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Rob Marshall on directing Nine

The Times December 19, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

From steel town to golden boy of musical glitz with Nine, Marshall is the director of the moment

It was a bit anxious-making when the director Rob Marshall introduced the London audience to the world premiere of his star-studded musical, Nine. He did look appealing enough, resembling a thicker-set Tom Cruise, and he spoke mellifluously (as befits a former actor). But there was way too much lurve flowing for comfort … from “my beautiful, beautiful dancers” to the absent Sophia Loren, “here in spirit — we love her so much”, and a good deal more in the same vein.

The following day, however, within a very short time of our meeting, I was feeling pretty lovey-dovey myself — almost fantasising about being an A-list actor just so that I could have the soothing pleasure of being directed by Marshall. This is something of a first, since most film directors, certainly in my experience (from Spike Lee to Mike Leigh), are tricky customers, highly resistant to being questioned or directed themselves in any way.

Marshall knows exactly what I’m talking about. “There are directors who like to have friction or angst in the working environment, but I can’t live like that,” he says. The school of Lars von Trier? He laughs but is too circumspect, or perhaps just too straightforwardly nice, to dish the dirt.

“There are a few out there and I appreciate they do beautiful work, so it’s more power to them. But for me, it’s very important to come from a place of joy. To have an atmosphere — maybe it’s from my upbringing — where there is a great deal of positive reinforcement.”

On his way up as an actor, singer, dancer, then choreographer, before his present role (the last film he directed was the nonmusical Memoirs of a Geisha and before that the hugely successful Chicago), “I was lucky enough to observe directors, the prickly ones and also the ones that weren’t. And I just found that the best work came from the directors who were there to serve the actors and not the other way round.

“And this is true especially in something like Nine, which was so difficult because these people are doing something for the first time [singing and dancing for Daniel Day-Lewis] and it’s important to create an atmosphere where you feel protected and not judged, in a place where you can really make big mistakes and make a fool of yourself.”

The film is an adaptation (although it was substantially rewritten by the late Anthony Minghella in his final script) of the 1982 Broadway musical — starring Raúl Julia in the role of Guido Contini, and later Antonio Banderas — which was, itself, a reworking of Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning 8½.

The central character is suffering from director’s block and has everything in place to make a new film, apart from inspiration. He is derailed by the growing realisation that his own selfish artistic needs are fuelled by feeding off the love of his women — his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman) — who come close to being destroyed in the process. Like the original, the plot moves between reality, surreality and memory — shot in black and white juxtaposed with colour.

Marshall’s version is full of sensational set-pieces, all vim, quim and razzle-dazzle, created around each of the stars — Judi Dench, Guido’s wardrobe mistress, in basque and boa, stretched out on a grand piano, singing about her love of the Folies Bergères (in 1968 Dench was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End); Cruz, sexier than she’s been seen before (yes, it is possible), spreading her legs and writhing around on a circular mirror; Fergie, the singer from the Black Eyed Peas, as a prostitute crawling on her hands and knees, cleavage forward, on a beach for the young Guido and his pals; an incredibly affecting song by Cotillard as the trampled wife, in her own voice (as opposed to her lip-synching in Piaf), and so on. In between, Day-Lewis as Guido smokes for Italy, zips around town in his jaunty little sports car or broods in the empty set, “as he tries to figure out what his movie will be”, Marshall says, “which represents the interior of his unfinished mind and the chaos of his life”.

The original choice for Guido was Javier Bardem, but after winning his Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for No Country for Old Men, Bardem decided to take a year out. It was Day-Lewis who contacted Marshall to express interest after Dench’s agent had passed him the script: “When I got the call that Daniel was interested, well … I had never dared dream of Daniel Day-Lewis in this part because I consider him to be the greatest actor there is.”

Marshall recalls the first time that he heard the actor sing: “When he started it was like dipping a toe in the water. You know, singing quietly, but I could immediately hear that he had a musical sensibility and a lovely voice.”

Despite his initial enthusiasm, it seems that Day-Lewis inhabited his new role rather too well, finding it — like Guido — almost impossible to commit himself to the project. “If I hadn’t pushed him he would still be circling around just thinking about it,” Marshall says. “He said to me, ‘I’ll do this for ever, Rob, you’re going to have to tell me when you need to know’” So you gave him a deadline? “Yes, I called Daniel and said, ‘I need to know because we have to book the stages’, and he said, ‘When do you need to know?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow morning’.”

It’s a measure of the director’s faith in his lead, as well as Day-Lewis’s pulling power, that the filming — which was originally going to be in Montreal — was moved to Shepperton Studios because the star said that he needed the film to be shot in England so that he could be close to his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and two young sons who live in Ireland.

Marshall is still pretty knocked out that so many stars wanted to take part: “I couldn’t believe the turnout of women, especially — every actress in Hollywood came. I mean, every single one.” Really? Scarlett Johansson would have made a perfect Anita Ekberg lookalike in that famous Trevi fountain scene (there is an homage to it in Nine) from Fellini’s other great film, La Dolce Vita. But Kidman needed a few more curves to carry it off, I say. “The truth is that was big for her,” Marshall says. “She had just had her child so those were the biggest boobs she’s had in a long time! She was thrilled.”

Why do gay men love musicals so much? “I know, it’s funny. It must have something to do with the expression and the joy of it, I think … It’s a fascinating question. Certainly for me, who loved dance, that was a big part of it.”

Marshall has been with his partner, John DeLuca, the choreographer on Nine, and one of its producers, for 27 years. When I ask the director if he found himself falling for Day-Lewis on set, Marshall says sweetly: “Oh no, there is only one man in my life and that’s John.” The first time the couple worked together was on Chicago: “I told him, ‘I need you on this movie because I’m so nervous’, and to have this wonderful partner right next to me is incredible. He’s got impeccable taste so I always love to hear his side of things. I come from a more narrative background and he is more edgy and helps me to think outside the box.”

The director was brought up in Pittsburgh, once famous for its steel industry but which suffered mass redundancies and closures in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be tempting, then, to see the young Marshall as a Billy Elliot type, battling to become a dancer against fierce opposition from a disappointed and embattled father. But his background couldn’t have been more different.

Marshall’s parents are academics; his father teaches medieval English literature, and his mother is also in education. In the early Seventies the family (Marshall’s younger sister, Kathleen, has won two Tonys directing plays and musicals; Maura, his twin, is a landscape and interior designer) lived for a while in Golders Green, North London. Marshall Sr travelled to the British Museum every day, doing research while on his sabbatical, and the children went to school on Hendon Way.

“They were very, very liberal and my father worked for George McGovern’s campaign when he was running for president [and suffered a landslide defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972]. My first memories were of marching for causes with them and singing ‘We shall overcome some day’,” Marshall recalls. “When Obama got in, I sent them flowers with a message ‘You created the seed for this to happen’, and it makes me so happy that they saw that happen in their lifetime.”

When the Marshall siblings were aged 9 or 10, they would put on shows for their parents at home: “There was always an opening number from Kiss Me Kate, and then we would each have a solo — I think mine was [as if he can’t remember!] All I Need is the Girl from Gypsy, and then we would do a big second-act opener,” he guffaws, “which was usually Hello, Dolly! and we’d end with There’s no Business like Showbusiness.”

Years later, when Marshall began choreographing on Broadway, Kathleen was his assistant: “So it was like an extension of what we had done in our living-room. There we were in a studio, but instead of teaching ourselves we were teaching Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Then in 1998, when Sam Mendes took his Donmar Warehouse production of Cabaret to New York, he asked Marshall to codirect it: “Sam and I made it a darker ending where the MC reveals that [under his suit] he’s actually in a concentration camp uniform with the gold star and the pink star, and it was very, very moving, um . . .” he stops. “It is upsetting to me … but it was a beautiful production and I think it was Cabaret, honestly, that gave both Sam and myself our film careers because it was very cinematic.”

Our time is almost up and I think I have come to see why so many actors want to work with Marshall. Apart from his talent, he has an unusual quality of gentle modesty that must be rare in the ego- driven industry he works in.

This is a guy who devoted two years to developing John Waters’ Hairspray for the stage, making the difficult decision of withdrawing when he was offered the film of Chicago. But when I ask him whether his name is on the credits he says, without a trace of bitterness: “No. It’s fine. I understand.”

We end with the beginning of Nine, when Guido is at a press conference and, after many vexing questions about what the new movie is about, is asked to name his favourite pasta dish. “At last, a serious question!” he says with a grin so attractive that you can see why all the women love him.

On the night of the premiere, after bowing awkwardly to the audience, Day-Lewis left his 40-odd friends and relations, as soon as the lights went down, to escape. “I think it was too much for him to see it with his wife and sister for the first time. So I said, ‘Fine, happy to have dinner with you’,” Marshall recalls. Let me guess, the Ivy or Sheekey’s? “Cipriani, because it had to be an Italian dinner.” So, finally, maestro, what is your favourite pasta? And please don’t tell me you’re wheat intolerant. He’s not, of course. “Linguine vongole.”

* * *

Nine is released nationwide on Boxing Day

Celebrities, Comedians, Women

Sandi Toksvig on her Christmas cracker

The Times December 05, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

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

Sandi Toksvig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

southbankcentre.co.uk

Early years

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

Showbiz

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

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

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

Other strings

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

On Ronnie Corbett

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

On her father, a journalist

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

On childhood

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

On hobbies

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

On her partner, Debbie, a psychotherapist

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

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

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

Emin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

My perfect weekend

Town or country?

City.

Friend or lover?

Lover.

Owl or lark?

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

Rembrandt or Rothko?

Rothko.

Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

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

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

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

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

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

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

Politicians, Women

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

The Times – December 28 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
- Ginny Dougary

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

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Politicians

Happy days

THE TIMES – June 28, 2006
- Ginny Dougary

Times2 finds that Lord Healey, the political giant who now lives for painting, music, poetry and his family, still retains his sense of mischief

It wasn’t until the end of an hour or so with the Labour Party’s elder statesman — “Elder, certainly,” was his response, when I asked whether that’s how he saw himself — that I was emboldened to serenade Lord Healey thus: “Remember my interview with Denis Healey/ When he came over all touchy-feely/ Saying ‘What a shame, no time for rumpy-pumpy’/ Which made me laugh/ Which made him grumpy . . .”  “Very nice. Thank you, dear,” he said, clearing his throat.

This was from a song I wrote for the Petronella Wyatt character in last year’s Soho showcase of David Blunkett The Musical. She earned her role as one of the dramatis personae because of her own rumpy-pumpy relations with Boris Johnson — part of the Sextator quartet subplot — but the lines were inspired by her coquettish copy as a famously flirtatious interviewer at The Daily Telegraph. Her charms clearly brought out Lord Healey’s inner goat back then (the rumpy-pumpy line was allegedly his parting shot to Petsy), but now he is not entirely sure whether Petronella is Woodrow’s widow or daughter.

The mental filing cabinet may not be as orderly as it once was — his memory started fading at 75, he says, from the vantage point of an 88-year-old — but Lord Healey’s entrances as well as his exits remain as frisky as ever. After asking me to pose for a photograph — a request that he has put to several interviewers in recent years, the female ones at any rate — he growls “Take your clothes off” into my tape recorder. This would have been more startling if I hadn’t read about the opening gambit before. It’s rather touching, really, that he still bothers to make the effort.

While he is often described as “the best prime minster we never had” and sometimes as “the man who saved the Labour Party” (when he fought the bitter battle against Tony Benn in 1981, narrowly defeating him to become deputy leader to Michael Foot), Healey seems to be a figure who is compelling nowadays more because of the success of his long and fruitful marriage to his writer wife, Edna, than for his impact on the political landscape of half a century of postwar Britain (the history of which is covered in his exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, 1989 memoir The Time of My Life, which has been recently reissued with a new afterword).

We talk in one of the spacious, light-flooded reception rooms of the Healey residence in the village of Alfriston, which sits substantially at the top of a winding drive and looks over the Sussex Downs. We have had several short telephone conversations over the preceding weeks, prompted by Lord Healey’s concern that we have the right date and time. When I arrive he is at the door, looking a little anxious and a little relieved, the robust frame and jowly good looks of his much-photographed middle age now somewhat etiolated. But he stands unbowed and is dressed partly youthfully in trainers (not Converse, thankfully) and a slightly eccentric, sort of Ian Fleming Out of Africa short-sleeved safari jacket. The killer eyebrows still bristle luxuriantly but the eyes beneath them burn less brilliantly.

Healey’s manner during the interview could hardly be sweeter but he also seems a bit distracted, partly because he is quite deaf; many of my questions (I have a booming voice) are met with a polite but quaint “Pardon?”.

Behind the table at which we sit, covered with albums of Healey snaps of friends and family, is a giant black and white photograph of Edna. She looks so young and somehow questing, standing in snow at the foot of an icy cave. The expression on her face is entrancing. I have the sense of her watching protectively over the proceedings as though she were no longer here when, in fact, she is sitting in the next room working away at her own writing. I am thinking that only a public figure so conspicuously happily married as her husband could afford to make such concupiscent verbal flourishes towards women journalists.

Since l’affaire Prescott is still very much in the air when we speak, I ask Healey what he makes of it: “Well, it’s a shame but that’s life, isn’t it? I mean, I like Pauline. I like John. And I’m very sad for Pauline, but if you’ve fallen in love with someone, that’s that — isn’t it?”

You’ve always said that it’s in the nature of political life that there’s enormous temptation to go astray. “Well, you tend to be separated too often from your wife, especially — thank God, it never was in my case — if she lives in a constituency 200 miles away.”

People get lonely? “They do, and they tend in the end to have affairs with their secretaries, don’t they?” But you were never tempted? “No, never. Never.”

I had always thought that it was Healey who had upbraided his fellow politicians for lacking “hinterland” — meaning that they had no other interests beyond politics and were therefore lacking as well-rounded human beings — so I’m surprised to discover in the memoir that it was Edna who first identified it as a flaw, in relation specifically to Margaret Thatcher. Lord Healey, at any rate, has always had hinterland in spades with his various passions for music, poetry and painting. He wrote in The Time of My Life: “Some of my friends complain that . . . I have far too much hinterland. My wife and family have always meant more to me than the House of Commons . . . nothing is more dangerous than the politician who uses politics as a surrogate for an unsatisfactory personal life.”

Among his favourite poets are Emily Dickinson, Yeats and Eliot — and he is devoted to Virginia Woolf, his “literary idol”.

Healey is living history. He read Aldous Huxley’s books “when they came out”; he became close to Leonard Woolf after Virginia died, when they worked together for the international bureau of the Fabian Society — Leonard as chairman and Denis as secretary.

At Balliol College, Oxford, where Healey left his parents in Bradford to read Mods and Greats (classical Greek and Latin literature, writing prose and verse in both languages; ancient history and philosophy, and some later philosophers up to Kant); he was inspired to write his own poetry to his girlfriend at home, Pat. This is highly romantic and emotionally charged stuff, fuelled with the longing of distance and desire:

“Dim slid the Wharfe at Christmas, as we walked/ Swimming through green soft grains of misted night,/ Under an arched immobile wave of darkness talked/ About our love, and sipped the old delight.”

Four days later: “Today your letter came; hope turned about,/ Saw me lie heaving, with a thousand tongues/ Sang love and freedom, snapped the circling bars,/ Bounded exultant in a dazzling dance,/ Covered the sky, and made the whistling stars/ Shiver with joy at its new brilliance.”

These lines were from poems that Healey wrote as an undergraduate in 1938; the first and last time he committed his feelings to verse. It seems a shame that he didn’t persevere, since however derivative they may seem stylistically they also surely show considerable promise. It is also interesting that he has held on to them through the decades, particularly for someone who affects to care so little about how he is viewed when he is gone.

He writes in his book about what has motivated him politically with an eloquence that seems somewhat spent in person (“I’m not so interested in politics now,” he tells me): “I am a socialist who believes that the Labour Party offers the best hope for Britain’s future. More than 37 years in Parliament, and 30 on Labour’s front bench, have left me with few illusions. I do not believe that I or my colleagues are perfect; nor have I ever believed in the perfectibility of man. But my faith in the moral values that socialism represents, and in those who try to put them into practice, however imperfectly, remains undiminished.”

Tony Blair has become too imperfect for Healey to bear: “He did very well in his early years but in the past two years it has been one disaster after another [Healey remains an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq], finishing — well, not finished yet, unfortunately — with cash for peerages.”

He is very pro Gordon Brown and believes that he will succeed Blair in the next election: “I think he’s the best chancellor we’ve ever had, including me” (Healey held the position from 1974 to 1979 and has described it as “a lonely . . . five-year ordeal”).

He has said “a thousand times” that a date for this succession should be announced, although he doesn’t believe in formal time limits being set: “If parties have any sense they get rid of a leader if he’s no longer acting sensibly, and that’s what’s happening to Labour.”

Does he believe that Blair wants to have his place in history? “I’m sure he would like one.” Does Healey have the same wish for himself? “Bugger history, as far as I’m concerned.”

He does have an occasionally earthy turn of phrase. I ask whether he has ever felt embarassed by his tendency to weep, something that he inherited from his father. (He was once so moved by his own playing of a Mozart sonata that he broke down completely after the first two bars — which was captured, expletives and all, by the television cameras.) “Oh no. Sod ’em,” he says, stoutly. “Or Gomorrah, if you prefer that.”

His father was always much more open with his tech students than at home, “but I was very keen on my mother, that was the great thing,” he says, “and I think, on the whole, ‘Oedipus schmoedipus’.”

Healey says that he wishes he had become leader of his party (he lost the leadership contest to Michael Foot in 1980). He says now, for the first time that I could find, that he wanted the top job: “I would have liked to be prime minister — and, you know, run the country. But in my time I was never keen because I always felt that if you were prime minister it was being something rather than doing something.”

So what has made you change your mind? “Because I now think that Britain’s role in foreign policy — which is my passion — is very limited, whereas we were one of the great powers after the war.”

Looking back on his long career, he says that he is most proud of his handling — as defence secretary — of the war in Indonesia “with fewer deaths than on a Bank Holiday weekend on the roads in Britain, because I wouldn’t allow the RAF to drop a single bomb. The Americans, at the same time, tried to win the war in Vietnam by bombing and they caused millions of casualties and they lost. And I’m also proud of refusing to allow us to get involved in Vietnam, because Wilson was tempted and I said ‘Absolutely not’.”

On terrorism, he says that it tends to be in countries that are poor (although there are exceptions — the middle-class Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades in the Seventies come to mind): “If you don’t have the ballot you use bullets and, you know, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Robin Hood was a terrorist.”

He is gloomy about the future: “I’m always worried that terrorists may explode a nuclear weapon in a port like San Francisco or New York or London or Liverpool and then literally millions could be killed.”

He is least proud of supporting arms to South Africa: “The more I think about it, the more ludicrous that was.”

Would he say that in politics you can’t always tell the whole truth all the time? “Well, this is obviously the case,” he says. “Your job is to do what is needed and what you want to do — which is a question of your values — and you have to be able to win power and then hold on to it, which can be a nasty business.”

I wonder whether he was ever responsible for being “economical with the actualité” (as Alan Clark once put it). I do find a couple of instances — back in the mists of time — where Healey has suggested this.

But he never, he says, did anything as serious as misleading his country in order to take it to war. He has attacked Blair on this front (over the unsubstantiated existence of WMD): “But I don’t remember doing anything like that. Not telling a lie like that. That’s an absolute lie.” But then he wonders whether Blair convinced himself that it was true.

He speaks mostly generously about his fellow politicians on both sides. David Cameron is the first proper Tory leader the party has had for a long time: “He is, of course, a Tory Blairite, isn’t he?” Charles Kennedy: “I don’t think he had enough personality really to do well. He didn’t have strong charisma but I think Ming will develop it and will probably do quite well in the end.”

Even Tony Benn is “enormously improved. He’s much less aggressive than he once was. We get on very well nowadays and we used to be deadly enemies, as you know.”

Margaret Thatcher: “I see her once or twice a year, usually at the Buckingham Palace garden party, and we get on quite well. I feel very sorry for her because nobody in Britain gives a damn what she thinks or says about anything. She only has influence now really in Japan and Russia. Even in America she no longer has the influence she once had. Denis’s death was a great blow to her — and she has no interest outside politics, you see.”

How does he feel now that Edna is more in the limelight, with her books, than him? “I love it,” he says. “I’m her bag carrier.”

He also loves seeing all his children and grandchildren and proudly shows me their photographs. He once said that Edna had taught him to love people, too: “It’s true, and I find that now I’m older I am more interested in people — and I understand them more, too, of course. If I sit opposite someone on a bus I can think now about what they’re like.”

There are some sadnesses. At the end of every day, he and Edna would walk up the slope behind their house to sit on their bench and gaze upon their four acres, with the Downs stretching beyond, and remind themselves how lucky they were. But that ritual is a thing of the past. Both Edna’s hips have been replaced in recent years and now her knees have started to go, so she walks with difficulty, leaning on two sticks. Does it get her down? “I don’t think so but she can’t go for long walks with me any more and so I don’t either because I don’t like walking on my own,” Healey says, a little forlornly.

I talk to Edna while her husband orders me a taxi, and find her so captivating — with her lovely eyes and keen mind, as well as an indefinable quality of goodness — that I feel Denis must be a very lucky man, indeed.

I asked Healey if there was anything he particularly wanted to do before he dies. Nothing new, he said: “I just want to go on reading my favourite poetry and listening to my favourite music, and so on.”

As a young man he had suffered from depression for a short time, something that his son Tim had also been engulfed by: “It’s what Yeats called ‘the ignominy of boyhood’ changing into man. It’s always a difficult period. I remember very much, one evening, thinking: ‘Gosh, you know, this is the first time I’ve been happy for a year.’ It wasn’t that I was unhappy, I just wasn’t particularly happy. And now, you know, I’m happy all the time.”

* * *

HEALEY’S PROGRESS

1917: Born in Kent. Grew up in Yorkshire

1940-45: Served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, reaching the rank of major. Mentioned in dispatches

1952: Became an MP

1964: Became Secretary of State for Defence

1974: Became Chancellor of the Exchequer

1980: Lost leadership contest to Michael Foot; became deputy leader

1992: Entered the House of Lords

General

Hitting all the right notes

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – May 14 2005
Ginny Dougary

Singing in a choir is a real joy — especially when you can also spread a little harmony, says Ginny Dougary.

For reasons that I am unable to explain or to justify, the physically and mentally handicapped have always left me suspended in a state of indecision. I see a blind person struggling in the Underground and start arguing with myself: “Get off your seat and go to his assistance immediately.” “But what if he resents interference?” “So what? Better to offer than to stand aside.” “But I’m in a hurry and he may hold me up.” “What kind of excuse is that? You’re just procrastinating until a better person than you jumps in.” “Yes but, no but . . .”
Worse than this, I feel clumsy, awkward, uncertain of how to behave around people who are profoundly damaged in some way. If I notice that someone who is clearly unbalanced is walking towards me, for instance, I will invariably cross the road. This fearfulness is not something that marks the rest of my life and I am quite often ashamed of it.

A few months ago, I had a small breakthrough, and this is what this story is about: how sometimes when you do something you enjoy to help yourself, you can end up helping others to enjoy themselves. It all started with the choir I joined two summers ago and wrote about in these pages not long after. In the intervening time, the Brighton City Singers has swollen from half-a-dozen people in a living-room to sixty fully paid-up members, with another twenty or so part-timers.

How do I love the choir? Let me count the ways. Of course, I love having been there at the start and seeing it grow. I love its organic, unstructured nature: the way people disappear for a while because of work or family commitments or travel and return even after an absence of six months or a year; the curious affinity with people with whom you might not normally have very much else in common; the feeling of almost familial recognition when you look around what is now a crowded rehearsal room every Wednesday night and see faces that were there at the very beginning, and others from all the different stages as the choir has developed.

I love its democratic all-are-welcome spirit: there are those who read music and, mostly, those who don’t; the youngest member is in her teens; the oldest are in their seventies. There are dreadlocks and pink locks and piercings. There are couples and best friends, and mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. There’s a chef, car mechanic, auctioneer, theatre manager, builder, DJ, postman, clothes designer, piano tuner, heavy metal musician and a duo of air stewardesses. There are people who came nursing a broken heart or who needed a break from caring for sick partners, and those who are in terrible pain who have discovered that singing is the best pain relief. There are members who felt propelled to “get a life” beyond their jobs and seem happy that this is the life they got.

The last time I wrote about the choir it was about the joyousness of the actual experience of singing: how good it felt for your body and your soul. There are definite parallels between the minimal but exacting exercises of Pilates and the breathing techniques and correct posture that is required for you to sing out effectively. It has also been well documented that belting out a song, surrounded by other voices in harmony, creates a sense of wellbeing and, indeed, euphoria. I compared it then to the headiness of falling in love, the exhilaration of catching the perfect wave, the melting sensation of eating chocolate. If you work at it, there is a deeply satisfying balance between discipline and abandonment. But there are also other benefits from being involved in a dynamic community choir. From our earliest days, the Brighton City Singers have been keen on performing; flaws and all. We have sung at weddings, fundraising concerts and — at regular intervals — we busk along the seafront or in the gardens of the Brighton Pavilion.

Some of our most upright members have been recruited from seeing us busk, even though we are quite often joined by intoxicated fellows — sometimes surprisingly tuneful — of no fixed abode. (Like most mixed choirs we are always on the look-out for more men.) The choir director once heard a genteel woman complain to her husband: “You know, they let drunks sing with them”, which rather made my heart soar.

What is striking is that the combination of singing and the experience of community seems to draw people out of their shells. I have seen shy, reserved members blossom and gain confidence. It is almost as though finding and strengthening their voices has liberated their buried selves. There is also something oldfashioned and village-like about the car pooling, the sharing of childcare, the unobtrusive acts of kindness, people volunteering for this or that activity, and we come up with any excuse to sing and dance and party.

A mere six months after we really got going, the Brighton City Singers were performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival. This year we have a generous grant from the Brighton and Hove Arts Council. This, too, is a learning curve: developing the skills to approach funding bodies effectively; booking venues; organising tickets and publicity, lighting and sound.

Our new production, Vocal Tango, is an evening of specially commissioned music by local Brighton and Hove composers — some of whom are members of the choir — with tango dancers strutting their stuff for the title piece and the choir singing as instruments. We are also performing songs from David Blunkett: The Musical for the first time before its West End run, since the show happens to have been written by the choir’s music director, MJ, and me.

But there has been a rather more unexpected highlight, which takes us back to where I started. Towards the end of last year the choir decided that it was important to extend our sense of community beyond ourselves. In December, we went carol-singing to collect money for the Martlett Hospice (£369 over two nights! Yes, we were chuffed). And every month this year we have some sort of activity booked: Lewes prison in June (almost as hard to get in as it is to get out; we think this is ingenious forward-planning to line up more men); a centre for the blind; a conference of care workers for the mentally challenged; a gig in Martlett Hospice.

A few months ago we were booked as the live entertainment for the annual party of vulnerable adults — those with acute mental and physical disabilities — and their carers. We lined up in the room and took in our audience: maybe 20 tables, each one with a patient and his or her supporter. In some cases, where the disability was particularly out of control, patients had two or more carers. A great effort had been made to transform the utilitarian setting into something more festive: colourful banners and balloons and streamers; home-made food on a long trestle table; a disco for after our performance. In one corner was a giant screen on which flashed the words for our grand finale: Dancing Queen by Abba.

As we started one of our rousing gospel numbers, a young man became agitated and started to jump around his table. He was wild-eyed and drooling, and was gently escorted back to his seat. But after a couple of numbers, he seemed happy to make a dancing circuit around his space, shadowed by his carer. It became clear that he was having the time of his life. Around the room, blank-faced men and women in their wheelchairs began to smile and clap, and to move around in their seats. One or two of the less severely disabled stood up and did a wobbly waltz with their carers.

There was such a powerful atmosphere of warmth and shared pleasure in that room, and I can honestly say that we have never had a more appreciative audience.

I hope that they’ll book us again. As for me, this experience was the best way of getting over my hang-up that I can imagine.

The Brighton City Singers (www.brightoncitysingers.co.uk) will be performing in the Brighton Fringe Festival on May 21 at the Vocal Tango concert, St George’s Church, Kemptown. For tickets, call the Brighton Dome box office on 01273 709709

Actors, Celebrities, Comedians

Of make-up, men and fantasies

THE TIMES – February 17 2000
Ginny Dougary

Eddie Izzard is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being an outstanding comedian. Despite his penchant for high heels, lipstick and dresses, women not only love him, they find him sexy, too.

“And ladies, if you are wearing high heels you will be asked to remove them.” The safety instructions on the plane coming back from Paris sounded weirder than usual. Hang on a minute, I thought, there’s something missing here. Shouldn’t that be ladies and gentlemen? This is what comes of spending 24 hours in the company of Eddie Izzard. You may not end up thinking like him – how could you? – but you do begin to see the world a little more through his eyes. Our marathon together had been scheduled to start on the Wednesday morning when Eddie, a member of the Labour Party since 1995, was to join Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, at the Gare du Nord. The comedian is passionately pro-Europe and has lent his services to the Labour Party’s “Your Britain . . . Your Europe” roadshow.
The idea is to meet and greet the press, travel by Eurostar to Waterloo – canvassing the views of passengers en route – before heading straight back again for the third night of his show in a sometime striptease joint in La Pigalle. As it was, we had been up the previous evening talking in the hotel bar – switching from French to English to Franglais – until three in the morning. He was still on a post-performance high, although there was nothing feverish or giddy about his demeanour. In fact, he seemed impassive, even expressionless, compared with the electric ooomph of his stage persona. But then his face was so stiff with make-up that it might have been hard for him to move his features. Still, his manner was cordial, if not exactly friendly, and he was relaxed enough to pass time in idle chit-chat.

What was most startling was his Look. I had seen him on television years ago when he made a grumpy appearance on one of Ruby Wax’s shows, and more recently on Have I Got News For You?; watched one of his videos with friends; witnessed him in the flesh playing a serious role opposite Lindsay Duncan in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram; and doing his one-man show in a small off-Broadway theatre in New York, where the audience sat on cushions on the floor, and the fans backstage included Helen Mirren and her American film producer husband. Each time I saw him I thought: Wow! Isn’t he sexy! A sentiment, incidentally, that is shared by every woman I know. Straight men have a right to be puzzled by this phenomenon, since Eddie is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being funny. What he calls himself is a male lesbian; so I suppose that makes all us women gay.

For anyone who was reared on the androgynous rock of the 1970s – Bowie and Jagger et al in their make-up and girly blouses; the Transsexual Transylvania of the Rocky Horror Show – there’s nothing all that traumatic about the sight of a bloke in eyeshadow and a spot of nail polish. And there is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Eddie, from the pounding techno that builds up the atmosphere before he careers on to the stage, to his PVC trousers and spiky peroxide hair. The style he favours – the one that suits him best, he says – is “the boy/girl-type thing.” With the vogue for perfume ads featuring crop-haired boyish-girls and girlish-boys, Eddie’s image – admittedly with a bit more slap than the norm – has a distinctively contemporary feel. This must be why, at first, I don’t recognise the slim figure who appears in the foyer of the hotel.

Odd really, because unless the hotel was hosting a transvestites’ convention, the likelihood of there being two trannies – or TVs as Eddie prefers to call them – staying at the same time was rather remote. The point was that this was Eddie as I had never seen him before: in a skirt, albeit a rather smart black Gaultier kilt, stockings, perilously high spike-heeled, knee-length boots and dated drag-queen make-up. When I told him that this, for me, was A Look Too Far, he seemed genuinely interested.

Although he has been “out” for a long time, he hasn’t had as long as the rest of us to fine-tune what works for him and what doesn’t, and so he chooses to value what people have to say rather than to take offence.

The next morning, at the Gare du Nord, Eddie is the closest he gets to looking straight. Which is still pretty out-there for most people. His maquillage is minimal: tinted moisturiser, powder and mascara. Helen, who is doing his make-up on this tour, says he has got the best skin-care routine of anyone she knows.

Inevitably, the Paris correspondents, mostly middle-aged men, confronted with the sight of sober-suited Vaz and high-heeled Izzard, go for the Odd Couple angle. Reading the reports later, I am struck by how inaccurate men are when writing about clothes and make-up. For the record, Eddie was wearing bronze nail polish on his long nails, a jaunty red and black plaid jacket, slim-cut black tuxedo pants and a black T-shirt.

Later, on the radio, when Keith Vaz is being quizzed on the complexities not of the euro, but of Eddie’s wardrobe, I am amused to hear him describe his fellow traveller’s get-up as “the kind of outfit I often see in the House of Commons”. He was, of course, being non-gender specific.

Everyone wants to hear what Eddie has to say, and poor Keith has to battle to get any attention. Eddie deals in sweeping generalities – “I like the idea of us all working together. . . if we can do it, it might mean the end of war . . . a blueprint for the rest of the world . . .” – the big vision-type thing, as he might say, leaving the Minister to cope with the boring detail which, predictably, no one is interested in.

The Minister says that Tony (Blackadder) Robinson and the chief executive of Monarch Airlines have joined Eddie Izzard as unofficial champions of Labour’s push on Europe – “the kind of people that ordinary British people relate to” – and presents the people’s transvestite with a plaque.

On the Eurostar a miked-up Eddie and Keith are accompanied by two TV crews, one from the BBC, as well as an assortment of young men from the Foreign Office – policy wonks and chaps from the press office – and me. Despite our previous night’s conversation into the early hours, Eddie has yet to show me the slightest flicker of recognition.

As we make our way down the carriages, I lob a few comments his way but he barely acknowledges them. Although I can see that he is both exhausted and focusing all his energy on the job at hand, this blanking or blocking off – a phrase he uses a lot about his survival technique when we finally get down to the interview at midnight – is rather unnerving. On one level it makes sense if one considers this interaction with the public as another performance and that he is suffering from pre-show nerves. On another, I wonder if his transvestism – and the aggro that he still gets from wearing women’s clothes – has trained him not to respond to people on the periphery of his vision. Or maybe he just doesn’t do small talk.

It’s a funny old day. When Keith Vaz asks me what I’m doing on the train, I say I’m going to interview Eddie and he says: “Eddie who?” Er, Eddie Izzard, you know, who you’re doing the roadshow with. “Ohhh,” he says, “I thought you meant Eddie George.” How new Labour to have the Governor of the Bank of England at the forefront of your mind. Eddie (Izzard) is definitely the euro star. English and French businessmen and students ask him for his autograph.

While Keith has the politician’s knack of saying a few words and moving on, Eddie can’t tear himself away. When possible, he launches into French. Since he is doing his entire Paris show en français – remarkably, since he has never got beyond O-Level standard – he probably needs all the practice he can get.

By the time we draw into Waterloo, Eddie’s face has taken on a ghastly veal-coloured pallor. We are greeted by a pesky press agency journalist who is going for the provocative angle: “Some might say that having a comedian on the roadshow speaks for itself.”

Eddie, who is a lifetime member of the European Movement, bridles: “I am a comedian, as you say, but I’m also someone who can speak my mind.”

In the sanctuary of the Eurostar press lounge, we are joined by Angela Billingham, a former Labour MEP, who says she is still spitting blood and stone after losing her seat at the recent European election. “I’m sure you’ll find it again,” Eddie says like an arrested eight-year-old. Angela chides, “You’re not too old to be smacked,” and then wonders whether she is the token woman in the room.

Angela compares her finger-nails (frosted pink) to Eddie’s muddy talons, and pronounces: “Oooo, I don’t like yours at all.” An exceedingly dapper Foreign Office man asks Eddie to sign a programme from Lenny, apologising for doing such a creepy thing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for an autograph,” he confides to me. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to see him live four times.” Eddie does another radio interview: “I know that Europe is not a very sexy subject . . . but the things you can do in Europe are sexy . . . like travel and having sex. In fact, More Sex For Europe is the government line, I think.” We all laugh hugely.

But not everyone loves Eddie. Passing through security before re-embarkation, I am frisked by a jolly black woman who chortles at my Diana Ross joke, although she has heard that one a lot recently. Eddie totters on ahead and she turns to her male colleague and says: “Disgusting that is, and a man of that size.” There is a look of real revulsion on their faces, and as I watch them watching Eddie’s retreating form – a man in make-up and high heels who they have no idea is a star – I catch a glimpse of just how plucky he has had to be to be the way he is.

In the back room of La Boule Noire, behind a velvet curtain, Eddie is having a last-minute French lesson with his young teacher. It is hard to imagine anyone shining with the handicap of a foreign language – and after such a punishing day. He was up at 6.45 after hardly any sleep, had breakfast with various British Embassy bods, an interview on the Today programme, a rendezvous at the Senate for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Council of Europe, and that was all before we met at the Gare du Nord. But he does shine – mostly anyway, and with the help of a forgiving audience.

He wisely decides to address his transvestism straight away – saying, since we are in a notorious red-light area, that he is not “un travesti pute”, ( prostitute) but “un travesti exécutif” (puffing out his chest) and, indeed, “un travesti action”. It may not be widely known that Eddie’s alternative career possibilities were civil engineering – although the word “civil” worried him – or joining the Army.

The audience seems slightly bemused but willing to fall for him. One of the reasons why his humour travels well is that his subjects are both epic and mundane enough to cross most boundaries: supermarkets, the Royal Family, the merits of Vanessa Paradis versus those of Johnny Depp, Aristotle and Socrates, dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the fall of the British Empire, Stonehenge, and a great riff on why whales are the DJs of the ocean, all woven together in a characteristically ingenious Eddie loop. Actually, his French is pretty good and getting better every night after the day’s swotting. Nevertheless, when I ask the three women behind me what they thought of the show, they said that although it was “extraordinaire”, there were just too many mistakes to carry off the big ideas.

Back at the hotel Eddie is sitting in my room, smoking for Europe and wearing my bathrobe because I have insisted on having the window open. He is clearly running on empty and still rather down about his performance, disappointed with himself for losing it on a couple of occasions (trying to master a Welsh accent in French proved particularly troublesome). When I remind him that he said the same thing about his New York show, he says that here the fear is much greater than usual, “even though you might have ideas that are nice to play with – ‘the universe is, er, ugh, vairy beeg’ – you are talking with the command of an eight-year-old and you’re just not getting the curves on it.”

At first he mutters away, very fast and very low, with a slightly sullen expression on his face. But the more up-front I am with him, the more engaged and engaging he becomes.

I wonder whether before Eddie came out in his true fantastic colours he might have come across as a bland, rather inspid character. I have interviewed a number of transsexuals and transvestites, and when they showed me old photographs of their pre-operative or blokey selves they always looked supremely dull fellows – almost as though their public selves were an exaggeratedly toned-down counterpoint to the flamboyance of their private compulsions. What would I have made of Eddie, for instance, if I had come across him when he was studying accountancy at Sheffield University?

He says he was a slob in a camel coat who didn’t give a flying monkey’s about his appearance. “I didn’t really bother buying clothes because I felt that everything somehow looked wrong on me.” But did you always have this surreal way of thinking? “In the sense of working out what I wanted to do type-thing?” No, the way you talk. “This way now or the way I am on stage?” Well, you’re a bit like you are on stage off stage as well.

I try another tack. Would I have thought you were just an ordinary, boring boy if I had met you when you were a 17-year-old doing maths, physics and chemistry A levels?” “No,” he says. “I would have attempted to make you laugh because this comedy has developed as a social tool.”

Ah, the classic scenario then: lonely, isolated boy who finds popularity through becoming the class clown. But Eddie says it wasn’t like that at all. It was not until he went to a school where, bizarrely, they didn’t play football – a sport at which he had excelled at his previous school, where he played in the first team – that he showed any interest in becoming funny. He was never bullied, he says, because he was such a ferocious arguer: “I would do that small dog, bigger dog thing – ruffruffruffruffruff [he barks like a terrier] – and make a helluvalotta noise and the bigger dog would go ‘Well, I won’t bother with this one’,” he says in his Sean Connery accent.

By the time he got to Sheffield – choosing a northern university to escape from the South – the only thing he wanted to do was to become a comedian, but he was dismayed to discover the student union would not support him taking an act to the Edinburgh Festival. He went anyway, writing and funding the gig himself. “It was a huge psychological thing and it was a crap piece of work, but we did it.”

He dropped out of university and had a miserable 1980s, living in a “bungalow thingy” near Streatham Common with a bunch of fellow street performers, waiting to be discovered. At his second school he had begged the headmaster each year to give him a role in the Easter musical, but it was thought his talents were better employed playing the clarinet in the orchestra, and so there he remained.

Although he is still perplexed by the headmaster’s obduracy – and told him so when he revisited the school – he reckons it was useful training learning how to endure setbacks. “I got to 18, 19, 20 and said ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh. I’ve been writing sketches . . . someone’s bound to discover me’ – but it just kept on not happening.”

And when it finally did happen – after he graduated from the streets, to the Comedy Store, to his own sell-out show – that was the moment Eddie chose to come out.

Some commentators have erroneously linked Eddie’s transvestism with the death of his mother when he was six, at which age he was dispatched to boarding school with his older brother. Eddie believes that his sexuality was genetically pre-ordained, and his earliest memories – as far back as the age of four – were of him wanting to wear girls’ clothes.

But his mother’s early death has certainly affected him in other ways. He describes himself as “emotionally compressed” and says he does not get too high or too low: “It’s kind of a survival thing.” The stand-up gives him the opportunity to get a lot of the highs out of his system, and he uses his serious roles (most recently as the late American comedian Lenny Bruce) to explore his anger and his lows. He has always needed his own space, physically and emotionally – long before he was famous – and lets people come to him rather than risk approaching them.

There is something so essentially detached about his presence – despite him having warmed up considerably by now – that I imagine he probably finds any kind of intimacy difficult. He says he inherited his reserve from his father, but the effect of his mother dying when he was so young was to make him emotionally stunted.

“In the scheme of things people lose entire families in concentration camps and so on but . . . I cried a lot and was caned a lot and just lost it at school, and then I got into this boy thing and couldn’t kiss my Dad anymore.”

The tears stopped abruptly at the age of 11, when he thought he had lost a fight because he cried. “So I blocked all that up and remained blocked until I was 19.”

The turning point for him was in Sheffield when he tried unsuccessfully to stop a feral cat running into the road and saw it being run over. “It had broken its back; I picked it up and it struggled to breathe and then it just died, and I felt nothing.

“So I thought ‘My God I am dead, I feel nothing. This is not good.’ I took it to the vet’s because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forced myself to cry.”

Do you still block stuff off? “Yes. There’s still a natural compressed emotional state which isn’t a great place to be, but then again I can be like this [he gestures to his appearance] and when people say negative things I’m not that bothered. It’s a good survival technique.”

In his show, while musing on the ghastliness of adolescence, Eddie had told us that he managed to lose his virginity only at 21. “Ce n’est pas cool,” he said, before affecting to change his mind. “C’est cool, mais dans un style très sad-f***er.” He has always been attracted to women and has had several long-term relationships. He used to turn up to Have I Got News for You with a girlfriend, and he is with someone now – though she does not wish to be discussed with journalists for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he is able to express himself and have rows and so on. “Oh yeah.” And are you able to say weedy things? “Weedy things?” You know, be soppy. “Oh yeah. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the kid who had been to public school – because they wouldn’t ever let themselves cry or get in touch with their emotions. So I am in touch with my emotions, although I will steel over them.

“I mean, the whole thing of coming out as transvestite is a big key to how I work. Because the – arrrgh – amount of guts it takes to come out, and what I or any person who does come out has to go through – it’s tough. And it’s so visual as a TV and you get so much flak and you look such a mess initially in the frumpy transvestite phase when you’re not out enough to say ‘I wonder what this would look like?’, which is what a normal boy or girl or man or woman would do.”

Before we get into the grittiest of the nitty-gritty about what makes a TV tick – or, at any rate this TV – I feel that something must be cleared up. At which point, may I suggest that readers of a delicate disposition STOP READING NOW – after which warning if you do cancel your subscription to The Times we will know that you have been unable to resist temptation.

Right. Now if all of us women fancy Eddie, it is likely that somewhere down the line some of us must have imagined what it would be like to be physically entwined with him. And once one goes down that route, inevitably what enters one’s mind is the penis-type thing. And so Eddie, I ask, do you use your penis penetratively? A question, incidentally, that I do not recollect ever having asked a man before, interviewee or otherwise. Perhaps being with someone who has to be brave every day of his life has an emboldening effect. And mercifully, he doesn’t bat a (smokey grey and kohl-lined) eyelid.

Yes, he says, he does, “if the other woman is into the penis but if not, fine.” I had always understood that transvestites were heterosexual men who simply had a fetish – a word Eddie dislikes, as I am to discover – for women’s clothing. Transsexuals, on the other hand, were men who felt they were a woman trapped inside the wrong body, men who loathed their maleness and saw their penis as a constant physical rebuke.

But Eddie says TVs and TSs are on exactly the same path, it is just that the latter are farther down it. Until recently he described himself as a heterosexual, but got fed up with journalists writing that he insists on calling himself hetero, as though it were a mask for his gayness (he has never attempted to go to bed with a man) and drag queens accusing him of being a liar. Male lesbian, he thinks, fits the bill and avoids any suggestion that he is distancing himself from other sexual minorities.

But does he, like transsexuals, hate his penis? “The penis is immaterial,” he says, which certainly sets him apart from the way most men view their equipment. “I don’t think it’s at all an aesthecically pleasing thing. I don’t think, ‘Heyyy, this penis, Gahhd, I’d like to put it on the mantelpiece. Isn’t it hard, I venture, to use the penis in a feminine way? “Er, yes,” he says. “So that’s probably why we don’t want penises. I’ve got breast envy.”

You’d like a bosom? “Oh yeah. Just like teenage girls or some women think ‘Oh, I wish I was bigger’. That’s exactly what’s going on with me.” Have you ever tried putting a false bosom in? “I have and I did and I do,” he says. So would you rather have a bosom than a penis? “Um. I’ve never done the either/or choice but, yeah.” I don’t understand, I say.

As Eddie is the only famous “out” transvestite in the world (he thinks, though he has heard that there might be a New Zealand politician who is also a TV) he does believe he has a mission to explain the way he is in order to promote a better understanding of less fortunate, more shamefully closeted men than himself. That is why he is always game to try out new theories and also, I sense, because he himself is still trying to grapple with the mystifying psychology of transvestism. So here, unveiled for the first time, is his new theory:

“Men – and disagree with me whenever you want – are stimulated visually. If women do the black dress, the high heels and the lippy, men go, ‘Hey! Wow!’ And it could be the same woman they haven’t paid any attention to. The woman could be a complete bimbo and have no conversation and the man could be very articulate but still – Bam! – would wish to shag. Women? Not so much. They’re stimultated more by . . .” Touch? “Touch and also personality. By a bloke who might be a curious-looking bloke. So the key points are the triggers. OK?” OK thus far.

“Now let me stay on the point because I think this is a bit of a breakthrough in explaining things. So TVs have an urge to be a woman. They’re at home and they get the clothes and the make-up right and maybe they’ll turn the lights down low so that the look is good, and they’ll say ‘Hey right, I look like a woman.’ But then this two-step effect happens. Because they get visually stimulated – like clockwork – just like all men do. They have created this sexy image that they are then attracted to.”

So it’s masturbatory? “Yes, absolutely.” So it’s “I love . . . me”? “No. It’s ‘I love that image’. What they’d prefer to do is to make love to another woman and have lesbian sex. They’d like to be a woman and make love to another woman.” Right, still with him, just about.

What I still find quite hard to understand is the clothing. In the past you have said that your desire sometimes to wear a provocative skirt rather than boring old trousers is no different from the way a woman dresses to please herself. But isn’t the relationship of the transvestite with the actual gear eroticised? And if so, this is not the way most women relate to their wardrobe. He says he has watched women, something he does a lot, and has noticed the way that they will stroke a new pair of boots and though they are obviously not getting wildly turned on, they will say ‘I love the feel of this. It makes me feel sexy.’

But it’s not the same thing, is it Eddie? He says there are no sexy men’s clothes apart from, say, a leather thong. Men’s satin dressing gowns? “You find those wildly erotic?” he says, with disbelief. “There’s nothing sensual or sexy for men. Male lingerie does not exist. Stockings do not exist. Socks are not going to get you going, ‘Hey maaan, great socks, let’s go!’

“Women have this vast variety of lingerie, stockings and tights and different patterns, and shoes, with different-sized heels, in red and black, and skirts – short, long, with slits – push-the-boob things . . . there’s so much around in women’s things that is erotic.

While men have: shirt shirt shirt jumper shirt jumper jacket jumper shirt jacket trousers trousers short trousers trousers flat shoes.”

He says that while women wearing men’s clothes confers on them a certain sort of power – and cites Marlene Dietrich as an example – men attack other men for wearing women’s clothes because it is seen as a weakness: “And it’s seen as being weak because they equate the clothing with being female, and female equals weak – which is wrong, because women have strong and weak characters, and so do men.”

I say that part of the problem with transvestism is that there is an image of shame and humiliation and solitariness, and husbands ejaculating over their wives’ clothing, and it’s not a very attractive image. “Mmm. Absolutely.” And then you come along and mix it and match it and have this very male way of being and it’s no longer seen as something pathetic. “It’s because it’s out and knitted into society,” he says thoughtfully.

I ask whether he’s aware of how many women find him attractive. “Yes, it’s off the scale,” he says. “And very sexy women, too.” He’s attracted to all sorts of women, from boyish girls to those with Marilyn Monroe curves. He thinks a lot more women would be attracted to TVs if the men were as out and calm and relaxed about themselves as he is. Also women are turned on by the fact that it takes balls – so to speak – to go out there and be himself and not give a damn. And if he’s given stick, he gives it right back – as a group of thugs discovered when they set upon him, and he not only fought them off but took them to court and won.

But he has noticed that a lot of the female fans who write him letters seem to feel compelled to explain why they are attracted to him. He compares it to women who sleep with women but insist they are not lesbians. (The same applies to men, presumably.) “So there’s denial and we’re not at the end of explaining things,” he says. “But getting the truth out of people is difficult. They’ve got so many blocks in their heads that they can’t tell themselves the truth. It’s something right at the back of the quiet mind.”

It is only towards the end of our conversation, and almost by chance, that I finally find an image for transvestism that works for me. I ask Eddie whether the erotic nature of transvestism isn’t essentially narcissistic, and he reminds me that when Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water he didn’t know that the face staring back at him was his own. And there’s the key, I think. The transvestite at his most private, most sexually engaged, is actually disengaged from himself. He looks at his femaleness from the outside, rather than feeling it from within. And if that splitting of oneself is fundamental to your make-up, it might explain why there are other areas of detachment as well.

For most of our time together, despite the emphasis on sex, there is nothing charged or erotic about the atmosphere. Quite the opposite, if anything: it is more clinical, scientific and oddly impersonal. But very occasionally, when one becomes aware of holding a gaze for a fraction longer than is necessary or when Eddie turns an intimate question back to me, it feels for a moment as though something else is going on. Perhaps it’s the dreamy lateness of the hour, the man sitting in your dressing gown, the shadow of his false eyelashes on his cheek.

At the end of the interview, Eddie says that what you need to do is to look at everybody’s fantasies and line them all up and only then can you see what is normal and what is not. “Who doesn’t have fantasies?” he asks. I don’t think I do. “Actually, I’ve heard other women say that.” Don’t have time to…

“So you don’t really have fantasies?” he asks softly. Not really. “You should get some,” he breathes. Because they’re fun? “Yeaaaahhh.”

Like I said, he’s sexy.

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.