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Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

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!’

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Ginny Dougary
August 2012

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 …”

Celebrities, Fashion, Music, Opinion

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)

Ginny Dougary
The Times
september 2010

Beth Ditto

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.

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.

Opinion, Women

Yes, we are bovvered

The Times – September 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard being a teenager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We must speak up now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— LC, IB, DC

Music, Opinion

Paean of praise to the ginger-ninjas

The Times – June 29 2007
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

Jenny McAlpine
Photo courtesy Red and Proud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General, Opinion

Where are the Muslim mothers for peace?

Times 2 – August 25, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Dear New Lot of Terrorists,
I thank you for showing me the light and changing my life. Truly, you have liberated me in ways you could never have foreseen. No longer will my heart feel heavy and my spirit be freighted with dread as I wait for the plane to touch down at JFK or Heathrow. By your actions you have taught me the egregious error of my ways, and from henceforth I will travel unburdened by . . .

This was the letter I was drafting in my head as I experienced one of my most pleasurable flights in 15-odd years of schlepping to and from the United States of the Terrible to interview the rich and famous for The Times. In the bad old days — ie, before 10/8/06 — transatlantic travel had become a gruelling feat of endurance and survival of the pushiest. Negotiating that narrow passageway between the rows of seats, with my child-born hips further widened by a bulging rucksack (an object now robbed of its innocent backpacking past — “does my bomb look big in this?”), a crammed briefcase on one shoulder, and on the other a handbag large enough to hold . . . well, far too much stuff.

All of the above to be stored in the overhead locker, jostling for space with the equally bulky belongings of one’s fellow carthorse travellers. And then the anxiety before the stampede to reload everything on to your weary, jet-lagged body as you face the journey at the other end, when you know you will have to trudge in a nightmarish daze down endless corridors and interminable walkways towards passport control.

Now — Hallelujah! — I have known the joys of flying with only my credit cards, passport and a couple of books in a plastic bag, and I’m never looking back. It is possible, of course, that in years to come it may, once again, be considered almost dubious to travel so light. I may even be prevented from boarding flights to the States with nothing but a see-through bit of polythene carrying all my worldly possessions, the very sight of me clutching such a disposable thing setting off alarm bells in the departure lounge — “Oh! Has there been another threat that we don’t know about?” But having tasted the bliss of the unencumbered, I never want to be a carthorse again.

There was, for me, an additionally odd, circular sense of disbelief about this particular journey. Last summer, a few days after the terrorists’ July bombings in London, I was interviewing the fatwa-reprieved Salman Rushdie in New York. A year later, on the very day of the Heathrow drama, I was interviewing his great mate Martin Amis, also in New York, albeit in a secluded enclave in the Hamptons. On both occasions, current events inevitably featured in our discussions. If you believe, as I do, that literature can help to make sense of the life we are living, then the response of these guys should certainly command some attention.

I was born and brought up for the first ten years of my life in a Muslim country. I will be returning to that community in a small town in Kuwait — if I’m assured that it’s safe to do so — with my younger son this autumn. I hope to revisit the home I grew up in, and the garden, where I remember seeing the turbaned men, whom my father employed, downing tools and kneeling at regular times of the day, as the wailing muezzin called the faithful to prayer from their minarets. As a child it always struck me as a beautiful if mournful ritual. I never, ever, was inculcated with the sense that these people and their beliefs were in any way less than me and mine — although there must have been something in the ether even then, since I remember my parents spluttering when my eight-year-old self asked the visiting sheikh why he thought his religion was better than ours.

And so — I’m with Rushdie and Amis as I read all the sympathetic coverage in the liberal press about the poor, puzzled Muslims who feel that they are being picked on in airports and flights. If the parents of the young men who are attracted to this murderous martyrdom have lost control of their sons, then they must shoulder part of the blame. If the Muslims who choose to live in our society, with all its so-called tempting freedoms, do not protest against those who wish to destroy it, then how can they expect our tolerance? Why are the moderates not, in their hundreds and thousands, standing outside those mosques that are known to preach hatred, shouting “Not in our name” down their megaphones or “One, two, three, four, no more terror anymore”?

And where are the voices of the ordinary mothers and daughters and aunts from the Muslim community saying, “Enough. No more violence. No more deaths”, as did all those courageous women who helped to bring peace to Ireland? And if they, our Muslim sisters, are mute slaves to — or, worse, themselves in thrall to — the siren call of the death-wish culture, is there any hope for the rest of us?

Oh, and just by way of a postscript: you’ll never guess who was on my return Flight of Liberation, which ended in a two-hour wait for our baggage and a near-riot when there were no trolleys available . . . yes, Salman Rushdie.

All I want is a room somewhere in NY

New York feels like one giant nightclub these days, for which I blame Ian Schrager who transformed the modern hotel, after Studio 54, into darkly groovesome dens. In my thirties, I used to love staying in his places: The Paramount, his first “budget” hotel, (soon to re-open as The Hard Rock Hotel ) was wildly hip — with its dancefloor music and neon light shows, and that was just the lifts. But in my forties, I found that I was no longer enamoured of, say, “amusing” taps so fiendishly designed that you needed a manual to turn them on, and even the receptionists at The Royalton complained that working in the perpetual night-time of the lobby was “kinda depressing”. But every other hotel that I’ve tried post-Schrager suffers from the same aesthetic. On this recent trip (W Hotel on Lex), I was extended the sort of welcome that George Bush might expect were he to meet Osama bin Laden. All I ask for now is natural light, a friendly atmosphere and a comfy bed.

Any suggestions?

The art of terror

Reading Martin Amis’s short story about the last days of 9/11’s Muhammad Atta reacquainted me with the haunting power of a photograph. The expression on Atta’s face, quite different from any of his confrères, is one of chilling, implacable hatred. It’s an image as horribly iconic, in its way, as the ones of Charles Manson or Myra Hindley. How long, I wonder, before someone turns it into a shocking new artwork. Or would that be just too scary for everyone?