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News, Opinion

Meet the Archbishop of Canterbury

Ginny Dougary
The times
September 2010

Rowan Williams

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.

News, Writers

British Press Awards 2009:nominations

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


Tony Blair


The need to share a dark secret

BBC News, Friday, 4 April 2008
– Julian Joyce

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

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

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

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

Read the entire story on the BBC site >>


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

Daily Mail, 3 April 2008

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

Read the entire story at The Daily Mail >>


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

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Esther Addley

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

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

Read the article at The Guardian >>


The fine art of extracting an interview bombshell

The Guardian, Thursday April 3 2008
– Stephen Moss

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

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

Read the entire article at The Guardian >>


Murder, she wrote

The Guardian, Monday April 7 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Times is shortlisted for 11 British PressAwards

Ginny Dougary is nominated as Interviewer of the Year >>



Enough, says Amis, in Eagleton feud

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

Maev Kennedy
Saturday October 13, 2007
The Guardian

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

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


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

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

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