicians – to go into oratorical mode, and once she had embarked on a certain line there was no stopping her.

This did not bother me as Pakistan’s history – and the Bhutto dynasty’s part in it – is so dramatic. Also since almost every terrorist attack that has taken place around the world leads back in some way to Pakistan, what she had to say about dealing with the extremist tendency could hardly be more important. She did come across as haughty on occasion, but what I liked about her was that you could point this out, and she was big enough to pause and think about why this should be.

Over lunch, Benazir made a rather astonishing remark about my weight saying: “You know, I am envious of the way you have let yourself go.”

As an interviewer, that comment was a godsend since it allowed me later to go on to ask her all sorts of impertinent questions about her own complicated relationship with food.

Her two older teenage children, a boy and a girl, were present at the time, and I think they found their mama rather embarassing – but, then, what’s new about that where teenagers are concerned? Her older daughter told me that she had written a birthday rap for her mother and I longed to hear it.

What I remember most was asking the children whether they had any interest in politics and being met by a fairly typical adolescent shrug; the difference being that the Bhutto family back then, and still now, is not a typical family.

Benazir, herself, for instance, did not want the heavy mantle of responsibility to be passed on to her by her father. I wrote in that piece something that was prophetic: “Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is . . . Perhaps it is her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death.”

After the interview – which was by no means uncritical – was published, Benazir sent me an e-mail that could hardly have been more gracious. She thanked me for taking the time to visit Dubai and was sorry for her lunchtime indiscretions.

“I am also writing to apologise for remarks I may have made inadvertantly which were insensitive,” she wrote. “Please accept the apology.”

A few months later we met again in London. Her old mates were there from the University of Oxford, including Alan Duncan, the Tory MP, and the writer Victoria Schofield, a close friend who has been at her side through so many tragedies, and an American author, Ron Suskind, who was working on a book about terrorism. Her sister, Sunny, was there along with Benazir’s youngest, sweet-faced daughter, Asifa.

We ate samosas and cucumber sandwiches, and talked about terrorism, and Duncan told her how he could effect an introduction with David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, although I hardly felt Benazir needed any help on that count.

She looked younger and lighter, and freer, than when we last met – her hair flowing freely, wearing hardly any make-up and dressed in an almost hippyish kameez, lime-green and flame-orange in colour. She was, as I remember it, walking barefoot.

Benazir had survived many attempts on her life. She told me that she never discussed her travel arrangements because: “I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fallout on al-Qaeda and a fallout on the Taleban.”

I asked her whether she felt immortal. “No,” she had replied. “I know death comes.

“My young brothers I have buried . . . and I have been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street, so, no, I don’t feel there’s anything like immortality.”

Film, Women

Sex, drugs and hockey sticks

The Times – December 13, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

As the new St Trinian’s film is to be released, our former Cheltenham Ladies’ College pupil recalls her days of extreme misbehaviour at the august institution

Cheltenham Ladies’ College 1974

Hurrah, yaroo, jolly hockey-sticks and all that . . . St Trinian’s is back, this Christmas’s anarchic antidote to Harry Potter, and one of the starlets, the fetchingly named Talulah Riley, warns us that she and her fellow celluloid schoolgirls will be doing “anything and everything — there’s drugs, there’s sex, there’s tattoos and piercings”, to which the director adds (perhaps redundantly): “It’s going to shock some people.”

The first rampaging schoolgirl film, The Belles of St Trinian’s, came out in 1954, a year after their creator, the cartoonist and writer Ronald Searle, thought he’d killed his delinquent gels off for ever in an atomic explosion. One of his early cartoons (the first appeared in 1941) showed a Victorian-looking schoolmistress confronting a line-up of pupils with the words: “Hands up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night.”

Searle’s description of the quintessential St Trinian’s girl is that she should be: “sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable of any excess. She would also be well-spoken, even well-mannered and polite. Sardonic, witty and very amusing. She would be very good company. In short: typically human and, despite everything, endearing.” This sounds like the perfect description of a journalist but it’s also not all that far removed from some other fraffly well-spoken (but also fraffly naughty) girls that I remember from the class of ’74 at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

It all started innocently enough. A vast swarm of chattering girls at Paddington station in our greengage scratchy uniforms, satchels, tuckboxes, my mother in mink with a strained expression of jollity, doubtless concealing her mixed feelings about packing off her 13-year-old to boarding school.

I don’t remember that first train journey but the boarding house certainly came as a bit of a shock.

The dormitory with its basic cubicles — a dozen identical boxes painted magnolia, narrow beds with thin candlewick counterpanes in bleached colours, a flimsy strip of fabric at each doorway for privacy. Many years later, when I visited the inmates of Holloway prison for an article, I got a whiff of my old boarding school but the rooms of the female cons, fortunately, resembled undergraduates’ rooms rather than those we had to endure at the (huge) fee-paying CLC.

Like prisoners, we forged our alliances through what we had to offer — our currency was the ability to tell an entertaining story or share unusual but delicious things to eat. That evening I tasted Kendal’s Mint Cake for the first time with my friend from the North.

Downstairs in the communal living-room, the older girls flicked their hair and moaned on sofas about their summer love affairs to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s heavy-panting hit on the record-player — Je t’aime . . . moi non plus — while we read about the horrific butchery of Charles Manson and his followers — some of the girls had attended the American equivalents of our school — in the copies of Paris Match and Life magazine. While the spirit of the Sixties was raging all around us, we were still walking to Col in crocodiles and having institutionalised “pashes” — the female equivalent of fagging in boys’ schools — on older girls.

In the early years, our naughtiness was restricted to midnight feasts and breaking (sometimes unwittingly ) a myriad of tiny rules. Eating currant buns in a public place while in CLC uniform was a major transgression. Talking in the black and white tiled marble corridor on the way to morning assembly was a no-no. Pretty soon, I was part of a gang of four girls who were always in trouble for minor infringements and we were constantly hauled in front of the headmistress, Margaret Hampshire, known as Hammy.

Miss Hampshire, unbeknownst to us then, was a bit of a rebel herself and certainly a modernist. A civil servant turned industrialist — from 1959 to 1964 she was head of the government relations department at Courtaulds — her appointment at CLC in 1964 was controversial (she remains the only head in the school’s 150-odd years history to come from industry) prompting one retired head to write to the education minister in protest.

During her tenure (1964-1979), which coincided with my years at Chelt, she built a new wing for the sixth-formers, started a school forum and introduced joint lessons in the sixth form with boys from Cheltenham College. (Old boy Lindsay Anderson made his version of St Trinian’s in his explosive film If.)

In those early St Trinian’s films, the schoolgirls were either lower-fourth hoodlums using their lacrosse and hockey sticks as lethal weapons and doing dreadful things to their teachers, or gin-swigging, cigar-puffing harlots, hitched-up skirts revealing black stocking tops, with unspeakable morals. Those of us who had good legs also went in for multiple waistband-rolling, cunningly letting the olive worsted down for episodic skirt inspections. Others of us customised our sweaters by scissoring the cuffs so they unravelled in boho dissaray.

Poor Hammy. She may have been a modernist thinker — as was CLC’s first head, the leading suffragette Dorothy Beale, who also founded Oxford University’s women’s college, St Hilda’s — but she was hopelessly out of date regarding the modern idiom. On one of the Terrible Four’s stern talking-to sessions, the theme she had picked was “Kicking against the pricks”. (A biblical reference to flouting authority.) Oh dear. “You may think pricks have been created expressly for your pleasure,” she commenced, “and, indeed, if you leave this room learning that pricks are something you should love rather than battle against, your education here will not have been in vain.” On and on she went — for what seemed like an eternity — and every sentence included the word “pricks”. I can still vividly recall the sensation of my fellow scallywags’ shoulders vibrating, the physical constriction of suppressed laughter, my anxiety about one friend’s tendency to wet herself in extreme paroxysms of giggling.

As the Sixties rolled on and we became fully-fledged teenagers, our naughtiness began to reflect the times. My sad little cubicle resembled a kiosk at Kensington Market — with posters of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Biba girl (Ingrid Boulting), feather boas around my mirror, patchouli oil doused over the candlewick. If you send your children to boarding school, you are effectively handing over their pastoral care to someone else — and some pretty awful things happened during my time there. The prison analogy works in this context, too.

That environment, certainly during my years there, is about the survival of the fittest. Girls who didn’t fit in, for whatever reason, were bullied, and I was at both the giving and receiving end of this. It was here, for instance, that I learnt for the first time that my sister was actually my half-sister during a particularly vicious row with a girl whose sister had been my older sibling’s contemporary. When we weren’t gorging ourselves on “prick stew” (sausage casserole) and “Thames mud and beech leaves” (a pudding of chocolate blancmange with a topping of cornflakes bound by golden syrup), we were strarving ourselves.

We taught one another to smoke Woodbines behind the bike sheds or walking around the sports fields. One of my four best friends — who was around 13 at the time — ran away from school but was tracked down before she got into any real trouble. Alliances began to shift, as two of my gang became prefects and socialised in a separately assigned room from the non-prefects.

The bad girls were about to become badder. If pricks were there to be kicked against, envelopes were there to be pushed. On the weekends, we would buy bottles of cider and hitchhike out of Cheltenham to hang out on the Downs. Since this was around the same time that the Wests were picking up young girls, the imagination recoils at what might have happened. Still, we managed to make connections with various hippy types and visit their squats and — it should remind the doom-merchants that most human beings are decent — no harm ever came of it.

In the sixth form, I ended up going out with a Cheltenham Boy — my first big love — and having sex with him in his prefect’s room. We split up soon after which would have confirmed my mother’s view — one I considered hopelessly out of touch at the time — that “Boys, Ginny darling, need to put their girls on pedestals like goddesses.” He was in a band called Lay Off the Graves, which favoured necrophiliac anthems — I can still recall a winning couplet or two — “Meet me in the morning/At the break of day/ Mincing round the graveyards/looking for a lay”. Baudelaire meets Alice Cooper, we must have thought at the time.

Sex, rock’n’roll and — oh yes — drugs. Just as I was introduced to smoking at boarding school, my first experience of dope was at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

I suppose we must have had the odd toke on a joint during band rehearsals but I bought my first and only stash of hash from a beacon of virtue — a top prefect, no less — who had smuggled the stuff in from her home in somewhere exotic. Being largely ignorant about quantities and their effects, I made the mistake of smoking more or less the whole amount (a quarter of an ounce) in one go at my home in London and was quite unwell.

During my time at Cheltenham there was a far more serious drug-related (or so it was assumed) incident that involved the police. In one of the boarding houses, there had been some violent activity — the huge red velvet curtains in the living-room had been slashed to pieces overnight, and piano strings in the prac rooms downstairs severed. Every single girl in the school was interviewed by the police, as I recall, and two pupils were expelled on the basis that they were known to have experimented with LSD. The following year, however, there was more of the same, with curtains in the staff room ripped and the carpet met a similar fate. The word, according to one of my friends who was there at the time, was that it was the actions of a “psycho” member of staff.

Academically, I didn’t do too brilliantly, and was obliged to redo an A level at a London crammer run by an ex-Etonian housemaster (our mothers found him swooningly handsome) whose idea of staff-pupil bonding was to throw toga parties.

Back in Cheltenham, I had been too busy meeting the boys in the band stand in front of Queen’s Hotel to swot as hard as I should have. This was made easy by dint of the ingenuity of my best friend, now a respectable shipping lawyer, who had managed to copy a key so we could escape from our sixth-form building at night.

When I think of the roll-call of old Cheltenham girls that immediately come to mind — the artist Bridget Riley; the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett; Mary Archer; Rosie Boycott, who founded Spare Rib and edited various national newspapers; the actress Kristen Scott-Thomas — I think they all share a certain bullish independence of spirit and I wonder if this may not have been encouraged in some way by the ethos of the school.

I’m proud of the fact that I’m still in touch with my old friends from Col and we still meet up for long dinners two or three times a year, as our children grow older and our parents die off. I’m against boarding, partly because I know from experience — however updated modern establishments are (including, no doubt, CLC) — what nonsense you can get up to, particularly if you’re bright, imaginative and bored, away from the watchful responsibility of your parents.

But I would say when I look around the table at the new version of the Terrible Four — one of the original members has died, another has gone a different route — and observe the sheer energy, volume of discourse and collective brio that I think St Trinian’s headmistress’s words hold true for us Cheltenham Ladies: “In other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.”

Margaret Hampshire: 1918-2004, coelesti luce crescat

—–

St Trinian’s is released at cinemas nationwide on December 21

Film, General

Let battle commence

The Times – October 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

How should you interview a celebrity? Our correspondent has some advice for Steve Buscemi

Interview, the movie, boldly goes where no actual celebrity interview is likely to go or have gone before. It’s an intense two-hander starring Steve Buscemi (who also directed) as the duplicitious, alcoholic, pill-popping, manipulative, self-destructive, arrogant, lazy hack and Sienna Miller as the duplicitious, alcoholic, coke-snorting, etc, soap star.

During their extended encounter, bottles are drained, souls bared, dancing, flirting and kissing skills explored, there’s a physical fight and a great deal of psychological warfare. As Buscemi said after The Times BFI London Film Festival screening, Interview is more about the dynamic between two troubled individuals grappling with their personal demons than an excoriating examination of the role of the media in our celebrity-driven culture. The film, however, does offer some instructive lessons in how not to conduct an interview. It should be required viewing for all media students.

Drinking on the job

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 story or scoop out of an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied his or her subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature into revealing all. This is irritating, but also nonsense.

Most revealing interviews, in my experience, come about because the interviewees find it a relief to unburden themselves. My advice would be to get the bulk of the interview over with before clinking glasses but, unless you can’t hold your drink, it’s a bit uptight to make alcohol-avoid-ance a hard and fast rule.

There are only three of my interviews that stand out as being conducted under the influence: Christopher Hitchens, who popped open a bottle of champagne, one of a case presented to him for appearing at the Hay Festival; Pete Townshend, who was generous to a fault with his expense account; and Marianne Faithfull, who insisted on getting the first of several rounds in.

Do your homework

This is essential from every point of view. It’s good manners, it’s clever and it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter whether or not you admire your interviewee – it’s important to be prepared.

Buscemi’s character, Pierre Peders, starts his interview by telling Katya, his interviewee, that he hasn’t seen any of her films. He goes on to explain that “I don’t usually do this”. “Interview people?” she says, and follows up with “Do you know anything about me at all?” Peders’s ignorance is his downfall.

Top tip: if for some inexplicable reason you have not been able to read a single book, see a film or read any cuttings before showing up for an interview, do not think it is charming to draw attention to your shortcomings. Miller’s character is implausibly indulgent of her interviewer’s sloppiness.

Equally, however much work you put in, be prepared for the caustic or batty put-down. A very elderly Anthony Powell berated me for not having read the whole of A Dance to the Music of Time (12 volumes) – and indeed every book he had written. He then complained about my “quite horrible, horrible voice” and the interview was brought to a close. Bob Geldof expects his interviewers to be fully nuanced in the intricacies of governmental and nongovernmental aid. Gore Vidal took one arch look at my research notes and accused me of having Alzheimer’s. Swot up on the Kabba-lah before meeting Madonna or risk being lectured on the subject, as I was for a good 20 minutes.

Insulting the interviewee

This approach is popular with some interviewers and may, on occasion, result in a fiery exchange that can be fun to read or watch. You do run the risk, however, of being left without an interview when your subject walks out. Peders cuts a risible figure when he says that he’s used to interviewing important politicians, not two-bit actresses. Charm is usually a more effective weapon. The aim of the interview is, after all, to get some insight into the subject – however unworthy the interviewer may consider the interviewee to be.

Top tip: remember that however badly your subject behaves, the interviewer always has the last word. My trickiest interviewees have tended to be film directors who are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being directed themselves – Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway and Spike Lee were all prickly and defensive. (Greenaway almost came to blows with the photographer, Nigel Parry.)

Top bully was, not surprisingly, Bob Geldof, with Alan Clark (by turns creepily predatory – there was a worrying moment in his wine cellar – and snappy) and Jeffrey Archer coming in a close second.

Being insulted by your interviewee

I am thinking of compiling a small book of insults from my years of interviewing the famous. For some reason, they feel free to make the most astonishing comments about my weight – which I duly feel free to write about. Benazir Bhutto: “I admire you for letting yourself go.” Martina Navratilova: “You may be happy with the way you look but plenty of people wouldn’t.” Jeffrey Archer: “You should go on a diet.”

How to deal with a pass

This is rather more delicate. A certain amount of “chemistry” does go on in an interview, which is why editors send women to interrogate men and vice versa. But how much you use is a matter of judgment.

Readers tend to find insults more entertaining to read about than overblown compliments. It can also feel a bit mean or irrelevant to expose a subject’s clumsy attempts at seduction. For this reason, I did not include Pete Townshend’s rather slurred confession that he, er, thought, um, that he fancied me. Clive James’, on the other hand, was so preposterous (“I’m falling in love with your right now”) that I did.

The all-singing, all-dancing interview

Katya and Pierre take a spin around her ballroom-sized loft. Clive James chose to tango on his own. But singing is another matter. Some of my more memorable duets have included My Way with Imelda Marcos in Manila and Somethin’ Stupid with Nancy Sinatra in Bel Air (I was singing her dad’s part).

Other dramatic highlights include snorkelling with Kelsey Grammer in Maui in Hawaii and rehearsing an episode of Frasier on the beach (I was Daphne). Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, reciting a poem in a wild Scottish dialect down the phone was a good moment.

The killer question

It is useful to have one or two of these – but don’t start with them or you might find that your interview is swiftly terminated. My favourite was asking, with some trepidation, Jeanette Winterson about her years when she sold her body to ladies from the Home Counties who paid her with Le Creuset saucepans – of which she had a large collection.

Peders’s killer questions are pathetic: “What makes a man attractive?” and “Are you good at seducing men?” Puh-lease.

Snogging the interviewee

Not generally advisable, particularly prepublication. You never know, he or she may be the one to kiss and tell.

——-

Interview is released on Nov 2

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”

——–

Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9

News

Enough, says Amis, in Eagleton feud

Warring professors of cultural theory and creative writing fight themselves to a standstill over Islam

Maev Kennedy
Saturday October 13, 2007
The Guardian

Martin Amis, interviewed by Ginny Dougary, Times, September 2006

‘Moderate Islam is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere it is supine and inaudible.’

News

Tebbit hits out at Tories and names Brown as Thatcher’s natural heir

Lord Tebbit gave Mr Cameron another pre-conference jolt. He said that Baroness Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing when she visited the Prime Minister at Downing Street two weeks ago. She was aware that Mr Cameron had been at pains to distance himself from her, the former Conservative chairman added.

The devastating intervention from Lord Tebbit came in an interview with Ginny Dougary in The Times Magazine, to be published on Saturday. He drew a wounding comparison between Mr Brown, on whom he lavished praise, and Mr Cameron, whom he criticised for his lack of experience and his stand on grammar schools. “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret,” he said when asked to name the Conservatives’ biggest asset.

Politicians

The torchbearer

The Times – September 29, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Norman Tebbit discusses Cameron, loss and multiculturalism

Lord Tebbit brought up the white rabbit as we scuttled down corridor after dimly lit corridor in the gentlemen’s club late afternoon hush of the House of Lords. It is the women we pass – of a certain age, two of them in wheelchairs – who greeted him with tremendous warmth. Later, over tea – as formal and English, with the possibility of triangular cucumber sandwiches and oozy cakes, as tea at the Savoy – he tells me that one of the smiling Baronesses had been a real toughie, an ultimate Tebbitian compliment, as the former head of intelligence in one of the trickier countries in the African continent. He is quite the man for a flourish, verbal and otherwise, opening the door for a younger Baroness with a courtly hand gesture; Baroness Amos returns the favour with a rather cool look.

Close up, he has striking, slightly surprising eyes – flecked with blue and grey and brown – parchment skin and a dry, thin-lipped smile. In that museum setting, in his loose pinstriped suit, stooped and limping on one side – a legacy of the horrific Brighton bombing all those years ago, fronds of white hair flapping under his bald pate, he reminds me suddenly and disrespectfully, with his lolloping gait, of Riff Raff, the sinister retainer in The Rocky Horror Show. But let’s blame him for these far-fetched analogies, since Tebbit himself sometimes feels that he is in Alice in Wonderland as he finds himself lost in the labyrinthine warrens of the Lords – even though it is 15 years since he became Baron Tebbit of Chingford.

The man variously dubbed the Chingford Skinhead, “a semi-house-trained polecat” and Count Dracula is disappointingly un-sinister in person: quietly spoken, courteous, exuding an almost Zen-like calm. The views he espoused on the dangers of multiculturalism, which seemed so offensive and had every bien-pensant liberal (including me) branding him a racist, are now part of the mainstream debate, with intellectuals such as David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, and Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, entering the fray. Phillips’s change of heart over multiculturalism is of particular significance since he once embraced it so enthusiastically, and accused Goodhart of being a “liberal Powellite”. Now Phillips fears that Britain is “sleepwalking towards segregation” and writes: “How we manage the deep differences emerging in our society is a debate we must have… no amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities… the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits.”

Indeed, so urgent is this debate that Lord Tebbit and Phillips – hardly the most natural bedfellows (Phillips was once moved to ask him, “Would it upset you if I came to live next door to you?”) – recently met for lunch to discuss these very issues: “And at the end, Trevor said, ‘How is it that we used to be at a diametric difference and now we are very much agreeing?’ and I said, ‘Ah, I think the difference is that you’ve understood that I wasn’t talking about whether you’re black or white [Phillips is black], I was talking about the cultures of this country, and you and I share the same culture. You and I are now beginning to see, and I won’t say who saw it first…’” Tebbit pauses for wry effect, “‘that some of the other cultures are a threat to you as well as to me – that we’re both in the same boat.’ And I’m very happy to be in the same boat as Trevor, but I’m cautious about what I say about that because I don’t want to make his life difficult in managing his constituencies, so to speak.”

Lord Tebbit would like to consider himself as colour-blind as someone who is actually blind, such as David Blunkett, whom he refers to thus: “I like David Blunkett – we’re quite good friends although I think he was a fool in his personal life. But someone like David is vulnerable and I think it’s very sad what happened to him.

“But, anyway, being blind, David does not know when he meets someone whether they’re black, yellow, green or candy-striped. He assesses them on what they say, how they react and things like that. I’d like to think I do the same. Does this mean that I would like to live in Brixton? No, I wouldn’t – because the culture and the way of living in Brixton is not one that appeals to me.”

He goes into one of his favourite analogies comparing humans with dogs: “Humans are pack animals and we prefer – as kids do – to be in a pack with other dogs, so to speak, like us. And I do prefer that. Now does that mean that I discriminate against people? No. I’ve got a lot of very good, close Jewish friends, for instance. In fact, I got into a business venture with some Jewish friends where I was known as the statutory gentile because I was the only one who wasn’t a Jew. So that’s no problem to me.”

One of his neighbours in West Sussex “whom I’m really quite fond of” is an airline pilot – as Lord Tebbit was – and he “also happens to be black. Now I’m not interested in the guy because he’s black, I’m interested in the fact that he’s an airline pilot so we’ve got an enormous amount in common.” He recently shared a table with said neighbour and his wife on the occasion of his wife Margaret Tebbit’s birthday, when the two couples bumped into each other at a local restaurant… “And, yes, he is black,” he says again, “so there’s no element of that [racial prejudice] at all.”

While we are on this subject of colour blindness, he points out that the Tebbits have kept in touch with one of Margaret’s carers from long years ago – his wife was paralysed by the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 – and she is a Pakistani-born Muslim. “So, you know, when people talk to me about some of these things, well, yes, I didn’t have to go and stay with a Muslim family, I actually had one living in the house.”

Lord Tebbit is very clear that the problem is not multi-ethnic, “which is fine, that’s no problem”, but multicultural – which is quite a different matter. “I’ve been saying for years – and been criticised very severely for it – that multicultural societies don’t work and what makes me cross is that for so long if anyone did discuss this issue, they were accused of being racist,” he says.

“A multi-ethnic society can work as long as it is mono-cultural – where it is accepted that all the ways in which we behave, the law, the whole structure, are based on Christian-Judaeo rules and those are the rules of the game. Of course, you can still build your own place of worship and observe your own practices and things like that, as long as it is recognised that the society in which you are living is based on one set of rules. Because if you have two cultures within one geographical place, then sooner or later it is highly likely that one culture will want to spread and push the other out.

“What makes me cross is that people always assume you’re only talking from one direction and yet I’ve said and written many, many times that if you are a young Muslim and reasonably devout and you live in a number of our cities, particularly in the North, and on a Friday night you see the culture you’re being asked to integrate into – fornicating, urinating, drunken behaviour – well, there’s nothing there to pull you in, is there? That’s the great sadness of it. A good Muslim is going to say, ‘Perhaps we should be out there trying to do something about these savages.’ So one of the things that we have to do is clean up our own act.”

Don’t you think now that your line about the cricket test was rather unhelpful? “No, not at all. Ask Nasser Hussain whether he thought it was unhelpful. He was Indian-born and jeered at and booed by Asians born in this country when he was playing as the captain of England. Now, I think they should have enjoyed the fact that they were living in this country where, on sheer merit, there’s this guy who’s the captain of the England cricket team, and it was shameful the way they treated him.

“What I said was that if you want to know how well integrated people are, it’s the cricket test. Look to see which side they’re cheering for. Are they cheering for the country to which they have come for a better life or are they cheering the country from which they’ve come? Are they looking forward or are they looking back? Are they a branch of Pakistan in England or are they…”

Oh, honestly, Norman, surely you can enjoy all sorts of aspects of life in England and still support your old Pakistani team without being viewed as a traitor? What a dreary and monotone world it would be, for instance, if we all ate the same food, dressed alike and read from the same set text. “I was putting it sharply,” he admits. “But I was saying, ‘How deeply are you into this country?’”

We are sitting, as the evening light falls, in a narrow annexe-like room – just large enough for two chairs and a table. As he struggled to find the light, Tebbit growled: “Come into the dark, my dear.” He does like his little jokes but he’s still very much the hardliner, despite the mildness of his delivery, with his concerns about discipline and his belief in corporal punishment and hanging. When we talk about Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb that crushed Margaret Tebbit’s life and shrunk her husband’s, Lord Tebbit says, “Of course, I’d like him to be hanged.” Do you still believe in hanging, generally, I ask. “Oh, yes,” he says, adding with a ghost of a smile, “not generally – hahahahaha – only for bad people.”

The photographs of McGuinness and Paisley, newly chummed up and appearing to delight in a private joke, made him feel “cynical”, and he thinks it likely that there will be a consensual move towards a united Ireland. “You know, we could have had peace in Europe if we had elected Halifax rather than Churchill. We could have made peace with Germany and they could have carried on incinerating Jews and everyone would have been at peace, wouldn’t they?

“What I would regret is the fact that people whose first choice would have been to remain in the United Kingdom had been put in a position where that choice was looking shabby [he mutters here about being governed by convicted terrorists] to the extent that they would prefer to leave, but if that was their view and that was the best thing for them, then so be it. It’s not the outcome I would have hoped for, but we very often don’t get the outcome we hope for.”

Although Lord Tebbit does go to church – “Because the rector’s a nice man and it’s a peaceful place and causes me to think about certain issues” – when I ask him whether he’s a Christian, he says: “I find that a very difficult question but I doubt that I’m a Christian because some of the things that I’m asked to believe are not very believable.” He says that, on the whole, he is of a forgiving nature but there are exceptions and he certainly cannot forgive Magee for what he did. He was not happy with the BBC for allowing the former terrorist to appear on a radio programme even though Magee said he was “deeply sorry” for the bombing. “Deeply sorry for what?” he says in a scathing tone. “He has never offered a hint of acknowledgment that what he did was wrong. It’s all very well to say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and then push somebody over again.

“If he came forward and said, ‘I realise that what I did was utterly, utterly wrong. I am sincerely sorry for what I did and now I want to make public the machinery of the gang I was in and who was giving the orders, and who was my boss, because I want to see them all brought to justice,’ yeah. Oh, yeah, that would be different because then I would decide that he had truly repented. But there’s no evidence of that whatsoever.” Would it have provoked strong feelings in him if the two men had come face to face? “No more than if I had to shoot a mad dog,” he says. “You know, I wouldn’t want to shoot a dog but if a dog is dangerous then I would shoot him.”

It is clear that Lord Tebbit is uncomfortable discussing his own injuries, which still cause him pain all these years on. He was left with very little skin on his left side from his shoulder to his ankle, “oozing blood as though I had been sandpapered”, and a gaping hole over his hip and lower abdomen: “Several inches of muscle and flesh had been simply torn away and part of the top of my pelvis had been sliced down too, and a main nerve was severed leaving me without sensation in part of my leg.” Part of his hip was removed to prepare for the skin-grafting operations, which did not take well and had to be repeated. All of this I gleaned from his autobiography, Upwardly Mobile, since he is more forthcoming there than in person, his voice sinking to a whisper when I ask him about his aches and pains. He allows that, “I have injuries to my hip which mean I can’t work in the garden and things like that [he and his wife were keen gardeners]. Sometimes you don’t notice it, you live with it. After all, all of us as we get older [he is 76] get more pain of one kind or another.”

I ask him whether his and Margaret’s predicament gets any easier with time, and he answers a stark, “No.” She does have use of her left hand but it’s extremely limited: “She can just about, with a bit of help, brush her teeth. But she can’t eat or cut anything with a knife and writing is a bit of a problem and after all these years… And, by the way, she’s going to give me a terrible bollocking in a minute because I should have been home by now.”

Does it wear on the nerves, I press on. “It doesn’t enhance life, hah.” Is she still an authoritative woman? “She tells me what to do,” he says, with a smile which is hard to read.

Even those who would prefer not to find a kind word to say about Lord Tebbit are struck by his fortitude in dealing with his difficulties at home, and this was years before the Brighton bombing. He wrote movingly in his autobiography about the reality of bringing up three small children, while working, when his wife was absent during spells of post-partum psychosis. “Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating [shortly after the birth of their last baby] is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.”

As a single parent, combining the father and mother roles, he wrote: “I began to understand how a mother, stressed beyond belief, could batter a child.” Now he says: “When you think of the extraordinary thing of carrying a child for nine months and then suddenly in 20 minutes – whoosh! But it’s not quite ‘whoosh!’ because then you’re feeding it and looking after it. I mean, one’s metabolism has got to reorganise itself pretty well, hasn’t it? What is remarkable is that people don’t go potty every time they have a baby.”

Lord Tebbit was a surprisingly modern father (apart from his tendency to deliver the odd sharp smack) – surprising to me but not to him – changing nappies and cooking and helping in the household long before it became a necessity. “As a long-haul airline pilot – when I was away for three weeks and then at home for the same time – my wife was multitasking when I was away and it seemed to be perfectly proper and sensible that when I was back I would do my bit in the same way. I could change a nappy with the best of them.”

His children were not over-impressed by his cooking skills then but perhaps they are less dismissive now. The flat Tebbit monotone is suddenly enlivened when he describes preparing a pheasant casserole, assembled the morning of a dinner party, stewed with apples and a good slug of Calvados. His mother, the daughter of a butcher, taught him to skin a rabbit as a boy and one of his great septuagenerian pleasures is “shooting a bird, skinning it, cooking it and eating it”. He is even working on a Norman Tebbit how to cook game recipe book, as well as a history of Britain’s wars – “All 61 of them!” he exclaims – since 1945.

I wonder whether Margaret ever blames her husband for her disability. “She’d better not,” he chuckles grimly. “I think we both just live with it as it is.” He worries about what will happen to her when he’s gone, although she will be well provided for: “She’s not silly and she can look after herself pretty well and I know that the children would fill the gap, but she would have to deal on her own with all the problems of staff and things like that.” And it would be someone else’s vigil – one Lord Tebbit has kept these long decades – to do the twice-nightly turning of her body to prevent bedsores.

“I don’t rail against it any more,” he says, “it just doesn’t get any easier. It’s the difficulties of travel and the… almost the impossibility of doing anything off the cuff, you know. If I thought about it, I suppose I would feel sad but I don’t let myself because otherwise it’s unbearable. I don’t go down that path.”

In their old devil-may-care days, the Tebbits would just turn up at Heathrow, check the availability of flights and board the plane – usually to somewhere in France – pick up a car and “bog off with our Michelin guide and that was that. But you can’t do that in our situation, which means you become very unadventurous.”

Lord Tebbit’s main complaint about David Cameron – and he has a few – is that he has not experienced enough variety of the different ways of the world. But doesn’t he think that coping with a disabled child has given Cameron a different sort of insight? “Oh yes, that’s certainly so. The emotional side of having a child whose maximum potential is limited is a difficult thing to accept and live with, of course. But then you sit down and you say, ‘Well, how can I do the best for this child?’ That’s one thing if you’re a bus driver, it’s another thing if you’re a wealthy man. I am very conscious of the fact that looking after my wife costs £70,000 to £80,000 a year of pre-taxed income. Now how many people, who have got a disabled husband or wife or child, can afford that sort of money? Very few.”

At a “State of Britain” speech he gave in May, he dealt a swift swipe to Cameron’s leadership saying: “My own party has now re-branded itself as the party to implement New Labour policies more effectively. God knows there is a need of a party to do that, but I thought it was the Labour Party.” When I ask him to name the Tories’ biggest political asset (Lord Tebbit is still routinely referred to in headlines as the ‘last big Tory beast’), he laughs and says “Very interesting question.” Because you feel there isn’t anyone? “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret.”

After Lady Thatcher’s recent visit to 10 Downing Street, I asked Lord Tebbit what he made of it. “It seemed to me that it was Gordon Brown at his very best… a wonderful mixture of his courtesy and his political nous,” he said down the phone. “After all, Cameron described himself as the ‘heir to Blair’; it’s only natural that Brown should make himself the ‘heir to Thatcher’. It’s the perfect response, isn’t it?

“I’m quite sure that Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing. She’s first too well-mannered to rebuff the Prime Minister and second, of course, the present Conservative leadership has been at great pains to distance himself from her – and she is, after all, a woman!”

He has no problem with the Old Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet: “It doesn’t matter to me if the guy’s the right guy, whether he was educated at home by his mother, went to a comprehensive or went to Eton. That is not a problem for me and never has been. But what a lot of people will suggest is that they don’t know how the other half lives. David and his colleagues – the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days – are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever. He [Cameron] has spent much of his time in the Conservative Party and as a public relations guy. Well, it’s not the experience of most people in the streets. That’s the real attack and that’s damaging to him, I think.” Do you like him? “I don’t really know him.” His main beef about Cameron’s stand on the grammar school issue, as someone who directly benefited from that system, is that, “If the argument is that creaming off kids into the grammar schools is bad, then it must be bad to allow people to cream their kids off into private schools, too. My view is that selective education is so good that it should be available for everybody who can benefit from it, regardless of whether they can afford it.”

Where Lord Tebbit sympathises with Cameron is over his “Hug a hoody” speech: “In which, by the way, he didn’t say, ‘Hug a hoody’ any more than I said, ‘On yer bike!’ or Jim Callaghan said, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ We’ve all got saddled with those.” As he talks about what the New Tory leader was getting at, the Old Tory standard-bearer sounds like a politician of quite a different order. “I think he’s absolutely right to say, ‘You can’t solve this problem of poor social standards by just going at the kid.’ You’ve got to say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ What are the problems with the way they’ve been brought up and their schools and their families and things like that.” You’re beginning to sound quite liberal. “Not necessarily, because I think you also have to be quite tough about it.” Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? “Well, that was a proper quote and unfortunately he [Blair] has been neither.”

He is withering about Tony Blair and, at last, one catches glimpses of the rabid Tebbit of yesteryear but, it must be said, even here his views sound more mainstream than they once did – his position on Iraq, for example, is now a fairly standard anti-Blair critique. “I don’t think there’s any politician who has done more damage to this country than Blair,” he continues. “He has defiled every institution of government and there is now no part of government – the police, the courts, the Army, the civil service – which runs as efficiently as it did before he came into office.”

For Gordon Brown, on the other hand, Lord Tebbit has nothing but praise: “I think he is a clever man and I have a very considerable regard for him. Yes, much more than for Tony in many ways.” Why? “First of all, I think that he’s not as tacky as Tony. I can’t see him feathering his own nest in the rather awful way in which the Blairs have done. The proverbial holidays in Tuscany with dubious people, shall we say?” Berlusconi? “Yes. [Did Tebbit object, one wonders, when his leader hung out with the likes of Pinochet?] But, no, not poor Cliff Richard who’s flattered or thinks it’s the thing he ought to do. But it’s not in my view quite ‘kosher’. Now I don’t see Gordon doing that. I think he’s still too much a son of the Manse… a principled man in his personal conduct.”

I wonder, with all this talk of actual prime ministers, whether Lord Tebbit feels shortchanged by fortune. There were other factors (he did seem to fall out of favour with Thatcher) but does he feel that he never fulfilled his potential because he withdrew to spend more time at home? “I think that if I’d stood in 1990 when Margaret was brought down, that I would probably have made it [to Prime Minister]. But I wasn’t a political failure because I decided not to continue. Now that may have been a good or a bad decision but it wasn’t a political failure. I could have gone on but perhaps I would have ballsed it up and… you just don’t know, do you?”

Was he, like some of his other Tory confrères, a little bit in love with Thatcher? “No, heheheheh. Not my type. I thought she was a remarkable politician and enormously courageous and very straightforward to work for because she was so secure in her ideas. If you turned on the telly in the morning and something had happened, in Margaret’s government – unlike Blair’s – you wouldn’t have to wonder what she made of it because there was a framework. But of course we had our rows [over British Leyland, for instance].”

They still see one another. “Some days she’s on good form and some days she’s not. She can lose her place, so to speak. Sometimes she just finds it difficult to remember what’s going on that day… all the things that have happened today.” A Socialist friend of mine recalled a dinner at Chequers years ago when his hostess, Margaret Thatcher, fed Margaret Tebbit and he was struck by how kindly and unselfconsciously she performed that task.

This is a fascinating time to catch Norman Tebbit. While he is so out of step with the desperate modernising attempts of his own party, at least some of his views seem so much less outlandish than they once did. In common with almost every journalist who has met him – of differing political and racial complexions – I, too, found him a great deal more personable than I expected, with no hint, for example, of the homophobic ranter of yesteryear. He could not have been more patient and willing to engage in most issues I put to him, however combative my line of questioning. But witnessing how easily he slipped into conversation with the photographer and his assistant (both male), I sensed that he probably prefers the company of men to women. He says, when I ask him about this (his autobiography is full of roistering incidents, as a young man, involving rather yobbish behaviour under the influence of drink): “There’s a time and a place for everything – mixed company over a dinner table and things like that – but, yes, I do enjoy my time with the lads, always have done.” So do you think you’re still a bit of a lad in a way? “I’m not sure about that,” a final gallows laugh. “Perhaps a retired lad.”

Opinion, Women

Yes, we are bovvered

The Times – September 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Why do so many teenage girls play up to the slutty, binge-drinking image promoted by lads’ mags? Whatever happened to hard-won feminism?

It was a column last year by Rosie Boycott, the writer and broadcaster, that first sounded an alarm bell. She was reeling from having read Nuts, one of the younger lads mags (read by schoolboys as well as young adult males), in which every woman who had achieved something in her own right – other than possessing a great pair of boobs – was routinely dismissed as a boot-faced minger or dyke. Dame Ellen MacArthur, who had just achieved another nautical first, came in for a particular drubbing: “a miserable, sobbing, whining bitch in a boat. . . basically a frigid dyke-looking, yachting c***”.

The bells started to clang in earnest when the respected Sydney Morning Herald’s weekend supplement devoted an issue to Generation Sex: the Rules of Engagement in the New Age of Raunch, which talked about teenage girls performing oral sex on strangers or pretending to be lesbians to “thrill the guys . . . welcome to the latest sexual revolution where porn is pop, feminism is a dirty word and girls just wanna have fun”.

Fenella Souter, the writer of the cover story, pronounced that “sexiness has become the new political correctness and it has profoundly shaped the way young people see everything from sex and relationships to pornography and personal power”. She wrote about the rise of pole dancing as a mainstream exercise activity (a London friend told me she was horrified to hear that the parents of a schoolfriend of her 16-year-old daughter had consented to lay on pole-dancing as birthday-party entertainment), the popularity of burlesque clubs showcasing (ironic?) “striptease that knows how to laugh at itself” (the New Exhibitionism) and mentioned a recent UK survey of 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in which 63 per cent considered their ideal profession to be “glamour model”, posing nude or seminude.

In last year’s wave-making book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American author Ariel Levy asked: “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star going to render us sexually liberated?”

When I commented on the “interesting” outfits (think of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) of one of the girls in my younger teenage son’s circle, his knowing friend said: “You mean, she looks like a slut.” When I protested (hypocritically) that that wasn’t what I meant, he said: “But you don’t understand: that’s exactly what she wants to look like.”

Teenage girls are a paradox: why is it that while they outstrip boys from primary school to university, they also outdrink the boys (girls are now officially bigger binge drinkers than boys, and their numbers are growing), dress like tarts and apparently behave like them too?

A friend told me that at her daughter’s mixed private school 15-year-old girls are giving fellatio to boys in the loos for a fiver. I heard from two different sources about girls at inner-city comprehensives performing the same act in classrooms. Time and again I hear that despite their academic achievements girls are turned off the idea of emulating their careerist mothers: instead they want nothing more than to be a Wag, or at least marry someone rich enough to support their shopping habit.

What is going on? Is the pornogrification of mainstream culture partly to blame, where even serious actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Maggie Gyllenhaal pose in their underwear for magazine and advertising shoots? A culture in which lad mags such as FHM, recently condemned for publishing a picture of a topless 14-year-old girl without her permission, are apparently sent thousands of similar pictures by girls of themselves every week. A culture in which the website of Bliss magazine (target age 14-17) invited girls to send in photographs of themselves to be marked out of 10 “on looks and pullability”.

Is there some correlation between the misogyny of lads’ magazines (Zoo reported that the singer Courtney Love had “nasty, lumpy breasts” and had “an awful lot of sex” with her “previous owners”) and the fact that boys are doing less well than girls at school? And are girls (who still want to be considered “fit” and fanciable) compensating for outstripping the boys by dressing like strippers and behaving like baby hookers?

As the mother of teenage boys, I felt out of touch with what is going on in the heads of teenage girls and wanted to know what they made of all the contradictory messages in the media. Were they – like Catherine Tate’s bolshy schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper – actually deeply “bovvered”, despite their protestations not to give a damn? Why are self-hating eating disorders on the rise, for instance, affecting girls as young as eight? What effect do scenes of drunk and disorderly girls have on Muslim families at a time when it is imperative that our different communities should be pulling together? Does it push them into being even more conservative where their own daughters are concerned?

It occured to me that Women in Journalism, the campaigning organisation which I was involved in setting up in 1995, might be interested in investigating these issues. Some years ago Ann Treneman (Times parliamentary sketch-writer) legal journalist Fiona Bawdon and I worked together on a WIJ conference exploring the ways in which high-profile women were written about in a completely different way (ie, demeaning and trivialising) from men.

That made a splash, partly because the research was so damning but also because it was relevant to people beyond our own membership. Could a conference on teenage girls have a similar impact? The WIJ committee and chair, Sue Mathias, deputy editor of New Statesman,were immediately persuaded.

Fiona Bawdon was game to do the bulk of the work and immediately started researching. The British Library provided the venue and 100 schoolgirls and boys from around the country to participate in the summit (although the British Library has strict guidelines on what can be discussed on their premises, and sexual practices among teenagers in the presence of a teenage audience is verboten. This was a disappointment, as sex among teenagers was one of the aspects that most “bovvered” me).

During the time that we were planning this campaign, I travelled with Cherie Booth on an assignment in Pakistan and Afghanistan and was impressed by her ability to coax the most recalcitrant women and their daughters into talking about awkward issues. Might she be interested in participating in WIJ’s conference on teenage girls? The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Back in England, Cherie was incredibly supportive behind the scenes and on the day of the conference she was a galvanising moderator, quizzing panelists who included the token “baddie” and only man, Ed Needham (former editor of FHM), comedian Shazia Mirza and – the undisputed star of the event – the teenage actress Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Sasha in Hollyoaks. Nathalie, who is very beautiful herself, said that she is attracted to people’s personalities more than their looks, and: “I take comfort in knowing that people’s pictures are airbrushed, however beautiful they are,” to applause from the largely teenage audience.

What was striking about the conference was how reluctant the boys were to speak out, even in the more informal context of the break-out groups that took place after the main event. When I was a schoolgirl in the Seventies, at the height of women’s lib, we tended to shut up in the company of boys and let them opine away. What has happened since? If the audience had been stuffed with public school boys, as well as girls, would the gender difference have been so marked? At my sons’ single sex school, for instance, no boy got lower than a B in this year’s GCSEs: does this make them more confident about the value of what they have to say? Is it a class issue as much as a gender issue?

The debate in the panelled part of the conference focused almost exclusively on body image. It had been Cherie’s clever idea to hold the event during London Fashion Week, and this may have had an impact. What hasn’t changed from my time as a teenager is that boys (and men) say they are not attracted to skinny girls as much as to those with curves. Teenage girls, meanwhile, apparently remain convinced that they are never thin enough.

When Cherie managed to winkle out the clam-like boys, they made it clear that they are not fooled by the airbrushing of celebrity women on the covers of magazines and that they are not looking for this sort of fake “perfection” in real girls, let alone lusting after a “size 0” fashion paradigm. Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunity Commission, implored them to communicate this message to the girls: “Preferably without laughing”.

One of the schoolgirls in the audience made the point that “perhaps boys are more complacent than girls because they know that they will do better in the workplace anyway.” Watson chimed in with the depressing fact that even after 30 years of so-called equality, “for every £1 a man earns in the work place, a woman earns 17 pence less” and encouraged girls to ask their prospective employers whether their company had carried out a gender review: “You must make sure that you get paid the same as the men in the same job.”

In my break-out group on relationships, drugs and alcohol – with students aged 16 to 18 from St Thomas More school in Bedford – the teacher, Munira Sader, head of media studies, got the ball rolling by saying that when she first started at the school five years ago the girls tended to be more serious, but now “it seems to be a badge of honour to bring in photos showing how drunk they were at their parties.”

Both boys and girls commented on how Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse were getting more publicity and kudos from their bad behaviour than they ever did before. One of the girls, Imogen (an aspiring journalist, as it turned out), said she was sickened by the photos of 12-year-olds posting pictures of themselves on social networking websites dressed in their bikinis. A classmate said she was overreacting, since she sometimes sticks similar holiday snaps on the likes of MySpace. One of the boys questioned the research relating to girls outstripping boys academically – and wanted it to be more rigorous, with a breakdown of results at single-sex schools as well as private versus state schools.

Where the girls and boys were unanimous was in their view that the media should be more responsible and focus on more positive role models from their generation: “Why is it that it’s the young people who behave badly who get the most attention?” They were amazed (and thrilled) when the adults pointed out that if they wrote in to complain (and threatened to boycott the publications), they would actually make an impact.

It was the perceived hypocrisy of the press that really seemed to bother them. One made the point that boys who drink and have lots of sex are treated very differently from girls who indulge in the same behaviour.

At the end of this session it was my turn to be thrilled when three girls approached me – Lisa, Imogen and Daniella – and said that, despite all their criticisms of the media, they still wanted to be journalists. What did I think of my profession and could I help?

Their first effort appears on this page today, and they’d better keep to their side of the bargain and produce a school magazine that will put Fleet Street’s efforts to shame. Girl Power, indeed!

— A longer version of this article will appear on the new Women in Journalism website, which is being launched next week.

It’s hard being a teenager

Cherie Booth, who chaired the “Am I Bovvered?” conference, is impressed with teenagers today

It may be unfashionable to say this, but I think the younger generation are great. As a mother of four I know I might be biased, but the more young people I meet, the more I am convinced that our world is in safe hands.

The teenagers who attended the Women in Journalism event – many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to be there – confirmed my views of our young people. They were passionate, articulate, confident and frequently funny.

But what also came across loud and clear was that they felt it was hard being a modern teenager. While there might be more opportunities than ever, they felt themselves under more pressure to excel – whether it’s how well they do in their exams or how they look.

And as well as talking eloquently about their lives and the pressures they were under, there was consensus, too, at the negative picture of teenagers that the media painted.

They felt that there was too much concentration on the bad rather than the good, and that too few stories actually quoted young people or included their perspectives accurately in the debate. And there was a worrying consensus that the media reinforced unrealistic attitudes to beauty and body shapes.

The summit was primarily about teenage girls but plenty of boys made the effort to attend and express their views as well. The young women talked about the pressure they feel to diet and look good; others, including young men, called for more honesty from the press, and an end to passing off airbrushed images as reality.

One girl told the conference that she’d spent the summer on endless diets to look good on the beach and had ended up losing lots of weight but feeling dreadful. She wanted more coverage aimed at teens about good nutrition, rather than just shedding calories.

The teens said they often felt stigmatised and misrepresented by the media. But as one summit speaker pointed out, the new media gives today’s teenagers huge power to set the terms of debate themselves. It’s an opportunity that I am sure they will increasingly take. As last week’s summit showed, if you give young people the chance, they have a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

— CHERIE BOOTH

All those years of feminism, and girls still expect to be judged on their looks

Girls are now bigger binge drinkers than boys and get drunk more often.

They seem to be becoming more sexually assertive, too – behaviour also more usually associated with young males.

On the websites of magazines aimed at teenage girls, readers as young as 13 are posting pictures of their “buff boyfriends”. Readers are invited to “feast their eyes” over galleries of “lush lads”, many of whom are posing shirtless.

Readers are asked to vote on whether the teen boys displayed are “Hot lads or mingers?”; “Sexy, or sling him?” On the website for Sugar magazine, 13-year-old Jordan poses, still wearing his school tie but with his shirt undone to expose his torso.

Chloe explains that she sent his picture: “cuz es sxc a gr8 [trans: because he’s sexy, a great] boyfriend has a great body . . .” But while girls are increasingly matching (or surpassing) teenage boys drink for drink, and drooling over pictures of the opposite sex with their clothing askew, talk of widespread “gender-blurring” seems to be exaggerated.

Yes, young girls are adopting some behaviour typically seen as “male”, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve left behind behaviour typically seen as “female”, such as worrying about their appearance. Far from it.

Teenage girls at the Women in Journalism summit complained of feeling under intense pressure to match the unrealistic images of beauty shown in the media. And it seems that they are not alone.

In one study of 3,000 young women, half of those aged 16 to 25, and a quarter of the 10 to 15-year-olds said the media makes them feel that “being pretty and thin” is the most important thing for a girl. Worryingly, it seems that rather than gaining in confidence with age, the older girls feel this pressure more strongly.

Girls are far more critical of their bodies than boys. In this spirit, Bliss magazine had on its website a survey asking its readers (girls aged 14 to 17) to rate ten different bits of their own bodies (boobs, bums, tummy, thighs . . .), with the options being “Happy”, “Unhappy” or “Hate ’em”. They are asked to rate their overall looks, ranging from “Beautiful” to “Ewwww”. It’s hard to imagine a publication aimed at boys running such a survey – or, indeed, any boy filling it in.

Again, no doubt because they expect to be judged on looks, girls are more likely than boys to post pictures of themselves and their friends on social networking sites such as MySpace.

Girls feel equally disrespected by both boys their age and politicians. Nearly three-quarters of 16 to 25-year-olds say they aren’t treated with respect by the media or the fashion industry, either – which doesn’t stop their being highly influenced by both. Many teenage girls are keen to work in exactly the industries they criticise: 14 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds want to be TV presenters; more than a third of 10 to 14-year-olds want to be models.

Young women narrow – rather than expand – their aspirations as they get older. Doing well in a career becomes relatively less important and getting married becomes relatively more important as girls get older. Success at work is “very important” to 75 per cent of 10 to 15-year olds, but to only 60 per cent of those who are actually about to embark on a career, the 16 to 25-year-olds.

Similarly, doing well at school or university becomes less important with age.

Although girls are slightly less likely than boys of the same age to be overweight, they are much more likely to be unhappy with their weight.

Nearly half of 15-year-old girls think they’re too fat and a quarter of them will be dieting.

Up to 90 per cent of those suffering with eating disorders are girls – and sufferers are getting younger. The most common age for sufferers is 14-25 but eating disorders have been diagnosed in girls as young as 8. Experts say that one reason for this is that young girls are reaching puberty younger, and starving themselves is one way of trying to stop themselves being viewed sexually. They also say that the younger the sufferer, the more likely it is that their long-term health will be damaged, because their bodies are still developing.

— FIONA BAWDON

We must speak up now

Lisa Caruso, Imogen Betts and Daniella Catanzaro, pupils at St Thomas Moore School, Bedford, are “bovvered” and prepared to make a stand

Did you know . . . not all teenagers are “yobs” and “wannabe WAGs”?

We do have a voice, it’s just ignored. At least that’s what we thought, until we attended the conference at the British Library, and realised that perceptions can be changed.

The conference, titled “Am I bovvered? – what are teenage girls really thinking?”, got us thinking . . .what do they know? They’re not teenagers! Now riled by the title, expecting a boring day of lectures (YAWN), being told about teenage girls’ place in the media and how we are affected by it, we braced ourselves for a patronising experience at the hands of “Women in journalism”. We expected the usual “media talk” . . . women are exploited, that’s the reality of life, it sells – accept it – BLAH BLAH BLAH!

What we got turned out to be an inspiring and thought-provoking day. Within the space of a debate, our whole world turned upside down . . . we realised that we, teenagers, do have a voice. Huh?

Yeah, that’s right! We do have the power to change things.

We were thrown into an open-floor debate (a what, some of us asked). Added to that experience was the celebrity-like nature of the panel; ranging from Cherie Booth to Nathalie Emmanuel (WOW, Sasha from Hollyoaks). The set-up and the chance to challenge the professionals, while gaining answers to our long-awaited questions, was almost surreal. It was, for once, nice to be on the same playing field as the professionals, not as stupid teenagers but as people with valid opinions. Armed with relevant, valid, life-altering questions, or so we thought, we prepared to grill the panel. This was made up of mostly women, the only man there being the former editor of FHM magazine.

Never mind, we thought, he’ll do. He can answer all the burning questions about the exploitation of women in men’s mags.

Boy, were we doomed to disappointment. He seemed to epitomise the latest media trend . . . Dodge the question! Shockingly, as informative and pro-women’s rights as the panel was, there were key areas where the women themselves dodged the question, especially when it came to editorial responsibility for images published in some magazines.

It was interesting to see that the boys in the audience were on our side! Although they didn’t say that until after we had left the venue. Helpful . . . NOT! But typical.

They weren’t shouting FHM’s praises . . . they don’t want everyone to be a size-zero supermodel, Oh, the comfort this gave many of us girls. Imagine what would happen to the size-zero debate if more boys made their voices heard.

There’s a challenge! Among the blurred discussions, all the journalists, and Cherie Booth, surprisingly proved to be approachable, and not the fire-breathing dragons we were expecting. I wonder where we got that from – the media, perhaps? Dove’s underappreciated campaign also caught our attention. The realisation hit us that what Dove was actually doing by allowing “normal” women to model for them was changing the way we view the industry. Taking the proverbial “one small step for woman, one giant step for womankind”.

It’s more companies like this that we need! Entering the conference, we weren’t expecting to enjoy, participate or be heard. Glad to say we were wrong. We did all three, and then some.

We realised that if we dislike something, we (all of us) should speak up. Then they’ll have no choice but to change it.

Now is the time to rebel and oppose what you think is wrong in the media. Now is the time to alter the current perception; and there are people on our side. So that is exactly what we are planning to do. If we want anything to change, we need to begin by making a difference.

We have decided to put together our own version of what we think a magazine should look like. One that defies the regular conventions.

Finally, no more bimbo cover girls. Instead a role model on the cover, one that we can look up to; who has achieved something worthwhile in her life beyond being “fit”.

Our aim is to create a magazine that has purpose, and can inspire girls to strive, have ambition and reach their potential; to show girls that there’s more to life than “getting” with a boy, looking fit and sleeping around. A magazine that can talk about things that matter! Next time you go out and buy a magazine, STOP . . . remember the impact you could have by not buying it! If you do buy it, then remember. See something you don’t like – do something about it. TODAY!!! P.S. Keep an eye out for our Girl Power magazine. Who knows?

— LC, IB, DC

Celebrities, Women

Rock’s Stepford wife

The Times – August 21, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

She married two Sixties legends and inspired three of the era’s greatest love songs. But Pattie Boyd’s life in the most famous love triangle in rock was far from glamorous.

The strongest feeling I had on completing Pattie Boyd’s autobiography was relief: “Thank God, I was never a super Sixties model who married two of the biggest rock heroes of the era and inspired three of the most enduring love songs of all time,” was my thought.

Boyd’s story is fascinating because it reveals the realities of rock-chick Stepford wifedom behind all those photos which made such an impression on me as a kid living off the Kings Road in the days when it swung: Pattie gorgeously gap-toothed and stylishly draped in her antique velvet coats and floppy hat, on the arm of George Harrison, then Eric Clapton who famously supplanted him.

In the flesh – she is still pretty fab at sixty-something – Boyd reminds me, with her wholesome poshness, occasional flashes of theatrical whimsy and sense of humour, of Joanna Lumley. From time to time, apart from her obvious attributes, one catches a glimpse of what it was that turned so many men’s heads. When you say something that amuses her, for instance, she throws back her chin and laughs so uproariously that you can’t help but feel flattered. Put almost any point to her and she endeavours to answer it as directly and thoughtfully as she can.

Despite her pukka but dysfunctional background, Boyd left school at 17 – before taking her A levels – and became a model at 18. She met George Harrison on the set of Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night, when she played one of a trio of the Beatles’ smitten schoolgirl fans. George and Pattie fell in love and married. Fast forward and – according to her book – Pattie got the Eastern mysticism bug first which resulted in all the Beatles, and their various spouses and girlfriends, taking off to meditate and get in touch with their inner selves in a spartan Indian retreat with the Maharishi. By the time George and Pattie returned to England Harrison had become somewhat “obsessive” about his spiritual practices.

Ensconced in the grand eccentricity of their old palatial pile of Friar Park, near Henley-on-Thames, put-upon Pattie has to deal with her husband’s periods of withdrawal – either to meditate for hours, sometimes months, on end or planning the restoration of their folly-filled grounds (her opinion is never sought) – and bursts of counteractive drug and booze-fuelled entertaining.

The latter, at least, gave her some sense of value since Boyd had – in her increasing isolation (Harrison saw no reason for his wife to continue modelling) – become a keen cook and a dinner party gave her an opportunity to show off her culinary skills. But even this pleasure is taken away from her when George decides that he would prefer to have Ravi Shankar’s nephew, a long-term guest along with an assortment of Hari Krishna families, to prepare his meals.

Eric Clapton, in the meantime, has been waiting in the wings – bombarding his friend’s wife with Baudelarian billets-doux and penning what was to become an anthem of unrequited love: “Layla. . . you’ve got me on my knees”. But Pattie does not prove so easy to conquer even when – how ridiculously this reads – he says that he will turn to heroin, showing her a plastic bag, if she continues to spurn his overtures. She resists him, he becomes a world-class junkie, and some years later – by which time Clapton has switched his addictions from heroin to alcohol – Pattie finally takes the plunge and replaces one form of glamorous-seeming imprisonment with another.

Before we talk about her years with Clapton, what interests me is the way that Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono both seemed to “manage” their husbands – and had, apparently, the most successful Beatles marriages as a result. Both of them come across as strong characters with careers of their own – Yoko as an avant-garde artist, Linda as a photographer. Those amazing songs – Something in the Way She Moves, Layla and Wonderful Tonight – were prompted by Pattie being the Object of Desire but the tributes have proved more durable than the intense feelings which inspired them.

She says that when so much is made of your looks: “It’s fantastic but it’s a double-edged sword . . . it made me really nervous because if the praise is purely about good looks, obviously there are other girls who are better-looking than me and, you know, could I be replaced?” The key thing about Linda and Yoko, Boyd says, is that they were American (Ono’s Japanese family moved to New York after the war) – and “whenever I went to America, I was amazed at how strong the American girls were with the guys. English girls were woosies in comparison.

“The English public as a whole didn’t like Yoko or Linda because they didn’t get them . . . they were looking at them physically and thinking, ‘I’m sure I look better than those two.’ But they stood up to their men, which is what was needed because they’d been fêted and courted from a very, very young age.

“Whereas I would be: ‘If the man says that he wants this, that or the other then that’s what we’re going with’ because that’s what I learnt from my mother, you see – whatever the man says is right.” While to the outside world she was a modern goddess, behind the doors of her rock-star palaces whatever power Boyd had wielded through her beauty and glow had shrunk with her diminished self-confidence. Had she become a doormat? “I think I did slide into the doormat syndrome, most definitely, and what happened one day is I thought, ‘My God, this doormat’s getting thinner and thinner and thinner and unless I do something about it soon, I’m not going to have the strength to get up and . . .’ I knew that unless I moved when I moved, I wouldn’t be able to.” Reading Boyd’s book with its swift descent into the misery of living with an extreme alcoholic, and looking at the photographs of Clapton then – with his perpetually pickled glaze – it is hard to remember what a cool figure he was.

Still, I wonder whether there wasn’t something of a guy-thing about the adoration even at the time; his virtuoso guitar-playing spawning legions of adolescent Clapton wannabes. George and Eric’s allnight guitar duel to claim “rights” to a bemused Pattie in the kitchen of Friar Park sounds more like the antics of Rock School Frat Club brinkmanship than anything truly romantic.

Boyd says: “He was like a modern-day Pete Doherty to me. Well . . . I don’t know, actually, Pete’s a bit beyond . . . But he looked sort of rascally and naughty.” Of course, one of the reasons that she’s written the book is money. Boyd is admirably up-front about this: “Well, I always need money. As I told you earlier, I love to travel and I’m not the sort of person that can back-pack, quite frankly.” There is also no sense whatsoever that Boyd was exactly an innocent when all the partying was going on. The book is filled with references to her drinking and not all of it is blamed on her attempts to keep up with her spouses. There is one reference to her being offered “uppers, downers or sideways” by Andrew Loog Oldham’s (manager of the Rolling Stones) wife, Sheila, while her hostess’s children are playing in the garden.

Mrs Loog Oldham narrowly escapes burning the house down and George is not impressed by his wife returning in such a drug-addled state. She tries the really hard stuff in the loos of the airport en route to some fabulous location where she intends to get her younger sister, Paula, off junk for the umpteenth time. And, somehow, even this is relayed in such a breezily jaunty way that it sounds like “Bunty tries Heroin!” Clapton has been more outspoken about the worst depths of his behaviour with Boyd than she has – although she does write about her feelings of dread, lying in bed at night, hearing his sozzled footfall on the stairs and not knowing how he will behave.

When I ask Boyd why she chose not to include those incidents, she says: “You know, I don’t want to twist the knife.

“Eric knows how he was when he was married to me and it’s probably not happy for him to think of me and him because he must remember how he was and his alcoholic ways and nobody wants to remember the worst time in their life. I think it’s important for people who are in a position that I was in when we were married to see what the life is really like – how one has to hang on to secrets, and it’s a very sick relationship and a very sick disease. One wants to be loyal and within that loyalty, you don’t really tell anybody else about the extent of the pain and anguish that’s involved . . . the way you fool yourself that one day the person you love will get better.” There is a sense in the book that Clapton’s desire for Boyd was always at its most intense when she was absent and beyond his control. But I wonder whether, at some level, he never quite felt that he had the upper hand.

Do you think that Clapton ever felt that he quite “owned” you? “I don’t think so. He wanted to – he did his utmost to. We’re talking on a very deep level here.” Do you think it was almost as though he wanted to break your spirit? “Yes, he did. And he said that once. There must have come a time when he realised that he couldn’t and that was when he started to back off.

“But I think people do punish each other in relationships, don’t you? Sometimes it’s very obvious and other times it’s more like a little sting every so often – a reminder, and it’s a punishment, actually – part of a punishing process.”

Her last partner, Rod Weston, a property developer, was the first man who allowed Boyd to be herself: “He was very supportive and I realised that I could actually stand up to a man and he wasn’t going to desert me – so I thank him for that.”

We talk briefly about the painful area of children – her inability to have a child, despite undergoing IVF treatment when she was married to Clapton, and his joy when his mistress bore him a son, Conor, who he then lost in tragic circumstances. In the photographs of Clapton holding his son, he looked so happy, as though some deep shadow in him had lifted. “It was the boy in him that had lifted, I think,” Boyd says. “Because he now had his own boy, he didn’t need to play that role any longer.” It’s not as though there aren’t children in her life – Boyd has 13 nephews and nieces – but she still thinks she would have been “the best” mother herself and would have liked to have had four of her own.

She doesn’t like ageing at all: “It’s to do with looks – what else could it be to do with? I just think, ‘Oh my God, are my arms good enough for this T-shirt?’ [An off-the-shoulder number, revealing cleavage and a glimpse of black lacy bra.] See, I do love clothes – and clothes look good if you don’t look too old.” I ask her whether she’s had any work done. A dentist persuaded her to fill the gap in her teeth, which was part of her charm: “Years later, I thought ‘Oh what a mistake, I rather liked my gap’ and under my eyes,” she says. “I always describe them as ‘tear bags’. After my second marriage went so wrong and I was so terribly sad, I thought I’ll have my tear bags removed.”

We are sitting in a boudoir-ish room of a mad hotel off the Portobello Road. It’s eccentrically stuffed with antiques and knick-nacks. Boyd is something of a one-off too but I don’t have the sense at all that she is a tragic Sunset Boulevard figure trapped in her past glories, partly because of her insistence that the reality behind the façade was often far from glorious.

She has her photography and travel and in November a chocolatier course: “I want to make chocolate and learn about it right from the start.” She is attractively unbitter about life even though she does point out that one of her Burne-Jones paintings is still hanging in Friar Park “but, anyway, we won’t talk about that . . .” and that her divorce settlement from Clapton was hardly in the same league of today’s goldmines: “Amazing, isn’t it? Eric did say to me that I divorced him at the wrong time, and then had a bit of a chuckle after he had taken me out to lunch and I said: ‘Thank you for bringing me back to my two-bed-room flat’.”

The big reconciliation that she has had in recent years is with her mother. “I like her a lot now,” she says. “She’s my good friend. She phoned me the other day after she’d read some of the book and she said: ‘Poor darling, you had such a miserable childhood. I’m so sorry. It made me weep a bit – I was such a dreadful mummy.’ And I said, ‘So? Maybe I needed that sort of thing to battle against, you know. I’m hardly damaged now, am I?’

“And she laughed and said: ‘No, Pattie, you’re not damaged at all’.”

Music, Opinion

Paean of praise to the ginger-ninjas

The Times – June 29 2007
– Ginny Dougary

When Titian-haired Ginny Dougary wrote a choral piece celebrating redheads, it brought home to her how much ‘gingerism’ there is in England

Click here to listen to Ginger Chorale by Ginny Dougary and MJ Paranzino, performed at the Royal Festival Hall, June 2007

Jenny McAlpine
Photo courtesy Red and Proud

The e-mails from the choir built up to a great clamour in the days leading up to the Overture Weekend – the grand-scale reopening celebrations of the Royal Festival Hall earlier this month. “Have you heard . . ?” “Can you believe it?” “Talk about timing . . .” This was in response to the news about a family in Newcastle who had suffered three years of abuse – smashed windows, graffiti, physical attacks – forcing them to decamp from one council estate to another on two occasions, now pushing for a third move, and all on account of their red hair.

One of the more arresting details was that a council officer had apparently discussed the possibility that the family invest in a few bottles of hair-dye. As a ginger-ninja myself, I was appalled at the idea that the solution to being bullied was to change yourself rather than to correct the behaviour of your tormentors.

The news of a redhaired family’s travails was indeed quite timely since this was the week that a choral piece I had first thought about writing last autumn was to be performed, thrillingly, at the Royal Festival Hall. The title was Ginger Chorale, the story of a bullied ginga (or gingette) who ends the song feeling triumphantly special, after hearing the rollcall of all the amazing redheads who have existed throughout history, and a paean to the wonders of diversity.

There was to be a double-high to the event since I would be singing alongside my fellow choir members of the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir (around 150 voices) who were among a group of 15 choirs throughout the UK picked to perform on that day.

There is something weirdly Zeitgeist-y about gingerism – witness this week’s news about the ginger-haired waitress, Sarah Primmer, from Plymouth, who was awarded £17,618 after suffering “lewd and embarrassing” comments about her hair – but I was totally unaware of this when I was first smitten by the auburn theme.

So what prompted the piece? Well, I have to say that although the elder of my two sons is a redhead, neither he nor I, happily, has been victimised because of it. However, my son is a composer and it was partly considering his musical future that made me think about the ginger theme.

The idea came out of a flippant conversation in which we were discussing how to market his talents and I said something along the lines of “So what’s your unique selling point? Who’s going to be interested in a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ex-public schoolboy? – the only thing in your favour is that you might be considered ‘different’ because of your hair colour.”

It seemed to me that taking redhairedness as a route of addressing the whole issue of prejudice could be fruitful in that you could make a strong point in an unexpected and inventive way.

It took some persuasion, however, to convince my musical writing partner, the composer MJ, that this was a worthwhile project. She is American and in the United States red locks are something to be admired, apparently, rather than derided. The notion that anyone could be bullied because of his or her hair colour seemed utterly incredible to her. This was echoed in the Times Online response to the Chapmans’ story with American readers clearly reeling in disbelief. Jerry, from Phoenix, Arizona: “Anti redhead? Totally unheard of in the US. Come to the USA. Folks, you will be welcomed.”; Lisa, from Ohio: “Being from the US I have to say this baffles me. There is a lot of stuff that is wrong with my country but I can at least say that redhaired people can live peacefully here.”

It seems that England may be the only country in the world, in fact, to indulge in ginger-baiting. In May, just as we were doing a final polish to the song, I switched on the TV and found myself watching a most entertaining documentary called F*** off I’m Ginger, the personal investigation by a young redhaired (and very cute) comedian, Dan Wright, into why it’s so problematic being a ginga in this country. He believed, for instance, that it was his hair colour that prevented him from getting a girlfriend at university. One of his interviews was with a copper-haired, freckle-faced copywriter who found that his colouring was a magnet to women in France and America where he had lived for some years (he is now married to an American), but the reverse was painfully true for him in England. So are the English simply less tolerant than other nations? I don’t think so. Perhaps it stems from an atavistic hostility towards Scotland which has the highest proportion of redheads (13 per cent of the population have red hair; 40 per cent carry the recessive so-called “ginger gene”), with Ireland coming a strong second.

From the outset, I wanted part of the song to be dedicated to the names of famous redheads and thought that the internet might provide some helpful sites.

Well, what an eye-opening and cheek-blushing revelation this turned out to be . . . let’s just say that there seem to be plenty of men out there who have a positive fetish for scantily-clad Titian-haired beauties.

The most useful (and wholesome) source was one called Red and Proud, which gives an annual award to celebrated gingers (past recipients include Charlie Dimmock and Anne Robinson, whose face adorns one of the club’s T-shirts – “Not a Redhead? You are the weakest link”). Other sassily self-confident legends include: “Ginger Genius”, “Redhot Redhead Ready to Rock”, and “It’s a Redhead thing . . . you wouldn’t understand”.

It fell to MJ to fit these redheads into a musical form and although she found the exercise exasperating in some ways – beating out name after name until she got the right rhythmical combination, she also got a kick out of coming up with absurd juxtapositions such as these: “Ginger Rogers, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, James Cagney . . . Rita Hayworth, Charlie Dimmock, Sarah Bernhardt, Prince Harry”, and her favourite, “Oliver Cromwell, Woody Allen, Lord Byron and Kiki Dee”. I thought it was important to use accessible language and terms, with a few exceptions, that most kids could understand . . .”

It’s a smack,/ a knife attack,/ when you sneer,/ when you jeer:/ Oi ginga, you’re a minga,/ stop you’re whining little whinger . . . and so on.

Our first performance of Ginger Chorale was at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May in front of an audience of a hundred, before the big event a month later at RFH which was attended by thousands. It’s hard to know when you sing something for the first time what impact it will make: you worry whether people will hear the words and – more importantly – will they hear the message?

It seems that we had touched a nerve when, after our debut, a beautiful strawberry-blonde young woman in her early twenties came up and told us that the song had made her cry, remembering how she had been singled out and slagged off in her early teens. If only her classroom tormentors had been in the audience.

While it may seem faintly comical to some to equate gingerism to racism or queer-bashing, a punch or a taunt is as cruelly felt regardless of what makes the victim different, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

One of the most troubling parts of the Chapmans’ story was that their son – only 10 years old – was having suicidal thoughts. Two years ago a Premiership footballer – Dave Kitson of Reading – said that fans who made fun of his red hair were as bad as racists.

But how dull if we were all the same. As we sung on our big day: “I’m cool, I’m smart – my red hair’s a work of art . . . Don’t berate, let’s celebrate our existence, vive la difference, our good luck, what the f***, this crowning glory my red hair…” I haven’t managed to catch (redhead) Catherine Tate’s sketch about the refuge for Gingers, but as it happens, two members of the South London Choir almost didn’t make the performance at the Royal Festival Hall because they were attending the West End premiere of her new feature film, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution. Its director, Bille Eltringham, and editor, John Wilson, arrived minutes before we were due on stage with a message of support from their star who was “chuffed” to be counted among our illustrious redheads.

It is hard to convey the excitement that we choir members felt on the Big Day. But it was an unforgettable experience. Some of them said that it ranked among the best moments of their lives, and I would have to agree. But it was also thrilling to sing our Ginger Chorale to such a receptive crowd and see the looks of amazement and engagement on so many people’s faces as the message of the song sank in. The best compliment we received was hearing that at least one of the other choirs wanted to include the song in their repertoire. Ginger power!

Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”

Celebrities, Writers

Culture vulture

The Times – May 12 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once famous for his barbed dissection of tacky TV, Clive James all the while was living a life of the mind. Our correspondent meets a modern polymath as he unveils his 40-year cultural odyssey on Times Online

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

Australians, in my experience, however deeply transplanted, still crave the cerulean skies and bright light of their birthplace ­ which is why it is unexpected to find Clive James, on the sunniest of English spring mornings, in a curtain-drawn lair of such impenetrable gloom that the atmosphere seems to fizz with electricity from all the wattage. Or, perhaps, that’s just the effect of his personality.

His London pad is in a converted warehouse near Tower Bridge. It’s wine-bar territory rather than the sort of coffee-house bohemia that is his preferred habitat but that’s precisely why James chose it ­ all the easier for him to guard his anonymity and get on with the serious business of writing and, ah, tango dancing.

Most of the walls are covered with thousands of books: old Penguin novels with their classic orange and white design, and titles covering every subject that could conceivably prick the curiosity of their owner’s magpie mind. (This is a man who, after all, has painstakingly acquired at least six languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese, in order to read certain books in the original.) There are also paintings by his artist daughter, Claerwen, many photographs of beautiful women, including his wife, various objects from his travels and “Postcard from…” television programmes, and a loo full of Schiele-like nudes.

We sit at a dining-room table in the hall on high-backed Mackintosh chairs (only repro, James assures me) and get stuck in. His new book, Cultural Amnesia, is an 800-page whopper, which has taken him four years to write and all his life to collate. The subtitle is Notes in the Margin of My Time, and although there are many different figures in it, both well-known and obscure, the one that weaves through them all is the author himself.

This is Culture with both a large and a small C as befits the man who dubbed himself a premature post-modernist: “Hard to say, isn’t it?” he says, “Crazy name! Crazy guy!” ­ so under M, you will find Thomas Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain Mann, preceded by Michael Miami Vice, Manhunter Mann, sandwiched by Norman Mailer and Mao Zedong. American talk-show host Dick Cavett, Coco Chanel and Tony Curtis are given equal billing to Cocteau, Camus and Chesterton.

Several times in our interview ­ when we talk about lust, for instance, or sensitivity to criticism (neither of them foreign to James) ­ he directs me to one or other essay in his book. Ernesto Sábato, an Argentinian writer ­ “take this down”, James dictates, spelling out his name ­ is quoted: “Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extreme delicacy of skin”, which prompts our cultural guide to ponder how the statement might apply to himself ­ “If I had my time again, I would never react publicly to criticism, no matter how unjustified.”

A page or two on, and he’s into the tango ­ “a sad thought, dancing” (coined, not by Sábato ­ we learn ­ but by a vernacular poet, Enrique Santos Discépolo, in the Thirties; the book is full of such snippets of what James is proud to call useless knowledge) ­ and he’s off again: “Undoubtedly it was the sight of old goats with pretty young women in their arms that helped draw me into the tango world, a man in winter longing for a touch of spring”, and on through a dazzling and sometimes beautiful series of seemingly unconnected connections ­ like a jazz riff, the notes scattering and cohering ­ to his conclusion: “A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.” There is more along the lines of this Old Man Winter refrain, prompted only partially by my first question. In the introduction to the book, James suggests that such a colossal work ­ based on four decades of jottings and notes ­ was something he had planned to write towards the end of his life.

So is the publication of Cultural Amnesia accompanied by the sound of a bell ominously tolling? “I’ve been feeling towards the end of my life-ish since I was about 24,” he wheezes and laughs. “I used to have some very bad habits including drinking, and I thought I’ll never last at this rate, especially at the rate I smoked. I always feel like I’m living on borrowed time… So I do feel this is the last round-up,” his voice taking on that ironic Jamesian swoop, “but as my friend P. J. O’Rourke has already warned me, I can overdo this last-ditch stuff. You can’t spend 20 years saying this is the last gasp.”

But you’re not really all that old, are you? “No, I’m a fairly young 67,” he says, a little smugly. “I’m just wearing the internal effects of having smoked since I was nine.” He tosses aside the suggestion that this sounds as though he’s hinting at something sinister: “I’ve got the lungs that anyone would have who’s smoked since that age.” And then: “I’m not sick. I haven’t got time to be sick… I’ve no time to die.” He goes on to introduce his comments, several times, with the portentous words: “If I am granted life…” which seems to intimate a certain preoccupation with his own mortality.

England has been his home since James arrived here aged 21, but he has always been bewildered by the prevailing attitude that there is something suspect about throwing yourself into learning for learning’s sake; that it is bad form to wear your erudition as unlightly as he has been known to do.

In the old days, some of this hostility may have been attributed to a strain of anti-Australian snobbery, what James considers was “a licensed anti-semitism, particularly among the Private Eye crowd.” But there are plenty of towering English talents ­ Peter Brook and the late Anthony Burgess, to name two ­ who have also despaired of their own country’s anti-intellectualism.

Cultural Amnesia is aimed at the clever young ­ perhaps, like his whizbang, multimedia website, of which James is inordinately proud, it is another bid at longevity. “The hardest thing when you’re a young person going into university or the world is to figure out how it all ties up; the answer is that it doesn’t, and it takes a lifetime to find out why. It’s always handy to have voices somewhere up ahead of you, which I always did, and they tend to be the writers we worship ­ in my case, people like Scott Fitzgerald and Camus. Camus is one of my her-ow-ww-ws,” James says dragging out the vowels, like a dog howling at the moon. “And I wanted to write a book that would do that job for the next generation.”

The whole book ­ and I cannot pretend to have read all 856 pages ­ is like a free-form jazz piece. He assures me that “it’s designed to be dipped into ­ I hope that people when they dip, won’t be able to stop dipping”. It is also meant to be useless, he says: “It has no obvious use. Learning is not utilitarian. It should be pursued for its own sake. I wrote the book for its own sake. Although I do hope to get my money back.” Each small essay is so clotted with information and quotes and bridges between different times and people that although there is much to enjoy, it can also feel strangely airless and certainly too much to digest at one sitting. He acknowledges these challenges himself in his introduction, writing, “If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligibleŠ I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text”.

A clue to his thinking behind the book comes when I ask him how he rates his poetry. “I rate it very highly, actually,” says James, who reserves his self-deprecation for the things that don’t matter to him. “And it’s gratifying that as the years go by, the rating gets higher. As a showbusiness name, I was crossed off the list of the serious [those Japanese game shows can’t have helped]. But that problem is going away and now I’m getting estimated somewhere near my true worth, which I think is fairly high up the second rank.” I cannot think of a living English poet who would have the gall to assess themselves in this way, with the possible exception of the deeply eccentric Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

So what poets do you rank yourself alongside? “I wouldn’t say but I know where I want to be,” he says. “I want to be with the poets who some of what they wrote is remembered and recited. My favourite poets wrote something ­a stanza, perhaps ­that you can remember.”

It is not the names in Cultural Amnesia that matter, so much as what they represent or, more crucially, the significance of what they said ­ often just a line or two (like the poet’s stanza), that may endure long after they have gone, often in this case, because they sparked something in James’s imagination.

There are occasions when Clive James disappears from his own prose, and allows an image of such shimmering, lovely economy to emerge that you catch a glimpse of that poetic soul. Describing his inability to squeeze his book into a conventional schematic straitjacket, he writes that he could only produce: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship”. But elsewhere, he cannot prevent his Clive James ventriloquist’s doll from taking centre stage ­ that glib, punny TV persona ­ as in the essay on Sophie Scholl (“You’ve really got to chill, Will,” trills Marty cutely”, part of a drawn-out explanation as to why the actress Natalie Portman should playŠ oh, please, just read the book).

To learn about the brief, brave life of Sophie Scholl is one illustration of why Cultural Amnesia is an important book. She was a member of the White Rose student pacifists who was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich on February 22, 1943, for publishing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. She, unlike her brother Hans, was offered the chance to recant.

But she refused and died, with her whole life stretching ahead of her, at the age of 21. At her trial, Sophie said simply: “Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.” The Scholl siblings were Aryans protesting against the fate of the Jews, as James writes, “purely out of common humanity”. Humanity, and what binds us together, being the central thread of his thinking.

How do we account for such selfless courage in someone so young? James has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about such matters and, indeed, dedicates his book in memory to Scholl, along with three other fearless women, but he has no answers for me. “I can’t account for it and the book is saying that you can’t account for it,” he says.

The linking theme of the book, James says, is the reaction of the thinker or the writer to a political development, particularly to totalitarianism. In the introduction he refers to “the worst of times which has become our times” ­ and I wonder what makes him so certain that this is history’s darkest age. “I didn’t actually phrase myself well there,” he says. “I think that the time that I was growing up was the worst of times when the Soviets and the Nazis were both going full blastŠ and things have eased off a bit. Totalitarianism hasn’t gone away entirely. It’s still there like aer–os–ol spray,” an extravagant wave of the arm, “but people are dying now in thousands not millions. That’s about as good as it gets.”

James is presumably thinking, in part, about the toxic spray of the Taleban and al-Qaeda terrorists, but he’s reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the new totalitarians. “I try to keep my counsel and reserve my opinions for articles at the very least and for books if possible,” he says. It could be said that people who have spent their lives reading and thinking have a duty to speak out about the crucial issues of our day, I say. “Yes, but I’d rather wait and find ‘the words for my bewilderment,'” he says quoting a French philosopher.

I don’t get it. There’s barely a writer I’ve interviewed ­ from Martin Amis to Norman Mailer to Salman Rushdie (naturally) ­ who hasn’t felt it necessary to engage in this subject. It seems miserly, almost ignoble, to hoard his nuggets of wisdom for some future publication date. And it’s particularly odd when the entire raison d’être of his new book ­ which we are, after all, here to discuss ­ is that democracy is worth fighting for at all costs.

After some badgering, he says, “Anti-semitism is a great enemy of the Palestinians and I state it as a paradox that’s true because they’re really saying that the Israeli state should disappear and it will only disappear in one way ­ in a great mass of heated light that will melt the entire district ­ so you do the Palestinians no service by giving a moment’s credibility to anti-semitism as a position… But that’s as far as I will go towards a sound-bite.”

Is that really it? “If I wrote a long article or a short book on the subject, I’d say that waiting until Islam secularises itself as our religions have done is too long a wait, and what we have to hope is that moderate Islam ­ which, of course, is the majority ­ will see its way clear to denouncing extremism and get out of this trap where you can’t denounce extremism without being seen to favour the West. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go, because I don’t want to be consulted as though I’m some sort of expert when I’m just a writer. If I’ve got something to contribute, I’ll contribute it as a writer, not as a public figure.”

There’s more circumspection, albeit less surprisingly, on Diana, Princess of Wales, as we gear up towards the tenth anniversary of her death. The very mention of her name prompts an urgent desire in my interviewee to retreat to the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. I tell him about the time, a few years before her fatal accident, when I was lunching with Sir Hardy Amies at Launceston Place. Towards the end of our meal, Diana walked past our table, looking radiant ­ close up, she did take your breath away ­ in a bright-yellow suit (a colour not many women could carry off with such aplomb), and ducked her head, in that nervous birdlike gesture of her early photographs, at the sight of the Queen’s couturier. “She’s a very bad princess,” Amies said loudly, as she walked out of the door, followed some minutes later by… Guess who?

“Me?!!” James shouts back. “Where were we? Oh yes, she liked that place. She liked Caprice when she wanted to hide in public ­ hahahahahaha ­ and Kensington Place and Launceston Place when she was really hiding.”

So were you in love with her? “Who wasn’t?” he responds, quick as a flash. “Most men were.” But you weren’t at a distance, were you? “I fell into the category of wicked uncle,” he says. “You’re not going to get much out of me on this one. I’ve nothing more to say. [He does tell me that he’s been approached ­ and declined ­ to contribute to various high-profile anniversary pieces.]” He still has no misgivings about Requiem ­ “I don’t regret it a bit, that’s what I felt and I’m proud of it. I adored her” ­ the piece he wrote for The New Yorker in the week of Diana’s death, where the rawness of his emotion came to the fore in such overblown lines as these: “What flowers have I to send her but my memories? They are less a wreath, not much more than a nosegay: just a deuil blanc napkin wrapping a few bloom of frangipani, the blossom of broken bread.” But he is unsympathetic to the extraordinary displays of mass emotionalism that greeted her death: “Why should anyone who was born in 1939, as I was, and grew up during the war against the Nazis, trust mass emotion? One of the reasons that I like England is that I don’t like the idea of proving that you’ve got emotions.

“I understood the grief ­ and shared it ­ but the idea that there was necessarily something sincere about showing it rung hollow. Show business. I’ve been in show business all my life and I know how it works. It all turned into a production. The main reason that I’m so unforthcoming about the subject is that I really do believe in letting her rest, I’ve written about it and I have no more wisdom to add ­ heh ­ to the subject,” and he retreats back into the kitchen.

Perhaps it is the relief of not being asked to comment on subjects in the public domain which encourages James to be less careful than usual about his private life. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise ­ after all our fencing over the things that really matter ­ to be at the receiving end of the Clive James flirtation method.

He is telling me that he’s a sceptic rather than a cynic, and a romantic (“I’m very romantic” is what he says) not a sentimentalist, so I ask him whether he falls in love easily. “Constantly,” he says, drawing a big breath. “I’m falling in love right now.” Oh, stop it. “I go for smart redheads.” Stop it ­ and, yes, of course I’m giggling. “I can’t stop,” he says. “And this goes back to the roots ­ attractive and smart women are infinitely appealing to the extent that the woman only has to be attractive and I start thinking she’s smart. That’s the flaw.” What does that go back to then? “It probably goes back to my beautiful mother whose life would have been different if history had not played such a cruel trick on her. I can’t bear to see a woman’s potential creativity thwarted.” This “cruel trick” refers to his father’s death ­ who, having survived horrific years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, died in a plane crash on his way home to Australia. James still remembers his mother falling apart when she read the fateful telegram, and early volumes of his memoirs leave the reader in no doubt about the lasting imprint this made on his life as a fatherless only child.

His mother, he wrote back in 1980, “was the only pillar of strength available. One parent is enough to spoil you but discipline takes two. I got too much of what I wanted and not enough of what was needed. The effects have stayed with me to this day, although in the last few years I have learnt to blame myself instead of circumstances.” I catch several glimpses of this spoilt only child ­ if we spent any time talking about one of the subjects of his book, particularly if they were male, James would bleat: “But, anyway, let’s get back to me!”

He, himself, acknowledges that he likes to boast: “I have a big ego but you need a big ego… because people who are going to be modest for you are lined up from here to the horizon.” I ask him how he knew that his mother, who was obliged to go out and earn a living in a menial job to support him, was thwarted creatively? “She wrote beautiful letters for one thing, and everything she touched was neat and interesting,” he says. “What little money she made on top of her war widow’s pension, she made by smocking baby frocks. She was an expert smocker and I used to watch her doing it, and the stitching provided me with one of my ideals of concentration and density and neatness, because these things get to us very early.”

Were you enthralled by what she produced? “I was enthralled that she was doing it, and somehow that stuck. If a woman wants to be a dancer or something,” he segues unexpectedly, “I give them credibility. I love dancers and singers, and of course you fall in love all the time, who doesn’t? I suppose wise men don’t but who wants to be wise?”

Did you always know you would be like that? “Eventually you have to explain to your wife and that can be awkward.” I’m sure that she must have learnt to become indulgent of you over the years, that must go without saying? “More coffee?” he says. “I tell you what does go without saying,” he continues from the refuge of his kitchen, “you have to be very careful ever to co-operate with any effort that portrays your wife as long-suffering. Nobody wants to be long-suffering.” While we are wading around in what James has called the squalor of the male mind, I press him ­ in an attempt, possibly, to outface his flirtatiousness ­ on what he finds sexy. He flays around a bit, suggesting that it might be a woman’s voice ­ “the Anna Ford phenomenon” ­ before settling for this: “A beautiful woman… are you ready to escalate?… reading one of my books!”

Naked, I suppose. “No ­ if she’s naked she’s not paying sufficient attention. It happened to me,” he continues. “It was in Sydney harbour and a girl of stunning beauty got on to a ferry carrying one of my novels, and the ferry was pulling out and I thought, ŒHere it is. All I’ve got to do is jump 16ft and a conversation is going to begin that’s going to change my life.’ So I didn’t jump.” But, alas, awkwardly, I know of at least one occasion when he has jumped.

Ten years ago, Fiona Russell-Powell, a pop star in the Eighties with the group ABC, turned journalist, angrily denounced James for grafting her life on to one of his characters in his novel Brrm!Brrrm! on the back of their five-month affair. This became a front-page splash on the News of the World, followed by a self-penned account by Powell herself in Punch. The story has resurfaced in the Australian press, and there’s not a lot James can do to make it go away.

“Yes,” he says, when I mention it. “I’m sorry about her… she was a talented young girl.” Since there is something elegiac about his tone, I ask him whether she’s still alive. “I have no idea,” he says (she is). “She had some very…” Drug problems? “Yesss. I regretted that. The occasional busy journalist, especially in Australia, likes to run an article when they hear about this, saying that Clive’s marriage is on the rocks, and I have to point out, if I get the chance, that my marriage has been on the rocks for 40 years.”

But by far the most damning portrayal of James, in my opinion, was one that he participated in ­ a Sunday Times Relative Values interview with the writer and his older daughter, Claerwen, last year. He may have agreed to do it to help his daughter’s career but she certainly did not return the favour. A more cool-eyed portrait (in that respect, not unlike her own beautiful but strangely detached paintings of children, particularly girls) of a neglectful and selfish father would be hard to find; his daughter’s efforts to engage his interest are quite painful to read. And what are we to make of James’s own comment about his daughter: “I think there is a great deal in me that she feels disappointed in, but I don’t want to know ­ life’s tough enough… There’s a great loneliness in some of her paintings, I hope I’m not responsible for that.”

When I ask him about Claerwen’s comments about him never appearing at any of her school events and her sudden realisation that it was unusual to have a father who was never home, he laughs for a long time. What on earth are you laughing about, I ask. “She knew it would wind me up, that’s why. I regret it but there it is,” he says. So no feelings of guilt on your death bed? “Well, look at her,” he says, pushing the catalogues of her art towards me. “Yeah, look at her.”

James is probably not the first man of his generation to be bored by young children, but he may be unusual in admitting it. “When they got old enough to read my books, that’s when they get interesting,” he says. You narcissistic sonofa… “It’s more than half true,” he shrugs. He admits that he is cold-hearted: “I’ve got the chip of ice Graham Greene talked about.

There’s almost nothing that I can’t shut out when I’m concentrating. When I’m working on a poem and fancying myself the most sensitive man, I’m insensitive to everything, yeahhhh,” he sighs.

His wife, Prudence, is a Dante scholar ­ profoundly allergic, one feels, to the whole showbiz nonsense ­ who James returns to for weekends in their Cambridge home. It was their daughter, again, who revealed that James “holds on tightly to us all. He rings mum three or four times a day, in an are-you-still-there? kind of way. Yet the content of his call is always that he is too busy to call.” I wonder how he would have reacted if Prue had left him?

“Ohhh, we can’t get into that. Nohhh,” he says, making a cross sign at me. And then, “Of course it is devastating when the kids say, ‘You weren’t there’ but I’m still not there. I’m an absentee ­ and I’m an absentee even when I’m there because I spend a lot of time in my head. If I had a chance to do it again, I would have been somebody else. I would have been a guy who regards his work as definitely a sideline to the importance of being a family man ­ and with me it’s the other way round and was bound to be so. “I always knew that I had no business being any way except alone. I’m very glad I’m not because it civilised me. To the extent that a man like me can be civilised, I’ve been civilised by my family.”

James talks of himself as a “partial creature” ­ who “experienced my own interior life as fragmentary and one of the consolations I got from Camus is that he said that all bright people feel that way. So I console myself by thinking that people who are complete don’t have any great impulse to complete something on the page or on the canvas or in music. But I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in the corner punishing myself for what’s missing in my personality. I just get on with it.” I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction between his propensity for falling in love and his essential coldness. “Well, there are plenty of feminists who would say there’s a connection there. You love everyone because you can’t love anyone.”

Oh, so is falling in love just lust then? “Just lust!” he says, shocked, before referring me to the second essay in his book… a Viennese coffee-house poet and bum by the name of Peter Altenberg who when challenged by his pretty young protegée, protesting that he was only interested in her body, responded, “What’s so only? But it’s so much better in the German,” James says, writing it down as he speaks “Was ist so nur? It’s a very, very deep statement. There’s nothing only about being attracted to someone.”

We finish with a tour of the newly installed sprung dance floor upstairs which, as he quite rightly says, has been overbilled as a Versailles ballroom. Still, despite the grubby white curtains ­ which James points out ­ there is a touch of the Sun King about the space. The first thing you see as you come up the stairs, for instance, next to a throne-like chair is a portrait of Clive James in the black polo-neck sweater he is wearing today ­ followed by another huge painting of a bald-headed James (back view) dancing the tango, surrounded by a giddy swirl of dancing couples. He reels off the names of the women dancers, but not the men, as he slides and shuffles on his own around the dance floor, practising the steps that he loves: the tango, his holiday from words.

At the start of our interview, he warned me that he would be a dull interviewee. Whatever else James may have been, dull is not the word.

Clive James online

For the first of three exclusive films for Times Online on the figures that have shaped our world, go to timesonline.co.uk/clivejames

Clive James tells the stories of:

Coco Chanel and the Nazis: “During the occupation she took the easy path. She took on a powerful German protector. It paid off in a big way in the early stages: she would not have wanted for butter or sugar.”

Albert Camus: “Though he sometimes fudged the research and often fell victim to the lure of a cadence, Camus was stuck with a congenital inability to be superficial: he could be glib, but would regret it while correcting the proofs.”

Chairman Mao: “To concentrate on Mao’s late-flowering monstrosity is surely misleading. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study.” Part two premieres on Saturday May 19: Evelyn Waugh, Tony Curtis and Margaret Thatcher. Part three premieres on May 26: Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong and Sophie Scholl

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James is published by Picador and is available from BooksFirst priced £23 (RRP £25), free p&p on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Music

A song for everyone

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Howard Goodall is a man of many passions: from composing the Mr Bean theme to popularising Wagner. He tells Ginny Dougary why singing and squash — but not dancing — are good for the soul

Howard Goodall

Howard Goodall, the composer, broadcaster and singing czar for the Government’s new Music Manifesto education initiative, is sitting at his kitchen table in Chelsea in his old Newcastle United T-shirt, telling me why he has no doubts about the healing powers of music in general and singing in particular.

At first he is able to come up with only some random observations that people who stammer don’t when they sing, and asthmatics no longer have breathing problems when they open up their voices. He’s a bit uncertain as to why this should be: “I mean I know there are scientific things like enzymes being released and all that kind of stuff.” Endorphins? “That’s the one, thank you very much. It’s a release like laughter that makes you feel better about yourself, and there’s no doubt that people who have a good sing feel great.”

But it’s when the composer recalls his “field trips” all over the country, as part of his national campaign to bolster singing in schools, that he snaps into focus. He was particularly impressed by a woman who teaches at a primary school in Bristol that has many pupils who are refugees: “It’s very, very difficult because they often don’t have the language skills, which means that they find it hard to cope and join in. She told a story about an Iraqi boy who was badly traumatised by the war and just sat at the back in a totally silent walled room of his own. The other children told her that he never spoke to anyone ever. On the second singing session she saw that the boy was singing along phonetically and this was the opening of the door for him and, after that, he was able to communicate.”

The teacher was so moved that she wrote a song about the experience, which was performed by 500 children at the national School Proms last year. “And the extraordinary thing is that when you see this boy now, you would never know what he’s been through,” Goodall says, “and it’s singing which has definitely changed his life.”

Goodall’s own childhood was untouched by trauma, unless you count an unhappy year or so as a boarder at the public school Stowe, and he went on to a glittering career that has included composing the theme tunes for Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show. “Stowe was a beautiful place but I was lonely and I found the other pupils arrogant, privileged and unpleasant.” He was parachuted out, as he puts it, of public-school misery to join his two brothers at the local state school in Thame, Oxfordshire, where their father was headmaster. This suited him far better “and so I carried that into my adult life, a sort of sticking up for the state system thing . . . and I know that I’m doing this thing for government singing, but we’re working with independent schools as well. I don’t consider there to be a dividing line beyond which we can’t move because my own background was both.”

Goodall first started composing at the age of 8 when he was a chorister at New College, Oxford. He doesn’t know what gave him the confidence to do so: “It was just that I heard music in my head and wondered what it would be like if I wrote it down.” But the floodgates opened when he was a shy 14-year-old smitten by an older French girl on a school exchange. “I just thought she was, you know, incredible, but I couldn’t even get through a conversation with her,” he says, let alone play her the song that she’d inspired him to write. He thinks that “Françoise” was probably a bit McCartneyish or possibly Gilbert O’Sullivan-ish, and he can still remember every word. Would you sing it for me? “No, I’d be too embarassed.” Oh, go on, I say, turning into Mrs Doyle. “I can’t. I can’t. Honestly, I just can’t,” the poor man says.

“Anyway, up to that point I’d written what you might describe as classical music, but then I realised, ‘Gosh, writing pop songs is really good fun’, and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs at the piano and that’s why I moved into writing musicals, I suppose, as a way of using them up.” At Oxford, where he read music at Christ Church, graduating with a first in 1979, he became close friends with Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, writing the music for their revues and annual show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He owed his first break in television to Atkinson, composing the theme tune to Not the Nine O’Clock News, then Blackadder, as well as all the Mr Bean films, including the new one. Other TV credits include Red Dwarf and QI. He’s also written and presented award-winning music documentaries and presented classical programmes such as Choir of the Year.

He is quite sensitive to the suggestion that he owes his success to his friends, pointing out that Curtis has made four of the most successful films of all time ( Notting Hill, Four Weddings etc) “and if it were true that I just got asked to do my mates’ projects, I’d have done one of those, wouldn’t I?”

I watched Goodall’s last four-part television series How Music Worksbefore we met and was swept up by his enthusiasm and the way he built bridges between different composers from Wagner to Coldplay. He is as natural and unprecious in person as he is on television, but what is unusual is that he is disarmingly open — almost nakedly so — as though he has not yet mastered the art of masking his inner self from the public gaze.

In an early interview in 1994, he told the journalist that the reason why he found it so easy to relate to the George Eliot character Silas Marner (he was writing an opera based on the novel) was because “ it was a very sad time in my own life. My wife had just left me and I could empathise with the bitter despair of Marner.” He says that he shouldn’t have been so honest and then proceeds to go farther: “I’m happily married now on my second marriage [to Val Fancourt, a classical music agent]. My first wife was someone who had been in one of my shows.

“The leading lady and the composer,” he laughs, “bet you’ve never heard that before. I was about 28 or 29 [he is now approaching 50] and the marriage fell apart as I was writing the opera and so I felt my way through it with the pain I was going through “I loved my first wife and I missed her and I was devastated, but looking back on it she made the braver decision to leave because it wasn’t really working.

“I think I was young and very immature emotionally and unbelievably selfish as well. I had my music, with my head in the clouds doing my own thing. And I don’t think I really grasped what having a relationship of that intensity actually meant.” For some reason I ask him whether he gets angry — who knows why since he comes across as rather measured — and touch an unexpected nerve. “Yeah, I do have a temper and I’m sorry about that as it causes anxiety. I get impatient when I’m attacked; for example, when the person attacking me hasn’t done their homework. [His populist approach infuriates the classical elitists.]

“And it just drives me . . . it just drives my insides . . . I just get so frustrated.” Can he explain why this happens? “It would be nice for me to say that because I write music and it’s a very passionate, intimate thing and I bash away at the piano that maybe there’s a sort of raised temperature to my emotional state that I can’t stop happening in my normal life. But it would be a cop-out because there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write music and be a perfectly calm and patient person.” So what do you think it’s about then? “I don’t know,” he says, before suggesting that it may be a male problem. When his wife is dealing with a disagreeable builder, for instance, she is the model of diplomacy: “While I’m afraid there’s something male in me that makes me want to punch him and say, ‘You bastard. Don’t be so selfish and arrogant’. But of course I don’t do that because I’m a coward.” He has never hit anyone in his life, although he was once attacked by a puppeteer at a party.

“It was a Spitting Imagepuppeteer and they’ve got strong arms. He was drunk and threatening a woman friend of mine and she said, ‘Howard can you help?’ and I pulled the guy away at which point, you know, he lunged at me,” much laughter. “ Luckily, Stephen Fry was there and he’s a big man and managed to sort of calm things down,” he says, still looking relieved.

I ask him whether he still suffers from shyness and he says that he does, “which you might find hard to believe because, you know, I’m a perfectly normal chap sitting here not looking like a man who’s got a problem”. He has no difficulty making speeches or being on television, but what he can’t really deal with are parties, and he supposes that’s because he’s never been able to dance. Have girls laughed at him? “Yes. Oh yes,” he says. How mean! “It’s not mean; it’s what they do. I think girls are great.” He doesn’t like the way he looks either. How ridiculous, you’re perfectly good looking I say, and so he is with his startling blue eyes and cherubic curls. “Well, I wouldn’t say I was cherubic exactly,” he says. “I think that probably all of us who look like me really want to look like Jean-Michel Jarre.”

He worries about his weight even though he cycles from his home in Barnes, West London, to his Chelsea office every day, but he gave up squash which he really loved “maybe because it was an outlet for my irritation but they don’t advise men over 40 to play unless they’re really fit”. What matters to him apart from his music are his family and his friends, and he’s closer now, he says, to Atkinson and Curtis (he’s godfather to various of their children) than he’s been for a long time. Is that because he feels more on an equal footing with them now? “Maybe, but it’s probably more to do with life changing and mellowing you, and we’ve all got kids now, and for a while we were all wrapped up in our careers and then you realise that the things that really matter are being with people you like and the things that probably wound each other up in our twenties and thirties are all worn away.”

Goodall elaborates: “I think I was probably a bit of a tosser when I was in my twenties, terribly arrogant and haughty, and Rowan and Richard are just more mature and always have been. They probably found me a bit annoying. I don’t feel particularly good when I look back to that time; I don’t really feel good about the way I was.” He says that there was never a time when he felt ‘Gosh, I’d like to have children’ and I wonder whether that’s because I write music and will leave lots of stuff in my wake so there’s a bit of me there now to give meaning to my life and, anyway, I have the experience of parenthood since I completely adore my stepchildren, whom I’ve known since they were 5, and they feel like my own.” He first met their mother — who is not his agent, incidentally — when the two were students at Oxford and he asked her on a date that took her only 21 years to accept. Several times he refers to her calmness and how much he prefers the peacefulness of staying at home with her and the girls than gadding around town.

Writer’s block, artistic angst, none of these things applies. He says that he could compose all day: “It’s like a tap running or broadband, as though I have an enormous CD collection in my head.” I ask him to pick a song that has spoken to him consistently and at the end of the interview he says that it’s Paul Simon’s Something so Right because it’s delicate and beautiful and about someone who cannot believe that things have gone so well for them when they least expected it. He starts to sing the words, finally, in his lovely voice: “You’ve got the cool water/ when the fever runs high/ you’ve got the look of lovelight in your eyes/ And I was in crazy motion/till you calmed me down/ it took a little time/ but you calmed me down.”

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