Archive for the 'Women' Category

Politicians, Women

Pauline Prescott: ‘John would have resigned over his affair’

The Times March 06, 2010
- Ginny Dougary

Pauline Prescott talks to Ginny Dougary about public humiliation, private anguish – and why her husband now does the housework

Pauline Prescott
Photo: Phil Fisk

Pauline Prescott and I have been instructed to keep the volume down by a prefectorial therapist down the corridor from our tiny “treatment” room, where we are sitting opposite one another across a table, mercifully, rather than a collapsible massage bed.

For one of us, at least, the pre-emptive admonition is redundant. Paul, as she is known by her husband (she calls him Prescott, as in, so she says, “Move it, Prescott”) has the dulcet tones that our greatest playwright celebrated, “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman.” The former Deputy Prime Minister, however, unlike Shakespeare, apparently ticks off his wife for speaking too quietly. Well, tick-off shtick-off… Since Traceygate, the balance of power in their 50-year marriage has, Mrs Prescott confirms, shifted (irrevocably, one suspects) to her advantage.

She has just emerged from a photo shoot in one of the elegantly dilapidated rooms of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, formerly a home for the homeless, still a charity, and now doubling as a pop-up private members’ club for the metropolitan chic crowd. Her appearance is, as ever, immaculate. Unaccustomed as she still is to her turn in the limelight, however, Mrs P had a slightly wobbly moment in the ladies’ loo worrying that she didn’t look groomed enough (as if) for the photos.

Pauline’s appearance is – to use her favourite word – absolutely “fab”: the familiar jeujed-up raven mane, spidery eyelashes (a mixture of falsies and natural, truly fabulash), a tailored black trouser suit and fitted cream shirt (Jaeger), and a trio of black patent-leather accessories – a wide belt with a Courrèges-ish silver clasp, faintly dominatrix spike-heeled ankle boots, and a big slouchy shoulder bag. Talk about the “wow!” factor.

Her style has often been commented on – not always kindly – but this has more to do with its almost anachronistically high-maintenance glamour, particularly in the UK, where the prevailing look is more understated. In Italy or even New York – with her Nancy Dell’Olio nails’n’lashes femininity – Mrs P would blend in just peachily.

She looks great at 71 but, boy, she was something else in her youth. The cover of her new and first book, Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking – a none too oblique reference to her husband’s two-year affair with his secretary, Tracey Temple – has a photograph of her as a wide-eyed ingénue, recalling a young Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor (whom Pauline was often said to look like, although when John was wooing her, she tells us gamely, he said she reminded him of – what a charmer – Joyce Grenfell).

In another life, although she has no regrets at all about having been a full-time mother and housewife, Mrs P would have liked to have gone into fashion: “When I get up in the morning, it’s fashion TV straight on. I love all that. Yes, well, I could have done that. That’s probably what I would have done.” As a designer? “Not particularly, well, sewing clothes – I just love to wear them. I love Valentino and if I was to choose somebody to dress me, it would be Armani – I just adore his clothes. But I’m also wearing clothes, since I can still get into them, that I’ve had for about 30 years. Vintage, you know, and when I put them on, people say, ‘Wow! Like that suit!’”

She was dead chuffed that Sarah Brown had invited her to the next evening’s Fashion Relief charity show to raise funds for Haiti, and the following day’s newspapers showed shots of Pauline alongside the PM’s wife and Naomi Campbell.

John Prescott was also handsome as a young man, the couple cutting a considerable dash as they jived around the dance halls of Chester: “He was so much like Robert Wagner. Oh very much, and Dirk Bogarde – a cross between the two,” Pauline says. I ask her, rather baldly, whether she feels he has lost his looks. “Well… ah… we all get older. But, I mean, to me, he’s my John and…” But you can still see him objectively – the weight gain and so on? “Yes, he has put on weight but he has diabetes, you know. I think he carries it well. He’s very fit, actually. [They jived together at their local Chinese restaurant the previous week.] He goes to the gym and that sort of thing. But looks are only skin-deep. That’s what they say, don’t they?”

She likes people to be smart – not surprisingly, since she makes such an effort herself – but they don’t have to be beautiful or slim. In fact, she says – and this is unexpected – John met Gok “How to Look Good Naked” Wan, the other day: “And he said, ‘He’s the most charming young man’ – they got on extremely well.” After the Prescotts’ television forays into programmes on class and the North-South divide, is it possible that John and Gok are going to do a TV show together? What an amazing idea… “No, I don’t think so,” Pauline laughs gaily but not entirely unequivocally.

Actually, her husband is full of surprises. Who would have thought, for instance, that John Prescott would have any interest in reading the seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room, by the American author, Marilyn French, which honed in on the frustrations and depressions of a generation of stay-at-home suburban moms. “It was a staggering revelation to me that someone could feel like they were in a trap and couldn’t get out of it,” he said. “It must be terrible, absolutely terrible.”

More intriguing is the question of who pressed the book on him since it wasn’t his wife, who hasn’t read it herself: “No, I didn’t make him read it, actually I don’t read books very much, quite frankly,” she says. “I’m a great television person, really.” Her husband apparently is a great reader, mainly biographies: “He’s absolutely Oliver Cromwell mad… He was his hero, and Churchill, as well.”

Pauline had her first brush with women’s lib in the late Sixties, when she worked as a hairdresser to support John, who was studying economics and economic history at University of Hull: “There was this whole women’s group sort of thing, and I was asked to join them to [protest] against this pub that men used to go to where women weren’t allowed in, but I said, ‘Why shouldn’t the men go there for a drink? I don’t give a toss!’ I mean, I go for a drink with my female friends and it’s nice to be on your own without men, isn’t it? You don’t need to be escorted. Afterwards John said, ‘You didn’t go down at all well with the sisters, Pauline.’”

After the news of his affair broke, four decades on, it was another group of “sisters” (Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, et al) who phoned Pauline to offer their support: “They’ve been great with me, absolutely lovely, and I got on well with all of them.”

Up to now, Pauline Prescott has been the most discreet and private of politicians’ wives. “I’ve always kept my distance and people have thought, I’m like a bit of a mouse, maybe,” she says. “You can cause a great deal of embarrassment to your husband when he’s in the position he was in, and if I had given my views… Well, I don’t always agree with John, you see, so…”

It was her boys, as she still calls them, who encouraged her to do the book – “Go on, Mum, go for it!” – after she had been approached by various publishers. She has two sons by Prescott, Jonathan, 47, a businessman who now acts as her agent (negotiating a fee of £350,000, not far behind his father’s £500,000 book deal in 2008), David, 40, a former journalist who is hoping to become an MP, when his father stands down after 40 years representing Hull East, and Paul Watton, 54, the son of a married US serviceman, whom she had given up for adoption. Their happy (newspaper-orchestrated) reunion, some years back, was the subject of a prolonged media blitz.

Pauline is full of praise for her book’s ghostwriter, Wendy Holden, and – with characteristic modesty – feels that it was she, not Holden, who was fortunate to be paired with such a collaborator. “You know she did Goldie Hawn’s book,” she says. “And after me, she went over to do Barbara Sinatra!”

How did she find the experience? “Well, I said, ‘I’ll probably clam up and end up stuttering,’ but it was like an unlocking – it just all flowed out. It’s been very therapeutic – we laughed, we cried – places that have been locked up for years because, of course, my boys didn’t know about my baby Paul… Lots of things like that.

“For years, people had never really asked me a great deal about my point of view, apart from my friends, and I’ve always kept quiet because of John. And I’m speaking because you’re asking about me basically, aren’t you? And so, yeah, I can let out my points of view now, without causing any embarrassment to John.”

One of the problems with this sort of book deal – the perils of Pauline, indeed – is the commercial quid pro quo, meaning Mrs P has had to invade her own privacy to a degree and dwell on matters that she would rather not have in the public domain. Although she writes about the affair in her book, she is not really comfortable talking about it, certainly not the specifics: “I don’t want to get in to too much depth about that. I have described how I felt about the affair and I accept the fact that he had it but the personal stuff – it happened and that’s it. End of story. I don’t bear any grudges and I don’t want to get into anything else about that.”

It would obviously have been easier to handle if the Prescotts had not been so much in the public eye, but she says: “When it happens to a woman, it’s devastating no matter who they are. But when you have to do it in the eyes of the media… I mean, the next day it was just bedlam outside my house – it’s in a cul-de-sac and all the camera people were there.”

How could we forget it? John had fled to Dorneywood but Pauline insisted she had done nothing wrong and was damn well going to stay put in her own home and – what’s more – go right ahead and have her new, swanky downstairs loo installed. I tell her that we all loved her for that; it might just have been her finest hour. Certainly, there could be no question that Mrs P would be leant on to do one of those grisly “Disgraced MP embraced by sorrowful but forgiving family” photo opportunities. “That was like my mum,” she says. “My mum was so feisty. It’s sort of like a northern thing… Just get on with it.

“But your self-esteem does take a hell of a battering… My boys and my daughters-in-law and my friends were a huge help and the letters I received! I tried to answer them all… But if you could just pop this in” – I’m happy to oblige – “‘Thank you to all the people who wrote to me.’ You know, you can’t run away from things because it’s always there to meet you.”

There was more northern grit in her insistence on reading every newspaper exposé: “John said, ‘You’re putting yourself through an awful lot more pain.’ I used to sit at home watching what was going to be in the papers on Sky. I saw the whole lot. You can’t confront anything until you’ve seen exactly what you are going up against, frankly.”

She holds no truck with the idea that the loneliness of the Westminster lifestyle – the late nights, work stress, separation from your family and so on – might be tough on a red-blooded man. In fact, she gives me an hilariously old-fashioned look when I go down this path. “No, if a man wants to do it, he’ll find a way of doing it. You can travel and it can happen at any time, can’t it?

“And let’s face it, I’ve been married all these years and I have never had an affair.” Have you ever been tempted? “No.” Have you never even been attracted to another man? “Oh, yes! I’ve looked at somebody and thought, ‘You’re handsome.’ You still do, don’t you? But I think about what I would be losing and I don’t think it’s worth it, quite frankly. And to lose the respect of your family, as well.”

Has John regained that respect? “Yes, he has because he was deeply, deeply ashamed and sorry. Some people thought, ‘A bit of a doormat, hanging on there,’ and that sort of thing. But you don’t throw your life away. You like your lifestyle and all that, and you’ve got your family to consider. I couldn’t have accepted it if there had been love involved – and John said there was no love, and so I have accepted that.”

You said that if it had been “a quickie in a cupboard” you could have handled that. “No, funnily enough, I didn’t really say that. I didn’t check that in the book and it was Wendy who put that in. It wouldn’t have been my terminology to describe it that way. But if it had been once at, like, an office party – I could have accepted that. What was hurtful was the deceit of the whole two years.”

The affair seemed to have happened around the same time as the newspaper revelations about Pauline’s son, Paul, about whom John had always known. “Yes, it was, funnily enough, and some people have said to me, ‘Oh, did that trigger it?’ But no, because our marriage was good. It has always been good. That’s why it was like a bolt out of the blue.

“What he did was very wrong and dreadfully humiliating, you know, and I don’t and won’t forgive him because, in my mind, to forgive is to condone. I’m sad when I think about it – I just think about what we had – but I’m not bitter. If I felt bitter about it, then I couldn’t have stayed with him – so you just move on from that.”

Do you talk about it any more? “You can’t not talk about it and we have been very open. People ask me for advice and I say, ‘Well, you know, frankly, you have to…’” She stops. “Sorry, give me a minute. It still gets to you.” Oh, I’m sorry. “No, no, it’s all right. No, it’s OK. We speak openly about these things… but you don’t dwell on it. If you keep going on about it, then you can’t move on, can you? But you don’t just say, ‘Right, I forgive you,’ and then forget it.”

Do you understand why and how it happened? “Not really, because I couldn’t have done a thing like that.” Do you believe that men are different, then? “Yes, because they can block it off and it’s sort of on one side, in a little box over there. They musn’t have a conscience. But women can’t do that, can they? I don’t know. I couldn’t.

“And I’m not judgmental about people – I’m really, really not – but I couldn’t live with myself. I’d have to tell and clear my conscience immediately. I’d want to be, sort of, ‘Forgive me, please.’”

When you insisted that he didn’t resign over the affair, how much of that was about you not wanting to give up the lifestyle? “I’ll be honest, I enjoyed it, obviously. John’s brilliant and I was very proud of him being Deputy Prime Minister. We were together as a family unit and we’d all worked very hard for what he’d done, and I didn’t want to see it thrown away, just because of that [the affair]. He’d earned it. And it was coming on to an election, so you can’t do that. He would definitely have resigned but I said, ‘No!’ And so we sat down with the boys and had a proper discussion about it.”

Incidentally, Pauline would like to point out that her husband, like the “very charismatic, warm, lovely” PM, “is so well thought of on the world stage. It’s just our own people that mock them. That is what annoys me. With John, they make him out to be stupid because of the way he can’t put his words together. No problem connecting with people, though!”

I wonder how her husband has changed towards her. She says that he has always been thoughtful – although he’s not particularly touchy-feely, more of an “actions speak louder than words” man: buying flowers and bringing her cups of tea in bed. She says in her book that, post-Tracey, she has become stronger and he has become softer. To me, she says: “I think he appreciates me more, and doesn’t take me for granted. He’s very, very thoughtful. He likes to surprise you and take you somewhere nice. He’s a very, very kind man and fond and, quite frankly, if he sees you’re tired, it’s not a case of, ‘Oh, that’s your work, woman.’

“Actually, the other week, I said to John that I was so far behind in my housework – it’s a big house, and I’ve never had any help for it – and I said, ‘I’ve got to wax this whole floor, can you put the wax on?’ So he does jobs like that. And then I said, ‘And while you’re down there, wash the skirting boards.’”

Well! That truly is a shift in the power dynamic, isn’t it? (I’m thinking Joseph Losey’s The Servant, here.) She laughs: “But it’s true. I’m not just saying that.”

What intrigues me about her husband are his neuroses behind all that strop and swagger. Just the other week, he gave a classic Prescottian performance on Newsnight – eyes blazing, jowls quivering – defending Gordon Brown against the PM’s would-be nemesis, Andrew Rawnsley. But to read about his crippling social awkwardness – an inability to enter a public room, for instance, without his wife going in first (“He gets very self-conscious, even now,” she says) – let alone the bulimia in such a big, macho fisticuffs fella, is as fascinating as Tony Soprano’s reliance on his shrink.

It was Pauline’s mother, interestingly, who first spotted her son-in-law’s odd behaviour around food. “Yes, my mum picked that up and said, ‘Keep any eye on him, Pauline, I think something’s wrong there.’” Had her mother come across bulimia before? “No, she just noticed little signs and she was very wise.”

It seems strange to me that Pauline hadn’t observed something herself, on his breath for instance. Anyway, she says, “He’s completely through that now.” His favourite dish of hers is lamb hotpot, “but in my fridge, I always say, ‘Look, you make your own choice here,’ because you can’t treat people like children, can you? There’s the naughty bits – and, I mean, I love my naughty bits, too – but there’s always loads of fruit at the bottom.”

(I ask her about her famous sandwiches – much commented on for their perfect crustless triangles. “Isn’t that funny? Do other people do big doorsteps or something? Shall I tell you who taught me? John did, because he used to be a waiter at sea and everything was done in style and, you know, even my boys do the most wonderful sandwiches. It’s good presentation.”)

Is she able to explain why her husband has these hang-ups? “I don’t really know, only John can answer that. He is quite a complex character, I suppose,” she says. “But I’m a great believer that these things stem from childhood. You know, he saw his father, Bert – a big philanderer – kissing a lady, when John was young, and he went to the police station and said, ‘Arrest my father,’ and I think it all stems from that.”

It was his mother, Phyllis, however, who told a journalist about Pauline’s baby, Paul, which is how the story got out. “Well, yes, that was upsetting. I wasn’t happy about it at all. And after all those years, yes, it was rather sad.’’ Had Phyllis lost it mentally? “No.” So she knew exactly what she was doing? “Oh, yeah.” What on earth was her motivation? “The sensationalism of it? It is strange, actually.”

But then, since it seems that her natural inclination is to be both fair and positive, Pauline lists Phyllis’s virtues: “She came from strong mining stock and was a brilliant woman and a brilliant mother. She liked to control and when I came on the scene she was not, you know, happy [particularly with an out-of-wedlock baby in tow]… But knowing all that was going on with the father, she did keep the whole family of five children together, and John was the head of that family.

“She was a very kind lady, too. I used to make my clothes, but she was a wonderful seamstress and used to make them for me, too. She worked at a mental hospital in Chester and not only did she teach the patients dress-making but she put on a fashion show for them with a catwalk and everything. She was a good mum, really, and I did tell John, ‘You weren’t very warm about your mum in the book.’”

Old habits die hard, and although, perhaps for the first time in the past four decades of public life, Pauline feels she can speak her own mind, she is still protective of her John. So when I ask her what she thought of him telling Tony Blair that the way the former PM paraded his deputy’s working-class credentials made him feel “like a performing seal”, her first response is, “How bloody stupid!” then, “Oh, I can’t really give a view on that.”

Who was on the phone more to her husband, Tony or Gordon, in Prescott’s role as a sort of marriage counsellor? “It was pretty even-stevens – it was, well, I knew quite a lot of what was going on then, but you don’t really say – but it was an interesting time, you know… to say the least.”

Like she says, looks are only skin-deep and I think her looks had distracted me from her qualities as a person. Pauline has none of the chippiness or awkwardness of her husband – who also emerges as a more three-dimensional human figure after talking to her – but is hugely appreciative of all the good things that have come her way. If he is a glass half empty, she is a glass half full, and that just might be the secret of their long marriage’s equilibrium.

She seems pretty convinced that her husband will go into the Lords – “They want him to go into the Lords and it’s common knowledge that he would like it.” So you will be Lady Prescott, how cool is that? “My God, yes! He’s leader of the Council of Europe, so he’ll still do that and he’s very much into the environment and works with Al Gore [her favourite world figure: “He is a very handsome man”] so that’s what he’ll do from the Lords when he steps down.”

Prescott used to joke that his wife didn’t need to be a Lady since she was already one, and I see what he means. She has a natural dignity and grace, with no hint of brashness. She reminded me of the actress Gina McKee, that same soft northern voice and manner, with the occasional glimpse of Alison Steadman (circa Abigail’s Party). She’s also fun, telling me how delighted she was to be told “by someone from gay liberation that I am a gay icon”.

She is having the time of her life, right now, and like “the sisters” and her sons, one wants to urge her, “Go for it, Pauline!”

“Do you know what? I’m getting very feisty in my old age,” she says. “It’s a different ball game because people know me for me now. I’ve never craved attention nor have I shunned the limelight. Parliament and so on, I just adored all that. And even now, I’m not thinking, ‘Right, where’s this going to take me?’ If things happen, they happen and, quite frankly, at my age – you know – I don’t need anything, do I? But I must say, I’m enjoying this.”

Fab.

* * *

Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking by Pauline Prescott, published by HarperCollins, is out now

Women, Writers

Ruth Padel on Derek Walcott, ‘dirty tricks’, and the worst mistake of her life

The Times January 30, 2010
- Ginny Dougary

Oxford’s first female Professor of Poetry resigned amid a allegations of academic back-stabbing. So what on earth brought on her ‘moment of lunacy’ ?

How totally unboring it must be to be Ruth Padel, and that’s quite apart from the recent hoo-ha that prompted her resignation, last May, from her short-lived stint — what should have been a five-year triumph reduced to a mere nine days — as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Her interests are so varied and extensive — she is as passionate about the natural world, both exotic (alligators, tigers, now cobras) and commonplace (the domestic habits of the urban fox), as she is about filling the “poetry-shaped hole” she believes we all have.

But she also fizzes with enthusiasm about music, singing, art, Charles Darwin (her great-great-grandfather), the “soap-opera” wonderment of DNA and clothes (a guilty secret, she confesses; her sombre pinstriped jacket reveals a startling inner plumage of scarlet and puce) — leaping from subject to subject like a demented grasshopper.

The biography at the front of her new first novel, Where the Serpent Lives — ostensibly what we are here to discuss — is amusingly, if self-consciously, diverse: “she has taught Greek at Oxford, opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton, excavated Minoan tombs on Crete … sung in an Istanbul nightclub and the choir of St Eustache, Paris”.

Something about her arresting, feline appearance — slight build, black hair, green fuzzy gaze, heart-shaped face — could be construed as sly. There are some contradictions: she doesn’t appear tough but you know she must be to survive as a poet, wheeler-dealering — a bit of journalism here, a residency or a lecture there — to make a living.

We meet in Somerset House, where last year Padel was writer-in-residence. Despite the breadth of her interests, she has a tendency to revisit certain themes in her work. Three of her collections of poetry explore the complications, highs and lows, of a six-year affair with a man who entered her life with rather too many strings attached elsewhere. She laughs heartily when I say that she’s minxy in her scattering of clues about the identity of her lover in Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, published in 1998, and The Soho Leopard, in 2004.

It is she, not me, who brings up the risqué Bessie Smith–influenced poem — Home Cooking (from Voodoo Shop) — that was publicly linked to the journalist John Walsh, her old friend (and alleged former lover). It was he who wrote the controversial first article about Derek Walcott’s “shadows of sexual harassment allegations”. Walcott had been the clear favourite for the Professor of Poetry post until the piece appeared.

Then, soon after Walsh’s article and just before the election, 200 anonymous letters — detailing accusations of sexual harassment made against the St Lucia-born Nobel Laureate in 1986 and 1992, by former students of his at Harvard and Boston (he had to apologise and was reprimanded; there was also an out-of-court settlement) — were sent to Oxford academics. This dossier also included a photocopied chapter from The Lecherous Professor, a book about sexual harassment on university campuses, including the Walcott cases.

Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying that he did not want to be the target of a “low attempt at character assassination”, leaving Padel as the new front-runner, and the less well-known Indian poet Arvind Mehrotra in the frame. Padel was subsequently awarded the professorship.

“On the Saturday morning, when I was being elected, an anonymous guy rang The Sunday Times and told them about a poem of mine — Home Cooking — a sexy little poem of a kind that male poets write … but it’s a woman looking at a man,” she says.

“Of course the paper jumped on it and it was very, very clever because what it ensured is that when Oxford announces that it has elected its first woman Professor of Poetry in 300 years, the poem that was flashed around the world as representative of her work is this sexy little jeu d’esprit which I had actually put in to lighten the collection, which was about my father’s death.”

Are you ashamed of the poem? (It ends with the line “a f*** the length of our kitchen table”.) “No, I wasn’t ashamed of it, but it was a way of saying, ‘She’s complaining about sex and — guess what? — she does sex, too’.”

The problem is, of course, that Padel had also behaved badly herself. “I admire Walcott and deplore what happened,” she said, before her own part in the debacle emerged, forcing her to resign. “But it does not seem to me to detract from what I can do [as professor].” And “[The appointment] has been poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with … I have fought a clean campaign. These acts have done immeasurable damage to people and poetry.”

But it was Padel, it emerged, who had started the dirty campaign against Walcott by alerting two journalists to the harassment allegations in e-mails that came back to bite her. Days before Walsh’s article appeared, Padel had e-mailed two journalists, putting the boot in about her rival’s age — 80 — his ill health and homes in the Caribbean and New York (so “how much energy is he going to expend on Oxford students?”). Then she mentioned the six pages in The Lecherous Professor and couched it most disagreeably: “what he actually does for students can be found in …”— the coup de grâce being, “Obama’s rumoured to have turned him down for his inauguration poem because of the sexual record. But I don’t think that’s fair.”

It’s that last line that is particularly weaselly — if you’re going to besmirch your competitor, don’t try to pretend that it’s nothing to do with you.

Her first statement after the e-mails were made public was also unsatisfactory: “Those e-mails were naive and silly of me. I do not believe it was wrong but it was a bad error of judgment.” (Where she was certainly naive was to proclaim her innocence, thinking that the journalists — who were not personal friends, like Walsh — would not reveal the contents of the e-mails.) I ask her what on earth she was thinking. She wrote the e-mails when she was in New York — she still insists that she had nothing to do with the subsequent anonymous letters — was she drunk or deranged with jet lag?

“I’ll tell you what happened. Right from the moment I announced I was standing those two particular people [journalists] had come forward and said, ‘Tell me everything about it’. One said she was writing a piece about poetry in Oxford and I entered into the dialogue — this was before Walcott came in — because I really wanted to get a public debate going about what poetry could do in a university because I think that’s so interesting.

“And then from the moment Walcott announced that he was standing, people kept coming forward to me saying they were really, really upset — because of the university record. So it wasn’t anything to do with me and I had nothing to do with it, but I was beginning to feel kind of torn. Because on the one hand, I really admire Walcott. I mean I’ve written about Omeros and I took my daughter to see him when she was doing her A levels.”

But … “and I’m not in the business of undermining other writers. On the other hand, I was listening to all these people saying, ‘It’s outrageous — why won’t someone do something?’. Then I brought Darwin [her biography of her ancestor through poetry] to America and when I was interviewed by New York journalists they had quite a different take. They were amazed that the Brits were doing this and one of them said to me, ‘The Brits just don’t know what we know over here’. So it was in that context.”

But you’re the last person who should have sent those e-mails. “I know that. It was a moment of lunacy … but I never dreamt it would be seen as making allegations. The trouble is that it was taken out of context.” That’s what Conservative politicians say! “No, the context was that this is what I can do for students, that was it. It was a sort of balance.” But the way you put it was so unpleasant: the implication being that what Padel can “do” for students is educate them; what Walcott can “do” for students is harass them. What balance is that?

Now, I don’t think sexual harassment is a trivial thing, particularly when the outcome of a student’s grades depends on whether or not she plays along with her professor’s sexual fantasies. And an abuse of power is not diminished just because it took place 20 years ago. The role of Oxford’s Professor of Poetry is second in this country only to that of Poet Laureate, and so it is only right that the person on whom that honour is bestowed should be subject to intense scrutiny. Past poet gods (never godesses) include Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. And I agree with Padel that the argument that you wouldn’t have turned down the likes of the priapic Lord Byron won’t wash because, as she says, “Byron hadn’t got a track record in a university”.

But in a perfect world, if Padel so disapproved of Walcott’s track record shouldn’t she have made a public statement about it and even withdrawn from the race? “Oh, I wish you had been advising me, then I would have done that,” she says. (She says that friends did say to her, ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’) But honestly, this won’t do. Can you not see, yourself, that what you did was sneaky and underhand? “Yes, and I can’t say it loud enough. I feel very, very bad about those e-mails and I deeply, deeply regret it and it was wrong of me, and actually it’s not really very representative of how I go about things.” That is the closest the poet has come to an apology.

Her eyes water but this may be a contact lens that is irritating her. When I ask her whether she’s upset, she says, “I don’t think so”. Would you say that you are a robust person? “Yeah, I think so. I mean when it was happening, when suddenly everything went … I felt as though I had walked out the door to buy a pint of milk and found myself on a mountaintop in a blizzard. That’s what it felt like.

“But, you know, because I was reading poems all the way through it — at Hay and the Edinburgh book festival and lots of other things — the audiences really just react to the work and make up their own minds. It was a great thing for a writer to find out, really. That you are judged on your work.”

Oxford has just announced the search for its next professor of poetry. I don’t suppose Padel will be thinking of reapplying? “Oh no, I wouldn’t. No, no, no.” Have you talked to Walcott? “No.” Do you think it would be a good idea if you did? “It would. I think he is coming to Britain this year.” If you admire his work so much, perhaps he would forgive you, do you think? “Yes, I hope so. Hmmm.”

It’s hard to know what to make of Padel. She’s a highly intelligent woman who is sophisticated but also apparently unworldly. This comes to the fore when I ask her whether she had ever been anxious about people trying to guess the identity of her lover. Her work is riddled with concrete details that may help to anchor them as poems but are also highly revealing. “No, I don’t think so,” she says. “Once you’ve made a poem, it’s like having made a chair. You trust the poem and what matters is — ‘Is that adjective too soft?’ or ‘Should I take that adverb out?’”

It’s clear that she was desperate to secure the professorship and, yes, she is ambitious but mainly for the right reasons. When she was at Somerset House, Padel plastered poems — “other people’s, not mine” she stresses — in the loos, the cafés, everywhere, so that passers-by could be “enticed or disturbed, hooked, emotionally drawn in”.

She loves teaching and, since we must assume that male professors don’t have the monopoly on lechery, says: “I have never been in a situation where I have been attracted to a student, so I don’t know what it’s like.”

It is easy to see that she would have made a terrific professor, with her strenuous commitment to prove that all students — not only the English undergraduates but the scientists and the engineers, too — should be exposed to the instructive power of poetry. She must have convinced herself that it was a goal worth fighting for, by whatever means possible. It also seems clear that there is a strong element of self-delusion about the role she played; strange but not unique for the daughter of a psychoanalyst.

What is so sad is that for the first time in 300 years, the three candidates for the Oxford professorship were not the usual suspects but a black man, a woman and an Asian man — and, yet, the contest ended in such disarray. “Yes, it’s bad,” Padel says. “Everybody feels bad about it.”

Meanwhile there is her novel to promote — set in London, Devon and the jungles of India — as well as a book of poetry lectures, and an introduction to the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh. She is also working on an intriguing project, combining music, poetry and science — “Music from the Genome”, comparing the DNA of a choir with that of non-musical people — for which she has written 23 new poems around the idea of cells.

When we were talking about the Walcott issue, I mention a nonfiction book by the Australian novelist Helen Garner, The First Stone, which, like David Mamet’s play Oleanna, looked at a campus sexual harassment case, and examined all the ambiguities that such incidents may involve. I was struck by what Garner said about writing: “It’s my way of making sense of things that I’ve lived and seen other people live, things that I’m afraid of or that I long for.”

Is that how it is for Padel? “Yes, it’s like what the poet Michael Donaghy said, ‘I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning if writing poems was not a process of discovery for me’.” You write to make sense of the world? “We write while making sense of the world. Every poem is a journey. You don’t know where it is going to go — that is the exciting thing.”

There’s another line that occurs to me when thinking of Padel’s muddled emotions over the Oxford professorship: “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” She told me that she hardly ever thinks about that episode (not sure I believe her) but, knowing her taste for the autobiographical, my guess is that one day she will write a poem about it that will reveal as much to her as to the reader.

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Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel is published by Little, Brown on Feb 4 at £12.99. To order it for £11.69 inc p&p, call 0845 2712134, or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Celebrities, Comedians, Women

Sandi Toksvig on her Christmas cracker

The Times December 05, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

The self-confessed ‘show-off’ talks about her Christmas cabaret show, politics and a crush on Cheryl Cole

Sandi Toksvig

Sandi Toksvig has a habit of being picked up by strange women in public conveniences, which sounds like a cheap gag but happens to be true (although not in a George Michael way, obviously). Only the other day, she was sitting in one of those cubicles where you have to push your foot against the door to keep it closed — a challenge in itself if, like her, you’re under 5ft tall — when a woman burst in, mid-flow, apologised profusely, retreated, and then reappeared, saying: “I think you’re Sandi Toksvig — can I have your autograph?”

Just before we meet another woman had approached her in the loos at the Royal Festival Hall, followed her into the room we’re now sitting in, plonked herself down and is chatting merrily away, oblivious to the tape recorder on the table. “Merrily”, it transpires, is the wrong word. The toilet stalker is saying that her boss at the Koestler Trust — whose current exhibition at the Southbank of art by prisoners has been the subject of controversy — was so moved by Toksvig’s appearance at a recent candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square that they were wondering if she could be persuaded to do some work for their charity.

The vigil, on October 30, attended by 10,000 people, was organised as a protest against hate crimes, after the murder in September of Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man, who had been out on the town celebrating a new job and was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square by two 17-year-old girls and a 19-year-old boy.

“It’s too awful, and the point about it is not that it was a homophobic crime, it is that it was a hate crime,” Toksvig says quietly. “I don’t care what colour you are, what your sexuality is, or what your religion is . . . I care that anybody who wants to go across Trafalgar Square is entitled to do so.

“Anyway, we had an extraordinary evening, with two minutes’ silence and then Sue Perkins read out the names of all the people who had died in the past ten years because of hate crimes. It’s shocking and it won’t do. It just won’t do.”

It is also shocking to hear, particularly from someone who has achieved national-treasure status, that she, too, has been the victim of hate crimes. It is almost 16 years since Toksvig, then 36, decided to go public on her private life — to pre-empt being done over by a homophobic newspaper — that she and her female partner at the time, Peta, lived happily together as a family with three small children, fathered through artificial insemination by Chris Lloyd Pack, a close married friend, with Peta as the birth mother. In the ensuing furore, the Save the Children charity dropped Toksvig as the compere of its 75th-anniversary celebrations, later apologising after demonstrations by lesbian activists.

More dismaying behaviour followed as Lloyd Pack’s former mother-in-law denounced all participants (Toksvig, Peta, Lloyd Pack and, presumably, her own daughter) as the spawn of Satan, prompting the real loonies to come out of the shadows: “I’ve probably had about three serious death threats in my career, all from Christian fundamentalists — very stressful, where we’ve had to go into hiding,” Toksvig says. The family was protected by “the very nice boys in the police hate-crime squad” but it’s not surprising to hear that Toksvig suffered from depression: “If I’ve been dealing with somebody who wants to kill me and that’s scary, to put it mildly, then I have been depressed. But having had some degree of therapy [she is vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and her civil partner, Debbie, is also a psychotherapist], I realise that depression is fair enough in the circumstances. ”

All of this is a long time ago and it’s annoying when a person amounts to so much more than his or her sexuality that — with the rise of gay bashing, on the streets and in certain newspapers — the subject of gayness is still so topical.

Toksvig dislikes, of course, being referred to as “the lesbian comedienne” and says: “When I see comedian — and ‘comedienne’, of course I hate it — I think ‘Oh, really?’ because I think of myself as a writer and broadcaster. Sometimes it’s funny but I’ve just done a piece for Radio 3 all about Mary Wollstonecraft [the 18th-century philosopher and feminist] and there’s not a joke in it.”

There will be jokes aplenty, however, as well as gaiety of the old-fashioned sort at Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker cabaret show, starring Ronnie Corbett. Toksvig has written her own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and each night the roles of Scrooge and Mrs Cratchit will be played by different well-known personalities, Denise van Outen, Maria Friedman and John Humphrys among them.

And what of her new chum? “Ronnie makes me laugh every time I’m in the room with him. He’s got that wonderful ability to make you laugh just with ‘the look’. It helps that we are roughly the same height. He refers to us as The Condiment Set of Comedy, which I quite like.”

There were a few surprises for me on meeting Toksvig. The first was the slightly singsong lilt to her voice, in person, when I’m accustomed to her frightfully British clipped accent as a broadcaster. She says that she sounds more Scandinavian when she’s tired. “Also when you’re performing you’re a different person. I think I’m much duller in real life.” (Not true.) When she’s stressed, she confesses, she dreams in her native tongue. At one point, when we are talking about romance, she breathes in such a husky, accented voice: “Isn’t loff the most fontastic thing?” that, if you closed your eyes, it could be Ingrid Bergman talking.

Her late adored father, Claus, was a foreign correspondent posted to the United States who took along his wife and young family. Toksvig, like her older brother, Nick, who works as a journalist for al-Jazeera in Qatar, and her much younger London-based sister, Jenifer, who writes musicals, was encouraged from an early age to read newspapers (The New York Times from the age of 7, in her case) and be politically engaged. Claus Toksvig wrote for Jyllands-Posten (of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons debacle) and broadcast for Danish radio and television. His elder daughter inherited his passion for current affairs, handily for her role as chair for the BBC Radio 4 The News Quiz.

Claus Toksvig was also a Danish MEP and Sandi, like him, is passionately proEuropean Union. She is also a big Liberal Democrat supporter and does not rule out the possibility of a political career when she retires from “showing off”, as she puts it. “It’s been 30 years now as a career. I’m 51. I enjoy it but I don’t need it.”

There has been some speculation that, with David Howarth departing as MP from the safe Liberal Democrat seat of Cambridge, Toksvig may stand: “Sadly, that’s nonsense,” she says. “But had it been in five years’ time, it might well be that I would have said, ‘Yes’. I want to retire from showing off but I don’t want to retire from doing something useful with my life. So I’m not saying it’s out of the question that I may have a political career in the future. Or I might work full-time for a charity.”

I wonder whether there are any politicians she dislikes intensely. “Yes!” — a big roar of laughter — “I’ve never met the man but I worry deeply that Peter Mandelson has been given so much power in this country but has not been elected to office. I worry that he seems to be the deputy prime minister, he wants to be minister of information, he wants to be foreign secretary . . . the last time I looked, the Labour Party was in favour of democratically electing those people who hold power. It wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Conservative government but I am deeply shocked by Mandelson’s pre-eminence.”

I ask Toksvig if she fancied anyone in public life. “Cheryl Cole,” she says, without missing a beat. “I have a crush on Cheryl Cole.” Why? She actually blushes and giggles: “I think she’s really pretty! I should be more cynical but I hope she’s as nice as she looks. I don’t really do crushes but my children do tease me about Cheryl Cole.”

Another politician comes up in a rather different context. We talk about Hillary Clinton’s crush on “vibrant, vital, attractive … so young” David Miliband. “Yes! And about David Miliband!” … a funny look.

“Actually I met her husband once — Bill — and I did have a Monica Lewinsky moment. I thought, ‘Ooooohhhhhh, I get that! Mmmmmmm, very, very sexy’. I was in a room full of people and I was the only woman in the room at that moment. He held me for quite a long time and I would have done anything for him . . . maybe not the full cigar, but, you know . . . sorry!” suddenly remembering herself.

Back in the real world, Toksvig says she adores her partner, Debbie, but does believe that it’s possible to love more than one person: “You need different things from different people. Sometimes you don’t live well together. You can adore someone and be mildly exasperated by them at the same time.” How can you live with someone and not be exasperated by them?

“Debbie and I have a very smooth waltz through life at the moment,” she says. “I’m older now and less inclined to change somebody. We’re married in a civil partnership, which I battled long and hard for, and I hope that’s it. That’s certainly my intention.”

Was Debbie your shrink? “Don’t be so silly,” she cracks up. “ That would be immoral! She would be struck off. Hahahahaha. No, no — she’s terribly boundaried. She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients. I don’t know anything about any of them,” she complains.

This Christmas there will be a full house chez Toksvig (Debbie has taken her surname), but no bigger than their usual Sunday lunch of 14 to 20 people. “Chris [her children’s father] won’t be there because he lives in Portugal in a Buddhist retreat, so he sits around with his foot behind his ear mostly and Christmas is not a big thing for them. But my mum will be there and my brother and my brother’s kids and my sister, my kids and their various partners who now seem to be appearing, and Peta of course, who is my best friend, and quite possibly her mother, who’s still my mother-in-law, it doesn’t make any difference.

“It’s Christmas Eve we celebrate, and it’s very formal — black tie — and we have roast duck and red cabbage, and the boys light the candles on the tree, it’s very sexist, and then we all hold hands and we sing special Danish Christmas songs.”

Toksvig was surprised to discover from her two older children — daughters of 21 and 19, and a son of 15, all delivered by her (is there no end to her talents?) — that their friends think it’s “cool” that they have two mums.

“Who knew it would be cool? It would never have occurred to me. What I do think is that it is an odd team to be on.” What do you mean? “I sometimes feel like I’m the captain of the national lesbian team. But I am who I am. I am myself.

“Would I have chosen to be gay? Probably not. But I didn’t choose, it’s who I am. Am I glad? Absolutely. In fact I suspect that being gay has been the saving of me because it has kept at bay the hideous middle-class woman I would have been. It’s made me much more tolerant, much more accepting and much less likely to assume things about other people. I challenge myself to confront all my prejudices because I have been the victim of prejudice myself.”

Having experienced that pain, would she not wish it upon her children? “So far I think I’ve produced three heterosexual children. But I think life has changed and I wish that they find love wherever they find it. I hope they get giddy with it, and grin!But I would wish them not to have a public life. Today, I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, actually.”

* * *

Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker starring Ronnie Corbett and special guests runs from Dec 15 to Dec 24.

southbankcentre.co.uk

Early years

Sandi Toksvig was born in 1958 in Copenhagen, the Danish capital. Her father, Claus (whom she once cited as a literary influence), was a foreign correspondent for a Danish television channel. She spent most of her youth in America, a childhood that she retraced for her 2003 travel biography Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey.

Showbiz

Intent on being a lawyer, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, to study law, archaeology and anthropology, but admits “showbusiness got in the way”. She launched her comedy career at Cambridge Footlights alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson as well as graduating with a first-class degree and two awards for outstanding achievement.

She moved via children’s television into broadcasting and then on to the comedy circuit.

She has appeared as a panellist and presenter on shows including Call My Bluff and Have I Got News for You. She presents the BBC Radio 4 travel programme Excess Baggage and replaced Simon Hoggart as chairman of The News Quiz in 2006.

Other strings

In 1995 she sailed around Britain on a yachting adventure with the former Beirut hostage John McCarthy. She has also canoed across Africa, written books and in 2007 was named Political Humourist of the Year at the Channel 4 Political Awards and Radio Broadcaster of the Year by the Broadcasting Press Guild.

On Ronnie Corbett

We’re just two tiny little people. We’re doing something in the show together — a very small song and dance, with just the two of us on the stage. Hopefully it will go well.

On her father, a journalist

In those days, long before 24-hour rolling news, we used to go to the airport, quite often, with a roll of film and my dad would go up to somebody who was taking a flight to Copenhagen and say: “Would you mind taking this back?” And it would be the news but it wouldn’t be the news for 24 or 36 hours.

On childhood

I have strong memories of the death of Martin Luther King. My father insisted on speaking to us about it and, most of all, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, since they had spent so much time together on the election trail.

On hobbies

I fantasise about being a recluse because I am quite hermit-like — I like carpentry, and weaving and embroidery, and jam-making. I’d like to learn how to make cider.

On her partner, Debbie, a psychotherapist

She won’t tell me any of the details about her clients, nothing at all. I’d be so fascinated. Other people’s problems are fascinating.

Artists, Women

Paula Rego on her museum to celebrate the brutal world of Portuguese storytelling

The Times September 19, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

The acclaimed artist has been inspired by her country’s rich oral tradition. Now she is determined to keep that heritage alive

Paula Rego is talking about her love of pornography, particularly as penned by Henry Miller: “When I discovered it, I found it really quite wonderful and thought, ‘Gosh, look at that!’ ” Her sooty eyes gleam. “I used to read a lot of it and I just found it, you know . . . naughty.”

Her discovery came when she was renting a studio in Dean Street, Soho, Central London, from a woman: “Not a tart, a lovely girl.” Are you saying that tarts can’t also be lovely girls, I tease her. “No, no, no, no, but she wasn’t a tart and this was in 1959, my dear, long before you were born. [I wish.] One day I looked up and saw this book and took it down and read it and I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake! I’ve never read anything like that in my life’.”

Rego’s thoughts take off like startled birds. Her responses are unpredictable, and she can be tricky to pin down. Her art is a form of storytelling, often ambiguous and mysterious, hinting at sinister emotional or political complications. In her earlier work, particularly, you feel that something unspeakable is about to happen or has just occurred, challenging you to guess the narrative; it’s like a hard-core Vermeer.

One of the more interesting difficulties is that Rego’s interpretation of her own work is markedly different from the way most of us view it. This has been acutely observed by Marco Livingstone in an essay that the artist (as she never calls herself) pressed on me when we parted. The text was commissioned for the catalogue of a new museum devoted to Paula Rego, the Casa das Histórias, which is opening this month in Cascais, in her native Portugal.

“ ‘Darkness? What darkness?’ Rego seems genuinely perplexed whenever she hears comments about her art being disturbing or conveying a harsh or bleak view of human suffering and cruelty,” Livingstone writes. “For her it is clearly simply a case of showing life as it is . . . ”

Ask her about a certain sadomasochistic thread (as I see it) in her work, and Rego is nonplussed. The Policeman’s Daughter, for instance, with the grim-faced daughter’s arm plunged into the black leather boot as she polishes it, suggests repression but also an atmosphere that makes you think she will find a way of getting her own back somehow.

The Family, a year later, in 1988 (the year her husband, Victor Willing, died, after a long decline from multiple sclerosis), depicts a suited man with frightened eyes, rigid on a bed, being undressed by a smiling woman, a young girl pressed up hard against his groin, another young girl by the window, her hands clasped in a prayer, which could also be a strange sort of excitement. There is a sense of complicity between the women that is not altogether benevolent. “That’s not sadomasochistic. They are trying to raise him from the dead,” Rego says. “I was going to call that Lazarus.”

She continues: “First of all, I don’t get a kick out of sadomasochism and I never thought of my pictures as sadomasochistic. I mean, there are very nasty things that happen and tender things that happen. So there is brutality and there is tenderness, there is cruelty and there is tolerance and kindness. There is everything. Most of the things I do are based on Portuguese folk tales, which are not folksy. They were jotted down by anthropologists, at the turn of the century, who would go into the villages and the mountains and take down these stories which are brutal and magic as well. And it is those stories that I have adored and revered all my life. That’s why this museum I am opening in Portugal is called the House of the Stories.”

When I arrive at the Kentish Town studio she has occupied since 1993 — a former North London woodworking business, with its bafflingly inconspicuous doorway and 3,000sq ft divided into two spaces, one for drawing, one for painting — Rego is a model host, offering coffee and apple pie. She is famously mad about clothes, something she inherited from her late mother, and is wearing a fabulous jacket, made out of different slashes of patterned fabric, by the Belgian designer Dries van Noten.

Her hair is sticking up in tousled clumps, which gave her the look of a charming, if slightly wayward, sprite. She wears her make-up in a smoky smudge above and below her eyes, which she closes, for longish periods, or looks at you from under hooded lids. Sometimes, alarmingly, she will bare her jumbled teeth, in a sudden, simian snarl and break into high-pitched laughter, although it’s not quite clear why.

At the end of the hangar-like room we are sitting in is a sort of altarpiece for the Foundling Museum, with a series of stuffed figures in brown uniforms depicting scenes conjured by Rego: the abandoned children in Thomas Coram’s famous school, and the events that led up to their births. “So on the top left-hand side is a rape. Below, on the left, she’s having a baby in the moonlight. Over there, they are throwing babies down into the well. I had a well built, you see. I compose and build these things, and then I draw them. The one on the far right is throwing the baby out of the window. It’s a bit like Michael Jackson but it was before he died, so it doesn’t count.”

On various tables, every surface is covered with curious objects: a bright orange cat, dusty artificial flowers, a frightening pagan-looking doll with a grotesque phallic nose. An anatomical dummy, in tails, is splayed over a sofa and Rego zestfully unzips the fly to show me how “he” can be converted into a “she”. There are rails of clothes, including dresses that belonged to her mother and grandmother, and stacks of plastic drawers crammed full of underwear and stockings.

In the room next door Rego has created another scene; of a classroom, this time, a couple of children fighting on the floor and a desk with the seated figure’s back to us. This is a hated teacher from her own childhood, the artist explains, but the pupil has wreaked her revenge. We walk around the tableau to confront the teacher and find that her “face” is a hideous skull. On the walls are etchings — Rego’s preferred medium — some from her series on female genital mutilation. As we stand in front of one of an African girl, her poignant face shrouded in a white bride’s veil, a boat of star-scattered fabric in front of her, Rego says sadly: “You see, she is carrying the sky in her lap.”

The combination of storytelling — often around women’s bonds and bondage within the family— and the directness of her political comment is more suggestive of a literary tradition, such as the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Rego’s abortion pictures — her response to Portugal’s 1997 referendum on the legalisation of abortion — are among her toughest and most confronting to date. (The poll attracted only a 10 per cent turn-out and the vote went against; the decision was overturned only two years ago.) Her art has also been informed by her revolt against the twin oppressions of the Church — “the horrible Catholic Church”, as she puts it — and her memories of the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.

Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, three years after Salazar came to power, where he remained until 1968. When Rego was 16 she was sent to complete her education at an English finishing school in Sevenoaks, Kent. Her mother was appalled when she next saw her daughter. “ ‘What is this?’ she said, when I arrived at the station. ‘You look revolting!’ Quite right, I did,” Rego recalls. “I’d eat all the remains of people’s food from their plates. So she took me to Paris and forced me to eat only meat and no potatoes, and by the time Mum and Dad got back to Portugal I had lost the weight.”

Rego is a manic-depressive and there is mental illness on both sides of her family. Fortunately, none of her three grown-up children — Caroline (married to the sculptor Ron Mueck), Victoria and Nicholas — seems to have inherited the depressive gene. Her father, who was her favourite parent, would withdraw for long periods in silence. When her parents were away on business, the young Rego — an only child — spent alternate weeks, blissfully, with her beloved grandparents, and less blissfully with her mother’s aunt, who was catatonically depressed, barely stirring from her chair.

When I ask her whether her mother also suffered from depression, she roars: “Good God, no!” And then: “She loved shoes.” That’s quite an eccentric non sequitur. “Well, she did love shoes,” Rego says. “In the end we had to put her in a home with nurses. They used to dress her and she always complained when they put brown shoes with black clothes.”

The first psychiatrist Rego saw was Anthony Storr — also an eminent author — who suffered from depression himself. “He was very good and saw me for a while. But then he said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m writing and I don’t have time’, so he sent me to somebody else, who I saw every week since 1973 until about five years ago, when he retired.” I wonder whether she thinks she may have suffered from some form of post-natal depression, as it was possibly years before her depression was recognised and treated. “Oh, good God, no. Having children is nothing. You open your legs and out they come.” And then, marvellously: “I mean, while I was having my daughter, I read Simone de Beauvoir all the way through it.”

She hates the word “creative”. “I’m not a literary person so I can’t explain to you why I don’t like the word. But doing art is disgusting, don’t you see? And creative is something to do with doing art.” You’ve lost me. Why is “doing art” disgusting? “I think it is.” But you’re an artist; that’s what you do! “Yairssss, that’s what I do. But really I do drawing. I like drawing best of all, like when you’re small and . . .” She starts humming as she used to do, a solitary child, sketching away for hours in her playroom.

When we were talking about Rego’s love of pornography — or erotica, more accurately — I asked her whether her discovery had made an impact on her relationship with Willing. (She said, rather primly, not.) When she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1952, he was already in his third year, although seven years her senior, and newly married. I had also asked her what she remembered most clearly about her time with him, and her reply was a succinct: “Bed.” Oh, was he good in that department? “ ‘Take off your knickers’ was the first thing he said to me.” That’s — ah — an interesting line. “Yes.” So did you? “I obeyed exactly. It was at a Slade party, and I was a virgin.” Crikey. “I know. It was very dramatic and dirty. There was blood everywhere,” she says through a fit of giggles.

Rego became pregnant while Willing was still with his wife — a ballet dancer and childhood sweetheart — and he married Rego in 1959, the year that their second daughter, Victoria, was born. The anxiety of returning pregnant and umarried to Portugal to deliver the news can be divined, decades later, in the rabbit paintings of 1982 — Pregnant Rabbit Telling her Parents and Rabbit and Weeping Cabbage. When Rego explained to her mother that the cabbage represented her, her mother apparently responded happily: “Why, you’ve made me look so young.”

There seem to have been some idyllic years — certainly in the photos from that time the handsome couple positively glow — when the Willings lived with their small children in Rego’s family rural retreat in Ericeira, although Victor Willing was more involved in helping to support his father-in-law’s ailing business than creating (dread word) his own art. But in 1966, when multiple sclerosis was first diagnosed, the struggles began, ending in his death in 1988.

Rego has a long-term companion — Anthony Rudolf, a writer and publisher — who is also one of her models: “He loves sitting; he’s very good.” His name comes up when we are talking about the dangers of love, and she says that their relationship is not like that. “We’re terribly good friends, which is much healthier than being in love. I don’t recommend being in love to anybody.” Why? “It’s much better to have a very good friend who takes you to the theatre. I don’t think being in love is a particularly nice thing.”

She clearly adored her husband. “He was immensely intellectual, he liked talking about philosophers and French poets and that. He was a bloody dish and I think that intellectuals, on the whole, are dishy. He was a dominant person but he also had a kind of delicate, feminine quality. Men were in love with him as well. He was incredibly charming. He really was.”

But Rego can also see that her love was “a form of worship, that came from a long way back, OK? [When he, unlike her, was the rising star in the art world.] I was a mere nothing with him, do you understand? So when he was diagnosed, we didn’t know what the hell it meant. And then it got worse and worse and I thought, ‘I don’t like this at all’. It was horrible and then your life becomes very restricted. But I was always lucky because I had Portuguese au pairs and things like that to help.”

Rego cannot say that she regrets having fallen in love but, anyhow, she doesn’t believe she had any choice in the matter. It was a coup de foudre; an irresistible force. “I did love him — very, very much — and I wouldn’t have known any other way to be because that’s how I was then. I was very young and I admired him enormously. But if you’re young and you fall in love madly, you lose a sense of yourself, as well. And it’s not terribly good for the work. But, yeah, well, it’s life, isn’t it? Life is that.”

We’ve talked for a long time; the photographer has arrived, and EastEnders beckons, one of Rego’s last addictions, now that a heart condition has restricted her alcohol consumption to a daily dose of two flutes of champagne. I check her age before I leave, and get it wrong by a year — “75!” she gasps, as though I’ve mugged her. “Four!” (I’m worried that I’ve hastened her departure) “74!” I’m all for accuracy but does the extra year really bother you so much, at this stage, I ask, intrigued. “Every hour matters, my dear. Every hour.”

Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, opened yesterday; www.casadashistoriaspaularego.com

SMALL TALK

On appearances I do my best to look my best. I think that’s terribly important. When you come out of the hairdressers, you do feel better. I like dressing up and going shopping, and I like it very, very much.

On fascism Having been brought up in a Fascist country, you are naturally aware of the injustices and the poverty. Of course, my father kept me well informed as to what went on. So I was politically aware and furious at times. Most of my pictures are political.

On being Victor Willing’s model There’s a wonderful nude of me that disappeared in Belgium — somebody must have bought it, and it’s fabulous. But, you know, Vic was married.

On psychiatry What I wanted was a buzz so that I could get new ideas for pictures.

On Tracey Emin I gave her a tutorial once and it was a disaster. I think we talked about men a lot of the time. So she says.

BIOGRAPHY

Paula Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935 to Maria, who had studied painting, and José, a wealthy electrical engineer. It was a privileged household, but the family moved to the seaside town of Estoril when Rego was 3 after incipient tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Art and love Her talents developed at an Anglican English school in Portugal. At the Slade in London, where she won prizes, she fell in love with the painter Victor Willing. At 20 she became pregnant with his child and returned to Portugal. He later left his wife to marry her.

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Endometriosis, tapeworm, and an on-off love affair — the bad girl of Brit Art says she has had a tough time, but is now bouncing back

Emin

Tracey Emin is serene. That is not a sentence that comes naturally. She has emerged from her year of living dangerously — nothing to do with wild antics and everything to do with ill health — purged of both her demons and a giant, Gothic-sounding tapeworm.

We meet in Spitalfields, East London, where Emin lives and works. She was a little bit late for our interview and so I had a chance to potter around her studio. This is where her embroidery and appliqué pieces are created and the room resembles a well-stocked children’s day centre. There is a row of orange washing baskets brimming with brightly coloured fabric and a wall of plastic boxes filled with all manner of things, neatly labelled: “Bits and bobs”, “Postcards and diaries” and “Voodoo dolls”.

At the far end of the room is a trio of antique French chairs and a circular table, a glass top protecting an Emin oeuvre/tablecloth of appliquéd letters of the alphabet, and a ridiculously large bean bag on which Emin and her team of seamstresses sprawl, a (literally) laid-back sewing bee, to protect their spines and necks while they work.

A glass door opens on to a small courtyard just large enough to contain a wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs. In the corner, next to several bicycles, is an impressively full rack of wine bottles which, on closer inspection, all bear the same label: Château de Tracy (sic).

The chatelaine arrives, wet hair, gleaming tan, shorts and a fitted pale-blue mannish shirt, revealing a glimpse of a cerise balcony Agent Provocateur bra. An assistant has brought a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a quaint flower-motif cup and saucer, and La Trace decides that she will risk the caffeine — she has become, perforce, a non-wheat, non-dairy purist — to join me in a cuppa as we sit outside.

In her street there are two blue plaques dedicated to Miriam Moses, the first woman mayor of Stepney, and Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer of Spitalfields Silks. There will, surely, be a third plaque celebrating a woman after Emin has passed on. “Do you think I’m blue plaqueable?” she asks. Well, yes, actually.

In 2007 she was not only chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale (the second woman to have a solo show, after Rachel Whiteread, ten years earlier) but also joined the hallowed ranks of David Hockney, Peter Blake and Anthony Caro when she was made a Royal Academician. She is a patron of the Terence Higgins Trust, regularly donates work for charities such as the Elton John Aids Foundation, and founded her own library for schoolchildren in Uganda last year. Senior politicians on both sides are competing for her support. Forget the blue plaque, can a damehood be far behind?

Emin had been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party until her recent defection, when she voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London: “I knew that Boris would make a really good mayor. He’s dynamic, he’s interesting, he’s educated, he likes partying, he likes the creative arts … Ken should have been the ideal Mayor of London, because he loves it, but somehow he sold out, and that’s what disappointed me.” (Emin was a vociferous opponent of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for high-rise development, particularly in her own historic neighbourhood.) Gordon Brown, she says, “was fantastic about the Titians. He didn’t muck around with that, he just understood that it was important that those paintings remain here. So obviously he understands that art is important but it doesn’t mean to say that his Cabinet understands that.

“I think Sarah Brown is very interested in the arts, too. In fact, I wish she was Prime Minister!”

Emin was particularly unimpressed by the former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham: “He doesn’t know anything about art. I went to 11 Downing Street and Burnham made a speech and I said, ‘You can’t give us a glass of red wine and a patronising speech like that and think that everything’s gonna be all right! What are you going to give us? Tax breaks? Are you going to change the law for people donating works? Tell me what you are going to do!’ But he didn’t have a clue.”

This was in marked contrast, she says, to the arts dinner hosted by the Tories in the spring. What was that like? “Brilliant,” she beams, “because there were people like me who don’t vote Tory who were actually being listened to.”

A journalist recently asked her what she thought of David Cameron, to which she replied: “What do you mean? Do I fancy him? Which I thought was really funny.” (We assume, then, that the answer is “No”.) The Tories, it seems, shouldn’t count on Emin joining. “I’m too independent,” she says. “But in some countries people are having their hands cut off because they want to vote, so you do have to choose.”

We last met five years ago in Istanbul, where Emin had a show supported by the British Council, and I notice that she is still wearing the clunky gold necklace that her half-brother, George, gave her, with her grandmother’s wedding ring and the ring that Emin would give her daughter if she had one (now, at 46, she admits, unlikely): “I like the invisible worlds coming together around my neck.”

Her late grandmother, May Dodge, was like a surrogate mother since Emin’s own mother — a single parent after Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot husband, took off — was often absent working various jobs to support Tracey and her twin brother.

Later, crippled by arthritis, her grandmother became bedridden and Emin would visit her in Margate where they would lie on the bed together holding hands — or crocheting — and listen to the radio.

“My nan really liked one particular DJ on Radio Kent. So I went to the trouble to get a photo of him and get him to sign it and of course as soon as I gave her the photo she said: ‘I never thought he’d look like that. That’s not at all what I imagined.’ So that was the end of that.”

I had read that Emin never spent Christmas with her family and wondered why: “Because I’ve got my own house, my own life, and I left home when I was 15, you know. That answers your question.” Well, not really.

Christmas, it transpires, was the most unhappy time for her mother and the children. “We’d be sitting on our own waiting for our Mum to come home because she was always working like the clappers and we were incredibly poor. One Christmas the Salvation Army had to come and give us presents.

“So I always dread it. When Boxing Day comes I think, ‘Yes! I did it again. I managed to get through another Christmas and eat baked beans on toast. Fantastic!’ What’s funny is that I’ve started to invite people round on Christmas Eve. You’d think that everyone would say ‘No’ but it’s weird, from Bianca Jagger to Vivienne [Westwood], a fantastic, eclectic collection of people come and we all go to church for Midnight Mass, and then it’s back to my house, where I’ve got all the fires burning and made soup, and it’s really cosy and nice.”

One year, however, it wasn’t so nice. Her guests were about to arrive when Emin developed the most appalling stomach pains. A few people noted that she wasn’t drinking but their hostess kept on smiling, collapsed the next day and was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had endometriosis: “I couldn’t walk because of the terrible pain in my hip from all the swelling.”

This was on the back of tapeworm saga, which is a fascinating tale but not for the fainthearted. Her condition was eventually detected when she was detoxing at an Austrian clinic and the worm was dispatched with the aid of massive and prolonged doses of antibiotics.

During the period that the tapeworm took residency, Emin’s skin deteriorated, her hair fell out and she was permanently bloated. Her parasite also had a sweet tooth, and she found herself — inexplicably — eating pots and pots of jam. When she was in Australia, Emin spent four hours exercising every day in an attempt to get rid of her belly, unaware that it was caused by her tapeworm. That failed, so she gave up drinking for eight months. My God! “Yes, it was horrible. It made me much more quiet and subdued because I was so miserable.”

As soon as the worm was expelled, Emin, being Emin, went out partying every night: “I was on such a high, I was so happy — ‘worm free’,” she sings out to the tune of Born Free. And then — bang — she developed a quadruple whammy of lung, kidney, vaginal and urinary tract infections and was back in hospital. All in all her life was subsumed by illness for six months. As she says, “I had a bit of a year of it last year”.

When we were in Istanbul, Emin talked mysteriously about a man she referred to as her “Roman husband”. “Well, it didn’t work out because he’s gay,” she says, laughing her head off. For the past three and a half years she has been in a relationship with a Scottish portrait photographer, called Scott, whom she met at her favourite pub, the Golden Heart. Scott is one of the reasons why she is so happy, these days, along with her newfound respectability. Last year, however, when Emin took off travelling for four months, her boyfriend went off with someone else.

“He just presumed, ‘Well, if you want to go travelling around the world, you know, you’re obviously not interested in me.’ Which is a fair point.

“That’s what’s persuaded me to buy a place in France. So we’ve got a place together because he lives in Scotland.” (Where his five-year-old son lives with his mother. ) How does that work? “It suits me when I’m busy and it really doesn’t suit me when I’m not. When I haven’t seen him for a long time and he’s really missed me and comes to me, I’m always a bit kind of nonchalant at first — ‘You’re here, are you? Oh . . .’ But it doesn’t take long because it’s a good relationship.”

In the future she is hoping to spend most weekends in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. Her house, which is “like a Moroccan castle”, is on 32 acres of land, with views of the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Our Trace is a keen gardener and will be tackling the greenhouses next year. The property also has vines, which have been neglected, but Emin intends to bring them back to life.

Her first crate of Château de Tracy was a gift from her friend, the Belgravia art dealer Ivor Braka. It’s a delicious Pouilly-Fumé but Emin can, perhaps, do even better. Except that next time, as Emin — a notoriously bad speller — points out, it will be Château de Tracey with an “e”.

* * *

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin has just been published by Rizzoli at £40. To buy it for £36, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134

My perfect weekend

Town or country?

City.

Friend or lover?

Lover.

Owl or lark?

I’m more of a lark than I am an owl, but owls are really cute and fluffy.

Rembrandt or Rothko?

Rothko.

Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

Theatre. I last saw an art play at the Victoria Miro gallery in North London.

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

Redbush tea, without milk. I hardly every drink caffeine and never drink coffee.

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .

My telephone. It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Theatre, Women, Writers

The many lives of Rebecca Miller

The Times July 4, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Daughter of Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis… It would have been easy for Rebecca Miller to be overwhelmed by the male presences in her life. Here she talks about how she found her own creative voice, and explains why her stories are filled with echoes of the family and relationships that have shaped her

Rebecca Miller
Photo: Mark Harrison

About five minutes into the interview, Rebecca Miller starts to cry. We had been talking about writing, and I read out a line from the end of one of her short stories about different women’s lives which touched me. Louisa, a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after an emotional collapse in New York. The family are around the table and her mother is drinking, as usual, which enrages the daughter, but when she looks up, “Her mother was looking at her with such love that Louisa could hardly bear to see it: it was like looking into the sun.”

I am saying how much I like Miller’s spare, economical style and suddenly her blue eyes fill. Oh dear, I’m so sorry, was it that line, oh goodness me… “Yes, yes,” a big sniff, tears coursing down her cheeks. “It came as a surprise, because I wrote the story before my mother died.”

Miller’s mother was Inge Morath, the Austrian-born Magnum photographer, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 78. Famously, she met Rebecca’s father, the late playwright Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits – the screenplay he wrote for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1962, 13 months after Miller’s divorce from Monroe, and Rebecca was born not long after.

I had met both Rebecca’s parents in the autumn of 1996 when visiting the Millers’ home in Roxbury, Connecticut, to interview the playwright shortly before a National Theatre production of Death of a Salesman. The next day, Miller had been meeting journalists to publicise the film of his play The Crucible – its star was Daniel Day-Lewis, who had met Rebecca at her parents’ home, and the two married in November that year.

Arthur Miller had graciously shown me around the property where Rebecca, a most cherished daughter, grew up, with its 380 acres of lovely land, its woods and the lake where the couple swam every day in the summer, Morath’s photographic studio and Miller’s cabin in a field to which he would retreat to write. He pointed out the furniture he had carved and hewn – a lifelong passion for making beautiful, useful things out of his hands that his son-in-law, Daniel, shares – and paintings bequeathed by friends. There was a photograph of Rebecca, aged 5, in a sailor suit, white tights on stocky little legs, and a pair of shiny buckled shoes. In pride of place was a poster from Rebecca’s prizewinning debut film, 1995’s Angela.

“I think I look more and more like my mother as I get older,” Rebecca supposes when I say that you can see a little of both her parents in her. She has the height and rangy limbs of her father, and the phosphorescent gaze of her mother. But her manner is unlike either of them. Morath, as I had described, was “a tiny tornado of energy.” Miller, in contrast, was still vital at 80 but a calmer presence.

What impresses about their daughter’s authorial voice is its unshowy confidence, and a steady authority about her storytelling which is a pleasure to read. Personal Velocity, a collection of short stories, and her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – now a feature film directed by Miller and starring Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves – are filled with wry observation and a great sense of emotional acuity. In person, although she has a winning and rather surprising lusty laugh, there is something curiously approximate about Miller. She often struggles to express herself with a sort of urgent hesitancy. It may be that interviews for her are a nerve-racking business, particularly since Vanity Fair’s revelations in 2007 about Arthur Miller’s decision to institutionalise Rebecca’s younger brother, another Daniel, now 42, as a baby because he was born with Down’s syndrome.

Family secrets

Reading the Vanity Fair piece, it became clear how traumatic this unearthing must have been for Rebecca in particular who, with both parents dead, became the person to whom the world’s press turned for an explanation. How could it be that this towering figure of humanity – the man who made such a courageous stand against the tyranny of McCarthyism – was capable of hardening his heart against his own child?

One devastating detail in the article was that Inge Morath tried to bring her son home when he was two or three, but her husband would not allow it. (She visited him almost every Sunday, apparently, in the Southbury home for mentally retarded children ten minutes’ drive from Roxbury – but never with her husband.) Miller’s rationale, according to the VF writer who spoke to friends of the family, was that it wouldn’t be fair on Rebecca to have her childhood constrained by the difficulties of sharing her home with a “challenging” sibling.

You don’t have to be a shrink to imagine the guilt you might inherit, especially for a sensitive child, if you sensed that you were the reason for your baby brother’s absence.

Rebecca Miller has said that in her short stories, the characters were “all mixed up with myself”. But as with most writers, her fiction is a literary knitting of fragments of different people known and imagined, and there are some parts of herself – buried or otherwise – that she is more willing to own publicly than others: “There’s always a temptation to reduce fiction to its autobiographical links and that’s important and also not important because, finally, it just boils down to turning writing into gossip, to be honest. To always say, ‘Is that this person or is this that person?’ is a dead end.”

But if you are interested in a writer or an artist, how can you not be struck by the way their life informs their work? Particularly when certain themes keep emerging; particularly when they seem driven by a certain haunting. In her slim oeuvre, there is a palpable sense of sadness about a missing brother (a dead twin in Louisa, and her comforting sibling closeness with a former boyfriend). It’s also there in the difficult relationship between Pippa and her photographer daughter, Grace, in the novel – the daughter always sensing that her mother loves her brother more or, at least, in a more straightforward way.

“When Louisa was 12, Penny [her mother] started changing. She sank into reveries and sighed a lot. On rainy afternoons Louisa would hover uneasily at the door as her mother sat in the darkened living room listening to Peggy Lee… Louisa guessed that Penny’s sadness had something to do with the missing baby [Seth]… Louisa knew that Seth still pulled at her mother’s memory even though nobody in the house ever mentioned him.” And later, around the dining table: “Automatically Louisa’s eyes went to the empty space beside her, Seth’s place. He was there. He was always there.”

I ask Miller about that story: “I think the idea of a missing brother probably came from my own life, but Louisa felt that she had survived and felt that she shouldn’t have survived, and having a twin would have been a bit of a different situation.” We talk about her much older siblings, a sister and a brother, from her father’s first marriage and she says that she is very close now to her half-sister, who lives on the East Coast.

It was Daniel Day-Lewis who was apparently responsible for facilitating a rapprochement between Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, and Arthur Miller, who left an equal share of his estate to his youngest son. “Danny is very much part of our family,” Rebecca said in 2007, and “leads a very active, happy life, surrounded by people who love him”. At that time, he was living with the elderly couple who had cared for him since he left the institution in his teens. Rebecca said that she visits her brother with her family on holiday and during the summer.

I wonder whether she remembers him being taken away. “I’m sure I did,” she says. Do you remember what you were told? “Ummm. Is it OK if we don’t talk about this any more? I don’t feel like talking about it.” Sorry, I say, a bit stricken, since it’s obviously still quite raw and painful. There are no more tears but she gets up and crosses the room to fetch a glass of water.

Transatlantic currents

We are conducting the interview in a hotel room in Dublin; for the past three years, the Miller-Day-Lewises have been living a rural life in Co Wicklow with their two sons, Ronan, 11, and Cashel, 7. Miller has a bad cold but, being a trouper, she is soldiering on with the publicity campaign for her new film.

There is something both graceful and awkward about her. When she poses for photographs at the end of the interview, for instance, she crosses the room with the natural elegance of a dancer in her ballet pumps and drainpipe jeans, and is quite unselfconscious in front of the camera. She is also remarkably unvain, not even bothering to check her appearance before the shoot. There is a delicacy about her features, but also a sort of wounded quality to her Pre-Raphaelite loveliness, particularly around those startling eyes.

She is most strained at the beginning of our interview, almost apologising for the slight strangeness of her short, flattened fringe: “I am naturally ringlety, but I straightened my bangs [fringe] because I looked like a poodle this morning.” As a child, she says, “I was kind of haunting looking. There were kids who said I looked like a witch, and I remember there was a period when they were afraid of me because of my eyes, which I think come more from my father’s side – Polish Jews.”

There have been a number of different, sometimes overlapping, Miller careers to date. She studied art at Yale (there are strikingly vivid descriptions of paintings in her fiction): “I painted on wood a lot, big kind of abstract paintings… I had a kind of repetitive dream cycle for years…” It wasn’t about a bull, was it? I am thinking of a grotesque series of paintings in Louisa – which precipitates the character’s suicide attempt – of a white bull trapped in a grotto by two men, its sperm spraying the walls, before they slash its throat and blood spatters everywhere. “I did actually have that dream, yes,” she says.

Wow, I say, no wonder you needed go to a therapist! “I probably was in therapy then.

I definitely had a few. But I haven’t gone for years and years – I don’t have time.” We both laugh at that and I ask her whether in that case she considers that it was a bit of an indulgence. “I remember talking to my father about it, and saying that I was angry because my psychiatrist or therapist or whatever hadn’t congratulated me on the birth of my first child, which I thought was terrible, and he said, ‘But you can’t expect them to love you. They’re not going to love you.’ And I never went back to any psychiatrist after that. I’m both fascinated and repulsed by that whole process. Actually, I just wrote a story about a psychiatrist.”

Her father seemed to be so secure in himself and grounded – although, of course, I had no idea when we met about aspects of his private life that must have weighed on him – that I couldn’t imagine him unburdening himself to a therapist. “Oh yeah,” Miller says. “He did.”

There’s something of his looks at least, I suggest, in the main character of Herb, the 80-year-old publisher, in Pippa Lee.

When we first encounter him, married to the 50-year-old Pippa, Herb has made the eccentrically unbohemian decision to sell their Manhattan apartment and Sag Harbor beach house, in a Lear-like unburdening, to move into a retirement community. Herb has massive hands and a lopsided grin and is, “A darkly funny man who despised religion, all exaggeration, and musicals… He mistrusted extravagant metaphor, favoured the driest prose.”

She says the hands and the grin may be her father’s, but “Herb is a real amalgam: the cadence of the Jewish intellectuals coming through New York – I could hear that partly because of my father, but also other people that I grew up with. But the big difference is that Herb isn’t an artist and he’s a wilier character.”

Pippa Lee is the perfect artist’s wife – even though she isn’t married to an artist. One of the writers in the book, Sam, describes her as, “The icon of the Artist’s Wife: placid, giving, intelligent, beautiful. Great cook. They don’t make them like that any more.”

What fascinates Miller, an avowed feminist, about this dying breed of women who support the careers of powerful men, is what they bury of themselves in order to fulfil that role. Pippa’s past, for instance, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel, was defined by a suffocating relationship with her amphetamine-addicted mother, a troubling relationship as a teenage girl with an older, married man, her escape to New York and descent into a drug-fuelled rackety life on the Lower East Side before she is rescued by Herb.

The novel is much darker than the film and more interesting because of it. The film, I suggest, is Miller-lite – avoiding the more troubling and challenging complexities of character. “It’s one thing to write about a woman crawling across the floor and eating out of a bowl of spaghetti,” she says (referring to the scene which leads to Herb taking Pippa to bed), “but it’s another thing to see it. If I had gone down the dark street, I would have had a very dark film. My other films are probably darker, but the philosophy behind this one is of lightness and forgiveness.

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

What Miller finds so attractive about her heroine, Pippa, is her lack of ambition: “What I love about her is that she really doesn’t have any need to make something outside of herself.” Her prototype in Personal Velocity is Julianne, a poet who realises, “She would never write a great poem, she had married a great man instead.” Miller compares herself, in contrast, with another of her characters, Greta, a publishing minion who, offered the chance of a quick route up, discovers she is “rotten with ambition”.

She has both written and directed all of her films to date. Is that because she is a control freak? “Ahhh… I’m greedy for experience and I don’t necessarily want to give it away to other people,” she says. “There’s something about the totality of that experience that’s very nourishing and very exciting to me. Although I have to say that I would like to write my own screenplays of someone else’s book.” (Top of her wish list would be Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Miller has made overtures but Tartt is unwilling to let anyone adapt her novel.)

Of her own mother, who was very much an artist in her own right, Miller says: “She kind of split the difference, you could say. She worked throughout her marriage but she was the one who made the house a home.” In her own marriage, “I would be the person who would do the logistics of childcare, parties and who is going to whose house and all that stuff.” (Earlier, she had broken off from the interview to text a friend about arrangements to pick up her boys.) “But at the same time,” she continues, “Daniel is very involved with the actual children.” Can he cook? “Yeah, he can, but he’s more of a short-order cook.” His sister’s pretty good, of course (the food writer, Tamasin Day-Lewis). “Oh yes, his sister is very good,” she says, with a sideways smile. “None of us are competing in that department.”

Literary influences

Miller says she is also like Greta in Personal Velocity because of the way she “compulsively edits everything. When people are talking, she can’t help but see how things could be simpler and more powerful.” The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity: “I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bulls*** that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again.”

Apart from Donna Tartt – who is a big favourite – she admires Rachel Cusk and Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Franzen and the late John Updike, to whom she pays an unusual tribute: “I was so excited when someone compared me to him once, I nearly peed my pants.”

She is not a fan of the upholstered writing which is in vogue now – the return to the 19th-century novel, as she puts it, as though modernism had never existed: “But when you have someone like Raymond Carver or Hemingway… the greats, where the writing is simple, real, hewn to the bone… I feel that’s where the power is. And sometimes that writing is almost not thought of as good because it doesn’t seem fancy enough.”

At the moment, she is re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird: “My 11-year-old son was reading it and I was thinking, ‘I want to read that again so I can talk to him about it,’ and I was also thinking, ‘What is it about that book?’ Is it that it comes directly from the heart, directly from someone’s deepest beliefs? But also that the language is extremely simple.”

I had wondered, with a pronounced thread in her fiction of mothers who are pill-poppers or drinkers, whether there was something of this close to home. She says not: “That didn’t come from me but I did have a very close friend [who did have that problem] and so I feel almost as though it was me. I was always quite sensitive to other people’s needs… I think that if you don’t become the people you’re writing about then you probably can’t get very far towards the truth. For the writer, it’s a kind of channelling. You’re almost at the mercy of other people, and there’s a danger to that, too.”

Her father had also talked to me about the dangers of writing, although he expressed it differently. For him, a writer had to lay himself open to the mysterious force of inspiration: “I often think of the image of someone walking around with a metal bar and waiting to be struck by lightning,” he said. “Of course, it can kill you, too.”

The mother and daughter conflict, without giving too much away, reaches a sort of resolution in Pippa Lee with the heroine thinking about the long pattern of problematic relations: “The chain of misunderstandings and adjustments, each daughter trying to make up for her mother’s lacks and getting it wrong the opposite way.”

I wonder whether Miller is relieved that she hasn’t had a daughter of her own. “In some ways I’m kind of sad that I don’t have one, but in other ways I think maybe it’s for the best.” Why do you say that? “I wonder if maybe I would have been a little intense. Or maybe that the daughter that I would have produced would have been… such a strong personality. I kind of miss having a daughter sometimes, but I love my boys. What I think is that I’ll be a really great grandmother… if I survive long enough.”

She’s pretty accepting about ageing: “But what I’m afraid of is losing my mind. Because to me, that’s what I really have… I mean everyone wants to stay pretty and young-looking and all the rest of it, but I don’t sit in fear of creases all over my forehead or whatever.

“But to go senile, that’s what really frightens me. You’d be in the middle of the sea and you couldn’t touch the bottom, you know.”

Miller’s working on a new novel now. I think I can guess its theme.

* * *

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee will be released in cinemas nationwide on July 10. Rebecca Miller’s books The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Personal Velocity are being reissued by Canongate on July 7 (£7.99)

Women, Writers

Arianna Huffington: The superblogger

The Times, November 01, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

Born in Greece, educated at Cambridge and now the queen of Capitol Hill: Arianna Huffington’s superblog has made her one of the most influential political commentators in America

Arianna Huffington
Vince Bucci

There’s a perfect Arianna moment during our long interview in the heat of the Los Angeles summer, when I ask her whether she’s seen Swing Vote, a highly topical film that had just opened in America, starring and bankrolled by Kevin Costner. “Yes,” she says. “I am in it…” Pause. “I play myself.”

Well, of course she does. In a film whose central premise is that the outcome of a US presidential election hangs on the vote of one “ordinary American” – that most sought-after coupling of words in this charged real election – the extraordinary Arianna Huffington with her hugely influential political blog (key postings by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton), The Huffington Post, aka HuffPo, practically commands a cameo role.

There are a number of reasons why I laugh out loud. La Huff’s slightly huffy (forgive the pun but it happens to be true) presumption that, surely, I should already be aware of her small but significant part; her insouciance about the obviousness of her role as a player in Hollywood; the whole slightly nutty reality TV idea of it is funny. It’s just too much, don’t you agree? Probably not, judging by Arianna’s blank response: “I thought that was why you were mentioning it.”

Our day together started chaotically. I arrived bang on time at Huffington’s home, a Mediterranean old-style villa in the swish Bel-Air borders of Brentwood, which once boasted Hollywood royals Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as residents, and latterly O.J. Simpson. The photo shoot was supposed to have finished but had not even started, which offered the opportunity for a longish perusal of the property.

The somewhat madhouse atmosphere, full of keen interns declaring their work is “awesome”, is amplified by a singsong woman’s voice on an endless loop – the Velvet Underground, it turns out, by way of the Juno soundtrack: “I’m sticking with you, ’cos I’m made out of glue, Anything that you might do, I’m gonna do too.”

Beyond the impeccably green collection of Prius cars (or Prii, as Huffington tells me her daughters call them), the front door opens into a vast hallway which would be perfect for the high-powered networking gatherings that were once considered, but no longer, to be Huffington’s central raison d’être. The French windows open out to an extended courtyard with steps leading down to a swimming pool and cabana, flanked by guest houses with wings for the various members of Arianna’s extended family – her late mother, Elli, used to live with her, and her younger sister, Agapi, 56, still does – whom she describes as her “tribe”.

A large dining-room table is covered in platters of fresh fruit and plates of honey-oozing baklava – Arianna has inherited her mother’s hospitality gene – which are intermittently snarfed by the great traffic of people passing through the house. Lempicka lookalikes are on the walls, and a blue portrait by Françoise Gilot; Arianna insists that it was Picasso who copied his ex-wife during his Blue Period, rather than the other way round. There are many, many photographs – almost all of family but also one of Barack Obama who seems, at first glance, to be stroking Arianna’s neck in a gesture of infinite tenderness, while she gazes at him. When I bring this to her attention, Arianna says he was merely gesticulating (which is clearer on close inspection), and then she points out her 19-year-old daughter, Christina, in the background.

Half an hour passes, and Arianna appears, trim in black, only to disappear again, stripping off her shirt to reveal her bra as she jogs up the sweeping staircase. Hair recoiffed, a change of clothes for the last lot of photos, poised on a column of her dozen books, ranging from her early biographies on Picasso and Maria Callas to her recent self-helpish bestseller, On Becoming Fearless, via the political – Right is Wrong, with the longest subtitle: How the lunatic fringe hijacked America, shredded the Constitution, and made us all less safe (and what you need to know to end the madness).

Finally, La Huff has done posing and sits to talk by my side at the giant table. Among the flurry of interruptions and disturbances, there is a sense of contained stillness and calm about her, as well as an unusual quality of simultaneous engagement and detachment. I wonder whether this is a result of so many years of New Age training or because she sometimes doesn’t quite catch the nuance of a question or maybe it’s just a technique for remaining unflappable. I had caught Arianna being grilled by Paxman on Newsnight a week before we met, and his incredulous eyebrow and withering tone didn’t faze her in the least. If anything, she got the better of him.

At 58, she still has the looks of a woman who might flick her burnished mane but she does not. In fact, there is something strikingly unanimated about her. The only tic Arianna seems to have is to knock on the table whenever she says “touch wood”, which is her response to anything from her hope that America is well and truly ready for change to her younger daughter overcoming anorexia.

She is the coolest warm person I have ever met, with a tepid social laugh and a constant refrain that many of her natural inclinations are to do with her “Greek peasant” stock. There are certain contexts where this works: her shrugged-off explanation for the youthful glow of her unstretched skin, and some which make her sound rather less empathic.

When we talk about Isabella’s anorexia, for instance, which she wrote about (with her daughter’s permission) in Fearless, I ask her whether she has ever suffered from anything similar: “No, it’s not a Greek peasant girl disease,” she says. “I always consider myself from Greek peasant stock, I don’t know if I am or not, but I feel I have this earthiness and there’s a sense of perspective that food is precious and I don’t suffer from all these diseases of civilisation.” One takes her point, but I wonder how helpful this robust distaste for modern-day afflictions might have been when her 11-year-old daughter, now 17, was suffering.

Since her intention is to create the first internet newspaper, rather than a mere political blog – the liberal Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) is the most talked about of these – I ask her baldly whether she thinks that America really is unracist enough to vote in a black President. “I don’t think that’s the issue at all. Sure, there’s residual racism but it’s marginal and nobody expects Obama or anyone else to be elected unanimously.

“What happens in elections, unfortunately, is that fear-mongering works. That’s what happened in American politics in ’04; there’s no earthly reason why George Bush would have been re-elected after it had been proven that there were no WMD, after it had been proven that we had tortured people in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and despite all that he was.”

The fear factor prompted Arianna to write three posts dispensing her advice to Obama. She doesn’t hold with my reinterpetation that one of her lines is that it’s important for her candidate not to dilute his position – to become Obama-lite – and shift to the centre. “It’s not about moving to the centre in the sense of abandoning any particular progressive position; that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about not being true to yourself.

“When you’re not seen as being true to yourself, then you’re not the leader who can unite a country and bring about real solutions. You are another pawn who listens to the polling data which has been proved so completely wrong again and again. So he must not surrender to the siren songs of consultants, pollsters and caution. He must follow his own drama and create a new consensus around what needs to be done. That’s leadership.”

There is strong evidence that negative campaigning, however unpleasant, works but Arianna’s view is that what Obama’s team needs to do, instead, is concentrate on galvanising the great abstaining swaths of the electorate, rather than focus on the unreliable whims of the swinging voter. “I’m saying don’t fight with John McCain over them – the oscillating ones who are most easily fearmongered. Run a campaign which is predicated on expanding the electorate: the almost 50 per cent, over 83 million Americans, who did not vote in the ’04 election. If he can get five per cent of these millions who did not vote, then he’s there… and I absolutely think it’s the likely outcome.”

There has been much comment about how the democratising power of the internet has shaped this election and transformed the nature of those in the future. Arianna, as one might expect, is enthralled by the potential of using the internet as a tool to reach out to so many people: “That is what is great about now; you can just keep giving great speeches that go on YouTube which people download. Obama’s speech on race – which was a great speech – has been downloaded in its entirety millions of times.

“And, by the way, this idea that John McCain and so many people in the media are contemptuous of eloquence! Rhetoric has always been a part of great leadership, whether it is Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela being able to move hearts and minds through words. I mean, how else does change happen?”

She, of course, has been famously open to change, having swung from being a darling of the right – at Cambridge, where she was President of the Union, a conservative commentator when she was the girlfriend of Times columnist the late Bernard Levin, courting the neo-con likes of Newt Gingrich when she moved to the States, promoting the political career of her ex-husband, the Republican oil scion Michael Huffington, who came out as a bisexual after their marriage ended – to a most outspoken champion of the liberal left.

It’s the sort of journey, one imagines, that has left numbers of her former friends and allies feeling betrayed. But Arianna points out that her core values have always been liberal: “Even during my Republican interregnum, I was always pro gay rights, pro choice and pro gun control. So if you take these three major social issues in American politics, I have always been progressive and I haven’t changed. The only change which has been fundamental is my understanding of the role of government.”

It is she, indeed, who feels let down by her former political soul mates who have changed – in particular, John McCain. Coming from a culture that venerates age, Arianna would never use the age card against him but says: “The problem with McCain is not his chronological age, it’s the age of his ideas: his views on gay marriage or Iraq or what we should do with the economy.

“He has given up all his core beliefs which had to do with ‘the agents of intolerance’, which is what he had called the religious right – and now he’s kissing their rings. On taxation, he had voted twice against George Bush’s tax cuts, and now he wants to make them permanent. On immigration, he had a very sensible bill but now he’s saying he will vote against his own bill. Torture was the ultimate surrender. This hero who has been tortured, voted against a bill that would have banned the CIA from using torture.

“So that has been his Faustian bargain and that is why he sounds so discombobulated because he has no compass. He goes wherever they need him. It’s really sad and I don’t mean that just as a phrase. This is a really noble man who’s fallen.”

The Sarah Palin curiosity show was not yet in play when we spoke but Arianna subsequently made her views plain on HuffPo, where she posts an editorial four times a week. (She still writes her weekly syndicated newspaper column for the Tribune group.) After watching the vice-presidential debate – as a member of the audience, naturally – she wrote about Palin coming across as an “over-wound-up doll, sporting a pasted-on smile that never varied, except when she winked”. She was also alarmed by the extent to which the neo-cons, her own former political bedmates, had been apparently grooming the moose-queen behind the scenes.

In one of my e-mailed questions for a last-minute update, I asked Arianna whether she considered Palin had done less or more for women by coming this far, and was impressed by the thoughtfulness and speed with which she replied. “In one way,” she said, “she’s been a throwback – relying on a flirty charm rather than knowledge, intelligence, insight. But her candidacy has been good in that it proved that just being female is not enough to attract women voters. Indeed, Palin has fared particularly poorly with women – especially women under 50.

“When the dust settles, I believe Palin will be remembered as a disastrous – and ridiculously risky – selection for McCain to have made. And she’ll go on to do what she seems to like to do best: perform. I think she’ll become the wildly popular host of a TV reality show.”

Arianna chose not to support Hillary in the primaries principally because of her position on the war. But her disappointment with the Clinton regime goes deeper: “The attempt to reform healthcare was the last bold position of the Clinton administration. Yet the Nineties was a very prosperous, good time in America; a time that we could have come together for a great collective purpose.

“To come together and try to reform healthcare again. It’s, like, you don’t give up the first time. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘Well, Lyndon Johnson said we don’t have the vote. So, OK, let’s move on’! When was reform ever easy?”

So why should we attach any importance to the opinions of a self-declared, if extensively reinvented, Greek peasant girl? La Huff is hardly a household name in this country although older readers may remember her as Arianna Stassinopoulos. But, now more than ever, she is undoubtedly a big deal in America (making Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006) – where she moved first to New York with her mother in 1980 at 30, realising after an intense 9-year relationship that she had no future with her mentor and first big love, Bernard Levin, 22 years her senior.

It was Lord Weidenfeld, the publisher, who had advised her to befriend the wives not the husbands of the powerbroking set on the Upper East Side, arming her with a list of contacts. He had encouraged her to write the Callas biography, which was serialised by Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, husband of Tina Brown, who has recently launched her own internet venture in America, The Daily Beast; they all remain the best of friends, wheels within wheels.

I had said to Arianna that while I did not wish, personally, to be bamboozled by her legendary charm – “No chance of that!” she had said rather sharply – nonetheless it was interesting how she had set about cultivating friendships with such powerful and influential women, and with such stunning success. (Ann Getty, who not only found her a husband but paid for the wedding in 1986 which, by most accounts, stretched even her own customary extravagance; Barbara Walters was a bridesmaid.)

“There was no five-year plan,” she says. “And there isn’t one now. So many of the good things I have in my life were the result of coincidence… of things that came to me. For instance, the Maria Callas was a tiny book, with a much smaller advance than the Picasso, but Harry Evans got into a bidding war with The Observer and paid more money than any previous serialisation, which was what made the book. All those things I did not cause. [The subsequent kerfuffle about a now settled plagiarism charge only served to swell the sales.]

“So the idea that you charm your way into great things happening to you would be untrue and it would also not be good advice to anyone who is listening. I feel that the only advice I can give in terms of quote unquote ‘charm’ is that if you really like people and genuinely care to know more about them, it’s just a great way to go through life.”

During her Manhattan years, Arianna became a fixture on the social scene and was written about in not always flattering terms which tend to get recycled, being memorable if cruel, in profiles such as this. My favourite is the one about her being the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus. We have a slightly surreal moment competing to remember the cleverest Arianna put-downs. “There are some good lines,” she agrees. “Do you know the one Henry Kissinger said about our wedding?” (That it had everything but “an Aztec sacrificial fire dance”.)

Just as I’m thinking this bland equanimity is almost too good to be true, she makes a spirited rejoinder: “Henry Kissinger was out as much as I was, and I didn’t hear anybody calling him a socialite! There were many men around at those same dinners – as much if not more so than I was – but you’ve never heard those adjectives attributed to men. Never.”

Did the comments bother her at the time and do they still? “At the time, they did, yes, but if at 58, I still minded those things I would really worry about myself because it would mean I was completely missing out on the point of life.” And the point of life is…? “The point of life is freedom,” she says. “And the more free we are, the less we care about what other people think of us.”

Earlier, I had asked Arianna whether she could imagine dying for anything she believed in. “Yes, yes,” she says. “Definitely I would die for my children. There’s a lot I believe in, but we have to be more concrete otherwise we sound a little bit melodramatic.”

I explain that I’m asking because both her parents put their lives at risk, driven by their beliefs. “Ultimately it has to do with big words and big values, and with me of all the big values, it would be truth – but then what is the concrete manifestation of that big value?”

OK, say somebody tried to make you write propaganda? “That would be a very good example, yes. To lie about something which would inevitably put people at risk.” Does she consider herself to be physically courageous? “I’m not in the athletic sense of scaling mountains or anything like that. [She is a keen hiker, however.] But I think I’m courageous in terms of challenging the conventional wisdom… of speaking truth to power. Actually, I don’t even consider it courageous.”

Her mother, Elli, worked for the Red Cross in her early twenties during the Greek Civil War and was up in the mountains hiding Jewish teenagers. One night they found themselves surrounded by German soldiers demanding that they surrender the Jews. Elli, who apparently spoke many languages, all self-taught, “in an accent stronger than mine”, her daughter says, came forward and boldly told them in fluent German, “We have no Jews here, put your guns down,” and, remarkably, they did. “She said it with such authority and she was really fearless, all her life and fearless for us, too, which is why I took that name for the book from her. She was definitely the foundation of everything for me… but that’s another story.”

Constantine Stassinopoulos, her journalist father, edited a Resistance newspaper during the occupation, and was caught by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. After the liberation, while regaining his strength in a sanatorium, he met Elli who was recovering from TB and coming to terms with the sad news that she could not have children as a result. The two had an affair, whereupon she promptly fell pregnant and was fully prepared to bring the baby up on her own. “Yes,” Arianna says rather proudly, “I was a lovechild.” Eventually there was a wedding, with Elli “and her substantial belly”, but Constantine’s idea of marriage, when his wife complained about his endless affairs, was, “You should not interfere with my private life.” It was a sense of entitlement, his daughter explains, “‘I survived and life owes me.’”

It was Michael Huffington who persuaded Arianna’s father to write a book about his experiences, and paid for it to be published and translated: “They were really close, even though my father did not speak English, and it was beautiful to see these two people who did not have a common language but still had this incredible bond.”

The Stassinopouloses split up when Arianna was 11 and Agapi was 9, although they never divorced and died within months of each other in 2000. Elli sounds like a wonderful character, padding around the Upper East Side apartment in a fur coat and bare feet, smoking cigars. Her idea of a humdinging party was inviting the plumbers and handymen to mingle with the statesmen and bankers. “She had no sense of hierarchy and could not have an impersonal relationship. If you went shopping with her, she would engage with the shop assistant. Not to be nice or because she wanted something; it’s just the way she was.

“She never dyed her hair or wore make-up, she was just totally real. I’m not advocating that, I’m just saying what a role model she was,” Arianna says.

The other way she influenced her daughter was her interest in spiritual matters and alternative ways of thinking. Long before it was mainstream, Elli was practising yoga and meditation and sent her daughter off at 16 to study comparative religions in Calcutta. (The following year, mother and daughters moved to London so that Arianna could pursue her dream of going to Cambridge, where she was awarded an exhibition to read economics at Girton.)

“She was completely grounded in reality but at the same time understood that there is more to life than this material reality. She would quote Socrates who said, ‘Practise death daily’, not in a morbid sense but in a sense of bringing perspective into your life,” Arianna says. “It’s stunning, when you think about it, that we live life as though we’re never going to die when the one absolute reality – whether you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a believer, whether it’s tomorrow or in 30 years – is that we’re all going to die, right?”

There was a period in the mid to late Seventies, in the UK as well as the States, when self-discovery became the buzzword. You could take your pick from est (whose guru, Werner Ehrhardt, was one of La Huff’s boyfriends), Insight, Exegisis and the latterly disgraced Bhagwan Rajneesh with his followers in their flame-coloured clothes; Arianna enthusiastically did and, indeed, only recently participated in an Insight seminar in Los Angeles. She says these accelerated therapy sessions – and, perhaps, California was always going to be her spiritual home – have helped her to realise that: “It wasn’t enough for my life to be about me and my children and my work, it had to be something about being connected with a larger story, the story of our time.”

I can still recall the shock of seeing a drawing of the towering intellect Bernard Levin dressed in a tutu, illustrating an article by a playwright, Snoo Wilson, who had seen him thus transformed at one such course. Arianna also remembers it and the publication it appeared in, Time Out. While Levin may have been her teacher in so many ways, it was she who was responsible (and blamed) for encouraging him to explore the instant therapy route. So was he wearing a tutu and if so why? “He was in Jungian analysis and it was his way of illustrating his feminine side,” she says. “It was the side of him that he felt he had suppressed. For him, it was really about breaking taboos to do with tenderness and intimacy, all the problems that he had with intimacy and relationships.” Did he find it helpful? “It was Insight and, yes, he found it incredibly helpful.”

It was this problem that, despite young Arianna’s best efforts, led to the break-up. Although it is long ago in her past, when she talks about the pain of that rejection, falteringly rather than in her easy eloquent flow, it still seems sad and smartingly real. “He was so committed to our relationship – that was what was so hard,” she says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t want the relationship to last for ever, he just didn’t want to have children. Obviously I would say his own childhood… well, he had a lot of problems and he desperately wanted to break down those barriers to intimacy – emotional intimacy – but he couldn’t, he had such a hard time.”

On Levin’s death in 2004, after a long descent into Alzheimer’s, Arianna wrote a moving piece in which she recalled the way he would retreat into himself when faced with confrontation. “Yes, and for me it was always to engage,” she says. “It was very hard because I was very much in love with him so, you know, it was painful when he would withdraw.

“But although it did feel like an incredible rejection, and it was very painful, which was what made me decide to move to New York, it taught me a lot about the mystery of life. Because when I look back, everything that’s happened in my life happened, in a way, as a result of that rejection. My children, The Huffington Post, my whole life here would not have happened – so that is how I see it, however painful and hard it may have seemed at the time.”

She is, understandably, less open about the failure of her marriage. Arianna was seen by her critics – who were legion – to have been harnessing her own social and political ambitions when she worked so indefatigably to promote her husband’s career. In 1988, when Michael was deputy assistant secretary of defence for negotiations policy under the Reagan administration, the Huffingtons moved from Washington DC to Santa Barbara, California, where he ran for and won a seat in Congress. In 1994, he spent almost $30 million of his own money – a record for a non-presidential campaign at the time – but lost in the general election by 1.9 per cent of the vote to Dianne Feinstein. Three years later, the couple separated and in 1998, Michael Huffington disclosed his sexuality in an interview in Esquire. In 2003, when Arianna stood as an independent candidate to be governor of California (later withdrawing), her ex-husband – who remains a staunch Republican – chose to endorse her opponent, the present governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is a bit of a cloud around how much or how little Arianna knew about Michael’s sexuality when they married. She has said, in the past, that she wasn’t aware of his inclinations. For his part, he states things very clearly in a recent New Yorker piece: “In December 1985… I sat down with her and told her that I had dated women and men so that she would be aware of it. I didn’t think it fair not to mention my bisexuality… And the good news was that it was not an issue for her.” He is now a film producer whose projects include We’re All Angels, about a gay Christian pop singer combo, and earlier this year, Bi the Way, a documentary on bisexuality.

There were a lot of ups and downs in the divorce years, Arianna says, but they’ve come through it as friends. They have weathered storms before, after all, when they lost their first born baby, a son they named Alexander Roy. Arianna says that she and her daughters often wonder what he would have been like: “He’d be 21 now and we have this thing that he wouldn’t be intellectual like the two girls; he’d be at college on some jock scholarship and intimidated by his really brilliant sisters, you know!”

Michael lives in Boston now but only the other evening came round for dinner. “He’s a very good father and we were determined to put our children first,” she says. “So we’ve always had birthdays and Christmas together, just the four of us – and at times it was harder for the two of us – but it’s reached a point where it’s very natural.”

Their daughters, she says, “are very resolved about their father’s decision to come out and they’ve dealt with it. I should never have discussed it when I did and it was really my mistake but he and I have agreed, for the sake of the children, it’s not something that anyone can benefit from, going back and forth on that.”

Later, when I’m wondering how the couple could bear to have been mixing with the neo-cons and their toxic homophobic hatred, Arianna counters: “But there have always been pro gay rights Republicans. That’s just one of the many contradictions in the party.

“Michael was always pro gay rights when he was a Republican congressman and now. He’s involved with this group called the Log Cabin Republicans and they’re gay Republicans advocating gay rights within the Republican party.”

Arianna says she is single at the moment, “but I am very open to having a boyfriend and falling in love again although I’m not looking for it.” I ask her whether she would like to remarry and she says, quite revealingly: “I think it’s very unlikely. I feel marriage was for me about having my children and right now, again I’m not ruling it out, but I definitely don’t see it on the horizon.”

In the meantime, there’s more than enough to occupy her time with her new baby The Huffington Post, which goes from strength to strength. In last week’s e-mail she tells me that it has seen “remarkable growth” this year, “with 19.5 million unique visitors in September, the highest number ever for the site and October will be even higher”. This is all double Dutch to me but I do note the New Yorker’s reference in mid-October to its importance as a liberal foil to the Drudge Report and that in February “according to Nielsen Online, it drew 3.7 million unique visitors surpassing Drudge for the first time” and that in August, the site logged 5.1 million unique visitors. So, yes, “remarkable growth” sounds pretty accurate.

Arianna chose not to answer my questions about profitability or valuation (the latest estimation was a sale price of $200 million), other than to point out that she has not invested any of her own money in the project, only her time. But she did tell me that, “We are not consistently making a profit. There are profitable months and not profitable months, depending on the combination of expenses and advertising we bring in.” She and her partner, Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL executive, who launched The Huffington Post in 2005 have already set up a Chicago office, and Arianna – never known for the limitations of her vision – seems set for global domination: “Ideally we want to expand around the world.”

She’s very glad to see that her “great friend” Tina Brown is “diving into the internet” and she doesn’t appear to be at all bothered by the competition: “The more sites there are offering smart, compelling content, the more people will get their news, opinion and entertainment online. That’s good for all of us.”

When I asked where she will be on election night and with whom, she replied, “I will be with our Huffington Post team, covering the results second by second!” On a second e-mail, she added that her younger daughter would be with her, as the older one has just started at Yale: “I’m on my way right now to my first parents’ weekend!”

My final late question was, knowing how sceptical she is about the veracity of the polls: are you more or less confident that Obama will be the next President than you were in the summer? “More,” she wrote. “In tough times, we need someone with a steady hand on the tiller. By that measure, Obama has been the clear winner. He’s been centred where McCain was scattered. Forceful where McCain was forced. Presidential where McCain was petulant.”

And her sign-off was pure Arianna: “Of course, at heart, I’m still a superstitious Greek peasant girl, so I’m not counting my chickens – or my lambs – yet.”

Fashion, Women

Celia Birtwell’s flower power

The Times, October 04, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrities, Women

Kay Saatchi on life after Charles Saatchi

The Times, July 26, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

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

Kay Saatchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Women, Writers

Lady Antonia Fraser’s life less ordinary

The Times, July 5, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

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

Lady Antonia Fraser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Politicians, Women

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

The Times – December 28 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film, Women

Sex, drugs and hockey sticks

The Times – December 13, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

Cheltenham Ladies’ College 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Hampshire: 1918-2004, coelesti luce crescat

—–

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

Opinion, Women

Yes, we are bovvered

The Times – September 25, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard being a teenager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— CHERIE BOOTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— FIONA BAWDON

We must speak up now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— LC, IB, DC

Celebrities, Women

Rock’s Stepford wife

The Times – August 21, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Benazir Bhutto’s life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father’s knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father – despite intense international pressure – from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia’s military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.

Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.

Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military – seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role – introduced a new amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country – regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple’s separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) – to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.

The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.

Although she declines to name names – saying that “it’s better not to give the impression that you’re trying to fire political shots over somebody else’s shoulder” – it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf’s “people” and Bhutto’s party. Her response to these reports is that although “there have been ‘back-channel’ contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an ‘understanding’ I find very confusing.” It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.

In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice – “I always lay my cards on the table” she maintained – I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: “You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven’t heard me speak like this before,” Bhutto finally allows. “Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition… to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they’re not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.

“But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military.” The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf’s ruling party has said that “they can rig the election so there’s no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP… Which is why it’s premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women’s Bill.

“At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf’s military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they’re not, the ruling party will still be in the driver’s seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue.”

Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: “If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan.” What a pragmatist she must be. “Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy,” she says.

I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government’s position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari – and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. “Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support,” Bhutto says. “Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West’s strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades.” And you and your party would like that support? “Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn’t have it.” Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? “Pakistan is a critical country,” she says.

Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn – set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.

Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls – like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian’s – kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children’s library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.

The headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence security agency – the ISI – are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America’s War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.

Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan – some already radicalised but not all – to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents’ adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.

It was my understanding that Musharraf’s inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan – on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan – was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto’s response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: “My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty.” What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? “The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran’s stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally,” she says. “In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he’s got the West in his hands.” A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.

Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because “my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support,” she says. “And they dislike me because I’m a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections – and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals’ slate in my father’s time and my time has been the PPP.”

When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn’t an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas – “But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order.” None of this was painless, she says, “there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can’t tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of ‘zero deaths’. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it’s not easy confronting them.”

Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith’s certainty that life and death are in God’s hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death. “My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics… My daughter will become prime minister’, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me,” she says. “But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment.” Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? “Yes, in a way, because I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, ‘You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.’ It makes me weepy,” she says, as her eyes fill up, “but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.

“Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn’t succeed with me.” This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself – in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married – to Elizabeth I, “who had also endured imprisonment and remained single”.

When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: “Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia… And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do – and ten years before Tony Blair.”

At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: “When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint.”

Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, (“Oh, they’ve gone on endlessly,” she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world’s terrorist tragedies would not have occurred – since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.

“I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight,” she writes in the new conclusion to her book. “I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998.”

Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: “I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I’m leaving… I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban.” Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? “No,” she says. “I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I’ve been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don’t feel that there’s anything like immortality.”

As we sit in Bhutto’s study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: “Yes, I do. I confess.” There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man’s watch – “I like big watches… All the better to see you with, my dear” – the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.

Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer’s, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch – I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna – Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. “My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman,” she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.

When she was a little girl, Bhutto’s father used to say: “Well, if Nehru’s daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan.” He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: “Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc.” These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.

At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: “I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers.” When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: “I consider myself a defender of women’s rights, yes.” You don’t like the label? “Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their – ah – underwear in the streets.” So did you burn your bra? “No, I never did,” she smiles, “and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!” It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes “off-message” and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: “Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977.”

Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don’t expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books “to try to cope with stress and anxiety”. In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.

This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir’s father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. “She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart,” Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained “‘Oh, Benazir has got so fat’ in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin.” But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.

Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It’s not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn’t like it, but it’s become a discipline – and she’s always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry’s caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: “I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I’m unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It’s the one thing that doesn’t complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness.” Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: “It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

It’s hard to know what part Bhutto’s husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded – and it has been put to her so very often – that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife’s investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow – however problematic he may be – but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.

“You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison,” she says. “And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew.…” And…? I ask expectantly. “And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile,” she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.

Bhutto’s mother was always trying to line her up with “good husband” material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage – as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman’s will – what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.

Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? “What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me,” she says. “I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?” Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren’t used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. “He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn’t,” she says. “He found it very difficult to cope with initially… the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he’s got used to it.”

Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband’s perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison – his neck slit, his tongue cut – and almost killed. “It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice,” she is gulping with grief. “He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn’t know what to do to save his life.”

I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn’t harder after everything she and her family have endured. “What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband,” she says, blowing her nose loudly. “And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly.” This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.

Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer – and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it’s hard to know whether she’s being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison”. I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.

* * *

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Times BooksDirect for £11.69 (RRP £12.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

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