Archive for the 'Writers' Category

Writers

America: the land of second acts for women

By Ginny Dougary
March 2013
The Guardian

Sara Wheeler
Travel writer Sara Wheeler’s latest book chronicles the middle-aged Englishwomen who reinvented themselves in 19th-century America.

Sara Wheeler’s home is a converted Victorian butcher’s shop, close to Hampstead Heath, with Matisse-blue and Gauguin-orange walls covered in reminders of her travels: an original Herbert Ponting photograph from Captain Scott’s fateful expedition here, a figure of a penguin from one of the research stations on Antarctica there.

The author of four travel books and two biographies has written her first about women after focusing on the “frozen beards” as she calls them, Arctic explorers who tend to be male. She describes the experience of writing O My America! Second Acts in a New World as “like coming home”. The first line of the title is an echo of John Donne’s sensual elegy To His Mistress Going to Bed (part of the pleasure of Wheeler’s books are the many literary and poetical allusions). The second is a reference to what the six subjects of her book have in common: middle-aged women from England, in the mid to late 19th century, who all reinvented themselves in America. “Having second acts,” as the author puts it, “in the Land of Second Acts”.

She started with Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony the famous novelist, who is a wonderful subject – doughty, curious, resourceful and so impressed by another remarkable woman, Fanny Wright, that she made her way to the writer and social reformer’s utopian commune in Tennessee, taking three of her children, and leaving the other two at boarding school in England, along with her husband. When this experiment failed, Trollope endured other hardships in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to find ways of making money to send back to her impecunious family. She was inventive: coming up with magic shows and creating a doomed entertainment emporium. She made her fortune and fame, finally, with an international bestseller, the Domestic Manners of the Americans, which appalled the subjects and riveted everyone else.

Then there is Fanny Kemble, a well-known actor who fell in love with a plantation owner, leading to a disastrous marriage from which she eventually escaped to write a searing indictment of slavery; Harriet Martineau, a radical and political economist; homesteader Rebecca Burlend. Catherine Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece and a novelist, too, at 52, left her husband in an asylum and their three adult children, and travelled by railway from New York to San Francisco.

Wheeler, in her early 50s, started researching Fanny Trollope after a friend said she would be a good subject. In doing so, she stumbled on other women who were also compelling. “Part of the reason the book became a book was that I was interested in that sort of barren land of post-menopausal women, knowing that it was the next country that I was headed into … and coming to terms with it,” she says.

It is easy to see why Wheeler was beguiled by these women who were thrillingly adventurous. Her book Terra Incognita, about her hitchhiking around Antarctica, became an international bestseller and inspired women to undertake bold journeys of their own. (It is because of her book that I travelled to both poles – and a more unlikely  candidate you would be hard pushed to find.)

Like her subjects, the writer has had her own hurdles in life. Both Wheeler’s parents left school at 14; her father came from a long line of builder-decorators, her mother did shift work in a hospital. There were no books in the house. Her mother gave birth to Wheeler when she was 20 and 18 months later to a second child, Matthew, who was born with brain damage. The couple split up and there were some chaotic years during which Wheeler describes herself as being the parent to her little brother.

“I didn’t know anyone else in that position, so I felt very alone” she says. She is the trustee of a charity, Sibs, which gives support to adult and child siblings. “My shrink said that it’s quite characteristic of siblings of handicapped people to run fast enough for two, and I was very motivated, which is good. That’s a gift my brother gave me. I was a fantastic hard worker and the first in my family to go to college [to Oxford to read classics and modern languages].”

She has suffered from depression and has had problems with alcohol: “I’d say I’m quite a cheerful person but I don’t find life particularly plain sailing.” She has two sons, Wilf and Reg, by her partner, Peter Graham, a dry-humoured man from Quebec.

For her 50th birthday Wheeler was given a large handmade quilt, made by her 10 best women friends. The patches have phrases handstitched by her friends – “In a yurt drinking yak butter,” a private joke by the writer Dea Birkett, “Boys” and “It’s alright for you!” (a phrase that plagued her childhood).

Her latest work, published just ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, is perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light. I ask Wheeler, finally, what her subjects gave her apart from a fascinating book. “They gave me a great sense of hope and made me feel glad to be alive and that the second act could be as bountiful as the first. I think I did have more fun writing this book than all my other books put together. They were such fantastic company and they reminded me of how wonderful it is to be a woman.”

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Private Eye and on Have I Got News For You for quarter of a century. How does he fare when the focus is on him?

By Ginny Dougary
29 Nov 2012
(Daily Telegraph Magazine)


Ian Hislop is in the first-floor dining-room of the Coach and Horses, a defiantly unreconstructed pub in Soho, London, greeting his guests at the Private Eye lunch he has hosted for the past 26 years, ever since Richard Ingrams made the initially controversial decision to hand over the editorship of the satirical magazine to what the old guard considered a young upstart.

Norman Balon, the notoriously rude proprietor of the pub – who used to slap down the plates of melon followed by meat and two veg, then spotted dick and custard – has moved on, and Hislop is anxious about the new ‘midlife crisis’ menu, which is exclusively vegetarian with haute-gastronomy ambitions – the foodie equivalent, perhaps, of Pseuds Corner, all twiddles and towers and puddles of intense colour.

I have been to a number of these Wednesday lunches over the years as a guest, but on this occasion I am here to observe how our host works the room, which he does in his convivial, eye-twinkling way. The number of women around the table has increased over the decades; Hislop is sandwiched between two of the four here today: a newspaper editor and a television foreign correspondent. He is very protective of the identities of all his guests and story sources of his journalists, so no names, no pack-drill.

Hislop says that the lunches, held fortnightly, are good for making contacts – he would never use the dread word networking – and have often led to stories, although the Eye tends to get beaten to it (gallingly, because of its long lead times) by his journalist guests, rushing off to file the news for the next day’s paper. A case in point was John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, who got ‘hogwhimperingly drunk’ at one lunch, as a fellow guest described it (the wine does flow), and confessed to the assembled company that his mistress was pregnant and the story was about to be exposed in the News of the World. Cue mass exodus of hacks, clutching notebooks.

At one end of the table today is the dashing writer and journalist Francis Wheen, who was Hislop’s first recruit, and is now deputy editor (although Wheen resists the title). As Hislop recalls in last year’s book by Adam Macqueen, Private Eye: the First 50 Years, ‘Getting Francis was a very important early thing [swiftly followed by the rehiring of Paul Foot]. He was always streets ahead. You could give him stories that were difficult or controversial or tough without him thinking, “Oooh, well… I can’t really make the phone call,” or “I’m a bit worried about my anonymity…”’

At the other end of the table is the only full-time journalist on the Eye, Jane Mackenzie. The rest of the table is made up of young journalists on national newspapers who are telling disobliging stories about their bosses, which may or may not find their way into the Street of Shame column. There is also an academic who may be good for an item on a colleague who has behaved shabbily. There is a leading Conservative politician, who leaves before the main course, and various other diners. Hislop writes notes in full view. He used to be more coy about it, he says, and would scribble away with his hand under the table.

A couple of weeks earlier I had been in the studio audience for the first programme in the new series of Have I Got News For You, on which Hislop has appeared for all of its 22 years: there is nothing fly-by-night about Hislop. The host is Clare Balding on her debut HIGNFY appearance; she is intro-duced as the ‘hero of the summer’ on the back of her new post-Olympics popularity. On Hislop’s team is the Father Ted scriptwriter Graham Linehan, and on Paul Merton’s team, Ken Livingstone. There’s some amusing pre-recording chit-chat. Balding says that she is sometimes mistaken for Sue Barker, to which she usually responds, ‘F***, yeah,’ so at least she has the satisfaction of members of the public thinking the goody-goody Barker ‘has a hell of a mouth on her’. Hislop comments that when he was on a train, a woman said, ‘“Are you Ian Hislop?” And her friend said, “Leave him alone, he doesn’t look anything like him.”’ Big laugh from the audience, who adore Hislop. Paul Merton tops it, with a typically surreal statement. ‘I was in Ireland and someone said to me, “Are you who you think you are?”’
The programme is dominated by Jimmy Savile/ BBC stories, and Abu Hamza and his prosthetic arm. There’s a long chat about Livingstone’s chum Hugo Chávez, whom Linehan is keen on, too, which gets cut right back in the edit that appears on television. The only hitch is at the end, when Balding has to do repeated retakes of her farewells as she keeps pronouncing Ian’s surname in the abbreviated way, as ‘Hizlp’.

After the show we all meet up in the hospitality room on the top floor of the old London Weekend Television building, where HIGNFY is filmed, close to the Southbank Centre. This is a lot more glam – with spectacular views of London lit up at night – than the usual BBC Green Room spread of sandwiches and bowls of crisps. Hislop is drinking Guinness. His wife, Victoria, is there (she is a journalist turned bestselling novelist, and they have been married for 24 years) as is Balding’s civil partner, the newsreader Alice Arnold. Paul Merton is moody, and only wants to talk shop with his director and Linehan. Livingstone is moany, and keeps saying that this is the most difficult HIGNFY he has been on because of the depressing subject matter (later, Hislop tells me that Livingstone, who has been on a dozen times, always says that). The following night, when the show goes out, it zips along with all its customary sparkle and repartee.

The afternoon after the filming, I go to Private Eye’s office, which is in an old house on Carlisle Street in Soho, to interview its editor. This has been the magazine’s home since 1984. It was built in about 1685 and, according to the journalist Tim Minogue, who writes the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, exposing corruption in local authorities, has variously been home to a hatter, a wigmaker, a lacemaker, a goldsmith, a dance academy and, directly before the magazine moved in, a firm of architects. In the dark hallway is what is apparently known as ‘the wall of death’ – photographs of departed Eye stalwarts: Peter Cook, Willie Rushton, John Wells and Paul Foot. There are two secretaries in the first room you enter, including Hilary Lowinger – who is also the office manager and joined the magazine in 1986. The designers and sub-editors work in a large, light room at the back.
Hislop is wearing a suit from Marks & Spencer, which looks rather well cut. ‘This is from that nice range, Autograph,’ he says. ‘I always wear a suit because you don’t have to think what to wear. It’s a very easy, convenient uniform.’ He flicks through a pile of typed paper with the chief sub-editor, Tristan Davies, delivering rapid-fire instructions: ‘That’s good for HP [Sauce, the parliamentary news section]’; ‘That’s a Wheen’; ‘Condense these two for the books pages’; ‘That’s his Lance Armstrong piece, we have to run that.’ Afterwards he turns to Tony Rushton, the art director, who has been with the mag for all of its 51 years. There’s a Savile and Boris lookalike photo spread, and various cartoons laid out on the pages. They have a bit of a chat about a cartoonist they like but think they are possibly using too much.

Then we go on a quick tour of the rest of the building. Up the narrow staircase, with walls of large high-quality prints of Hogarth’s four 1754 Election paintings; a gift from Sir John Soane’s Museum, after Private Eye sponsored a show of political art – Hogarth’s Election Entertainment – in 2001. In one room on the top floor there is a female lawyer from Matrix Chambers scrutinising the contents of the next issue for libel, next door to Jane Mackenzie and the journalist Heather Mills (who has had some amusing conversations at Eye lunches, with the guests assuming, what with her long blond hair, that she is Paul McCartney’s ex).
We go back to the first floor to Hislop’s office, which he inherited from Ingrams, who is famous for his untidiness. His successor is rather orderly in comparison. Behind his desk, there’s a framed photo of Peter Cook (17.11.37 – 9.1.95, So Farewell Then), and posters of Denis Thatcher and ‘Grocer’ Heath, which have been there for ever. On a noticeboard are thank-you letters for Eye lunches including one from the MP Tom Watson, which is remarkably effusive. ‘It was a milestone in what I regard as my curious parliamentary career… if I can ever reciprocate…’ and a droll one from Kirsty Young, saying how much she enjoyed herself, ‘although my placement opposite Grayson [Perry] did leave me feeling somewhat underdressed.’

Ian Hislop was born in Mumbles, south Wales, in July 1960. His father, David, was a civil engineer who worked on projects around the world, taking his wife, Helen, as well as his two children (Ian has an older sister, Anne) with him. The Hislops moved to Nigeria, then Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. His parents revelled in the warm climate and pleasantly cushioned lifestyle. ‘Both my parents had lived through austerity… my father was from Scotland, which I imagine in the 1950s was quite bleak, and my mother was from Jersey, which had been occupied in the Second World War and had gone through austerity-plus.
‘And then they were working abroad and my dad had a speedboat and we had a bar in the living-room, with a sort of leather top and stools and I remember looking at my father and thinking, “With your DJ, you’re wearing a frilly dress shirt?” and then, “But it’s the 1970s! You can do what you like!” I also remember Burns Night and there being a lot of Scottish engineers around who were good fun. My father used to dress in shorts and long socks; my mother in sundresses with very pointy sunglasses. For them, the expat life was extraordinary and very glamorous.’

David Hislop sounds like quite a character. Ian Hislop was sent a photo of his late father – ‘one of the good things about being in the public eye is that people just write to you’ – diving into a swimming-pool that he had just opened (the arresting fact being that he was fully clothed). ‘And I thought, “You must have been the one they asked to make a speech and do something quite silly.”’ In fact, Hislop senior didn’t need to be asked to do daft things. On a trip back to Hong Kong, on a quest to discover more about his father as part of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? Hislop met his father’s old secretary, who said, ‘“Have I shown you the photo of your dad leading a conga through the fountains outside the Hilton?” and I said, “No, you haven’t! Can I see it please?” It did look like a lot of fun.’

When Hislop was 12, his mother came to his school – Ardingly College in Sussex, where he had boarded since he was eight – to tell him that his father had died of stomach cancer. The family had known that David had been ill but it was only a few brief months between diagnosis and death, at the age of 45. How did his mother handle the loss? ‘She was pretty devastated; I don’t think she ever really recovered. My mother was fab and a very capable and strong woman but she was, well, you know, very much in love with my father and missed him for the rest of her life.’

Hislop is famously reserved and private. In his late 20s, his mother – still in her 60s – was dying, at the same time that his wife, Victoria, was in hospital having suffered a miscarriage, and yet no one at Private Eye had a clue. Part of the Hislop mythology is the true story about him recording an episode of Have I Got News For You while suffering from acute appendicitis. He seems to be the living embodiment of the stiff upper lip, which was the title of his most recent television series, exploring how this phrase came to be seen as the defining English characteristic when we had started out as a nation of wusses and emotional incontinents. He admits that the series – a perfect example of erudition worn lightly – was a way of considering his own attitude to this fascinating subject.

Now that he has revealed something of his feelings in this series (although it’s hardly Oprah), it makes it easier to ask more sensitive questions than would normally feel appropriate. We have known one another, I should say, as friendly acquaintances for two decades, but have never talked about anything deep and meaningful. I ask him how well he felt he knew his father and what effect that early death had on him as a boy. He replies that he didn’t know him nearly well enough (something he hopes to have remedied with his two children, Emily, 22, and William, 19, neither of whom were sent to boarding school – ‘It was a selfish thing. I wanted them to be near me and around’) and as for the other matter, ‘I think losing a close relative early is a fairly hardening blow – in that my childhood sort of ended when my father died. Once that’s happened you haven’t got a huge illusion about what life may or may not hold. I think it made me increasingly independent, because I had to be.’

In Stiff Upper Lip, Hislop returns to Ardingly, where he was head boy, and tries to reconnect with what it felt like to be sent to boarding school at such a young age, saying that he wants to try and ascertain what that experience had done to him. Did he find out? ‘Well, as I said, with distance the nature of those boarding schools does begin to look like a very odd thing to do – and most people who come through it don’t do it to their own children. I mean, they’re much more parent-friendly now – everyone has a room of their own and goes home every afternoon,’ he laughs, ‘but when we were there, there was just one large Victorian room with 30 boys in it, and it didn’t have any curtains and it was cold.

‘So, yes, I was always homesick, but usually I was flying from somewhere like Hong Kong and there was quite a time-lag – which meant I did the being homesick on the plane, then I arrived and there was this world of friends and excitement and interest.’

Does he think the experience has made it harder for him to express himself emotionally? Would he say, for instance, that he has been scarred by it? ‘Er, well, I am trying to answer that honestly… I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do that programme was to have a look at that – and it ends up being a very nuanced answer, rather than, “No, no, I’m fine. It never affected me.” It obviously did affect me. It moulded a certain sort of Englishness and a certain sort of response to things. It’s that British thing – in that it’s not that we don’t feel it but we don’t think it’s appropriate to show that feeling in public, or at all times, or with people we don’t know. So I still probably behave like that – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on. I am not without emotion.’

Is he able to examine himself with any depth? ‘Erm… probably being very busy suggests that I am not doing so.’
In such a rationalist age – where the prevailing culture among media types tends to be aggressively atheist – Hislop’s Anglican faith is an intriguing anomaly. The avowed raison d’être of his two main gigs – HIGNFY and Private Eye – is to knock bullies off their perch, expose idiocy, corruption and moral weakness. While I am extremely grateful for its existence (the Eye goes from strength to strength – with recent record sales figures of 267,834 for its anniversary issue, and 253,000 for the Gotcha – Murdoch Goes Down issue) it hardly fosters a warm feeling towards one’s fellow man and the human condition. I wonder how harmoniously his religious beliefs sit with his love of satire. Ingrams, before him, shared a similar duality, and there are notable antecedents, such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift. He starts by telling me about a funny phase at his Anglican school, when two old boys came back on an evangelical mission as born-again Christians, and metaphorically set the whole school on fire, swelling the membership of the Christian Union from a membership of 12 to 300.

‘It was very, very bizarre – we didn’t go to bed, and people were having prayer meetings in dormitories, and the staff were terribly worried because most of them were Anglicans and they were thinking, “What if this is the real thing?” and not knowing whether or not to stop it because it was getting completely out of hand.

‘You know, being sort of C of E, people want a very quiet and moderate faith. They don’t want hundreds of boys singing Kumbaya and getting up in the middle of chapel services and confessing that they’ve seen the light.’
What did his mother think about all of this?
‘She was marvellous. I had told her, “I have to see you because something incredibly exciting has happened – I’ve been converted! We’ve all been converted!” And my mother asked me two things. She said, “You didn’t sign anything, did you?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “They didn’t ask you for any money?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, that’s fine, dear.” Because she was brilliant, my mother, she realised it was all fine and that it would probably die down and there was nothing to worry about. And after everyone went away for the summer holidays and came back, it did die down.’

I ask him about how he feels surrounded by so many Dawkinsian non-believers. He remembers going to the launch of Francis Wheen’s book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and Martin Rowson, the cartoonist, drew a picture of all the people there ‘and there was an arrow next to me in the middle of all these ultra-rationalists and it just said, “Anomalous God-botherer”.’

His faith waxes and wanes and it is going through the latter phase at the moment. Hislop sounds a tiny bit downhearted about the whole subject. He goes to church but not very often, and at the moment, not at all. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt… it’s not a great, confident, burning faith, really. I can’t do the ultra-rationalism denial of it all and all the sort of human bits that I feel come through that but then, you know, sometimes I worry that my faith is so vague as to be sort of not really there at all. I’m so lukewarm I’m about to be spat out, I think.’

What comforts him in times of sadness? He laughs. ‘I thought you were going to do the Simon and Garfunkel song… well, all the normal things.’
Like? ‘Oh – family, friends. Other human beings.’ His voice becomes a bit curt. Not nature or music or books? ‘Any of those things can, but it’s the people first.’ So not faith, in that regard? ‘Yes, it can – but faith is often shown through other people. Faith working through other people tends to be goodness working through them or sympathy even if it’s not declared as religion… it doesn’t have to be the vicar coming round.

‘But I do like the rituals of the Church and, yes, I have found them comforting.’
Hilary Lowinger and her colleague had been joking with me, while I waited for Hislop to appear, about the deranged people who sometimes insist on coming into the office, with this or that conspiracy theory. Shortly before the conclusion of our interview, a wild-haired man bursts into the office and I fear, for a moment, that the lady gatekeepers have not been able to keep the lunatics at bay. ‘So sorry to barge in like this,’ the man begins with elaborate courtesy. ‘It’s so, so rude of me. I’m ever, ever so sorry…’ and then he proceeds to tell Hislop that if the editor ever has the opportunity to commission a nice oil painting for the magazine, he’s the man.

It turns out that the interloper does draw for the Eye and is feeling the pinch; he needs more money, he needs a bigger byline, he is a man full of all-too-recognisable needs in these tricky times. Hislop listens to him, doesn’t make him feel uncomfortable or shoo him away and, actually, seems to care.

It is this sense of decency that, I think, is a strong motivating force in Hislop. He’s by no means perfect; for instance, for a Christian – even a rather half-hearted one – he seems incapable of forgiving his enemies (Piers Morgan, and the diarists Peter McKay and the late Nigel Dempster among them). But his instincts are always about picking on the powerful, not the weak. For this reason, he is pretty scathing about a lot of today’s comedians in the Ricky Gervais vein (with whom he had a well-publicised spat). ‘I do have a residual belief that, if at all possible, you should try not to mock the weak. There seems to be a slight tendency in contemporary stand-up to have a go at the weak and say you’re being edgy. You know, attacking the disabled. I think you should go for stronger targets.’

He is not a political tribalist, having voted for all the three main parties, as well as the Greens. ‘Most of your judgments are about whether people are behaving well or not in your eyes – and that doesn’t matter whether they are left or right. You know, are they corrupt or are they bent or are they trying to make things better or worse for people? That is where my bottom line is, and so that must be what drives me.’

I ask him what he is insecure about. ‘Oh, health,’ he says quickly. Is his health OK? ‘I think so, but you never know. If you have a history of your family keeling over you’re never sure how much time you’ve got left yourself. That may be another reason why I try to cram a lot in.’
We part on a more upbeat note. I ask him what he considers to be his most lowbrow tastes, and he struggles to answer. Later he calls me to say that it is Toy Story 3. ‘It’s incredibly funny, beautifully made and very good on being a boy.’ And also: ‘I’m quite big on Elvis. I went to a show in Las Vegas with three Elvis impersonators – young, middle and old – and it was one of the best nights of my life.’ Who knew?

But in his office, he says that it’s box sets of Clint Eastwood westerns and ‘sort of terrible war films’. Do you blub when watching the latter? ‘Oh, no, I’m taking my example from Brief Encounter!’ I beg to differ, saying that I have even seen him get moist-eyed on television.
‘Surely not. No. I’m going to end the interview now, and I’m going to storm out!’

Writers

Salman Rushdie: open book

By Ginny Dougary
FT MAGAZINE
September 2012

Salmon Rushdie
The last time we saw one another was in Manhattan in the summer of 2005. It was in a private club, the sun was blazing, and Rushdie was relaxed and cheerful in sandals and a loose, bright blue shirt, watching his infant son, Milan – who now, at 15, is almost his father’s height – dipping in and out of the rooftop swimming pool. It was also the month after the Islamist bombings in London, which killed 56 people, including four suicide bombers. There was a sense then, particularly because of 9/11, that we were all living under the fatwa now. As Rushdie says to me, “It’s easier for people to grasp what happened to me because it’s not just my story now, it’s everyone’s story. It’s the story of our time, rather than of an individual.”

Last year, in the aftermath of the Arab spring, it was possible to feel positive about change in the Arab world. Now it’s a rather different picture. We talk about the American-made, anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims , which was posted on YouTube and sparked protests across the region. “The trouble is that what’s happened in those countries since the so-called Arab spring is the rise of this very organised extremist group, which is Salafi Islam, and the Salafists are so fanatical that they frighten most other Muslims,” Rushdie says. “They’re out there at the edge with the Wahhabis and they’re certainly much more extreme than, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood are not liberals.” A chuckle.

“So, really, what I’m saying is that it’s much more evident to us now that the thing that started with the attack on The Satanic Verses is quite common.”

The Satanic Verses featured a character based on the Prophet Mohammed, showing him in a human light, and drew outrage from Muslim leaders. The book was burnt in Bradford amid accusations of blasphemy against Islam and there were demonstrations by Islamist groups in Pakistan and India, in which numbers of people were killed. On February 14 1989 – “My Unfunny Valentine”, as Rushdie puts it ruefully in his book – the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini publicly condemned the book and issued a deathbed fatwa against the writer, with a bounty for anyone who executed him.

Then followed nine extraordinary years of round-the-clock protection from Special Branch officers. Rushdie was forced to move out of his house and rely on the generosity of friends who lent him their own homes, for weeks or sometimes months, always in the utmost secrecy, constantly moving, feeling both “shamed and ashamed” of hiding, as he writes in his book. There was the ending of two marriages; the start of a third with the birth of a second son, Milan, the end of that marriage and the start of another; the death of his father and his first wife. There was desperate depression that led him to lie that he was, in fact, a Muslim believer (which was his lowest moment and didn’t work anyway); the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and attempted murder of his Norwegian publisher (who immediately ordered a massive reprint); the bombing of libraries and bookshops. Then there was the fightback and the setting up of the Salman Rushdie defence campaign and support groups across Europe; the talking to world leaders (and the crucial difference of Clinton and Blair coming to power), leading to the eventual withdrawal of the fatwa in 1998; the move to New York, and the formal removal of his protection in the UK in 2002. All of this is covered in the 600-plus fascinating, moving and often surprisingly hilarious pages of Joseph Anton: A Memoir , published last week.

He describes it as a non-fiction novel, in the New Journalism vein of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which Rushdie considers as “a masterpiece of the form” in which you apply the novelist’s skill to real-life events. “I thought the only difference between all those books and this book is that none of those writers were telling their own story,” he tells me. “So then you think, ‘OK, I have the technique but how do you apply that to autobiography?’ His approach to character – the book is written in the third person – form and language is very much that of a novel except everything in it is true. “I started off writing it in the first person but I didn’t like it …” he continues. “That’s where writing in the third person helped me. As an experiment, I tried switching and it immediately felt better. I thought, ‘OK, yeah, I know how to do this.’”

Joseph Anton was Rushdie’s alias during his years of hiding (his protection officers called him “Joe”, which he loathed). It is an amalgam of the names of two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. As he writes in the book: “Conrad ‘the trans-lingual creator … of voyagers into the heart of darkness’; Chekhov ‘the master of loneliness and melancholy … whose Three Sisters … yearned eternally for a Moscow to which they could not return.’” He took inspiration from Conrad’s sailor who – knowing that he is to die from tuberculosis – says: “[But] I must live until I die, mustn’t I?”

Rushdie certainly did believe that he would die, and sooner rather than later: “I thought it was quite likely that I would be killed. Yes, that’s what I thought.” How did you face that thought? “I don’t know – but somehow I did. I worried more about family and friends.”

It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like – having so many people around the world who had never met you, hate you, and bay for your blood. Knowing also that most of the haters will have not even read the book that has offended them. If they have, as its author says: “Don’t tell me that you spent your time reading a 600-page novel and then decide it offended you. You’ve done an enormous amount of work to be offended. And, you know, this odd idea that there is a right not to be offended is nonsense. None of us has that right. You know, if you’re offended, it’s your problem.”

He didn’t feel this robust in the beginning. It was the first two years that were the worst, when he felt that in a way he was a hostage to the hostages – Terry Waite, John McCarthy et al. The government’s desire was for Rushdie to keep a low profile so as not to jeopardise their being set free (which both were in 1991). “I had very deep depression, really something like despair, there’s no question of that,” he says. “But I had a lot to be depressed about! You know, it’s not paranoia when they’re trying to kill you.” A merry gust of laughter.

“To be as charitable as I can [to Wiggins], I think what happened is that something extreme happened to us which she never signed up for … and if I had been her, I would have wanted to find a way out, too,” he says. “In a way, it was quite nice of her to stick around for a bit – heh, heh, heh.
“My going-in position for this book was 1) tell the truth, 2) tell the truth, 3) be tougher on yourself, 4) try to be as compassionate about everyone else as you possibly can, even people you disagree with … try at least to see how it was in their shoes. There’s no way of telling the story of those early months without talking about what happened between Marianne and me because it would be difficult to explain to people why things happened as they did. There’d be a big piece missing.”

If the writer’s lowest point was his claim (his “Great Mistake”, as he puts it in the book), made in desperation on Christmas Eve 1990, that he was now of the Muslim faith – his sister, Sameen, phoned him up and asked him if he’d gone mad – it was also a moment that may have saved his sanity, a line from which he claimed back himself from being an ‘‘unperson”. Is he still embarrassed, however, by that declaration? “Well, I blame myself for it, you know, I think it was beyond stupid and all that, but I also think – and maybe that comes across in the book – that it was a kind of turning point in my life because, after having made that mistake, my resolve strengthened a great deal and I just thought, ‘No more appeasing of people or apologising to people.’”

This was a seismic psychological shift in him, from wanting to be accepted and loved by everybody to realising that – whatever he did – some people were just going to hate him: “And to realise that was fine,” he says, “because I’m not a fan of theirs either.”

One of the reasons that fear was kept at bay was Rushdie’s absolute confidence in his Special Branch protectors, a number of whom have become friends. “Yeah, they were very popular across literary London, actually!” Rushdie beams. “I’ve invited quite a few of them to the launch party. At least one of them got an Open University degree in postcolonial literature while he was protecting me.

“I think one of the reasons why the actual question of fear became secondary is that I thought my protectors, so to speak, were very good at it. They kept me alive and so, of course, I was very appreciative. I was told, right away, that because this protection was thought to be the most dangerous thing they were doing [Rushdie’s risk level was just below the Queen’s] at Scotland Yard, the protection officers were not simply ordered to look after me. So the fact is that everybody over the course of this decade who came to help look after me had volunteered for the job, you know. And I think that’s very impressive, too.”

Joseph Anton is as riveting for the small vignettes as the big, historical sweep. Rushdie is on the guest list of what he calls The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the annual party of protection officers and their charges, past and present, where he meets Margaret Thatcher, early on, who strokes and caresses his arm and calls him “dear”. Later, there is a special treat organised by the police for Rushdie to visit the thrillingly ghoulish Black Museum in Scotland Yard, containing every weapon that has killed a man or a woman. There are moments of great tenderness: his mother’s way of dealing with her husband’s drinking and mood swings with “a forgettery” rather than a memory; making his peace with his father, who lies dying, shaving him and tending to his indignities as his body fails him; the sweetness of the birth of Milan – the first ever Protection Baby – with the piercing simplicity of the line: “His father took off his shirt and held him against his chest.”

But the biggest surprise is the laughs: “Well, it’s one of the things that I said to people in those days, that if it weren’t for the fact that this isn’t funny at all, it would be quite funny,” he says, illustrating that the greatest defence against offence is humour. There is a terrific scene in the chapter “A Truckload of Dung”. Rushdie is driving through the Australian outback, on his way to spend a few days with the Australian novelist Rodney Hall, when he loses concentration for a moment, and has a car crash with an enormous articulated lorry, containing manure. “I do think the fact that the closest I came to being killed was when I was hit by a truckload of fertiliser … is…” We break up. “Just saying it is funny. And then I felt so sorry for the poor truck driver who got interrogated by the police – you know, was he involved with al-Qaeda? Poor Aussie truck driver,” he splutters, “who didn’t know anything about that stuff.”

He says that he is single at the moment and I wonder whether, after four marriages, he believes in the impossibility of love lasting or does he still trust in the possibility that it will? “I’m very optimistic in that area … in spite of all evidence to the contrary.” A big laugh. I tease him about becoming the much-married Elizabeth Taylor (the actress rather than the novelist) of literature, and he says: “I’ve said it myself! I said I can’t get married again otherwise it’s getting up there with Zsa Zsa Gabor, you know!”
He says that the late Norman Mailer (six wives) and Saul Bellow (five wives) are still ahead of him. I say that if he’s not remarried, it’s not for want of trying, is it? Some American tabloids have reported that last year he presented his still-married ex-girlfriend, Michelle Barish, with a “seven-carat emerald-cut diamond ring”, along with a proposal that was declined … Is this true? “Yes, it’s true,” he says, looking a bit sheepish. “Well, you know, it was a stupid thing to do.” I suppose it’s a redundant question to ask if you’re a romantic? He leans back and throws his arms open as though allowing all the love in the world to flood in and fill the gap.

“I think there are two kinds of women [in his life] … I’m lucky, and I think wise,” Rushdie says, with a hint of self-satisfaction, “in the choice of [the] people who were the mothers of my children, you know. In the sense that they were and are very serene, intellectual, sweet-natured, grounded, loving, constant people. And then … there’s the slightly more explosive, aha, volatile people.”

In the book he describes the blissful state of losing himself in his writing again, after a period of being only able to cope with writing book reviews or a children’s book he had promised for his son Zafar, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. “Slowly, slowly, his old power returned. The world went away. Time stood still. He fell happily towards that deep place where unwritten books wait to be found, like lovers demanding proof of utter devotion before they appear. He was a writer again.” If his physical self was saved by Special Branch, and his emotional self by the love of his wives, children and friends, some other deeper self was saved by the fact that Rushdie never actually stopped writing altogether, even in those most challenging of circumstances.

I say that he makes the act of writing, the swooning loss of self as you enter the world of your creation, sound almost sexy, which makes him grin. “‘Almost sexy’ is probably what it is, actually.”
He quotes Martin Amis’s phrase that “what you hope to leave behind you is a shelf of books”, and says, for himself, “it’s a nice feeling to go into a bookshop and think, ‘from here to there, it’s me.’” Some writers don’t care about posterity but Rushdie is not one of them: “Even though I won’t be around to see it, you do try and build books that are built to last. Books that allow you to have the lived experience of another place, which help you to understand. Understanding is what we don’t have and what we need. And if you look at any book that has survived more than, say, 100 years – it’s not because of scandal or controversy, it’s because people love it. It’s the only reason. So you want to feel that your book will survive because people love it.”

I ask him how he feels about forgiveness and anger and bitterness. “I don’t feel at all forgiving,” he says calmly. “I think something was done to my life and to my family’s life which can’t be undone, and it destroyed my ordinary life for more than a decade and it therefore made it very difficult for me to raise my son. You know, it created an enormous deformation in my personal life and I don’t feel particularly forgiving of that.

“Having said that, it was very clear to me, almost from the beginning, that there were a couple of elephant traps that I really needed to avoid. One was fear – as a writer, to end up writing frightened, timid little books that say, ‘Please don’t be upset with me for doing this’. And therefore books that would probably be worthless and uninteresting for anyone to read. I thought, ‘Don’t go there’ – either in yourself or your work … And the other one was another trap of anger, bitterness and vengefulness, which would make me the creature of the event, and that I would have no reality other than my response to the event – and I thought that, as an artist, would be catastrophic. So I said to myself, ‘Be the writer you’ve always been’. I tried very hard to be that and to go on being the person that I am and not get turned into another person.”

Do you think you have succeeded? “Yes, to the extent that going back to revisit the material and write about it really did feel like ‘going back’ – and I do think that in that sense, I have left it behind me. It’s not what I think about every day. I think about lots of other things, like the next bit of work.”
And that goes for the fatwa itself. When this media blitz is over, the f-word will, apparently, be off-limits in any future interview. “Anybody who asks me about it I will hit over the head with a 600-page book and say ‘Read that! There’s nothing I can tell you that isn’t there.’ Because then, you know what? Enough already!”

‘It’s easier for people to grasp what happened to me because it’s not just my story now, it’s everyone’s story’

Salman Rushdie is on a mission. His new book is a memoir of his fatwa years and he is eager to talk-talk-talk about it, to the point of exhaustion, all round the world, in order to draw a line under it and never revisit it … Let’s just say he will be well and truly over it by the time he has finished.

We meet in the office of his long-time agent Andrew Wylie, and talk in the basement boardroom of the elegant Bloomsbury house. Rushdie is smartly dressed in a suit – with no tie – in preparation for the launch party of his book in South Kensington (he, famously, loves a party) after our interview, organised by the older of his two sons, Zafar, who runs a public relations company. He sucks perpetually on Polo mints – his voice is hoarse with all the talking – and dabs at his nostrils with a handkerchief. It is impossible not to be reminded of his brilliant creation in Midnight’s Children of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight coinciding with the birth of the independent nation of India, with his constantly dripping giant nose.

And what does he make of what he calls the “stupid video”? Isn’t the timing rather strange, in the same week as the launch of his book about his fatwa decade? (He dismissed the Ayatollah Hassan Saneii’s “reissuing” of the fatwa – by raising the bounty on his head to $3.3m on the back of the anti-US protests – shortly after our interview, as “essentially one priest in Iran looking for a headline”.) “Well, I don’t feel like being put in the same box as that piece of crap,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s clearly malevolent, you know, and intended to be abusive and insulting. But, the thing that’s awful is this thin-skinned paranoid response which thinks that because of a 14-second clip on YouTube in Arabic, you’re allowed to go and attack and murder people who have not even the most remote connection with the thing you’re upset about.

The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s fourth novel, was published in 1988 and follows the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth in Britain when their Air India plane explodes. The book won the Whitbread Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – which Rushdie had won for Midnight’s Children in 1981 (he was also garlanded in 1993 for the Booker of Bookers and again as the Booker’s all-time prize winner in 2008).

But what about sheer, naked fear? “The strange thing is I don’t remember exactly that feeling. At least, I never named it to myself as fear. I would say it was depression, bewilderment, disorientation, loneliness. When I was thrown into anonymous, hidden spaces and the government wouldn’t talk to me and nobody would talk to me and I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody else. That felt horrible.” These feelings were not helped by the stressful ending of his shortlived marriage to the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, who does not come out well, to make a considerable understatement, in her ex-husband’s account. She was the only ex-wife who was not consulted about her part in it. (Clarissa Luard, Zafar’s mother, had died of cancer; Elizabeth West, Milan’s mother, and his fourth and most recent wife, Padma Lakshmi, both gave their approval after asking for some lines to be removed.)

Do you need to have a partner to feel complete? “No, I think that’s a trap. One of the things I’ve learnt is not to depend on there being a woman in your life to make it work. I love my work, I love my children, I’ve got wonderful friends, you know, I have a nice life.” You don’t get lonely? “Yes, but only ordinarily lonely.”

Is he scarred by the fatwa years? “What would the truthful answer to that be?” he scratches his beard. “I’m sure I must be but, as I say, I have tried very hard in my life to avoid the kind of vengeful, embittered cast of mind.” And you are no longer fearful? “No,” he slices the air with his hand, “F*** ’em.”

Celebrities, Opinion, Writers

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Old at heart: Richard Ingrams

Ginny Dougary
August 2012
FT MAGAZINE

The man who was one of the founding fathers of Private Eye, as well as its editor for 23 years, had arranged to meet me ostensibly to discuss the 20th anniversary of his “new” magazine The Oldie and my journey to Aldworth, where he lives, on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, was suitably old-world. The approach to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, is a heart-gladdening sight of rolling, rural loveliness.

It is a beautiful summer’s day and Ingrams takes pleasure in showing me around his garden, with its bursts of wild colour and sense of nature being barely tamed, secateurs in hand, deadheading as we go. Sara joins us before retreating to organise lunch, and the three of us eat outside on a pair of old wrought iron benches under trailing fragrant flowers with the restful sound of birdsong.

Gardening and nature, along with music and friendship, would be at the top of Ingrams’ list of consolations in life – and there have certainly been periods in his life when he has needed to be distracted from grief. As his biographer and friend, Harry Thompson (the late producer and writer of Have I Got News for You) noted, Ingrams has a strong melancholic streak – surely not helped by the early passing of his father, marriage breakdown, the death of two of his three brothers and two of his three children – that sits alongside his anarchic sense of humour and love of satire.

He has always been religious, brought up by a fiercely Anglican father, Leonard, and equally fervent Catholic mother, Victoria – he converted to Catholicism in his seventies – but his faith seems more of a spiritual tussle for him than a cosy support system.

“One of the things that people think about religion is that it must be very nice to sort of sit in an armchair and think about God. People also assume that you have these certainties, but in my case, they’re not certainties at all.”

Leonard St Clair Ingrams, OBE, came from a long line of clergymen and was a dashing figure, a bit of a philanderer and a brilliant financier. Victoria Reid came from the Baring family – her father had been Queen Victoria’s personal doctor and her mother had been a royal maid of honour. The family’s London home was in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Two of the four boys, including Richard, were brought up Protestant, the other two as Catholics. Richard was sent off to prep school at the age of seven, which he detested, thence to Shrewsbury and Oxford, where he read Classics.

Since Oxford, Ingrams has kept notebooks in which he has jotted down quotes that have appealed to him. He only has four or five of them because he doesn’t read a great deal, he says – “I tend to read writers that I like and a lot of them are people I’ve known.” But what he does read, he reads deeply, returning to the lines – as others would turn to poetry, a favourite cookbook or, indeed, the Bible – when he needs cheering up.

His favourite sayings have now been compiled in a book, Quips and Quotes: A Journalist’s Commonplace Book, conveniently assembled by Oldie Publications, “and that’s a lovely thing to be able to do – your own book in your own office”. Will this be seen as a vanity publishing exercise? “Probably, yes.” Do you care? “Not really. James [Pembroke, The Oldie’s latest saviour and publisher] wanted to have it so he can use it as a giveaway to subscribers.” A great wheeze of laughter.

When Ingrams came up with the idea of The Oldie, he was still quite a youngie, at 54: “I know,” he laughs, “but I felt pretty old.” It was the original creation of a group of writer friends – Auberon Waugh, Stephen Glover and Alexander Chancellor – after a pub lunch and a prolonged moan about the need to create an antidote to youth culture. The initial reaction to both the idea of the magazine and its title, was disbelief … and worse, especially when Naim Attallah announced he was going to fund it.

Ingrams wanted to produce a sort of “Private Eye for grown-ups”. His first columnists signed up were Germaine Greer and the late Beryl Bainbridge, the latter as theatre critic, who described her new gig as “a Zimmer frame for the mind.” Other contributors included William Trevor, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Eric Newby, Harry Enfield and, rather marvellously, Barbara Cartland.

Twenty years on, after various ups and downs, the magazine is in rude health, owned by a consortium headed by Pembroke, with a circulation of 41,000, and is full of good writing by well-known Fleet Street names, as well as contributions from readers who write in. It helps, of course, that amateur writers aren’t too fussy about what they get paid.

“It wasn’t an ageing thing,” Ingrams tells me, “it was more the fact that – which I still feel – I’m not at home in the modern world. Oldies at all times probably have that feeling anyway. But I think that particularly now, with so much having changed in the last 20 to 30 years, that it’s quite natural that people of my age should be feeling a sort of bafflement.” This is a man, after all, who doesn’t own a mobile phone or use email.

Ingrams may dislike the more idiotic extremes of youth culture, but he’s quite partial to youth itself. Around the time of The Oldie’s launch, his behaviour seemed to some to have become deeply odd and distinctly out of character. He had agreed to pose in tight-fitting leather bikers’ gear for The Observer magazine in order to publicise The Oldie – a sight which was, indeed, startling. He also seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time at The Groucho Club, where he was photographed surrounded by admiring young women. “It was very nice,” he admits. His wife of 30 years, Mary, stuck at home in the country, was less impressed: “He’s bonking girlies! He’s bonking girlies!” was her response.

Now, when I tease him about his Groucho days, Ingrams gets quite hoity-toity with me: “I think it’s a silly point to raise and it’s not right to suggest The Groucho Club is a trendy place frequented by lots of hippy [surely shome mistake – presumably “hip”] young people. When I went there, it was full of old bores like me,” he says, rattling off a rollcall of reprobates who are no longer with us: Jeffrey Bernard, Simon Gray, Keith Waterhouse and Dan Farson.

But then he remembers something which makes us both laugh. “It’s my favourite story of The Groucho Club … Dan Farson [the writer and broadcaster] was having lunch with either Gilbert or George and he was trying to introduce me to this man and he couldn’t remember whether it was Gilbert or George … so he just ground to a halt! It was so funny, particularly as those aren’t their real names anyway.”

It was at The Groucho Club that Richard met Deborah Bosley, then in her late twenties (and 27 years younger than Ingrams) who was one of the receptionists there – although they only became an item after his wife had left him. There was no doubt that the Ingramses had loved one another, but as Mary grew older she suffered increasingly from manic depression, her erratic behaviour compounded by alcoholism. Ingrams maintains he would have fought to save the marriage, but Mary moved out of their house and into their tiny cottage in Rye and insisted on a divorce (despite being a Catholic), which came through in 1993, a year after Debbie had moved in with Richard. (Mary died in 2007.)
Debbie soon became lonely and isolated living in the country. She left Ingrams, had a fling, became pregnant with Louis and Richard took her back, helping to bring up her little boy. Louis is now in his teens and his mother has remarried; Ingrams played the organ at the wedding and is still actively involved in Louis’ life.

I first met Richard Ingrams, almost 20 years ago, at a Private Eye lunch. Every few years, I would get reinvited and would always be seated next to him. For a long time this seemed like a bit of a punishment, as he made no effort to make conversation and was quite frightening. It took about a decade for him to thaw, and for me to look forward to and appreciate his sense of humour and bright blue-eyed tilt at the world.

At a certain point in my career, I ran into difficulties over a story and turned to him for advice. I trusted him not to betray my confidence and he didn’t let me down. From that point on, we became friendly and would meet for lunch in his favourite restaurant, Elena’s L’Etoile, in Soho, round the corner from his office. This coincided with a difficult time in his personal life; Debbie had left him a second time and Ingrams was obviously feeling lonely and a bit blue.

We talked about life, the universe and everything, and when remembering friends and family who had died (there have, after all, been so many – Peter Cook at 57, Paul Foot at 66, Auberon Waugh at 61, Willie Rushton at 59, and, saddest of all, his daughter, Jubby, at 39, who died alone in a bedsit in Brighton of a heroin overdose, leaving behind three children and her husband) his eyes would fill with tears.

Then one day he phoned to say he had some interesting news, and that we should meet at L’Etoile to discuss. He seemed very perky and announced that he had someone in his life (I don’t think he said anything as heady as “I’ve fallen in love”), and that she was his god-daughter, Sara Soudain, whom he had last seen when she was 14 and she was now 43. Her mother, Annie, inadvertently brought them together when she contacted Ingrams to ask if he would accompany her daughter to a court hearing. Sara, a medical researcher, was fighting a case involving a neurologist, which had been a solitary battle over seven years. The neurologist, who had been falsifying the research, was eventually suspended for 12 months, but only after Sara had lost her job and her relationship with her partner, the father of their two small boys, had broken down.

We talk about courage à propos Sara’s solitary stand and Ingrams tells me that he doesn’t regard himself as a brave person at all. “I was often told that I was brave during that business with [James] Goldsmith [Goldenballs] in Private Eye, but it wasn’t really brave because I always had a lot of mates with whom I could go into the – ah – jungle. But Sara was a whistle-blower, too, and she was on her own throughout; there was no one supporting her. Well, that is brave.”

Looking back, does he think that it was Sara’s courage that made him fall in love with her? Pause. “I was very impressed by her and love came into it.” Did you fall in love with her instantly? “Pretty well, yes.”

Were you thinking about this in relation to Ian, that he might feel that way towards you? “Not towards me, but towards anyone … because I think people who are younger than us don’t have the same attitude towards the past. It’s partly because we were brought up just after the war, so that there was the history of the war, and what had gone on was very, very important. And men like Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Foot, A.J.P. Taylor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh … were kind of heroes to Christopher Booker and Paul Foot and myself. We wanted to read all their books and know all about them. We were sort of fascinated by them.”

So, by the same token, does he think that forming relationships with women, after his marriage breakdown, who were from the same generation as his daughter, was a way of reclaiming her? “Er, I never thought of that … Mmmm … I would say that was amateur psychology. Aren’t those swallows lovely, sweeping down …? I don’t want to change the subject but …” Then he says: “I suppose as you get older, you are very much more attracted to young, vivacious people because they cheer you up. It might not have to do with sex, so much.”

When it comes to matters of sex and morality, Ingrams has deeply ingrained views: “People, of whom I know quite a lot, who have casual affairs all over the place, are generally quite shallow types of people. And I have never been tempted by the idea of having casual love affairs. I couldn’t cope with it – it’s all or nothing for me. I think it would all be very unsatisfactory and it would end unhappily and there’s no point in doing it.”

He is also dead against the idea of a no-fault divorce. He thinks it is quite wrong that when someone leaves the marriage, regardless of the provocation or unhappiness, that they should be entitled to half the couple’s assets. “I think someone who does that is worthy of attack,” he says. “People always say ‘Well, in a married situation, I’m sure there were faults on both sides …’”

But that’s because it’s usually true. “Well, it is true in some cases. But I don’t think you can say that morality doesn’t come into it … You’ve got to judge each case on its merits – and what I object to is that in the eyes of the law now, if a couple split up no one is to blame.

“Let’s be honest about this, we all approach this question from our own personal experiences. Undoubtedly, as someone who’s divorced – who was left by my wife who then turned round and demanded lots of money from me – and the law supported her – that caused me a lot of resentment and anger.”

But why, since Ingrams is well-off, supported from an early age by a sizeable private income? “Because she just walked out of the whole thing and said, ‘I don’t want to live with you anymore, I’m living on my own.’” But she believed you’d had at least one affair? “She might have done, yes – but, you know, she wasn’t just walking out on me, she was walking out on the children, too.”

It’s true, as he says, that we are all informed by our own experiences to this question. Mary sounded a nightmare to live with. But it must have been tough on her, with a husband who seemed to be leading such a jolly, exciting life in London, but was decidedly non-communicative and anti-social at home. It took a certain amount of courage, particularly for a woman of her faith, age and background, to leave an unhappy marriage and go it alone. Equally, I can see that it takes a different sort of courage to stick out a marriage, however unappealing the prospect.

Mary’s occasional mood swings became far more pronounced after the traumatic birth of the Ingrams’ third child, Arthur, who was born with cerebral palsy. He died of pneumonia in 1977 at the age of seven. I wonder whether this experience made Ingrams sympathise with David Cameron and his family, when their son Ivan – who was born with the same condition complicated by Ohtahara syndrome, a very rare form of epilepsy – died aged six. “The trouble was I felt that Cameron was going to make political capital out of it, which he did,” Ingrams says. “He was always talking about the National Health Service and actually suggested that because of Ivan, it was safe in his hands and he wasn’t going to reform it. And that was a big lie. Bad. And from an Old Etonian, too!” he jokes. “Well, letting down the old school, you know.”

He is starkly honest about his feelings towards Arthur: “The difficulty I had about Arthur was that as far as Mary was concerned, I think she felt about him the same way that she felt about her other children – she loved them all the same. But I couldn’t feel like that about Arthur because he couldn’t talk to you, he wasn’t aware… all the things that you hope for with children he didn’t do – so you had no relationship with him.”

He is equally candid about his vivacious daughter, Jubby, to whom he had been so close. He thinks that she was in a circle of friends who snorted coke at dinner parties and then she became hooked because, like her father, she had an addictive personality. “I’m scared of all drugs,” he told me, when I asked whether he had tried any. “I’m scared of becoming addicted to them.”

When Jubby died in 2004, it was after she had been on a retreat in Scotland to deal with her drug and alcohol problems, which clearly hadn’t worked. So she had left her family home in Lewes to move to nearby Brighton, to try to sort herself out. “When someone becomes a drug addict … it’s a kind of living death because the person you knew and loved has gone,” her father says. “And your relationship changes because you can’t have a stable – or any kind of proper relationship with the person.”

Does your heart harden in order to protect yourself? “No, I don’t think so. It’s very, very depressing obviously, but all I am trying to say is that a certain death has already occurred in a way. Does that make sense?”

At the end of the interview, Mr and Mrs Ingrams want to show me their vegetable patch and, in particular, their crop of crazily giant-headed garlic. I step outside to see the couple walking, hand in hand, up the slope. Sara, in her black leggings, and her long, black hair with its distinctive Susan Sontag streak, is so funny and warm, with her slanting humour, and she teases her husband, fairly mercilessly, from a position of clearly adoring him. They seem really happy and it’s good to be around them.

There are lots of quotes in Ingrams’ book that I like – “Everyone I know is either married or dotty” (from the unmarried Germaine Greer); “I believe in getting in hot water. I think it keeps you clean” (G.K. Chesterton); “There is of course no reason for the existence of the male sex except that sometimes one needs help with moving the piano” (Rebecca West).

But there is one that I like that isn’t there. I had asked Ingrams if he feared death – and he said that he did not. “Death is necessary and part of the circle of life,” he says. And so he won’t mind if I ask him what would be the perfect inscription on Richard Ingrams’ tombstone? Pause: “He made a nuisance of himself.”

Richard Ingrams has spent four decades poking fun at the powerful and, now, at modern life. But he has also endured more than his share of private grief.

Richard Ingrams wanders out of the house he has lived in for the past 30-odd years to greet me, wearing a faded shirt, baggy shorts and a pair of slippers, with his hair sticking out at wayward angles. He is even scruffier in the country than the town but, improbably, despite his genteel tramp demeanour and advanced years – he has just celebrated his 75th birthday – there is still something very attractive about him.

It takes the taxi ages to find the house in Aldworth, partly because we are given a bum steer – whether intentional or not – by a pair of drinkers in the local pub. Ingrams, teetotal since 1967, was banned from it in 2000, along with his former partner, Deborah Bosley – aka Big Debbie – after she wrote a negative article about living in the country, including the line that someone at the pub “disapproves of the coupling of black and white human beings on the grounds that it is unnatural”. [Debbie’s son, Louis, is mixed-race.]

One person in six in the UK is now over 65, which should be good news for The Oldie’s future but, as Harry Thompson pointed out, the magazine was never intended as special-interest reading for pensioners – it was to celebrate old age as a point of view.<

We had been talking earlier about Ingrams’ admiration for and attachment to older men such as Malcolm Muggeridge, whose biography he wrote. Since his father died when Ingrams was 16, and was pretty absent before that, I wondered whether he was always looking for a replacement father figure? “Possibly, yes,” he says. “I was thinking about this the other day, because I think one of the differences between my generation and say Ian’s [Hislop, who Ingrams personally appointed as his successor on Private Eye, at the age of 26, to much initial opposition; he describes it as the best thing he has ever done] is that all of us were aware of various men, particularly men who were older than us, whom we sort of revered.”

There has been a lot of loss in his life, but so many gains, too. At 75, one of his great pleasures in life is his involvement in the lives of his many grandchildren and the children of his ex-partner and wife. I had read in an old interview with Otis, the son of Ingrams’ son, Fred, about how brilliant his grandfather was at doing impersonations, particularly of the Muppets. Ingrams is actually a bit of a luvvie manqué – and, in fact, his Dr Bunsen Honeydew is fabulous – “Here at Muppets Laboratories, we are bubbling with excitement … Beaker, there’s no need to be nervous …”

Writers

John Pawson: the man who made us minimalists

Ginny Dougary
The Times
September 2010

The architect talks to Ginny Dougary about monks, Martha Stewart and plans for the Design Museum’s new home.

John Pawson, the überminimalist designer and architect, is busily cluttering up his pristine surfaces. In between us, on a beautiful wooden table in the centre of the kitchen of his West London home, is a teapot of lapsang souchong, a plate of buttery French biscuits (with its empty packet left out — travesty! — on the sideboard) and no less than three strikingly similar creamcoloured beakers lined up for me to drink from: a Wedgwood, an original Shaker — a gift, along with an old blackened kettle on the stove, from America’s domestic goddess Martha Stewart, one of his less obvious clients — and a Pawson.

This friendship with Stewart is somewhat unexpected; his taste for unadorned simplicity (even the Cistercian monks of the Bohemian monastery he designed suggested that his plans were a little “austere”) and her rather fussy, homespun cuteseyness, would suggest that they were not the most obvious soulmates. But one of the appealing things about Pawson is that he is full of surprises.
They met when Stewart came to his home to film some sort of cooking programme, with suitably monochrome food (he remembers black squid and pasta, and a turbot and vanilla soufflé) and a table setting that included the three-pronged Georgian forks that he favours. Out of this venture came a handsome cookbook, Living and Eating — photographed chez Pawson — with the chef-turned-food-writer Annie Bell.

“It’s a proper, useful cookbook,” Pawson says. Catherine, his wife, suddenly appears with their 20-year-old son, Benedict. I get the feeling that this cookbook is a little bit of a family joke, an impression that is reinforced when I ask whether the architect is the cook of the family.

“He’s very good at toast,” Ben says. Catherine: “I said, ‘Now you’ve done the cookbook, why don’t you do the cooking!’” “But Catherine always cooks so effortlessly,” her husband says, “although I notice that she doesn’t always use my cookbook.”

His mother’s culinary tour de force was Yorkshire pudding. The family joke was that her secret ingredient was cigarette ash. “We used to have it as a first course before the beef. Very Yorkshire. It comes in a big pan and you get a big slab of it, with gravy, and it’s very good with wine [something he has given up since January]. My sisters do very good ones and so can Catherine, but it’s not the healthiest thing.”

When the couple first got together, much was made of Catherine’s former job as a designer at Colefax and Fowler, at the distinctly chintzy end of “soft furnishings”. Interviews painted a portrait of her as a much-put-upon wife whose own wishes were sublimated to the autocratic diktats of her uncompromising husband. No family photographs (only behind closed doors), art, cushions, flowers, sofas, visible soap, loo roll, books. Certainly no suggestion whatsoever of chintz.

When Pawson is telling me about his shortlived stint as a fashion designer for his family’s clothing business in Halifax, West Yorkshire, he says “I can make a dress” and Catherine jumps in: “He’s completely useless because he complains so much, say, if I pack a suitcase with too many clothes in it. He doesn’t understand women.” Pawson: “Well, I don’t understand why she wants to have a new or different outfit every day, if not twice a day.” All this family banter is conducted with the utmost good humour. What he loves about his wife, he tells me later, is her serenity; the human equivalent, perhaps, of his soothing interiors.

He is dressed today in his summer uniform of white linen shirt, chinos and soft, expensive-looking leather loafers. In winter, it’s the same deal but with charcoal-grey trousers and a matching cashmere sweater. When I ask Catherine whether the solitary flash of vibrant colour in the kitchen provided by a bowl of oranges, next to a bowl of nectarines, is her idea, she looks uncertain. Pawson: “It’s not a trick question.” Everyone laughs. Ben: “It’s Mum.”

Inside the downstairs loo, with its fiendishly impenetrable door, there is a raft of transgressions against the Pawsonian ideal: a loo brush, visible loo roll, soap and a Jo Malone liquid-soap dispenser, as well as — shockingly — art! A Picasso original drawing of a reclining nude female, with a Neptune-like figure behind her: “Catherine was worried that I didn’t have a pension, so she bought it — without even asking me!” her husband jokes. Well, I think he’s joking.

There are now Pawson pensions throughout the house, including Carl Andre copper bricks on the floor of the kitchen, covered with black fingerprints that bother both of them: “Owning art is a responsibility. You’re just a custodian and I’m the first owner of the piece,” Pawson says.
As you enter the hallway of their home (most traditional on the outside), in a side window is a shocking-pink glass sculpture-cum-vase by Pawson’s first mentor, Shiro Kuramata, the architect who hired him in Japan. Other pieces are by Donald Judd and various Minimalist artists, one a puce neon cross by Dan Flavin at the top of the house. I’m impressed by the insouciance of hanging one of Bridget Riley’s works in the bedroom of Caius, Pawson’s older son, 24, from the architect’s relationship with the Dutch art dealer Hester van Royen. Pawson continues to design her flats, while she is his art consultant.

(Caius’s discovery, the xx, a band he signed on his Young Turks record label, won the Mercury Prize last week; the competition included Dizzee Rascal and Paul Weller. His dad sent me a sweet e-mail saying: “Very nice to see Caius beaming on TV at the awards. Glad he is in charge of a minimalist band! I’m as proud as him.”) In the living room there is a now a sofa — rather spare and not one you would sink into, to be sure, again chosen by Catherine, by a furniture designer relative of Le Corbusier. There’s a trio of chairs by Wegner, who Pawson always seems to pick, though he would be happier for his guests to sit along the limestone bench that flanks the wall on either side of the open fireplace. Later, he moans about another Catherine-concession-to-comfort: the odd white cushion scattered on top of the hard surface. She is also responsible for a white rail along the vertiginous, narrow wooden stairs embedded in the wall. She installed this for her aged mother, although Pawson maintains it was quite unnecessary.

To some extent, we are all Pawsonian now: his aesthetic is part of the mainstream, with our collective taste for knob-less doors and clean lines — which partly explains why someone as formerly folksy, if not frou-frou, as Stewart has become a convert. Wandering through his home I feel a degree of design envy; his open-to-the-elements shower at the top of the house, with its Bond-ish retractable roof, is fabulous, and the master bedroom is particularly cunning in its loveliness, with a bedboard, lit from behind, concealing a buried shelf “for all our crap”, as he puts it. Less successful, he admits, was his attempt to do away with a bidet and install a bottom-cleaning flush in the loo — the jets were apparently so powerful they hurt.

Pawson is 61 but looks younger, like a slightly rumpled Robert Redford. He has a boyish habit of blowing his fringe out of his eyes when he gets a bit flustered. If something amuses him — and a lot does — he rolls his tongue around in a faintly obscene way.

When we are gazing through the glass door of the kitchen into the courtyard, which exactly mirrors the interior, he starts talking about his father: “He had a very strong influence on me.” Pawson senior was not flamboyant but he did appreciate lovely things: “It’s difficult to describe without it sounding wrong … I think he just liked quality. And I feel that I’ve got the best tool to do the job, as a designer, because I like well-designed things.” He says that his father never indulged in nostalgia, and was only ever interested in the present and the future: “When he died, he left everything in beautiful order; all his personal effects were in one box, almost like a hurt locker.”

At the beginning of our interview, Pawson said that his father never understood his son’s desire to become an architect — “he thought architects were people you employed” — but now he revises that somewhat: “I think he wanted to be an architect himself, really. He loved wandering around with plans. Of course, his taste was different to mine and he always said that he’d never use me.” He breaks into a broad Yorkshire accent, which he always does when imitating his father: “‘There’ll be no commissions coming from me.’”

Pawson himself has a rather plummy voice, and says he lost his broad vowels along the way. I wonder whether his years at Eton accelerated that process, since his school friends commented on his father’s accent, along with his own. “I thought it was flattering attention but you could call it bullying, although I didn’t consider it so because I didn’t mind. But I can see that bullying is an insidious process; very difficult to stop and very difficult to control.”

At Eton he wore a quiff — “because I thought Billy Fury was the business” — and slept in a hammock attached to the back door of his room. On one occasion, his housemaster came in “and, of course, I fell down, and he did wonder what I was doing on the floor. I did get told that I was showing off, being an exhibitionist in the wrong way, and that I should excel in academic things.” Were you academic? “Not at all. I got O-level passes for my French and Spanish A levels, which was worse than failing.”
Before we move on to his school-leaving years, I ask him about his French aristocratic roots. He looks nonplussed. “No, no, my family was definitely solid middle class. For my father, the fact that his great-grandfather was a blacksmith and employed a lot of people — for him, that was something to boast about. It’s always been trade and making things; there were no pretensions to anything aristocratic.”
I read him what he was alleged to have said in an early interview — inevitably now part of his official history: “I come from an aristocratic Burgundian ancestry, people who gave up great wealth in the 12th century to move to monasteries to set an example.” He rolls his eyes: “For f***’s sake. Burgundian bollocks. That’s just sloppy.

“I might have tried to explain how the younger son of Burgundian aristocracy would go into a monastery, like younger sons went into the army. But let me stress that I am categorically not a descendant of Burgundian aristocracy — hahahahahaha.”

His parents, particularly his mother, were non-conformist Methodists.“She was genuinely modest. She didn’t like showiness or ostentation. I had this dream that I would go and become this Zen Buddhist (and after a year I would, you know, obtain whatever). I was a complete schoolboy even though I was 24. I’m not sure if she was totally serious — although she did say it often enough — but she would have preferred me to have disappeared and quietly gone and been a missionary or something in Africa, rather than going to the top Zen Buddhist temple in Japan.” That was a bit flashy? “Very flashy. You didn’t have to be Christian but her thing was not to go to the best or the top of anything.”

His thing was to be a hippy in India after leaving school, wanting to help out with the Tibetan refugees on the border, with the idea that “I’ll just turn up and everyone will think, ‘Wonderful! He’s here! — another English public school boy [aged 17] who will solve all our problems.’ But that didn’t quite work out.”

After six months he went off to Australia, where he picked tomatoes and built a sheep-shearing shed in the Outback. Aha, a seminal Pawsonian work? “I think that might be joining up dots that aren’t there,” he says. But he has gone on to design rather a lot of, if not sheds, certainly barns for his well-heeled clients. He recalls the father-and-son team, and the former’s “incredible steel framework that he’d built. It was rather beautiful, you know, in the middle of nowhere, almost like an art work.”
At some point in his travels, a bit hard to pin down the chronology (he lasted only four days, for instance, in the monastery in Japan, and then spent four years teaching English at Nagoya University), his father sent him a telegram saying, “If you don’t come ’ome now there’ll be no place for you in t’ firm”.

Back in Halifax, Pawson found himself involved in creating frocks in knitted jersey “for the slightly fuller figure for ‘high street’ or ‘madam’ shops”. This was not at all his métier: “I was interested in design and architecture, but I never thought I could do it.” At 30, he met Van Royen and enrolled in the Architectural Association, stayed for only two years and left without qualifications but started transforming Van Royen’s office space as well as their flats.

His new show at the Design Museum is called Plain Space. He’s built a Pawson room “so everyone gets a bit of this” (waving his hand round the kitchen). And there will be a promenade where you can see four gigantic photographs, 10ft by 6ft, of landscapes in which he has worked, including the Sackler Crossing, his bridge in Kew Gardens, a beguiling curve with its penumbra of golden light. “A sinuous line of grace,” Pawson says. Are you quoting someone? “I am. Somebody’s attributed the quote to me but it’s Capability Brown! I know, it’s terrible to think of it … I’m in an anthology along with Oscar Wilde.”

There is also a cricket pavilion designed for Ben’s old school, St Edward’s. Reverse nepotism? “Exactly. Help the old dad — ‘We think he needs it’.”

This is a reference to something we had been talking about earlier, apropos of Pawson winning the international competition, a month or so ago, to transform the interior of the old Commonwealth Institute, in Kensington High Street, to house the new Design Museum in two or three years’ time.
Pawson doesn’t usually do competitions — because they’re expensive and time-consuming for a smallish firm such as his. He has a staff of about 20 who work in an office in King’s Cross — “It’s very un-Pawsonian. I think people expect a row of monks when they come and they end up rather shocked.” Is it scruffy? “It is for me. I can’t bear it.”

When I press him on what it was the judges were particularly struck by in his plans, he says something extraordinary: “Well, one guy did let slip that they thought I needed it! Hahahaha.” Needed it? “Well, I don’t know whether they meant I was ‘hungry’, you know, or that I would be able to give them my full attention,” he giggles, “but it did come over rather like a crumb from the table … as though this poor boy needed feeding or something.

“It was an off-the-cuff remark but I did think, ‘Crikey! That’s not very flattering.’” I can’t think of anyone I’ve interviewed, of an equivalent stature, who would even contemplate making public such an ego-deflating moment. Perhaps all his work with the monks, from the time he spends praying with the Cistercians in Bohemia right back to Japan, has rubbed off on him. Perhaps he is more his mother’s son than he realises — although it’s debatable whether such a disclosure demonstrates modesty or confidence. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

As the much-imitated, much-misquoted Pawson says, when talking about his parents: “I think you’re always two parts. I hope I have some of my father’s confidence and I certainly hope I have some of my mother’s modesty — but probably not enough.”

Writers

Peter Mandelson, the interview – Part One: the new Labour feud

Ginny Dougary
The Times
July 2010

Peter Mandelson saw himself as the third man at the heart of New Labour Chris Harris for The Times.

Since Peter Mandelson is not a man on whom humility is known to sit lightly, you might think it would be galling for him to talk about other people rather than himself, particularly when he has his autobiography to promote.

But Mandy — an abbreviation that seems singularly inappropriate when you meet him, so uncuddly is he and mindful of his dignity — appears to prefer his role as The Third Man (the title of his book, with its shadowy nod to Graham Greene) even now that his role of consigliere to the two architects of new Labour is historical.

But then the “other people” are, of course, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and although their love-hate relationship is well known, Mandelson having been at the centre of that fallout — in the thick of it, indeed — he writes about the sulks and tantrums, the violent emotions and frustrations with a visceral intensity.

Has either of them read the manuscript? “No, of course not.” Neither of them emerges particularly well, to put it mildly. Blair seems weak, unable to make a decision without checking it first with Mandelson and in relation to Brown, like a coddling and ineffectual parent who constantly threatens to discipline a child but never follows through. Brown — until he asks for Mandelson’s help in the last gasps of his regime — comes across as seriously unhinged.

“I don’t agree with that at all,” Mandelson says. “Tony comes across as someone who had to spend too much of his time and had to devote too much of his energy dealing with this insurgency from next door — but kept his calm and maintained a sort of real sense of purpose as Prime Minister and delivered right to the very end a good, sound, strong new Labour government.

In the case of Gordon, he goes through three phases: pre-’94; ’94 to 2007 and 2007 to 2010. And the middle period, as I recount in the book, was awful.

“That was when he kept saying to me, ‘Why are we doing this to each other? We’ve killed each other. It’s no fun. It doesn’t make being a minister any more enjoyable — you know, we’ve got to stop it’. But no sooner had he said that to me then we’d be off again in the same sort of cycle.”

Do you think, I ask, that it was his lieutenants who helped to foster that? “Oh, I think he was very badly served. The unbridled contempt that some people around Gordon had for Tony and those who worked for him was very destructive. They were constantly winding him up — partly because that’s what they felt, partly because that’s what they thought he wanted to hear.

“And also because they believed their own propaganda. You know, they really thought Tony was a weak, ineffective prime minister whose policies they disagreed with and that were leading nowhere — certainly not in the direction they wanted. They wanted a different sort of new Labour government with a different set of policies.”

Reading his book made me want to knock Brown’s and Blair’s heads together and smack their bottoms; their stand-offs seem so very childish. “I did,” Mandelson says. You did not smack their bottoms! “I didn’t do that but I tried to knock their heads together — and it was very difficult.
“But politics has always attracted very strong personalities.” Mandelson gives examples from his grandfather Herbert Morrison’s time in government to a roll call of Wilson, Brown, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healey — “and it wasn’t a walk in the park with them either”. So you don’t think Gordon’s and Tony’s relationship was unprecedently awful? “It was not unprecedented but I do think it was exceptionally bad!” A merry laugh.

I ask him more about the dsyfunctional relationship at the heart of new Labour. “What I call this dysfunctional relationship, which, you notice, Gordon didn’t like the term at all. He said, ‘Oh, that’s just your way of saying that Tony’s right and I’m wrong.’ Well, actually, it wasn’t my way of saying one was right and the other was wrong. It was a way of saying that ‘things could really be a lot better if you guys worked closely together’.

“And a lot of the time they did. It was, in a sense, given what they went through, surprising that the bond between them was never smashed. There was always something that connected them. Indeed, there was always something that connected all three of us, which is why I was able to come back in the way that I did.”

Mandelson says that he cannot really be bothered to read newspapers (apart from one of The Times’s rivals, which might be considered somewhat ungracious of him in the circumstances). “To be honest, I very rarely find anything to read in them, hahahahahaha.” I suppose when you were in government that can’t have been the case? “No, I didn’t read them and, to be honest, not only did I not miss them but I didn’t find that professionally I needed to have them in order to do my job.”

This stretches credibility from a man for whom the word “spin” might have been invented and whose masters were obsessed with the media. Neverthless, he sets great store by what newspaper editors tell him about his political allies, and rivals. “Tony is an easier person to advise than Gordon,” he says. “Now why is this? I always remember having dinner with Paul Dacre, the Editor of the Daily Mail — it must be getting on for a decade ago — he liked Gordon, and Dacre was Gordon’s favourite journalist and newspaper editor — quite how they were able to conjure up such warmth — hahaha — I don’t know, but they did.

“But Paul made a very interesting observation about Gordon. First, in his view, Gordon was put on Earth by God to do good and had genuine convictions and they were a force for good. Secondly, that he has a tin ear as far as Middle England is concerned; he doesn’t easily get on to their wavelength, hear them or respond. And, thirdly, that he is an incredibly stubborn person. Once he thinks he’s right, once he’s made up his mind, it’s very difficult to get him on to a different track.”

This last point is presumably what did for Mandelson’s and Brown’s friendship when Brown was convinced that Mandelson had abandoned him for Blair. “Not really,” Mandelson says. “What he couldn’t get over was the fact that Tony had become leader and Prime Minister.” But in the book you make it clear that he did blame you for your role in that. “How I put it in the book is a little more subtle than that.” The turning point was later, but still very early on, in a country retreat where new Labour’s inner core had assembled to fine-tune their policies, when Mandelson did not back Brown in a disagreement with Blair.

After the latter retired to bed, Brown rounded on Mandelson, saying that whenever the two of them agreed on something, Blair would always go along with that decision. “Yes, and I said, ‘I am not going to work like that. I’m not going to enter into a sort of conspiracy.’ And then he said to me, ‘Well, make your choice — you’ve made your choice’.” And then off he flounced? “Gordon doesn’t flounce.” Stomped? “No, he closed his bedroom door purposefully.”

Mandleson had his own “door-closing, purposefully” moments. At one meeting, when he felt that Blair had not backed him up sufficiently, Mandelson walked out, the door slamming behind him — inadvertently, he has always said. “I wasn’t in a temper,” he maintains.

That may be so, but Blair told him that he would not tolerate walkouts and added: “We are not players in some Greek tragedy” and, poignantly: “Have you any idea of how despairing it is for me when the two people that have been closest to me for more than a decade, and who in their different ways are the most brilliant minds of their generation, will not lay aside personal animosity and help me win?”
“I’ll tell you what I felt,” Mandelson says. “I felt that I’m not being allowed to do my job. I’m being tripped up by Gordon and his people and it’s not right, and I’m getting the blame for it. That isn’t fair.” Wasn’t that your role, in a sense, to take the blame for everything? “It did, indeed, evolve into that. But for it to go on for, sort of, ten years was a bit . . .”

Then he says: “I don’t think I’ve got anything to be bitter about any more.” But you did feel that you were used, didn’t you? “Yes, I do.” And you were, actually. “Yes, I was.” Laughs. “But the people who were really angry about this were my friends. They feel that I was used, overused and used for far too long — but that I either didn’t see or I didn’t do anything about it.”

He has spoken to Gordon since the defeat but not seen him. How is he? “He’s fine.” Up days and down days? “I don’t know because I don’t speak to him every day. But it’s not an easy thing to come through a general election campaign. They are brutal and fierce, and after 13 years in office you’re really having to fight to give people the argument to elect the same party for the fourth time. That’s tough. It’s partly as you’re presented but also partly as you feel.

“Gordon’s a workhorse and he had these two show ponies gallivanting around, attracting . . .” Show ponies? “Clegg and Cameron. After 13 years, you amass all sorts of reasons why people don’t want to vote for you any more . . . and I don’t want to get into a sort of media-kicking exercise here but they [the Conservatives] weren’t really put under any serious scrutiny or pressure.

“What is Gordon? He’s a knowledgeable, informed, erudite, experienced, hard-nosed guy . . . he’s not a showman. He’s not an actor. He doesn’t do theatre” — which Mandelson pronounces in a fluted, old-fashioned way as “the-at-ah”. There is something Queen-like about the way he talks, with a capital Q, but not remotely queenie.

I wonder where he was when Bigotgate happened and did he think: “Oh God! That’s it”? “I was in the party headquarters and I did think that was it. But I was wrong — because it didn’t change as many votes as you’d have assumed it would, given the media treatment of it.”

But even Mandelson has to admit that Gordon looked absolutely terrible in that last debate. “The reason he looked so exhausted and pale is because he was exhausted and feeling very pale; he’d had a terrible fright the day before and a very difficult night recovering from it.”

On the day of the calamity, Mandelson went off and did one live interview after another. But now that it is all over, Mandy doesn’t have to put a brave face on it: “It was bad enough, Ginny. I mean, I thought it was a show-stopping moment, let’s put it like that.”

Did you, like Gordon, put your head in your hands when you heard it? “I didn’t have time to put my head in my hands.”

I must say, having spent weeks with Blair, Brown and, indeed, Cameron over the past year or so that all three men are enjoyable company. But there is certainly a different atmosphere between Blair and Brown; the Tigger and Eeyore of new Labour. The former, with his fabled optimism, really is a sunny, energising presence; whereas Brown is fascinating, but even when he seems positive there is a slight undertow of melancholia.

“Tony does make you feel jolly. He’s quite an upbeat person,” Mandelson agrees. “I mean, Tony is not somebody who by and large gets angry, loses his temper and kicks the furniture. He can be quite chilly and disapproving but he’s not somebody who would ever fall into a great trough of despair.
“The only time during all the years I’ve known Tony when he got discombobulated was on personal things — attacks on his family or Cherie or when his integrity was called into question.”

Cameron, says Peter Mandelson, is “very amicable, with a lively sense of humour. He’s a bit like Tony in that sense. He’s jolly. But essentially what defines David Cameron is that he’s a rather patrician Tory. He’s neither a Thatcherite nor a One Nation Tory; Chris Patten and others like that had quite a philosophical view of Conservatism — what it stood for and what it should do for all the people in the country. I don’t think David Cameron has an ideology. He has views. He has attitudes and he has some prejudices.

“He has a certain ‘born to rule’ thing about him; a sense of entitlement — somebody who thinks that he would be good at governing and being Prime Minister. Indeed, I always remember the Editor of The Daily Telegraph telling me, a year ago, when they had Cameron to dinner, the first question they asked him was, ‘Well, why do you want to be prime minister?’ And he said, ‘Because I think I’d be good at it.’

Now that’s not bad as a sort of first answer but if it’s all the answer you have . . .” He goes on: “That doesn’t mean to say that he’s a bad politician. I think he’s actually rather a good politician — but he is excessively political in a sense. He has values but he doesn’t have a set of fixed, political beliefs that flow from a particular political outlook or philosophy.

“I mean, what is his view of the role of government or the State or markets? Does he really believe, as the ‘Big Society’ implied, that government should just get out of the way and let people organise their schools and hospitals as they wish? I don’t believe he actually thought that through. I don’t think he invested a great deal of time in it. It was a marketing device. It was a narrative that was put into his hands or head by Steve Hilton [his director of strategy]. He could see the political appeal of it because it was neither wholly the State or wholly the market; it was his version of the Third Way. But, under examination, it was like sand disappearing through your fingertips.”

Last September, Mandelson told the journalist Bryan Appleyard, when asked whether he would put his assets to work under the Tories, that “in the right conditions and on the right basis I probably would”. And he followed this up with a vintage Mandelsonian line or two — sounding like something out of a Powell and Pressburger film — about the importance of heeding the call to serve his country. But now, when I put the same question to him, he responds as though I am mad.

“David Cameron?” he asks incredulously. “The Prime Minister? What would he do with me?” This batting back of a question with a barrage of his own questions, presumably in order to destabilise the questioner, is also very Mandelson. Anyway, he now says, “I don’t think I’m quite his flavour of the month. Or the year.” I ask him what he is going to do with himself now that he has finished his book — or, to be strictly accurate, finishing, since Mandelson was still writing it when we met. Have you got a job lined up? “Nope, I don’t have a job. I have absolutely no idea, as I sit here talking to you, how I’m going to earn my living after August.”

Do you feel that you’ve achieved your political potential? “No,he says in a rather aggrieved tone. Do you feel fulfilled? “For the time being, but” — he laughs at the absurdity of the notion — “but not otherwise, no! I feel young! [He will be 57 in October.] I felt as if I was really in my stride when I was a minister. I hated leaving because I felt that I knew what I was doing. I enjoyed it. I mobilised and rallied people and I think that I had the right policies that now seem to be falling to the Tories’ sword, one way or another.”

What of the future of new Labour, does Peter Mandelson believe that it has one? “I certainly don’t believe new Labour is dead. New Labour is an attitude of mind, it’s a way of thinking of politics, of conducting politics with the whole country and not just a section or a class of the country.” So is it a case of a new new Labour?

“The era we have just been through was the sort of Blair-Brown-Mandelson era and it’s time for people of a new generation to rethink new Labour and work out how they want to present the party and its policies for the next ten years or whatever.”

Is that how long you think Labour will be out of power? “No, I don’t. I’m saying that we’ll be implementing those policies during the course of that ten years.” And you would like to be part of that? “Of course I’d like to be part of it. If there was another Labour government, I would like to be considered for membership of it. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble of writing a book, with an introduction and an epilogue, but also a lot of experience and lessons through that time that I’ve been in politics which I want people to understand.

“I want people to interpret and apply to the party as it goes forward. Now what I don’t want to do is impose my views. I don’t want to give a sense that people have to calibrate their own views or make me a reference point — ‘Are you pro or anti what Peter is saying?’ ‘Are you pro or anti his analysis?’ — I don’t want to play that role.

“What I would like to do, however, is to continue as an active member of a party I’ve been a member of all my life — to be as active in the House of Lords as I can be — and I want to be able to contribute to my party’s welfare and its success, and in one way or another I will do that until my dying day. But in the meantime, of course, I will also have to earn a living.”

Will you endorse David Miliband? “No, I won’t endorse David Miliband. I’ve said at the beginning that I won’t endorse a candidate” — presumably because he wants to keep his options open. “I know his brother, Ed, very well and like him. I know Ed Balls.” Why does everyone seem to hate Ed Balls?
“They don’t hate Ed Balls. I don’t hate Ed Balls. I’ve got to know him quite well over the last two years, and he is a person of strong views, tough analysis and he has a forceful personality. But that’s what you want in a leader.”

Then mindful of how this sounds, “I’m not saying I’ll endorse him because of that. But if you ask me what I would like to see in the next leader of the Labour Party, it’s — yes — a strong sense of values and a vision, yes, a strong personality but also somebody who has the toughness and is able to say things to the party which they won’t neccessarily like or immediately agree with.
“Being a leader of a political party, somebody who aspires to be prime minister, you know, requires a heck of a lot from you. It’s not a walk in the park.”

Trying to shift Peter Mandelson from the political to the personal is no walk in the park either; more like an icy trek in a hostile landscape with no signposts to guide you. Nowhere is this more true than on the subject of his sexuality and his private life. It is not that we are obsessed with talking about it but that he is obsessed with not talking about it. He may, in fact, be the most closeted “out” gay out there.

This off-limits approach seems a bit unneccesary and even sad in 2010; lending a false credence to the idea that there is something abnormal and secretive about same-sex relationships rather than their being just part of everyday life.

He has been with his partner — as he probably does not call him — Reinaldo Avila da Silva for at least 12 years; he allowed photographs to be taken of them together in 2000; they have been together in the presence of the Queen; he writes about him in his book. Both his father and his beloved mother have passed on — “they were wonderful, my parents” — so he has none of the David Laws constraints. But he bridles at any mention of Reinaldo and avoids referring to him even by name, saying: “I’m very protective of the people in my life who are not politicians, who are not in the public domain and who I felt intensely protective of and I still do.”

Contrast his approach with that of Chris Smith, the former Labour Cabinet minister who became the first out gay MP in 1984 and who in the late Nineties, when he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, regularly gave interviews at home with his partner beside him without attracting fuss or opprobrium.

Contrast it with Mandleson’s friend, Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief of BP — far more recently and spectacularly outed — who talked openly, with pride and affection, about his partner, Nghi Nguyen; about their love of opera and travel and eating out.

When I spoke to Lord Browne this year, he said: “One of the gifts of 2007 is that I can be very open. Two parts of me have been joined together, really for the first time. It’s wonderful because it makes me happier and it allows me to have different relationships with people. Because it is what it is, and I am who I am, and that makes a very big difference to me, and I’m probably lighter in my step.”
When I mentioned attending a recent fundraising event for Stonewall, the campaign group for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, Mandelson barely seemed to have heard of it: “Dinners? . . . Er — we used to have them at party conference.”

He could not be less interested — “I’d rather talk about the book, I’m afraid” — which is fine, to a point, if you are gay and not involved in politics. But when you have been a key person in a government that deplored Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, the controversial Bill that made it almost impossible for schools to combat homophobia — and managed only to overturn it after a long battle in 2003?

And a year later, after more struggles, passed the Civil Partnership Act, which puts same-sex partners on the same legal footing as heterosexual married couples, it seems a bit odd, even negligent, to be bored (or affect to be so) by the whole subject. Cameron, for example, has repeatedly emphasised his party’s commitment to being inclusive of gay partnerships and, graciously, has publicly declared that new Labour has taken the country to a more tolerant and civilised place.

Mandelson’s excessive privacy about this issue has a distorting effect and can make him appear cold and uncaring. It also makes him seem rude. When we talk about such innocuous subjects as cooking — “I am mother-taught,” he says, “roasts and vegetables” — and I ask him if Mr da Silva can cook, he simply blanks — in fact, stonewalls me, in the original sense.

When the interview is interrupted by a charming little girl who bursts through the door, to much cooing and hugging from Mandelson — “Hello, my little darling, how are you? You’re my little friend, aren’t you?” — he does not introduce her or her mother. [I had been told that Mr da Silva’s Brazilian family were staying but not, of course, by Mandy.]

His manners may not be all that brilliant; at one point, I have a coughing fit and most normal hosts would break off and get a glass of water. But he was oblivious and just wanted to crack on.
We are sitting in the living room of his Primrose Hill house which, I read, cost £2.4 million and was bought without a mortgage after an advertising agency that he helped to set up was sold.

When I refer to his amazing house — it is a lovely home in a quiet, private, almost bucolic street — he asks, defensively: “In what way, ‘amazing’?” It is cosier than I expected, expecting a minimalist Seth Stein interior, as in his controversial Geoffrey Robinson-lent Notting Hill pad, which prompted the first of Mandelson’s two resignations. I sit on a plump, dark apricot velvet sofa and across a glass coffee table, covered in art books.

Mandelson leans back, languidly, in an armchair, framed by a wall of books. There are some Asian artefacts and a couple of large modern works, one of which he says was a present, with large rust-coloured strokes.

In the back part of the room, with an Eames black-leather recliner and stool, there is a photographic work of multiple gold and violet pansies, which he says dates from his time in Brussels. What would he say is his fatal flaw? “I think my fatal flaw was not seeing sufficiently in myself what others saw and therefore I was insufficiently aware, and I think that I’ve overcome that over the last four or five years.”

Are you more comfortable about your gayness now and about the fact that you are in a relationship with Reinaldo? “Look, I’ve never been uncomfortable about my sexuality and I’ve never been uncomfortable about any relationship that I’ve had throughout my life.”

If I asked you if you were in a civil partnership now with Reinaldo, that seems to me to be a perfectly nice question. “It is a perfectly nice question but it’s a matter for us what we do, and if we do take that decision” — an Arctic smile — “we’ll let you know.”

His book includes a couple of searingly honest pieces of advice about his character from those closest to him. When I mention them, Mandelson tries to bat them away as having been responses to particular periods in life.

Philip Gould told him, after one of the scandals, that there are two Peters — “the warm, generous, outward, loving side” and “the darker, more defensive, closed and sometimes menacing” side, and that the two sides could no longer co-exist. “Your vulnerability undid you and will undo you again unless you change.”

He also impressed upon him the need “to be open and honest with friends” and made Mandelson realise that “I would have to learn not only to advise others but to take advice. Real recovery would also mean being more open — in every way [my italics].”

It seems to me that Mandelson has some way to go until, like Lord Browne, “the two parts of him” are joined. But on one level at least there has been an incredible journey — a microcosm of the one from old Labour to new Labour — with Mandelson’s transformation from the Prince of Darkness to National Treasure, as exemplified by his standing ovation at last year’s Labour Party conference (confirming Blair’s prediction, albeit rather late in the day, that we will know that Labour is truly new Labour when it has learnt to love Peter Mandelson) and that iconic photograph during the campaign of Mandy ballroom dancing with a tiny delightful pensioner.

Peter Mandelson is famous for his charm, menacing or otherwise, but I suspect that he is rather socially efficient in his employment of it. Certainly, his high-society friends — Carla Powell and the Rothschilds — must get the full blast but also his old friends — the writer Robert Harris and Lord Liddle, the Labour peer — are incredibly loyal to him, as he is to them. But, for whatever reason, he did not feel compelled to demonstrate his more attractive qualities to me.

As the evening closed in — after multiple changes of times and days for the interview he finally offered a Sunday evening from 6pm to 8pm — he switched on the Anglepoise lamp next to his chair, sitting in a pool of light that conveyed the faintly sinister impression that he was cross-examining himself.

As he leant backwards, arms behind his head, extending his legs in a feline way, so that all one could see of him was his resolute chin and dark, greying hair, he resembled that actor — oh, what was his name, I asked, who was in Twin Peaks? A blank look. You know, by David Lynch. Another blank look. Blue Velvet? Nothing. Desperate Housewives? Ditto. (It was Kyle MacLachlan.) But after this I began to notice that these modern, metroplitan cultural references were not on Mandy’s radar at all. At one point, I teased him and said: “You know, you really should stay in more.” In a curious way, he is like Madonna, with her boast that she does not read newspapers or watch television, in a sort of self-imposed bubble.

He had not heard of John Pawson, the inventor of Minimalism, thinking that he might possibly be an actor. He did not know about Amy Winehouse when I talked about her father wishing that she would do more cheeful songs: “Oh, does she not do happy?”

But when I ask him whether he is metrosexual — another much used media buzzword that is alien to him — in his grooming, we eventually, albeit comically, get somewhere. So I’m talking to him about how my younger teenage son and his friends are all obsessed with hair products and so on.

“I’m in my mid to late fifties,” he says, “What do you mean by hair products?” Waxes, gels, grooming, moisturisers, spas. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘spas’.” Do you use a moisturiser? Long pause. “I don’t know what you mean.” Oh, Peter [thinking, ‘Get a grip, man, this is not a trick question’], for heaven’s sake, cream that you put in your skin to make sure it doesn’t get dry!
“Oh, of course I do. I get very dry skin because I’m constantly exposed to air conditioning.” But you must have heard of the word “Moisturiser!” “No, cream!”

Honestly! This is like talking to some bloke from the 1950s! “I am from the 1950s,” he says, “that’s my problem. I am a bit … I think I’ve got rather traditional ways of behaving and how I want to spend my life.” At last, for the first time, I get the sense of something authentic. In what way? “I think I’m . . .” (a pause of 29 seconds, which is a lifetime in an interview) “I think I’ve got rather . . .” (another pause of 10 seconds) “not conservative… but conventional… you know, going into the countryside . . . my dogs — my lovely dogs — Jack is away on a sleepover with his friend, Bridget, I miss him now, he’s been away for three days.

“I like conversation and then I like going to bed early and then I like, sort of, getting up and sitting with a family around breakfast. And I like singing and I like dancing and I like sitting in a garden and I like reading a book and — I dunno, is that old-fashioned?

“I think I am a product of my age and my upbringing.” It is probably impossibly ambitious to try to get a handle on Peter Mandelson. This is a man whose own “lovely brother” — as he says, showing me a recent present from Miles, a clinical psychologist, a book on the artist Arthur Giardelli — has described as an enigma.

But when I say to him that I was struck by the descriptions of his cottage in Foy, near Ross-on-Wye, with its beaten-up old velvet three-piece and tiny living room, his refuge from the maelstrom of politics in the dark ages of old Labour, he visibly thaws. “That was the happiest time of my life,” he whispers. “One day I will wend my way back. I think I have not made the transition freely into being in the 21st century.”

This more than anything might explain his abhorrence of laying himself bare — being personal, being open about Mr da Silva and his private life is, perhaps, all too modern for him. What an irony that the man who helped to modernise the Labour Party and was a Svengali of spin — that most modern political weapon — is so retro.

We might associate him with swanky holidays in Corfu and hobnobbing with captains of industry but Mandelson prefers to see himself in another way: “If I could go eventually and have a smallholding or have a garden,” he says, yearningly, “an English country garden … fresh air, scenery, animals, trees, walks, to be near or on a farm, and a river . . . that’s really all I want.”

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.

* * *

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

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)

News, Writers

British Press Awards 2009:nominations

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

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.”

Food, Writers

Heston Blumenthal: the alchemist

The Times, October 25, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

You don’t just eat at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, you have a whole sensory experience. Ginny Dougary drops by his laboratory to talk the science and psychology of food, families and uncontrollable fury

For those of us afflicted with vivid imaginations, it can be disturbing to hang out with Heston Blumenthal. Odd thoughts cross your mind such as what would it be like to be served a life-sized head of the chef-owner of the Fat Duck. First: you and your fellow diners would be invited to insert earphones connected to iPods which would play barnyard sounds of contented chickens clucking. A waiter would waft a distilled essence of something suitably earthy: fresh hay, say, laced with something borderline unpleasant to stimulate the senses. You would then be presented with a silver spoon and instructed to tap the patron’s bald pate which would crack open to reveal a rich brew of truffled brains, which you may or may not find delicious depending on how easily you could overcome your conditioned resistance to cannibalism.

This tasting menu special came to me on the back of a highly unusual voyage of discovery that managed to eclipse even the extremely high standards set by the usual Fat Duck experience.

The punishing brief was to spend a day with Heston, half of which would be devoted to eating the 17-odd (in both senses) courses on his legendary menu, accompanied by my elder son, Tom, who had previously picked the Fat Duck as the restaurant at which to celebrate his 18th birthday. The thinking behind this mission was that there is something about the chef’s experimental approach to food, with his test tubes and lab, that is particularly appealing to rather clever adolescent boys. Tom was clearly up for the challenge, with his pronouncement that “Heston is really safe” (ie, “cool”) and that he was “totally psyched” about the whole prospect.

The first person we see by the narrow road that curves through Bray is the man himself, in his white chef’s jacket, nursing a broken hand from a recent cricket injury. This, so his wife Zanna tells him, is someone’s message that her husband should be spending more time at home with his family. Not much chance of that, however, with a hefty book to promote (The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a compendium of his life’s work), a television series in production, a new menu to create for the Fat Duck, as well as an intriguing commission to transform the Little Chef motorway chain into an altogether different dining experience (also to be filmed for Channel 4). There is something fitting about this last project given Heston’s parents’ admirably – if true – left-field decision to name their son after a service station near Heathrow.

He is every bit as friendly and blokey as his television persona, with no immediate signs of the rather more complicated personality that emerges in our interview. We chat about Feast, the first of his Channel 4 commitments (he defected from the BBC earlier this year), which is proving to be quite time-consuming. The idea behind it is to recreate various dishes and experiences from different periods in history, and we will get a chance to sample some of these works-in-progress in his “laboratory”.

Tom is riveted by one that is recorded in the new book, which is spectacular, but not in a good way. This involves plucking the feathers of a chicken while it is still alive – not so dissimilar to a Brazilian perhaps – then somehow lulling it to sleep (presuming it has not already passed out in shock), whereupon it is placed on a giant platter surrounded by his fellow fowl who have already been roasted. The poor creature’s rude awakening apparently comes as the host starts carving, and the pièce de résistance – oh what japes – is to watch the bald, freaked-out chicken run amok down the table. Heston wishes the Channel 4 production team had never got wind of this particular blast from the past since they keep badgering him to stage a re-enactment. We agree that he should hold firm.

The lab is no longer in the garden shed behind the restaurant where Heston and his team conducted the experiments that led to the creation of his first astonishing taste-sensations: the nitro green tea and lime mousse in 2001, for instance. He bought a neighbouring pub, the Hinds Head, principally because it came with a house – formerly used for staff accommodation and now containing an overspill kitchen, various offices and the new laboratory. As it turns out, the pub has been a great hit, too, with its more conventional (and affordable) bangers and mash and steak and chips, allowing him the freedom to be ever more recondite in fine-tuning the menu of his flagship restaurant.

We meet the lab team and the head chef-technician, Kyle Connaughton, arms covered in tattoos, who is not given to small talk. On the main table there are bowls filled with chopped truffles and pomegranate seeds and a sort of home-made Rice Krispie concoction, as well as the aforementioned dishes for the TV series. Heston, who has two or three tasting sessions here a week, reappears and tells us about one of his many collaborations.

It is important here to stress, perhaps, that although his ability to cook has been internationally recognised (three Michelin stars for the Fat Duck, and voted best restaurant in the world), Heston is also an inventor, a pioneer, alchemist, teacher and explorer, as well as being fascinated by history and psychology, science and the arts. He may be something additional for which we have not yet created a word, since he is pushing all sorts of boundaries in his curiosity to see where this might lead. All of which could make him sound a bit annoying – particularly in England where we don’t like to be in awe of individual virtuosity – which is where his natural, unassuming manner comes in handy.

He is continuing his Odorama investigations, which have already gone down well, as I remember from our first visit, with his introduction of a sort of bosky woodland smell to accompany one of the starters of oak moss and truffle toast. Now he’s working with a guy to produce a blast of campfire smoke, a vanilla-scented cloud intended to summon the memory of an old-fashioned sweet shop, and the fresh hazelnut blissfulness of a newborn baby’s head. He produces a vial of the final one but, alas, it has curdled and (rather spookily) replicates that precise tang of regurgitated breast milk that I last smelt coming at regular intervals from someone standing not very far… happily, a veil of discretion descends.

We join the tasting team for Frog Blancmange, a Heston tweak of a Tudor recipe: a beautiful vast wooden bowl, with a giant water lily settled on a bright green resin, a puddle of some kind of white cream, the Rice-Krispied frog legs rising up like little spears, and a scattering of rosy pomegranate seeds. The maestro is not happy with the cream-cheesiness of the taste and says it needs more work.

Then Blackbirds in a Pie, which after six weeks on the job is declared to be perfect. The question is: will Channel 4 release four-and-twenty blackbirds (probably not) when the pie is cut. Next come a Roman dish of doormice (sausagemeat) that still leaves a lot to be desired, a Victorian edible garden (to be served with the smell of grass and the sound of a lawn mower), and an incredibly complicated business that combines Mock Turtle soup with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, involving templates of a fob-watch encasing an intense broth, wrapped in gold leaf, which dissolves in the teacup when boiling water is added, so that the heady black liquid is flecked with specks of gold, which is simply the accompaniment for another dish which… well, you get the general idea.

Our time in the lab is over and it’s off to the restaurant for lunch. I’m wondering how the menu, as well as the whole drama of the event, will stand up to a second tasting, particularly only a couple of years after the last visit. I loved it the first time round but had looked upon it as a once-in-a-lifetime treat – rather like a visit to another planet, say – and not just because it’s so expensive. What was striking then was that despite the number of courses, the portions were mercifully small so we left the restaurant feeling rejuvenated rather than torpidly overstuffed.

The food was as delicious as ever but I had to fight the urge to ask the waiters to skip the introductions, which were perhaps necessarily elaborate the first time but redundant on a second visit. We both loved the Sound of the Sea, the dish Heston says is his pride and joy. Conches are deposited on the table into which iPods are secreted and as you push the plugs into your ears, you hear the rhythmic crash of waves and the intermittent cry of a seagull. Before you even taste what’s on the plate, you are instantly transported into some childhood seaside resort of long-distant memory with your parents placing a shell to your ear. It’s the oddest, intense feeling suddenly to be driven into your own private, interior world while you are in a most public place. Heston recently tried this out in a dining room full of captains of industry and they were all reduced to being little boys.

There are other mind tricks, an integral part of the Heston experience, which is a lot to do with perception and breaking habitual ways of thinking. I seemed to remember not liking the salmon poached in licorice gel because I loathe licorice (although love fennel) – and the idea of the combination was pretty unappetising. This time round, at any rate, it was delectable but it could be that it was on the first occasion, too, only the unappealing concept is what lingers rather than the actual taste.

Four and a half hours later, we finally emerge from the Fat Duck, waddling after all the wine pairings and extra dishes Heston has had the kitchen serve us. (Tom declared the new puddings, in particular, to be “totally bad-ass”.) No time to digest, however, as it’s straight into the interview. Since Heston has worked with so many different scientists from Bristol University, Oxford, Nottingham and Reading – where he was awarded an honorary degree – I wonder whether he has any regrets about not going to university himself. He was a studious grammar-school boy, with six O levels, who devoted his Friday nights to homework but became “distracted” in the sixth form and left school with one A level in art.

Heston mentions his father, who studied architecture and did a furniture restoration course, but did not go to university or encourage his son in that direction. The difficulty is being forced to make a decision at too young an age, Heston says looking at Tom, and he thinks now that he would have liked to have studied psychology or history.

The distracted years – which Heston dismisses as being the usual “bloke stuff” – also coincided with his discovery of gastronomy when his parents took their sixteen-year-old son to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Provence. It was, as he writes in The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, “love at first sight. I fell in love with cooking and the idea of being a chef.” Most of his spare time back home was devoted to poring over the Guide Michelin and Gault Millau, “cross-referencing three stars against high marks out of twenty… with the focused intensity of a cipher-breaker”.

Another obsession was martial arts: karate until he was 16, then into full-contact kick-boxing to which he devoted 20 hours a week. This was when Heston first became aware that he had a problem controlling his anger, and that exercise helped: “There were a load of Wycombe hard nuts down there [in Buckinghamshire, where the family had moved from London], potentially quite dangerous people but I was the youngest person and the moment they saw I wanted to learn, they took me under their wing and it was a really great feeling of camaraderie.”

Before we move on to his anger, I ask him whether he has ever suffered from a lack of confidence. “I have had big confidence issues, really big,” he says. “Although I wouldn’t say I had a serious lack of confidence now, I would certainly say that fear of failure was always a bigger driving force than the will to succeed.”

It was becoming a parent himself that prompted Heston to look back on his own childhood to search for clues about his character flaws. Two years ago, a back operation forced him to abandon the restaurant for a time and recuperate at home. “My wife had bought a Christmas tree and I’m standing there doing the decorations and my son [Jack], who was 13 at the time, said, ‘This is great, Dad, it’s the first time you’ve been here to do this with us.’

“My initial reaction was, ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ and then I thought, ‘Hang on a second, what he’s really saying is, “You haven’t done this before,”’ which gave me a big lump in my throat. This goes back to the confidence issue. From that moment, I started thinking a lot more about my upbringing which on the surface was a great childhood. But it’s amazing how your actions – even when you think they’re fine – can be subconsciously damaging.”

So what was it, growing up, that dented his confidence? “What is interesting, you might disagree with me on this,” Heston addresses Tom, “is your parents will always be your parents. Even if you’re 50 [Heston is 42], you are still their son and you still seek recognition and support and approval and compliments from them. It’s the most powerful source of compliment you can get.

“I realised I had this thing a couple of years ago – got the three Michelin stars, got the honorary degree, got the OBE, got the best restaurant in the world, and the doctorate from Bristol, and the one from Reading, got entered into the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry, when the only other two people were Nobel prizewinners…” all of this said at a gallop as though he is a bit embarrassed about listing his laurels, “…and these things were amazing, absolutely amazing, and yet my old man could say something like, ‘They mentioned so-and-so in the papers and not you – why have they got a thing against you?’

“And I’m thinking, actually, all those amazing things that happened have just disappeared. You think it’s not going to affect you but it does, even though you know they’re saying it to be protec-tive… It’s things like that and the Christmas tree… And I had a really, really bad – ah – temper and I fought really, really hard to control it, and then there’s this thing that only happened two weeks ago…”

He proceeds to tell a story about a bloke outside his house – “and we live in a nice road in Marlow now”, he adds – who was screaming at his wife or girlfriend “really aggressively” and Zanna and the three children are out in the garden, running after the chickens and the screaming is getting worse – “He’s going really mad” – and his wife, he continues, said to the kids: “‘Oh my God, imagine being married to that!’ and Jack turned round and said, ‘You were.’ Zanna came into the kitchen and said, ‘You’ll never guess what Jack’s just said.’ And that was just out of the blue.”

It was Zanna who insisted that Heston do something about his temper before something truly dreadful happened: “It was just getting worse and worse and worse. It’s a long story but she probably stopped me being jailed twice – actually pulled me back – an incident with a shotgun… an incident with a bottle…

“It was awful but it’s easier to talk about now because I’ve absolutely dealt with it. But it went on for five or six years. What was dangerous was the aggression was going down and the more cold, calculated feeling was getting stronger. It was an uncontrollable feeling and when it starts to feel…” he pauses, “…good… when that feeling starts to feel really good, it’s not good news. What’s bizarre is there’s a difference between being aggressive and starting to feel good about anger and violence. Zanna read about cranial osteopathy and it just gave me the impetus, although it might have been psychosomatic, to do something about it.”

It all started when Heston was a teenager and someone provoked him at a bar, and then leading up to the restaurant, “It was a situation where I had bitten off more than I could chew and I wasn’t in control.” I ask him, with some trepidation, whether he’d ever wanted to kill anyone. “Ughhh… yessss,” he says. But you haven’t, have you? “No, no, no,” which is a relief.

He says that he was a “very aggressive fighter” – probably an intimidating one, I imagine, with his muscular bulk and all those martial arts skills – and also suffered from really bad road rage. As it happens, the previous night, Tom had shown me a clip on his computer of Heston talking about a car-ramming incident on Griff Rhys-Jones’s two-parter on anger, Losing It, but it was the chef who brought up the subject, not me.

When I ask him why he thinks he was so angry, he pauses and says: “I don’t know. I have asked a lot of questions [and seen a therapist and faith healer]. I’d like to do some work on it and I did work on it because I haven’t raised my voice for years but I still don’t know why.” He’s particularly proud that the kitchen – where there are 43 chefs to an average of 42 diners – is a far cry from the notoriously abusive hellholes of some of his confrères. “Now, there’s no shouting, no screaming and no tantrums.” One of the many waiters who served us did say, however, that genial as he found the boss, he certainly wouldn’t want be on the wrong side of him.

Tom takes over for a bit and the conversation shifts into the more arcane territory of synaesthetic responses… much chat about learned associations, the effects of a crunch versus sizzle on the palate, the way a sound can stimulate other senses, and so on. As a music student, my son is interested in whether Heston has thought about working with composers and, of course, Mr Collaboration is already planning an event with David Coulter, Damon Albarn’s music supervisor on the opera Monkey: Journey to the West.

Back on the domestic front, I wonder how Heston’s wife has handled this long journey from sharing her life with an obsessive self-taught foodie – after the briefest of stints, Blumenthal famously turned down the offer to be an apprentice at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (two Michelin stars) – to being married to a world-famous chef. He speaks of her in the warmest and most generous way – as well he might – saying that, “In the whole time since the restaurant opened and the build-up as well, she has literally never moaned about the time I’ve spent at work.”

For 15 years, Zanna has “reared”, as Heston first puts it before correcting himself, “brought up” their family more or less as a single parent. He attended his first parents’ evening at his children’s school during that back-break, and put up with being ribbed by the teachers when he attended his first carol service that same year. When I ask him whether he ever socialises, he says: “Errrrrr… probably a couple of times a year. Even my son says, ‘Dad, you’re sad – because all you do is work and don’t go out.’”

There was a time when his wife was lonely but Heston says that she’s well past that stage. There are consequences, of course, as he discovered when he spent time at home this year writing his book in the evenings. “It was like walking into somebody else’s family,” he says. “They had their own routine of homework, dinner, getting ready for school and, with the exception of my son, all of them love watching EastEnders. So I would stand and watch this whole routine which exists without me.” Did it make you feel unwanted? “At first it did, yeah.” Did you talk to your wife about it? “Not at first. I kept quiet about it and then I said, ‘Look…’” She’s not resentful of you? “Not at all. She’s always been really, really supportive.”

When the news came through about the third Michelin star, Heston was in Spain conducting a demonstration at a symposium. The Fat Duck was on the verge of financial disaster – something Heston had kept from his wife. That night, fairly typically, there were bookings for only two tables. “Another week and we would completely have run out of money,” he says. “I couldn’t even pay the wages. I remember calling her with the news, and her screaming, just screaming at the other end of the telephone, with joy.”

Heston flew back from Spain straight into Friday night service, and got home at about midnight. “I walked into the living room and Zanna had cut out the front page of The Times – Harold Shipman was in the margin…” a splutter of laughter, “…and that was in a frame with three balloons blown up and gold stars and cards, which made me shed a tear. My family were all asleep. I poured myself a glass of wine and just sat there, and there are very, very few times when I wake up and smell the roses and I don’t know if I said it at the time, but I thought, ‘It’s all been worth it.’”

Since then, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength and last year, for the first time, Heston ploughed money into his own family, buying “quite a big house”, rather than back into the business. I wonder if he’s anxious about the effect of the credit crunch on the Fat Duck. “It’s funny, well, actually not funny, that I’ve had years of real financial struggle – all because I was pursuing my own selfish wont to make the restaurant better and better and better – and for the last two years, touch wood, everything’s started to, you know…

“But people have had hunger issues for years and years, so what we’re talking about is the credit crunch affecting people who already have money, and hopefully we will continue through it. So here’s a restaurant that costs 130 quid for a menu but that’s the price because that’s what it costs to produce that food. A car manufacturer will still be selling their new cars for the price of a new car.”

What is clear, as he told his son, Jack, when he accused his father of being “sad”, is that in the past 14 years, he’s got into the car to drive home, exhausted, drained and stressed, maybe, “But I’ve only once got into the car in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t wanna go to work,’ and I think that’s a really lucky thing.”

As we pack our bags to go, Heston tells us that his wife has started an Open University course this week. The subject? Psychology. I ask him why he’s smiling. “Oh, I was just thinking that I might make quite a good case study for her.”

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal is published by Bloomsbury and is available from BooksFirst priced £90 (RRP £100), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

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

Writers

The gentrification of Irvine Welsh

The Times, June 28, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

As well known for his epic drug taking as his iconic tales, Irvine Welsh seems now to be embracing middle age. But as he unveils his new novel, Ginny Dougary finds life in the old punk yet

The good news is that Irvine Welsh, having been obliged to give the subject some thought, does not believe that all men are potential paedophiles. What he does find interesting is that advertising and the mainstream media pander to a perceived tendency in men to respond to images of females captured on the cusp of puberty.

Welsh is the Scottish writer who shot to fame in 1993 with his first novel, Trainspotting, a surprising, not least to himself, massive worldwide bestseller about a group of Edinburgh junkies mostly written in dialect. The arresting opening line – “The sweat wis lashing ofay Sick Boy; he wis trembling” – has been quoted so often it has become youth culture’s equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, but the book was also celebrated by the likes of such august critics and academics as John Carey, emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University. Three years later, Trainspotting was made into a film directed by Danny Boyle, launching Ewan McGregor’s career and further boosting the author’s.

Novels have been released since then, some with short titles: Ecstasy, Filth, Glue, Porno; others with a few more words, among them The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work. The new novel reverts to the school of short titles – Crime – and deals with large themes of retribution, redemption, abuse and male anxiety, seen through the horrid prism of paedophilia.

The central character, Ray Lennox, is a Scottish cop who has had a breakdown while on the trail of a serial killer of female children. In the course of his investigation, interviewing relatives of the latest disappeared girl, Britney (named, doubtless, after the singer who dressed up as a schoolgirl for her first hit song), he experiences the full weight of his colleagues’ disapproval of the chain-smoking single mother and the assumption that she must be partly to blame.

This whole subject (including the blame-the-mother syndrome) is discomfitingly topical – from Portugal, with the vanishing of Madeleine McCann, to Goa (the murder of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling) and the ongoing morbid fascination with the Austrian captivity cases of Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl.

The obvious question is whether Welsh found himself besieged by inappropriate thoughts when researching the book. “In order to write something like this, you have to feel pretty confident in your own sexuality and be in an almost unimpeachable state as regards that because if you didn’t, I don’t think you could physically go through that kind of journey,” he says. “One of the things I wouldn’t do is any research at all on the internet because I have no interest in getting into paedophiles’ websites. The idea was quite sickening to me. There’s so much shady stuff in my life in other ways that I had to be content that there was nothing of that sort in my inner workings.”

Welsh was helped by police officers and social workers in the States who briefed him on how organised paedophile rings work. He also read a great number of academic and clinical psychology texts and spoke to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The narrative switches from the unravelling of the Britney case in Edinburgh to Miami Beach, where the cop is on holiday with his fiancé trying to wean himself off anti-depressants. Behind this haunting are hints of something murky in Lennox’s past. Unable to heal himself in the sunshine, Lennox, a recovering addict, demolishes himself in a bar, is picked up by a pair of predatory women, goes on a cocaine binge and flees with a ten-year-old girl (the daughter of one of the women) who has been the prey of a paedophile ring.

Welsh is not comfortable with the idea that he has become some sort of instant expert on paedophilia and, indeed, the more he delved into the subject, the less clear cut it became to him. “The currents of sexuality run deep and they’re very confused. Advertising, for instance, seems implicitly to believe that there is this kind of paedophile locked in the male sexuality – the way that very, very young women are made to look even younger. Some kids seem highly sexualised from an early age and they obviously need to be protected from themselves. What is really disturbing about paedophiles is the God-like status they assume… the calculation, the long-term grooming, the idea that it’s society that is at fault and therefore they can break the rules.”

One surprise for him was how very differently people respond to abuse. “Some women can have experienced something quite minor – ‘I was touched up by my uncle’ – and it can absolutely devastate and wreck their lives. And there are other people who were kidnapped as children, serially raped and cult stuff like that and yet they seem to be coping and functioning quite well.” Here one thinks of Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive in a tiny space from the age of 10 to 18 and seems mystifyingly self-composed to many commentators. She, in turn, is angered by the idea that she must play the victim to validate other people’s expectations. “What we don’t know is how much not talking about it or repressing it is as much a coping mechanism as talking about it,” Welsh says.

He had started writing a good six months before the McCann case but after the news broke he felt unable to continue for a while: “It was just so kind of big and so horrible and obviously, like everybody else, I was distressed. I thought, ‘Should I really be writing about this?’ But the reason why I went back to it is that the story is very different and the initial draft was looking at why the guy [Lennox] is the way he is. And how when you read about a paedophile case, everybody starts seeing paedophiles everywhere – and also how appropriate is it, anyway, for adults to be around kids they have no relationship to?”

The initial catalyst for the book was something that had taken place in the writer’s own life – when a friend of 20-odd years’ standing broke down and wept in a pub, saying that he’d been abused by a close family member that Welsh and his friends all knew. “Within our Scottish working-class male culture, we were singularly unequipped to deal with it,” he says. “Our first reaction was wanting to kill the abuser, basically. But there was also a kind of loathing for this guy – not so much the fact that he might have brought it on himself but that he had involved us in this thing. So I wanted to work out these ideas of compassion and rehabilitation and retribution and what happens when you keep something to yourself for so long.”

We meet in Dublin, where Welsh has been principally based for the past four years. (He also has homes in Edinburgh, Chicago and Miami.) He has picked the venue, the café of the Irish Film Institute, which is thronging with groovy young folk. He is wearing a suit – as instructed for the photographs – but it is not one of those sharply tailored black designer numbers. If anything, he looks more like a middle-aged bank manager than someone on the cutting edge of counter-culture, where part of him still firmly wishes to reside. The first impression is of someone solemn, reserved and modest, with gentle manners but lacking a certain joie de vivre. The latter, it turns out, can be partly put down to jet lag (he has recently flown in from a wedding party in New York) and a prolonged hangover.

The cocaine binge in the new novel one can safely assume is written with the knowledge of experience. Indeed, there is a fight involving an overturned television and a smashed table which had a familiar ring. In previous newspaper stories, there are a number of references to Welsh getting belligerent in a pub and a friend’s flat – both involving karaoke – and him completely trashing both places.

“Yeah, nothing’s wasted,” he grins when I point out the similarities. Why, I wonder, does karaoke bring this out in him? “I think it’s this desperate need for attention but at the same time hating it in myself and trying to resist it. I’ve never liked people who are brash and I’ve always been fighting that in myself.”

This tension between repression and, shall we say, excessive ebullience is particularly pronounced in the Scots, Welsh thinks, and the older he has become, the more his dour tendencies have come to the fore. He calls it his Dewar (as in the late First Minister for Scotland) streak: “Donald Dewar on acid, that’s me.”

The other streak still runs strong in him. Even relatively recently, there was a drink and drugs binge which almost did your head in just reading about it. As part of one New Year’s Eve revelries, he consumed intoxicating substances that were so extreme in their variety and quantity that it seems almost miraculous that he survived such a gruelling recreational marathon. The list included: malt whisky, champagne, magic mushrooms, base speed and crack cocaine. When I ask him about this, he says: “The kind of quality control rationale thing goes right out of your head. You get into such a state that you’ll put anything in: ‘Just give me some of that, and I’ll take it.’”

He appears to have had a passing flirtation with crack cocaine and talks about visiting a crack house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Yeah, it was quite interesting,” he says, ever the observational participant. “I was there with a bunch of guys from Stoke-on-Trent – I’d just met them – and there was an altercation and shots were fired and it was the first time that I’d been so close to gunfire.” Did it frighten him? “It didn’t at the time because I was pretty wasted but it did afterwards.”

There has always been a dance between hard work and hedonism for Welsh. In his early twenties, he was a junkie himself, but only for 18 months before he managed to go cold turkey. Inevitably, perhaps, some of the die-hard drug addicts he knew accused him of being a heroin novice and of exploiting their experience for his own betterment. Most of the junkies he knew then are now dead, but he is still friendly with a couple of survivors who lead reasonably normal lives.

The bare bones of Welsh’s biography are well known: born in a tenement home in Leith, moved to the new-build estates in Muirhouse, where drug-taking later became rife. Left school at 16, completed a City & Guilds course in electrical engineering, fixed televisions and may or may not have blown one up accidentally. Arrived in London in the late Seventies, lived in a squat and became part of the junk and punk scene, playing in the bands the Pubic Lice and Stairway 13. Worked for Hackney Council and studied computing, became a minor property developer in the Eighties, buying studio flats in North London, doing them up and selling them for a profit, then (to quote his website) “cleaning up his act” and “finding a nice lassie and settling doon”. This, I take it, is Anne (Antsy), to whom Trainspotting was dedicated and who was his first wife for around 20 years; these details are flimsy because he has chosen not to make them public.

The couple returned to Edinburgh, where he worked for the city council’s housing department and studied at Heriot Watt Uni-versity, writing his thesis on equal opportunities for women. (He still talks about the “patriarchal society” and feminists’ “self-empowerment”.) Encouraged by the rave scene and loosened up by Ecstasy, he worked on a draft of the novel that became Trainspotting and sold a million copies in the UK alone, and was translated into 30 languages including Hebrew and Arabic. In August 1995, he gave up his day job to concentrate on writing full time. Ten years later, he married for the second time to a young American woman, Elizabeth Quinn, who at 26 is almost half his age.

The point about this curriculum vitae is that even in Welsh’s wildest years, the extreme behaviour was balanced by pragmatism: the work-orientated training schemes, nine-to-five jobs with local authorities where colleagues consistently described him as solid and reliable, the serious-minded thesis. There is also something almost Zelig-like about him being at the centre – or, perhaps, more edgily, just off the centre – of the Zeitgeist, in punk bands at the height of punk, seguing into a property developer during the “greed is good” Eighties, and a fully paid-up member of the Ecstasy-fuelled clubbing scene in the Nineties. Perhaps this constant reinvention explains his hang-up about ageing; the anxiety that the onset of middle age might ban him from being embraced by whatever scene is happening.

He says that he never believed he would still be alive at 50 – which he will be this September. Some time ago, there was a story doing the rounds that he had been born a number of years earlier than 1958 and Welsh was so rattled by it that he resorted to taking his passport along to interviews to prove to journalists that he had not been massaging the truth. Wasn’t this a bit uncool?

“I don’t know why but I’ve always been sensitive and touchy about it,” he says. “The dramatic thing for me was being 30 – when I was still doing loads of Ecstasy and cocaine and drinking – so everything since then has been a kind of bonus. I’ve always believed that it’s very much a young society, and that line that you can’t trust anybody over 30, you know, the older I get the more I believe it.”

Welsh’s binges, he says, are getting smaller as the distances between them get bigger. “Before, I could spend all night clubbing and I’d get in and just hit the word processor and start writing, but I can’t do that now,” he says. “And my main buzz now is my work, basically. I love working.” This is not to say that the struggle is over: “These two things are always vying. If you’re out on the tear, you think, ‘This is fantastic. This is the way I want to live my life for ever.’ Then you think, ‘I’m feeling rough. I shouldn’t do this. I’m wasting my life. I should be achieving things and making a name for myself.’ Then when you start doing that, you think, ‘This is great. I’m getting recognition and I’m enjoying this but it’s a really boring life.’ You oscillate between these two states of mind and I do this all the time.

“Even this weekend in New York – the first mad one I’ve had in a while – the aftermath was like muscular dystrophy: achey and your skin’s crawling and you’re lethargic and everything’s too much trouble, and I hate feeling like that. You make that calculation: the older you are, the less time you’ve got and you don’t want to spend what’s left of it feeling like that.”

Quite apart from the abstinence that came with the two marathons he has run (his body still looks gym-honed), he tends not to drink at all during the winter months because it makes him depressed. But come the spring and summer, that all changes: “I love margaritas, red wine [he writes a wine column in a magazine but he’s temporarily forgotten its name], anything, really.” His favourite part of drinking, anyway, is the sense of relief when you emerge from a hangover: “You just want to get pissed again because the sense of intoxication you get when your head gets cleared and your body is purified is so great.”

By now, Welsh is quite different from that rather uptight initial version of himself. When I say that I had been wondering what it would take to get him to smile, he grins and pats my knee and says, “Oh, stop it,” in a kind of indulgent, “Aw shucks, you’re naughty but nice” way. Do you feel I’m teasing you? “Yes,” he says. He has, it turns out, a ready but rather unusual bark of a laugh – his chin juts out, and the sound escapes from the corner of his thin strip of mouth, a bit like an old-fashioned ventriloquist’s dummy.

He is staring at my hair in such a strange way that it prompts me to ask whether he’s spotted something I should be worrying about. “I’m fascinated by it, actually, particularly that cascading bit at the front,” he says. “I like the different kaleidoscope colours in it.” (I should point out that this does not appear to be a drug-fuelled observation and that he has been drinking nothing stronger than tap water and green tea.) Since he has no crowning glory at all,

I wonder whether he misses it. “That’s probably why 30 was such a bad time for me,” he says. “It was going before that but I’d always had quite bad hair.” Now this is fascinating. So what was his hair like? “Kind of weird. It was black and stuck up in inappropriate tufts all over the place, and I’d always go to the toilet and apply lots of water and smooth them down. But I couldn’t have it over any length at all – so I always had a skinhead or a sort of semi-skinhead. And when it started to recede, I just started shaving it off basically so I kind of wouldn’t notice it going.”

The new Mrs Welsh is a brunette, apparently. How do you like marriage second time round? “It’s absolutely fantastic, really great.” After a year of courtship, they moved in together and got married a year after that. I josh him about being a dirty old tutor, getting off with one of his creative writing students (he was teaching a course at the University of Chicago). “That’s another myth,” he says, in an equally relaxed way. “A lot of people assume she was one of my students but she was a waitress. It’s a mother complex, really. My mother was a waitress and so I only date waitresses, like.”

I wonder whether Betsy, as Irvine says he calls her (I’m not sure he isn’t teasing me at this point), is a pure-living gal. This is greeted with a whoop of incredulous laughter. “She’s got that thing that she wants to go for it and I’m, like, ‘Oh, I’ve done that sooohhh many times.’” Well, if you will marry someone so much younger, there’s obviously a lot of catching up to do. “The converse of that,” he counters, “is that it keeps you young as well, hopefully.”

The spectre that always seemed to horrify Welsh was the idea that he might one day be somehow shoehorned into becoming Suburban Man. He is thrilled to have gone the express route from working class to upper middle class, which is where he places himself now, bypassing the ignominy of “the bourgeois thing”. After travelling first class to his various homes, he now flies economy: “Just because I’m a Scot, and at three and a half grand I’d always be thinking, ‘God, how many bottles of whisky could I buy for that?’”

Nonetheless, my big revelation is that Welsh is now a Domestic God: he goes to B&Q! He cooks! He puts up shelves! He has zero tolerance of mice! Mind you, being Irvine Welsh, his version of all the above still has a strong whiff of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He has his Black & Decker drill and he insists on putting up shelves and painting them even if it kills him: “I’m a bit of a bastard because there may be loads of holes in the walls where I’ve drilled and my hands are all cut to ribbons and there’s paint spattered all over me but I still have to go to the bitter end.

“It’s the same with cooking, and with all the cookbooks around there’s no excuse for anybody not to cook. I like the idea of having people around and cooking a nice meal and I start off all enthusiastic and I spend three fucking hours doing it and I’ve broken a dozen plates and burnt my hand…”

If Irvine is a Ramsayian home cook (“I don’t trust all that Jamie Oliver touchy-feely,” he says), Betsy is definitely in the school of Nigella: “She’ll go all transcendental and have a glass of wine as she’s doing it and it’s almost like meditation. But for me it’s definitely a struggle.”

He is still resolutely anti having children and is relieved that his wife is as allergic to the idea as him, “which is good since, whatever you say, it has to be the woman’s choice”. When he was younger he felt that children would inhibit the kind of lifestyle he wanted to lead, and now he’s too old for that malarkey.

What he witnesses among the parents he knows (he is also an uncle) is that they say, “‘This is great, it’s the best thing that has ever happened.’ But you see them completely eroded by it at the same time. This tremendous debilitating effect and the lack of a personal life they have. I mean, who wants to be getting up at three o’clock in the morning? It’s like, you know, I want to be getting in at that time!”

In 2002 Welsh wrote a powerful piece about his trips to Sudan and Afghanistan as part of Unicef’s campaign for the rights of children, encouraged by his friend, the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who had been quietly working behind the scenes with the organisation. His words were admirably direct and cut to the chase: “We have to ask ourselves how healthy it is to say: ‘OK, so my £100 a year means they save six lives but if it were used effectively it would save seven, so therefore I’m not going to give anything.’”

On the personal front, he wrote: “What I saw and felt will never, ever leave me, and what I feel has fundamentally changed me in ways I could never begin to define.”

I wonder whether this experience had not altered his feelings about children. “I don’t want to see kids die or suffering or being tampered with but that’s very different from saying you want to be responsible for kids yourself,” he says.

“One of the great things about Unicef and the other organisations that work with children is that it’s a bit like boarding schools – you can contribute without having the responsibility of having to be involved on a day-to-day basis.”

What would be ideal, I suggest, is for him to fast-forward to being a grandparent. “If someone else could take them home at the end of the day or you could stick them in the freezer and bring them out when you… Ahh, this is getting a bit like child abuse again…”

Welsh’s bright eyes are beginning to glaze over. Tomorrow he has an early flight to Mauritius where he is being put up for a week in a luxury hotel with five other judges, including writers Tim Lott, Joanne Harris and Simon Armitage, who will be picking the winner of a best love story competition. The BBC will be there filming and Welsh thinks they’re going for a sort of literary Big Brother. For his sake, I hope there isn’t a karaoke machine on the premises.

* * *

To order Crime by Irvine Welsh, published by Vintage on July 3, for £17.09, free p&p (RRP £18.99), call BooksFirst on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst.

Celebrities, Writers

Culture vulture

The Times – May 12 2007
– Ginny Dougary

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

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clive James online

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

Clive James tells the stories of:

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

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

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

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

Celebrities, Writers

Educating Piers

Times Magazine – April 7, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Fired as editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan published a bestselling diary of his rollercoaster career. Now the former tabloid bad boy is back and talks to Ginny Dougary about praying, his beloved granny, and stardom in America

Piers Morgan
Photo: Mark Harrison

The Penis on Legs – aka Piers Morgan – is resiliently handling my barrage of offensive, tabloid questions. It’s just as well that’s
he’s so robust since two days after we meet he gets fired again; only this time it’s for charity, Comic Relief’s celebrity The Apprentice, where we see Morgan enjoyably insulted by the likes of Maureen Lipman (responsible for the aforementioned penis jibe), Alastair Campbell, and later, Graham Norton’s: “Piers Morgan – what an easy person to hate” is greeted by whooping cheers from the audience.

The timing of this panto-villain acclaim is highly convenient for the latest chapter in the saga of Morgan’s entertaining career – as the former “shamed” Mirror editor (to give him the treatment his old paper meted out to the likes of Peter Mandelson) prepares to become a boo-hiss judge on the British answer to Simon Cowell’s America’s Got Talent.

The latter – involving “zany” acts such as granny rappers and men who put scorpions down their trousers or kick themselves in the head – has been a huge hit Stateside (number one in the ratings game last summer for the NBC network, attracting more than 14 million viewers) and Morgan has found himself recognised in the streets of Beverly Hills and – joy of joys – “papped” frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend (gorgeous!/glamorous!/posh totty!/blonde bombshell-with-brains!) the Telegraph’s gossip columnist, Celia Walden.

Never one to suffer self-doubt, Morgan predicts that Britain’s Got Talent, unleashed this summer, will be equally huge… more weirdo acts and a more savage audience made up of strangers from the street “and it’s like a Roman ampitheatre where someone will start an act and suddenly the mob will start screaming, ‘Off, off, off’ and it’s crazy! And Cowell holds his hand over the buzzer like a Roman Emperor asking, ‘Should he live or should he die?’ and the crowd starts chanting, ‘Press it, press it, press it’ and he looks around, smirks and goes ‘boom’ and that’s it. Cowell came out of the first day of auditions and said it was the best television he’d ever been involved with – completely crazy, I mean, hilarious! And with Ant and Dec presenting and Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden and me on the judging panel…”

So would you say that it’s downmarket? “Er – it’s not upmarket. I don’t think it claims to be Newsnight in a different guise, no. But is it damn good entertainment? Yes. Is it fun to judge? Yes.” Do you feel a bit moronic doing it? “No, because I’ve never worried about being taken seriously…” It’s quite an odd move after… (Morgan’s anti-war campaigning years on the Mirror when he hired heavyweight writers such as John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens, and won the sort of awards which are usually reserved for the top end of the market). “Not really,” he says, anticipating where my question’s going. “If you’re the editor of a tabloid newspaper, you’re not really saying,‘I want to be taken seriously.’”

What he’s learnt about television is that it’s all theatre “whether you’re Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight or Simon Cowell on X-Factor – one is very intellectual, the other isn’t, but I believe they’re both thinking, ‘How can I make this work from a televisual point of view’ and I’d say that if you’re looking at quick-wittedness and sharpness of wit, they’d both go head-to head. I’ve never sought to be, you know, a serious intellectual and I don’t claim to be massively well-read, although I’m reading a lot more now and I’m enjoying it – but I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid and I’ve always tried to be open to anything and I’m interested in people and events.”

Here’s a confession: some people actually don’t find it easy to hate Morgan and I’m one of them. He was only 28 when Rupert Murdoch promoted him from Bizarre showbiz columnist on The Sun to editor of News of the World (the youngest national newspaper editor for more than half a century) and much like the boy bands he used to dish the dirt on, Boy Morgan had to do his growing up in public. He made plenty of indefensible mistakes and had his knuckles duly rapped (the photographs of Victoria Spencer leaving a detox clinic allegedly prompted his proprietor to say, “The boy went too far” hence Morgan’s enduring nickname). He continued to make them when he became editor at The Mirror ( the ACHTUNG SURRENDER headline on the eve of the England v Germany Euro ’96 semi-final; the Viglen shares scandal of 2000 which dragged on for four years with Morgan eventually cleared while his City Slicker columnists were fired; culminating in the publication of the hoax photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners which finally did for him).

Morgan’s adventures in the tabloid world were revealed in his first bestseller The Insider – a rattling good read, fascinating for its glimpse into just how much power a red-top editor can wield with the great and the good (so many visits to No 10; so many e-mails from Peter Mandelson), but also riveting for its self-penned portrait of the author as a sort of Artful Dodger happily nicking scoops off his senior colleagues, playing fast and loose with the truth, distorting celebrity photographs and so on, if it suits him.

But it’s not all harmless high jinx as Morgan discovers only when his own marriage difficulties are written about in other publications, and finds himself growing up rather abruptly. These personal complications coincided with the build-up to the Iraq war and suddenly Morgan was a man with a mission – The Mirror was to transform itself into a tabloid with a conscience, reconnecting itself with the pre-Maxwell Cudlipp era, taking on governments rather than bothering itself with the minor peccadilloes of B-list celebrities. His anti-war campaign there lasted for two years, during which time the circulation went into freefall and he was eventually sacked.

Even during his glory days Morgan was still capable of behaving unattractively, to put it mildly. There were his petty long-running feuds with Ian Hislop (against whom he launched a campaign in The Mirror, thereby making himself look both vindictive and ridiculous); ditto David Yelland, then editor of The Sun – and that strange business with Jeremy Clarkson who docked him for printing photographs of him kissing a woman other than his wife. All of it to do, rather loweringly, with either being exposed or exposing – and none of it showing anyone in a particularly good light.

So what’s there to like? Not a lot, if your only experience of Morgan is through his TV appearances. Television may be Morgan’s new career but it does not flatter him. He has certainly improved since his early excruciating performance on Have I Got News For You – but he can still seem horribly pleased with himself, bumptious, brash, arrogant, tub-thumping and generally not someone you’d want to spend any time with.

But off the screen, on the few occasions I’ve bumped into him – he is smart (as opposed to a smart-alec), funny and generous-spirited. He can be immensely charming, and his character makes a great deal more sense when I discover that he’s Irish on both sides of his family (the Pughe-Morgan double-barrel is from his Welsh stepfather who brought him up, rather than evidence of plummy landowning stock). I happen to know that he has been helpful to all sorts of organisations without reaping any personal reward or kudos and he’s naturally meritocratic, trebling or quadrupling the number of women journalists on The Mirror as well as people from ethnic minorities. This is one of things he’s proudest of in his journalistic career, alongside his editorship of the paper after 9/11.

He was to be applauded for saying “Enough!” to copy control when a transcript from a Richard and Judy interview came back littered with absurd “corrections” (he printed the two versions alongside one another and a humbled Richard Madeley phoned up to apologise). But what is perhaps most attractive about Morgan is his energy. When he’s on form – and I’m sure he can be a nightmare when he’s not – he’s one of those people who makes you feel immeasurably more alive to be around. His whole family, it seems, is the same way. He comes from one of those big extended clans of matriarchal grannies and loads of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces, “and we all tend to be the life and soul of the party”. He also gets ragged something rotten by his siblings particularly his brother Jeremy (a major in the Royal Regiment of Wales who was dispatched to Basra): “He takes no nonsense at all from me about my ridiculous, shallow, showbusiness life.”

Like most former journalists turned celebrities, Morgan is far too alert to the dangers of being wrong-footed to allow himself to be led into perilous personal territory. He refuses point blank to talk about The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde for whom he left his wife, Marion. In The Insider, he refers to Hyde in the acknowledgements only as “my best friend, most amusing companion, and unpaid but razor-sharp proof reader” (they are no longer together). Private Eye, among other publications, thought that Morgan’s private life was fair game since he had no qualms about running similar stories about other media figures (eg, Clarkson).

“You know, it’s just that I’ve never felt comfortable talking about a relationship or my private life and I always find that Hello! stuff really gut-wrenching and never understood why people wanted to do it,” he says. “Now obviously I was a rank hypocrite as an editor because I wanted people to do that… but it’s a bit like when somebody would ask me, ‘How do you feel about the snitches who ring up and offer dirt?’ And I would say, ‘Well I used to hate them but be delighted that they were doing it.’ And it’s the same with people spilling their guts out. I think they’re ridiculous but I’m quite pleased that they do it. And with this new book [Don’t You Know Who I Am? The story of how Morgan rose from the ashes to conquer America and become a celebrity himself] I was told that it would be nice to know who you’re with and what you were doing and who was sharing this adventure with you. And that’s why I put Celia in this book because I thought that, actually, not to do so would be unnecessarily – you know – standoffish.”

There’s a whiff of disenchantment with his old tabloid world in the new book, which opens with Boy Morgan – not yet 40 – suddenly feeling a bit like “a semi-retired old fart, running around Sainbury’s all day and watching DVDs because that’s what happens when you’ve come from a huge job and you’re suddenly ex-communicated from a big corporation – the reality of your life is the mundanity.” At some point, “you just start thinking, ‘God, this is really bad, you know I really need to sort myself out.’ At no stage was I depressed [although he does read as though he was], it was more a sense of listlessness and an increasing feeling of edginess and frustration about what was I going to do for the rest of my career since I was only 39.”

Not only did Morgan find it increasingly intolerable to be asked “So what are you doing ?” after years of never having to explain himself, but when he got together with his old mates at The Mirror, he felt out of the loop and simply unable to get excited about this or that scoop with him no longer in the driving seat. He says now – and this is not going to endear him to his former colleagues – that he doesn’t hang out with journalists very often these days because he finds them “really aggressive. It’s quite funny, I know. But I do find them really aggressive.”

In what way exactly? “If it’s been a really busy news day, they’re all absolutely wired with adrenalin and aggression and competitive spirit and it’s obviously the way I used to be. And I realise now why people had a view of me when they saw me at those award shows and I got so fired up, so competitive and so desperately wanted to win. And if I didn’t win, I’d just be blindly in a rage about it and feel cheated for me, my staff and everybody and now I can look back at it and laugh and think, ‘My God!’”

He makes no apologies for his editorship of the News of the World. There is a certain freedom of youth which makes the paper really exciting, you know. Did I go over the top a few times? Definitely. Do I regret some stuff? Definitely. It was only later as I got a bit older and had my own life and started getting responsibilities that I began to rethink things. And writing the book, it was quite cathartic to look back on the impact of some of those stories and the slightly carefree way that you dealt with people’s lives. ”

Most journalists, in his experience, have to be hardbitten. One of his least proud moments was being disappointed when Concorde crashed and there were no celebrities on the plane. “It was full of German pensioners on a charter and I reacted in a really offensive and ugly manner – pissed off because there was no story. But when you go home and have a drink, you think, ‘I really should not have reacted like that. A hundred people have died.’ But there’s this protective shield of “I’m a journalist… I’m above
human reaction in this.’ And when you’re a newspaper editor I think you’re so completely consumed with it that everything just becomes a story.”

It was the Mirror readers themselves, he says slightly surprisingly, who made him think more seriously about what he was doing. “I’m not talking about all of them but as a rule of thumb, I found their letters and their thought processes – the way they voted on issues on phone lines – a great insight into the type of people they were. They were just more caring and sensitive, and I think that evolved me completely.”

He believes that most newspapers misread the public’s appetite for stories which crucify celebrities. “The worst hypocrites I know are editors and senior journalists. I could tell you about the private lives of all of them and they’d fill the News of the World for weeks,” he says. (But then most members of the public would not be all that interested since they hardly expect journalists to be pure as the driven snow.)

As regards his own affair, “Without being drawn into specifics, I would say that my life experiences over the past ten years did radically alter my moral code as an editor because I realised that human frailty can be something that, you know, can pop up with everyone and your ability to be utterly censorial and moralistic about everybody else starts to look vaguely ridiculous.

“Actually, I think what all journalists should do is lose their jobs and go and live a normal life for a few years and then come back into it because they’d have a much better understanding about how real people think about things and react.” Most people who have been involved in a massive scandal, in his opinion – from Jonathan Aitken to Jeffrey Archer to Lord Levy to Jade Goody – get almost universally positive reactions from the public. “The media wants to say, ‘You are a disgusting human being and everybody thinks so.’ The public says, ‘You did something stupid but forget it – you’re actually just like the rest of us.’ They are much less judgmental and not into this media bombardment of hatred and fury and destroying people’s lives.” And, in any case, he says, everyone’s a celebrity now.

Despite his own transcendence into celebritydom, Morgan hasn’t ruled out the possibility of editing another newspaper – it’s just that no offers have been forthcoming. He keeps his hack’s hand in with a weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, a column in the national children’s tabloid First News (of which he is editorial director) and a monthly celebrity interview in GQ magazine. The questions Morgan asks his celebs in that slot are beyond belief – “I’m certainly not going to answer any of those!” he says. Oh go on, Piers, don’t be coy – are you good in bed? “No comment.”

And what position, pray, do you like? “Look, you and I would say ‘No comment’ but what is unbelievable is they [see, for example, Ulrika Johnsson and Billie Piper] seem pleased to answer them.” He’s just done Naomi Campbell (rather sporting of her to agree to be grilled by Morgan, one might think, after he exposed her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Chelsea with all the ensuing courtoom dramas.) “I found her a joy to interview,” Morgan says, because she made very little apology for her behaviour. I asked her, ‘Why are you always late?’ and she said, ‘Because I can be.’ What a great answer. There’s nothing to say to that, is there? It’s obviously reprehensible but it’s also great, I think.”

This comes on the back of me asking Morgan for his Top Five All-Time Gruesome Celebrities, and him saying that he’s quite sympathetic to the genuinely awful “pieces of work… the grand divas” who make no pretence to be anything other than they are. Top of his black list is – da-da-dahhh – Elizabeth Hurley, “the ultimate example of a talentless wannabe becoming grander than the biggest star in the world bleating about privacy and then selling her wedding for two million quid. You cannot complain about privacy and then sell your wedding – the most private event in the world – and the whole excessiveness of it, the whole celebrity thing that came with it is just ghastly, utterly ghastly.”

Hugh Grant is next: “The biggest whinger in the world, constantly saying he hates being a film star but constantly making movies when he probably doesn’t need the money. If he doesn’t like it – disappear. Hugh, you are a very annoying, miserable little man. Right? Go away.” I point out that he’s always calling people he dislikes “little”, even when they’re not. “It’s my ultimate insult,” he says. “I like people who are over 6ft, men and women. Oh and, Kate Winslet has just disappeared up her arse. Awful, awful, awful. I used to love her, such a sweet girl who’d ring me up effing and blinding and having a laugh and it’s the Catherine Zeta-Jones syndrome – they go off into Hollywood and never re-emerge.

“I saw her [Winslet] on Parkinson recently where she began sobbing when Parkie asked her what Sam Mendes thought of her new movie, and she said the reason she was sobbing was the memory of Sam having come home from watching a rough cut of the film and he was in tears saying to her, ‘You were absolutely wonderful, darling’ – and at that point she sobbed – sobbing at the memory of her husband sobbing at her being wonderful.”

Kate Moss and Pete Docherty complete his list. “Awful, skanky little Croydon girl. I don’t get it at all.” But she looks beautiful in every snap of her I’ve seen. “So she scrubs up well, like a lot of Croydon girls do. Why is she this great phenomenon?
I have no idea because when I saw her she was revolting and he was disgusting – fat, bloated heroin junkie sweating and singing tunelessly and I thought, ‘God, these people are supposed to be the hottest stars in the world.’ They’re not exactly Mick Jagger
and Marianne Faithfull, are they?”

It is perfectly possible to construct a convincing portrait of almost anyone based on a few slender facts. So with Morgan, the military family, childhood in an East Sussex village, prep-school education, early admiration for Margaret Thatcher for whom he cast his first vote. “I thought she was a great leader for most of her reign but then, like most of them, went slightly potty”, short-lived stint at Lloyds and the double-barrelled name all created a certain pukka image… but it’s not the whole story.

Of course, he’s not averse himself to hamming up the toffee-nosed Brit bit particularly for his American audience for whom he is thinking of reinstating his dropped barrel – “They want me to be a sort of James Bond charming, smiling assassin – so I posh it up in America.” Anyway, the only reason he excised it on The Sun was because it made his by-line too long and in Sussex, where he spends most weekends with his family, he’s still a Pughe-Morgan, as are his three splendidly named sons, Spencer, Stanley and Bertie.

He only discovered recently, when he went to Ireland for his aunt’s funeral, that his natural father – Vincent O’Meara – who died when Piers was one year old, was a journalist for two years on a local newspaper. “There I was in the middle of southern Ireland in a place called Bannagher and all these people came up to me who had known my father,” Morgan says. “His mother persuaded him to become a dentist because there was more money and security and all that but it was interesting to find that out that it’s obviously in the blood, you know.”

His maternal grandfather was a “proper investigative journalist” on the Sunday People back in the Seventies. Piers’s first introduction to Fleet Street was through his grandfather’s connections with friends such as Brian Hitchin, then editor of the Star.

Dublin, he says, feels like his spiritual home… “my best nights out have been there at Lily’s Bordello [which turns out to be a nightclub, rather disappointingly, not a brothel]. I do actually feel quite Irish – the blarney and the craic and all that – and I’ve got lots of Irish cousins and I like Irish people very much and feel a certain affinity with them.”

Morgan was brought up as a Catholic and went to church most Sundays. He describes his mother, Gabrielle, who is a part of the Cantopher clan as “very Irish who has remained a pretty devout Catholic whereas I’ve become less so”. He still prays when times get tough and he is a definite believer. Does he suffer from Catholic guilt? He says not although he has become more reflective “now that I’m calmer and less in that volatile cauldron of competitive tabloid nonsense”. He’s suddenly a bit worried about how this will look, saying, “You know I’m not a Sinead O’Connor in a male wig, if that’s what you’re getting at. I don’t want to overdo my devoutness because I think a proper devout Catholic would see me as pretty lapsed – it’s just that my whole family, apart from my dad, are believers and that’s the way we were brought up.” He describes getting instruction from nuns when he was a small boy “which I rather liked, actually”. Now this is a revelation. What was it that he liked? “You’d just go along and chat for an hour and I liked the purity of the nuns and their pure view of life and the world. It was nice.” Is there any way that could be seen to have a bearing on his life now, I ask somewhat doubtfully. “I don’t think that I’ve led such a pure life as those nuns, no. But I thought there was an idealistic side to them that was rather nice, you know. Always looking for the good in people is a nice trait to have.”

Talking about his natural father makes him feel uncomfortable because he’s worried that it will seem as though he is downgrading his relationship with the man who brought him up – “And, you know, he’s been absolutely incredible. He took on two young boys when he was in his twenties and did a great job for us. All four of us children [he has two younger siblings through his mother’s second marriage] had a lovely upbringing and a lot of fun. It wasn’t privileged and we didn’t have much money but we had a great time.”

Morgan is extremely close to his grandmother, Margot, known as Grande to whom he dedicates the new book: “To Grande, my
incomparable grandmother.” She was largely responsible for looking after her grandchildren when Morgan’s parents were working “unbelievably long hours, catering to maybe 200 people a day” running a pub, the Griffin Inn in Fletching, seven days a week.

When Grande had a stroke some years back, Morgan converted the garage of his half of the family house (a Grade II Georgian wreck, set in six acres, which Morgan’s parents had done up slowly over the years), so that she could be looked after. “She was living on her own in Shoreham on the beach and I thought, ‘I’ve got a big garage, why not just convert it into a lovely little cottage for her?’ And now she’s back on fighting form and it’s a bit like the Waltons. There’s my granny and mum and dad next door and then my brothers and sister all come down with their tribes and at night it’s “Goodnight, Grandma” [cheesy American accent] and I love it. And I’m totally unashamed about it because I like having a close family.”

Before we move on to the present-day Piers, there is one last incident from his childhood which is illuminating. Like all his siblings, Morgan’s education was a mixture of private and state; Jeremy and Piers went from a prep school to the local comp, while Rupert and Charlotte did it the other way round. Morgan reckons that he and his older brother got the better deal. “I think my education was, in many ways, perfect. I went to a great prep school until I was 13 and then I got my snobbish creases ironed out [at Chailey, near Lewes] where some of the kids did give me a hard time for being a posh twit. [His younger siblings suffered a lot of snobbery, he says, having come from the state sector.]”

I wonder whether he was bashed around? “Yeah, a bit,” he says, naming a boy called Gideon Short (what’s the betting he was teased?) who had an orange mohican and another kid in particular, John Surret, who had done some boxing training in Canada. Morgan can still vividly remember getting off the school bus outside his house and slugging it out in the street. “The first couple of punches when he smacked me in the face were really bad. But after that I became completely immune to the pain and didn’t feel anything else. And I think that’s not bad as a template for life, really – the first couple of blows hurt, and then after that it’s fine. And you just have to keep in there fighting.”

Years ago, I spent a riotous evening with Piers, after he had given a most unentertaining speech which went on interminably and ended up with him being jeered off the stage (even though he had funded the event). It was at the height of his tabloid madness, and a group of us piled into Mirror-chauffered limousines and went from club to club dancing into the early hours and quaffing champagne paid for presumably by Morgan’s expense account. It was enormous fun but did have a slightly excessive Scorsese-Coppola feel about it. When I mention that it’s somewhat nerve-wracking that he tends to dissect his interviews in his books, he growls with a Corleone look: “Yes, you gotta show me respect.”

Although he does remember that long night, it was clearly one of many and his life – just as well – is no longer like that. “It’s different now. I’m calmer now,” he says again, “and I don’t feel the need to get wrecked like I used to.”

In Los Angeles, where Morgan spends about two and a half months filming America’s Got Talent, he has a ferocious German trainer who feeds him dreadful purging potions and is very “big on the burrrrrrrn”. He goes to the gym a lot, and has lost almost a stone which shows more in person than on unforgiving telly where he still looks a bit jowly and puffy. So will he be getting American teeth and all that jazz? Absolutely not, Morgan is horrified by the idea. Cowell “who obviously has had all that stuff” has bet him a $100 that he will succumb to the knife or Botox at some stage… “and I have resolutely said that the day that happens, I’m out of here – because I’m quite happy with the way I look, thank you.”

But it’s a different sort of training in Morgan’s life that’s really interesting. His new girlfriend, Celia – with whom Piers is clearly very smitten indeed – has made him put ten bookshelves up in his flat to accommodate her essential reading list. It’s not that he was anti-books, he says, “it’s just that from the age of 21, I was on The Sun and rampaging around seven days a week.” What he’s learnt recently, he says, is the pleasure of quietly listening to music of an evening – be it Snow Patrol or Tschaikovsky and going to art galleries, travelling for the sake of it and “walking in parks and stuff”.

He’s just finished reading Madame Bovary and then there’s the complete works of Shakespeare – a gift from the girlfriend “a beautiful bound thing”, and lots of Dickens and Hemingway and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and “In the next five years, I’d like to have read the hundred great classics,” Morgan says. “I want to immerse myself in the great works of literature because I never had the time or the patience to do it before.”

What really draws him to Walden, Morgan says, isn’t her undeniable prettiness – “I’ve never really been attracted to people just because of the way they look” – nor her accomplishments (she speaks French, Russian and Italian fluently and has her first “beautifully written” novel coming out shortly) but the fact that she’s always roaring with laughter: “She has a lovely sunny disposition and I find that very appealing.”

It’s just as well that she has a sense of humour because she’ll certainly need one if she’s to hang in with Morgan in the years to come. I ask him how he’s going to cope if he becomes absolutely huge celebrity-wise. “What do you mean if?” he says, with mock-outrage, and then proceeds to tell me about his last Christmas in Barbados.

There’s this bloke buried up to the neck in sand who worked for an agency Morgan always used when he was at The Mirror. And our man is tipped off from someone else on the beach that the snapper has been taking photos of him and the girlfriend walking up and down the beach. “So I walk over to him and he’s stuck there with some sort of camouflage over his head, and his great big lens and looking very sheepish and I said, ‘Mate, you’re gonna have to do better than that. This is my game you’re at.’ So I tell him to show me the pictures and I said, ‘You’ll never sell these.’ And he said, ‘I already have, mate.’ And so he’d taken the pictures, sent them back to his office and sold them all in three minutes.” Well, talk about the papper papped.

Do you think, Piers, you’re ever going to have a sense of humour failure? “Of course I will,” he says. “If they get a picture of me looking fat on a beach I’m going to be absolutely incandescent at the brand damage this will cause!”

There’s no question that the papper papped is having the time of his life after the initial strangeness of being a bit lost in LA without all the familar buffers of old friends and family. But he is under no illusions about the ephemeral nature of his new fame: “It’s great fun and you’re treated brilliantly over there but it’s a very brutal world and if the ratings dip, you know the game – you’re sent back on economy. But I can cope with that very easily. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d think what a great laugh that was and come home and do something else.”

* * *

Don’t You Know Who I Am? Insider Diaries of Fame, Power and Naked Ambition by Piers Morgan is published by Ebury Press, and is available from BooksFirst

priced £16.19 (RRP £17.99), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

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