Women, Writers

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

The Times January 30, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Women, Writers

Lady Antonia Fraser’s life less ordinary

The Times, July 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

Lady Antonia Fraser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Writers

The gentrification of Irvine Welsh

The Times, June 28, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Celebrities, Writers

Culture vulture

The Times – May 12 2007
– Ginny Dougary

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

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clive James online

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

Clive James tells the stories of:

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

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

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

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

Writers

Daddy cool

TIMES MAGAZINE – June 26, 2004
Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women, Writers

Edge of darkness

The Sunday Times – July 05, 2003
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you could be so much a slave to any

physical need.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writers

Secrets of a sexual innocent

THE AGE – May 27 2002
Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General, Writers

Paul Foot named journalist of decade

THE GUARDIAN – Saturday February 26, 2000
Paul Baldwin

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

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

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

“His persistence is a lesson to all journalists.”

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

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

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

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

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

Columnist of the year: Deborah Orr, The Independent.

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

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

Music, Writers

The new romantic – Interview, Nick Cave

THE TIMES – March 27 1999
– Ginny Dougary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you link your creativity to God?

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you always had this?

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

How about in your teen years?

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

Like?

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

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

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

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

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

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