Archive for the 'Writers' Category

Celebrities, Writers

For the sake of integrity, keep the PR meisters at bay

Times Online – February 22, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

A few weeks ago, this paper was offered an interview with the actress Uma Thurman, which, in turn, was offered to me. Actors do not generally feature high on my wish list of prospective subjects but Thurman is one of the exceptions.

I’ve liked her performances from her early role as an ingénue in Dangerous Liaisons to the druggy socialite in Pulp Fiction and the kick-ass heroine of Kill Bill. On the relatively rare occasions that she has appeared on TV chat shows, she comes across as smart and engaged. Her background is intriguing: daughter of the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (Uma is named after a Hindu deity), and Nena, an actress-turned-psychotherapist whose father, Baron Karl Von Schlebrugge, was jailed by the Nazis for refusing to betray his Jewish business partners.

Uma’s brothers also have unusual names – Ganden, Dechen and Mipam. I was wondering what they do and what it was like for her growing up with three brothers: did they gang up on her or make her feel like a princess? If she had older brothers, did she date their friends – and if so, did her siblings ever have to protect her reputa-tion? Did she feel beautiful as she was growing up or were those sort of superficial values frowned upon in her home? Did her mother try to warn her against becoming an actress or support her? Does she have anything to do with the notorious semen-and-spit-fixated New York vagabond artist Dash Snow, who is her step-nephew? Is she polit-ical? Is she spiritual? Does she read? How does she see her career unfolding once she hits 40?

It is quite possible, of course, that Uma Thurman may not have wanted to discuss some or, indeed, any of these questions. But I am confident, having been at this game for some time, that after we had discussed the particular project she was being asked to promote (something to do with Pirelli), given a reasonable slot of an hour or so – we would have moved on to more interesting territory. As it happened, the Uma interview fell in the week that I was to embark on a term of teaching postgraduate journalism students at City University – the fast track to a career on one of the national newspapers – about the craft, graft and pitfalls of the celebrity interview.

Part of my job, I felt, was to warn them about how restrictive and compromised this part of the industry had become. How would they feel about such issues as copy control (when the subject’s “people” demand to see the article prepublication as a condition of giving the go-ahead); how they would handle the situation if their subjects unburdened themselves and then announced that this was “off the record”; their willingness to go on a press junket (where the travel and accommodation – often enticingly luxurious – is paid by the promoter not the newspaper and the journalists lob their questions en masse, sometimes to an image of the subject projected on a screen, a “virtual” interview, which appears on the page as an intimate one-to-one encounter)?

Proper journalists, I wanted to tell them, refuse to go along with any of the above. But something fundamental has changed in the time since I started interviewing famous people 20-odd years ago, when it was relatively straighforward compared with the hoop-jumping rigmarole that is increasingly the norm now.

One of the problems with teaching young people about interviewing celebrities is that it is difficult to advise them what approach they should take to get on. Should I tell them what a joy it is to interview the divas of Hollywood – Shirley, say, or Liz – who will talk madly, deeply, and sometimes eloquently about their extraordinary lives, when it is Scarlett or Penelope who will make the cover regardless of how little they have to say?

I remember laughing (albeit ruefully) some years back when Graydon Carter, Editor of Vanity Fair, criticised for catering to the mad demands of Hollywood agents, retorted that he would no more think of running a warts-and-all celebrity encounter than he would consider clubbing a baby seal.

At the time, against what was then the prevailing conservative climate of America, Carter was devoting a great number of pages – between the celebrity puffs – to unglamorous in-depth pieces investigating the build-up to the war.

It is easy to think that it’s far more important to take on the Bush Administration than battle with the control freaks who rule Hollywood.

But this is not right. The quality of truth should not be strained. Any journalism worth reading, regardless of the perceived weight of the subject, should be concerned with conveying as honest an account as it is possible to tell. It may sound rather solemn but I believe, regardless of how entertaining or anodyne you wish to make your article, that an essential bond of trust exists between the writer and the reader. Any journalist who allows the public relations machine to mould and dictate what he or she writes has crossed over to the other side and thereby betrays not only the reader but also their colleagues.

Big Brother or do you actually care?

The question is whether the readers care or are supremely indifferent. Do you think you can you tell when an interview has been doctored? Is it worth us celebrity freedom fighters persisting with the good fight, or would you prefer to watch Celebrity Big Brother for your dose of reality?

Please e-mail me your views so that I can pass them on to the students who will almost certainly be doing what I do in the near future. . . if it’s worth their while.

In case you were wondering, the Uma interview did not happen. Pirelli had agreed to fly me business class (Yes!) and put me up in the proverbial five-star hotel for three nights. Videos were ordered and watched. Cuttings were compiled and read. Then the PR became increasingly elusive and the last we heard was that all the Italian journos were being flown to New York, where they would enjoy a full five-minute audience with La Uma. (“Tell us please what you have discovered about tyres?”) The Times no longer had the promised hour, but we could still bask in our exclusive bonanza of ten whole minutes. We declined.

Toxic interviews

News of the Uma debacle soon travelled around City University and my views were sought by a student working on a piece about the environmental cost of the journalist. She was particularly interested in PRs who were willing to send hacks long distances for extremely short interviews. Could the threat to the environment end production-line journalism and would this ultimately benefit the reader? Discuss.

gdougary@thetimes.co.uk

Writers

The voice of experience

Times Online – September 09, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

At 57, Martin Amis’s days as the enfant terrible of British fiction are long gone, yet he still has the unerring ability to shock. Ginny Dougary hears his frank views about love, terror, growing old and the tyranny of daughters

Martin Amis is jumpy. He sees the secret police everywhere. His eyes dart around, starting at shadows, and his concentration is shot. For a while he’s fine and we’re back to the effortless flow of elegant sentences; the lazy, patrician drawl – and then, arrrgh, back comes the paranoid facial freeze, the whole body tensing and doubling over as he scrabbles to conceal what he fears his tormentors will find. So this, you might think – possibly smugly, particularly if you’re one of those Schadenfreude-meisters who revels in the misfortunes of “little” Martin Amis (as he was dubbed, years ago, and with no great affection, by the “towering” Gore Vidal) – this is what comes of dropping out of metropolitan life for two and a half years to live in a house that has been built for you in the wilds of Uruguay.

“It is pathetic,” he agrees. “But they’re just horrible to me. They’re proper little fascists about it and they know they can be really authoritarian and still have right on their side.” The Amis litany of American wives, the American über-agent, the American novel, the American teeth; all of this we could live with. But the latest development is distinctly more worrying. For in America, as we all know, lighting up a cigarette is an incendiary offence and Amis, who has always reliably smoked for England, seems to be seriously thinking of giving it up. “The little fascists”, you see, are the nicotine-Nazis – his small daughters, Fernanda and Clio, nine and six – and it is fascinating to see how much power they wield over their father. They must be the real reason (rather than any new Stateside enthralment) why he’s happier these days to be photographed, as he was in another newspaper, looking a bit of a wally – or “ponce”, as he puts it – pert bum in the air, performing his Pilates leg extensions, than with the sagging decadence of a half-drained glass of wine and a fag.

Ah well, he’s hardly the first parent to be tyrannised by the moral loftiness of his offspring. (I told him that my younger son had recently asked me whether I was, possibly, an “antisocial” rather than “social smoker”, and felt a complicated flush of maternal pride when Amis said, “That’s very good. That’s rather penetrating.”) Neither is he the first second-time round father to be struck by the new-found wonderment of a child growing up. But struck, quite palpably, he is: “It’s a great pleasure to watch a growing thing, and it’s more and more of a pleasure to watch my daughters. It was great to watch my boys grow [Louis and Jacob, from his first marriage to the academic Antonia Phillips; now both reading ancient history at Oxford and Bristol], but I was younger then and it didn’t strike me as so significant.

“Now the idea of something growing… that’s why people take up gardening when they’re old. They want to be around growing things. I had a tiny experience of that in Uruguay where it was for a while my duty to water the garden, and there was that elderly pleasure in it… just when you play the water on a plant, how its colour gets richer and you kid yourself they’re grateful for it. No, I didn’t talk to them, but it is satisfying. It’s really because you’re shrinking and dying in the long term that it’s very nice to see something that’s coming up.”

At 57 (incredibly! Did the père have to go, before the fils was finally uncoupled from his enduring epithet – despite that very public mid-life crisis – as an enfant terrible?), Amis has had to contend with the usual roll-call of losses, as well as the less usual – the death of his father, Kingsley, who was most definitely The King to him; followed not long after by Sally, his sister – the baby of the family – struck down by “a mysterious failure cascade” (a phrase, the closing down of organ after organ, I find attached to one of the characters in his new book) and dead within the week; Rob, his oldest friend, who is vividly present in Experience, then dying equally suddenly of cancer at the age of 51; Saul Bellow, the father-figure to whom he was umbilically attached; the ghastly late discovery, at such a long remove from the night of her disappearance, that his cousin Lucy Partington had been one of serial-killer Fred West’s victims.

It is hard to move on from that last name on the list without pausing; the empathy with her family’s bereavement echoing every family’s worst fear. It makes you wonder whether there wasn’t something in Amis’s unconscious that had already divined what the writer didn’t dare to contemplate; the very idea of him inventing a “murderee” (London Fields’s Nicola Six); his male characters who casually boast about beating and raping and subjugating women. Writing fiction can be an unpremeditated exorcism of events that are too profoundly haunting for the surface gaze of rational examination; those thoughts that lie too deep for tears – as in the knowledge, albeit a different order of pain, that you have fathered a daughter you cannot acknowledge (as Amis did, although father and grown-up daughter, Delilah, are now, happily, embraced in each other’s lives). He found it strangely consoling when another novelist, Maureen Freely – in the wake of the news, as it inevitably became – detected the number of “lost or wandering daughters and putative or fugitive fathers” who appeared in his books. It meant, he later wrote, that Delilah had been with him in spirit far more than he knew.

“You find that some things have not been written about by you and gone down to the subconscious level,” Amis says, “and they bel­ong to fiction. It’s a silent anxiety… an anxiety that you don’t articulate. That’s where your fiction comes from. Sometimes it’s stuff that you don’t even know is bothering you. You think life is going on and nothing much is happening but there is… Saul Bellow has a nice sentence for it… ‘The silent work of unev­ent­ful days’, when great changes are happening inside you but it just seems like ordinary life.”

The central subject of his fiction, he says, has been masculinity – but as ageing and its accompanying layers of loss make their imprint on him, it seems likely that his novels will come to reflect those themes in a way that might eclipse his other preoccupations. Or, perhaps, more pertinently, that he might be freed up to engage in a more direct way with the human condition. Amis has never been one of those writers who only lives in his books. We know about his enthusiasms and engagements in the business of living: the daily tennis game, the blokey world of snooker and darts; the long-lasting male friendships (with the writer and polemicist, Christopher “The Hitch” Hitchens, and the novelist Julian Barnes; their glacial rift over the agent defection finally shows signs of thawing); the pageant of glamorously well-connected girlfriends; the importance of family. And yet, as with most serious novelists near the top of their game, surely for him what really matters, in the final reckoning, is the work? But while this may once have been true, Amis says it is no longer the case.

“I’ll tell you why. It has become clearer and clearer to me that when you get into the last lap of your life, you don’t really think about your work at all. What you think about is (a) how it went with the women in your life and (b) your children, and work comes very much third. There’s even a hint of it in there [pointing to his new book, House of Meetings] when the main character says that men always die in torment because they’re not congratulating themselves on their achievements in the world; they’re reproaching themselves for the bad things they did.” When I interviewed Kingsley, a year before his death in 1995, he was beset with those torments at dawn. He said that he still felt guilty – even more, as the years stacked up – about the break-up of his first marriage, when he left Hilly for the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the effect it might have had on his children. At the time, his son was in the throes of separating from his first wife for his new love, Isabel Fonseca, whom he went on to marry – and perhaps there was an element of his feeling that it was his own example that had somehow led to this. “There’s no point in agonising about it,” he said, “but that doesn’t stop you agonising. As you get older, you spend more time on your own, therefore you think more about your past. But there’s nothing you can do.”

Martin, when I phoned him then, said that he’d forgiven Kingsley long ago, and made a point of adding that he didn’t know anyone who was as close to their father as he was to his. When I said that Kingsley did not appear to have forgiven himself, he said: “As you get older, you have fewer defences against those big regrets in your life, and sources of guilt. My father says that they are there all the time; you have to live with them.”

Saul Bellow, too, was filled with anxiety in his final days. “You would think Saul would be in a stupor of self-satisfaction because his work was so celebrated. He didn’t say it till quite close to the end when a friend came in, who was almost the same age, and asked, ‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself, Bellow?’ And Saul, from his hospitalic bed in his own house, said, ‘I’ve been thinking. Now which is it? Is it: there goes a man or there goes a jerk?’ And his friend, Karl, said, ‘There goes a man.’ And Saul said, ‘OK. I’ll take your word for it.’

“So that’s what you’re thinking. He had five marriages – and four children – and the last was his longest and his best. But there had been a lot of wounds and blows given and received in four divorces. It’s there [he refers again to the book; its story takes the form of a letter as a manuscript from the Russian narrator to his Am­eri­can stepdaughter], when he says to Venus that there’s a difference between men and women in the last round. Men break the habit of a lifetime and start blaming themselves; women break the habit of a lifetime and stop blaming themselves. Good news for women.”

We’re talking in the garden of the Fonseca family’s summer residence in the Hamptons. A deer and a stag tilt through the high grass in the distance. It’s really a most un-Amis-like setting, despite the tennis court at the approach of the drive. I had been told that the house was in a compound in a nature reserve, but I hadn’t quite clocked that this would be a private compound, much like the Kennedy set-up, with various members of the Fonseca clan ensconced in their own expansive New England-style homes, a discreet remove from one another, divided by curving hedges and banks of blowsy white hydrangeas.

When Isabel Fonseca’s name first appeared in the popular press, she was described as an American heiress, daughter of a Uruguayan sculptor and a Jewish (why the need for that prefix, one wonders?) American socialite, and I remember thinking that didn’t sound right. Surely what was most notable about La Fonseca at that time was that she had recently written a tremendous and highly praised book of her own, Bury Me Standing, about the gypsies of East Central Europe, for which she had devoted four years of her life, interviewing and travelling with gypsies in order to tell their story.

Well, having visited the family estate, I can see that “heiress” is probably accurate – along with “stunning beauty”, and all the other gallant nods to her good looks. Still, writers are competitive, particularly couples – however much they demur – and I caught a faint whiff of it in Fonseca. This struck me at the end of the interview with Amis – when his missus had obligingly posed, despite her understandable resistance, in a sort of disgraced-Tory “happy family” shot. (The “I have resigned to spend more time with…” quips were fast and flowing.)

Afterwards, when we were chatting before she kindly drove us to the bus-stop, Isabel told me that she was working on her first novel, and said, “So you can interview me when it’s published” and then, “No, of course, I’m only joking” and, after another pause, “If it gets published.” And I thought however gilded your life must appear to others – and Mr and Mrs Amis appear to be very happy indeed; they still flirt with each other, for instance – it must sometimes sap your confidence to have your status as a writer relegated to “wife of”.

In his study of masculinity, Amis has always maintained that one of the characteristics that defines men is their intense competitiveness. Several of his novels – London Fields, The Information – zone in on consuming rivalries between different male novelists. Looking through the large Amis file of cuttings, you notice – particularly back in the Eighties, when Money was widely considered to be the novel to speak for that decade – that it wasn’t chick-hacks or geezer-birds who were dispatched to interview its author, but literary-minded young men, often novelists themselves. And it was to America – and the Big Beasts of literature – that Amis would turn, in the Eighties, for his masterful interviews with the likes of Mailer and Updike and Bellow.

I wonder whether Amis now feels that he is in their league? “Oh, no. No,” he says. You have said, in the past, that you have to feel that you’re the best at what you do, in order to do it at all. “You’ve got to think you’re the best of your lot [by which, I take it, he means his generation of British novelists]. But it’s not a wannabe thing. I think it’s much exaggerated, this pecking-order stuff with novelists – particularly since Salman Rushdie. He cut through a lot of that just because it was suddenly life and death, and these little jealousies looked very petty after 1989. Also, more generally, you’re not trying to write someone else’s novels. And they’re not trying to write yours. We’re all trying to write the novel that Trollope called The Way We Live Now – but we’re all coming at it from a thousand different directions.” And then, as an afterthought: “Clear­ly there is a lot of ego stuff… and there must be something in it be­cause it’s such a massively established idea that novelists are… Look, you can be competitive about sales and prizes and stuff like that, but you really can’t be in competition with anyone to write your next novel.”

So you’re not at all bothered by not getting the Booker? (The King was shortlisted three times and eventually won it in 1986, for The Old Devils; The Prince has been shortlisted only once for his Holocaust backwards novel, Time’s Arrow, in 1991; among his friends and contemporaries, Barnes, Swift, McEwan, Okri and Rushdie have all been Bookered.) “No, I’m completely reconciled to the fact that my books do not unite people, and they blatantly don’t unite committees. If they did, I would be a different writer. Obviously, winning the Booker simplifies things. But what’s most important is feeling that you have a core of readers. And that’s more important than the money, too, as long as you’re not starving. The sashes and the cups and the Tonys and the Pulies… that’s very secondary.”

In our meandering conversation – we cover a lot of ground in an afternoon – I am struck by the way Amis talks about his mother. Per­haps it takes the particular skill of a novelist to conjure such a telling portrait of someone that close to him, so tenderly and yet with such forensic precision. The closing chapter of Kingsley’s life – after the crush­ing failure of that second marriage – was spent sharing his home in Primrose Hill with his first wife, Hilly, and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock. Martin recalls how sentimental King­s­ley became about Hilly; we both remember the poems he wrote to “H” which appeared at the end of his memoirs; the girl he met in 1946 “whose eye I could have met for ever then” and how he made the mistake of looking further, since “How can we tell, with nothing to compare?”

Their son says, “I think the sentiment was real, too. But then my mother is a very extraordinary person, and he must have thought that he didn’t realise how exceptional she was.” In what way? “I can elaborate on this a bit. She is the only woman I’ve ever come across who doesn’t have an atom of theatricality in her. She never says anything for effect. Takes it that what you’re telling her is what you mean. None of the Byzantine stuff that we’re used to. Oh, and by the way, I think women are theatrical and men are cinematic. It’s the same sort of seeing themselves from the outside, but men underact whereas women overact. Anyway, she never did that. She was [striking, too, how he slips into talking about Saul and Kingsley in the present; and Hilly, who is still alive, in the past] really straight – which is very attractive and very unusual. She’s also very funny – but, again, she doesn’t time her funny remarks. They just sort of pop out and they’re funny but she sort of doesn’t intend them to be funny. Oh, she’s just very unusual,” he says again, his gaunt features plumped up by the sweetness of the thought. “Everyone who has met her sees it.”

It is Hilly, he says, who provides the extra “lift” in Zachary Lead­er’s forthcoming authorised biography of Amis Sr. “There’s a charming bit where she’s first met Kingsley – it took her a while to fall for him and then she did fall for him in a big way – and she said,” he switches to the first person, “‘He was so unlike my own parents and brothers and sisters. We tended to accept people for what they are and be tolerant of them, but Kingsley, sitting in a café, would say [here, he scrunches up his face in a comically exaggerated look of withering scorn, somehow summoning both his father and his father’s own brilliant mimicking of others], ‘Look at those fools who’ve just come in… look at that bloody hat he’s wearing’, flailing out in all directions. She was very puzzled by that. Couldn’t understand it. She was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with all these people?’, as he’d be going, ‘Look at that idiot over there.’”

So where does he fall between his father’s punishing eye and his mother’s non-judgmentalism? “I’m not inclined, unlike Kingsley, to have a category in my mind that ropes in certain kinds of people for disapproval. But as I’ve got older, I’m a bit harder on what I see as herd stuff. I hate the clunking initials – but the sort of PC package of moral equivalents on every issue, where no one’s right about anything. The use of catchphrases which go around for a few months and then disappear. I keep seeing headlines that say that the new PLO guy is ‘Arafat-lite’ and my attitude to that is, well, take your hat off to whoever said it first but don’t use it yourself. That sort of subtext of used novelty – that’s something that Kingsley disliked.”

The freshly minted expression that becomes an instant cliché? “Yeah… heading towards cliché, like ‘no-brainer’. Don’t yourself use those phrases because it is a sort of automatic thought – and I’m im­patient with that.” So do you manage to be vigilant with yourself? “You have to catch yourself and you have to forbid family members to use them. My daughter says, ‘What? I’m supposed to go to bed without ice-cream? I don’t think so.’ That sort of thing.” He’s amusing himself here, I should point out, as well as me. “You have to say, ‘Fern­anda, that’s the sort of phrase that other people use. You don’t have to use it.’” Not in our house, you don’t. “That’s right – so there’s a bit of snobbery about that.” How do you deal with the dangling question mark, the Valley Girl vault? “She’s actually satirising that at the age of nine; she and her cousin do it as a joke. So I’m very pleased to see that and encourage it.”

When Amis was Fernanda’s age, a most blue-eyed and blond little boy, he saw some image from the Holocaust that disturbed him enough to repeat it to his mother. “And she said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about Hitler. Hitler would have loved you.’ I don’t know whether I’ve ever said this before, but I think that’s why I wrote Time’s Arrow in the end. I didn’t want Hitler to love me. I wanted Hitler to hate me. It sort of worked away at me because I remember thinking, ‘Whew.’

“And now, for instance, it’s very important to me that my daughters are fully Jewish by Jewish law, which is matrimonial. So I’m pleased they’d be the first to be summoned.” That’s rather a peculiar thought, isn’t it? “It is, but let’s not mess about – that’s what they are. So there’d be no shilly shallying there. Especially since what we’re living through now, among other things, is a huge recrudescence of anti-semitism. And, with my two daughters, it makes me feel great solidarity with them.”

He lays the blame for Israel’s plight (and there is, conspicuously, no mention of Pales­tine’s) firmly with the Brits: “For Nasrallah, it’s a power play; for Israel it’s survival. And they always have this hanging over them. It’s our fault because we put them in it. There could­n’t have been a worse place on earth than where they are. They should have been in Bavaria and then they would have had a couple of leather-shorted scoutmasters from the BLO throwing Molotov cocktails at them, from time to time… at least they wouldn’t have been surrounded by millions of people who thirst for their death. So I think you’ve got to bear that in mind.”

He and The Hitch were in Las Vegas the previous week, and shared their grim premonition that this could be the beginning of the end for Israel. “You can’t put them anywhere else now. They can’t have another country, another Homeland. It’s a very chilling thought because the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

“The one built-in element that works in our favour is that it’s so vile and poisonous, so preposterously disgusting that it must burn itself out. They have managed to fix on a real paradigm shift – earlier, people would die for causes and for tiny religious reasons, but to convert it into this luscious, sensual paradise that you go straight to, while the rest of the poor sods have to moulder in the earth for centuries until they’re kicked awake by furious angels and interrogated about their sins. The suicide bomber doesn’t do any of that shit. He goes straight to the ripe wine and women.”

This is the central question Amis keeps coming back to in his writing: an extended and moving review of the film United 93; a short story, published in The New Yorker, The Last Days of Mohammad Atta (we talk about the haunting photograph of the 9/11 leader, with his hard black eyes “full of murder… as though he couldn’t contain it a second longer”); a new 12,000-word essay tackling the terrorists head-on. This last response is likely to be extremely hardline, inflamingly so, if Amis’s message to me is anything to go by.

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”

I remember reading somewhere that Atta’s cell of devout Muslims had been loaded on cocktails and playing Space Invaders in the days leading up to their murder spree. Amis, in his deep research, has come across the suggestion that there were even visits from strippers and call girls: “None of that would surprise me. I think they’re hugely hypocritical in their hearts. Their big beef against the West is that it’s tempting them. That’s just impossible. I mean, ‘Sorry. We didn’t know that what we were doing was creating a society for the tantalisation of good Muslims.’ When Khomeini called America the Great Tempter, that’s what he meant, the Great Satan. In the Koran, Satan is a tempter. So they want it, you know.”

His new book circles back to Amis’s old subject of Russia – which he tackled in Koba the Dread, with its central rebuttal of Stalin’s claim that the death of one person was tragic, the death of a million a mere statistic. House of Meetings revolves around a love triangle bet­ween two brothers – we meet them as prisoners in the Gulag, nightmarishly conjured – and a complicated Jewish beauty, which spans four decades of post-war Russia. A description of the House of Meetings – the generic name for the buildings where prisoners were allowed conjugal visits – in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, was the starting point for his novel: “the atmosphere after such a visit, where everyone would be silent and very respectful of the man – no laughter, no mocking – because they knew the depth of the pain that such visits always bore.” And, also, a long piece in The New Yorker, entitled “Is Russia Dying?”

Amis says that he had a bad time writing the book – a sentiment, I am saddened to say, I shared on reading it, and not for all the right reasons. His first problem was structural – to whom was his narrator (one of the brothers) telling his story? His solution was to make the hero’s stepdaughter the recipient of his confession. “If she’s there all the time, it grounds it in the present and against another mild ideology – not the ferocious ideology he had to live through – but the modern culture of forgiving.”

The other problem was more existential: “I had a terrible struggle with this; a bit life and death. I’d written a book about the Holocaust, but that was fine because I was writing it from the point of view of a perpetrator. I could never have written it from the perspective of a victim. But this is about a victim. And I was writing about penal servitude above the Arctic Circle when I was living in a house in Uruguay with my beautiful daughters and wife, and having a stressless existence because that’s what it’s like down there – beautiful people; superb manners and civility; wonderful attitude to children; park anywhere you like; no traffic; not speaking Spanish, there were some evenings I hardly said a word and it was nice to have a vow of silence for a bit so you can just think your own thoughts…

“And I realised when I’d done the book that I had to really suffer as a writer. I wasn’t sitting around weeping about the poor sods in the Gulag – although I did have stabs of sympathy, obviously, as well – it just attacks your self-confidence. And then when I’d suffered enough and thought about suicide and not writing again…”

Are you being flippant? (My voice, here, sounds very sharp on the tape.) “No.” Why suicide? “Because you’re in such despair about it.” But why? “I kept thinking that it was pleading with me to abandon it. But that’s all it was really – doing the suffering to earn the book.”

And so we are at the pass I have been trying to avoid – which is my difficulty getting on with (as his father put it; he only managed to finish Time’s Arrow) Amis’s novels. Before we met up, I tried to do the right thing and muscled my way through Money – I’d given up on it when it first came out – and did marvel at its vim and originality and surface dazzle, even catching a glimpse of Amis nudging at something deeper than grotesque satire, with its redemptive suggestion of love that has been offered but squandered, before the fagged-out splutter of the end. London Fields – although again, obviously touched with inventive brilliance – was a bludgeoning ordeal.

Amis has been bludgeoned himself by great regiments of mon­strous women (but only in England, he assures me) accusing him of misogyny. When I said that those particular novels made me feel as though I was trapped in a pub with a group of men making fishy-fanny jokes, he said, sounding genuinely sincere: “Well, I’m very sorry that you felt that.”

Someone wrote – and I wish I had his or her name, since it so precisely expressed my frustration – that while admiring his pure writing talent, “his books lack real emotional bite; we do not care what happens in them. You can open an Amis novel at any point and be mesmerised by the sentences and paragraphs (but you can still open them at any point). Like all standard lines, this is an exaggeration of the truth, but points at a real deficiency.”

Even in the new novel, which Amis says marks his first attempt to go deeper – “I’ve never done a tragic situation before… it felt like new territory to me” – there is something weirdly unjoined up about the emotion; as though the big subject of the tragedy has been grafted on to the characters, rather than us experiencing it through them. When I told Amis that I hadn’t quite got to grips with it, and would probably have to reread it (I tried and failed) – he told me that his previous interviewer (Tatler editor, Geordie Greig) had read it three times. This he took as a compliment – “Well, I do hope it takes a bit of absorbing.”

And, yet, I am a huge fan of his non-fiction, and it was a joy to revisit The Moronic Inferno – Amis’s take on America; those memorable and instructive encounters with its novelists, film directors, TV evangelists and shonkier politicians. (It was a slight comfort to be reminded of his own difficulties as an interviewer. When Vidal harrumphed that the article – which he had demanded to check pre- publication – was short on the work, Amis later informs us: “This was perfectly true. [Followed by a list of novels he tried but failed to get through] “and concluded that “I cannot get through Vidal’s fiction. The books are too long. Life is too short”). But it was in rereading Experience, his autobiography, that I felt the emotional reach, the thrill of deep engagement drawing you into the internal worlds of the characters (who happen to be real) – that is so absent for me in the novels.

He’s 300 pages into a new book which he describes as a “blindingly” autobiographical gossip novel, with real people in it: Larkin and The King are there, and Ian Hamilton and The Hitch and – of course – Saul Bellow, the inspiration for this departure from Amis’s usual approach. “I realised that he’s the only writer ever in the history of the world who’s been able to write autobiographically – with all sorts of artistry as well – and to do it that way round. Because he stares at the real person until he sees the universal. Most of us go the other way round and arrange our characters to stand for universal things.”

He tells me that he’s not afraid of sentimentality – “which is defined as a coarse and unworthy emotion. Well, we don’t want any of that, but some people are so frightened of sentimentality that they don’t go near the sentiments, and I think you should.” He also says that he can see himself going further into that territory, “that the strange impulse that makes you think, ‘Ah, here’s something for me that I can write’ won’t alight on these dark things so much.”

And what is the theme of this new, new novel? “Ageing,” he laughs. “Yeah, the big one. Actually, I think ageing is a very irresponsible horror film, where they’re saving the worst for last. And just when you think it’s all over, there’ll be the hand coming out of the grave.”

We’re done. Out comes the chardonnay and a lovely warm hug at the end, as we leave Amis to get on with the business of shrinking and dying and not caring all that much about the work. Yeah right, Marty, I don’t think so.

—-

House of Meetings by Martin Amis is published by Vintage and is available from BooksFirst priced £14.39 (RRP £15.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Writers

The incredible lightness of Salman

THE TIMES – August 20 2005
Ginny Dougary

Salman Rushdie has emerged from the dark Satanic years, happier and more buoyant than he has been in decades. Here, he talks to Ginny Dougary about the war on terror, wonderful women – and why he thinks Joanna Trollope is cool.

From beginning to end, the whole encounter was both magical and undeniably real. It was slightly startling to find that none of the receptionists or bar staff in the fashionable New York club where we meet had heard of one of their more famous members, but it was also the first welcome sign that his name is no longer an automatic byword for “terrorist death sentence”. To see him, leaning over the rooftop swimming pool embracing his eight-year-old son, Milan, a beautiful dark-haired boy, slippery as a seal – with no security, no bodyguards, not even a flicker of interest from the other Manhattanite parents – is evidence that there is, indeed, the possibility of normal life after the fatwa.

But beyond this, quite contrary to expectation, there is an ineffable lightness about Salman Rushdie. He has the gift of making you feel happy. As a master storyteller, it is no surprise that his conversation is pricked with telling and entertaining anecdotes. He is also so relaxed, funny and beguiling that it is easy to understand why gorgeous women, among them Marie Helvin, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, not to mention his model-actress-filmmaker wife number four, Padma Lakshmi, flock to his side. Is it because I have just been reading his fantastical novels that I imagine the ghost of his old, hunted self banished by the force of this resolutely sanguine, free man?

We repair to the library to sit in front of a frieze of painted books. He is appropriately dressed in the sweltering heat in a loose blue shirt and sandals, and upbraids me in a friendly way for wearing black. He is pushing 60 but has the carefree, unburdened air of someone much younger.

The timing of our interview could not be more chillingly apposite, coming as it does in the aftermath of the first wave of the terrorists’ bombing campaign in London. Just before we met, I was reading the writer’s new novel, Shalimar the Clown, watching the American broadcasters’ version of the troubling events unfolding back home – Who are these people? What is their mind-set? How are they persuaded to do the things they do? Why do they hate us so much? – then finding the answers in Rushdie’s vividly rendered account of what it might feel like to be in a terrorist training camp.

There are two points to emphasise here. Rushdie, self-evidently, has never actually been in a terrorist training camp. But having lived for nine years under the threat of the fatwa – from Valentine’s Day (horribly) 1989 to 1998, when the Iranian Government withdrew its support for the edict – he has clearly had plenty of time to think about the mentality of those who have. As he puts it: “I’ve spent years inhabiting that series of questions.”

When, inevitably, we do move on to discuss what measures must be taken to curb the fundamentalist cultists (aren’t we all in the West, to some extent, living under Rushdie’s fatwa now?) he resists being treated as an expert in the field.
“It’s less interesting for me to offer you theoretical answers, which I could do, you know, but actually so could anyone else,” he says. “What I tried to do in this book was to explain it by entering into it. To say, if you were there, who would be there and how would they talk to you and what would you feel like and how would it make you think and what would it change in you? What would you want to accept and what would you reject? What would you be pushed towards? And not just to explain it but to understand it. And that’s very interesting to me because research will only get you so far. The thing you have to do is to make that imaginative leap in order to get inside the skin of these people.”

Secondly, Shalimar the Clown is not a novel about terrorism. Rather, it is a story of trampled love and innocence, a central personal murder and institutionalised murder on a wider scale, which takes us from modern-day California, to wartime France, dropping off in England and always circling back – in some of the most direct and moving passages Rushdie has ever written – to the wilful destruction of the Eden which was Kashmir.

At the time when the first devastating bombs went off in London, Rushdie was in Brazil at his old friend and first publisher Liz Calder’s literary festival in the old coastal village of Parati between Rio and São Paulo. He hung out there with his pals Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson, but his new best friend is Joanna “Aga-saga” Trollope. “Joanna’s very cool,” Rushdie says, “and so smart, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go away and read all her books.” [He’s just bought Other People’s Children.] She for me was the great discovery of the festival because we had so much fun together. We really got on like a house on fire.”

Fairly early on, I’m concerned that his posture is literally so laid-back, my tape-recorder won’t capture his voice. Could you project a little more, I ask him, which reminds me of his first calling. It is well known that, like Fay Weldon and Peter Carey, Rushdie had a successful career in advertising before he was able to devote himself to writing fiction. I can still remember the impact of those billboards of oozing cream cakes, way back in the Seventies, for which he wrote the frisky legend: “Naughty but nice”. Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the children’s book he wrote while in captivity for his older son, Zafar, both show his appreciation for the artful if absurd slogan.

It is, perhaps, less known that in his youth Rushdie planned on becoming an actor. At Cambridge, he did everything from Ben Jonson to Brecht and “in a very small way, I sneaked into Footlights”. If he had to assess his strengths, he would say that his talent was for comedy rather than tragedy.

“My problem as a university actor, which I can see with hindsight, was doing too much. One of the things that good actors will tell you is that you do less and less and less all the time,” he says. “And, you know, I have a slight arm-waving tendency anyway and there was a little too much gesticulating and too much acting going on.”

Richard Curtis cast Rushdie ostensibly as himself in the first Bridget Jones film but the novelist would like to stress that there’s a big difference between being yourself and acting a scripted version of yourself: “Truthfully, I wouldn’t behave like that. If a girl comes up to you at a book party and is sort of embarrassed and confused and, you know, falling over her feet, your instinct is to be nice to her. Not to be arrogant and cruel. So I tried that and the director kept saying, ‘It’s not funny.’ And it turned out that the more haughty I was, the more her [Bridget’s] confusion became comical.”

I have to confess that I can barely remember Rushdie’s role. Should I hire the video as part of my deep research? “No. It’s one scene and it’s in the first 25 minutes, so you really don’t have to watch the film!” He had great fun on set watching all the principal actors at work, and emerged with a number of observations. Renée Zellweger’s method of realising her role, for instance, was never to come out of it. “So when we met again at the London premiere, she’d lost all the weight and had a Texan accent. It was as if I were meeting her for the first time. Very odd.”

One of the problems with London, which is partly why he has chosen to opt for the relative anonymity of Manhattan, is that it’s such a small world, “with endless overlapping circles. You do get to the point where you assume that you’ve met people in some way.” But the underlying idea behind the new novel is that no matter where you are in the world now, everyone and everything has a connection.

“It used to be possible to write a novel about, say, London or Kashmir or Strasbourg or California, without any sense of connection. But now it’s all one story. That’s what I want to say. Everybody’s story is running into everybody else’s story,” he says.

“Four years ago, nobody would have suspected that the story of al-Qaeda and the story of New York City would be connected, for instance. So it’s not like when I wrote Midnight’s Children where essentially I was writing about India and Pakistan and I didn’t need to write about the rest of the world in order to tell that story. Now I feel more and more that if you’re going to tell a story of a murder in California, you end up having to tell the story of many other places and many other times in order to make sense of that event and that place. To try to show how those stories join.”

Just as the precise shade of a colour can alter dramatically when it is placed next to a different colour, so does the context of a country’s history redefine the way in which we view its politics or social change, and it’s always informed by our own culture’s perspective. “For instance, in France, you have Max [Ophuls, the former American ambassador to India whose murder on the doorstep of his illegitimate daughter in California drives the narrative of the book] involved in the Resistance. Now the Resistance is what? The Resistance is an insurgency against an occupied power – which we think of as heroic. But in Iraq, you have an insurgency against what is believed to be an occupied power and we call it terrorist. The same thing is happening but as the context changes, the meaning you give to it changes dramatically.”

Overlapping circles, coincidences, connecting stories… in the London section of the novel, Rushdie briefly revisits the notorious Lord Lucan murder case in Lower Belgrave Street. The novelist was living there at that time with his first wife, the late Clarissa Luard, and so was I, in a house directly opposite his. I drank my first schoolgirl’s half of lager-and-lime in the Plumbers Arms, the pub into which Lady Lucan fled after the mistaken murder of her
children’s nanny. He remembers the Italian restaurant and the Steak House and the newsagent in “which one ran into Enoch Powell sometimes”. Michael Redgrave, Rushdie tells me, lived in the house next door and sold it to the wife of Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator. Years later, Rushdie went to Nicaragua and wrote his book in support of the Sandanistas, The Jaguar Smile.

One of his closest friends – who gave him the confidence, he says, to believe that he could make a go of fiction – was the blazingly magical writer Angela Carter, who died of lung cancer 12 years ago at the age of 51. I was fortunate enough to meet her in Sydney in 1984. She ended up staying in my flat for a week, with her baby son and partner, and cooked a wonderful casserole one evening and invited her friend Robyn Davidson, the Australian writer who had crossed the continent by camel, who met Rushdie when he was over for the Adelaide Festival at the same time and the two ended up having a much-publicised passionate three-year affair (he was still married at the time) and, and… overlapping circles, connecting stories.

It was on this Australian trip that Rushdie hitched up with the late Bruce Chatwin who was researching what became probably his best-loved book, Songlines. The two friends flew from Adelaide up to Alice Springs, hired a four-wheel-drive and set off into the red interior, staying in grotty motels and being blown away by the vast, parched beauty of the landscape. “We even climbed Ayers Rock. I mean, how politically incorrect can you get?” Rushdie says. “Bruce climbed it like a rocket. He just soared up, and I’m sort of hauling myself wheezily up. He kept coming back down to say, ‘Are you all right?’ and then he’d turn around and – zoooooom.”

Like many writers, who look upon their books as a form of literary progeny, Rushdie shies away from picking a favourite. “I can’t choose,” he says. “But also, you know writers…? You can’t satisfy ’em. People say, ‘It’s your best book’, and you say, ‘So what’s wrong with the others?’” Like someone commenting on how well you look, I begin to say, and he jumps in: “So I wasn’t before?” Which reminds him of yet another close writer friend who is no longer here.

“Edward Said was a very good friend of mine, and years ago when he was very courageously fighting that cancer there was a moment where he really got better and stopped being so gaunt and emaciated and came back to looking like himself,” Rushdie recalls. “And I had lunch with him and said, ‘God, Edward, look at you. You look great! You’ve put on some weight and you look really great.’” And Said’s grave response? “‘Yeah, but I’m not fat, Salman.’”

When we both stop honking with laughter at this unbeatable proof that while there’s vanity there’s still life, I remark on how often the mournful phrase “the late” is attached to people who have been pivotal in Rushdie’s life. He says that, yes, it’s true and that there are holes in the world for him and then he returns to the crater which was left by Carter’s death.

He is remembering how he met the novelist through Liz Calder – who was the Rushdies’ lodger back in Lower Belgrave Street – in the days before he’d had a book published: “and the amazing thing about Angela is that she had absolutely no elitism or snobbishness about her, so that even if you were this young unpublished writer and she was ‘Angela Carter’, she would treat you exactly as if you were on the same level as her, with no sense of, ‘Gee, if you haven’t even been published who knows if you’re ever going to amount to anything.’ And I know she was very close to Ian [McEwan] when he first started out and they were living near each other in Clapham at the time.”

He was not part of the Barnes-Amis-McEwan lit-lad circle back then and, as someone who was still struggling to find his voice, was keenly aware that they had found their way as writers far earlier on: “There was Martin with The Rachel Papers, Success and Dead Babies, and Ian with his first collections of short stories, In Between the Sheets and First Love, Last Rites, and I thought, ‘I wish I would be able to write as well as this’, but I was still stumbling around trying to find out what to do. It took me a long time to get going as a writer.”

His debut, Grimus, was both a critical and commercial failure and despite the huge and continued success of Midnight’s Children, all the more remarkable for it being only his second novel, Rushdie could not forgive the casual dismissiveness of those first reviews. I ask him if he has any affection himself for Grimus, as perhaps the runt in his family of books, and he admits that if he sees people reading it, his instinct is to hide behind the furniture. “Although other people have liked it,” he says. “I think Martin likes it but, as I say, it embarrasses me.”

When he won the Booker prize for Midnight’s Children in 1981 (it was further honoured with the ultimate of accolades, the Booker of Bookers, in 1993 for the best novel in the 25-year history of the award), Rushdie made what was widely considered to be a most ungracious acceptance speech. This may have been the building block for his reputation as an arrogant, rather unappealing fellow.

I also have a hazy memory of him writing a knocking piece, earlier still, about Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, implying that there was only one way to write about India – and that if the author’s perspective did not conform to the orthodoxy laid down by Rushdie, it was unacceptable. As events unravelled – as we all know – it was the writer of The Satanic Verses and his supporters who argued that in
a democratic society the quality of freedom, like mercy, is not strained; a writer must be free to write whatever he chooses, from whatever his standpoint, regardless of whether it will cause offence.

Had he, I wonder, possibly had a bit too much to drink when he made that controversial speech? “I can’t really remember what I said but, no, I was completely stone-cold sober because I was determined not to be pissed,” he says. But he does recall that his anger was fuelled by the reaction to Grimus: “When people were saying, ‘Find a different form of employment’, and I thought, you know, for a first book that’s real cruelty. I remember that. And I guess, with hindsight, you shouldn’t ever try to get even because you always lose.”

He started writing Midnight’s Children in his mid-thirties but it took him at least five years to complete it, which isn’t so long when you consider what a vast canvas it fills: Independence, the Partition, India, Pakistan, Kashmir. It teems with so much life and inventiveness that rereading it over a couple of days, I felt both drained and exhilarated by the time I got to the end. He says that when he looks at the novel now, he simply cannot recognise himself as its creator: “I often wonder who that is. Because I don’t write like that any more. I think a lot has changed, not just in the language but also in the perspective. I mean, it’s a young man’s book and it has the strength of that.”

In its extreme vigour and vitality? “Some of the fearlessness just deciding to take it on,” he says. “After the failure of the first book and after one or two false starts or things that never made it to print, I remember thinking, well, you’d better either give up or do something much more conservative and middle-of-the-road and non-risky. Something, you know, littler.

“Or take the biggest risk you can. So that if you’re going to go down, at least go down in flames. And, actually, I remember very clearly thinking, well, OK, then, I’ll do this because I can’t think of anything more artistically dangerous. And, yes, it took me for ever.”

It was a curious pleasure – like the piquant familiarity of seeing old friends and remembering that what you found endearing about them were their idiosyncratic quirks – to find myself back in the company of Midnight’s principal child of Independence, Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, with his grotesque, constantly dripping proboscis. Rushdie, like every proud parent, is delighted to hear this.

He recalls a reading he did in Bombay when someone in the audience shouted out, “Why, he’s got a perfectly ordinary nose!” But then I feel compelled to ask him whether he, like Saleem, ever had to undergo a sinus operation. (The answer is no but he did have his tonsils removed and drew on that terror of going under for the book.) The light bulb moment for him was when he was gazing at a map of India – “When you write a book like this, you do find yourself looking at maps quite a bit, you know” – and was struck
by the thought that the country looked just like a big nose with a drip hanging off it. Thus Saleem’s physiognomy can be read as a map of India, just as his destiny is interwoven with the history of his birthplace.

It is Saleem, as it turns out, not his creator, who has the last word. “It’s a strange thing that happens to me every time I do a reading from Midnight’s Children, I get a runny nose. It’s like Saleem’s curse,” Rushdie says. “It’s got to the point now where I know that if I’m going to read from it, I’d better have a handkerchief handy.”

Rushdie’s beautiful wife, Padma, of course, bears no resemblance at all to her fictional precursor in Midnight’s Children. Saleem’s frustrated lover, Padma, is thick of waist and hairy of forearm, and is named after the lotus goddess “whose most common appellation amongst village folk is ‘The One Who Possesses Dung’.” The only characteristic the two Padmas share is their mutual interest in preparing Indian pickles and chutneys. Lakshmi has written a number of cookbooks along the lines of how you can eat well and still retain a model’s glorious figure.

On August 2, Rushdie informs me, allowing himself a small beam of satisfaction, the couple will have been together for six years. At 32, she is 26 years younger than her husband. I ask him, cheekily, whether she is responsible for his youthful glow. “Yes, probably, let’s give her the credit.” And then, “Actually, why can’t I have the credit?” Would he like to have more children? “Well, not without her help,” he says, grinning.

“You know, I really love my children and I think it’s completely unreasonable to marry a young woman who has not had children and say you’re not going to have any more. But she’s very busy [in Morocco playing the Queen of Egypt in a film] and not currently in a maternal frame of mind, but she will be.”

His second wife, Marianne Wiggins – who left him five months into the fatwa, and then publicly accused him of being a self-obsessed coward – is an American novelist. When I ask him about her, he says: “Do not start me on Marianne Wiggins.” Oh, it’s like that still, is it? “Yes, it is.” But he’s generous enough to allow that she is a good writer. His third wife, Elizabeth West, is a book editor.

Lakshmi speaks fluent Italian, as well as five or six other languages, but the image persists that she’s not quite bright enough for the likes of Rushdie. Does it bother him? “Anyone who’s met Padma knows she’s as intelligent as they come,” he says. “But, you know, it’s not supposed to be permitted to be gorgeous and really smart… and also very nice. She steals all my women friends and I have a lot of women friends. But the moment they meet Padma, suddenly they’re all phoning her and not me, and I think, ‘Sod that!’”

Actually, he says, his wife has all kinds of intelligence that he doesn’t have. Like what? “Well, she’s very entrepreneurial, you know. She has real brains about things like that and I haven’t got a clue.” Does she roll her eyes at you? “Oh, all the time. But she understands that I’m just a moron in that respect.”

Yes, he says, in some ways, as transplanted Indians, their falling in love did feel like a bit like coming home: “Even though we come from opposite Indias – she’s south Indian Brahmin compared to me as a north Indian, Kashmiri Muslim, which is as different as it could be.”

Did he marvel, in the same way that others seemed to, that such a beauty had come into his life? “When you’re in the middle of falling in love that isn’t quite how you think,” he says. “You’re thinking more about the other person and how wonderful they are than about yourself. And the lucky thing is to feel that they might reciprocate.”

Of course it’s hurtful to read captions saying “Rushdie: ugly”. You don’t have to be overweeningly self-regarding to feel dented when so much sport is made of the way you look. The novelist seems to find it slightly bewildering that so much is made of the fact that he doesn’t resemble a matinee idol: “It’s not as though I’ve ever invested anything in the way I look. It’s not what I do. Padma, at least, has made a living out of being a model. But I’ve never said that I consider my looks to be in any way significant in terms of what I’m like. So it feels very odd to see newspaper articles saying ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Why Do Beautiful Women Love Ugly Men?’… this endless stuff. But at this stage, I’m kind of resigned to it at – as you say – pushing 60.”

It must be said that when it comes to women, Rushdie can be lookist himself. He once dismissed Monica Lewinsky as a lumpy Valley Girl and he’s sticking to his guns: “It was my view that if the President had f***** Sharon Stone, he would not have been impeached.” Hmm. Isn’t that dreadfully sexist? “No. Yes. Well, maybe. What I’m saying is that the fact that she was not Marilyn Monroe had something to do with the backlash. You know, if John Kennedy had Marilyn Monroe as a mistress, people would say, ‘Well, sure.’ You know.”

He describes Clinton, whom Rushdie has encountered on a number of occasions, as “the most charismatic individual I’ve ever met”. Did you fall for him yourself? “Yes, I sort of did.” The first time the two men met was in the fatwa years when Frances D’Souza, now in the House of Lords, was running Rushdie’s defence campaign. “And she is nobody’s fool, you know. She’s been everywhere – up in the mountains with the Mujahidin – done everything. And when we left the meeting with Clinton, I noted that she had a somewhat goofy smile on,” he recalls. Which you noted to her, no doubt? “Yeah. I said, ‘Frances, what’s with the goofy smile?’ And she said, ‘Don’t you think he held my hand just a little too long?’ And I thought, ‘This man is world-class.’ If he can do this, in a serious political meeting and have this very strong woman coming out completely, you know, with little birds twittering about!”

More malicious pleasure was had at Rushdie’s expense when a series of photographs were published showing him dancing flamboyantly with Nigella Lawson. The pictures were doubtless intended to make the reader think: why should tax-payers fork out their hard-earned money to save this man’s skin when he’s out having a good time? The more fair-minded response surely was: thank God, with such a terrible threat hanging over him – a worldwide murder bounty of up to $2.6 million on his head – that this most gregarious of writers can still come out of hiding for the occasional hour or two of normal life.

Does he see his own story, I wonder, as the harbinger of the stories we are now living? “When people first started to make a connection between me and 9/11, I resisted it because of the disparity of the scale. But I have come to feel that what happened with The Satanic Verses was a kind of prologue and that now we’re in the main event,” he says. “At the time there was an unwillingness to see it as representative of a larger phenomenon. The people attacking me wanted to say, ‘There’s no larger thing to be drawn from this. It’s just that he did something uniquely horrible and so he deserves a uniquely horrible fate.’

“And even the people defending me wanted to say, ‘Here is a uniquely horrible attack against a writer.’ But I was trying to say that this is happening to writers all over the world. But what happened to me is no longer the story – there’s a different story now, and I don’t think anybody gives a damn about The Satanic Verses any more.”

He finds the linkage of 9/11 with the war in Iraq to be utterly spurious, and the fiction of weapons of mass destruction has completely changed his view of New Labour: “The lie,” he says, “is a terrible thing.” And, yet, he cannot object to the removal of Saddam Hussein and here he disagrees with his confreres on the Left: “If the Left is not about getting rid of tyranny, then I don’t know what it is about.”

When I ask Rushdie if he isn’t concerned that by attempting to view the world through the eyes of the terrorists in this new book, he runs the risk of drawing attention to himself as a target once again, he says: “If you’re a writer at this time in the history of the world you have to deal with what’s there – and this is the subject of our time, you can’t avoid it, you run into it round every corner – otherwise, you know, don’t write books.”

He doesn’t care to use the word “brainwashing” for what goes on in the terrorist training camps and the madrassas, saying it’s too loaded. But in the novel he shows, most feelingly, how you can persuade people that they have been seeing the world wrong, and that the world is not like that – the world is like this, and you must unlearn everything you have learnt in order to understand the truth.

Günter Grass once told him what it was like growing up in a Nazi household, being one of the last boys drafted into the German army, and having it explained to him by the Americans what had really been going on in the camps, “and he said that he suddenly had to understand that everything he had thought about the world was false. And not just false, but morally repugnant. And he had to completely throw away his entire definition of how things were in order to begin again. And that’s what’s happening now, from the opposite way round if you like, but it’s the same phenomenon.”

There is no way to negotiate with those whose goal is the Talebanisation of the planet, he says: “And I’m afraid what is difficult for most English liberals to accept is that the only thing to do is defeat them. And it’s what I wrote years ago, that the way it’s got to happen is from inside the Muslim community not from outside it.

“And, finally now, for the first time – since those bombs went off – Muslim leaders have started saying, ‘Yes, it is our problem and we’ve got to fix it.’ It’s the first time that they’ve been willing not to talk in paranoid language but to say, ‘These are our children who have done this, and we have to fix it.’”

But he of all people knows how intimidating the extremists can be: the translators and publishers of The Satanic Verses who were threatened, attacked and murdered; the shop owners in Britain’s Muslim community who were told that if they didn’t stick anti-Rushdie posters in their windows their shops would be damaged: “And people were saying that ‘we’ve got to treat their feelings with respect’, even though what was happening was gangsterism. People were being paid to go on those demonstrations; people were frightened into going on them.”

But won’t they still be frightened? Will they find the moral courage to stand up to these bullies? “They’re damn well going to have to. Because up to now they have been passive and that won’t do. This sort of language – the language out of which these suicide bombers came – has been tolerated in many Muslim communities, not just in England, and people may have rejected it but nobody spoke up. And as there is a large majority who wants nothing to do with any of that, they’re damn well going to have to stand up and do something. It is their children doing this and they need to know what their children are doing.”

Rushdie still finds it odd that people felt the need to exaggerate the conditions of his nine-year captivity: the le Carré-esque fiction of “safe houses” when the mundane reality was that he always had to find his own places to live; the mad idea that he had to switch habitats 56 times in three months. (Even in the first year, he only moved nine or ten times, and in the last seven years he lived in the same house.) The truth, as he says, was bad enough – not being able to tell his children where he lived, the lack of privacy, none of the familiarity of your own possessions – without making it surreal. In the first days when the Special Branch disappeared from his life he felt quite naked and vulnerable, as though he’d just come out of jail. His friends say that his manner is completely different these days to how it was in the dark years; perhaps it is this liberation into the light, as much as Padma, which is responsible for his lovely buoyancy.

It’s time for him to be photographed wandering down the streets of Manhattan, and Rushdie’s still telling funny stories about funerals and Kingsley Amis and his devilish wit. Freedom? You can’t beat it.

Actors, Celebrities, Politicians, Theatre, Writers

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime

THE TIMES – April 13, 2005
Ginny Dougary

The lyricist for David Blunkett: The Musical, reveals how the show was inspired and explains why the real-life characters are perfect for the stage.

THE life of the musical began, in a curious way, last summer before the news about any of the key players had even broken. I had gone to the Bloomsbury office of The Spectator to interview Boris Johnson, who was attempting to publicise his debut novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.

The date was Tuesday, August 10. On Sunday, August 15, the News of the World splashed with its story about the Home Secretary’s long-term affair with a married woman who was revealed in The Sun the following day to be Kimberly Fortier.

Boris was late for our interview and so I hung around the stairwell, as various women of a certain age walked past. One or two had the whiff of breeding and resigned melancholia that made me think of a heroine in an Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym novel. And then Kimberly appeared, bright-eyed and as bouncy as a puppy. We spoke for a few minutes, during which she managed to namedrop several times: “Have you met my husband?” “Do you know Lord and Lady . . . ”

When Boris appeared on his bicycle, soaked from a rainstorm, Kimberly hovered — encouraged by my interviewee — and her manner became even more hectic. Out of the blue, she mentioned Boris’s wife: “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s got a terrific wife! She’s the best!” For his part, Boris sighed and mumbled and tugged his wet, yellow hair and complained that he was finding the whole experience of being interviewed “harrowing”.

The hero of his novel is a shambling, bumbling, bicycle-riding Tory MP who is worried that his extramarital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper. “He’s not me, by the way,” Boris made clear, then added: “but you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”

Speccie columnist Rod Liddle’s affair had already broken and his estranged wife, Rachel Royce, had referred (writing in the Daily Mail, with a swift retort from him in The Sunday Times) to the frisky atmosphere at The Spectator — soon to be dubbed, as the extramarital shenanigans mul- tiplied, The Sextator.

I had asked Boris if he felt that as editor, he was responsible for creating the ethos of his office. “You mean, am I presiding over a bordello? Certainly not!” he exclaimed, giggling hugely. The strangest part of the interview — spookily prescient, given that I had absolutely no idea what was unfolding behind the scenes — was this question: “Would you have any qualms about printing a story about a senior Labour politician’s liaison?” “Got a good one?” Boris asked. And “I tell you what. There’s only one way to settle this moral issue. Bring me the story and I’ll scour my conscience.”

As I said, I didn’t have that story to bring Boris (it turned out that he had one of his own). But in the months to come I found myself gripped by the Blunkett-Fortier saga — and, to a lesser extent, by the disclosures about Boris and his columnist, Petronella Wyatt.

All four characters are con- summate media operators and poli- tical players. Just as the Prince and Princess of Wales had manipulated their contacts to gain sympathy — who were, of course, only too happy to oblige — so did our newspapers seesaw between the various combatants.

The developments had all the makings of an epic drama. Commentators compared Blunkett’s downfall to a Greek tragedy; Shakespearean analogies proliferated. Here was a man who had overcome so many obstacles, driven by the steel of his will to succeed, toppled near the pinnacle of his world by that which makes him most human: love. But there was also something uniquely modern about it, too. A politician — or any man in high public office, for that matter — who risks his career by insisting that a child out of wedlock is his and he wants to see him? Unheard of. Yet it does seem strangely contemporary, chiming in with the protests of Fathers 4 Justice. And there’s something both ancient and modern about a woman who uses her own power and influence to destroy one of the most powerful men in the country.

It began to intrigue me that the publisher I had met at The Spectator — with her breathless voice and cheerleader manner — was being portrayed as a femme fatale. From the newspaper stories, as more and more lovers crowded into her boudoir, she became a fantastical creature from another era. I saw her as Violetta in the opening scene of La Traviata, a gorgeous salon courtesan in a scarlet ballgown, fluttering her fan, captivating all the male guests at the party, her come-hither manner promising them everything. Blunkett, who had never particularly interested me before, became Alceste — the anti-hero of Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthropist. He rails against the shallowness and frippery of the age but the woman he is besotted by — the young, flirty, faithless Celimene — embodies everything he detests. As he tells his one loyal friend, Philinte: “La raison n’est pas ce qui r ègle l’amour” (it’s not reason which governs love).

Once Boris had been snapped jogging in that skull-and-crossbones beanie and long baggy camouflage shorts, it became obvious what to do with him. He had moaned in our interview about the straitjacket of his shambling, bumbling bicycle-riding persona. Clearly behind that P. G. Wodehouse façade there was an urban rapper bursting to break free. So in our musical there is the ultimate tribute to the man we call The Sultan of The Sextator — The Boris Rap. Yo!

As for Petronella . . . what a joy! The more I read about her, the more perfect she was for our musical. She has posed for the Tatler in satin babydolls and ostrich-feather mules. She loves to sing Cole Porter and her party trick, which she performed for Norman Lamont’s birthday, is singing Lili Marlene in the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich. She has apparently serenaded Boris with arias from La Bohème. She’s a daddy’s girl — her father was Woodrow, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford (doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?) — who lives at home with her mother, Verushka. And she’s obligingly indiscreet.

It is down to Petsy, as she is called by her friends, that we know about Kimberly’s “extraordinarily flirtatious banter” at the dinner where Blunkett and Fortier met, accompanied by Boris and Petronella. Ostensibly reviewing Stephen Pollard’s biography of Blunkett, she informed us that “Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett”. And this is where we learnt that Kimberly had informed the new Home Secretary that she had “ always wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a blind man”.

More outrageous lines followed, Blunkett’s gift to the headline writers, “The Socialist and the Socialite”, was one of the best, and it dawned on me that this dramatis personae were calling out for a stage of their own, to express themselves in song. More extraordinarily, I, never having written a song before in my life, would be the one to make it happen. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a composer friend by the stage-name of MJ (short for Mary Jo) started to bash out some lyrics and melodies. Our first number was Blunkett’s theme song. Handily, she had written the tune only a few weeks earlier, while on a songwriting master class in Yorkshire under the tutelage of Ray Davies of the Kinks fame. That was for Cinderella: The Panto but the robust, catchy opening, which moves into a poignant lament before its bracing return, worked brilliantly for Blunkett’s story.

Left to our own devices, who knows how long it would have taken us to write the whole musical? But on the evening before Christmas Eve, my 17-year-old son, Tom, read out a paragraph in The Week about a producer, Martin Witts, who was planning to put on a David Blunkett musical and this news galvanised me into action.

The slightly surreal atmosphere that has attached itself to much of the making of this musical began with my initial phone calls to track down Witts. I spoke to Nigel Reynolds, an old mate who had written the original diary item in The Daily Telegraph. He was sitting in a car park in the dark in Devon and was about to go canoeing. And so it went on, each phone call more bizarre than the last, until I fin- ally found Witts — driving down a country lane in Yorkshire — who agreed to meet MJ and me in the new year in Soho, where we would play him our songs.

Over Christmas, MJ — who was at home with her family in the US — and I e-mailed each other lyrics and ideas and the opening of Kimberly’s Song (Blunkett’s companion piece) was written on her laptop on the composer’s return flight to London.

Around the time of our first meeting, I picked up T2 to read Richard Morrison under the headline “Don’t just read this column . . . turn it into a musical”. Well! “Where are the new Lloyd Webbers?” he asked. “And who will give them the chance to show what they can do, when staging even a small West End musical can easily leave a producer sadder and wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand quid?” (I hoped Martin Witts was not a Times reader.)

Morrison was publicising a Greenwich Theatre initiative to encourage new composers and lyricists to submit works from newspaper stories . . . “The fact is that a huge number of masterpieces — musical, literary and cinematic — have started life as headlines ripped from the morning papers,” he wrote, and listed Porgy and Bess, Rebel Without a Cause, Blood Wedding and Anna Karenina, just for starters.

In the weeks to come, these illustrious antecedents proved a useful rebuttal to the accusation that there is something intrinsically suspect about basing an artistic endeavour on a news story.

Martin turned up for our first meeting almost an hour late — an inauspicious start (his train from York was delayed). It never happened again. The three of us hit it off immediately, but the promised piano was not available, and Leo Alexander of Kettners was persuaded to let us use his baby grand in the private rooms upstairs. Two good-looking boys — I assumed they were Leo’s nephews — asked if they could listen in. Martin whispered in my ear “That’s Simon Anstell from cd:UK.” Now I see his impish features on the televison all the time.

There were gratifying grins when MJ finished singing and, most importantly, Martin was persuaded by the two songs that we could pull it off. We were on! And, almost immediately, rather like the Blunkett story itself, the musical began to take on a life force of its own.

The so-called preview in The Grey Horse pub in Elvington, Yorkshire, was a case in point. The original thinking behind this was that it would be a good idea if the London writer and the American composer visited Sheffield to get a bit of a feel for Blunkett’s northern origins. We would drive around the estate where he grew up and his Brightside constituency and this would illuminate our script and songs. As part of the Yorkshire experience, we would stay in Martin’s friend Dave’s pub and try out some of our songs on his clientèle of ex-miners. A reporter from the Yorkshire Post might come along; possibly someone from the local radio station. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

At this point, I should say that Martin has impeccable showman credentials — he produced last year’s award-winning show Hurricane (about Alex “Hurricane” Higgins), and the musical of Prisoner: Cell Block H (with Lily Savage); he was the promoter for B. B. King and Nina Simone, and stage manager at Glyndebourne. But I think it is fair to say that he was unprepared for “the world’s media” — as The Guardian put it — arriving en masse in Elvington.

They started turning up shortly after breakfast. So many television crews; so much equipment. Press agencies. Newsnight. Ridiculous numbers of photographers with more equipment. The Sky presenter seems as bemused as us that her bosses insist that she keep on filming, when she clearly wants to wrap it up and go home. An independent crew film us being filmed by Sky. I cannot get the hang of someone talking in my ear and feel myself pulling unattractive faces in response to the rather haranguing tone of the interviewer. My eye-rolling and muttering and Martin’s bossy admonishments are all caught by the independent mob, as well as our phoney smiles when we go back on air.

I just want to hang with the guys from The Guardian and the Telegraph but keep having to pose for photographs — which is one of my least favourite activities. The locals are pretty bemused by all this activity, much to the delight of my fellow hacks. John, an old chap, complains about the loudness of MJ’s singing voice, and then threatens to show me his hernia scar but instead pulls out an enchanting sepia photograph of his wife when they were courting.

One of the photographers chalks up a blackboard with a Blunkett: The Musical preview sign and places it in front of the pub. All his colleagues are delighted t hat someone has had the wit to produce a bona fide photo opportunity.

By 8pm, I have completely had it. It is interesting seeing what my press confrères do with the material. They, like me, are as charming as they can be during the interview — but the finished article or television slot will often have a slightly different tone: a coolness and detachment which I recognise in the way I work, too, and which is only proper. But when you are the subject, I now discover, you can’t help feeling a tiny sliver of betrayal: Oh, I thought you were my friend. Which might be true, in some cases, but mostly it’s not.

I have to say that we were as thrilled by the splendid coverage as we were surprised by its extent. Suddenly there were hundreds of stories about the musical from all over the world; Google is full of Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch references to it. We are in the Hollywood Reporter. And Florida, and other rather surprising places. But then Kimberly, of course, is American.

Friends phone with regular updates on the key players — did you know Kimberly had been keeping diaries? Consternation at Condé Nast’s London office over US Vanity Fair’s investigation of l’affaire Blunkett (Mr Quinn being the publisher of Vogue UK); Did you catch Blunkett on the Today programme? My mortgage broker e-mails: “Have you got a tag-line yet? Every musical needs one. Something along the lines of ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind Man there is only one Woman: Quinn.’ Or maybe not.”

A few weeks on and a US production company wants to fly over to film us. MJ gets very excited. This is a big deal, apparently. Current Affair was a famous pioneering series and they want to film us in rehearsal for their relaunch (to be broadcast nationally on prime-time terrestial TV).

The crew from LA do their thing while we do ours in a practice room at the Pineapple Dance Studios. A couple of women from one of the Edinburgh Festival venues sit in. One completely gets the spirit of the thing; the other sits there as sour-faced as can be. Perhaps this is a good cop/bad cop routine. But it is quite lowering to meet such a blank response when we have had really positive feedback to date.

Martin has been approached by two record producers who are interested in producing a Boris hip-hop single. Four different independent television companies are pitching Blunkett: the Musical ideas to the Beeb, etc. Is this all hot air or is it real, I wonder?

Mostly, I find, people are responding to the idea of the show. The majority think it’s a “hoot”; one or two that it’s cruel and invasive. But when they hear all the songs, they are quite unprepared for the impact. Alvin Stardust — one of Martin’s clients — takes a break from being the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and describes the songs as: “A meeting of Stephen Sondheim and The Little Shop of Horrors”. (Thanks, Alvin; we love over-the-top compliments.) Mark Perry, who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers and will play him much straighter in our show, says: “The songs are lovely. Very accessible. I mean, they’re not Sondheim.” MJ and I exchange a private smile.

The writers India Knight and Andrew O’Hagan have been midwives of sorts to the show. India, who takes singing lessons with MJ, has not only opened up her house for auditions but has found us the two amazing women who are playing Kimberly and Petronella. Lynne Davies (Glyndebourne; ENO) has a nightingale-beautiful soprano voice. Watching her first attempt to inhabit Kimberly — in that Traviata-esque opening — was like some sort of alchemy. I hardly dare to look at India for fear of breaking the spell.

Zigi Ellison, who played opposite Steven Berkoff in the US tour of Salome, is as much an actress as a singer — and she is fantastic as Petronella. And such a fox . . . I can’t help but think that Petsy would be flattered by the portrayal.

Having been a bit snooty about actors in the past, I have now developed a slavish admiration for them. Believe me, when you have written a song or a script and the actor seems effortlessly to bring those words to life — and far more — you want to fling yourself at his feet and moan “I am not worthy”.

When Robert Bathurst came to check out the Boris songs, my jaw dropped as he transformed himself within minutes — can’t you just see him in the role? — into a sort of über-Boris. Watching him grin from ear to ear, like a schoolboy at the most thrilling birthday party, as he heard all the material and the darkening of his face in the sadder songs, was . . . well . . . it was a very good thing indeed.

Behind the tawdry versions of our characters that we have all read about in the papers, we had invested them with souls and an inner life, he said.

So now we have a man who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers playing Blunkett (he is filming the new series as we rehearse for our opening), and the man who plays a PM (in My Dad’s the Prime Minister — I’m looking forward to the third series) as Boris. We have all nine songs, the four actors, a nine-part choir for our Greek chorus, the script, the five-piece band, and the narrator . . . and, yes, I’m excited (and a bit terrified) as we embark on rehearsals for the real preview with an invited audience at the Soho Theatre.

Martin decided to go for a bigger venue in Edinburgh, not the one represented by the two women who had come to watch rehearsals. We have invited all the real-life characters to check out the musical for themselves, and have yet to hear from them. We think they would be pleasantly surprised.

Writers

Daddy cool

TIMES MAGAZINE – June 26, 2004
Ginny Dougary

He may be pushing 80, but writers don’t come cooler than Elmore Leonard, with Hollywood players from Tarantino to Malkovich beating a path to his door. Ginny Dougary meets the crime master.

We’re sitting in a darkish room in the back of his home, and Elmore Leonard is dishing the dirt on Hollywood in an appropriately laid-back way. He’s pushing 80 but is most uncreaky and lean in his jeans, sneakers and navy round-necked sweater, inconspicuous spectacles, a glint of dull gold chain around his neck. Leonard is cool. Perhaps not quite as cool as his books – that would be hard – but almost. On the way to his second study, devoted to half a century of works by himself, we walked through the kitchen, passing Christine – his wife – her hair in punky tufts, standing by the sink, chopping and watching an old black-and-white film on a television suspended from the ceiling.

Leonard and I had managed to talk our way through lunch without noticing we’d missed it. Round about tea-time he offered to make me a hot dog. This, I think, was not a serious suggestion but a droll nod to my appreciation of the almost fastidious, connoisseurs’ delight his characters take in their consumption of junk food. Leonard was there, long before Quentin Tarantino had his Pulp Fiction characters, on the way to a hit, marvelling that in Paris a Quarter Pounder McDonald’s is called a Royale.

Freaky Deaky (published in 1988), the author’s own favourite, was the first of his books I read and I can still remember being tickled by this sort of dialogue: bomb squad (soon to transfer to sex crimes unit) cop’s father Art Mankowski, frying hamburgers, asks son Chris, “You want your onion fried or raw?” “I’d rather have a slice of green pepper, if you have any, and the cheese melted over it.” “I think there’s one in there, take a look. Get the cheese, too, the Muenster. Where’d you have it like that?” “It’s the way Phyllis makes ’em,” Chris said. “You put A-1 on it instead of ketchup.” And so on for pages, the precise merits of a particular relish refinement batted back and forth, between observations on marriage, career tips, cartoons and sexual deviancy.

It’s not that that this sort of characterisation hasn’t been done before – Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which I read many, many years ago, is a blur for me now apart from a scene when one of the baddies demands that his scrambled eggs are served runny, which still seems quite horribly creepy – but what’s special about Leonard is the way he imbues white trash taste, most democratically, with something like the nuance of sophistication.

Before Tarantino came along – the Detroit writer’s number one fan, along with a disparate devotee base of poets, junkies, jailbirds and Martin Amis – the received opinion was that Leonard’s books did not translate well on to the screen, although not for the want of trying. The writer’s personal all-time turkey was, until recently, the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, starring Ryan O’Neal, which he has consistently described as “the second-worst movie ever made”, although a recent remake seems to have surpassed it in awfulness. Even its producer, Stephen Bing, best known as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s baby, approached Leonard at the launch party to offer his apologies.

Bad Big Bounces aside, there have been some notable cinematic successes in recent years: Steven Soderbergh directing Out of Sight (starring Jennifer Lopez as the cop and George Clooney as the con escapee in that fantastically sexy scene in the boot of a car), Get Shorty and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, recast from the Leonard novel Rum Punch. Tarantino has still got the rights to Killshot but plans to be on the screen rather than behind it, and is currently filming the sequel to Get Shorty – Be Cool with John Travolta, returning as the Miami mobster Chili Palmer, and Uma Thurman.JJohn Malkovich has the rights to Freaky Deaky and Danny DeVito to Leonard’s last book of short stories, When the Women Come Out to Dance.

Leonard says he doesn’t do scripts any more, not since 1993: “I don’t get any fun out of it,” he says. “And I haIaIve (this drawn out like a southerner) to have fun when I’m writing.”

He tells me that on the set of Be Cool, the director was warned that in order to secure a PG-13 rating you can only get away with saying “f***” twice, and they were already at a count of no fewer than 32 of the offending word. “Really?” was Tarantino’s chilled response, “Well, f*** that” – and everyone agreed the two-f**** exchange was so fabulous it had to go into the actual movie.

There had been a bit of bother behind the scenes, apparently, with Danny DeVito insisting on his rights – from his initial contract – to final approval of Get Shorty’s sequel. Leonard: “And MGM said, ‘We’re not gonna give you the final cut so we’ll just put it on the shelf.’ And everybody who’s involved is yelling at Danny DeVito, saying: ‘God, what are you holding out for?'” Leonard’s agent finally came up with a deal – which was to offer DeVito any of his client’s books the actor fancied, including the opportunity to commission a new work, and a commitment from MGM that it would make the picture. Which is how DeVito came to own When the Women Come Out to Dance and Be Cool will not end up languishing on a shelf.

My favourite tales from Leonard’s considerable store of prima donna lunacy involve Dustin Hoffman. Some years ago, the actor had agreed to star in LaBrava but wanted to fine-tune the script. Once a month for seven months, Leonard would fly from Detroit to New York, as did the director from Los Angeles, to be creative with Hoffman. First of all, the seasoned actor had a problem with the idea that he could be expected to play a man who was in love with a 50-year-old woman. Surely it would be more credible for his character to be entwined with a much younger woman than himself? Leonard duly agreed to go home and rewrite the story.

The next month, Hoffman felt it might be more credible still if the younger woman already had a boyfriend whom she felt compelled to leave because of her uncontrollable attraction to the older man. Leonard agreed once more to make the necessary adjustments.

By the time they meet again, the actor has had a complete change of heart: “Hey, you know, I will fall in love with a 50-year-old woman. I’ve just met Anouk Aimee and she’s terrific.” After a brief discussion on wrinkles (her lack of), the phone rings and – incroyable – it is none other than the French actress herself. Hoffman insists that the writer and the director come to the phone in turn to say a few words. Leonard congratulates her on her performance in A Man and a Woman, to which she replies: “Humphh, zat was 27 years ago.” “Well, I really had no idea what to say,” Leonard shrugs.

All of which nonsense is recounted in the most even tones, with just a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be” mischief around Leonard’s eyes. The story moves on, and now the actor has been approached by the makers of Get Shorty to play the lead role. Leonard is in Adelaide on a book tour when he receives a phone call from Hoffman: “You’ve been saying terrible things about me for monthsI and my people have been protecting me from reading your book because they say it’s all about me!” Emboldened by the great distance which lay between him and Hoffman, Leonard replied: “What? You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”

Our day together had started with him phoning the plush hotel he had recommended I stay in, and insisting on driving over to pick me up from his home ten minutes away. I assured him that I’d already booked a cab. “Then cancel it,” he said firmly.

So we drove together through the serene streets of Birmingham, the affluent white Anglo-Saxon suburb of Detroit which has been Leonard’s – rather surprising – home for the past five decades. In my mind’s eye, I still held an image of the writer from an old American Express advertisement: in profile, on a seat, all in black from his tilt-hatted head and shades to his gleaming black-booted toes, gauntly poised for action like Lee Marvin but with an old typewriter, instead of a gun, on his knees. The allure, of course, is that the dude in black has a toughness and an unknowability about him, a whiff of danger even, which suggests that you would be ill-advised to mess with him.

This quality – which the photographer Annie Leibovitz was obviously striving for – chimes in with what one might hope for from the guru of crime fiction. Such a writer’s habitat might be a gothic pile or perhaps a stark but stylish loft in the inner-city, probably not a pleasant neo-Georgian house with shrubs and blossomy pear trees, and inside: chinoiserie, friends’ paintings, willow-sprigged wallpaper, an antique desk, tables covered with many framed photographs of family.

On our drive, Leonard had pointed out a building where one of his middle-aged sons has his own advertising agency – he had worked as a copywriter himself in his twenties – and approaching the substantial mansions and drives of his neighbourhood, gestures to a side road where a daughter lives. Another daughter and son live close by and only one of the five children, Chris, is far away, running hisJrestaurant in Arizona. There are now biblical quantities of grandchildren – as witnessed by the dedication to his first children’s book A Coyote’s In the House (if Leonard pens a kiddie book, can Tarantino’s Disney be far behind?): “Shannon and Megan; Tim, Alex, Max and Kate; Ben, Hillary and Abby; Joe, Nick and Luke; and for my great-grandson, Jack.”

He has said in the past that his children are the reason he has stayed so long in the same place (albeit with regular breaks in Florida, another setting for his books). Today, however, he asks me what more could he want, wafting a hand vaguely towards the french windows, the tree-lined garden beyond with its swimming pool, tennis court (he now watches rather than plays), and population of squirrels, chipmunks and possums. JJ Perhaps it is because he is so prodigiously hardworking – he is never without at least one book on the go – that I sense some disapproval (and Leonard is notably unjudgmental) of writers who squander their time not writing. When I ask him whether he likes the literary scene, for instance, he says: “Yeah, but in small doses, because I think of Joseph Heller right away who was 12 years between books, between the big oneI what was it?”

Catch 22. “Iand the next one. Twelve years! What was he doing? He was having lunch. With his friends. Out in the Hamptons.”

On his desk, which suggests a most unchaotic approach to creativity, there is a neat pile of yellow A4 pages, filled with words, a couple covered in an inky scrawl, and one with a paragraph or two in his typewriter. For The Hot Kid – the book he is working on now – Leonard is returning to his boyhood. He reads the opening line out loud in his steady voice: “Carlos Webster was 15 the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering’s drugstore. This was in the fall of ’21 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.”

His early years were peripatetic on account of Leonard Snr’s job as an executive in the motor industry – latterly with General Motors in Detroit – picking out dealership locations. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved back and forth from Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis before settling in Detroit in 1934, where Leonard Jnr has remained ever since.

We look at a series of black-and-white photographs of a very young Leonard dressed up in different disguises and looking scampish, next door to his rather upright older sister. There are no pictures of his mother here – whom he describes as “a wonderful, thoughtful, non-judgmental woman” – but his father looks exquisitely turned out: “Well, all the men in the Thirties wore suits and hats. I mean, even bank robbers. Particularly bank robbers! Which is what I am covering now.”

There is one outfit of the young Leonard which could be read as a thread between the boy and the man; the imaginative link to a world that still fascinates him. He is dressed in a cap and suit, foot on the step of a curvy-bumpered car, brandishing a gun. It’s a child’s re-enactment of the famous pose struck by Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde). I’m wondering if Leonard himself is The Hot Kid of the title: “No, no, but there is something about that time which affected me. It was said that there were probably 20 bank robbers for every doctor in America then, and I was certainly aware of the desperadoes. I was aware of what was going on with Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy FloydI It was in the papers all the time.

They were all killed, but the important ones were killed in 1934.”

His sister used to read to him a lot, which got him into reading himself, popular fiction for the most part. His father was always concealed behind the pages of Forbes and Fortune and the newspaper, but he remembers his mother joining the Book of the Month club in 1940.

He was named Elmore after the hero of a book his paternal grandmother was reading at the time his father was born. “It was a formidable name to handle, and tough just to stand up in class and say, ‘I’m Elmore Leonard.’

Oh jeez,” he says, “I wish I had been John or Jim or Jack or Bill. Bill was my favourite.”

He says that he felt very much loved growing up but reckons he wasn’t spoiled because “I got whacked a lot” – this delivered with relish. “By my mother, she was the whacker.” He doesn’t remember being aggrieved by it and – besides – he was a whacker himself as a father – “But I didn’t overdo it.” (This sounds odder than it might since “whack” is Leonard hood-speak for murder.)

Steinbeck was one of his favourite novelists, and he still rates him – quite considerably, judging by the number of admiring references to him in a crisp piece published in 2001 on rules for writing – most of which start with the words “Don’t” (“go into great detail describing places and things”); “Never” (“open a book with weather”, “use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”, “use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’); and “Avoid” (prologues).

While he makes honourable exceptions for Barry Lopez (on the weather) and Margaret Atwood and Jim Harrison (descriptive writing), Mary McCarthy gets lightly admonished for being a writer who sticks her nose into her prose: “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

I suspect a similar criticism of Martin Amis, although Leonard describes the younger man as his champion: “He has said more good things about me than anyone here.” First of all, he says that he would be unable to write a classic novel in the omniscient voice of the author: “That’s an author who has the language and the more interesting the language, the more literary it becomes. But I don’t have the language. I don’t have all the words like Martin Amis. He uses words I’ve never heard of; ones I’ve never seen on paper.”

For an example, he says: “I questioned him about a word he used – when we were being interviewed together – and it was something similar to ‘plastered’. Like ‘the suit was plastered on to his figure’. It was a building word, a construction word – and my daughter knew it but only because she’s into re-doing houses. I said to him, ‘Do you ever look up words in the dictionary?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Once in a while.’ And I said, ‘This word. Did you just think up this word?’ And he said, ‘Well, it fit and I thought it went with the paragraph and with the way the paragraph was written, and it went with this particular character, this man.’ And I said, ‘So you didn’t have to look it up, huh?'”

Leonard has always liked stories with a beginning, middle and end. And although after the war he enrolled at the University of Detroit to read English – with heavy doses of the classics – it was the reading he did in his own time that gave him the most pleasure. He particularly disliked a course on the Romantics – Keats and Shelley not really being his bag. What did he think of Shakespeare: “I liked him but I was never attracted to imagery, and he is imagery all over the place,” he says. “I remember saying to Joyce Carol Oates I thought imagery got in the way of story. And she said, ‘Well, so much for Shakespeare.’ But I was thinking of Raymond Chandler, not Shakespeare.”

He wrote a couple of directionless short stories at university, sent them off to magazines and when they were rejected, resolved to narrow his tastes down to a particular genre and become an expert at it. Westerns were his first choice, partly because they were so big in the Fifties: “So I thought, ‘I think I can make it here without too much trouble.'” More rejections came when he wrote without doing any research but as soon as he started exploring Arizona, New Mexico in the 1880s, Apache Indians, the cavalry and cowboys – “What they wore, what they ate, everything – I started to sell immediately.”

He takes out boxes from shelves and opens the lids to show the magazines – pulp fiction, indeed – that would run his stories when he started out for two cents a word – “So I’d get a hundred bucks for a 5,000-short, which was better than the quarterlies who’d give you a free subscription to their magazine, which would normally cost $ 25.”

I had read that he would get up at five in the morning and type for two hours, before heading off to his advertising job – slogans to sell cars; nothing very memorable – and had assumed that since he was married in 1949 (to Beverly Claire Cline), the first of the five children appearing a year later, he had gone into writing the better to support his burgeoning family. But, no, he says, he did it because a full-time fiction writer was what he wanted to be.

He was successful enough at the western – Hombre was chosen as one of the best 25 westerns of all time – but it was crime, when Leonard made the switch, that really paid.

I have rarely met a writer who inhabits his own books as much as Leonard, or who is so unabashed about his enjoyment of them. He says that Tarantino knows his work better than he does, and will often refer to a minor character that the author himself has forgotten. But, frankly, I find this hard to believe. Just about the only time Leonard loses me is when he goes into the plots of some of the 37 novels I haven’t read, which he does quite often and at some length: Glitz, the one that turned him into a cover-boy when it became a New York Times bestseller in ’85; Killshot; Touch; Pronto; Unknown Man Number 89.

Leonard is far stronger, as he says himself, on character than plot – “Most books sell on the strength of the plot. Clancys and Grishams, those are plot-heavy books, but mine are all character.” I love the way he talks about his characters as though they are absolutely alive to him: which is literally true in the case of Chili Palmer, even down to his name, an ex-Mafia employee of an old schoolfriend of Leonard’s who worked as a private investigator in Miami Beach.

He is brilliant at capturing the way people speak and rendering them absolutely believable, and finds it hard to understand why people marvel at the authenticity of his dialogue: “People ask me all the time: ‘Where do you get that dialogue? What do you do?’ And I say, ‘Well, I hear it. Don’t you hear it? Don’t you hear people’s voices?’ So you have a certain type and it’s a caricature to begin with and as you work on it then that person becomes real to you.

“It’s the way that Steinbeck said, ‘I want to know what the person looks like from the way he talks.’ I thought he let me off the hook then back in ’56 or whenever it was. I thought, ‘Oh, thank God, I don’t have to describe people.’ Because what good is it? Some authors go into great detail – how close the eyes are and all that, and it doesn’t matter. Who cares? Because by the time you’ve introduced somebody, the reader’s already picturing that person. You don’t want to louse up the way the reader sees the character.

So let the readers see the person and then you make them talk and somehow it all fits.”

His characters have to earn their right to be in the limelight; if they bore him, they will be dispatched quite ruthlessly. He often rewrites scenes from different characters’ viewpoints before deciding how the story will pan out most effectively. The best character for him is: “A very minor one who might not even have a name. But he finds himself in a very important scene and he talks and I like the sound of him and I have to give him a name and then give him a little more background and he sort of insinuates himself into the plot.”

In the days, a long time ago now, when Leonard drank, he made a point of never drinking while he wrote. But there were far too many days when he wrote hungover. Booze, for him, was tied up with his notion of manliness: being one of the sporty boys, talking the talk, walking the walk: “It made me feel good; gave me a little swagger.”With his love of disguises and outfits, his first wish was to join the marines “because I liked the uniform” but he was rejected on account of his weak eyesight, and had to settle for a sailor suit instead. “Well, I got to like it, too,” he says.

“And I liked being in the Navy and I liked playing the role.” He was posted with a construction battalion to the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea to maintain an airstrip used by fighter planes that went on bombing missions around the Japanese islands. Leonard was in charge of handing out the beer, and once in a while he made a trade with the cooks for a bottle of bourbon – which swiftly became his poison of choice.

The drink, he says, would bring him out: “And then I was less inclined to be passive and not say anything.” That’s how you tended to be? “Yes.

Self-conscious. And then, of course, when I was out of myself I thought I was very funny.” Your friends at that time said you were. “To a degree, definitely. I could overdo it, too.”

I would guess that Leonard is probably still a little shy in company.

Although he is perfectly voluble in our interview, when we go out to dinner that night with Christine, and later on to a jazz club, he says less and less. But then it was hard for him to get a word in edgeways between his wife and me, and by the time it was approaching midnight it had clearly been a long day. I felt quite badly for him when he said, “Please take me home”, particularly since he was the one driving.

He joined AA in 1974, relapsed, and finally quit in 1977 – the year his 28-year first marriage ended. He and Beverly had been part of a heavy drinking country-club set that would meet up four times a week, and holiday together in the Bahamas and Europe – “and it got out of hand”. I say it sounds a bit like Updike territory. “Yes,” he says, “in a way.”

Round about now, Christine walks into the room and starts opening and closing the white shutters of the many windows, quite noisily. Leonard carries on talking, unperturbed, and lights up another of his long menthol cigarettes. We move from drink on to shooting – he practised with a friend from the Florida department of law enforcement, so he could write about the smell and the feel of a gun – to fashion. His books are always great on clothes – the Kangol beret, which he himself wore long before Samuel Jackson, a Joan and David handbag, a brightly coloured do-rag (bandanna favoured by rappers) – but it’s still a bit of a surprise to hear him enthusing about fashion shows: “Yeah, I’ve been to about half a dozen.”

What do you enjoy about them? “These giant women coming down the runway to the disco beat. You know, stomping along. Yeah, I like it.”

He says Christine, of course, wears very good clothes – as she comes into the room again, and it transpires that she is emerging from a state of extreme frock shock. A long and shaggy story ensues involving a wonderful outfit put in the boot of the wrong limousine by a bellhop in New York.

Fortunately, said outfit had been tracked down to the Hamptons and had just this morning arrived on the Leonards’ doorstep. “You know the really weird thing, Ginny,” Christine tells me, gazing over her Jay Jopling specs, “the most unbelievable thing is that I had a premonition about this.”

The dress is, indeed, beautiful – with a little train, delicate random beading on the bodice, and the most unusual fabric. When his wife leaves the room, Leonard turns to me: “I said at the time, ‘It’s just a dress.’

But then later, thinking of her reaction to it, it was considerably more than just a dress to her. It made me think.” And back comes Christine bearing a shocking-pink marabou jacket: “Marabou is really in right now,” she says. “Sonia Rykiel. Probably 15 years old. I just hang on to these things and they come back in style.”

Leonard fell for Christine a few months after his second wife, Joan, had died of cancer. He tells me he and Christine had their first date on June 19 and got married on August 19, and that was 11 years ago. Joan had seemed particularly involved in his books, coming up with the titles for Freaky Deaky and Get Shorty, and the endings of a couple of the others, listening to his pages at the end of each day. I ask him if he misses her a lot, and he says: “Mmmm. No.”

He also says that he was happy and self-sufficient for two years after his first marriage ended, but really he needed to be married. “I really like being married – being with someone you love and who you can talk to andI Christine and I met because she came to do the gardening.” He liked the way she handled her secateurs – and she still insists on dead-heading, while leaving her crew to take on the rest of the garden. Leonard says there’s a pretty fierce boundary war going on right now with their Mormon neighbour over whose shrubs are rightfully abutting whose border.

Writers, in my experience, are considerably less tricky to deal with than actors or pop stars. Even so, Leonard is pretty exceptional. To interview him, I didn’t have to go through an agent, an assistant or a secretary. He does employ a researcher, Gregg Sutter, who has done the initial legwork for him since the early Eighties checking out locations and lining up suitable cops and criminals whom he thinks might interest Leonard. The writer had even dispensed with the intermediary of the publishers’ publicist by asking me to phone him directly, which I did. The first time I tried to get through, he was away in LA on the set of Be Cool and I ended up speaking to Christine who sounded disembodied, like a kooky old lady rather than the vibrant fiftysomething livewire she is in person. Leonard returned my call and didn’t dick around with our arrangements.

I had spent the previous day or so checking out the locations in some of his books, as well as what my excellent driver, Mike, called “The ruins of Americana”: the old city centre of Detroit, with its majestic Thirties hotels, the Hilton, the Cadillac, the Madison-Lenox, the United Artists cinema with its peppermint and tangerine Art Deco facade, all long since empty and abandoned, populated by people standing on street corners with specifically no place to go.

We drove past the overblown, colonnaded mansions of the super-wealthy in the outer suburbs, and the sullen-faced inhabitants and burnt-out crack-shacks of the inner city, where so many buildings have been razed to the ground that it looks oddly pastoral, with great expanses of land returned to meadow. We got lost trying to find Kronk Gym which was built in 1926, with its black-and-white photos of Ali when he was Clay, still used by training boxers, now in the middle of nothingsville but once a thriving area of theatres and restaurants and offices and smart homes. We ate in Nemo’s, “A Detroit Classic”, where the very stupid white whackers in Mr Paradise eat their burgers and drink their beers. And in a completely desolate area, I stumbled upon the Key Club – still open and undergoing renovations, which seemed like a supreme act of optimism – only to discover from the owner that this is where Leonard had chosen to hold his party for the new book.

When I told him about this later, Leonard – you could see – was chuffed. He and Greg, the researcher, had thrown the bash as a thank-you to all the homicide cops and medical examiner’s office for their time and insights. I said that I really felt I was in LeonardLand; even Mike the driver, Irish-American, an alcoholic now singing the praises of AA, full of cracking stories and sharp observations, was beginning to seem like someone the writer had invented. He misunderstood me and thought I was going to attempt to write like him. (As if.) But what he said was spot on: “Don’t write out of the side of your mouth the way those who try to imitate me do.

And don’t try to make tough guys tough because my guys don’t try to be tough; they’re just themselves. I have an affection for them – and that’s the difference. I have an affection for all the people. The bad people – they’re bad, but so what?”

You see, Elmore Leonard doesn’t need to be told to be cool.

Women, Writers

Edge of darkness

The Sunday Times – July 05, 2003
– Ginny Dougary

P. D. James’s crime thrillers delve into the shadows of our consciousness, often shocking us with their unflinching, sometimes brutal, realism. But although the writer has personal experience of life’s psychological twists and turns, at 82, she remains an eternal optimist

She could hardly be more alert: mind as sharp as a cleaver, slicing into lardy thinking, fleet-footed, busy movements but with still, brown eyes. Baroness James of Holland Park, aka the august Faber thriller writer P. D. James, revered for the literary elegance with which she dispenses death, will be 83 next month and she is wonderfully, infectiously exuberant about the joy of being alive.

“I’m not fearful of death but I do love life very much. I love every day. And I hate the thought that it will end and I won’t see another spring,” she tells me. “I’m sure that people who live their lives very fully, who are vigorously alive, can feel the knowledge that it’s all going to end more fully. It is psychologically oppressive and you can wake up in the middle of the night and it can overwhelm you.”

There’s clearly no time to waste on small talk, so we jump straight into the big talk: love, mortality, sex and the nature of the soul. Is it better to be sensible to moral shortcomings than benignly laissez-faire? How do you define what it is that makes up the essential person? Do we become more ourselves as we grow older? Can you be said to have engaged completely in life if you have never allowed yourself to be overwhelmed by passionate love? This last question, in particular, is one which the writer tends to circle back to in different ways. The moment of truth for a character at the end of The Murder Room, James’s new book, is when she realises, like her receptive listener: “All love is dangerous, isn’t it?… [but]… you’re only half alive if you’re afraid to love.”

Many people who meet Phyllis (as she asks you to call her) for the first time find her surprising. Her writing has its moments of quiet lyricism – her abiding character, Adam Dalgliesh, is a respected poet, after all, as well as a detective. There is a melancholic, almost elegaic undertow to the books; a sense that our hero’s grief on losing his newborn baby and wife in one blow has never entirely lifted during all the decades we have known him since we were first introduced in 1962.

But there is also blood, sweat, semen, vomit, mucus: the physical gore of murderous death, and James is unflinching in her delivery of the detail. Here, for instance, is how she handles one corpse disposed of in Devices and Desires by her cross-dressing serial killer whose signature note is stuffing his victims’ pubic hair into their mouths: “The small bush of hair had been pushed under the upper lip, exposing the teeth, and giving the impression of a snarling rabbit.”

You don’t expect the creator of such brutal realism to be a cosy mother hen figure who lives in a pretty Georgian house, with William Morris wallpaper and Staffordshire figurines; the only clue to her darker sensibilities being an antique leather cosh she keeps strapped to the drawer knob of her bedside table. The particularities which previous visitors remarked upon – the chatelaine effect of carrying a large bunch of keys around her neck, the kindly ministrations to tuck into a plate of biscuits, the wearing of distorting thick-lensed spectacles – have disappeared.

But I had certainly imagined that because of all her achievements and honours – former BBC governor, sitting on this and that board, chairing this and that committee, the life peerage and so on – James would be tall, imposing and slightly stern. But physically, her stature is diminutive, and she bustles rather than paces. She is wearing a white T-shirt, button-down mid-calf skirt, poppy-red jacket, grey hair scraped off her head with a tortoiseshell hairband, a large engraved silver heart choker, and Birkenstock sandals.

She claps her hands in child-like glee and laughs, often, throwing her head back with gusto. When she is particularly amused – usually prompted by some observation on the absurd comedy of life – her eyes crinkle up and her whole face seems to shrink. My initial feeling is that I am in the company of one of those hospitable creatures in a children’s classic: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit; an impression which is reinforced by her insisting she sits bent double below me on a piano stool throughout the entire interview, while I take pride of place on the sofa.

We are talking about the various writers who have been afflicted by a morbid dread of death – Samuel Johnson, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis – and she mentions the time she interviewed Amis Snr over a bibulous lunch for the defunct London Evening News. She found it interesting, she says, that he told her how he wished he’d never broken his marriage with his first wife, Hilly, after he fell madly for the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; this second marriage ending famously acrimoniously. James, herself a widow of some 40 years, has never felt – perhaps, she concedes, never allowed herself to feel – an all-consuming love.

“No, I’ve never felt love that has completely overcome my mind. I’ve always felt there’s some part of my mind in control. I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” she says. “I think that we can criticise wild, passionate love but probably most human beings rather want it and like it. But I was always watching what I was feeling.”

She says that from an early age, she has looked at herself go through most experiences as if she were outside herself. When life was difficult in her childhood – her parents were unhappily married; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum for a period – the young James’s way of coping was to pretend she was a character in a book. Her mother would accuse her of being a cynical child; the girl’s cool appraisal of her elders was deemed unseemly and unnatural. “I was born very much an observer of life,” she says. “And yet at the same time I’m very much involved in it in the sense that I love the experience of being alive and of meeting people.

“Every writer is an observer, and just because I have never been overwhelmed by emotion doesn’t mean that other writers haven’t. But afterwards, I think, when the overwhelming ceases and they recover from the hurt of it, they will use it in their work and probably very, very effectively.”

In the prologue to Time to Be in Earnest, the “fragment” of autobiography-cum- diary that James wrote at the end of the Nineties, she warned her expectant readers: “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.”

How much can be guessed here from what little is said. James, of course, is a great believer in English reserve and is allergic to displays of excessive emotionalism. Her reaction to the mass-grieving which took place after Princess Diana died was to note: “I have a feeling, uncomfortable and irrational, that something has been released into the atmosphere and it isn’t benign.”

When we were talking about her unease with the touchy-feely post-Diana New Britain, she told me a story which clearly did move her. She was being driven to Oxford by a man whose wife had died of cancer, leaving him to bring up their three young children. There’s something about her manner that has always encouraged people to unburden their secret sadnesses to James and this man was no exception: “His wife had apparently had a terrible death about a year previously and I remember him saying, ‘It sounds very odd but I go to her grave and I tell her that my eldest daughter is wonderful with the two younger ones and that I’m coping,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure people would think it’s sentimental that I need to tell her how we’re getting on and that we’re managing.’ And because he was telling it very honestly and she’d died young and left these children and they were all coping for her sake, I really felt moved almost to tears,” her eyes glisten. “I felt much more than I felt when Diana died, there’s no doubt about that.”

As for her own bereavement and grief, James writes about these private emotions only at arm’s length and through the filter of fiction. “One does use one’s pain through some of the characters, very different characters from myself, but I think in quite a number of them there is pain,” she says. “And when I say that I don’t get overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain. I do feel pain. I can feel pain quite acutely. I have had a lot of pain in my life and I have felt it. And feeling fear and feeling distress and feeling lost and feeling inadequate, all these things are part of being human.”

She married Connor Bantry White, an Anglo-Irish medical student, when they had both turned 21 in the summer of 1941. They met in Cambridge where James was working as a general dogsbody at the Festival Theatre, and White was reading medicine at the university. Children came soon after, two daughters, Clare and Jane, and on completing his medical training, White went off to join the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While he was away in service, the young doctor suffered a mental collapse from which he was never to recover, and spent the rest of his married life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Sometimes he would return home unannounced and delusional, and so James decided that in these challenging circumstances, it was best to send her daughters away to a pre-prep boarding school, even though the younger of the two girls was only four.

As it now fell upon her to support the family, James went out to work as a filing clerk in the NHS (she had left school at 16 with no thought of higher education), working herself up to hospital administration, overseeing five psychiatric outpatients’ clinics, taking evening classes at the City of London College which led to a job in the Home Office, and eventually rising to a senior civil service position running the Criminal Policy Department.

She started writing in earnest in her thirties, waking at sunrise and getting down the words before arriving at the office each day, not because she needed the extra money but because she felt driven to do so. In 1962, the first of her 18 books, Cover Her Face, was published by Faber – which she says, quite rightly, now seems a bit old-fashioned and creaky – and she was on her way. Two years later, her husband died at home at the age of 44, after taking a combination of alcohol and drugs. She has said that it probably was suicide.

In her semi-autobiography, she writes: “I shan’t write about my marriage… except to say that I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Later, on April 1, 1998: “Connor would have been 78 today and I am trying to picture him, like me stiffer in his walk, his strong fair hair now a thatch of grey. I know that he was glad to die and I never mourned him in the sense of wishing that it had not happened. I still miss him daily, which means that no day goes by when he doesn’t enter into my mind.” And on the publication of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters – the poems about Hughes’s troubled marriage with Sylvia Plath: “No one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what this means. Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent.”

They were both so young when they married, the period of straightforward happiness was so short, and there were decades of difficult times when Connor was sometimes unable even to recognise his wife… I wonder how often in the 20-odd years of his illness there were glimpses of his old self, and were they enough to sustain her? “From time to time he was himself,” she says. “Briefly, yes, he was.” And did that help or not? “It gave me false hopes to begin with, I think, but the false hopes faded and then I realised that he would probably never be entirely right again.”

Did you understand what had happened to him? “Partly. I think one has to realise that it was a long time ago and now he would have had much more help and much more effective help psychiatrically compared to what he got then,” she says. “I’m not sure if I did altogether understand, but I don’t think I ever stopped loving him. You can have a love that isn’t an overwhelming love but it can be a very steadfast love.”

I had supposed that because all this heartbreak had happened long ago James would not feel discomfited talking about it, but she does: “It’s still painful and it’s distressing to the children if I talk about it too much. They do find it more distressing, more than I do, I think. My elder daughter does.” She says that they remember him, “Oh yes, with affection,” but feel that

it’s a private matter. I wonder what it was about him that made her fall in love? “Charm. He had charm and he was funny and he was a very sweet person. Yes, he was a very dear person.”

She is able to talk more freely about her decision to send the girls away when they were so young, perhaps because whatever the short-term damage or resentment at the time, the family is extremely close now. One of James’s great pleasures in life is spending weekends at the home of one daughter or the other, surrounded by grown-up grandchildren, enjoying their marvellous meals and wine and going for a good walk, preferably by the sea. Sadly, having enjoyed robust health all her life, she has just recovered from her second deep vein thrombosis so her walks are rather less vigorous. More like a 20-minute stroll, then? I ask, with an understanding look. “Oh, more than that, dear,” she says stoutly. “Probably more like an hour and a half.”

As people approach the end of their years, particularly if they believe they are going to meet their Maker, they can become beset with remorse about early episodes in their lives. There’s a striking passage in The Murder Room when Miss Strickland, who has a complicated past, talks to Dalgliesh about her last conversation with the first victim, a psychiatrist: “I said that in old age the past wasn’t so easily shaken off. The old sins return, weighted by the years. And the nightmares… For some of us that small diurnal death can be a nightly descent into a very private hell… He said that to be human is to feel guilt: I am guilty therefore I am.”

James does not appear to be overburdened by guilt, although I doubt she would tell me if she were. She does, however, suffer from terrible nightmares which she describes emphatically as “very, very, very, very weird”, which suggests there might be some anxiety lurking in the recesses of her mind. She also suffers from claustrophobia, and always has, so she is not quite as straightforwardly no-nonsense as she might first appear.

What she says about leaving her young daughters is this: “I missed them a very great deal and I felt distressed whenever I saw them and had to leave them, but I think it was the best thing because of their father’s illness. I think that parents should try not to feel too much guilt because all any parent can do is the best she can at the time. With thought, with love, and some of the decisions we make are right and some of the decisions we make are wrong, but as long as we’ve cared and we’ve bothered and we’ve taken trouble,” she mutters something I am unable to hear, and then says almost to herself. “They were happy there. It was a good school and they were happy there.

“Funnily enough, when they were at home during the long holidays, they used to wave me off when I went to work in the morning and they used to think that I wasn’t going to come home at night. I remember one of them did tell me: ‘We thought you might not come back.’ So you never know with children.”

I wonder, knowing all she does, what advice she would give to a stranger who was suffering from some terrible and seemingly inconsolable grief. “First of all, I would probably put my arms around them if they were that sort of person, and then I would say that you have to believe that in the end the pain will lessen. It may never completely go away. If you’ve lost somebody you dearly love – you’re going to miss them, the hurt will be there probably for as long as you live. But it will lessen. You will be able to come to terms with it.

“And, secondly, that you’re not alone in this. This is part of being a human being that we love people and we lose them and we suffer. It’s part of life. It’s that Blake poem, ‘Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.’ It’s a question of holding on. It’s a question of taking each day as it comes, not to torment yourself with the thought of all the years ahead. Take each day as it comes and find the courage to live that day as fully as you can. And even if they were not religious, I think I would say that if you pray for help, you will get it.”

She really does not care to revisit the days when she and her father would walk to the Gothic hospital where her mother had been placed. There is a pitiful description in Time to Be in Earnest of Dorothy James clutching at her nightclothes, begging to come home; one can well imagine the impact of this scene on her young daughter, and why it is still evoked so vividly more than half a century on. How awful that the writer’s early adult married life would be marred by visits to much the same gloomy sort of institution. It is not surprising that she only becomes reticent when drawn on such subjects. Put at its simplest: P. D. James likes to be happy and it doesn’t make her happy to talk about sad things.

It is quite a relief to move on to the less confrontational subject of sex. I read back to her a slightly surprising quote from an interview she did in the mid-Nineties: “I never really had a sex drive. I suppose I was frightened of the sex drive like some people are frightened to drink because they might never stop.” I say that it makes her sound as though she feared she might be a raving nymphomaniac, which makes her laugh hugely: “Well, I must have been out of my mind because I can’t remember ever feeling that. I would never had sexual relations and children, if I hadn’t had a sex drive.”

Might it not be true to say that you are probably more of a head person than a sexual person? “Absolutely true,” she says. “I don’t in any way dislike people who are sexual, I would just say that sex has never been so necessary to me that the need has overwhelmed me. And I would feel that if it did that would be slightly dangerous.

“I am neither sentimental nor over-emotional, but I can’t imagine saying that I feared that sex would overwhelm me. I suppose the fact that I am a head person makes it difficult to imagine how

you could be so much a slave to any

physical need.”

She admits that in all things, what she does fear is being out of control. Surely this must have had something to do with having so much responsibility thrust upon her shoulders at such a tender age. In her twenties, as a mother of two, she had to deal with what must have been at times a terrifying and confusing ordeal, while holding everything together. And, going back further, when her own mother was ill, it was Phyllis who cooked and cleaned and cared for her siblings until Dusty, the housekeeper, arrived. She has written about one particularly acute memory from that time: “It happened very soon after she [Dusty] arrived. I went up to my bedroom and there, lying folded on the sill beside the open window so that it was aired by the sun, was a clean, ironed nightdress. It is still a powerful image of conscientious caring and it lifted my heart. After trying, not always successfully, to cope with housekeeping and school, I was going to be looked after.”

A supporter of the promotion of her own sex in the secular world, in the church – as in her politics – James is a conservative traditionalist and was originally doubtful about the ordination of women. Now, however, she says, “I believe it is inevitable and right.” She has mixed views on hardline feminism but since she was attacked by a clique of male crime writers a few years ago, after a comment she made about class was misconstrued, she says she has rather more insight into why some women dislike men so much.

Her curriculum vitae includes such positions as the vice-president of Prayer Book Society, seat on Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, chair of Booker Prize, president of Society of Authors, associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and so on. You don’t get much greater or gooder than that roll call, but is that why she accepts the roles? “I quite enjoy it, dear, let’s face it,” she smiles. “But I also do feel that if you’re asked to do something as a woman, even if you’re going to be more or less the statutory woman, and you’re sure that you can do it, then I think there is an obligation to do so. I like women very much and I admire my own sex very much, and you can’t complain that women aren’t sufficiently represented if when you’re offered the chance, you say no to it.”

While she would defend any woman’s right to go out to work – “I have very much sympathy for women who want a professional life; that’s the sort of woman I am myself” – James feels it quite wrong that women who opt for full-time motherhood should feel diminished by their choice. Her hackles rise particularly when career women are cavalier, or worse, about the women they pay to work in their homes: “There was one on the radio and I took a real dislike to her when she said, ‘I want someone to do my shit work.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t work for you, dear. If you think looking after a house and making people comfortable is shit work, thank you very much. I would hate to work for you… because what respect would I get if I did.’”

The memory of that “clean, ironed nightdress” is still clearly very much intact.

When I say that professional women still tend to do the bulk of the domestic work when they get home, she says: “That is unfair, and I feel very strongly about it, indeed. It’s interesting the way I brought up my daughters, you see. They both have husbands who would never let that happen.

“From the beginning, I led them to feel that you’re not born as a woman to spend all your life ministering to a man. You hope to meet a man that you love and with whom you can have children, but it has to be an equal partnership.”

The only time in the interview when I catch a glimpse of the occasional astringency which can inform James’s writing, is when we talk about politics more broadly. I make an unflattering remark about Margaret Thatcher (it was her successor who was responsible for James’s peerage), and the Baroness gives me a concentrated look. She wastes no time at all dispatching my suggestion that under Mrs T we were encouraged to be selfish and greedy. “I think that materialism is very much part of human nature,” she says firmly. “We all like what money brings. There are very few who won’t go after the biggest profit they can get. There are very few who will sell their houses at under their value because a poor family’s trying to buy it. Show me them, I’d love to see them. There may be some, but not many.

“It’s lovely to have Mrs Thatcher to blame for this, you see. We can tell ourselves it’s not our fault, that we’re all Thatcher’s children and she taught us to be greedy. I very much distrust that. The present Prime Minister is very fond of his rich friends. There’s no doubt that he consorts only with people who are minded about prosperity and about money. So I think there are people who are greedy under any administration, and we must take responsibility for ourselves.”

But what materialism and consumerism cannot guarantee, as we all know too well, is happiness. It is a testament to the buoyancy of the human spirit – the “holding on” – that despite all the sorrows in P. D. James’s life, there is no trace of bitterness or any feeling that she has been hard done by. Even in her darkest times, she never felt that happiness would elude her. And, as she says, it can come when you least expect it:

“You may be in the country, leaning over a fence, and there’s the smell or the sight of a bean field, and suddenly there’s that tingle of wonderful physical wellbeing, a sense of being completely at home in the world; as much at home as the bird is in the air or the fish in the water. And that’s happiness which can’t be bought or sought. It just steals upon you. Doesn’t it, dear?”

Writers

Secrets of a sexual innocent

THE AGE – May 27 2002
Ginny Dougary

Greengage Harris tweed jacket. Matching-coloured eyes which glisten with merriment as though he is enjoying an ongoing private joke. An imposing nose, flared nostrils over unsensual lips which become coated in white at the corners when he has been talking for too long. Pleasant old-timer’s voice, punctuated by lilting rises; the mellowness of the delivery slightly at odds with the sharpness of his mind. Long, tapered fingers. Not a nail-biter. Clicks them occasionally when attempting to summon a recalcitrant word. Steady hand as he fills our glasses with water. For someone who has suffered from nervy conditions since boyhood – psoriasis, and a stammer that returns at times of crisis – he is strikingly still and self-contained. Hard to prick the mask of inscrutable affability. A hearty laugh which belongs to a larger, thigh-slapping man. Trousers? Shirt? Shoes? Blank.

John Updike, once described as compulsively observant, as though there were something faintly unhealthy about the novelist’s greed for detail, reckons that we all have within us the capacity to make connecting notes between the outward minutiae of a person and what those apparently trivial things might signify about the character. Everyone operates by this shorthand but it is the writer’s job to amplify and orchestrate that process of decoding in order to bring his creations to life in the reader’s mind. Thus Updike, whose microscopic intensity is so extreme it can sometimes seem almost hallucinogenic, will describe at great length the way a woman peels and eats a piece of fruit or the precise way someone performs the tricky task of arranging peas on a fork; transforming the ordinary, everyday act into a sort of symphonic ritual entirely specific to this or that character.

“When you write, I think you draw upon a lot of things you didn’t know you knew,” he says. “We all have an immense reservoir of observation and experience which you try to bring into play when you write. I may be unusual in that I sometimes try to describe the small things, but you hope that even the little detail reveals something about the character and the kind of struggle that’s going on here. There’s the hope that you will take the hitherto unobserved detail and lift it into significance. Lift it into the light.”

Updike has lived in Massachusetts for so long – he and his second wife, Martha, a retired psychiatric social worker, have spent most of the 20-odd years of their marriage in the same gracious white house, overlooking the ocean, not far from Boston – that he could easily pass for a native of the state. He certainly has that New England tilt towards self-deprecation and a generosity of spirit unmarred by gushiness which is so appealing to Old Englanders, but clearly not so agreeable to some of his fellow Americans. “I think his magnanimity is specious,” wrote John Cheever in a letter published posthumously, adding for good measure that “his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart”. Pretty wounding, particularly since Updike looked upon the older writer as a mentor as well as a friend.

So, in his modest way, Updike draws my attention to his deficiencies as an observer. He says that he’s hopeless, for instance, on clothes – always having to ask his wife what people were wearing, not even able to remember the colour of a woman’s dress. He believes that women are always much better than men at this sort of thing, although some men get it right – “Philip Roth is quite good about clothes, I think, and clothes certainly should be observed. I tend to let the world wash over me, you know, and hope that something has stuck. Like when you go to the beach and find all the sand in your shoe … I’m not very conscious about it.”

I point out that he is, perhaps, a little over-fond of the peasant blouse. Before we met, I’d read the four Rabbit books – with that mounting sense of excitement that I was in the pages of a colossal work, a modern American classic (how could I have not read it before?) – and their novella postscript, Rabbit Remembered, at the end of a new collection of stories, Licks of Love. And my only quibble is that every 10 years – the gap between each Rabbit book – at least one woman gets to wear a peasant blouse, as does one of the female characters in Licks of Love. Now perhaps the peasant blouse is in its own way a timeless classic, never out of fashion (it’s certainly in again now), but… “All right, no more peasant blouses,” Updike says amicably. “Maybe my first wife wore them a lot. I don’t think my second wife does, but I’ll have to ask her to make sure.”

The first book of his I read was the notorious Couples, Updike’s graphic exploration of middle-class adultery in New England suburbia. I got hold of a copy shortly after it was published in 1968, when I was a precocious 12-year-old. “That’s about right on your maturation curve,” Updike grins. At this distance, there’s very little that lingers from what is still probably one of the writer’s most famous novels, along with The Witches of Eastwick, which has been made into a film and a musical … only the vaguest, impressionistic memory of tennis (or possibly golf?) clubs and cocktails and American cars, dinner parties simmering with subterranean tension and covert, joyless sex in what seemed to a prepubescent reader to be rather baffling positions.

Couples was described as a kind of underhand propaganda for oral sex – several publishers declined to touch it – and Updike as its presumed advocate was expected to respond to a battery of embarrassing questions. “You can’t deny that the book is somewhat about oral sex,” he says. “It’s about why some couples link up better than others and it often is perhaps a matter of sexual positions, tastes or whatever. It hardly bears talking about, but it did bear writing about, I thought.”

He had some pretty strong attitudes about women and sex at the time, although his comments may have sounded less shocking then than they do now. He appeared to believe, for instance, that what many women really wanted was to be raped “…and civilised man has lost the ability. Perhaps what goes wrong with some marriages is that you can’t rape your own wife.” When I read this out, there is a little pause and then: “Clearly I was in a different psychological place than now, I guess.”

I wonder whether his views have shifted dramatically in the intervening three decades, thinking that, if so, this must feel like being mugged by your old quote. “I’d be too savvy and too politically correct to say that now, but I do think there’s something in it. I’m interested in female sexuality and what women say about it because – as Freud has been chastised for saying – it really is a mystery that somehow remains a mystery amidst all our shamelessness,” he replies evenly.

“What do women want? They write and read romantic novels in which they are, in effect, raped … yes, carried off and told what to do, as in that French thing L’histoire d’O. There is a masochistic or submissive streak in females. And even a man feels the voluptuous pleasure of having things taken out of your control. Humans beings kind of like that.”

There is a sense in his fiction of Updike pushing himself to a point beyond his own embarrassment. Almost no bodily act is too private to remain unexamined. Both Harry (Rabbit) and Janice Angstrom, the central couple of the quartet, furtively masturbate while the other is asleep. Harry washes his arsehole before going to bed with someone else’s wife who then invites him to bugger her; an initiation which takes on a heightened, almost metaphysical quality not unlike one of D.H. Lawrence’s darkly rhapsodic moments. And yet, unlike Lawrence, there is none of that primal struggle for ascendancy between men and women at the point of meeting: sex, certainly for Rabbit, seems more like a short cut to oblivion than a way of illuminating intimacy. This may partly account for why some women readers dislike Updike’s fiction, although, as Germaine Greer told me in defence of Dennis Potter’s later work – women too often make the mistake of wanting men to write about things the way they’d like them to be, rather than how they are.

For all the boldness and dash of Updike’s work and, indeed, on occasion, his life – as a young man it was brave of him to leave the staff of The New Yorker, where he’d always dreamed of working, to strike out on his own as a writer in the country, with a young wife in tow – there is something distinctly safe and old-fashioned about him in person. He doesn’t have that edge of danger or the bristling energy of older American writers of his stature, say, Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer or even Arthur Miller. He is a Democrat, partly, one suspects, because that’s the way his family has always voted. Divorce for him was a sort of troubled adventure (he once referred to the “racy glamour” of second marriages), since it meant breaking away from the Updike tradition of staying together “no matter how much you fought or were miserable”. His fondness for golf and the church, his loyalty to presidents and those who serve the community, his dismay at the Stars and Stripes-burning protests of the late 1960s which prompted him to flee to London, his belief in hard work and his iron-clad sense of duty to the vocation of writing … these are the strands which appear to be uppermost in his make-up.

The emphasis on sex in his fiction – and Updike does concede that he writes about it possibly to an abnormal degree – may be his only outlet for misbehaviour. When he describes himself as “a very law-abiding, disciplined, docile type”, I ask him whether his years as an enthusiastic adulterer were his one form of rebellion. “Well, writing about it enthusiastically may be the rebellion,” he counters. I had assumed that Updike had some personal knowledge of what he was writing about. “There must be some experience there,” he says, “but probably less than you think. I’m really a sort of sexual innocent, otherwise it wouldn’t interest me, I suppose.”

Isn’t that a bit of a cop-out? “No, I’ve been thinking about it since I’m about to be 70 [his birthday was in March] and I think that’s a very good description,” he says. “I was an only child, which gives you one degree of innocence in that you don’t have the rough and tumble and get to see your sister undressed or any of those little moments that a large family can bring. Raised in a sort of straight, middle-American kind of environment by my parents – although they were, in a way, liberals – but anyway, I certainly think I came to sex later and less ably than many of my contemporaries and most people my age of later generations. So I’ve written about sex because it’s a sort of astonishment to me. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’m still astonished. Astonished that we do this,” his voice lifts with wonderment, “and that people will risk their livelihoods and their marriages. Nothing gets higher priority.”

Updike certainly knows what he’s talking about here since his first marriage eventually collapsed under the libidinous strain of the swinging ’60s and ’70s. Several of the stories in Licks of Love, the new collection, have a strongly autobiographical flavour … the grim challenge of how to exterminate the legions of wild cats on his late mother’s land, lovingly fed by her towards the end of her life; the childhood scene of hearing his mother berate his financially strapped schoolteacher father for borrowing money from a school basketball fund; a two-page tribute to a youngest son, “Oliver”, who suffered most from his parents’ divorce; a homosexual vagrant’s obscene overture and its effect on our protagonist. All these stories, Updike acknowledges, have been carved out of his own life.

Natural Colour – a reference to whether or not the husband’s lover’s red hair is dyed – has a number of devastating lines about the conflicting toll of infidelity … “His own [marriage] was enhanced by his betrayal, his wife and children rendered precious in their vulnerability. Returning to them, damp and panting from his sins, he nearly wept at their sweet ignorance.” In the story, the husband chooses to stay with his wife despite being madly in love with the other woman. “It happens in my fiction, yeah, more than once,” Updike says. So did this ever happen to him? “Yes, I think you could say that,” he says. Does he have permanent regrets about those sorts of decisions? “No, I don’t. Maybe I’m rather deficient in regrets in my life,” he replies. “I’d probably be a better person if I regretted more. But at the time you do what you can and you try to be a good citizen and a decent family member, but I’ve always seen my duty as ultimately to my writing and so I’ve tried to take care of the writer first, I guess.”

There is something about this last statement that is, if not chilly, then certainly somewhat daunting in the absolute, unwavering sense that Updike has of what must take precedence in his life. With more than 50 books under his belt – including poetry, essays, criticism, a memoir, a play and children’s fiction – as well as the stories and pieces he still writes regularly for The New Yorker, he certainly cannot have any regrets about squandering his talent. What I don’t really believe is that the writer is as dispassionate about the more personal aspects of his life as he chooses to make himself out to be.

I had brought up the John Cheever stinger fairly early in the interview, and Updike had indeed been most (unspeciously, it seemed to me) magnanimous in his response. He said he was stunned and shocked when he first read it, but that “there may be something in it. Cheever was a very shrewd guy.” Updike went on to say that, no, he wouldn’t have dreamt of rebuking the man if he had still been alive – “chastisement is no way to treat an older writer” – and then spoke fondly about their trip to Russia at the height of the Cold War – after which Cheever penned his damning comments – and how much he was charmed by him: “John was so funny, so irreverent, so unintimidated by this, what I thought, fairly intimidating surround of totalitarianism … but not John.” I could not help contrasting the mildness of his response with Paul Theroux’s vengeful book when he was snubbed by his erstwhile mentor and friend, V.S. Naipaul.

The comment which seemed to make the strongest impression was the one about his “stony heart”, which is interesting since it is surely about Updike’s defect as a human being rather than as a writer. He says another writer, the late Alfred Kazin, wrote about Updike’s “keen-eyed child’s view of the world, without that element of empathy into adult doings” – which is certainly a less harsh way than Cheever’s of putting it.

Throughout the interview, he circles back again and again to the nature of his heart. He says that he grew up learning to be “tactful” because both his parents were hotheads and his mother, who had dangerously high blood pressure, was particularly explosive: “…and maybe that’s why I developed this coldness – which ties in with the Cheever quote, doesn’t it? – this terrible coldness that” he sounds haunted by himself, “John, who was very perceptive, felt.” Later, when I ask him whether he was flirtatious when he used to drink – he stopped because of the medication he takes for psoriasis – he says, “Yes. Probably. But I was always a kind of controlled drunk when I was drunk. I was always, you know, that cold-eyed guy.”

And, yet, would someone who was so essentially cold have been so tormented by guilt as he was when he eventually did leave his first wife, Mary, and their four children? Would such a flint-hearted soul talk about “having sought in agony for divine reassurance”, as he once did? Even now, when he is, as he puts it, “thoroughly grandparented”, he still says, with the rawness of recent pain, that it’s the worst thing he’s done in his life. His stammer would return, like verbal stigmata, whenever he saw his children. “It’s not as though they were complaining – they weren’t,” Updike says. “It’s not as though they were infants, either. The youngest was 10, the oldest was 18 more or less, and they were … they were all stoical. But, no, I felt rotten. It’s something my father would never have done. And, well, time heals most wounds,” he clears his throat aggressively, “but, yeah, the guilt, some guilt, is still there.

“On the other hand, you’ve got to take the overall picture. I was the person with the cards and so in the end I had to make the decisions. But I think it was … it was not ruinous for anybody.”

He says that he and his wife argued a lot and that although most children are scarred by the divorce of their parents, it’s probably no worse for them than living under the shadow of a bad marriage. “My parents fought,” he says. “My mother talked about getting a divorce and moving with me to Tucson, Arizona.” How old were you when she burdened you with this information? “I would have been maybe between 11 and 12,” he says, and then, seeing my expression, “Wild, wasn’t it? But it was just talk. We didn’t have the resources to do any of that, fortunately. And I loved my town [Shillington, Pennsylvania] and I loved my father and I was pleased that they stayed together.”

The most recent story of his that was published in The New Yorker was about him trying to fathom his parents’ “glue” – a favourite Updike word for describing the chemistry between a couple – “and their courtship because my mother would only talk about it ironically. It’s sort of primal, isn’t it? What made these two people get together, because without them, you wouldn’t be here.”

Linda Grace Hoyer, Updike’s mother, was an aspiring writer herself; one who appears to have been highly competitive with her son. When her only child first met with literary success, she said that she would have been happier if it had happened to her. The New Yorker did run 10 of her stories, after Updike had made his mark there, and two of her novels were published, Enchantment and The Predator – although she managed only to see the proofs of the second book before she died.

Given that he is held in such high regard as a critic, I wonder what Updike thought of his mother’s writing and if he had expressed his views candidly. “I thought she was quite good,” he says. “And she wrote wonderful letters. She would probably have been a better writer if she’d worked less hard at it. But she was kind of inhibited and never really grabbed her own anger – didn’t get at what was agitating her – in the way that a younger woman, a woman now probably would easily. I would give her criticism, although she couldn’t really take it very well. But I was encouraging, and so was my father, and we were all thrilled when she got into print.”

One has the feeling that his mother was permanently aggrieved by the way her life had turned out. Updike’s grandfather lost his fortune in the Depression and his father lost his job as a travelling salesman. In order to get by, his mother took a job in a department store – which must have smarted – and his father taught maths at his son’s local school.

Updike inherited her sense that he was a cut above his schoolmates, whose fathers tended to be tradesmen. “I was very prickly and vain, and believed I was some kind of aristocrat who had been stolen by gypsies,” he says. He may have had private piano and tap-dancing lessons, but the other families always appeared to him to be better off than his own. “Their children all seemed to have more sweaters than I did,” he recalls. “And sweaters was the index of wealth. If you could wear a different kind of sweater to school every day…”

It was his father’s sister, Mary, who sent her nephew a subscription to The New Yorker on his 11th birthday. He was instantly smitten, even at such a young age, initially by the cartoons, since his first ambition was to become a cartoonist. “Aunt Mary and her husband lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, in what I thought was a rather fancy way,” he says. “They drank cocktails and smoked a lot of cigarettes and, yes, I aspired to move to Greenwich and live like them.”

I wonder whether Updike’s mother encouraged him to look upon his father as a slightly inadequate figure? “Yeah, yeah, I think she did, quite frankly. She did encourage me to see him through her eyes. There was something about him which drove her wild. She was a sort of a redhead and had quite a hot temper and … I always thought he didn’t do anything wrong. I thought he was good and kind and taught Sunday school, and did all manner of good things,” he says.

He suffers some guilt, he says, about exposing him in the story My Father on the Verge of Disgrace – but as a child he always felt that his world was about to collapse, and his father would be dragged off to jail, and that he and his mother would be put out into the street with their furniture. He writes about the discomfort of sitting in the classroom in front of his father who was too little of a disciplinarian to control his pupils: “…in my helpless witnessing I was half blinded by impatience and what now seems a fog of love, a pity bulging towards him like some embarrassing warpage of my own face.” But the story ends with a touching reprieve: “Nothing but death could topple him, and even that not very far, not in my mind.”

In the introduction to the handsome Everyman edition of the Rabbit quartet (all four books were published in a single volume for the first time in 1995), Updike writes that Rabbit was “a receptacle for my disquiet and resentments”. Rabbit Angstrom – a sort of angst-ridden Everyman, himself – son of a Lutheran typesetter, who reaches his peak in life as an 18-year-old basketball champ, marries too young (like Updike, who was 21), runs away from his responsibilities with tragic consequences, seems as though he will never amount to anything (and probably worse), maddeningly, frighteningly passive in the first two books, a nebulous drifter through life who only becomes solid in the third book when he inherits his father-in-law’s Toyota franchise, a compulsive adulterer with a fatal junk-food addiction in his final years … well, not quite the alter ego you might expect from a man who as a boy believed himself to be an aristocratic changeling.

What is wonderful about the books, the first one written in 1959 and then published at the cusp of each new decade, Rabbit ageing at the same rate as his creator, is that the characters and their lives seem utterly real, however surreal their circumstances. And more than that, particularly read as a whole, they do what great fiction does, which is to reassure the reader that however grim life seems to be, most of us will somehow muddle through and – if we are lucky – experience the occasional, transcendent glimpse of joy.

The Rabbits continue to repopulate; they must now be in their umpteenth printing, despite the cavils from some critics – particularly in America – that Rabbit is too much of a prole to feel and see as eloquently as he does.

The suggestion seems to be that a Harvard alumnus, who walked straight into a job at The New Yorker, could not possibly divine the inner workings of the average working-class American man. “Well, there might be some truth in what they say, but my defence would be that we all feel a lot, and sense and know a lot of things that we don’t express,” Updike says, “and so what the author tries to do is to put that into words. Undoubtedly I do give Rabbit the benefit of some of my best thoughts and my keenest perceptions because I see no reason in withholding from him any more than Shakespeare withheld eloquence from anybody. You just try to test each sentence as it goes along and if it feels all right to you, you have to go with it and suffer the criticism. Because for me if you work too hard at making him [Rabbit] limited and making him stupid, then you’re not going to engage the reader.”

This mention of Shakespeare reminds me of the ending of Rabbit, Run – the harrowing first book of the tetralogy. (They became more up-beat, as Updike has pointed out, when their author remarried.) Young Janice Angstrom, deserted by her husband, in a moment of drunken haphazardness, drowns her new baby daughter – a tragedy which reverberates throughout the rest of the characters’ lives. “Never hear her cry again,” Harry grieves at the funeral, “never see her marbled skin again, never cup her faint weight in his arms again and watch the blue of her eyes wander in search of the source of his voice. Never, the word never stops, there is never a gap in its thickness.”

Those “nevers”, even as your eyes well up for Rabbit, are an echo of another, more famous fictional loss – King Lear holding the prone body of his most dearly loved daughter, Cordelia, in his arms before he dies of grief. “Yes, it’s a line that you always remember, isn’t it?” Updike asks. “It’s terrifying, that neverness. It takes five [or six, in his case] ‘nevers’ to do it. You fall into it naturally, of course, since that’s what you think about when somebody’s dead. Never, never, see them again. Never get to hear them make a joke again, never…”

If Rabbit was the receptacle for Updike’s resentments, Nelson, the Angstroms’ son, seems to have been the vessel for the author’s sense of parental guilt. Writing about Rabbit Redux, which followed Rabbit, Run and is probably the darkest of all the books, he describes Nelson as remaining “the wounded, helplessly indignant witness. He is ever shocked by ‘the hardness of heart’ that enables his father to live so egocentrically, as if enjoying divine favour.” Re-reading these lines after our interview, I was struck by how much they chimed in with the encircling thrust of our conversation – prompted by Updike’s preoccupations rather than my own.

It is Nelson, he says, rather than his father, who is really the hero of the books: “You’ve seen him first as a very little boy, given one trauma, and then 10 years go by and he gets another trauma … It’s no wonder he’s a little jittery.” When I ask him if there is a direct emotional connection between his authorial investment in Nelson and Updike’s feelings about his own sons as they were growing up, he concedes there is. “I tend to feel guiltier, this is just between us … and your readers, of course,” he adds dryly, “about the boys. I don’t know why. Chauvinism, I suppose. But in this guilt towards the left children, the boys moved me more. Somehow I think the girls understand. Do I think they are more resilient?” he asks himself. “I don’t know what I think. But the two boys have been lightning rods for my feelings of guilt and angst, and so on.

“Maybe it was identification, too. In that I can easily see in them the little vulnerable boy that I used to be and not wanting my parents to separate and just wanting things to go on. That’s what children want. They want things to go on from day to day until they can cease being children and get out.”

It’s a measure of how much I was drawn into Rabbit Angstrom’s internal world that I found the new novella – Rabbit Remembered – something of a disappointment. It felt almost as though Updike had committed a breach of etiquette, to take us back into Harry’s universe when he was no longer there. I found myself missing the way he looked at life; his struggle to prove that he wasn’t altogether past it; his losing battle to control his various appetites. It didn’t seem right for there to be a resolution without Rabbit being part of it. And I felt outraged, on his behalf, that Janice had ended up marrying the man he most despised.

I wonder why Updike felt the need to provide this coda, when he’d always insisted that there would be no more Rabbit books. At first, he seems to imply that he only wrote the novella as a way of filling out half a book of short stories: “And I thought that it would be a discreet way to touch base without going back on this vow that I so solemnly took. It’s really about Rabbit as a ghost, in a way.”

In 1995, the author was clearly beset by intimations of his own mortality: “I had wondered if I would live to the year 2000,” he wrote in the Everyman edition, “for this fresh printing, apt to be the last I shall oversee…” Perhaps he found it a comforting extension of his own life beyond death to have Harry still being talked and thought about 10 years after his coronary coup de grâce. But he also seems to have felt the need to give the story – particularly Nelson’s – a happy ending. “I thought we needed to know whatever happened to Ruth’s child. [In the last book, Harry is convinced that he has a grown-up daughter by the woman he was living with while Janice was pregnant with the daughter they lose.] Yes, I did,” he says. “And I assumed that you all care about Nelson and how he is doing. In the last book he was a not very satisfactorily cured coke addict, so…” So Updike has made amends, while he still can.

He once referred to the bliss of writing. Could he describe that state of being? “There’s the feeling of having written a happy sentence, making a happy connection, of the music beginning to play. And along with that, of describing something well enough that has never been made quite real in words before. But for me the bliss of writing is mixed in with the bliss of being in print. The book itself is where the heavy bliss comes in. The notion that you’ve made an artefact as good as you can make it – flawed no doubt, but as good as you can do for now. And to see it taking its place in the world – that you’ve brought something in that wasn’t there before – I suppose that’s where the bliss lies.”

I wonder, finally, whether it still gives him a kick to see his name in print. “I don’t see it often enough, actually. And I keep seeing words like Upside and Upstate … and all these words take my eye, and I think I’m being mentioned and it turns out to be just some other word that begins with a capital U. So yes,” he smiles, warmly. “I guess I do like seeing it in print.”

General, Writers

Paul Foot named journalist of decade

THE GUARDIAN – Saturday February 26, 2000
Paul Baldwin

The Guardian writers, Paul Foot and Clare Hollingworth, were yesterday honoured for their campaigning journalism in the annual What the Papers Say awards at London’s Savoy Hotel.

Mr Foot, honoured for his tenacious work on the Hanratty hanging investigation, arms to Iraq and the Bridgewater Three, was named Journalist of the Decade, while Ms Hollingworth, whose exclusive on the defection of Kim Philby to the USSR shook the establishment, was given a lifetime achievement award.

The judges’ citation with Mr Foot’s award, which was presented by the Tory leader, William Hague, read: “At the end of the 1990s we look back and see how many times Paul Foot’s campaigns have made a difference.

“His persistence is a lesson to all journalists.”

Ms Hollingworth, who famously broke the news of the outbreak of the world war two, was called “the doyenne of war correspondents” whose career “reads like a history of conflict in the 20th century”.

The other awards at the ceremony, which will be shown on BBC2 at 5.30pm today, included:

Scoop of the Year: News of the World, for Rob Kellaway’s exclusive on Lord Archer which revealed he had made a false alibi on the night he was accused of sleeping with a call girl and which led to him quitting the election race for London’s mayor.

Newspaper/Editor of the year: The Times, Peter Stothard.

Interview of the year: Ginny Dougary, The Times, for her Michael Portillo interview in which he admitted homosexual experiences.

Columnist of the year: Deborah Orr, The Independent.

Foreign correspondent of the year: Robert Fisk, The Independent.

Critic of the year: A.A. Gill, The Sunday Times.

Music, Writers

The new romantic – Interview, Nick Cave

THE TIMES – March 27 1999
– Ginny Dougary

Not many rock stars write novels and biblical commentaries or give recitals on love at the Royal Festival Hall. But, with years behind him as the ultimate bad seed, Nick Cave has never played by the rules. Ginny Dougary meets the man behind his own myth.

If you didn’t know what Nick Cave does, you would be hard-pressed to guess. In the past couple of years, he has delivered a religious broadcast on Radio 3, contributed to The Times’s Op Ed page, alongside John Major, with a column on what Easter means to him, penned an introduction to St Mark’s gospel in Canongate’s bite-sized versions of the Bible, with writers such as A.S. Byatt, A.N. Wilson, Louis de Berni res, Fay Weldon and Will Self, and been a visiting lecturer at an academy of poetry in Vienna; in three days time, he will be giving a recital on the love song at the Royal Festival Hall, and he is director of this summer’s arts festival, Meltdown, on the South Bank. He has been the subject of a biography, the author of a novel which attracted some glowing reviews, including one from The Daily Telegraph; he has written film scripts and appeared, as himself, in Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and as an actor in a number of less memorable films. It’s an unusual curriculum vitae, especially for a rock star.

Cave appears to have entered the ranks of the great and the good without really trying, and certainly without much fanfare. As a gifted writer with an abiding interest in literature, religion and art, it is perhaps not surprising that Cave has harnessed himself to projects beyond the narrow perimeters of pop. But how many of his fellow musicians could command comparably lofty platforms from which to broadcast their views, or the licence to experiment from within the portals of such august institutions? Cave is not, after all, a well-connected Brit but an Aussie outsider.

What is surprising is that he remains a marginal figure in the music business, albeit mega in those margins. When Cave and his band the Bad Seeds played at the Royal Albert Hall some years ago, both nights sold out; five hours after the box office opened, the tickets for Cave’s solo show at the Royal Festival Hall had all gone. He is – what people often fall back on when describing an artist who is difficult or difficult to place, and Cave is both – a significant cult figure.

But why isn’t he huge? His love songs on The Boatman’s Call, Cave and the Bad Seeds’ most recent album of fresh material, were a revelation to me when I first heard them a few months ago: sweet and melancholy, stripped back to the raw emotion and sung with the voice of a wayward Elvis Presley. I am not alone in thinking they are up there with Van Morrison and Dylan; everyone to whom I’ve played them has the same reaction. “The guy’s a genius!” they say, and “Why haven’t I heard the songs before?” The singer, of course, is partly to blame. He may have appeared on Top of the Pops with Kylie Minogue, for whom he wrote the murder ballad Where the Wild Roses Grow – and what a strange pairing that was – but the success of the single was a commercial deviation for him. He wrote it, not because he wanted a Top 20 hit, but because he liked to play with the tension between the darkness of the material and the lightness which Kylie projects. He is quite clear about his desire to conduct his life and career on his own idiosyncratic terms. In 1996, for instance, he was shortlisted for an MTV Award for Best Male Artist – but asked the organisers to withdraw his nomination. “My muse is not a horse,” he attempted to explain in a letter, “and I am in no horse race and, indeed, if she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel – this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.” While he clearly had a lot of fun spinning his excuse – he sounds as arch and overblown as the Scarlet Pimpernel – the gesture can hardly have endeared him to the powers that be in the international music scene. Cave’s habit of disappearing in foreign cities for years at a time – Berlin for much of the Eighties; Sao Paulo in the early Nineties – has not helped to build a serious profile in this country. And, of course, there have been some more self-destructive habits along the way.

Our first encounter is in Amsterdam, where Cave is performing in a kind of lit-rock festival at the Paradiso, billed alongside various artists with out-there names like Furry Green Lamppost. The Paradiso used to be a church and is one of the legendary venues, where everyone has played from Janis Joplin to the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols; in the late-afternoon gloom and empty, it looks tarnished and slightly seedy.

On the stage, Cave’s elongated form is hunched over the piano like an up-ended U. He is wearing a skimpy V-neck sweater and with his eyes closed and his face pointed skywards, he could be a 12-year-old boy. Since he is, in fact, 41, in the looks department at least, he is a disgracefully good advertisement for bad living. After an hour or so of faffing around with the sound engineer, Cave comes over to join a group of us.

Away from his piano, Cave towers over us but doesn’t stoop. Walking back to the hotel at some pace, I clock the familiar wings of bat-black hair, the white face, blue eyes and cupid’s pout. In his scuffed shoes, a fake fur collar adorning a long black coat, he has a certain theatrical – Aubrey Beardsley meets Withnail – thrift-shop elegance. His people keep telling me what a great time it is to interview him. Why? He’s so happy. He’s so open. He’s so well. He’s in love.

Before the gig, there is a dinner for Cave and his friends in an old-fashioned seafood restaurant. It’s a strange, slightly strained event. Everyone would like to talk to our host, but since he exudes all the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie of a Howard Hughes, it does not make for an easy flow of conversation. Among the guests is Cave’s new paramour, Vivienne Westwood’s erstwhile muse, the model Susie Bick – who appears to have made liberal use of her boyfriend’s hair-dye.

Bick is exquisite. She has a porcelain face, phosphorescent green gaze and a breathy, cut-glass little voice – rather like a posh Una Stubbs. With the dansant frock, antique clasp-bag and demure manner, she feels distinctly unmodern. She and Cave sip mineral water and smoke a great many Marlboro Lights. I ask him whether he’s suffering from pre-concert nerves. No, he says,
slightly bullishly. Then he grins and admits, “Well, yes, actually – I am.” Moments later, as if to comfort himself, he folds Susie into his arms and kisses her. We all look away. But for some reason it’s not embarrassing, just rather sweet and unaffected.

There’s a commotion on the steps of the Paradiso, and a sign on the heavy wooden doors informing the crowds that the gig is SOLD OUT. Cave takes to the centre of the stage and starts to read his introduction to St Mark from the small book in his hand. The piece is long but the Dutch tend to speak English fluently, and Cave seems to carry them. As befits a former place of worship, the atmosphere is solemn, even reverential. Of course, it is equally possible that the fans have been stunned into silence by the oddness of this incarnation. Cave’s voice is rising, clear and loud, and his body rocks as he describes his early love of the Old Testament, with its malign God and presence of evil so close to the surface, “you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl…” Give him a backdrop of cornfields and a southern twang, and he could be Flannery O’Connor’s crazy-eyed preacher in Wise Blood (a book Cave knows and loves).

And now there are murmurs of recognition and approval from the congregation, as Cave says, “But you grow up. You do. You mellow out… You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.” In his pre-teen choirboy days at Wangaratta Cathedral, he tells us, he was singularly unimpressed by the Anglican Church: “It was the decaf of worship,” he sneers, “and Jesus was their Lord.” And on he goes, via references to Holman Hunt and the odd Latin and Hebrew quote, to explain how Christ came to illuminate his life – through the Gospel According to Mark – “with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough”… and on and on, accelerating as though wary of imposing upon our patience as he reaches his triumphant conclusion: “Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity – our ordinariness, our mediocrity – and it was through his example that he gave our imaginations the freedom to rise and fly. In short,” he stares out into the dark, “to be Christ-like.” It’s hardly rock ‘n’ roll, but they like it.

Cave may have grown up, but he is still a perverse cove. His desire to move and shock – the function, he believes, of art – remains intact. Perhaps a religious reading is the Nineties equivalent of bashing his fans over the head with a microphone. “To get up and speak about matters like that is pretty much the last thing you can annoy people with,” he confirms. “Because in my business God has a very, very bad reputation. He needs to get a new spin doctor… and I’m the man for the job.”

The rest of the set goes well. Post-Mark, the proceedings still have a gospel feel. The audience mouths the words to the songs or joins in. People sway arm in arm; a number of them weep. As Cave sings his anthem of disappointment “People ain’t no good” – “… It ain’t in their hearts they’re bad/ They can comfort you, some even try/ They nurse you when you’re ill of health/ They bury you when you go and die…” – a young man plucks my sleeve, tears streaming down his cheeks, and tells me how the song speaks straight to him, confronting him with how badly he has treated his estranged brother and how he must make
amends.

When he was a child, Cave tells me back in London, he and a mate would get driven miles out into the bush by his mate’s dad, who would deposit them with a six-pack of beer and a couple of shotguns and instruct them to kill as many living things as they could. The boys were 12 at the time. Cave is the father of a seven-year-old son, Luke, and he’s been thinking that was a pretty rum way to handle kids.

First novels have a reputation for tending towards the autobiographical. The Ass Saw the Angel, Cave’s fictional debut, would not appear to conform to that pattern. It is an extraordinary story – both compelling and repellent – of Euchrid Eucrow, the mute surviving twin of a grotesque alcoholic mother and a sadistic father, who is the outcast and Anti-Christ figure of a warped religious community. It is full of Old Testament imagery welded on to the imagination of a serial killer, informed by a love and knowledge of the literature of the American Deep South. The novel is littered with the carcasses of small birds and creatures, captured or shot, which makes one think that those trips into the bush and the ensuing carnage must surely have made an imprint on the child’s psyche.

Cave’s writing has impressed some of the most respected young guns in publishing. Jon Riley, who bought the paperback rights to The Ass Saw the Angel for Penguin, struggled to persuade his superiors that the acquisition was a good idea. Penguin stumped up Pounds 25,000 for the rights. Since its publication in 1990, the paperback has sold 75,000 copies and continues to sell steadily.

Richard Beswick, editorial director of Little, Brown, whose authors include Beryl Bainbridge and Gore Vidal, says of Cave’s writing: “Most literary novels look linguistically impoverished compared to his. If I’d been publishing fiction at the time, I would have jumped at it.” Instead, he commissioned a biography of Cave: Bad Seed by Ian Johnston, which has also enjoyed healthy sales – about 30,000 copies – since it was published in 1995. “There’s a very good cross-over audience for Cave amongst literate rock fans,” Beswick says, and less reverentially, “There’s also substantial sleaze and some great photographs of him rolling around on broken glass.”

Cave arrives bang on time for our meeting, dressed smartly in a grey suit and white shirt. The rendezvous is in the library – appropriately since much of our conversation is about books and writing – of one of those discreet, old-fashioned hotels which seem to be popular with the rockerati. There is an interesting tension, a word he employs a lot, between his manner: still amiable, as it was in Amsterdam, and his body language, which is guarded. Before we get properly stuck in, Cave tells me about his mental filing cabinet in which are stored all the names of the journalists and critics who have offended him – which is less intimidating than it sounds. What people tend not to get is that Cave is funny, with that laconic, deadpan wit shared by larrikin Australians from Bob Hawke to your outback cattle drover. After his attempts to give me a preview of his forthcoming gig, for instance, he assumes a baleful expression and drawls, “Thousands of people send their tickets back.” Knowing how seriously – and quite rightly – Cave takes his writing, I ask him somewhat tentatively whether he wishes he had been as rigorous in the editing of his novel as he was in his new songs. I preface the question by asking him if he minds me making a comment about it. “Yeah. You can make a comment,” he says darkly, “I’ll log it in there,” tapping his high forehead.

During the years in which he wrote the book in Berlin, Cave’s lifestyle was chaotic, to put it mildly. Rock hacks used to lay bets on who was most likely to die of an overdose on stage first, Keith Richards or Nick Cave. At one particular low point of his addiction, Cave resorted to dealing heroin and was thrown out of the room in his shared apartment when it became a shooting gallery. Writing the novel is what Cave believes kept him from going under. I ask him if there were any times during his work in progress when he wasn’t off his face? “Erm, no,” he says, “but that suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re wandering around in a stupor. I was taking speed a lot, and the thing about that drug is that it keeps you totally in the moment. It doesn’t allow anything else in. I think I would have written the book any way, I would like to say – and it could well have been a better book. Part of its obsessiveness and the way I was living at that time was to do with that. “Cave’s tiny room was transformed into a sort of fetishistic aide-memoire; the walls were covered with a mixture of religious and pornographic images and a wig of a young girl’s hair. “It became a very similar world to the one I was writing about in the book,” he recalls. “It was very tangible and different, populated with the people that I’d invented. It was a place I retreated into… It afforded me some relief.”

I ask him whether he considers that his writing, his art, is at the centre of his life. “I think that attempting to strive at some kind of happiness in my life is more important,” he says. “And I have to say that I feel happy quite a lot.” Would you say that’s your natural disposition? “No, I don’t think so…” Is it because you’re in love? “Yeah, now I can never remember being sad,” he says, mock-mawkishly. “But even despite all the disasters and catastrophes and the debris around me, I always got my sense of fulfilment from being able to write and come up with things that I felt good about and that if I hadn’t had that artistic endeavour, I don’t think I would have been allowed to survive.” Allowed? He sighs and shifts around in his seat. “Oh no, I’m going to sound like Glenn Hoddle… but I feel I’ve been protected in certain ways by other, other…” he looks into my eyes, “by God.”

So you link your creativity to God?

“Yeah.”

You think it’s a God-given gift?
“Yeah.”

You talk about being in the presence of God. What does that feel like?

“Despite what’s gone on in my life, I’ve always felt it. I just had a different concept of what it was. For a long time I felt it was a malign presence, and now I see Him as benign,” he clears his throat. “It feels like a sense of being protected.”

There is a clear interconnection between the defining patterns in Cave’s life: his drug addiction, his spiritual faith, his belief in his own creative powers, his touchingly transparent desire to hold on to the idea of true love, his attachment to artistic outsiders, and his complicated relationship with his father. There may be an element of self-dramatisation in the version Cave presents of his life story to me, but he seems to think that he was born a bad seed – shall we say – who has had the good fortune to be redeemed by a compassionate God. At one point, he says that if he had discovered heroin when he was a child, he probably would have taken it. He was one of four children, with two older brothers and a younger sister, and discovered that the most effective way of getting attention was to be a troublemaker. It is quite hard to picture him as a choirboy. At 12, he and his gang of friends would drink themselves sick on cheap sherry. At 13, he was expelled from Wangaratta High School for attempting to pull down the knickers of a 16-year-old girl; her parents tried to press charges of attempted rape. By the time he left his new school, Caulfield Grammar in Melbourne, in 1975, Cave had formed his first band, the Boys Next Door, and discovered the joys of shocking his fellow pupils by wearing drag. On to art college, where Cave maddened his modernist teachers by decorating his workplace with prints of classical religious paintings. After failing his second-year exams, he concentrated on the band full time and hung out in St Kilda, the low-life area of Melbourne. By thetime he was 21 – the year of the death of his father – Cave was already injecting heroin and speed. Colin Cave was a teacher of maths and English, and the director of adult education in Victoria. He was passionate about language and literature, and determined to pass that love on to his youngest son. In his Radio 3 broadcast, Cave recalls being ushered into his father’s study to listen to “great bloody slabs from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, or the murder scene from Crime and Punishment, or whole chapters from Nabokov’s Lolita. My father would wave his arms about, then point at me and say, ‘This, my boy, is literature.'” What Colin Cave really wanted to be was a writer himself. His son remembers seeing in his desk “the beginnings of several aborted novels, all neatly, sadly, filed and titled”. When the boy was about 12, his father asked him what he had done to assist humanity. When, stumped for an answer, the son turned the question back on him, Colin Cave took out a couple of short stories which had been published in magazines. “And I shared in his pride as he showed them to me,” his son came to write many years later, “but I noticed that the magazines were of an earlier decade and it was clear that these two short stories were tiny seeds planted in a garden that did not grow.”

Fuelled with enthusiasm, the young Cave went off to write what he admits was bad poetry and worse songs; none of which had the desired effect of pleasing his father. “At some point, we became very competitive. I believe it was when I started to have my own ideas about things, and he wasn’t particularly interested in that,” he recalls. Was that hurtful to you? “Oh yes,” he says. “I just wanted to impress him. I thought that he was what it was all about.” Cave’s behaviour at home and at school – extreme by the standard of even the most difficult adolescent – put further strain on the relationship between father and son. His mother, Dawn, a librarian, whom Cave describes as a “very brave, intelligent, sturdy woman who just gets on with things”, has always been unconditionally supportive of him. His father, in contrast, was not. And although Cave can see, now that he is a parent himself, how unbearable he must have been – “a self-made monster in his very home” – it has taken him a long time to forgive his father for turning away.

Colin Cave died in a car crash in 1978. The news came through when his wife had gone to bail their son out of St Kilda police station, for the umpteenth time, where he was being held on a burglary charge. It is hard to think of a more harrowing context in which to hear of the death of a parent to whom one is unreconciled. “Because I was there with my mother when we heard, it was quite painful and after that I don’t really remember anything,” he says. “I can remember going home in the car with my mother, and then… I don’t remember the funeral or anything that happened afterwards. Pretty soon, I just left. I think the trauma makes you shut down until you’re able to deal with it. Certainly, that’s how it felt for me.

“I think that my father lost out on a lot of what’s happened after his death, and I do feel a sense of regret about that. Considering that all I ever wanted to do was to make him proud of me… He died at a point in my life when I was at my most confused.”

In the years that followed, it must be said, Cave seemed no less confused. Wherever he lived – Melbourne or London or Berlin – he would be accused of glamorising heroin. Inevitably, in such a long interview, we talk about Cave’s relationship – and it seems correct to call it that – with the drug. What really aggravates him is the way society demonises the drug-user. “How are we supposed to look at junkies?” he asks. “As the scum of the earth, so we can all feel better about ourselves? It’s like the sex offender in prison; mass murderers can feel OK because at least they’re not sex offenders. It seems like everyone needs someone under their heel… I was a heroin addict because I couldn’t stop taking drugs. In fact, I didn’t want to stop taking drugs. I liked taking drugs. That’s my own choice, really, and I don’t think I did glamorise it. I wasn’t much of a glamorous figure back then, to be honest.” Certainly, there doesn’t sound anything very glamorous to me about all the times he lay sick and shivering, wrapped up in a blanket on a mattress on the floor. Or the state of mind he must have been in to write lyrics with a bloody syringe while travelling on the London Underground. (He doesn’t much like it when I remind him of that episode either.) And it can’t have been the last word in glamour to have to score in some dive every time you arrived in a new city. Or, indeed, to be a serial overdoser.

It is striking that what he admires about his cultural exemplars – from Van Morrison to the reclusive J.D. Salinger (whom he has invited, in a dangerous fit of optimism, to appear at Meltdown) to the Chicagoan outsider artist Henry Darger – is their refusal to run with the herd. “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society,” he says. “It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear to me and a lot of people that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

There was another impetus. In 1988, Cave was arrested in London for possession of heroin and agreed to undergo treatment for his addiction in order to avoid a prison sentence. He was not incarcerated in Priory-style rehab-deluxe but at a clinic in Weston-super-Mare which he describes as a brutal, shaming place. “I don’t think that just because you take drugs you should be made to feel like a degenerate,” he says, with feeling. When you go into a place like that, you don’t really have much of your personality intact. You don’t go there because everything’s OK.”

As far as the CV goes, Cave endured his two months at the clinic and has remained on the straight and narrow ever since. But there have been various hints to various journalists in the intervening time which suggest that this is not the complete picture. And he tells me that he has been to rehab clinics more to his liking since his sojourn in Weston-super-Mare. It is almost as though it is a point of honour for him not to perpetuate the myth that he hasn’t touched hard drugs in the past decade. Plenty of celebrities wouldn’t feel the need to be so honest, I say, why do you?

“I won’t be bullied into taking drugs or not taking drugs,” he says. “I’m not a repentant ex-drug addict. I feel I have every right if I want to take drugs to do so.” And do you? “I don’t actually,” he says. “I’m not taking drugs at the moment.”

There is only one point during this exchange when my questions seem to upset Cave, and I see now – in hindsight – that the awkwardness of his answers may have had something to do with his struggle to keep on an even keel. He had always hoped to become an artist; painting for him was the pinnacle of the creative ladder and rock music was rock bottom. For many years – but no longer, he insists – he felt like an impostor, a practitioner of an art form he disdained. But when he talks about the artists he admires – the ones he would exhibit if he could at Meltdown – what seems to grip him is the effect on their art as their minds deteriorated. Over lunch, he tells me about Louis Wain, an Edwardian artist whom he collects; a painter of cats in unlikely poses, playing cricket or a church organ, and how as Wain’s psychosis deepened, the faces of his cats began to dissolve and unravel on the page. And of Henry Darger, who was raised in institutions and stayed at home seeing no one and creating a world of conflict between good Christian girls, cut out of catalogues and blown up with a projector, fleeing from anti-Christian forces who are hunting them down. Cave says that what he admires about their work is the excellence of the execution and their “terrible beauty”.

I say that I read somewhere that he sometimes felt the need to take heroin to dampen his creativity, which suggested, intriguingly, that it was his art which was dangerous for his health rather than the drugs. “Well, yes… I go through cyclical periods of being very up and hyper, a feeling of incredible inspiration and a kind of super-capability – and with that comes,” a rueful laugh, “a voice, and it’s my voice, and it observes and chatters away and always has something to say – about doing the dishes, or whatever – and it just rattles on and on. I can feel my whole body changing and it’s exhausting. It also affects my judgment.”

Have you always had this?

“It’s difficult to say, because it’s something that makes itself apparent when I don’t use drugs.”

How about in your teen years?

“No, one of the ways – Oh God – one of the ways I’ve dealt with that in the past is to… I know exactly what will shut it all up. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for someone who is a junkie to go and take heroin once. So these days, I would try and deal with that stuff in a more appropriate way.”

Like?

“I have to… I have to… ration the kind of things I allow myself to get excited over in order that I sleep, which is the other problem with it. It would seem if I get involved in certain things creatively, it can lead to this sort of cycle… I also go through periods when I don’t do much and don’t feel inspired, and I don’t feel very good during those times either.”

I ask him if he is a manic depressive, and he sighs and groans and rubs his hands through his hair. Why do you think you find this such a difficult area to discuss? “Because,” a long silence, “I’m not sure why.” Because it’s scary? “It is, actually, to be that way. It is quite scary.” Do you think you’re going nuts? “It’s just that I’ve not had much experience with it, and I’m trying to go through it without doing the drugs. I don’t really know if I’m… “I can’t label it, and I don’t want to do endless interviews about being a manic depressive – ‘Are you up or down today?’ If I understood it better and that was the way things were, I could come out and say that I was bi-polar – or whatever they call it. I’m not a doctor or a psychiatrist, but I do know they’re discovering more and more forms of manic depression, and medication to cope with that.”

The most beautiful song for me on The Boatman’s Call is Into Your Arms; the one Cave chose to sing at his good friend Michael Hutchence’s funeral. The first two verses start with the things he doesn’t believe in – an interventionist God, the existence of angels – and the last one deals with the redemptive power of love: “But I believe in love/And I know that you do, too/ And I believe in some kind of path/ That we can walk down, me and you…” Part of the strength of the songs is the nakedness of the emotion, unmasked by metaphor or allegory. It’s all there for everyone to see: his love affair with Luke’s mother, Viviane Carneiro, the Brazilian fashion stylist who was the reason why Cave transplanted himself to Sao Paulo, and its painful end; his doomed romance with P.J. Harvey in West Country Girl, with her black hair and heart-shaped face and broad accent. I wonder, again, why he had felt the need to be so open; to paint the pictures so vividly.

“In order to write a worthwhile love song, it needs to have within it the potential for pain or an understanding of the pain of whatever you’re writing about. I don’t think they allow themselves to be written until I’ve fully experienced what it is I’m writing about. They wait patiently to be finished.” One can only hope, in that case, that the Songs of Susie will remain incomplete. He says, when I ask him, that he has never been married but likes the idea of it. And that he would like to have more children. And that, yes, he is in love and very much believes that she is the one (that he’s been waiting for)… “But I do have a past and I do have recollections of the way things go.” Are you waiting for disappointment? “When things go well, I’m often surprised and expect that it will be taken from me in some kind of way,” he says. “But I’m not feeling like that at the moment. I’m feeling very happy.” I point to the scar on his cheek – which looks like an errant dimple – and he tells me it was an old domestic wound: “I was stabbed in the face with a vegetable knife.” I wonder, thinking about the scar, whether his relationships with women have tended to be confrontational. “In the past, I’ve had extremely volatile relationships in that way… but I think that there have been influences within that – alcohol and drugs – which exacerbate that kind of behaviour,” he says. “What’s going on at the moment is that I really value what is there, and I feel that I have some chance of making it work, which I’ve never really felt before… and with anything of value, you take care.” When I ask him what makes him happy in life, he says: “My son, my work, my girlfriend.” He’s been with Susie, this time around, for six months – and is staying in her Chelsea home until he moves into a house he has recently bought on the river. Luke continues to divide his week between his mother, who lives in west London, and his father – but Cave admits that now he is living with Susie it makes things a bit more complicated. He has another son, Jethro, more or less the same age as Luke, who lives with his mother in Australia. When I ask Cave whether he has a relationship with this son, he says that he does, and that “it’s great” and “he’s coming here, actually, to live for a year”. Will you see a lot of him? “I will, yeah.” So, soon, life is likely to get considerably more complicated.

He says that he’s a hands-on dad and was a great nappychanger. How did you find that? “Interesting. Scary. Overwhelming.” Until recently, when Cave was living on his own, Luke used to share his bed, and now “he’s been booted out of it. So that’s been one of the great wrenches.” He seems to take his parental role pretty seriously; he’s there for the swimming galas, and speech days, and all the cringe-making stuff like the Dads’ Egg and Spoon Race. But what they like doing most together is talking. I imagine Luke lying in bed, struggling to stay awake, while his father tells him stories of far-off places, and good and evil, and bewitching damsels with emerald eyes and ebony hair, who rescue poor travellers who’ve lost their way.

At the end of our lunch – during which Cave eats heartily – he asks me for the time and jumps up, stricken, when I tell him. “Oh God, if I don’t go now I’ll be late for Luke,” he says, looking like the 12-year-old I first saw. “You know what it’s like in the playground; I’m terrified of getting into trouble with the teachers.” His father, I think, would be proud of him.

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