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The Telegraph – November 2013
As Live at the Apollo returns tonight for a new series, read Ginny Dougary’s interview with host Eddie Izzard in which he talks about his ambitions to enter politics, learn more languages, run more marathons and start a family.
The lights cascade down in neon green and flashing blue, the electronic music pounds to a climax as Eddie Izzard walks smartly on stage in high-heeled boots, jeans and tails, looks out at the packed Parisian audience, puts up his hand to silence the applause and breaks into… German.
This is quite a good opening joke, since his devotees – and true Izzardians are every bit as committed in their fandom as Star Trek or Dr Who fans – all know that his next goal (having conquered French) is to learn German (for performing purposes, as well as world peace), then Spanish, Russian and Arabic (ditto). Not only is he striving to be an endurance athlete – as witnessed by his recent marathons, with more to come – but he is clearly set on becoming an endurance linguist, too.
The show is Stripped – which he toured in the UK in 2009 – but with a difference: this is all in French, which is quite an achievement, particularly considering it’s a 90-minute show. He spent three months living in Paris last year, polishing his French, performing in French (the young, hip French stand-ups are all fous for Izzard) and living as a Frenchman. ‘I worked my arse off, but I was living in Montmartre, rehearsing in the Jardins des Tuileries, living the Parisian life. I had my passe Navigo [Paris’s version of our Oyster card] and I can make jokes about Le Marais,’ he tells me.
It has taken him 15 years to get to the point where he can perform at l’Olympia, where Edith Piaf once sang – ‘un rêve’ which he has had since ‘******* longtemps’ – in front of an audience of 1,800 people. It’s a (literally) vintage Izzard show, covering the ascent of man, why he doesn’t believe in God, the different mentality of the PC and the Apple Mac, the impossibility of Noah’s Ark (if it were real, for one thing, all the animals would be dead except for the lions and the tigers), a giraffe signalling lion-danger through charades and a cough, and a jazz-crowing cockerel. There are nods to the French (s’il vous plaît, no more holes in the ground for WCs, they make it hard to balance your iPad, for one thing – and how come there’s no broccoli, just endless haricots verts?), jokes in the subjunctive (for which he takes a bow), building up to a finale of a meditation on the frustrations of communicating in Latin (‘quod the ****’) with reference to Hannibal’s defeat, all woven together in a typically ingenious, surreal arc.
We had met back in London, a couple of weeks earlier, where our conversation was not unlike one of his shows; indeed, on the odd occasion, the interview was the show, albeit with an audience of one, in that he was trying out new material on me. He is far more friendly and seems happier than when I last spent time with him, 14 years ago. (This was for his first show in French, in a flea pit in the Pigalle area.) He looks quite different, too – more bearded-blokey and rugged, his skin is clear and lightly freckled; his gaze direct and very blue. Back then, Izzard was wearing a lot of make-up and slightly bondage-y leather skirts and stockings.
It has been ages since he was in girl-mode, for reasons we discuss later. Today, he is wearing a sporty fleece, jeans, boots with a three-inch heel and, the only flamboyant touch, what he calls his ‘political nails’ – plum-coloured apart from one that is the Union flag and another that is the flag of Europe. ‘That’s three statements there,’ he says, extending his fingers. ‘I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my continent and I’m proud of being a transvestite.’
Izzard is nothing if not ambitious. He is about to embark on what, he claims, ‘I feel pretty sure is the most extensive comedy tour in the history of the world, ever.’ When I exclaim that he is so competitive, with himself as much as anyone else, he replies, ‘Well, you can do the gossip columns and turn up at the opening of hats, you know, or you can go and play the Hollywood Bowl [he was the first comedian to do a solo show there, last year] or Kathmandu or do your gigs in French. So when people say, “Are you dead now?”, I go, “No, I’m not… I just never did a TV comedy show thing. I studiously avoided that.”’
Then he looks at his phone and rattles off some of the places he’s performing in: St Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Berlin (‘which is almost sold out already’), Helsinki, Oslo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Vienna, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Zurich, Geneva, Ljubljana, Tallinn and also the aforementioned Hollywood Bowl; 25 countries so far, throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and the Far East. The posters for the new Force Majeure show him looking rather Steed-like, sveltely-suited, brandishing an umbrella, and staring straight at you. They were designed by Sarah Townsend (who sings as Sarah McGuinness), an ex-girlfriend, who also directed the 2009 film Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story, and is directing and filming the new tour. Some years ago, the two formed a production company, Ella Communications, named after Eddie’s mother, Dorothy Ella, a midwife and nurse, who died of cancer in 1968 when Eddie was six and his older brother, Mark, was eight.
It’s 25 years since Eddie Izzard did his first stand-up. ‘It’s worth mentioning that the Stones have been going for 50 years and we’re catching up,’ he says. Although he is less detached now, with his new, ebullient confidence comes a certain tendency towards self-aggrandisement as though – since working in the States (which he has been doing a lot) – he is impatient with the British tendency for self-deprecation. He has achieved a great deal in a quarter of a century, he has worked hard to get here, it took him long enough and hell if he is going to pretend otherwise. At one point he draws a parallel with Nelson Mandela – ‘my most favourite politician’ – saying that by learning so many languages, he likes to think he is following the same path. ‘He is a politician – he’s not a saint and he doesn’t want to be a saint. The reality is that he did politics and he did it well, and he learnt Afrikaans and I would like to feel I’m following in his footsteps by learning French and German and Russian and Arabic…’ – which is quite a large claim to make for oneself.
After dropping out of Sheffield University, where he read accountancy (his father, Harold, to whom he is close, was an accountant with BP), Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then moved to Streatham Common in south London with some fellow performers, did street theatre in Covent Garden, and waited to be discovered. ‘I got to 20 and said, “OK, let’s go. I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh… someone’s bound to discover me.” But it just kept on not happening,’ he told me when we last met.
The first show he did on his own was at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, followed shortly by a tiny venue in central London, which was at capacity with 25 people, where he did his fly-fishing joke (‘I caught three flies’). Then came the Comedy Store and, soon after, his own sell-out show in the West End. Izzard had arrived, choosing that moment to come out as a transvestite.
He says he is very like his father. ‘We’re about 80 per cent similar. When he got into BP, he thought, “This is bullshit: I’m going to change everything [the system of filing, for instance].” When he was told he couldn’t, he said, “Well, I’ve already done it.”’
During the screenwriters’ strike in 2007-08 in America, after the second season of the TV series The Riches (in which Izzard starred as an identity-stealing Irish traveller con-artist) had aired, Izzard and his father travelled to Aden together, where Harold used to work for BP and where Eddie was born. There he was given some old photos of his mother, which he shows me on his phone: she has a sweet, sideways smile, is wearing a 1950s skirt that fans out, and is cradling her son on her lap. Another one is of his parents on their honeymoon. It’s charming and telling, I think, that Izzard keeps these black-and-white images in his pocket, close to his heart. He suddenly speaks in Arabic to me, saying, ‘My name is Eddie and I was born in the Yemen.’
Izzard has just turned 51 – how does he feel about ageing? He’s in a far better place in every way now, probably than at any time before in his life. ‘Like they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” and so can I do my 20s again please, and not have Thatcher in power?’ he says. ‘It was just hellish for me, that decade – I did get my stuff done, and I came out as a transvestite and had all my midlife crises early. At 20, nothing had happened; at 30, nothing had happened, but was starting to happen; I was OK at 40, and I’m so OK about being 50 I decided to say I was 50 a year before I was.’
In July 2009 he completed seven weeks of back-to-back marathons – 43 in 51 days – around the UK to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May he attempted a bonkers 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. Due to health complications, Izzard had to pull out after only four. But, naturally, he is not deterred. As we sit across from one another, in an eyrie above a photographic studio in central London, he occasionally rubs his eyes with fatigue. That morning, he had been running with his new trainer. He had also been to see his doctor to get checked out for another attempt in South Africa.
Part of the health problem last year was that he was on a prescription drug to cut down his cholesterol. He also seems to have realised – after that setback – that it’s foolish to undertake such challenges without being properly prepared. As a glutton for punishment, he had upped the ante by attempting the barefoot running style favoured by many Africans, in specially customised barefoot-style shoes. ‘It’s OK on concrete, but it’s really tough on broken rocks dropped into road surfaces, which is what I was running on in the Eastern Cape,’ he says. ‘The little African kids were just zipping along on it, but it would probably take me six months or a year to acclimatise and I didn’t have that time.’
He gets up to demonstrate the barefoot running style – where everything is pushed back, rather than straining forward, a bit like a Homer Simpson boogie. ‘Think about how a horse runs. When they film a horse that’s running, the legs are all moving backwards.’ He says that he was naturally doing that technique after his 43 marathons because he was so exhausted. ‘I was so tired that my body just clicked into the same sort of rhythm that the tribes and the barefoot runners are doing.’
His next attempt is scheduled for March 2014 and he has started preparing already. As well as the new trainer, he has taken on a sports nutritionist. His team will be expected to transform the comedian and actor into an endurance athlete. For the next 40 years of his life, he is planning to be a low-carb, sugar-free temple of health. Is it very Californian? ‘No, it’s Greek,’ he says, a touch defensively. ‘It’s the Olympian idea of “sound of body, sound of mind”. It’s not Hollywood – it’s feral. I’m trying to get feral because it’s natural – it’s how we used to live.
‘There’s not one wild animal that’s not perfectly fit – like 100 per cent fit,’ he adds. ‘I mean, they’re all getting up to chase the gazelles – it’s just us and domestic animals that are chucking the wrong things down our throats.’
His way of dealing with ageing is to get younger (what’s new?) by becoming slimmer and fitter than he has ever been. He was inspired – this being Izzard – by a lion he was introduced to ‘backstage’ at Boston Zoo. ‘He was about 80 – in lion years – and he came up to us and roared [Izzard roars] and made a sort of feral statement which was, “I could eat any of you if it wasn’t for these bars. I have that in me.” He was like some ancient warrior but was as fit as we would all be in our 20s. So that’s what we should all be trying to do, and I do feel that I’m going to get healthier and healthier.’
He was also inspired by the athletes he met when he was an ambassador and cheerleader for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. During his marathons, he met other marathon runners who were manning the feeding stations (as he calls them), and what impressed him was that they were people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. One couple had done 730 marathons. ‘They were both in their 60s and were lean and fit. They don’t train but they do a marathon a week, and that’s what I am aiming to do. I want to be a member of the 100 Club – people who have done more than 100 marathons.’
Izzard is also intending, of course, to live till he is 100 – which is why he isn’t panicking, yet, about having children. He has been saying for quite some time that he is determined to be a father in his 50s. In Meet the Izzards, a two-part series which had Eddie travelling from Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father lives, to Namibia, Yemen, Turkey and Denmark, using his own DNA to trace his ancestors, he said several times that he was planning to have a baby – ‘I’ll buy one in a shop,’ he quipped to two elderly sisters to whom he was very distantly related.
Izzard himself has a slightly childlike way about him which becomes even more pronounced when he talks about the practicalities of becoming a father. Will you adopt? ‘Might do.’ Do you think you need another person with whom to do this? (He never talks about his relationships, adopting the Daniel Day-Lewis approach. ‘If Danny doesn’t have to talk about it…’) ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure out the partner thing.’ Would you be happy to be a single parent? ‘Ah… yeah. Er, are you allowed to do that? Your own genetic baby, yeah, but you can’t adopt can you?’
Since he also plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020 and be an MP (he is a well-known Labour supporter) or an MEP, plus all those weekly marathons, as well as his film career, and his stand-up, I can’t quite see the logistics of fitting in fatherhood. ‘Me too,’ he says. And yet he is determined and what he sets out to get he usually achieves. ‘That is the plan. I may end up being a father at 61.’ But, I ask Izzard, you do realise how much a child eclipses everything else, especially at the beginning? ‘Eclipses and dictates things, yes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully all the really tough stuff will have been done, as I now have a certain amount of momentum. A number of people go into showbiz, have their kids and their kids go, “I didn’t see my parents,” and so…
‘I just imagine myself being kind of parenty. I mean, obviously you’ve got to take it seriously. It’s going to take up a hell of a lot of time and things will revolve around this child or children. But I don’t have the answer about the logistics because I’m also thinking I’ve got to do a lot of stuff before I pack this career up. You’re saying you can’t see how I can work it out, and I’m saying the same thing.’
For a long time, he carried a deep emotional wound from his mother dying when he was so young. His father coped by sending the two small boys away to boarding school, aged six and eight.Izzard has talked about how he cried all the time, and was bullied, and how he stopped crying altogether at the age of 11 and how he was emotionally cauterised from that point on. Was he always looking for a mother figure in his relationships with women? ‘Initially, I was in that frame of mind, but
I don’t think I’m still like that. I don’t think you ever get over your mother dying but I’m not a grown man crying into my beer. I’m doing a lot of practical things out of it. I thought she was great, I’d like her to be back, she won’t seem to come back…’
He refers me to the moment in Believe when he is questioned by Sarah Townsend about why he keeps pushing himself so hard, and he answers, ‘I keep thinking if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back,’ before bursting into tears. Now, he says, ‘It was a moment where I came up with something that I’d never thought about before – which is odd, as it was quite existential.’
Not for him the comfort of knowing that he will meet his mother again in the after-life, as he is a non-believer. ‘I think things just stop, but if I did believe, I’d go to dyslexic heaven, which is Devon.’
When we first met, we talked almost exhaustively about the psychology of transvestism or, at any rate, this transvestite. It was a rather dreamlike encounter, after a show, after midnight – he in my hotel room, wearing a fluffy dressing gown, his face in full slap, talking and smoking into the early hours. It has been five or six years since we saw him in a skirt, and I wonder if he misses his female self – or whether his desire to be famous in Hollywood is more important to him. He says, ‘I can’t get dramatic roles if I turn up at an audition wearing a lot of make-up and going around all girlie,’ which suggests it’s the latter, but in that case, doesn’t he feel repressed? ‘Perhaps it’s the opposite of repressed? Pressed? I’ve got all the boy stuff, except for drinking and vomiting. I love the action movies, wanted to be in the army, I’m football loving and football playing, I’m driven – and I have the girlie stuff, which I feel is about 15 per cent of me.’
I was wondering if it was something a bit more complicated than his desire for film roles. He had talked about the necessity of making himself into the sort of woman he found attractive when he was in girl mode. The ‘look’ he favoured was a sort of saucy punk-rock chick (bustiers, leather, PVC, dominatrix heels), which maybe isn’t such a great image as you go into your 50s. And, also, ageing – himself – could mean he is less drawn to transforming himself into an older woman? But he is having none of it. ‘I’m attracted to women of all ages, you know [the feeling is certainly mutual – my female friends, from young to old, were swooningly jealous; only interviewing George Clooney elicited a similar response], but it’s not something I check.’
But he does admit that knowing how to dress now is difficult. ‘Trying to get it right as a bloke is doubly tricky.’
Izzard really seems to believe that the world can be changed through stand-up. At the end of the show at l’Olympia, he said that the ‘******* melting pot is the way of the future. Maybe we can change some things,’ and he looked quite emotional – or perhaps that was just the standing ovation. Yacine Belhouse, a French-Algerian comedian, whom Izzard chose as the opening act, will be doing a show in English at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I was sitting next to a young French-African stand-up, Shirley Souagnon, who is coming to the Comedy Store in London next month to do her show in English, too. It’s a bit of a Chauncey Gardiner idea but Izzard seems to have started something. His version of franglais – call it Frizzard – is to make a marriage of splitting a French word and inserting a good, old Anglo-Saxon f-word, one he uses a lot, in between. This is his version of ‘détente’. As he says, ‘Vive la différence but also vive la similarité.’ Formi*******dable.
The British fashion industry makes £20 billion a year for the UK economy, so it’s small wonder that the government wants to get inside your wardrobe. Ginny Dougary meets Ed Vaizey, our MP for high heels and handbags.
Ed Vaizey, as Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has an alarmingly capacious portfolio, covering film, television, video games, advertising, architecture (pause for breath), broadband, telecoms (the 4G auction last month was his responsibility), all the arts, museums and not forgetting, as we speak while London Fashion Week draws to a close, fashion.
When I ask him if it’s too much, he says: ‘Well, I have twice as many meetings as other ministers, but I enjoy the work and I’m passionate about it.’ Although broadband takes up most of his time, he would like to stress, in his affable way: ‘But I’m absolutely there for fashion!’
We meet at his office on the top floor of a building off Trafalgar Square, soon to move to a smaller space — his department is being downsized as part of the PM’s austerity measures — in the Treasury. The walls of his room are covered in art from the government collection, but Vaizey is rather vague about the artists. He thinks a series of paintings along one wall might be by Richard Long and there’s one of Mark Wallinger’s Mark Wallinger is Innocent works. He once had a Tracey Emin — she cited Vaizey as one of the reasons she abandoned Labour for the Tories — but that’s moved on. By the window is an Oscar statuette, which he proudly informs me was Cecil Beaton’s (in recognition of his costume designs for My Fair Lady in 1964) and next to it are handwritten letters to the minister from Colin Firth and Kevin Spacey. On a round table is a slightly beaten-up brown leather shoulder bag. Aha, could it be that the Minister for Fashion has a ‘man bag’? ‘Yes,’ he says, with no hint of irritation. ‘It’s by Mulberry.’
Vaizey has a slightly Boris-y, rumpled quality and a not dissimilar amusing and often amused manner (our conversation is punctuated with long rolls of laughter, not always at predictable moments), which makes one want to tease him. He patiently lists what he is wearing — he is by now all too accustomed to this conversational foreplay — grey suit (TM Lewin), blue shirt and navy polka-dot tie (both from Charles Tyrwhitt). We move to the boardroom next door and he stretches out a sheet of paper, with a list of points he wishes to use this interview to express. He has old-fashioned loopy writing and says, without false modesty, that his handwriting is terrible.
To start with, he is a bit tense. At the end of the interview, he confesses to having been ‘completely terrified’. In the past, he has (again, like Boris) made the odd off-message comment from Planet Human that has got him into hot water. Like the time he suggested that Samantha Cameron had voted Labour.
His father, Lord Vaizey, an author, educator and political economist, died in 1984 at the age of 55 — Ed was 16 — from a heart condition that had afflicted him most of his life. After 33 years of Labour party membership (he was once described as the party’s ‘éminence grise’ at the rather ungrey age of 34), Lord Vaizey, impressed by Margaret Thatcher and disillusioned by his party, crossed the benches, a decision he later described in a letter to The Times as ‘painful’, leaving his old friends feeling betrayed. Ed’s mother Marina, 74, CBE, is a long-transplanted New Yorker, educated at Harvard and Girton College, Cambridge, an art critic of The Sunday Times, author, curator, judge of the Turner Prize and a fantastic champion for the arts.
I wonder how much of her American can-do-ism has been inherited by her son. ‘The personality trait I’ve inherited most from my mum is that she is quite gregarious — she loves meeting people, she gets on with people and people enjoy her company. She’s very optimistic. She always likes to say good things. One of the things I like about my job is that my mum goes to a lot of events and is so encouraging and I then get all that positive feedback.’
Ed and his older siblings Polly and Tom were taken to exhibitions at an early age. Their house in Chiswick, growing up, was always full of artists and politicians; Shirley Williams, another Labour defector, is a family friend. So it’s hardly surprising that Vaizey has been to see all the big shows — Roy Lichtenstein, the avant-gardists at the Barbican (he was at the Barbican’s annual dinner the previous evening), the Picasso at the Courtauld, and he caught the Manet exhibition in Paris before it came to London.
His most striking ‘fashion moment’ could as easily be described as an art moment. ‘I’ve been privileged to meet great designers and one of my most enjoyable moments was visiting Paul Smith’s office — which is absolutely amazing. It’s full of bric-a-brac, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I said to him that he should leave it to a museum. Apparently there’s somebody in America who posts him things — like, literally, a traffic cone posted from somewhere in America, not even wrapped up but covered in stamps to his address.’
He always goes to the opening of London Fashion Week (Zoë Jordan’s show opened proceedings this season) and to the reception held by Samantha Cameron at Downing Street ‘which is very similar in many ways to a Westminster event, although it’s a different crowd’. This year it included Victoria Beckham and Donatella Versace. He also tries to take in at least one show; this time round he only managed Anya Hindmarch’s, but he’s pleased that Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Harriet Harman have all been along to Fashion Week: ‘It’s good that politicians take fashion seriously because fashion is a serious business.’
When I ask him who impresses him most in the fashion world, he goes into a very long speech about the British Fashion Council (one of his four points) and I have to say, ‘That’s enough, Ed.’ A short version is that he thinks it does a fantastic job supporting young designers and getting the message across that to back fashion is to back Britain and that Caroline Rush and Simon Ward, ‘the great leaders of the BFC,’ are jolly good eggs who taught him everything he needs to know about the business.
He was shown around the ‘ateliers’ (he does the inverted commas) of Christopher Kane and Erdem in the East End in 2008 by fashion writer Sarah Mower, when the designers were already known but not the huge stars they are now ‘and you see these people toiling away, they work all hours, and they’re very dedicated and passionate people. So for those who think fashion might be frivolous or whatever, it was illuminating to see these people doing their impressive work and it brings it home to you that it is an industry.
‘On to my second point — actually, what I just said is my second point, but a new point so now I have five points — is that when we see the catwalk and think, “Well, this can’t be serious,” actually, what you’re looking at is a £20 billion a year business, which is part of an eco-system — your readers want to read about fashion, for instance, and then there’s the hairdressers, photographers, stylists, the high street, and all of that is around fashion, so it is a very serious industry. Politicians will happily trot off to a car factory. Fashion is contributing as much to the economy as those factories are,’ he says, sounding a tiny bit defensive.
He mentions Vivienne Westwood as someone clearly impressive: ‘I’ve met her a few times. The fact that she is still an iconic figure, 30 or 40 years at the top of the fashion tree’ — he ticks himself off for not one but two clichés. Did she give you a hard time? ‘Well, I met her at Windsor Castle so she was probably on good behaviour.’
It is always assumed that before going to Oxford, Vaizey went to Eton, like Johnson and Cameron, when, in fact, he went, like George Osborne, to St Paul’s. It was his father’s decision. ‘My dad was on the Public Schools Commission, which was set up to abolish public schools, and he met the Highmaster of St Paul’s, Tom Howarth, who became a friend, and he thought it was the best school going.’
Vaizey’s wife Alex is a lawyer (as Vaizey was before turning to politics) and the couple have two children, Joseph, six, and Martha, four. I wonder what he does to relax. Alex is a good cook and Ed tries his best. They have what he describes as a ‘small’ house in Wantage (where he was elected MP in 2005) where the family often go for weekends. ‘Without wishing to sound too pious, I really enjoy my job. But I also really do like home life. I don’t have any particularly sophisticated ways of relaxing, but I like…’ he screws up his face and sighs, ‘Oh, the trouble with being a politician is that anything you say sounds like artifice.’ Another big sigh. ‘But just going out with the kids to the park is great.’
I don’t know enough about fashion, myself, to judge whether Vaizey knows what he’s talking about, but it’s obvious that, despite his efforts, he is more interested in The Frick than a frock. In truth, he is a bit fazed by the world of high fashion, as he is by the world of classical music. When we talked about his former colleague Louise Mensch’s new blog, Unfashionista, he applauded it for trying to make fashion less frightening. ‘One of my gripes with classical music, like high fashion, is that you can get quite intimidated. So I think anything that can make fashion accessible and say that it’s easy to look good and on a budget is a good thing. Just as anything that says you can come and enjoy classical music without feeling that you need to have four university degrees is a very good thing, too.’
By Ginny Dougary
Travel writer Sara Wheeler’s latest book chronicles the middle-aged Englishwomen who reinvented themselves in 19th-century America.
Sara Wheeler’s home is a converted Victorian butcher’s shop, close to Hampstead Heath, with Matisse-blue and Gauguin-orange walls covered in reminders of her travels: an original Herbert Ponting photograph from Captain Scott’s fateful expedition here, a figure of a penguin from one of the research stations on Antarctica there.
The author of four travel books and two biographies has written her first about women after focusing on the “frozen beards” as she calls them, Arctic explorers who tend to be male. She describes the experience of writing O My America! Second Acts in a New World as “like coming home”. The first line of the title is an echo of John Donne’s sensual elegy To His Mistress Going to Bed (part of the pleasure of Wheeler’s books are the many literary and poetical allusions). The second is a reference to what the six subjects of her book have in common: middle-aged women from England, in the mid to late 19th century, who all reinvented themselves in America. “Having second acts,” as the author puts it, “in the Land of Second Acts”.
She started with Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony the famous novelist, who is a wonderful subject – doughty, curious, resourceful and so impressed by another remarkable woman, Fanny Wright, that she made her way to the writer and social reformer’s utopian commune in Tennessee, taking three of her children, and leaving the other two at boarding school in England, along with her husband. When this experiment failed, Trollope endured other hardships in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to find ways of making money to send back to her impecunious family. She was inventive: coming up with magic shows and creating a doomed entertainment emporium. She made her fortune and fame, finally, with an international bestseller, the Domestic Manners of the Americans, which appalled the subjects and riveted everyone else.
Then there is Fanny Kemble, a well-known actor who fell in love with a plantation owner, leading to a disastrous marriage from which she eventually escaped to write a searing indictment of slavery; Harriet Martineau, a radical and political economist; homesteader Rebecca Burlend. Catherine Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece and a novelist, too, at 52, left her husband in an asylum and their three adult children, and travelled by railway from New York to San Francisco.
Wheeler, in her early 50s, started researching Fanny Trollope after a friend said she would be a good subject. In doing so, she stumbled on other women who were also compelling. “Part of the reason the book became a book was that I was interested in that sort of barren land of post-menopausal women, knowing that it was the next country that I was headed into … and coming to terms with it,” she says.
It is easy to see why Wheeler was beguiled by these women who were thrillingly adventurous. Her book Terra Incognita, about her hitchhiking around Antarctica, became an international bestseller and inspired women to undertake bold journeys of their own. (It is because of her book that I travelled to both poles – and a more unlikely candidate you would be hard pushed to find.)
Like her subjects, the writer has had her own hurdles in life. Both Wheeler’s parents left school at 14; her father came from a long line of builder-decorators, her mother did shift work in a hospital. There were no books in the house. Her mother gave birth to Wheeler when she was 20 and 18 months later to a second child, Matthew, who was born with brain damage. The couple split up and there were some chaotic years during which Wheeler describes herself as being the parent to her little brother.
“I didn’t know anyone else in that position, so I felt very alone” she says. She is the trustee of a charity, Sibs, which gives support to adult and child siblings. “My shrink said that it’s quite characteristic of siblings of handicapped people to run fast enough for two, and I was very motivated, which is good. That’s a gift my brother gave me. I was a fantastic hard worker and the first in my family to go to college [to Oxford to read classics and modern languages].”
She has suffered from depression and has had problems with alcohol: “I’d say I’m quite a cheerful person but I don’t find life particularly plain sailing.” She has two sons, Wilf and Reg, by her partner, Peter Graham, a dry-humoured man from Quebec.
For her 50th birthday Wheeler was given a large handmade quilt, made by her 10 best women friends. The patches have phrases handstitched by her friends – “In a yurt drinking yak butter,” a private joke by the writer Dea Birkett, “Boys” and “It’s alright for you!” (a phrase that plagued her childhood).
Her latest work, published just ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, is perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light. I ask Wheeler, finally, what her subjects gave her apart from a fascinating book. “They gave me a great sense of hope and made me feel glad to be alive and that the second act could be as bountiful as the first. I think I did have more fun writing this book than all my other books put together. They were such fantastic company and they reminded me of how wonderful it is to be a woman.”
Private Eye and on Have I Got News For You for quarter of a century. How does he fare when the focus is on him?
By Ginny Dougary
29 Nov 2012
(Daily Telegraph Magazine)
Ian Hislop is in the first-floor dining-room of the Coach and Horses, a defiantly unreconstructed pub in Soho, London, greeting his guests at the Private Eye lunch he has hosted for the past 26 years, ever since Richard Ingrams made the initially controversial decision to hand over the editorship of the satirical magazine to what the old guard considered a young upstart.
Norman Balon, the notoriously rude proprietor of the pub – who used to slap down the plates of melon followed by meat and two veg, then spotted dick and custard – has moved on, and Hislop is anxious about the new ‘midlife crisis’ menu, which is exclusively vegetarian with haute-gastronomy ambitions – the foodie equivalent, perhaps, of Pseuds Corner, all twiddles and towers and puddles of intense colour.
I have been to a number of these Wednesday lunches over the years as a guest, but on this occasion I am here to observe how our host works the room, which he does in his convivial, eye-twinkling way. The number of women around the table has increased over the decades; Hislop is sandwiched between two of the four here today: a newspaper editor and a television foreign correspondent. He is very protective of the identities of all his guests and story sources of his journalists, so no names, no pack-drill.
Hislop says that the lunches, held fortnightly, are good for making contacts – he would never use the dread word networking – and have often led to stories, although the Eye tends to get beaten to it (gallingly, because of its long lead times) by his journalist guests, rushing off to file the news for the next day’s paper. A case in point was John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, who got ‘hogwhimperingly drunk’ at one lunch, as a fellow guest described it (the wine does flow), and confessed to the assembled company that his mistress was pregnant and the story was about to be exposed in the News of the World. Cue mass exodus of hacks, clutching notebooks.
At one end of the table today is the dashing writer and journalist Francis Wheen, who was Hislop’s first recruit, and is now deputy editor (although Wheen resists the title). As Hislop recalls in last year’s book by Adam Macqueen, Private Eye: the First 50 Years, ‘Getting Francis was a very important early thing [swiftly followed by the rehiring of Paul Foot]. He was always streets ahead. You could give him stories that were difficult or controversial or tough without him thinking, “Oooh, well… I can’t really make the phone call,” or “I’m a bit worried about my anonymity…”’
At the other end of the table is the only full-time journalist on the Eye, Jane Mackenzie. The rest of the table is made up of young journalists on national newspapers who are telling disobliging stories about their bosses, which may or may not find their way into the Street of Shame column. There is also an academic who may be good for an item on a colleague who has behaved shabbily. There is a leading Conservative politician, who leaves before the main course, and various other diners. Hislop writes notes in full view. He used to be more coy about it, he says, and would scribble away with his hand under the table.
A couple of weeks earlier I had been in the studio audience for the first programme in the new series of Have I Got News For You, on which Hislop has appeared for all of its 22 years: there is nothing fly-by-night about Hislop. The host is Clare Balding on her debut HIGNFY appearance; she is intro-duced as the ‘hero of the summer’ on the back of her new post-Olympics popularity. On Hislop’s team is the Father Ted scriptwriter Graham Linehan, and on Paul Merton’s team, Ken Livingstone. There’s some amusing pre-recording chit-chat. Balding says that she is sometimes mistaken for Sue Barker, to which she usually responds, ‘F***, yeah,’ so at least she has the satisfaction of members of the public thinking the goody-goody Barker ‘has a hell of a mouth on her’. Hislop comments that when he was on a train, a woman said, ‘“Are you Ian Hislop?” And her friend said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t look anything like him.”’ Big laugh from the audience, who adore Hislop. Paul Merton tops it, with a typically surreal statement. ‘I was in Ireland and someone said to me, “Are you who you think you are?”’
The programme is dominated by Jimmy Savile/ BBC stories, and Abu Hamza and his prosthetic arm. There’s a long chat about Livingstone’s chum Hugo Chávez, whom Linehan is keen on, too, which gets cut right back in the edit that appears on television. The only hitch is at the end, when Balding has to do repeated retakes of her farewells as she keeps pronouncing Ian’s surname in the abbreviated way, as ‘Hizlp’.
After the show we all meet up in the hospitality room on the top floor of the old London Weekend Television building, where HIGNFY is filmed, close to the Southbank Centre. This is a lot more glam – with spectacular views of London lit up at night – than the usual BBC Green Room spread of sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Hislop is drinking Guinness. His wife, Victoria, is there (she is a journalist turned bestselling novelist, and they have been married for 24 years) as is Balding’s civil partner, the newsreader Alice Arnold. Paul Merton is moody, and only wants to talk shop with his director and Linehan. Livingstone is moany, and keeps saying that this is the most difficult HIGNFY he has been on because of the depressing subject matter (later, Hislop tells me that Livingstone, who has been on a dozen times, always says that). The following night, when the show goes out, it zips along with all its customary sparkle and repartee.
The afternoon after the filming, I go to Private Eye’s office, which is in an old house on Carlisle Street in Soho, to interview its editor. This has been the magazine’s home since 1984. It was built in about 1685 and, according to the journalist Tim Minogue, who writes the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, exposing corruption in local authorities, has variously been home to a hatter, a wigmaker, a lacemaker, a goldsmith, a dance academy and, directly before the magazine moved in, a firm of architects. In the dark hallway is what is apparently known as ‘the wall of death’ – photographs of departed Eye stalwarts: Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells and Paul Foot. There are two secretaries in the first room you enter, including Hilary Lowinger – who is also the office manager and joined the magazine in 1986. The designers and sub-editors work in a large, light room at the back. Hislop is wearing a suit from Marks & Spencer, which looks rather well cut. ‘This is from that nice range, Autograph,’ he says. ‘I always wear a suit because you don’t have to think what to wear. It’s a very easy, convenient uniform.’ He flicks through a pile of typed paper with the chief sub-editor, Tristan Davies, delivering rapid-fire instructions: ‘That’s good for HP [Sauce, the parliamentary news section]’; ‘That’s a Wheen’; ‘Condense these two for the books pages’; ‘That’s his Lance Armstrong piece, we have to run that.’ Afterwards he turns to Tony Rushton, the art director, who has been with the mag for all of its 51 years. There’s a Savile and Boris lookalike photo spread, and various cartoons laid out on the pages. They have a bit of a chat about a cartoonist they like but think they are possibly using too much.
Then we go on a quick tour of the rest of the building. Up the narrow staircase, with walls of large high-quality prints of Hogarth’s four 1754 Election paintings; a gift from Sir John Soane’s Museum, after Private Eye sponsored a show of political art – Hogarth’s Election Entertainment – in 2001. In one room on the top floor there is a female lawyer from Matrix Chambers scrutinising the contents of the next issue for libel, next door to Jane Mackenzie and the journalist Heather Mills (who has had some amusing conversations at Eye lunches, with the guests assuming, what with her long blond hair, that she is Paul McCartney’s ex).
We go back to the first floor to Hislop’s office, which he inherited from Ingrams, who is famous for his untidiness. His successor is rather orderly in comparison. Behind his desk, there’s a framed photo of Peter Cook (17.11.37 – 9.1.95, So Farewell Then), and posters of Denis Thatcher and ‘Grocer’ Heath, which have been there for ever. On a noticeboard are thank-you letters for Eye lunches including one from the MP Tom Watson, which is remarkably effusive. ‘It was a milestone in what I regard as my curious parliamentary career… if I can ever reciprocate…’ and a droll one from Kirsty Young, saying how much she enjoyed herself, ‘although my placement opposite Grayson [Perry] did leave me feeling somewhat underdressed.’
Ian Hislop was born in Mumbles, south Wales, in July 1960. His father, David, was a civil engineer who worked on projects around the world, taking his wife, Helen, as well as his two children (Ian has an older sister, Anne) with him. The Hislops moved to Nigeria, then Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. His parents revelled in the warm climate and pleasantly cushioned lifestyle. ‘Both my parents had lived through austerity… my father was from Scotland, which I imagine in the 1950s was quite bleak, and my mother was from Jersey, which had been occupied in the Second World War and had gone through austerity-plus.
‘And then they were working abroad and my dad had a speedboat and we had a bar in the living-room, with a sort of leather top and stools and I remember looking at my father and thinking, “With your DJ, you’re wearing a frilly dress shirt?” and then, “But it’s the 1970s! You can do what you like!” I also remember Burns Night and there being a lot of Scottish engineers around who were good fun. My father used to dress in shorts and long socks; my mother in sundresses with very pointy sunglasses. For them, the expat life was extraordinary and very glamorous.’
David Hislop sounds like quite a character. Ian Hislop was sent a photo of his late father – ‘one of the good things about being in the public eye is that people just write to you’ – diving into a swimming-pool that he had just opened (the arresting fact being that he was fully clothed). ‘And I thought, “You must have been the one they asked to make a speech and do something quite silly.”’ In fact, Hislop senior didn’t need to be asked to do daft things. On a trip back to Hong Kong, on a quest to discover more about his father as part of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Hislop met his father’s old secretary, who said, ‘“Have I shown you the photo of your dad leading a conga through the fountains outside the Hilton?” and I said, “No, you haven’t! Can I see it please?” It did look like a lot of fun.’
When Hislop was 12, his mother came to his school – Ardingly College in Sussex, where he had boarded since he was eight – to tell him that his father had died of stomach cancer. The family had known that David had been ill but it was only a few brief months between diagnosis and death, at the age of 45. How did his mother handle the loss? ‘She was pretty devastated; I don’t think she ever really recovered. My mother was fab and a very capable and strong woman but she was, well, you know, very much in love with my father and missed him for the rest of her life.’
Hislop is famously reserved and private. In his late 20s, his mother – still in her 60s – was dying, at the same time that his wife, Victoria, was in hospital having suffered a miscarriage, and yet no one at Private Eye had a clue. Part of the Hislop mythology is the true story about him recording an episode of Have I Got News For You while suffering from acute appendicitis. He seems to be the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, which was the title of his most recent television series, exploring how this phrase came to be seen as the defining English characteristic when we had started out as a nation of wusses and emotional incontinents. He admits that the series – a perfect example of erudition worn lightly – was a way of considering his own attitude to this fascinating subject.
Now that he has revealed something of his feelings in this series (although it’s hardly Oprah), it makes it easier to ask more sensitive questions than would normally feel appropriate. We have known one another, I should say, as friendly acquaintances for two decades, but have never talked about anything deep and meaningful. I ask him how well he felt he knew his father and what effect that early death had on him as a boy. He replies that he didn’t know him nearly well enough (something he hopes to have remedied with his two children, Emily, 22, and William, 19, neither of whom were sent to boarding school – ‘It was a selfish thing. I wanted them to be near me and around’) and as for the other matter, ‘I think losing a close relative early is a fairly hardening blow – in that my childhood sort of ended when my father died. Once that’s happened you haven’t got a huge illusion about what life may or may not hold. I think it made me increasingly independent, because I had to be.’
In Stiff Upper Lip, Hislop returns to Ardingly, where he was head boy, and tries to reconnect with what it felt like to be sent to boarding school at such a young age, saying that he wants to try and ascertain what that experience had done to him. Did he find out? ‘Well, as I said, with distance the nature of those boarding schools does begin to look like a very odd thing to do – and most people who come through it don’t do it to their own children. I mean, they’re much more parent-friendly now – everyone has a room of their own and goes home every afternoon,’ he laughs, ‘but when we were there, there was just one large Victorian room with 30 boys in it, and it didn’t have any curtains and it was cold.
‘So, yes, I was always homesick, but usually I was flying from somewhere like Hong Kong and there was quite a time-lag – which meant I did the being homesick on the plane, then I arrived and there was this world of friends and excitement and interest.’
Does he think the experience has made it harder for him to express himself emotionally? Would he say, for instance, that he has been scarred by it? ‘Er, well, I am trying to answer that honestly… I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do that programme was to have a look at that – and it ends up being a very nuanced answer, rather than, “No, no, I’m fine. It never affected me.” It obviously did affect me. It moulded a certain sort of Englishness and a certain sort of response to things. It’s that British thing – in that it’s not that we don’t feel it but we don’t think it’s appropriate to show that feeling in public, or at all times, or with people we don’t know. So I still probably behave like that – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. I am not without emotion.’
Is he able to examine himself with any depth? ‘Erm… probably being very busy suggests that I am not doing so.’
In such a rationalist age – where the prevailing culture among media types tends to be aggressively atheist – Hislop’s Anglican faith is an intriguing anomaly. The avowed raison d’être of his two main gigs – HIGNFY and Private Eye – is to knock bullies off their perch, expose idiocy, corruption and moral weakness. While I am extremely grateful for its existence (the Eye goes from strength to strength – with recent record sales figures of 267,834 for its anniversary issue, and 253,000 for the Gotcha – Murdoch Goes Down issue) it hardly fosters a warm feeling towards one’s fellow man and the human condition. I wonder how harmoniously his religious beliefs sit with his love of satire. Ingrams, before him, shared a similar duality, and there are notable antecedents, such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift. He starts by telling me about a funny phase at his Anglican school, when two old boys came back on an evangelical mission as born-again Christians, and metaphorically set the whole school on fire, swelling the membership of the Christian Union from a membership of 12 to 300.
‘It was very, very bizarre – we didn’t go to bed, and people were having prayer meetings in dormitories, and the staff were terribly worried because most of them were Anglicans and they were thinking, “What if this is the real thing?” and not knowing whether or not to stop it because it was getting completely out of hand.
‘You know, being sort of C of E, people want a very quiet and moderate faith. They don’t want hundreds of boys singing Kumbaya and getting up in the middle of chapel services and confessing that they’ve seen the light.’
What did his mother think about all of this?
‘She was marvellous. I had told her, “I have to see you because something incredibly exciting has happened – I’ve been converted! We’ve all been converted!” And my mother asked me two things. She said, “You didn’t sign anything, did you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “They didn’t ask you for any money?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear.” Because she was brilliant, my mother, she realised it was all fine and that it would probably die down and there was nothing to worry about. And after everyone went away for the summer holidays and came back, it did die down.’
I ask him about how he feels surrounded by so many Dawkinsian non-believers. He remembers going to the launch of Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, drew a picture of all the people there ‘and there was an arrow next to me in the middle of all these ultra-rationalists and it just said, “Anomalous God-botherer”.’
His faith waxes and wanes and it is going through the latter phase at the moment. Hislop sounds a tiny bit downhearted about the whole subject. He goes to church but not very often, and at the moment, not at all. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt… it’s not a great, confident, burning faith, really. I can’t do the ultra-rationalism denial of it all and all the sort of human bits that I feel come through that but then, you know, sometimes I worry that my faith is so vague as to be sort of not really there at all. I’m so lukewarm I’m about to be spat out, I think.’
What comforts him in times of sadness? He laughs. ‘I thought you were going to do the Simon and Garfunkel song… well, all the normal things.’
Like? ‘Oh – family, friends. Other human beings.’ His voice becomes a bit curt. Not nature or music or books? ‘Any of those things can, but it’s the people first.’ So not faith, in that regard? ‘Yes, it can – but faith is often shown through other people. Faith working through other people tends to be goodness working through them or sympathy even if it’s not declared as religion… it doesn’t have to be the vicar coming round.
‘But I do like the rituals of the Church and, yes, I have found them comforting.’
Hilary Lowinger and her colleague had been joking with me, while I waited for Hislop to appear, about the deranged people who sometimes insist on coming into the office, with this or that conspiracy theory. Shortly before the conclusion of our interview, a wild-haired man bursts into the office and I fear, for a moment, that the lady gatekeepers have not been able to keep the lunatics at bay. ‘So sorry to barge in like this,’ the man begins with elaborate courtesy. ‘It’s so, so rude of me. I’m ever, ever so sorry…’ and then he proceeds to tell Hislop that if the editor ever has the opportunity to commission a nice oil painting for the magazine, he’s the man.
It turns out that the interloper does draw for the Eye and is feeling the pinch; he needs more money, he needs a bigger byline, he is a man full of all-too-recognisable needs in these tricky times. Hislop listens to him, doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable or shoo him away and, actually, seems to care.
It is this sense of decency that, I think, is a strong motivating force in Hislop. He’s by no means perfect; for instance, for a Christian – even a rather half-hearted one – he seems incapable of forgiving his enemies (Piers Morgan, and the diarists Peter McKay and the late Nigel Dempster among them). But his instincts are always about picking on the powerful, not the weak. For this reason, he is pretty scathing about a lot of today’s comedians in the Ricky Gervais vein (with whom he had a well-publicised spat). ‘I do have a residual belief that, if at all possible, you should try not to mock the weak. There seems to be a slight tendency in contemporary stand-up to have a go at the weak and say you’re being edgy. You know, attacking the disabled. I think you should go for stronger targets.’
He is not a political tribalist, having voted for all the three main parties, as well as the Greens. ‘Most of your judgments are about whether people are behaving well or not in your eyes – and that doesn’t matter whether they are left or right. You know, are they corrupt or are they bent or are they trying to make things better or worse for people? That is where my bottom line is, and so that must be what drives me.’
I ask him what he is insecure about. ‘Oh, health,’ he says quickly. Is his health OK? ‘I think so, but you never know. If you have a history of your family keeling over you’re never sure how much time you’ve got left yourself. That may be another reason why I try to cram a lot in.’
We part on a more upbeat note. I ask him what he considers to be his most lowbrow tastes, and he struggles to answer. Later he calls me to say that it is Toy Story 3. ‘It’s incredibly funny, beautifully made and very good on being a boy.’ And also: ‘I’m quite big on Elvis. I went to a show in Las Vegas with three Elvis impersonators – young, middle and old – and it was one of the best nights of my life.’ Who knew?
But in his office, he says that it’s box sets of Clint Eastwood westerns and ‘sort of terrible war films’. Do you blub when watching the latter? ‘Oh, no, I’m taking my example from Brief Encounter!’ I beg to differ, saying that I have even seen him get moist-eyed on television.
‘Surely not. No. I’m going to end the interview now, and I’m going to storm out!’
Dasha Zhukova addressed a roomful of architecture critics at the ICA in London earlier this year, announcing the latest move in her mission to bring contemporary art and culture to Moscow. It was the first time, she tells me afterwards, that she hadn’t read from notes, and although this seemed to improve her performance – she reckoned – it was still pretty nerve-wracking for her.
There was something almost school-girlish about her demeanour as she answered questions from the audience. She wore her hair in a long pigtail on one side, a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar under an orange sweater, orange tweed Capri trousers and high-heeled white patent shoes. She speaks in perfect English with a faint Russian intonation, as well as an occasional upwards Californian lilt. She is very beautiful, as has often been noted, but her face has an open, appealing quality about it; her critics have called it blank, but there is nothing vacant at all about her steely gaze.
The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Zhukova’s initial cultural foray into her birthplace, which opened in Moscow in 2008 – housed in a vast former bus terminal designed by the constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in 1926 – was an encouraging first move on her part. It announced an approach, which now seems to be her modus operandi, of taking over ruined Soviet architectural masterpieces and working with world-class architects to create sympathetic restorations. That Garage lease has come to an end, and the exhibition space is now moving to Gorky Park.
The Garage’s first home was in the northern, semi-industrial outskirts of town and attracted about 300,000 visitors a year. The new site will accommodate 3.6 million annually, and after Gorky Park has been renovated that number is expected to rise to nine million. The job of transforming the 1960s concrete prefab building in the park, which was a popular restaurant until it was abandoned in the 1990s, has been entrusted to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Zhukova has a cold and asks her assistant to get her something to soothe it. At 31, she looks younger and has a son – Aaron Alexander, who will be three in December – by her 46-year-old partner, Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner.
She explains that she is not restricting her sights to Moscow. Zhukova and her partner have big plans for St Petersburg, too – namely, transforming New Holland, a 19-acre island and former naval yard in the heart of the city, into a creative hub.
When this is completed in 2018, she is hoping that New Holland will be part of the international must-see arts chain linking MoMA in New York, Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre. It is Zhukova and her non-profit Iris Foundation, dedicated to promoting contemporary culture, which are behind the overall design. (She has just received an award from Independent Curators International for her work.)
“Both these projects share the same backbone. What kind of drives me to do these works is to really progress contemporary culture in Russia,” she says. “I think a good term for it is ‘cultural urbanisation’. It’s entertainment as well as education. I’d like to set up a school of design, which doesn’t exist yet in Russia, and do a lot with technology there as well. The internet can give young people a fantastic platform to become financially independent and have global businesses without leaving Russia.”
I tell her how much I like the idea of keeping the original faded-but-beautiful fabric of the Gorky Park building. “I’m very proud of Soviet aesthetics,” she says. “I guess that once the Soviet system collapsed, it wasn’t a very desired design feature. I don’t know if it was because I was too young or … well, I don’t know why, but I really like that aesthetic. It’s so important for what we are doing in Russia [by “we”, she means the foundation, presumably, as well as Abramovich, but it does rather add to her arts tsarina aura] – and for Russia in general to find itself in the contemporary world. It’s good not to turn our back on such a beautiful history …”
Zhukova has a large vision of what she wants to accomplish and pulling it off cannot be easy in Russia, despite her partner’s influence and connections. “We have bureaucratic problems like everyone else – but, you know, it’s important to know how to operate within the system you are existing in,” she says pragmatically. “You can yell and complain about it all you want, but that’s not going to help you.”
Is she impatient? “I can be, but if something captures my attention, I am completely absorbed. I am very determined; I tunnel-vision straight to where I need to go. I guess that’s the thing I really know how to do.”
So does she never have hissy fits? “I don’t. I never yell or scream. I mean, definitely not at work,” she grins, and her face opens like a flower. “I never yell at anyone I work with. I get frustrated, but I have this survival instinct – whenever I have a hurdle, I figure out how to solve it.”
Zhukova is circumspect. She cannot afford to alienate those in control of the country, but she is, one suspects, naturally non-committal. This may be the ingrained suspicion of opening up to strangers that can come with being born into extreme wealth, or perhaps partly a sort of historic defensiveness in her Soviet DNA. At any rate, if you long for her to be a bit more spontaneous and less of a controlled diplomat, you long mostly in vain.
Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981 – christened Daria (Dasha is a nickname) – the only child of Elena, a molecular biologist, and Alexander, who became an oil magnate. Her family was well connected – largely scientists, writers and linguists: “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” Elena has said. She was three when her parents divorced, and her mother left the USSR in 1990, with nine-year-old Dasha, because she had been offered a good position at the Baylor College of Medicine, a leading centre of biomedical research in Houston, where she had some family.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother found it very difficult to be in this quite aggressive environment and she couldn’t really handle the abrupt changes,” Zhukova explains. “So we didn’t actually emigrate to America, we thought we were just going for a year or two and then, I guess, she decided to stay. You know, I can’t imagine what it takes to get up in your thirties, with a child, and say, ‘OK, now I’m leaving and going somewhere I don’t know.’”
Elena is Jewish and Zhukova identifies herself as Jewish, although her father is a Christian. Zhukova’s first school in the US was a Hebrew college, which she attended for three years. It must have been tough not speaking a word of English when she arrived. “I’m a quick learner,” she says. “When you’re in a situation that is foreign to you, you just have to pull yourself together and adapt.”
Elena was then offered an opportunity at UCLA – “which was a huge honour” says her daughter – and mother and daughter moved to California. By the time Elena retired, she was a professor of molecular biology there, as well as an authority on diabetes. “My mother is quite a serious person, who is more interested in substance than aesthetics. We always had very serious scientists hanging out at our house,” Zhukova says, before correcting herself. “That sounds a bit silly. What I mean is she had all these graduate students who would constantly come by the house – and I always thought that was very funny, because they were so studious and a bit geeky.” Zhukova went to a small, sporty private school – Pacific Hills – in West Hollywood (alumni include Monica Lewinsky and Drew Barrymore), which she loved and describes as “a kind of weird utopian community. I still stay in touch with some of my friends, which is one of the reasons why I’m on Facebook.”
She had a great college experience, too, she says, at UC Santa Barbara, where she considered following in her mother and grandmother’s steps in medicine but graduated in 2003, instead, in Slavic studies and literature: “Although I’m very interested in science and technology, I guess I couldn’t sit still long enough to be a doctor.”
At 22, she moved to London to study homeopathic medicine, a course she didn’t complete. She was living in one of her father’s penthouses in Kensington, dating a tennis player and generally living the kind of life that earned her the label “glamorous socialite”. It was also where she first began to take an interest in contemporary art.
In 2005, she met Abramovich – a friend of her father’s from his oil-trading days – at a dinner party in Moscow. Abramovich, who was born into poverty and orphaned at the age of four, had just sold his stake in the Russian oil giant Sibneft for $13bn and was moving into steel, gold and real estate, which he still invests in through his Millhouse company. He divorced his second wife, Irina, in 2007.
Despite the couple’s properties all over the world – three in London alone, as well as three yachts, houses in the south of France, Moscow and St Barts, where Abramovich made headlines, in January, for spending £5m on a New Year’s eve party – Zhukova has said that it is her mother’s home in Los Angeles that still feels like home to her.
It is striking that Zhukova is at her most open when talking about her family (her partner, of course, is another matter; the closest I get to that subject is to ask if she likes football; “I’m the last person you should be talking to,” she replies).
When I ask her which parent she is most like, she says probably her father – who lives in Moscow now – although as she was brought up by her mother, she figures it balances out. “My Dad is a very optimistic person,” she says. “He’s very positive, he loves people, he’s very clever and he’s very funny. He’s a great dad. Obviously I saw less of him when we were in America, but it always just felt normal when I saw him again.”
Both her parents remarried and both had twins – her mother, a boy and girl, now aged 19; her father, twin boys aged 16: “My parents have always stayed good friends and I feel like I’m part of a huge family. I don’t think of any of my siblings as half-siblings – I’m actually very close to all of them.”
Her mother is “very affectionate. She was and is very reasonable with me. I always felt like I had independence but enough structure not to fly off the deep end. I always felt that I never wanted to disappoint my parents, so that kept me on track.”
Sometimes, she admits, this involvement can be a bit annoying: “[My mother] is just involved with everything that I am doing. She will probably read this interview, for instance. I’ll speak to her just casually about a project, and she will come back the next day and say, ‘You know, honey, you should also consider this.’ Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, Mum, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but a lot of the time it stays in the back of my head.”
Does her mother have a say about her private life? “Not so much about my private life! I draw the line there!”
I ask her if she is affectionate to her son in the same way that her mother was to her? “Oh I just want to bite him and kiss him and hug him … He runs away from me when he sees me. The older he gets, the more obsessed I become because you can really communicate now.” So is it time for another one? She grins: “These controversial questions!” Zhukova’s first child is her partner’s sixth: “I would like to have a big family,” she says.
Zhukova has made some mistakes in the past when talking to journalists. On one occasion, when asked who her favourite artists were, she sounded as clueless as a valley girl, saying that she couldn’t, like, really remember any of their names. “I was new to this whole world. I thought I shouldn’t name names because it might seem like giving preferences. I was just getting started and didn’t know how to handle it. I feel a bit more confident now and feel that it’s OK to have personal preferences. I’m also less shy than I was.”
So what has been her favourite show at the Garage? “Let me think if I want to answer this.” Can she at least name one of her favourite pieces? “I will say that my favourite installation was Dan Flavin’s long, wide corridor of multicoloured light installations. That was just so beautiful …”
Although she may be associated with the monumental splash of her partner’s big buys in 2008, when Abramovich spent £43m on Francis Bacon’s 1976 “Triptych” and £17m on Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, Zhukova’s personal taste seems to be quirky and modest. “I am drawn to humorous art that is ironic,” she says.
She also has a rebellious streak and a love of the outré and extreme. One of her ambitions, she said in an interview, was “to push the boundaries of publishing”. Garage, the magazine – with Zhukova as editor-in-chief, and former Paris Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck as editorial consultant – has certainly published some firsts. The inaugural issue last year commissioned a number of big-name artists to design tattoos, which would then be grafted on to the bodies of various “living canvases”. Damien Hirst came up with a butterfly tattoo for a vagina, which was one of the covers of the magazine (even with a concealing sticker, this was still banned by WH Smith). “I was slightly hesitant, because it’s very provocative,” she says. “But I just love the image and I love the extra dimension that the sticker gave it. It’s not offensive at all, it’s quite beautiful. I’m glad we did it.”
In the same issue, there is a profile of her maternal grandmother, “Soviet Scientist, Maria Rudnitskaya”, written by her granddaughter. Zhukova’s granny, who moved to the US in 1992 to help her daughter with her family, looks brilliant – small and plump, with a lovely smile – wearing an animal-print kaftan, massive earrings and leaning on her walking stick. She remembers the war, spending shifts on the roof, picking up the hissing balls from the firebombs dropped by the German planes. Then the evacuation to Tashkent, working in the military plant during the day and in the evening working for her chemistry degree. Back in Moscow, she worked as a clerk in the naval ministry, then as a technician at the Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion, completing her PhD. During her career she developed therapies for infertility and gangrene, for haemophiliacs and diabetics. In trying to understand what motivates Zhukova, with her pioneering zeal to make a difference to her old country, I don’t think one can underestimate the influence her mother and grandmother must have had on her growing up.
Zhukova’s looks and her relationship with such a wealthy man make it easy for her critics to dismiss her. For instance, when she first appeared on the London scene, she was always described as a model. But when I couldn’t find any modelling stints in her CV, I asked her about this. She sent back an email, saying: “When I was 14 I tried modelling, but my career lasted exactly one month. I was more interested in playing volleyball!”
Not long after we met, the news from Russia was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. I did try to get Zhukova to comment on the unfolding story of Pussy Riot but she declined. However, one of the two issues of the Garage magazines she had sent me was a celebration of gay marriage: “With same-sex marriage now enshrined in state law [in New York], Garage celebrated by inviting designers and artists to collaborate on special wedding outfits and cast real life couples to wear them.”
At the end of our conversation, I read back something she had once said: “I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country.” How did she feel about a country that bans Gay Pride demonstrations on the grounds that gays are satanic? “You know, I’m very bothered by any kind of intolerance, and I think that comes from ignorance and from being part of a very closed-off society. It is something we are definitely fighting, indirectly, at the Garage. But there’s no point just sitting and criticising Russia; what we are doing is the opposite of complaining about what’s wrong. We are trying to give choices, to educate people and make a positive change.”
Dasha Zhukova is only 31. If she wants to change the world, she has plenty of time ahead of her.
Dasha Zhukova is expanding her Garage arts centre in Moscow, and now has designs on St Petersburg. Her critics in the art world may still not take her seriously, but they can’t ignore her.
By Ginny Dougary
October 2012 FT MAGAZINE
One of a trio of British bankers extradited to the US to face Enron-related charges, Gary Mulgrew talks about prison life and why he still believes he did nothing wrong.
Gary Mulgrew, gang leader of the NatWest Three, meets me in his new pub, the Noble House in Brighton. Before he took it over with his two partners it was a bit of dive, but it’s now been Farrow & Balled with smoky shades of paint and shabby-chic sofas, aiming to attract a rather different sort of clientele. Mulgrew is a tall, strapping fellow – with a big thistle tattoo on one arm – and it is easy to imagine him as the Glaswegian nightclub bouncer he once was while he was a student, studying business at the University of Strathclyde. It is immediately apparent that he likes to play the joker: he is wearing a T-shirt for our interview which is printed with a black-and-white photograph of a bank robber.
But a recap might be necessary for those who have only a hazy memory of one of the first big banking scandals. “The NatWest Three” were a trio of British bankers who were implicated in the Enron story. In June 2002, the US Justice Department filed charges against Mulgrew, Giles Darby and David Bermingham, employees of Greenwich NatWest (a capital markets division of the bank). It claimed they co-ordinated the sale of NatWest’s holdings in various Enron-related investments to a partnership controlled by Enron’s chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. The partnership was “off-the-books” and allowed Enron’s liabilities to be hidden from investors. Allegedly with the help of Mulgrew and company, Fastow bought the shares from NatWest at below-market prices, then sold them for their real value, making more than $12m for himself and $7.3m jointly for the NatWest Three.
The case became a cause célèbre in the UK, partly due to the aggressive approach of the American investigators. In July 2006, after a long court battle, the NatWest Three were extradited to the US. They were electronically tagged for 17 months, before finally agreeing to a plea bargain in which they agreed to pay back the money and which resulted in their serving 37 months in a US jail. They were eventually transferred to the UK to serve out their sentences, and were released in August 2010.
Mulgrew has written a riveting prison memoir, Gang of One (the title refers to his refusal to join a prison gang), which was published earlier this year, and is now out in paperback. It is about to be made into a Hollywood film starring Dougray Scott.
Mulgrew was born in 1962 in Pollock, Glasgow, one of three brothers. When he was three months old, his father disappeared, leaving his mother to bring up the family on her own. She was unable to cope and the boys were sent to a children’s home when Mulgrew was four. (His mother’s story is remarkable, too – she got her children back, and held down two jobs, studied at night and rose through the ranks of Scottish politics to become a Labour MSP and deputy presiding officer of the Scottish parliament.)
On leaving university, Mulgrew’s first job was as a bank teller at a NatWest branch in Manchester. None of his friends could believe it, he says – at the time he would have been voted man least likely to become a banker. He credits his success at NatWest, where he worked for 17 years with postings to Tokyo and New York, to supportive bosses who were excellent mentors. His particular talent, however, was managing people well and making it fun: “I’m not technically gifted so I was never the numbers guy or stuff like that. A lot of bankers lack personality, let me tell you,” he jokes. “So somebody with even a smidgeon of personality is gonna be like a rock star!”
His motivation was more about seeing the world and having great experiences than being flashy with money. “I was never motivated by the money,” he says. “I never wore a Rolex watch, I don’t drink champagne, I’ve never taken cocaine or drugs in my life … I’ve driven the same car, a Saab, for 14 years. There was a part of me that deliberately wanted to be counter-culture. When people used to come and visit me in New York from Glasgow, I’d always pick them up in a limo, just for a laugh. But I filled it with cans of Scottish McEwan’s Export and loads of Scottish fiddle music.”
In New York he met Laura, a New Yorker and former model. They married, and had their first child, Calum, who is now 16. Mulgrew travelled widely: his role was to open up NatWest into the emerging markets – Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Russia – and he was away from home a lot. By his mid-thirties, he had risen to the position of senior vice-president, global structure of trade finance.
At this point, he was earning a respectable but not outrageous $100,000 with 10 per cent in bonuses, but things started to change when NatWest acquired the investment bank Greenwich Capital. Mulgrew describes it as “run by some really sophisticated, heavyweight, investment bankers and because my business was in the emerging markets, it was plonked into the investment bank”.
By now, he was back working in London, with Laura, Calum and their new daughter, Cara Katrina, installed in a big pile in Essex: “ When I first saw it, I found it hard not to laugh … It was a beautiful, old Victorian rectory but it was ostentatious – five acres, tennis court, swimming pool – and it was just embarrassing, although the trees were gorgeous. I didn’t want it but Laura promised me that this would make her happy.”
One of his flaws, which Mulgrew readily identifies, is the need to be liked. He first realised there was a bit of a problem when colleagues in London started using an acronym “FOG” (meaning Friend of Gary). “With the teams I had created, I was always trying to say ‘I’m a nice guy’ and needing that reassurance, which you can’t do as a leader. It’s quite hard to change but, in the end, it’s unhealthy to want to be liked that much.”
The next, and what proved to be final, phase of Mulgrew’s banking career – when he started to make the millions we associate with unpopular bankers – must have been psychologically battering for him, since his own rewards were often a direct result of firing the very people whose approval he was seeking. He remembers the first time he got a million-dollar bonus, for staying at NatWest during the choppy takeover months. Mulgrew was gobsmacked, but his manager told him: “You’ve got to stop thinking like a commercial bank manager. You should be saying, I’m worth much more than a million dollars!” By the time the Enron deal came along, Mulgrew had earned around £4m-£5m in bonuses in three years.
In his conscience and in his own mind, Mulgrew is clear that he never committed a crime. Instead he believes that the Enron unfurling demanded a sacrificial lamb or three, and that he and his colleagues were convenient scapegoats. “There were literally hundreds of different bankers who had invested in different transactions with him [Fastow], and yet there were only three who were ever indicted for anything and that was us stupid mugs,” he says.
While I was interviewing him, I noticed that he constantly played with a simple wooden cross on a leather lace around his neck. In his book, he describes this crucifix, which was made by a fellow prisoner. One day, Mulgrew (a Catholic) came back to his bunk and found it under his pillow – “a gift offered without words”. He describes many such small acts of kindness in prison, which offset the terrible scenes of violence. He has stayed in touch with some prison friends, particularly one, a Native American called Chief.
I was able to speak to Chief on the phone as he is now out of prison. When I asked about his friend Gary, Chief corrected me, saying, “Ma’am, he is not my friend, he is my brother.” What was his initial impression of Gary? “I saw there was a lot of confusion in him and a lot of angst, and that he realised how humble he had to become. When I heard his accent, I thought he was definitely going to need help. And Gary wouldn’t stop saying ‘Thank you’. Just those two words go a long way.” What did he think of Gary’s book? “I really liked how he exposed the conditions behind the fence and the way the staff treated us. Most important is the regret and remorse he showed. You could sense at the time that it was genuine.”
Despite the anecdotes and the laughs, Mulgrew is haunted. His ex-wife (he and Laura divorced in 2006), who had received 65 per cent of his wealth in the settlement, left for Tunisia a few days after he was extradited, taking their daughter, Cara, with her. Laura had fallen in love with a Tunisian man, and it is thought they have made their new home in Tunisia. Mulgrew’s sense of having failed as a father is an ongoing source of sorrow, although it is definitely a great bonus for him that Laura left their son Calum in England. Despite the years apart, father and son now seem to be close.
Mulgrew has a large chest he keeps for Cara, and every time he and Calum go to a show or on holiday, he fills it with tickets and mementos for her. His book is, in part, a way of telling her how he has never stopped loving her. He has gone to Tunisia on numerous occasions to try to track her down; paying what turned out to be stupid money to unsuccessful investigators on false leads.
Our conversation weaves back and forth to this central unhappiness in his life, and what he plans to do about it, but I also want to ask him what he thinks about the status (or lack) of bankers in Britain today. In the wake of the Bob Diamond and Libor scandals, he has been invited on to various media discussion panels, and each time he’s asked the producers why they want him: “They want a bad guy, I think. It’s basically banker bashing. It’s an awkward one for me if you read about the hysteria that’s surrounding bankers at the moment … ” Is he saying he doesn’t think the strong emotion about bankers is justifiable? “It is – but everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So to start saying things like, ‘Who’s going to jail?’ is very reminiscent of what happened to us through the Enron crisis.” The extradition laws concern him greatly: particularly the case of the vulnerable Gary McKinnon, the British man whom the US was seeking to extradite for hacking into their military computers. (Theresa May, the home secretary, blocked the extradition earlier this week.) Mulgrew writes graphically in Gang of One of the brutality of the prison experience, and was fearful of how McKinnon would cope if he had been extradited.
Mulgrew seems to see-saw between feeling positive and negative about the way his life has turned out. He does have a tendency to crack jokes about his time in prison, but there are occasions when his bitterness about his conviction seeps out. “When I got back to the UK, I found I’m not banned by the FSA,” he says. “I’m allowed to be a director, NatWest hasn’t bothered me [indeed, they have enabled him to set up his new businesses], and my life goes on and it’s almost like it didn’t happen. But it did.
“When I listen to what people are saying now about bankers – I think it’s expediency. Someone has to go to jail – and you hope to God it’s the right person or people – not just somebody to make everyone feel better by jailing some banker. Because I’ve lived that – I was one of the bankers everybody felt better about, right?”
Mulgrew looks forward to working on other writing projects. His relationship with his long-term partner, who looked after Calum along with her own children when Gary was in prison, broke down a year or so ago, around the time he had a meltdown about not being able to find his daughter. I ask him if he thinks he might get into another relationship. “In the future? If I’m capable of it. I don’t know if I am capable. I live in my own little world at the moment. If you’d asked me 20 years ago what mattered to me more than anything else, it was to be a good father,” he says. “And whatever way you look at it, whether it’s completely my fault, or partly my fault, the choices I have made, meant that I’ve been a f***ing disaster. It’s something I’m always trying to repair, and time’s running against me.
“I really want to find my daughter, so that I can still change what she might become. I think she’ll be very damaged by 18, if she’s not already … if it’s not too late. But I’m not full of hatred, I’m full of hope and belief that I’ll find her.”
Mulgrew was born in 1962 in Pollock, Glasgow, one of three brothers. When he was three months old, his father disappeared, leaving his mother to bring up the family on her own. She was unable to cope and the boys were sent to a children’s home when Mulgrew was four. (His mother’s story is remarkable, too – she got her children back, and held down two jobs, studied at night and rose through the ranks of Scottish politics to become a Labour MSP and deputy presiding officer of the Scottish parliament.)On leaving university, Mulgrew’s first job was as a bank teller at a NatWest branch in Manchester. None of his friends could believe it, he says – at the time he would have been voted man least likely to become a banker. He credits his success at NatWest, where he worked for 17 years with postings to Tokyo and New York, to supportive bosses who were excellent mentors. His particular talent, however, was managing people well and making it fun: “I’m not technically gifted so I was never the numbers guy or stuff like that. A lot of bankers lack personality, let me tell you,” he jokes. “So somebody with even a smidgeon of personality is gonna be like a rock star!”His motivation was more about seeing the world and having great experiences than being flashy with money. “I was never motivated by the money,” he says. “I never wore a Rolex watch, I don’t drink champagne, I’ve never taken cocaine or drugs in my life … I’ve driven the same car, a Saab, for 14 years. There was a part of me that deliberately wanted to be counter-culture. When people used to come and visit me in New York from Glasgow, I’d always pick them up in a limo, just for a laugh. But I filled it with cans of Scottish McEwan’s Export and loads of Scottish fiddle music.”In New York he met Laura, a New Yorker and former model. They married, and had their first child, Calum, who is now 16. Mulgrew travelled widely: his role was to open up NatWest into the emerging markets – Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Russia – and he was away from home a lot. By his mid-thirties, he had risen to the position of senior vice-president, global structure of trade finance.At this point, he was earning a respectable but not outrageous $100,000 with 10 per cent in bonuses, but things started to change when NatWest acquired the investment bank Greenwich Capital. Mulgrew describes it as “run by some really sophisticated, heavyweight, investment bankers and because my business was in the emerging markets, it was plonked into the investment bank”.By now, he was back working in London, with Laura, Calum and their new daughter, Cara Katrina, installed in a big pile in Essex: “ When I first saw it, I found it hard not to laugh … It was a beautiful, old Victorian rectory but it was ostentatious – five acres, tennis court, swimming pool – and it was just embarrassing, although the trees were gorgeous. I didn’t want it but Laura promised me that this would make her happy.”One of his flaws, which Mulgrew readily identifies, is the need to be liked. He first realised there was a bit of a problem when colleagues in London started using an acronym “FOG” (meaning Friend of Gary). “With the teams I had created, I was always trying to say ‘I’m a nice guy’ and needing that reassurance, which you can’t do as a leader. It’s quite hard to change but, in the end, it’s unhealthy to want to be liked that much.”The next, and what proved to be final, phase of Mulgrew’s banking career – when he started to make the millions we associate with unpopular bankers – must have been psychologically battering for him, since his own rewards were often a direct result of firing the very people whose approval he was seeking. He remembers the first time he got a million-dollar bonus, for staying at NatWest during the choppy takeover months. Mulgrew was gobsmacked, but his manager told him: “You’ve got to stop thinking like a commercial bank manager. You should be saying, I’m worth much more than a million dollars!” By the time the Enron deal came along, Mulgrew had earned around £4m-£5m in bonuses in three years.In his conscience and in his own mind, Mulgrew is clear that he never committed a crime. Instead he believes that the Enron unfurling demanded a sacrificial lamb or three, and that he and his colleagues were convenient scapegoats. “There were literally hundreds of different bankers who had invested in different transactions with him [Fastow], and yet there were only three who were ever indicted for anything and that was us stupid mugs,” he says.
While I was interviewing him, I noticed that he constantly played with a simple wooden cross on a leather lace around his neck. In his book, he describes this crucifix, which was made by a fellow prisoner. One day, Mulgrew (a Catholic) came back to his bunk and found it under his pillow – “a gift offered without words”. He describes many such small acts of kindness in prison, which offset the terrible scenes of violence. He has stayed in touch with some prison friends, particularly one, a Native American called Chief.I was able to speak to Chief on the phone as he is now out of prison. When I asked about his friend Gary, Chief corrected me, saying, “Ma’am, he is not my friend, he is my brother.” What was his initial impression of Gary? “I saw there was a lot of confusion in him and a lot of angst, and that he realised how humble he had to become. When I heard his accent, I thought he was definitely going to need help. And Gary wouldn’t stop saying ‘Thank you’. Just those two words go a long way.” What did he think of Gary’s book? “I really liked how he exposed the conditions behind the fence and the way the staff treated us. Most important is the regret and remorse he showed. You could sense at the time that it was genuine.” Despite the anecdotes and the laughs, Mulgrew is haunted. His ex-wife (he and Laura divorced in 2006), who had received 65 per cent of his wealth in the settlement, left for Tunisia a few days after he was extradited, taking their daughter, Cara, with her. Laura had fallen in love with a Tunisian man, and it is thought they have made their new home in Tunisia. Mulgrew’s sense of having failed as a father is an ongoing source of sorrow, although it is definitely a great bonus for him that Laura left their son Calum in England. Despite the years apart, father and son now seem to be close.Mulgrew has a large chest he keeps for Cara, and every time he and Calum go to a show or on holiday, he fills it with tickets and mementos for her. His book is, in part, a way of telling her how he has never stopped loving her. He has gone to Tunisia on numerous occasions to try to track her down; paying what turned out to be stupid money to unsuccessful investigators on false leads.Our conversation weaves back and forth to this central unhappiness in his life, and what he plans to do about it, but I also want to ask him what he thinks about the status (or lack) of bankers in Britain today. In the wake of the Bob Diamond and Libor scandals, he has been invited on to various media discussion panels, and each time he’s asked the producers why they want him: “They want a bad guy, I think. It’s basically banker bashing. It’s an awkward one for me if you read about the hysteria that’s surrounding bankers at the moment … ” Is he saying he doesn’t think the strong emotion about bankers is justifiable? “It is – but everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Gary Mulgrew, gang leader of the NatWest Three, meets me in his new pub, the Noble House in Brighton. Before he took it over with his two partners it was a bit of dive, but it’s now been Farrow & Balled with smoky shades of paint and shabby-chic sofas, aiming to attract a rather different sort of clientele. Mulgrew is a tall, strapping fellow – with a big thistle tattoo on one arm – and it is easy to imagine him as the Glaswegian nightclub bouncer he once was while he was a student, studying business at the University of Strathclyde. It is immediately apparent that he likes to play the joker: he is wearing a T-shirt for our interview which is printed with a black-and-white photograph of a bank robber.But a recap might be necessary for those who have only a hazy memory of one of the first big banking scandals. “The NatWest Three” were a trio of British bankers who were implicated in the Enron story. In June 2002, the US Justice Department filed charges against Mulgrew, Giles Darby and David Bermingham, employees of Greenwich NatWest (a capital markets division of the bank). It claimed they co-ordinated the sale of NatWest’s holdings in various Enron-related investments to a partnership controlled by Enron’s chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. The partnership was “off-the-books” and allowed Enron’s liabilities to be hidden from investors. Allegedly with the help of Mulgrew and company, Fastow bought the shares from NatWest at below-market prices, then sold them for their real value, making more than $12m for himself and $7.3m jointly for the NatWest Three. The case became a cause célèbre in the UK, partly due to the aggressive approach of the American investigators. In July 2006, after a long court battle, the NatWest Three were extradited to the US. They were electronically tagged for 17 months, before finally agreeing to a plea bargain in which they agreed to pay back the money and which resulted in their serving 37 months in a US jail. They were eventually transferred to the UK to serve out their sentences, and were released in August 2010.Mulgrew has written a riveting prison memoir, Gang of One (the title refers to his refusal to join a prison gang), which was published earlier this year, and is now out in paperback. It is about to be made into a Hollywood film starring Dougray Scott.
So to start saying things like, ‘Who’s going to jail?’ is very reminiscent of what happened to us through the Enron crisis.” The extradition laws concern him greatly: particularly the case of the vulnerable Gary McKinnon, the British man whom the US was seeking to extradite for hacking into their military computers. (Theresa May, the home secretary, blocked the extradition earlier this week.) Mulgrew writes graphically in Gang of One of the brutality of the prison experience, and was fearful of how McKinnon would cope if he had been extradited.Mulgrew seems to see-saw between feeling positive and negative about the way his life has turned out. He does have a tendency to crack jokes about his time in prison, but there are occasions when his bitterness about his conviction seeps out. “When I got back to the UK, I found I’m not banned by the FSA,” he says. “I’m allowed to be a director, NatWest hasn’t bothered me [indeed, they have enabled him to set up his new businesses], and my life goes on and it’s almost like it didn’t happen. But it did.“When I listen to what people are saying now about bankers – I think it’s expediency. Someone has to go to jail – and you hope to God it’s the right person or people – not just somebody to make everyone feel better by jailing some banker.
Because I’ve lived that – I was one of the bankers everybody felt better about, right?”Mulgrew looks forward to working on other writing projects. His relationship with his long-term partner, who looked after Calum along with her own children when Gary was in prison, broke down a year or so ago, around the time he had a meltdown about not being able to find his daughter. I ask him if he thinks he might get into another relationship. “In the future? If I’m capable of it. I don’t know if I am capable. I live in my own little world at the moment. If you’d asked me 20 years ago what mattered to me more than anything else, it was to be a good father,” he says. “And whatever way you look at it, whether it’s completely my fault, or partly my fault, the choices I have made, meant that I’ve been a f***ing disaster. It’s something I’m always trying to repair, and time’s running against me.“I really want to find my daughter, so that I can still change what she might become. I think she’ll be very damaged by 18, if she’s not already … if it’s not too late. But I’m not full of hatred, I’m full of hope and belief that I’ll find her.”
By Ginny Dougary
The last time we saw one another was in Manhattan in the summer of 2005. It was in a private club, the sun was blazing, and Rushdie was relaxed and cheerful in sandals and a loose, bright blue shirt, watching his infant son, Milan – who now, at 15, is almost his father’s height – dipping in and out of the rooftop swimming pool. It was also the month after the Islamist bombings in London, which killed 56 people, including four suicide bombers. There was a sense then, particularly because of 9/11, that we were all living under the fatwa now. As Rushdie says to me, “It’s easier for people to grasp what happened to me because it’s not just my story now, it’s everyone’s story. It’s the story of our time, rather than of an individual.”
Last year, in the aftermath of the Arab spring, it was possible to feel positive about change in the Arab world. Now it’s a rather different picture. We talk about the American-made, anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims , which was posted on YouTube and sparked protests across the region. “The trouble is that what’s happened in those countries since the so-called Arab spring is the rise of this very organised extremist group, which is Salafi Islam, and the Salafists are so fanatical that they frighten most other Muslims,” Rushdie says. “They’re out there at the edge with the Wahhabis and they’re certainly much more extreme than, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood are not liberals.” A chuckle.
“So, really, what I’m saying is that it’s much more evident to us now that the thing that started with the attack on The Satanic Verses is quite common.”
The Satanic Verses featured a character based on the Prophet Mohammed, showing him in a human light, and drew outrage from Muslim leaders. The book was burnt in Bradford amid accusations of blasphemy against Islam and there were demonstrations by Islamist groups in Pakistan and India, in which numbers of people were killed. On February 14 1989 – “My Unfunny Valentine”, as Rushdie puts it ruefully in his book – the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini publicly condemned the book and issued a deathbed fatwa against the writer, with a bounty for anyone who executed him.
Then followed nine extraordinary years of round-the-clock protection from Special Branch officers. Rushdie was forced to move out of his house and rely on the generosity of friends who lent him their own homes, for weeks or sometimes months, always in the utmost secrecy, constantly moving, feeling both “shamed and ashamed” of hiding, as he writes in his book. There was the ending of two marriages; the start of a third with the birth of a second son, Milan, the end of that marriage and the start of another; the death of his father and his first wife. There was desperate depression that led him to lie that he was, in fact, a Muslim believer (which was his lowest moment and didn’t work anyway); the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and attempted murder of his Norwegian publisher (who immediately ordered a massive reprint); the bombing of libraries and bookshops. Then there was the fightback and the setting up of the Salman Rushdie defence campaign and support groups across Europe; the talking to world leaders (and the crucial difference of Clinton and Blair coming to power), leading to the eventual withdrawal of the fatwa in 1998; the move to New York, and the formal removal of his protection in the UK in 2002. All of this is covered in the 600-plus fascinating, moving and often surprisingly hilarious pages of Joseph Anton: A Memoir , published last week.
He describes it as a non-fiction novel, in the New Journalism vein of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which Rushdie considers as “a masterpiece of the form” in which you apply the novelist’s skill to real-life events. “I thought the only difference between all those books and this book is that none of those writers were telling their own story,” he tells me. “So then you think, ‘OK, I have the technique but how do you apply that to autobiography?’ His approach to character – the book is written in the third person – form and language is very much that of a novel except everything in it is true. “I started off writing it in the first person but I didn’t like it …” he continues. “That’s where writing in the third person helped me. As an experiment, I tried switching and it immediately felt better. I thought, ‘OK, yeah, I know how to do this.’”
Joseph Anton was Rushdie’s alias during his years of hiding (his protection officers called him “Joe”, which he loathed). It is an amalgam of the names of two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. As he writes in the book: “Conrad ‘the trans-lingual creator … of voyagers into the heart of darkness’; Chekhov ‘the master of loneliness and melancholy … whose Three Sisters … yearned eternally for a Moscow to which they could not return.’” He took inspiration from Conrad’s sailor who – knowing that he is to die from tuberculosis – says: “[But] I must live until I die, mustn’t I?”
Rushdie certainly did believe that he would die, and sooner rather than later: “I thought it was quite likely that I would be killed. Yes, that’s what I thought.” How did you face that thought? “I don’t know – but somehow I did. I worried more about family and friends.”
It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like – having so many people around the world who had never met you, hate you, and bay for your blood. Knowing also that most of the haters will have not even read the book that has offended them. If they have, as its author says: “Don’t tell me that you spent your time reading a 600-page novel and then decide it offended you. You’ve done an enormous amount of work to be offended. And, you know, this odd idea that there is a right not to be offended is nonsense. None of us has that right. You know, if you’re offended, it’s your problem.”
He didn’t feel this robust in the beginning. It was the first two years that were the worst, when he felt that in a way he was a hostage to the hostages – Terry Waite, John McCarthy et al. The government’s desire was for Rushdie to keep a low profile so as not to jeopardise their being set free (which both were in 1991). “I had very deep depression, really something like despair, there’s no question of that,” he says. “But I had a lot to be depressed about! You know, it’s not paranoia when they’re trying to kill you.” A merry gust of laughter.
“To be as charitable as I can [to Wiggins], I think what happened is that something extreme happened to us which she never signed up for … and if I had been her, I would have wanted to find a way out, too,” he says. “In a way, it was quite nice of her to stick around for a bit – heh, heh, heh.
“My going-in position for this book was 1) tell the truth, 2) tell the truth, 3) be tougher on yourself, 4) try to be as compassionate about everyone else as you possibly can, even people you disagree with … try at least to see how it was in their shoes. There’s no way of telling the story of those early months without talking about what happened between Marianne and me because it would be difficult to explain to people why things happened as they did. There’d be a big piece missing.”
If the writer’s lowest point was his claim (his “Great Mistake”, as he puts it in the book), made in desperation on Christmas Eve 1990, that he was now of the Muslim faith – his sister, Sameen, phoned him up and asked him if he’d gone mad – it was also a moment that may have saved his sanity, a line from which he claimed back himself from being an ‘‘unperson”. Is he still embarrassed, however, by that declaration? “Well, I blame myself for it, you know, I think it was beyond stupid and all that, but I also think – and maybe that comes across in the book – that it was a kind of turning point in my life because, after having made that mistake, my resolve strengthened a great deal and I just thought, ‘No more appeasing of people or apologising to people.’”
This was a seismic psychological shift in him, from wanting to be accepted and loved by everybody to realising that – whatever he did – some people were just going to hate him: “And to realise that was fine,” he says, “because I’m not a fan of theirs either.”
One of the reasons that fear was kept at bay was Rushdie’s absolute confidence in his Special Branch protectors, a number of whom have become friends. “Yeah, they were very popular across literary London, actually!” Rushdie beams. “I’ve invited quite a few of them to the launch party. At least one of them got an Open University degree in postcolonial literature while he was protecting me.
“I think one of the reasons why the actual question of fear became secondary is that I thought my protectors, so to speak, were very good at it. They kept me alive and so, of course, I was very appreciative. I was told, right away, that because this protection was thought to be the most dangerous thing they were doing [Rushdie’s risk level was just below the Queen’s] at Scotland Yard, the protection officers were not simply ordered to look after me. So the fact is that everybody over the course of this decade who came to help look after me had volunteered for the job, you know. And I think that’s very impressive, too.”
Joseph Anton is as riveting for the small vignettes as the big, historical sweep. Rushdie is on the guest list of what he calls The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the annual party of protection officers and their charges, past and present, where he meets Margaret Thatcher, early on, who strokes and caresses his arm and calls him “dear”. Later, there is a special treat organised by the police for Rushdie to visit the thrillingly ghoulish Black Museum in Scotland Yard, containing every weapon that has killed a man or a woman. There are moments of great tenderness: his mother’s way of dealing with her husband’s drinking and mood swings with “a forgettery” rather than a memory; making his peace with his father, who lies dying, shaving him and tending to his indignities as his body fails him; the sweetness of the birth of Milan – the first ever Protection Baby – with the piercing simplicity of the line: “His father took off his shirt and held him against his chest.”
But the biggest surprise is the laughs: “Well, it’s one of the things that I said to people in those days, that if it weren’t for the fact that this isn’t funny at all, it would be quite funny,” he says, illustrating that the greatest defence against offence is humour. There is a terrific scene in the chapter “A Truckload of Dung”. Rushdie is driving through the Australian outback, on his way to spend a few days with the Australian novelist Rodney Hall, when he loses concentration for a moment, and has a car crash with an enormous articulated lorry, containing manure. “I do think the fact that the closest I came to being killed was when I was hit by a truckload of fertiliser … is…” We break up. “Just saying it is funny. And then I felt so sorry for the poor truck driver who got interrogated by the police – you know, was he involved with al-Qaeda? Poor Aussie truck driver,” he splutters, “who didn’t know anything about that stuff.”
He says that he is single at the moment and I wonder whether, after four marriages, he believes in the impossibility of love lasting or does he still trust in the possibility that it will? “I’m very optimistic in that area … in spite of all evidence to the contrary.” A big laugh. I tease him about becoming the much-married Elizabeth Taylor (the actress rather than the novelist) of literature, and he says: “I’ve said it myself! I said I can’t get married again otherwise it’s getting up there with Zsa Zsa Gabor, you know!”
He says that the late Norman Mailer (six wives) and Saul Bellow (five wives) are still ahead of him. I say that if he’s not remarried, it’s not for want of trying, is it? Some American tabloids have reported that last year he presented his still-married ex-girlfriend, Michelle Barish, with a “seven-carat emerald-cut diamond ring”, along with a proposal that was declined … Is this true? “Yes, it’s true,” he says, looking a bit sheepish. “Well, you know, it was a stupid thing to do.” I suppose it’s a redundant question to ask if you’re a romantic? He leans back and throws his arms open as though allowing all the love in the world to flood in and fill the gap.
“I think there are two kinds of women [in his life] … I’m lucky, and I think wise,” Rushdie says, with a hint of self-satisfaction, “in the choice of [the] people who were the mothers of my children, you know. In the sense that they were and are very serene, intellectual, sweet-natured, grounded, loving, constant people. And then … there’s the slightly more explosive, aha, volatile people.”
In the book he describes the blissful state of losing himself in his writing again, after a period of being only able to cope with writing book reviews or a children’s book he had promised for his son Zafar, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. “Slowly, slowly, his old power returned. The world went away. Time stood still. He fell happily towards that deep place where unwritten books wait to be found, like lovers demanding proof of utter devotion before they appear. He was a writer again.” If his physical self was saved by Special Branch, and his emotional self by the love of his wives, children and friends, some other deeper self was saved by the fact that Rushdie never actually stopped writing altogether, even in those most challenging of circumstances.
I say that he makes the act of writing, the swooning loss of self as you enter the world of your creation, sound almost sexy, which makes him grin. “‘Almost sexy’ is probably what it is, actually.”
He quotes Martin Amis’s phrase that “what you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books”, and says, for himself, “it’s a nice feeling to go into a bookshop and think, ‘from here to there, it’s me.’” Some writers don’t care about posterity but Rushdie is not one of them: “Even though I won’t be around to see it, you do try and build books that are built to last. Books that allow you to have the lived experience of another place, which help you to understand. Understanding is what we don’t have and what we need. And if you look at any book that has survived more than, say, 100 years – it’s not because of scandal or controversy, it’s because people love it. It’s the only reason. So you want to feel that your book will survive because people love it.”
I ask him how he feels about forgiveness and anger and bitterness. “I don’t feel at all forgiving,” he says calmly. “I think something was done to my life and to my family’s life which can’t be undone, and it destroyed my ordinary life for more than a decade and it therefore made it very difficult for me to raise my son. You know, it created an enormous deformation in my personal life and I don’t feel particularly forgiving of that.
“Having said that, it was very clear to me, almost from the beginning, that there were a couple of elephant traps that I really needed to avoid. One was fear – as a writer, to end up writing frightened, timid little books that say, ‘Please don’t be upset with me for doing this’. And therefore books that would probably be worthless and uninteresting for anyone to read. I thought, ‘Don’t go there’ – either in yourself or your work … And the other one was another trap of anger, bitterness and vengefulness, which would make me the creature of the event, and that I would have no reality other than my response to the event – and I thought that, as an artist, would be catastrophic. So I said to myself, ‘Be the writer you’ve always been’. I tried very hard to be that and to go on being the person that I am and not get turned into another person.”
Do you think you have succeeded? “Yes, to the extent that going back to revisit the material and write about it really did feel like ‘going back’ – and I do think that in that sense, I have left it behind me. It’s not what I think about every day. I think about lots of other things, like the next bit of work.”
And that goes for the fatwa itself. When this media blitz is over, the f-word will, apparently, be off-limits in any future interview. “Anybody who asks me about it I will hit over the head with a 600-page book and say ‘Read that! There’s nothing I can tell you that isn’t there.’ Because then, you know what? Enough already!”
‘It’s easier for people to grasp what happened to me because it’s not just my story now, it’s everyone’s story’
Salman Rushdie is on a mission. His new book is a memoir of his fatwa years and he is eager to talk-talk-talk about it, to the point of exhaustion, all round the world, in order to draw a line under it and never revisit it … Let’s just say he will be well and truly over it by the time he has finished.
We meet in the office of his long-time agent Andrew Wylie, and talk in the basement boardroom of the elegant Bloomsbury house. Rushdie is smartly dressed in a suit – with no tie – in preparation for the launch party of his book in South Kensington (he, famously, loves a party) after our interview, organised by the older of his two sons, Zafar, who runs a public relations company. He sucks perpetually on Polo mints – his voice is hoarse with all the talking – and dabs at his nostrils with a handkerchief. It is impossible not to be reminded of his brilliant creation in Midnight’s Children of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight coinciding with the birth of the independent nation of India, with his constantly dripping giant nose.
And what does he make of what he calls the “stupid video”? Isn’t the timing rather strange, in the same week as the launch of his book about his fatwa decade? (He dismissed the Ayatollah Hassan Saneii’s “reissuing” of the fatwa – by raising the bounty on his head to $3.3m on the back of the anti-US protests – shortly after our interview, as “essentially one priest in Iran looking for a headline”.) “Well, I don’t feel like being put in the same box as that piece of crap,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s clearly malevolent, you know, and intended to be abusive and insulting. But, the thing that’s awful is this thin-skinned paranoid response which thinks that because of a 14-second clip on YouTube in Arabic, you’re allowed to go and attack and murder people who have not even the most remote connection with the thing you’re upset about.
The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s fourth novel, was published in 1988 and follows the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth in Britain when their Air India plane explodes. The book won the Whitbread Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – which Rushdie had won for Midnight’s Children in 1981 (he was also garlanded in 1993 for the Booker of Bookers and again as the Booker’s all-time prize winner in 2008).
But what about sheer, naked fear? “The strange thing is I don’t remember exactly that feeling. At least, I never named it to myself as fear. I would say it was depression, bewilderment, disorientation, loneliness. When I was thrown into anonymous, hidden spaces and the government wouldn’t talk to me and nobody would talk to me and I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody else. That felt horrible.” These feelings were not helped by the stressful ending of his shortlived marriage to the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, who does not come out well, to make a considerable understatement, in her ex-husband’s account. She was the only ex-wife who was not consulted about her part in it. (Clarissa Luard, Zafar’s mother, had died of cancer; Elizabeth West, Milan’s mother, and his fourth and most recent wife, Padma Lakshmi, both gave their approval after asking for some lines to be removed.)
Do you need to have a partner to feel complete? “No, I think that’s a trap. One of the things I’ve learnt is not to depend on there being a woman in your life to make it work. I love my work, I love my children, I’ve got wonderful friends, you know, I have a nice life.” You don’t get lonely? “Yes, but only ordinarily lonely.”
Is he scarred by the fatwa years? “What would the truthful answer to that be?” he scratches his beard. “I’m sure I must be but, as I say, I have tried very hard in my life to avoid the kind of vengeful, embittered cast of mind.” And you are no longer fearful? “No,” he slices the air with his hand, “F*** ’em.”
Old at heart: Richard Ingrams
The man who was one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, as well as its editor for 23 years, had arranged to meet me ostensibly to discuss the 20th anniversary of his “new” magazine The Oldie and my journey to Aldworth, where he lives, on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, was suitably old-world. The approach to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, is a heart-gladdening sight of rolling, rural loveliness.
It is a beautiful summer’s day and Ingrams takes pleasure in showing me around his garden, with its bursts of wild colour and sense of nature being barely tamed, secateurs in hand, deadheading as we go. Sara joins us before retreating to organise lunch, and the three of us eat outside on a pair of old wrought iron benches under trailing fragrant flowers with the restful sound of birdsong.
Gardening and nature, along with music and friendship, would be at the top of Ingrams’ list of consolations in life – and there have certainly been periods in his life when he has needed to be distracted from grief. As his biographer and friend, Harry Thompson (the late producer and writer of Have I Got News for You) noted, Ingrams has a strong melancholic streak – surely not helped by the early passing of his father, marriage breakdown, the death of two of his three brothers and two of his three children – that sits alongside his anarchic sense of humour and love of satire.
He has always been religious, brought up by a fiercely Anglican father, Leonard, and equally fervent Catholic mother, Victoria – he converted to Catholicism in his seventies – but his faith seems more of a spiritual tussle for him than a cosy support system.
“One of the things that people think about religion is that it must be very nice to sort of sit in an armchair and think about God. People also assume that you have these certainties, but in my case, they’re not certainties at all.”
Leonard St Clair Ingrams, OBE, came from a long line of clergymen and was a dashing figure, a bit of a philanderer and a brilliant financier. Victoria Reid came from the Baring family – her father had been Queen Victoria’s personal doctor and her mother had been a royal maid of honour. The family’s London home was in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Two of the four boys, including Richard, were brought up Protestant, the other two as Catholics. Richard was sent off to prep school at the age of seven, which he detested, thence to Shrewsbury and Oxford, where he read Classics.
Since Oxford, Ingrams has kept notebooks in which he has jotted down quotes that have appealed to him. He only has four or five of them because he doesn’t read a great deal, he says – “I tend to read writers that I like and a lot of them are people I’ve known.” But what he does read, he reads deeply, returning to the lines – as others would turn to poetry, a favourite cookbook or, indeed, the Bible – when he needs cheering up.
His favourite sayings have now been compiled in a book, Quips and Quotes: A Journalist’s Commonplace Book, conveniently assembled by Oldie Publications, “and that’s a lovely thing to be able to do – your own book in your own office”. Will this be seen as a vanity publishing exercise? “Probably, yes.” Do you care? “Not really. James [Pembroke, The Oldie’s latest saviour and publisher] wanted to have it so he can use it as a giveaway to subscribers.” A great wheeze of laughter.
When Ingrams came up with the idea of The Oldie, he was still quite a youngie, at 54: “I know,” he laughs, “but I felt pretty old.” It was the original creation of a group of writer friends – Auberon Waugh, Stephen Glover and Alexander Chancellor – after a pub lunch and a prolonged moan about the need to create an antidote to youth culture. The initial reaction to both the idea of the magazine and its title, was disbelief … and worse, especially when Naim Attallah announced he was going to fund it.
Ingrams wanted to produce a sort of “Private Eye for grown-ups”. His first columnists signed up were Germaine Greer and the late Beryl Bainbridge, the latter as theatre critic, who described her new gig as “a Zimmer frame for the mind.” Other contributors included William Trevor, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Eric Newby, Harry Enfield and, rather marvellously, Barbara Cartland.
Twenty years on, after various ups and downs, the magazine is in rude health, owned by a consortium headed by Pembroke, with a circulation of 41,000, and is full of good writing by well-known Fleet Street names, as well as contributions from readers who write in. It helps, of course, that amateur writers aren’t too fussy about what they get paid.
“It wasn’t an ageing thing,” Ingrams tells me, “it was more the fact that – which I still feel – I’m not at home in the modern world. Oldies at all times probably have that feeling anyway. But I think that particularly now, with so much having changed in the last 20 to 30 years, that it’s quite natural that people of my age should be feeling a sort of bafflement.” This is a man, after all, who doesn’t own a mobile phone or use email.
Ingrams may dislike the more idiotic extremes of youth culture, but he’s quite partial to youth itself. Around the time of The Oldie’s launch, his behaviour seemed to some to have become deeply odd and distinctly out of character. He had agreed to pose in tight-fitting leather bikers’ gear for The Observer magazine in order to publicise The Oldie – a sight which was, indeed, startling. He also seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time at The Groucho Club, where he was photographed surrounded by admiring young women. “It was very nice,” he admits. His wife of 30 years, Mary, stuck at home in the country, was less impressed: “He’s bonking girlies! He’s bonking girlies!” was her response.
Now, when I tease him about his Groucho days, Ingrams gets quite hoity-toity with me: “I think it’s a silly point to raise and it’s not right to suggest The Groucho Club is a trendy place frequented by lots of hippy [surely shome mistake – presumably “hip”] young people. When I went there, it was full of old bores like me,” he says, rattling off a rollcall of reprobates who are no longer with us: Jeffrey Bernard, Simon Gray, Keith Waterhouse and Dan Farson.
But then he remembers something which makes us both laugh. “It’s my favourite story of The Groucho Club … Dan Farson [the writer and broadcaster] was having lunch with either Gilbert or George and he was trying to introduce me to this man and he couldn’t remember whether it was Gilbert or George … so he just ground to a halt! It was so funny, particularly as those aren’t their real names anyway.”
It was at The Groucho Club that Richard met Deborah Bosley, then in her late twenties (and 27 years younger than Ingrams) who was one of the receptionists there – although they only became an item after his wife had left him. There was no doubt that the Ingramses had loved one another, but as Mary grew older she suffered increasingly from manic depression, her erratic behaviour compounded by alcoholism. Ingrams maintains he would have fought to save the marriage, but Mary moved out of their house and into their tiny cottage in Rye and insisted on a divorce (despite being a Catholic), which came through in 1993, a year after Debbie had moved in with Richard. (Mary died in 2007.)
Debbie soon became lonely and isolated living in the country. She left Ingrams, had a fling, became pregnant with Louis and Richard took her back, helping to bring up her little boy. Louis is now in his teens and his mother has remarried; Ingrams played the organ at the wedding and is still actively involved in Louis’ life.
I first met Richard Ingrams, almost 20 years ago, at a Private Eye lunch. Every few years, I would get reinvited and would always be seated next to him. For a long time this seemed like a bit of a punishment, as he made no effort to make conversation and was quite frightening. It took about a decade for him to thaw, and for me to look forward to and appreciate his sense of humour and bright blue-eyed tilt at the world.
At a certain point in my career, I ran into difficulties over a story and turned to him for advice. I trusted him not to betray my confidence and he didn’t let me down. From that point on, we became friendly and would meet for lunch in his favourite restaurant, Elena’s L’Etoile, in Soho, round the corner from his office. This coincided with a difficult time in his personal life; Debbie had left him a second time and Ingrams was obviously feeling lonely and a bit blue.
We talked about life, the universe and everything, and when remembering friends and family who had died (there have, after all, been so many – Peter Cook at 57, Paul Foot at 66, Auberon Waugh at 61, Willie Rushton at 59, and, saddest of all, his daughter, Jubby, at 39, who died alone in a bedsit in Brighton of a heroin overdose, leaving behind three children and her husband) his eyes would fill with tears.
Then one day he phoned to say he had some interesting news, and that we should meet at L’Etoile to discuss. He seemed very perky and announced that he had someone in his life (I don’t think he said anything as heady as “I’ve fallen in love”), and that she was his god-daughter, Sara Soudain, whom he had last seen when she was 14 and she was now 43. Her mother, Annie, inadvertently brought them together when she contacted Ingrams to ask if he would accompany her daughter to a court hearing. Sara, a medical researcher, was fighting a case involving a neurologist, which had been a solitary battle over seven years. The neurologist, who had been falsifying the research, was eventually suspended for 12 months, but only after Sara had lost her job and her relationship with her partner, the father of their two small boys, had broken down.
We talk about courage à propos Sara’s solitary stand and Ingrams tells me that he doesn’t regard himself as a brave person at all. “I was often told that I was brave during that business with [James] Goldsmith [Goldenballs] in Private Eye, but it wasn’t really brave because I always had a lot of mates with whom I could go into the – ah – jungle. But Sara was a whistle-blower, too, and she was on her own throughout; there was no one supporting her. Well, that is brave.”
Looking back, does he think that it was Sara’s courage that made him fall in love with her? Pause. “I was very impressed by her and love came into it.” Did you fall in love with her instantly? “Pretty well, yes.”
Were you thinking about this in relation to Ian, that he might feel that way towards you? “Not towards me, but towards anyone … because I think people who are younger than us don’t have the same attitude towards the past. It’s partly because we were brought up just after the war, so that there was the history of the war, and what had gone on was very, very important. And men like Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Foot, A.J.P. Taylor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh … were kind of heroes to Christopher Booker and Paul Foot and myself. We wanted to read all their books and know all about them. We were sort of fascinated by them.”
So, by the same token, does he think that forming relationships with women, after his marriage breakdown, who were from the same generation as his daughter, was a way of reclaiming her? “Er, I never thought of that … Mmmm … I would say that was amateur psychology. Aren’t those swallows lovely, sweeping down …? I don’t want to change the subject but …” Then he says: “I suppose as you get older, you are very much more attracted to young, vivacious people because they cheer you up. It might not have to do with sex, so much.”
When it comes to matters of sex and morality, Ingrams has deeply ingrained views: “People, of whom I know quite a lot, who have casual affairs all over the place, are generally quite shallow types of people. And I have never been tempted by the idea of having casual love affairs. I couldn’t cope with it – it’s all or nothing for me. I think it would all be very unsatisfactory and it would end unhappily and there’s no point in doing it.”
He is also dead against the idea of a no-fault divorce. He thinks it is quite wrong that when someone leaves the marriage, regardless of the provocation or unhappiness, that they should be entitled to half the couple’s assets. “I think someone who does that is worthy of attack,” he says. “People always say ‘Well, in a married situation, I’m sure there were faults on both sides …’”
But that’s because it’s usually true. “Well, it is true in some cases. But I don’t think you can say that morality doesn’t come into it … You’ve got to judge each case on its merits – and what I object to is that in the eyes of the law now, if a couple split up no one is to blame.
“Let’s be honest about this, we all approach this question from our own personal experiences. Undoubtedly, as someone who’s divorced – who was left by my wife who then turned round and demanded lots of money from me – and the law supported her – that caused me a lot of resentment and anger.”
But why, since Ingrams is well-off, supported from an early age by a sizeable private income? “Because she just walked out of the whole thing and said, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore, I’m living on my own.’” But she believed you’d had at least one affair? “She might have done, yes – but, you know, she wasn’t just walking out on me, she was walking out on the children, too.”
It’s true, as he says, that we are all informed by our own experiences to this question. Mary sounded a nightmare to live with. But it must have been tough on her, with a husband who seemed to be leading such a jolly, exciting life in London, but was decidedly non-communicative and anti-social at home. It took a certain amount of courage, particularly for a woman of her faith, age and background, to leave an unhappy marriage and go it alone. Equally, I can see that it takes a different sort of courage to stick out a marriage, however unappealing the prospect.
Mary’s occasional mood swings became far more pronounced after the traumatic birth of the Ingrams’ third child, Arthur, who was born with cerebral palsy. He died of pneumonia in 1977 at the age of seven. I wonder whether this experience made Ingrams sympathise with David Cameron and his family, when their son Ivan – who was born with the same condition complicated by Ohtahara syndrome, a very rare form of epilepsy – died aged six. “The trouble was I felt that Cameron was going to make political capital out of it, which he did,” Ingrams says. “He was always talking about the National Health Service and actually suggested that because of Ivan, it was safe in his hands and he wasn’t going to reform it. And that was a big lie. Bad. And from an Old Etonian, too!” he jokes. “Well, letting down the old school, you know.”
He is starkly honest about his feelings towards Arthur: “The difficulty I had about Arthur was that as far as Mary was concerned, I think she felt about him the same way that she felt about her other children – she loved them all the same. But I couldn’t feel like that about Arthur because he couldn’t talk to you, he wasn’t aware… all the things that you hope for with children he didn’t do – so you had no relationship with him.”
He is equally candid about his vivacious daughter, Jubby, to whom he had been so close. He thinks that she was in a circle of friends who snorted coke at dinner parties and then she became hooked because, like her father, she had an addictive personality. “I’m scared of all drugs,” he told me, when I asked whether he had tried any. “I’m scared of becoming addicted to them.”
When Jubby died in 2004, it was after she had been on a retreat in Scotland to deal with her drug and alcohol problems, which clearly hadn’t worked. So she had left her family home in Lewes to move to nearby Brighton, to try to sort herself out. “When someone becomes a drug addict … it’s a kind of living death because the person you knew and loved has gone,” her father says. “And your relationship changes because you can’t have a stable – or any kind of proper relationship with the person.”
Does your heart harden in order to protect yourself? “No, I don’t think so. It’s very, very depressing obviously, but all I am trying to say is that a certain death has already occurred in a way. Does that make sense?”
At the end of the interview, Mr and Mrs Ingrams want to show me their vegetable patch and, in particular, their crop of crazily giant-headed garlic. I step outside to see the couple walking, hand in hand, up the slope. Sara, in her black leggings, and her long, black hair with its distinctive Susan Sontag streak, is so funny and warm, with her slanting humour, and she teases her husband, fairly mercilessly, from a position of clearly adoring him. They seem really happy and it’s good to be around them.
There are lots of quotes in Ingrams’ book that I like – “Everyone I know is either married or dotty” (from the unmarried Germaine Greer); “I believe in getting in hot water. I think it keeps you clean” (G.K. Chesterton); “There is of course no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano” (Rebecca West).
But there is one that I like that isn’t there. I had asked Ingrams if he feared death – and he said that he did not. “Death is necessary and part of the circle of life,” he says. And so he won’t mind if I ask him what would be the perfect inscription on Richard Ingrams’ tombstone? Pause: “He made a nuisance of himself.”
Richard Ingrams has spent four decades poking fun at the powerful and, now, at modern life. But he has also endured more than his share of private grief.
Richard Ingrams wanders out of the house he has lived in for the past 30-odd years to greet me, wearing a faded shirt, baggy shorts and a pair of slippers, with his hair sticking out at wayward angles. He is even scruffier in the country than the town but, improbably, despite his genteel tramp demeanour and advanced years – he has just celebrated his 75th birthday – there is still something very attractive about him.
It takes the taxi ages to find the house in Aldworth, partly because we are given a bum steer – whether intentional or not – by a pair of drinkers in the local pub. Ingrams, teetotal since 1967, was banned from it in 2000, along with his former partner, Deborah Bosley – aka Big Debbie – after she wrote a negative article about living in the country, including the line that someone at the pub “disapproves of the coupling of black and white human beings on the grounds that it is unnatural”. [Debbie’s son, Louis, is mixed-race.]
One person in six in the UK is now over 65, which should be good news for The Oldie’s future but, as Harry Thompson pointed out, the magazine was never intended as special-interest reading for pensioners – it was to celebrate old age as a point of view.< We had been talking earlier about Ingrams’ admiration for and attachment to older men such as Malcolm Muggeridge, whose biography he wrote. Since his father died when Ingrams was 16, and was pretty absent before that, I wondered whether he was always looking for a replacement father figure? “Possibly, yes,” he says. “I was thinking about this the other day, because I think one of the differences between my generation and say Ian’s [Hislop, who Ingrams personally appointed as his successor on Private Eye, at the age of 26, to much initial opposition; he describes it as the best thing he has ever done] is that all of us were aware of various men, particularly men who were older than us, whom we sort of revered.” There has been a lot of loss in his life, but so many gains, too. At 75, one of his great pleasures in life is his involvement in the lives of his many grandchildren and the children of his ex-partner and wife. I had read in an old interview with Otis, the son of Ingrams’ son, Fred, about how brilliant his grandfather was at doing impersonations, particularly of the Muppets. Ingrams is actually a bit of a luvvie manqué – and, in fact, his Dr Bunsen Honeydew is fabulous – “Here at Muppets Laboratories, we are bubbling with excitement … Beaker, there’s no need to be nervous …”
The gospel according to Beth Ditto, the Gossip front woman and plus-size fashion designer: how to wear Spanx, why polyamory is in and what to do when you bump into Madonna (literally)
Beth Ditto is wasted. She’s been on tour around Europe for the past eight weeks with her band the Gossip, and she’s barely had two hours’ sleep a night. So has the self-professed grandma of rock’n’roll – with her love of crocheting, baking and fixing her girlfriends’ hairdos – finally succumbed to its more grungy side? No, as it turns out, what’s been keeping her awake is trying to figure out the way the world works, with her best friend and manager, Tara (pronounced, confusingly, in the Southern way, to rhyme with Bear) with whom she is sharing her hotel room.
“So last night we had this crazy conversation, talking about the idea of what opinion is, what fact is, and what judgment is and, like, how those are three different things,” she explains, while munching on a bag of some kind of crunchy, dried fruit. “And how people have this idea that opinion is fact when they see a movie or read a book and how the left does it to the right wing and the right wing does it to the left.”
She’s also bothered that journalism is in danger of dying: “Because we all know that anybody can have a blog and be followed and believed – and it’s, like, people who think they’re so smart and so with it but they don’t even stop to write properly.
“Now, you have to follow me here, because I’m a little woo-woo, but it’s like in medieval times with all these major powers – London existing as a huge city, or Rome – and outside there were all these tiny groups that didn’t really have a voice and now all these little groups do have a voice, for the first time ever. [Like] rural Arkansas [where she was born and brought up] has a voice and those people have never experienced anything of the world.”
Beth Ditto is a most unusual person, quite apart from her status as the most (if not the only) well-known, fashionable, proud-to-be-fat lesbian rock chick, with her clutch of awards and accolades: NME’s Coolest Person in Rock in 2006; nominated for NME’s Sexiest Woman of the Year in 2007; winning Glamour’s International Musician in 2008. She is obviously thoughtful but also fun and seems to enjoy speaking her mind, regardless or – often without thinking – of the consequences.
Take her comments about Kate Moss, who later became a friend. “I was a punk and to me she was just a blonde, skinny, white girl…” Which is why you said that she was boring? “Well, I’d never talked to her [then] and I was coming more from a pop culture point of view.”
The Gossip’s most recent album in 2009, Music for Men, had some hands-on honing by the American producer and co-president of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. A legend in the music business, and listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Rubin invited Ditto to his home to work on lyrics. I told her I’d read somewhere that she’d said, “I’ve always said that the Gossip are a band I would go see, not a band I would listen to.”
“Yeah, I have always said that but it hurt Rick Rubin – he even called me, which is rare, because he’s an e-mailer,” she says. “He was, like, ‘I read that you said you wouldn’t listen to the Gossip but you would go see them – but we worked really hard on this record and that’s not fair.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh I never really thought about it like that.’ ”
As a performer, Ditto certainly seems to give her all. I went to one of the Gossip’s gigs last year at the old Town & Country Club in London and the place was heaving with a huge variety of people: lots of gay men (among whom Ditto has a big following), patches of punks with peroxide mohawks, some mothers and daughters, and people of advancing years as well as young, studenty types.
When Ditto ran onto the stage, the crowd went into a collective swoon. She was wearing one of her more improbable outfits, which resembled a baby’s short romper suit, but in black lurex, cinched with a belt. Her hair was tomato red and cut in a shiny, boyish bob. What was most remarkable about her performance was her energy; she tore across the stage, strutted (to screams from the audience) and sang her heart out, despite suffering from bronchitis.
After several encores (including Tina Turner’s, one of Ditto’s heroines, What’s Love Got to Do with It), she went down among the audience and then finished the night with a sort of motivational speech: “F*** what anyone thinks of you because you mean everything to me. If you don’t get the respect that you are due, then demand the respect – in the nicest possible way.
“It’s a big, big world. Take it and make it a good world because it’s up to us. Like my mama said to me: ‘Mary Beth Ditto, they are not going to eat you and spit you out.’ ”
I went up to her dressing room after the gig, expecting her to look sweaty after all her exertions, but her make-up was as flawless as her manners, and she was as poised as a Southern belle – albeit an unorthodox one – who had been doing nothing more arduous than reclining on a rocker on a verandah, sipping a mint julep.
She may hang out with the fashion crowd but she does not share that world’s enthusiasm for Class A drugs. Although she later tells me, in her scrupulous way: “I have taken ecstasy four times, probably, since we last spoke [eight months previously]. I have taken four in my life.” But not cocaine? “Oh my God, I would never do that. I feel I can talk a lot anyway, I can dance all night anyway, and I can sweat by myself… I can sit in sweat.
“But I do understand now why people feel that they need drugs [on tour]… because your body doesn’t know where it is and you are seriously burning the candle at both ends, and it’s lonely, you know.”
The Gossip’s electrifying performances are fuelled by a revolting-sounding cocktail which their guitarist, Nathan, invented and named “Whiskey Business” – a blend of sugar-free Red Bull and Jameson’s. “It tastes gross,” Ditto grins. “Like if you took three children’s vitamins and ground them up with a teaspoon of water, but it’s awesome.”
The next time we meet is at a studio where Ditto is modelling her second collection of plus-size clothes at Evans. There is a rail of dresses and tops behind a screen and a particularly sexy cotton jersey maxi number in black, with plunging neckline and Grecian folds which cunningly conceal a large tummy. The murky khaki version of it Ditto has on really suits her, with her milk-white skin and dark eyes. There are Sixties shifts in great retro patterns to be worn with leggings, which she has designed with a long waist to stop that annoying business of forever having to hoick them up. One of the engagingly practical aspects about Ditto is that she is absolutely committed to creating fashion that is comfortable as well as cool.
After the interview that takes place after the shoot, during which we spoke mainly about gender politics and her love life, I send Ditto some follow-up questions via e-mail about the nitty-gritty of looking good when you are large, such as: How important is underwear? You mentioned the joys of Spanx, for instance. Do you believe in the importance of a good bra? Are you into French camiknickers or no knickers at all?
Some weeks later, she came back with detailed replies and here is an edited extract:
“i am an underwear fanatic. i’m on the hunt for the perfect pair of panties and have been since i can remember. i like to mix comfort and cuteness. underwear are not cute when they’re bunched up or ill fitting. we all know what can go wrong with a poor pair. i am always on the look out for a perfect combination of stretch, cotton and lace. comfort is confidence in my opinion, and confidence is sexy and beautiful.
“i love spanx for 100 reasons. there’s no rubbing. for me, spanx accentuate shape without concealing your body. they truly are a revolution. i remember all my proms wearing snap at the crotch old school girdles. the misery and discomfort is ungodly, not to mention the work it took to undo them just to go to the bathroom.
“when i was a teenager i achieved the same results of spanx with tights that were a size too big and pulled them up to right under my bosom. so there’s still that option, for a cheaper solution.”
Back at the fashion shoot, Ditto is crouching and pouting, wearing her Evans gear as well as some torturous-looking super-high stilettoes. Her Australian hairdresser, Lyndell, tweaks her hair, her make-up artist is around – apparently this process takes two-and-a-half hours – and presumably Cedric, her stylist, as well as Tara on stand-by. Ditto hands a bag of dirty laundry to one of her entourage, saying that she will wash her underwear herself, and we take off to her hotel.
She has a number of heroines, one of whom is Vivienne Westwood, whose giant yellow Anglomania T-shirt she is wearing as a dress. “I love her for a lot of reasons,” she says, as we sit around a table in the hotel suite. “Number one, I really do think she invented punk. Number two, she’s an activist and she’s more of an activist now than she ever was.
“I’ve met her only one time and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ And I was, like, ‘You’re not really supposed to – you’re Vivienne Westwood, you know.’ ”
Ditto was born in Searcy, Arkansas, and christened Mary Beth Patterson. Her mother was a nurse, now 53, who worked long hours supporting her family of 7 children. Mary Beth’s father left when she was young and was replaced by a number of stepfathers, the most significant of whom was Homer Ditto, whose surname Beth adopted.
“There were too many kids and not enough bedrooms,” she says. “Like I’d take a bath with the door open and not even think about it because there was no privacy.”
So what’s your mother like? “She’s kinda like me only she’s a little more reserved. I think she wanted me to do the things that she always wanted to do. Not like, you know, ‘Wow! A free spirit,’ but to let go of all the hang-ups she had about herself, and her voice and her insecurities…”
Her voice? “Oh, she is an amazing singer and a loud person. She held my nose to teach me how to use my diaphragm.” (Her daughter learnt how to sing gospel in choirs at school and at church.)
She describes her upbringing as “really Southern old-style… with my mom, there was always a baby and my sister rocks her kids to sleep, and my brothers rock their kids to sleep, just like my mom rocked us to sleep. People are always saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to hold a baby.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s like holding a football. Just gimme that kid.’ I’ve always loved babies and I’ve always loved kids.”
At the age of 18, Ditto was rescued from the life she had envisioned for herself of being either a full-time mom or a hairdresser, when her friend Kathy Mendonca, the original drummer of the Gossip (now a midwife), sent her a ticket to Olympia, in Washington state. She describes it as “a magical place. Things have been created there, which have caught on in the pop culture, which are incredible and just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
From there, she moved to her present home in Portland, Oregon, which she says is equally amazing: “It’s dyke city, with a huge fat-positive scene and huge feminist scene.”
In January, this year, she broke up with her girlfriend of the past nine years, Freddie, who identifies herself as a man. There had been tensions in their relationship for some time and Ditto had written a song, Love Long Distance, about their difficulties: “Call yourself a romantic, let me explain/ Been across the Atlantic and back again/ I had it with your antics, your childish games.”
What went wrong? “We didn’t drift, we didn’t explode; we just had incredible differences that were unresolvable. The things that were wrong four years ago [when she wrote the song] were the same things that were wrong when we broke up. I was never given an ultimatum, but the only thing I was not willing to give up was the Gossip.
“There was a lot of judgment, like, ‘You’re joining the fashion world,’ and somebody who calls Kate Moss boring and then all of a sudden becomes friends with her and all of a sudden has this respect for her because you’ve been thrown into this world you didn’t understand before but now I git [get] it… Like being in front of the camera today, I understand that it is a job and it’s really tiring and you’re actually giving a lot.”
Part of the problem was the age difference between her and Freddie, who was seven years her senior: “I think I was malleable and impressionable… I’m almost 30 now, not 20 any more, and the difference is crazy, although I still have a lot of growing to do, of course.
“I didn’t realise until after we broke up that I was always jealous of his exes and really felt threatened by them. I was the first fat girl that he’d ever dated and that was really strange. When Freddie and I first started dating we were open [sexually] and I f***in’ hated it. It destroyed my self-esteem and I blamed him for it for so long.
“I really tried for him to be the one but it was such hard work all the time. I’m not someone who gives up easily because I’m such a monogamist… well, a serial monogamist. The part of me that is feminist doesn’t like the idea of competition between girls and what we do to each other and how we tear each other apart. But I also don’t think polyamory is helpful for me anyway.”
Did you say “polyamory”? “Yeah. That’s a new thing that’s goin’ around these days.”
Anyway, they both have new girlfriends now. Ditto is with Kristin, who has been one of her best friends since she was 19: “She’s Asian – Japanese/Chinese – and very beautiful and handsome.
“She’s really into Hesher… Do you know what Hesher is?” Nope. “Like really heavy metal psych rock. And her hair is LHB.
Do you know what LHB is?” Afraid not. “A long-haired butch.” Ah. “She’s two years older than me and she’s taller than me – five foot four – which is awesome.”
What does she do? “She’s my assistant now!” A big gurgle of a laugh. “But she was a waitress and before that she wanted to be a doctor and went to school [college] for seven years. She’s an only child – so different from my family. Really sweet and really gentle.”
It turns out that the two have harboured a secret passion for each other for years – “a really crazy secret love, although it wasn’t that secret because everybody knew about it, I think, even Freddie” – and they plan to have a baby together. “Kristin is the one for me, for sure, and we’ve talked about having a baby and if it’s a girl we will call her Yoko.”
She says that although her girlfriend is the “butch” and she is the “femme”, she believes that no one person is all one thing or the other: “Like in our house, if something’s broke there’s no way Kristin would fix it – I would be the one to fix it even though I’m the femme.”
I wonder whether now that she is such a celebrity, Ditto has groupies lining up to hang out with her. “No, I don’t. You can ask Kristin. But I don’t read people’s sexual energy very well unless I know them – and sex is something which is really intimate.
“Also, it’s not like you’re going to find a closeted butch woman who’s gonna sleep with you as a femme but you will find a closeted femme that will sleep with a butch.”
Well, unlike the folks she left behind, Ditto certainly has seen something of the world…whether it is the radical, gay, green, punk, feminist scene in Portland or the glamour and glitz of the entertainment business which she is still a little bemused to find herself in, bumping (literally, much to her consternation: “Everybody went white as a sheet”) into Madonna at Pedro Almodóvar’s party. Debbie Harry, another of her heroines, was there, and Penélope Cruz. “And I was, like,” she whispers, “ ‘How the hell did I get invited to this party?’ ”
The Ditto of her late twenties, as she says, is very different from the girl who escaped from small-town Arkansas and, although there are some signs of the trappings of stardom (the rider for the shoot, for one, with an insane list of requirements, including a particular sort of water and tofu; the large entourage; the controlling management), she still retains a sense of perspective about her good fortune.
“I identify with all the things that are going on in Portland, but I feel like I have a window into life that other people there don’t have…Like I get to make a living out of art. And I don’t know many people that get to make a middle-class living. Middle class is rich where I’m from. Our slogan in the Gossip when someone starts to bitch about something really ridiculous is ‘Shut up and quit your bitchin’, cos you’re rich.’ You know, we’re lucky basically.”
I spoke to a fashion magazine editor before interviewing Ditto and she said that she found the whole Dittomania thing offensive and even a bit cruel. But I couldn’t agree less. On each occasion that I’ve seen Ditto on television – with Jonathan Ross, for instance – or in her print interviews, she has always seemed far too original and bright, with her own unshowy self-assurance, to allow herself to be patronised.
Still, I ask her, as Tara hovers to wrap things up before another sleepless night of philosophical debate, how she feels when people say that she is like a fetish or a mascot. “Well, what’s wrong with being a mascot? You know, they can treat me that way but I don’t care. You realise really quickly, from growing up poor, who your friends are.
“And you quickly learn that it’s not about making enemies your friends; it’s about making more friends and forgetting about enemies anyway. I mean it’s just ridiculous to me because everybody is someone’s mascot and someone’s fetish. Right?”
There’s nothing“ditto” about Ditto and I mean that, as she would say, in the nicest possible way.
The architect talks to Ginny Dougary about monks, Martha Stewart and plans for the Design Museum’s new home.
John Pawson, the überminimalist designer and architect, is busily cluttering up his pristine surfaces. In between us, on a beautiful wooden table in the centre of the kitchen of his West London home, is a teapot of lapsang souchong, a plate of buttery French biscuits (with its empty packet left out — travesty! — on the sideboard) and no less than three strikingly similar creamcoloured beakers lined up for me to drink from: a Wedgwood, an original Shaker — a gift, along with an old blackened kettle on the stove, from America’s domestic goddess Martha Stewart, one of his less obvious clients — and a Pawson.
This friendship with Stewart is somewhat unexpected; his taste for unadorned simplicity (even the Cistercian monks of the Bohemian monastery he designed suggested that his plans were a little “austere”) and her rather fussy, homespun cuteseyness, would suggest that they were not the most obvious soulmates. But one of the appealing things about Pawson is that he is full of surprises.
They met when Stewart came to his home to film some sort of cooking programme, with suitably monochrome food (he remembers black squid and pasta, and a turbot and vanilla soufflé) and a table setting that included the three-pronged Georgian forks that he favours. Out of this venture came a handsome cookbook, Living and Eating — photographed chez Pawson — with the chef-turned-food-writer Annie Bell.
“It’s a proper, useful cookbook,” Pawson says. Catherine, his wife, suddenly appears with their 20-year-old son, Benedict. I get the feeling that this cookbook is a little bit of a family joke, an impression that is reinforced when I ask whether the architect is the cook of the family.
“He’s very good at toast,” Ben says. Catherine: “I said, ‘Now you’ve done the cookbook, why don’t you do the cooking!’” “But Catherine always cooks so effortlessly,” her husband says, “although I notice that she doesn’t always use my cookbook.”
His mother’s culinary tour de force was Yorkshire pudding. The family joke was that her secret ingredient was cigarette ash. “We used to have it as a first course before the beef. Very Yorkshire. It comes in a big pan and you get a big slab of it, with gravy, and it’s very good with wine [something he has given up since January]. My sisters do very good ones and so can Catherine, but it’s not the healthiest thing.”
When the couple first got together, much was made of Catherine’s former job as a designer at Colefax and Fowler, at the distinctly chintzy end of “soft furnishings”. Interviews painted a portrait of her as a much-put-upon wife whose own wishes were sublimated to the autocratic diktats of her uncompromising husband. No family photographs (only behind closed doors), art, cushions, flowers, sofas, visible soap, loo roll, books. Certainly no suggestion whatsoever of chintz.
When Pawson is telling me about his shortlived stint as a fashion designer for his family’s clothing business in Halifax, West Yorkshire, he says “I can make a dress” and Catherine jumps in: “He’s completely useless because he complains so much, say, if I pack a suitcase with too many clothes in it. He doesn’t understand women.” Pawson: “Well, I don’t understand why she wants to have a new or different outfit every day, if not twice a day.” All this family banter is conducted with the utmost good humour. What he loves about his wife, he tells me later, is her serenity; the human equivalent, perhaps, of his soothing interiors.
He is dressed today in his summer uniform of white linen shirt, chinos and soft, expensive-looking leather loafers. In winter, it’s the same deal but with charcoal-grey trousers and a matching cashmere sweater. When I ask Catherine whether the solitary flash of vibrant colour in the kitchen provided by a bowl of oranges, next to a bowl of nectarines, is her idea, she looks uncertain. Pawson: “It’s not a trick question.” Everyone laughs. Ben: “It’s Mum.”
Inside the downstairs loo, with its fiendishly impenetrable door, there is a raft of transgressions against the Pawsonian ideal: a loo brush, visible loo roll, soap and a Jo Malone liquid-soap dispenser, as well as — shockingly — art! A Picasso original drawing of a reclining nude female, with a Neptune-like figure behind her: “Catherine was worried that I didn’t have a pension, so she bought it — without even asking me!” her husband jokes. Well, I think he’s joking.
There are now Pawson pensions throughout the house, including Carl Andre copper bricks on the floor of the kitchen, covered with black fingerprints that bother both of them: “Owning art is a responsibility. You’re just a custodian and I’m the first owner of the piece,” Pawson says.
As you enter the hallway of their home (most traditional on the outside), in a side window is a shocking-pink glass sculpture-cum-vase by Pawson’s first mentor, Shiro Kuramata, the architect who hired him in Japan. Other pieces are by Donald Judd and various Minimalist artists, one a puce neon cross by Dan Flavin at the top of the house. I’m impressed by the insouciance of hanging one of Bridget Riley’s works in the bedroom of Caius, Pawson’s older son, 24, from the architect’s relationship with the Dutch art dealer Hester van Royen. Pawson continues to design her flats, while she is his art consultant.
(Caius’s discovery, the xx, a band he signed on his Young Turks record label, won the Mercury Prize last week; the competition included Dizzee Rascal and Paul Weller. His dad sent me a sweet e-mail saying: “Very nice to see Caius beaming on TV at the awards. Glad he is in charge of a minimalist band! I’m as proud as him.”) In the living room there is a now a sofa — rather spare and not one you would sink into, to be sure, again chosen by Catherine, by a furniture designer relative of Le Corbusier. There’s a trio of chairs by Wegner, who Pawson always seems to pick, though he would be happier for his guests to sit along the limestone bench that flanks the wall on either side of the open fireplace. Later, he moans about another Catherine-concession-to-comfort: the odd white cushion scattered on top of the hard surface. She is also responsible for a white rail along the vertiginous, narrow wooden stairs embedded in the wall. She installed this for her aged mother, although Pawson maintains it was quite unnecessary.
To some extent, we are all Pawsonian now: his aesthetic is part of the mainstream, with our collective taste for knob-less doors and clean lines — which partly explains why someone as formerly folksy, if not frou-frou, as Stewart has become a convert. Wandering through his home I feel a degree of design envy; his open-to-the-elements shower at the top of the house, with its Bond-ish retractable roof, is fabulous, and the master bedroom is particularly cunning in its loveliness, with a bedboard, lit from behind, concealing a buried shelf “for all our crap”, as he puts it. Less successful, he admits, was his attempt to do away with a bidet and install a bottom-cleaning flush in the loo — the jets were apparently so powerful they hurt.
Pawson is 61 but looks younger, like a slightly rumpled Robert Redford. He has a boyish habit of blowing his fringe out of his eyes when he gets a bit flustered. If something amuses him — and a lot does — he rolls his tongue around in a faintly obscene way.
When we are gazing through the glass door of the kitchen into the courtyard, which exactly mirrors the interior, he starts talking about his father: “He had a very strong influence on me.” Pawson senior was not flamboyant but he did appreciate lovely things: “It’s difficult to describe without it sounding wrong … I think he just liked quality. And I feel that I’ve got the best tool to do the job, as a designer, because I like well-designed things.” He says that his father never indulged in nostalgia, and was only ever interested in the present and the future: “When he died, he left everything in beautiful order; all his personal effects were in one box, almost like a hurt locker.”
At the beginning of our interview, Pawson said that his father never understood his son’s desire to become an architect — “he thought architects were people you employed” — but now he revises that somewhat: “I think he wanted to be an architect himself, really. He loved wandering around with plans. Of course, his taste was different to mine and he always said that he’d never use me.” He breaks into a broad Yorkshire accent, which he always does when imitating his father: “‘There’ll be no commissions coming from me.’”
Pawson himself has a rather plummy voice, and says he lost his broad vowels along the way. I wonder whether his years at Eton accelerated that process, since his school friends commented on his father’s accent, along with his own. “I thought it was flattering attention but you could call it bullying, although I didn’t consider it so because I didn’t mind. But I can see that bullying is an insidious process; very difficult to stop and very difficult to control.”
At Eton he wore a quiff — “because I thought Billy Fury was the business” — and slept in a hammock attached to the back door of his room. On one occasion, his housemaster came in “and, of course, I fell down, and he did wonder what I was doing on the floor. I did get told that I was showing off, being an exhibitionist in the wrong way, and that I should excel in academic things.” Were you academic? “Not at all. I got O-level passes for my French and Spanish A levels, which was worse than failing.”
Before we move on to his school-leaving years, I ask him about his French aristocratic roots. He looks nonplussed. “No, no, my family was definitely solid middle class. For my father, the fact that his great-grandfather was a blacksmith and employed a lot of people — for him, that was something to boast about. It’s always been trade and making things; there were no pretensions to anything aristocratic.”
I read him what he was alleged to have said in an early interview — inevitably now part of his official history: “I come from an aristocratic Burgundian ancestry, people who gave up great wealth in the 12th century to move to monasteries to set an example.” He rolls his eyes: “For f***’s sake. Burgundian bollocks. That’s just sloppy.
“I might have tried to explain how the younger son of Burgundian aristocracy would go into a monastery, like younger sons went into the army. But let me stress that I am categorically not a descendant of Burgundian aristocracy — hahahahahaha.”
His parents, particularly his mother, were non-conformist Methodists.“She was genuinely modest. She didn’t like showiness or ostentation. I had this dream that I would go and become this Zen Buddhist (and after a year I would, you know, obtain whatever). I was a complete schoolboy even though I was 24. I’m not sure if she was totally serious — although she did say it often enough — but she would have preferred me to have disappeared and quietly gone and been a missionary or something in Africa, rather than going to the top Zen Buddhist temple in Japan.” That was a bit flashy? “Very flashy. You didn’t have to be Christian but her thing was not to go to the best or the top of anything.”
His thing was to be a hippy in India after leaving school, wanting to help out with the Tibetan refugees on the border, with the idea that “I’ll just turn up and everyone will think, ‘Wonderful! He’s here! — another English public school boy [aged 17] who will solve all our problems.’ But that didn’t quite work out.”
After six months he went off to Australia, where he picked tomatoes and built a sheep-shearing shed in the Outback. Aha, a seminal Pawsonian work? “I think that might be joining up dots that aren’t there,” he says. But he has gone on to design rather a lot of, if not sheds, certainly barns for his well-heeled clients. He recalls the father-and-son team, and the former’s “incredible steel framework that he’d built. It was rather beautiful, you know, in the middle of nowhere, almost like an art work.”
At some point in his travels, a bit hard to pin down the chronology (he lasted only four days, for instance, in the monastery in Japan, and then spent four years teaching English at Nagoya University), his father sent him a telegram saying, “If you don’t come ’ome now there’ll be no place for you in t’ firm”.
Back in Halifax, Pawson found himself involved in creating frocks in knitted jersey “for the slightly fuller figure for ‘high street’ or ‘madam’ shops”. This was not at all his métier: “I was interested in design and architecture, but I never thought I could do it.” At 30, he met Van Royen and enrolled in the Architectural Association, stayed for only two years and left without qualifications but started transforming Van Royen’s office space as well as their flats.
His new show at the Design Museum is called Plain Space. He’s built a Pawson room “so everyone gets a bit of this” (waving his hand round the kitchen). And there will be a promenade where you can see four gigantic photographs, 10ft by 6ft, of landscapes in which he has worked, including the Sackler Crossing, his bridge in Kew Gardens, a beguiling curve with its penumbra of golden light. “A sinuous line of grace,” Pawson says. Are you quoting someone? “I am. Somebody’s attributed the quote to me but it’s Capability Brown! I know, it’s terrible to think of it … I’m in an anthology along with Oscar Wilde.”
There is also a cricket pavilion designed for Ben’s old school, St Edward’s. Reverse nepotism? “Exactly. Help the old dad — ‘We think he needs it’.”
This is a reference to something we had been talking about earlier, apropos of Pawson winning the international competition, a month or so ago, to transform the interior of the old Commonwealth Institute, in Kensington High Street, to house the new Design Museum in two or three years’ time.
Pawson doesn’t usually do competitions — because they’re expensive and time-consuming for a smallish firm such as his. He has a staff of about 20 who work in an office in King’s Cross — “It’s very un-Pawsonian. I think people expect a row of monks when they come and they end up rather shocked.” Is it scruffy? “It is for me. I can’t bear it.”
When I press him on what it was the judges were particularly struck by in his plans, he says something extraordinary: “Well, one guy did let slip that they thought I needed it! Hahahaha.” Needed it? “Well, I don’t know whether they meant I was ‘hungry’, you know, or that I would be able to give them my full attention,” he giggles, “but it did come over rather like a crumb from the table … as though this poor boy needed feeding or something.
“It was an off-the-cuff remark but I did think, ‘Crikey! That’s not very flattering.’” I can’t think of anyone I’ve interviewed, of an equivalent stature, who would even contemplate making public such an ego-deflating moment. Perhaps all his work with the monks, from the time he spends praying with the Cistercians in Bohemia right back to Japan, has rubbed off on him. Perhaps he is more his mother’s son than he realises — although it’s debatable whether such a disclosure demonstrates modesty or confidence. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
As the much-imitated, much-misquoted Pawson says, when talking about his parents: “I think you’re always two parts. I hope I have some of my father’s confidence and I certainly hope I have some of my mother’s modesty — but probably not enough.”
Dr Rowan Williams talks schisms, gay bishops, dope and beards.
What a funny old life the Archbishop of Canterbury leads. The ABC, as he is known by his staff, loathes our celebrity culture – when I ask him what statement he is least likely to make, he says: “Our problem is that there aren’t enough reality shows on television” – and, yet, he is bemused (and probably, more often, horrified) to find that he is a celebrity himself.
He is often stopped in the street, for instance, for a rant or a bombardment of questions although, as befits his position as the 104th leader of the Church of England, as well as symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (of 34 independent provinces, from Africa to America, hence his difficulties), the questions tend to be of an existential rather than trivial nature. This is just as well, since he doesn’t really do small talk.
When I ask the ABC how he prefers to be addressed, he says, “Archbishop would be fine or, if you feel informal, Rowan.” He’s not all that comfortable with pomp and circumstance, is he? “Not entirely.” Then, referring to his young press liaison lady, Marie, who is sitting in, he jokes: “She always calls me ‘Your Grace’ – hahahahaha.”
His Grace and his family – his wife, Jane, a theologian and writer, and their daughter, Rhiannon, 22 (in her final year at Warwick, reading French and English), and 14 going on 15-year-old son, Pip – spend every other weekend in their church residence in Canterbury. “We haven’t lived in our own house for about 25 years now. Gosh,” he says, as though it has just sunk in.
We are conducting the interview in his Lambeth Palace study, with books stacked in teetering columns on every available spot of floor space, and I ask him which place feels more like home. This came on the back of a visit to the family digs at 10 Downing Street earlier in the year, when Gordon Brown (who, true to his word, interceded on my behalf to get an audience with the ABC), Sarah and sons were still in residence, and the claustrophobic awfulness of their accommodation was striking.
“Well, I think the Church Commissioners wouldn’t thank me for enlarging on that subject – hahahahaha – but put it this way, the house in Canterbury is more homely because it’s less of an office block [a slightly odd way of describing the beautiful, 800-year-old palace]. Inevitably, here the office and the home are all mixed up.
“Anyway, last weekend we had some friends staying and on Saturday night we went out for a meal and in Canterbury you can’t avoid huge crowds of not terribly sober young people at weekends… And we came out [of the restaurant], sort of easing our way through a packed crowd, and one of them just said, ‘Archbishop!’ out of the blue. ‘So, y’know, what about evolution, then?’ Hahahaha.” What did you say? “So I stopped and chatted for a bit. That does tend to happen. It’s probably easier late on a Saturday night, if you know what I mean.”
We had first met at a drinks party at Lambeth Palace last year, where there was an assortment of church and secular types; I spotted Jane Asher, the actress, for instance, and a number of other thesps who were less instantly recognisable. The ABC had an odd effect on the latter constituency. An august and rather stern veteran female journalist melted in his presence, asking him, almost flirtatiously, if he would like a copy of her autobiography. He responded in the affirmative, with charm and warmth.
His wife, Jane, was incredibly friendly and open and talked about how their kids’ friends, after a latish night, would come home to gather around the kitchen table and quiz her husband for hours on life, the universe and everything. The point she was making was that young people, although disaffected by the political mainstream, are searching for answers to profound questions.
I ask the Archbishop whether his own children are Christian. “Yes, in terms that they both go to church when they’re with me – but I don’t think I’ll go there.” When I ask him about the curiosity of their friends, he says, “Well, I don’t sense hostility, let’s put it that way. Quite the opposite.” It seems to me that Rowan Williams, with his scruffy appearance, non- materialistic values and love of poetry, could be considered to be quite a cool dude. “Really!” he exclaims. “Can I have that in writing?”
So what seems to preoccupy the youth? “A lot of them are still quite stuck on the science and religion stuff.” Dawkins versus Williams? (Or more currently: Hawking versus the Church… the Archbishop’s response to the scientist’s assertion that God played no part in Creation was, “Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”) “Yes, that’s right. They’re challenging on that, and what’s my attitude to the Bible.” How literally you take it? “Yes, and then there are the questions about religion and violence. Is religion bad for you?”
He has always said that the English, in particular, find it awkward to talk about personal faith – and he’s right. Tony Blair, when I interviewed him, spoke far more freely about his doubts and inner turmoil over the Iraq war than his conversion to Roman Catholicism. As an agnostic, it feels slightly toe-curling even to ask questions, such as (apropos of him taking up his role – with great reluctance, as he later elaborates – of ABC): “Did you feel God was calling you?” He says the Welsh and the Scots don’t have a similar problem: “But I think in England, the interweaving of the social and religious conformity which goes back to the 16th century has always meant it’s been a bit of a political subject, in some ways.
“It’s bound up in history and intervention. But having said that I am often surprised, as I indicated, how ready younger people are to talk about it without embarrassment.” What does he consider his role is for those of us who are non-believers or fence-sitters? “Well, I can only guess. There’s still a place in the national mythology for the Archbishop of Canterbury, isn’t there? My family always tease me about my photograph being on that background collage of Have I Got News for You.”
Are you chuffed by that? “Occasionally I feel mild satisfaction until I remember what it means [ie, that he is in the news for, usually, the wrong reasons]. So there is an expectation that, y’know, somehow this is an office that gives you a platform for saying things about society. And to try to do that without clichés or without just saying what people want you to say, and to try to say it without using – and I’m not very successful at this – off-putting jargon and so on. That’s the challenge.”
It is true that the ABC can be as “clotted”, as he puts it himself, in the way that he talks – with his finely calibrated thought processes – as he can also be funny and down-to-earth or, in his poetry, capable of simple eloquence.
When we are talking about the role of the State, the language he employs is quite indirect, even obfuscatory. I ask him to clarify “associational patterns of intermediate communities”, for instance, and he says, “Sorry, I’m being a don.” You have to worry about us poor thickies out here, I joke, and he replies – the cheek of it! – “Oh, I worry all the time.”
This is a man who can speak or read 11 languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Latin and Ancient and Modern Greek, and who learnt Russian in order to read Dostoevsky – his literary hero and subject of his 2008 biography, which he knocked out while on a spiritual retreat – in the original.
Does he ever feel his intellect is a handicap – getting in the way of his heart or further obscuring rather than demystifying complex matters? “Well, let’s put it this way, the ability to see several sides of the question, which is part of the intellectual life, can be a bit of a problem in practical life.” As a communicator? “As a communicator but also as a decision-maker.” Do you find it difficult to be decisive? “Hmmmm. The obvious answer to that is ‘I’m not sure.’ ” Another big chuckle.
Are you an intellectual snob? “I suppose what I said about reality television may help to answer that.” So do you find yourself irritated by people who aren’t very bright? “What right have I? No. I don’t find that irritating. What I do find irritating is when I can see people being manipulative and the sort of entertainment that annoys me is manipulative, sentimental and trivialising.”
He recognises that people sometimes find his arguments abstruse. “I understand that and it’s part of the inheritance of having been a teacher for many years in the context where that was a virtue. But sometimes it gets in the way of making a quick decision,” he says again. People tend to want issues to be black or white and you are rather grey? “Hmm, yes,” he says ruefully, looking down at his white and charcoal-tinged beard. Then, with a sliver of steel in his voice, “I know, and they just have to get used to that.”
Before we get on to some of those fraught areas, to which the Archbishop might be referring when he talks about the difficulty of making decisions, I ask him when he last shaved. “Apart from just scraping the cheeks occasionally? Probably when I was 21.” Have you got anything to hide? “A weak chin, they always say – or spots, or something.”
The Pope’s visit is imminent when we speak, and after his surprise offer, in October last year, of a home in the Roman Catholic church to disaffected Anglicans – those who are unhappy about the drift towards women and homosexual bishops – one imagines that the prospect does not fill the ABC with glee.
His announcement must have been difficult for you? “It made things awkward, yes, of course it did.” The Archbishop seemed to sum up the depth of his feelings on Start the Week earlier this year, when he announced that he would be withholding his blessing from Anglicans who took up the Pope’s offer, saying, “God bless them. I don’t.”
So are his flock defecting in droves? “No, they’re not. One or two, and there’ll be more, I think.” Do they write and tell you why? Some do. But I don’t think it’s going to be a landslide and I never thought it would be.” One of the problems with Roman Catholicism is having to sign up to the idea that the Pope is infallible when, surely, to be human is to err? “Better ask my Roman Catholic friends about that.” But one of the reasons you chose to be an Anglo-Catholic was because of that stumbling block? “I couldn’t accept the infallibility of the Pope, no. But back to that situation last year… I think some people in the Vatican had been listening to some groups within the Anglican Communion who were looking for some sort of corporate solution – ‘Let’s all come together and be recognised in a group’ – and they’d worked out a scheme for that… I think, perhaps, slightly overestimating how popular it’s going to be.
“A lot of people in the Anglican Communion don’t think much of me and don’t think much of the way the Communion is going – but that doesn’t mean they want to be Roman Catholics.”
One of your most torturous times in the eight years as Archbishop must have been over the Dr Jeffrey John issue? “Yes,” he says in a very quiet voice. In 2003, Dr John – who is a celibate homosexual – was appointed as Bishop of Reading. After the announcement, conservative Anglican leaders in a number of countries stated their intention to split from the Communion if the consecration went ahead. As a consequence, the Archbishop withdrew his support of his friend and asked him to step down. At the same time, the Anglican Church in America voted in the Right Rev Gene Robinson, a practising homosexual, as Bishop of New Hampshire.
In May, this year, the first lesbian bishop, the Rev Canon Mary Glasspool, was ordained in Los Angeles. In July, Dr John’s name re-entered the frame, as the Crown Nominations Commission’s preferred candidate for the Bishop of Southwark. This was leaked, to more controversy, and John’s name was removed from the list of candidates.
It is hard to read or write this without feeling the hurt and dismay that such rejections must cause; both for the individual concerned but also for all gay men and women, and their friends, whether they are Christian or not. It is such an atavistic message for the Church to be sending; so out of step with the increasing acceptance of gays in most parts of the Western world. Much was made of Dr Williams speaking out against Mary Glasspool’s election but remaining silent on Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexual bill that would have led to the imprisonment and even death of many homosexuals.
After her ordination, the Archbishop announced that provinces which had ignored his “pleading” for restraint would be banned from attending official discussions with other Christian denominations and prevented from voting on a key body on doctrine. What has happened to our liberal-thinking “beardy lefty”, as he once called himself?
Much of this discord hinges on the interpretation of whether or not the Bible permits openly homosexual clergy. Dr Williams’s position on this once seemed clear when he wrote, on the subject of homosexuality: “If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm.”
When I read this out, he replies: “That’s what I wrote as a theologian, you know, putting forward a suggestion. That’s not the job I have now.”
So your job doesn’t necessarily allow you to be true to yourself? “I think if I were to say my job was not to be true to myself that might suggest that my job required me to be dishonest and if that were the case, then I’d be really worried.
“Put it this way, it means that I’m not elected on a manifesto to further this agenda or that; I have to be someone who holds the reins for the whole debate. Tries to keep people at the table and to do that not just because it’s nicer to have people together than otherwise, but because there’s a real religious, spiritual dimension, saying, ‘Unity matters to all of us; we actually need each other, however much we dislike each other.’ ”
I have never read how this has felt for you on a personal level. “I was very well aware of letting people down,” he says. Letting down your friend, Dr John? “Yes, of course, of course.” Is it true, as I read somewhere, that you knelt down and asked his forgiveness? “Let’s not go there. I regard private conversations as private. But, yes, I was conscious of that as, in a sense, a wound in the whole ministry from the start… making the judgment that the cost to the Church overall was too great to be borne at that point.” Unity was more important? “Well, yes, not an easy choice. I won’t elaborate.”
One can see, as one of his old friends said, that Dr Williams “must be torn about inside”. One can also see that the spectre of the Communion being sundered on his watch must weigh heavily on him. “Yes, I believe that the Church suffers appallingly when it begins to fall apart – and its mission suffers in other ways, too. But on your specifics – the fact is that since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, every single public pronouncement on the question of sexuality has underlined the distinction between civic liberties and human dignity for gay people, which have always been affirmed, and whether or not the church has the right to bless same-sex unions or ordain people in same-sex unions. Now I know that those two are blurred but the point has always been made.”
But why shouldn’t gay couples be blessed if we are all equal? “The Church isn’t answerable to an abstract idea of equality, or rather it can certainly say everyone is equal in the sight of God. But what forms of life does the Church have the freedom to bless? The Church is obedient to Revelation. Now if you believe it’s very clear in Revelation that the only relation that can be blessed is between a man and a woman, then you’ve got a problem.”
OK, Rowan, let me rephrase my earlier question; if it’s not that you are not being true to yourself, surely you are having to fight, even intellectually, against your personal beliefs?
“I have to speak not just for myself, that’s the heart of it. But when I mention the statements that have been made about civil liberties and so forth, I think it’s important. It does mean that any local church that supports illegal discrimination or persecution of homosexuals is actually going against the Anglican Communion, and I have said that publicly.”
After the interview is over, when we are looking at the Russian icons on the mantelpiece, and a painting by a Buddhist Quaker artist who was part of a group of theologians, artists and writers that met under the Archbishop’s auspices in Wales, he told me that he’d recently returned from Uganda, where he had spoken, frankly, about these issues with his fellow Anglicans. He must have had his work cut out for him, with such views as Bishop Joseph Abura, who has said: “Christianity in Africa is under attack by gays and Christians in Europe and the Americas… The vice of homosexuality through the necessary laws in place can be checked.”
Are you still pro women bishops? “I’m pro.” So why do you make more of a plea for them than gay bishops? “The answer is, partly what I said before, that the question about gay people is not about their dignity or the respect they deserve as gay people, it’s a question about a particular choice of life, a partnership, and what the Church has to say about that.
“Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” Really? “It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”
This is both confusing and rather revolting. Dr John has been knocked back twice because he has a partner, even though they are apparently celibate. First, it is an unappealing idea that the Church makes such unnatural demands on its clergy and, second, how on earth does it expect to monitor the bedtime activity? Perhaps by installing CCTV cameras? I ask him what’s wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it…”
All right, but do you personally wish it could be overcome in some way? Silence, then: “Pass.” Is it really so difficult for you to say? “We’re in the middle of vastly difficult conversations about it, and I don’t want to put thumbs on scales.”
Later, he says, that he finds this whole area so tricky to discuss because any comment he makes is likely to be seized upon by either side and broadcast around the world. One of the problems with Uganda, for instance, is that if he were to cause a schism with its Anglican bishops, life would become even harder for homosexuals there. Well, you can see why he didn’t want the job.
When the Archbishop is talking about the dawn of New Labour and its lack of relevance to the communities he was working with in South Wales (“A region of really nightmarish deprivation… lost communities, forgotten communities”), I have a strong sense that this is where he most wanted to be; dressed in his slightly shabby black uniform and dog collar, not flouncing about pontificating in robes, engaged in looking at practical ways of making life better for the most vulnerable and overlooked sections of society. That, and having the space and time for reading and contemplation.
I wonder how much of him did not want to accept his current position. “Hmm, a fair bit, a fair bit.” Did you feel God had chosen you? “Well, it felt like a calling, and you don’t always expect callings to be comfortable or cosy.” How much praying did you do before making your decision? “A lot.” What is the point of prayer, I had asked him earlier: “Um, the point of praying is to open yourself up to God so God can do what he wants with you. You come with empty hands, as silent as you can be and say, ‘Over to you.’ So you could say the function was to make you the person God wants you to be – in the full awareness that that might not be quite the person you think you want to be.”
Does he ever swear? “I have been known to say, ‘Oh God!’ – but I do know I’m talking to somebody when I say it, let’s put it that way.” Has he suffered from depression while doing this job? “Er, clinically, no but… well, periods of fairly serious gloom.”
The Archbishop has come to terms with his role by making a balance between “the buzz and inspiration that comes from working at the grassroots level”, with the fact that, “You do have a platform to say a bit more loudly, ‘Look at what’s happening in Grimsby or Ebbw Vale.’ ”
What do you hate most about your position? “Nothing personal, as they say, but it is partly the fact the everything that is said becomes part of a political narrative.” May I say something slightly impertinent, in that case, your Grace – well, it doesn’t seem to have stopped you! A big roar of laughter. “Yes, ‘Where’s your common sense?’ ’’ He talks about some months in the mid-Eighties, when he and his wife worked in South Africa, and the people who invited them, said: “ ‘You need to be conscious that in every group you address, there’s going to be a government informer. You need to be aware of that, and then you need to forget about it’ – because if you keep it in your mind all the time, you’d just be paralysed.
“And I suppose, in slightly less dramatic ways – hahahaha – that’s still the principle here. To be aware what words will sound like but you can’t just be cowed or railroaded.”
Are you bloody-minded? “Yes. Counter-suggestible, I think, is a polite way of putting it.” He says that he has no regrets about the comments he made on Sharia, and whether it might not be practical to incorporate certain aspects of it in this country (not the more barbaric women-hating aspects, which he described in the same speech as “grim”), despite the ensuing furore. You don’t wish now that you hadn’t gone there? “No, no, I don’t. I think it was a question worth asking and most of my lawyer friends would agree.”
His new book, Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice, which he has co-edited with writer Larry Elliott, and which came out of discussions held with its contributors at Lambeth Palace (no women, I note), is a sort of call to arms to rethink the free-market, unbridled capitalism that has landed us in such trouble; both from a moral and economic perspective. In Will Hutton’s essay, he repeats the astonishingly inappropriate claim by Goldman Sachs’ chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, that bankers do “God’s work”.
What was the Archbishop’s reaction to that? “I can understand somebody saying that the creation of wealth is God’s work in the widest possible sense – the creation of prosperity that gives security for vulnerable people and so on. That I can make sense of. But that making individual wealth is God’s work seems to me a very bizarre proposition.”
Is it blasphemous? “I might say that it’s materially heretical.” People were pretty shocked by the statement. “Yes, and I think that it indicates the gulf between some of the major money-makers and the public at large. People say that religious leaders live in a cocooned world, well, you know – hahahaha – it’s not just us.”
Although he was excited when New Labour were elected – his appointment was ushered in by Tony Blair – it became clear to him, pretty early on, that it was a false dawn. “I think that new administration got into bed, very, very quickly, with an economic culture that wasn’t being questioned or challenged.
“Whoever it was that talked about being very relaxed about people getting filthy rich – well, that wasn’t language that rang many bells for me.”
He is not an absolute pacifist but was, as he made abundantly clear at the time, “angry, to be honest” about the Iraq war. “This to me is a very important thing; some of us were saying that if we embark on a military adventure in the Middle East, among the many casualties will be the Christian community in the region and I think there can be no doubt that this is part of the effect – the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Iraq. The casting of Christians as agents of the West, not just in the Middle East but by Muslim extremists generally, all of this has been made much worse.”
So what does he think of Cameron’s Big Society? “When the language first started circulating, I wasn’t sure how much content there was to it. I felt it was a party in search of a big idea. Now I can see it gradually being fleshed out a bit and some of the conversations I’ve had have been about where it does need fleshing out.
“The problem is that I’m [only] inclined to give two cheers because inevitably it’s going to look a little like a money-saving device – and if you want to keep the quality of the service you deliver, then you really do need some kind of public investment in it.”
From the political to the personal. Among the couple’s inner-circle friends, are there any non-believers? “Oh yes.” What sort of ratio? “Probably 70-30.” A lot of lively discussions? “Not unknown.” (He and Philip Pullman, the writer and atheist, get on very well.) Do you like dancing? “I’m useless.”
How about singing? (I’ve heard that he has a beautiful voice – and always leads rousing choruses of Happy Birthday for his staff; certainly his speaking voice is mellifluous.) “I like the chance to sing when I can. Just before the holiday I went down to Salisbury for the weekend to sing the Monteverdi Vespers, which was pure bliss.”
His family do musical things together. “We don’t all sing but my son does. I play the piano very, very badly – I’m not being modest. My daughter plays the piano and my son plays the bassoon, the guitar and the piano, and Jane used to play the flute.”
Have your children turned you on to any contemporary bands? “I learn about them but my tastes are all formed in the Sixties: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel but also, less fashionably, the Incredible String Band.” Oh, what a delight! I start warbling, “Stepping out of the grey day she came, her red hair falling from the sky” – was that The Hangman’s… “…Beautiful Daughter,” he finishes. (We were both wrong: it was Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air.)
I asked Mark Ellen, editor of The Word, another String Band fanatic, what this said about the Archbishop. “Actually, the String Band couldn’t be more fashionable at the moment [Robert Plant’s new band includes one of their songs as a finale to the set]. You can see why he might be drawn to them. Their dazzling mixture of influences – everything from Blake, Swinburne, Celtic hymns, blues and Indian raga – would tie in with his love of folk music and poetry. I can’t imagine the Pope coming up with anything half as original. Liking the String Band is an indicator of wide artistic interest and impeccable taste.”
So has the ABC ever smoked dope? “No – hahahaha – since you ask and I don’t have the least desire to.” Do you ever drink too much? “I like a glass of wine, but that’s about it really.” No misbehaviour of any sort? “Not in any of the ways that would interest the press, I suspect. My sins – and they are manifold – are all undramatic, daily and prosaic. Ordinary selfishness.”
Are you messy? “Well, look around you!” How about Jane? “Um, I don’t think we’d get into an Ideal Home exhibition.”
Favourite contemporary novelists include Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan (“I thought Saturday was fascinating”), A. S. Byatt, Jane Gardam, Marilynne Robinson (“Stunning – I did a review of her new book [on science and religion] a few weeks ago. Her fiction is fantastic – every word counts”) and the late Alice Thomas Ellis. His current bedtime reading is an Agatha Raisin detective novel by M. C. Beaton.
In what ways are you materialistic? “Hmmm. Two things, I guess. One is that in a room full of books it’s rather difficult to deny that there’s an element of acquisitiveness about that. And I suppose the other is naturally I’m concerned for my family’s security.”
What’s the last extravagant thing you bought? “Probably a theatre ticket [to La Bête, starring Mark Rylance; the ABC is gutted that he missed him in Jerusalem].” What’s the last thing you bought? “Either a second-hand book on holiday in Wales or a pair of walking shoes.”
Do you have a guilty pleasure or habit you’re not terribly proud of? “Well, I suppose nail- biting but it’s not a pleasure. There’s a wonderful line in a letter by Flannery O’Connor who talks about a photograph on her latest book: ‘It makes me look as if I’ve just bitten my grandmother and as if this were my one pleasure in life.”
(During the Pope’s visit, his office gets back to me to say that, after much thought, the ABC does have a guilty pleasure, fish and chips.)
Any serious illnesses? “Not since I was little, with meningitis.” (Which left him deaf in one ear.) Are you fearful of death? “Actually, I don’t think I am.” What are you afraid of? “Hurt more than death. Being hurt in relationships – giving hurt and receiving it.” In your marriage? “Friendships.” (Which takes us back to that “wound”, with Dr Jeffrey John, at the heart of his ministry.)
The Archbishop knows what it’s like to face death. He was in New York, less than a block away from the World Trade Centre, on 9/11: “It was the nearest to death that I’ve been.” Were you frightened? “Oddly, no.” He was with a group of clergy, on the twentieth floor, engaged in a day of reflection. “We heard the first plane go into the building and it was an enormous kind of metallic thump. None of us knew what was happening. We looked out of the window and the air was full of what looked like snow, but it was bits of paper.
“After about 20 minutes, we heard the first building come down – that was the worst moment because no one knew what was happening. It was a sound like nothing else – the closest sound was a train rushing through a tunnel. That was when we thought we’d better get down from the upper storey.
“The building was already filling with debris and smoke. So we walked down to the basement, and on the way collected the pre-school children – about 20 under-5s – who were at a crèche.” Do you think that looking after the children, in a sense, made you forget about your own peril? “I think we all felt a personal responsibility to one another.”
Once they were ensconced in the basement, what did they do? “We prayed and talked [he was leading the prayers]. We prayed for calm for ourselves and, well, it was almost impossible to think of what to pray for the people in the middle of it.”
He says that he still lives with the memory of that awful day although, in time, it has lost a bit of its edge. I push him to express what he learnt from it, since I don’t know anyone who survived that experience, including myself, who hasn’t been changed by it, at some level. “It’s very, very hard to pin down but, perhaps in addition to coming close to death and finding it ‘liveable’, also one of my first feelings on that day was, now I know a little bit of what it’s like every day in Sudan or Palestine, you know, where life is on the edge every day. It sharpens up the sense that most of the time we just forget how intolerable life is for a lot of people in the unprosperous world.”
We finish our interview on this sombre note and Dr Williams goes off to be photographed, which he likes even less than interviews, in the huge gardens of Lambeth Palace. He stands in the shade of a magnificent black walnut tree planted by Queen Mary in 1930.
People have asked me whether the ABC seemed holy – but that’s a difficult question to answer, if you’re a non-believer. What I can say is that, talking to him, I felt the same sort of modesty and love of self-deprecating humour – a strong sense of goodness and humanity, if you like – which struck me, years ago, when I heard the Dalai Lama talk and, on another occasion, Archbishop Tutu.
I spoke to an ABC watcher from way back who told me a great anecdote about him. When his son, Pip, was a small boy, he was at a friend’s house watching the telly, when Rowan Williams suddenly appeared on the screen: “Oh look, Pip,” the friend said. “It’s the man who does the hoovering in your house.”
0.He told me, when I asked him if he would stick in the job for its full term, “No, I will not be doing this job when I’m 70.” That’s in ten years’ time; let’s hope he changes his mind.
Peter Mandelson saw himself as the third man at the heart of New Labour Chris Harris for The Times.
Since Peter Mandelson is not a man on whom humility is known to sit lightly, you might think it would be galling for him to talk about other people rather than himself, particularly when he has his autobiography to promote.
But Mandy — an abbreviation that seems singularly inappropriate when you meet him, so uncuddly is he and mindful of his dignity — appears to prefer his role as The Third Man (the title of his book, with its shadowy nod to Graham Greene) even now that his role of consigliere to the two architects of new Labour is historical.
But then the “other people” are, of course, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and although their love-hate relationship is well known, Mandelson having been at the centre of that fallout — in the thick of it, indeed — he writes about the sulks and tantrums, the violent emotions and frustrations with a visceral intensity.
Has either of them read the manuscript? “No, of course not.” Neither of them emerges particularly well, to put it mildly. Blair seems weak, unable to make a decision without checking it first with Mandelson and in relation to Brown, like a coddling and ineffectual parent who constantly threatens to discipline a child but never follows through. Brown — until he asks for Mandelson’s help in the last gasps of his regime — comes across as seriously unhinged.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Mandelson says. “Tony comes across as someone who had to spend too much of his time and had to devote too much of his energy dealing with this insurgency from next door — but kept his calm and maintained a sort of real sense of purpose as Prime Minister and delivered right to the very end a good, sound, strong new Labour government.
In the case of Gordon, he goes through three phases: pre-’94; ’94 to 2007 and 2007 to 2010. And the middle period, as I recount in the book, was awful.
“That was when he kept saying to me, ‘Why are we doing this to each other? We’ve killed each other. It’s no fun. It doesn’t make being a minister any more enjoyable — you know, we’ve got to stop it’. But no sooner had he said that to me then we’d be off again in the same sort of cycle.”
Do you think, I ask, that it was his lieutenants who helped to foster that? “Oh, I think he was very badly served. The unbridled contempt that some people around Gordon had for Tony and those who worked for him was very destructive. They were constantly winding him up — partly because that’s what they felt, partly because that’s what they thought he wanted to hear.
“And also because they believed their own propaganda. You know, they really thought Tony was a weak, ineffective prime minister whose policies they disagreed with and that were leading nowhere — certainly not in the direction they wanted. They wanted a different sort of new Labour government with a different set of policies.”
Reading his book made me want to knock Brown’s and Blair’s heads together and smack their bottoms; their stand-offs seem so very childish. “I did,” Mandelson says. You did not smack their bottoms! “I didn’t do that but I tried to knock their heads together — and it was very difficult.
“But politics has always attracted very strong personalities.” Mandelson gives examples from his grandfather Herbert Morrison’s time in government to a roll call of Wilson, Brown, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey — “and it wasn’t a walk in the park with them either”. So you don’t think Gordon’s and Tony’s relationship was unprecedently awful? “It was not unprecedented but I do think it was exceptionally bad!” A merry laugh.
I ask him more about the dsyfunctional relationship at the heart of new Labour. “What I call this dysfunctional relationship, which, you notice, Gordon didn’t like the term at all. He said, ‘Oh, that’s just your way of saying that Tony’s right and I’m wrong.’ Well, actually, it wasn’t my way of saying one was right and the other was wrong. It was a way of saying that ‘things could really be a lot better if you guys worked closely together’.
“And a lot of the time they did. It was, in a sense, given what they went through, surprising that the bond between them was never smashed. There was always something that connected them. Indeed, there was always something that connected all three of us, which is why I was able to come back in the way that I did.”
Mandelson says that he cannot really be bothered to read newspapers (apart from one of The Times’s rivals, which might be considered somewhat ungracious of him in the circumstances). “To be honest, I very rarely find anything to read in them, hahahahahaha.” I suppose when you were in government that can’t have been the case? “No, I didn’t read them and, to be honest, not only did I not miss them but I didn’t find that professionally I needed to have them in order to do my job.”
This stretches credibility from a man for whom the word “spin” might have been invented and whose masters were obsessed with the media. Neverthless, he sets great store by what newspaper editors tell him about his political allies, and rivals. “Tony is an easier person to advise than Gordon,” he says. “Now why is this? I always remember having dinner with Paul Dacre, the Editor of the Daily Mail — it must be getting on for a decade ago — he liked Gordon, and Dacre was Gordon’s favourite journalist and newspaper editor — quite how they were able to conjure up such warmth — hahaha — I don’t know, but they did.
“But Paul made a very interesting observation about Gordon. First, in his view, Gordon was put on Earth by God to do good and had genuine convictions and they were a force for good. Secondly, that he has a tin ear as far as Middle England is concerned; he doesn’t easily get on to their wavelength, hear them or respond. And, thirdly, that he is an incredibly stubborn person. Once he thinks he’s right, once he’s made up his mind, it’s very difficult to get him on to a different track.”
This last point is presumably what did for Mandelson’s and Brown’s friendship when Brown was convinced that Mandelson had abandoned him for Blair. “Not really,” Mandelson says. “What he couldn’t get over was the fact that Tony had become leader and Prime Minister.” But in the book you make it clear that he did blame you for your role in that. “How I put it in the book is a little more subtle than that.” The turning point was later, but still very early on, in a country retreat where new Labour’s inner core had assembled to fine-tune their policies, when Mandelson did not back Brown in a disagreement with Blair.
After the latter retired to bed, Brown rounded on Mandelson, saying that whenever the two of them agreed on something, Blair would always go along with that decision. “Yes, and I said, ‘I am not going to work like that. I’m not going to enter into a sort of conspiracy.’ And then he said to me, ‘Well, make your choice — you’ve made your choice’.” And then off he flounced? “Gordon doesn’t flounce.” Stomped? “No, he closed his bedroom door purposefully.”
Mandleson had his own “door-closing, purposefully” moments. At one meeting, when he felt that Blair had not backed him up sufficiently, Mandelson walked out, the door slamming behind him — inadvertently, he has always said. “I wasn’t in a temper,” he maintains.
That may be so, but Blair told him that he would not tolerate walkouts and added: “We are not players in some Greek tragedy” and, poignantly: “Have you any idea of how despairing it is for me when the two people that have been closest to me for more than a decade, and who in their different ways are the most brilliant minds of their generation, will not lay aside personal animosity and help me win?”
“I’ll tell you what I felt,” Mandelson says. “I felt that I’m not being allowed to do my job. I’m being tripped up by Gordon and his people and it’s not right, and I’m getting the blame for it. That isn’t fair.” Wasn’t that your role, in a sense, to take the blame for everything? “It did, indeed, evolve into that. But for it to go on for, sort of, ten years was a bit . . .”
Then he says: “I don’t think I’ve got anything to be bitter about any more.” But you did feel that you were used, didn’t you? “Yes, I do.” And you were, actually. “Yes, I was.” Laughs. “But the people who were really angry about this were my friends. They feel that I was used, overused and used for far too long — but that I either didn’t see or I didn’t do anything about it.”
He has spoken to Gordon since the defeat but not seen him. How is he? “He’s fine.” Up days and down days? “I don’t know because I don’t speak to him every day. But it’s not an easy thing to come through a general election campaign. They are brutal and fierce, and after 13 years in office you’re really having to fight to give people the argument to elect the same party for the fourth time. That’s tough. It’s partly as you’re presented but also partly as you feel.
“Gordon’s a workhorse and he had these two show ponies gallivanting around, attracting . . .” Show ponies? “Clegg and Cameron. After 13 years, you amass all sorts of reasons why people don’t want to vote for you any more . . . and I don’t want to get into a sort of media-kicking exercise here but they [the Conservatives] weren’t really put under any serious scrutiny or pressure.
“What is Gordon? He’s a knowledgeable, informed, erudite, experienced, hard-nosed guy . . . he’s not a showman. He’s not an actor. He doesn’t do theatre” — which Mandelson pronounces in a fluted, old-fashioned way as “the-at-ah”. There is something Queen-like about the way he talks, with a capital Q, but not remotely queenie.
I wonder where he was when Bigotgate happened and did he think: “Oh God! That’s it”? “I was in the party headquarters and I did think that was it. But I was wrong — because it didn’t change as many votes as you’d have assumed it would, given the media treatment of it.”
But even Mandelson has to admit that Gordon looked absolutely terrible in that last debate. “The reason he looked so exhausted and pale is because he was exhausted and feeling very pale; he’d had a terrible fright the day before and a very difficult night recovering from it.”
On the day of the calamity, Mandelson went off and did one live interview after another. But now that it is all over, Mandy doesn’t have to put a brave face on it: “It was bad enough, Ginny. I mean, I thought it was a show-stopping moment, let’s put it like that.”
Did you, like Gordon, put your head in your hands when you heard it? “I didn’t have time to put my head in my hands.”
I must say, having spent weeks with Blair, Brown and, indeed, Cameron over the past year or so that all three men are enjoyable company. But there is certainly a different atmosphere between Blair and Brown; the Tigger and Eeyore of new Labour. The former, with his fabled optimism, really is a sunny, energising presence; whereas Brown is fascinating, but even when he seems positive there is a slight undertow of melancholia.
“Tony does make you feel jolly. He’s quite an upbeat person,” Mandelson agrees. “I mean, Tony is not somebody who by and large gets angry, loses his temper and kicks the furniture. He can be quite chilly and disapproving but he’s not somebody who would ever fall into a great trough of despair.
“The only time during all the years I’ve known Tony when he got discombobulated was on personal things — attacks on his family or Cherie or when his integrity was called into question.”
Cameron, says Peter Mandelson, is “very amicable, with a lively sense of humour. He’s a bit like Tony in that sense. He’s jolly. But essentially what defines David Cameron is that he’s a rather patrician Tory. He’s neither a Thatcherite nor a One Nation Tory; Chris Patten and others like that had quite a philosophical view of Conservatism — what it stood for and what it should do for all the people in the country. I don’t think David Cameron has an ideology. He has views. He has attitudes and he has some prejudices.
“He has a certain ‘born to rule’ thing about him; a sense of entitlement — somebody who thinks that he would be good at governing and being Prime Minister. Indeed, I always remember the Editor of The Daily Telegraph telling me, a year ago, when they had Cameron to dinner, the first question they asked him was, ‘Well, why do you want to be prime minister?’ And he said, ‘Because I think I’d be good at it.’
Now that’s not bad as a sort of first answer but if it’s all the answer you have . . .” He goes on: “That doesn’t mean to say that he’s a bad politician. I think he’s actually rather a good politician — but he is excessively political in a sense. He has values but he doesn’t have a set of fixed, political beliefs that flow from a particular political outlook or philosophy.
“I mean, what is his view of the role of government or the State or markets? Does he really believe, as the ‘Big Society’ implied, that government should just get out of the way and let people organise their schools and hospitals as they wish? I don’t believe he actually thought that through. I don’t think he invested a great deal of time in it. It was a marketing device. It was a narrative that was put into his hands or head by Steve Hilton [his director of strategy]. He could see the political appeal of it because it was neither wholly the State or wholly the market; it was his version of the Third Way. But, under examination, it was like sand disappearing through your fingertips.”
Last September, Mandelson told the journalist Bryan Appleyard, when asked whether he would put his assets to work under the Tories, that “in the right conditions and on the right basis I probably would”. And he followed this up with a vintage Mandelsonian line or two — sounding like something out of a Powell and Pressburger film — about the importance of heeding the call to serve his country. But now, when I put the same question to him, he responds as though I am mad.
“David Cameron?” he asks incredulously. “The Prime Minister? What would he do with me?” This batting back of a question with a barrage of his own questions, presumably in order to destabilise the questioner, is also very Mandelson. Anyway, he now says, “I don’t think I’m quite his flavour of the month. Or the year.” I ask him what he is going to do with himself now that he has finished his book — or, to be strictly accurate, finishing, since Mandelson was still writing it when we met. Have you got a job lined up? “Nope, I don’t have a job. I have absolutely no idea, as I sit here talking to you, how I’m going to earn my living after August.”
Do you feel that you’ve achieved your political potential? “No,he says in a rather aggrieved tone. Do you feel fulfilled? “For the time being, but” — he laughs at the absurdity of the notion — “but not otherwise, no! I feel young! [He will be 57 in October.] I felt as if I was really in my stride when I was a minister. I hated leaving because I felt that I knew what I was doing. I enjoyed it. I mobilised and rallied people and I think that I had the right policies that now seem to be falling to the Tories’ sword, one way or another.”
What of the future of new Labour, does Peter Mandelson believe that it has one? “I certainly don’t believe new Labour is dead. New Labour is an attitude of mind, it’s a way of thinking of politics, of conducting politics with the whole country and not just a section or a class of the country.” So is it a case of a new new Labour?
“The era we have just been through was the sort of Blair-Brown-Mandelson era and it’s time for people of a new generation to rethink new Labour and work out how they want to present the party and its policies for the next ten years or whatever.”
Is that how long you think Labour will be out of power? “No, I don’t. I’m saying that we’ll be implementing those policies during the course of that ten years.” And you would like to be part of that? “Of course I’d like to be part of it. If there was another Labour government, I would like to be considered for membership of it. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble of writing a book, with an introduction and an epilogue, but also a lot of experience and lessons through that time that I’ve been in politics which I want people to understand.
“I want people to interpret and apply to the party as it goes forward. Now what I don’t want to do is impose my views. I don’t want to give a sense that people have to calibrate their own views or make me a reference point — ‘Are you pro or anti what Peter is saying?’ ‘Are you pro or anti his analysis?’ — I don’t want to play that role.
“What I would like to do, however, is to continue as an active member of a party I’ve been a member of all my life — to be as active in the House of Lords as I can be — and I want to be able to contribute to my party’s welfare and its success, and in one way or another I will do that until my dying day. But in the meantime, of course, I will also have to earn a living.”
Will you endorse David Miliband? “No, I won’t endorse David Miliband. I’ve said at the beginning that I won’t endorse a candidate” — presumably because he wants to keep his options open. “I know his brother, Ed, very well and like him. I know Ed Balls.” Why does everyone seem to hate Ed Balls?
“They don’t hate Ed Balls. I don’t hate Ed Balls. I’ve got to know him quite well over the last two years, and he is a person of strong views, tough analysis and he has a forceful personality. But that’s what you want in a leader.”
Then mindful of how this sounds, “I’m not saying I’ll endorse him because of that. But if you ask me what I would like to see in the next leader of the Labour Party, it’s — yes — a strong sense of values and a vision, yes, a strong personality but also somebody who has the toughness and is able to say things to the party which they won’t neccessarily like or immediately agree with.
“Being a leader of a political party, somebody who aspires to be prime minister, you know, requires a heck of a lot from you. It’s not a walk in the park.”
Trying to shift Peter Mandelson from the political to the personal is no walk in the park either; more like an icy trek in a hostile landscape with no signposts to guide you. Nowhere is this more true than on the subject of his sexuality and his private life. It is not that we are obsessed with talking about it but that he is obsessed with not talking about it. He may, in fact, be the most closeted “out” gay out there.
This off-limits approach seems a bit unneccesary and even sad in 2010; lending a false credence to the idea that there is something abnormal and secretive about same-sex relationships rather than their being just part of everyday life.
He has been with his partner — as he probably does not call him — Reinaldo Avila da Silva for at least 12 years; he allowed photographs to be taken of them together in 2000; they have been together in the presence of the Queen; he writes about him in his book. Both his father and his beloved mother have passed on — “they were wonderful, my parents” — so he has none of the David Laws constraints. But he bridles at any mention of Reinaldo and avoids referring to him even by name, saying: “I’m very protective of the people in my life who are not politicians, who are not in the public domain and who I felt intensely protective of and I still do.”
Contrast his approach with that of Chris Smith, the former Labour Cabinet minister who became the first out gay MP in 1984 and who in the late Nineties, when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, regularly gave interviews at home with his partner beside him without attracting fuss or opprobrium.
Contrast it with Mandleson’s friend, Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief of BP — far more recently and spectacularly outed — who talked openly, with pride and affection, about his partner, Nghi Nguyen; about their love of opera and travel and eating out.
When I spoke to Lord Browne this year, he said: “One of the gifts of 2007 is that I can be very open. Two parts of me have been joined together, really for the first time. It’s wonderful because it makes me happier and it allows me to have different relationships with people. Because it is what it is, and I am who I am, and that makes a very big difference to me, and I’m probably lighter in my step.”
When I mentioned attending a recent fundraising event for Stonewall, the campaign group for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, Mandelson barely seemed to have heard of it: “Dinners? . . . Er — we used to have them at party conference.”
He could not be less interested — “I’d rather talk about the book, I’m afraid” — which is fine, to a point, if you are gay and not involved in politics. But when you have been a key person in a government that deplored Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, the controversial Bill that made it almost impossible for schools to combat homophobia — and managed only to overturn it after a long battle in 2003?
And a year later, after more struggles, passed the Civil Partnership Act, which puts same-sex partners on the same legal footing as heterosexual married couples, it seems a bit odd, even negligent, to be bored (or affect to be so) by the whole subject. Cameron, for example, has repeatedly emphasised his party’s commitment to being inclusive of gay partnerships and, graciously, has publicly declared that new Labour has taken the country to a more tolerant and civilised place.
Mandelson’s excessive privacy about this issue has a distorting effect and can make him appear cold and uncaring. It also makes him seem rude. When we talk about such innocuous subjects as cooking — “I am mother-taught,” he says, “roasts and vegetables” — and I ask him if Mr da Silva can cook, he simply blanks — in fact, stonewalls me, in the original sense.
When the interview is interrupted by a charming little girl who bursts through the door, to much cooing and hugging from Mandelson — “Hello, my little darling, how are you? You’re my little friend, aren’t you?” — he does not introduce her or her mother. [I had been told that Mr da Silva’s Brazilian family were staying but not, of course, by Mandy.]
His manners may not be all that brilliant; at one point, I have a coughing fit and most normal hosts would break off and get a glass of water. But he was oblivious and just wanted to crack on.
We are sitting in the living room of his Primrose Hill house which, I read, cost £2.4 million and was bought without a mortgage after an advertising agency that he helped to set up was sold.
When I refer to his amazing house — it is a lovely home in a quiet, private, almost bucolic street — he asks, defensively: “In what way, ‘amazing’?” It is cosier than I expected, expecting a minimalist Seth Stein interior, as in his controversial Geoffrey Robinson-lent Notting Hill pad, which prompted the first of Mandelson’s two resignations. I sit on a plump, dark apricot velvet sofa and across a glass coffee table, covered in art books.
Mandelson leans back, languidly, in an armchair, framed by a wall of books. There are some Asian artefacts and a couple of large modern works, one of which he says was a present, with large rust-coloured strokes.
In the back part of the room, with an Eames black-leather recliner and stool, there is a photographic work of multiple gold and violet pansies, which he says dates from his time in Brussels. What would he say is his fatal flaw? “I think my fatal flaw was not seeing sufficiently in myself what others saw and therefore I was insufficiently aware, and I think that I’ve overcome that over the last four or five years.”
Are you more comfortable about your gayness now and about the fact that you are in a relationship with Reinaldo? “Look, I’ve never been uncomfortable about my sexuality and I’ve never been uncomfortable about any relationship that I’ve had throughout my life.”
If I asked you if you were in a civil partnership now with Reinaldo, that seems to me to be a perfectly nice question. “It is a perfectly nice question but it’s a matter for us what we do, and if we do take that decision” — an Arctic smile — “we’ll let you know.”
His book includes a couple of searingly honest pieces of advice about his character from those closest to him. When I mention them, Mandelson tries to bat them away as having been responses to particular periods in life.
Philip Gould told him, after one of the scandals, that there are two Peters — “the warm, generous, outward, loving side” and “the darker, more defensive, closed and sometimes menacing” side, and that the two sides could no longer co-exist. “Your vulnerability undid you and will undo you again unless you change.”
He also impressed upon him the need “to be open and honest with friends” and made Mandelson realise that “I would have to learn not only to advise others but to take advice. Real recovery would also mean being more open — in every way [my italics].”
It seems to me that Mandelson has some way to go until, like Lord Browne, “the two parts of him” are joined. But on one level at least there has been an incredible journey — a microcosm of the one from old Labour to new Labour — with Mandelson’s transformation from the Prince of Darkness to National Treasure, as exemplified by his standing ovation at last year’s Labour Party conference (confirming Blair’s prediction, albeit rather late in the day, that we will know that Labour is truly new Labour when it has learnt to love Peter Mandelson) and that iconic photograph during the campaign of Mandy ballroom dancing with a tiny delightful pensioner.
Peter Mandelson is famous for his charm, menacing or otherwise, but I suspect that he is rather socially efficient in his employment of it. Certainly, his high-society friends — Carla Powell and the Rothschilds — must get the full blast but also his old friends — the writer Robert Harris and Lord Liddle, the Labour peer — are incredibly loyal to him, as he is to them. But, for whatever reason, he did not feel compelled to demonstrate his more attractive qualities to me.
As the evening closed in — after multiple changes of times and days for the interview he finally offered a Sunday evening from 6pm to 8pm — he switched on the Anglepoise lamp next to his chair, sitting in a pool of light that conveyed the faintly sinister impression that he was cross-examining himself.
As he leant backwards, arms behind his head, extending his legs in a feline way, so that all one could see of him was his resolute chin and dark, greying hair, he resembled that actor — oh, what was his name, I asked, who was in Twin Peaks? A blank look. You know, by David Lynch. Another blank look. Blue Velvet? Nothing. Desperate Housewives? Ditto. (It was Kyle MacLachlan.) But after this I began to notice that these modern, metroplitan cultural references were not on Mandy’s radar at all. At one point, I teased him and said: “You know, you really should stay in more.” In a curious way, he is like Madonna, with her boast that she does not read newspapers or watch television, in a sort of self-imposed bubble.
He had not heard of John Pawson, the inventor of Minimalism, thinking that he might possibly be an actor. He did not know about Amy Winehouse when I talked about her father wishing that she would do more cheeful songs: “Oh, does she not do happy?”
But when I ask him whether he is metrosexual — another much used media buzzword that is alien to him — in his grooming, we eventually, albeit comically, get somewhere. So I’m talking to him about how my younger teenage son and his friends are all obsessed with hair products and so on.
“I’m in my mid to late fifties,” he says, “What do you mean by hair products?” Waxes, gels, grooming, moisturisers, spas. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘spas’.” Do you use a moisturiser? Long pause. “I don’t know what you mean.” Oh, Peter [thinking, ‘Get a grip, man, this is not a trick question’], for heaven’s sake, cream that you put in your skin to make sure it doesn’t get dry!
“Oh, of course I do. I get very dry skin because I’m constantly exposed to air conditioning.” But you must have heard of the word “Moisturiser!” “No, cream!”
Honestly! This is like talking to some bloke from the 1950s! “I am from the 1950s,” he says, “that’s my problem. I am a bit … I think I’ve got rather traditional ways of behaving and how I want to spend my life.” At last, for the first time, I get the sense of something authentic. In what way? “I think I’m . . .” (a pause of 29 seconds, which is a lifetime in an interview) “I think I’ve got rather . . .” (another pause of 10 seconds) “not conservative… but conventional… you know, going into the countryside . . . my dogs — my lovely dogs — Jack is away on a sleepover with his friend, Bridget, I miss him now, he’s been away for three days.
“I like conversation and then I like going to bed early and then I like, sort of, getting up and sitting with a family around breakfast. And I like singing and I like dancing and I like sitting in a garden and I like reading a book and — I dunno, is that old-fashioned?
“I think I am a product of my age and my upbringing.” It is probably impossibly ambitious to try to get a handle on Peter Mandelson. This is a man whose own “lovely brother” — as he says, showing me a recent present from Miles, a clinical psychologist, a book on the artist Arthur Giardelli — has described as an enigma.
But when I say to him that I was struck by the descriptions of his cottage in Foy, near Ross-on-Wye, with its beaten-up old velvet three-piece and tiny living room, his refuge from the maelstrom of politics in the dark ages of old Labour, he visibly thaws. “That was the happiest time of my life,” he whispers. “One day I will wend my way back. I think I have not made the transition freely into being in the 21st century.”
This more than anything might explain his abhorrence of laying himself bare — being personal, being open about Mr da Silva and his private life is, perhaps, all too modern for him. What an irony that the man who helped to modernise the Labour Party and was a Svengali of spin — that most modern political weapon — is so retro.
We might associate him with swanky holidays in Corfu and hobnobbing with captains of industry but Mandelson prefers to see himself in another way: “If I could go eventually and have a smallholding or have a garden,” he says, yearningly, “an English country garden … fresh air, scenery, animals, trees, walks, to be near or on a farm, and a river . . . that’s really all I want.”