Lord Hartwell

Lord Hartwell, who died in 2001, aged eighty-nine, was the last of Britain’s real press barons.

Alone among the scions of the pre-war dynasties that dominated Fleet Street for three-quarters of a century, he was a lifelong, full-time newspaperman, and chairman and editor-in-chief for thirty years of the family’s Daily and Sunday Telegraph - until his dedicated, but idiosyncratic, stewardship delivered them into the hands of the now discredited Canadian entrepreneur Conrad Black in December 1985.

He married Lady Pamela Smith, a zesty figure in pre-war society who made up for his reclusiveness with her dinner parties and gossip. The couple had two sons and two daughters, who all survive. Lady Pamela died in 1982.

Born in 1911 and educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford, he served as captain and major in the army and was twice mentioned in Despatches.

His career in newspapers started in 1934 when he edited the Sunday Mail in Glasgow for a year. From 1937-9 he was managing editor at the Financial Times and in 1954 he became chairman of Amalgamated Press Ltd, a post he held for five years. When his father, Lord Camrose, died in 1954 he became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and some years later of the Sunday Telegraph which he founded in 1961.

Lord Hartwell retired in 1987 when the Telegraph Group was acquired by Conrad Black.

His biography of his father, William Camrose: Giant of Fleet Street, was published in 1993. His family reported that he died holding a copy of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaperman till the end.

I interviewed him in early 1993 and found him easy to talk to, a dedicated man whose motives were always honourable and his failures gracefully conceded. He had an air about him that endeared him to most people he encountered, despite a reputation for avoiding interlocutors.

Did you feel that the education at Eton and Christchurch equipped you well for your subsequent life in newspapers? 

Education at those two places really depended upon the application of the boy. I can’t say I worked very hard at Eton, but I didn’t do badly. In my last year I had a great deal of responsibility. The trouble was you had so much freedom at Eton that you didn’t feel the extra freedom most boys from other types of schools felt when they went to university. The consequence was that you really rather let go. The examination wasn’t until the end of the third year which seemed an aeon of time away, and you didn’t take it very seriously until the last year by which time it was too late to catch up.

Were you very much in awe of your father Lord Camrose? Did the fact that he was a press baron, along with people like Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, lend him a certain eminence and remoteness as a father figure? 

Certainly not. He was in no way remote, and he was very good with his children. He treated them like young adults and discussed all his problems with them, so although I had the deepest respect for him I was not in awe of him. He was very supportive of us, particularly when we got into trouble. I can’t say I had very many troubles myself but I saw it with the rest of my family, and now I know he did even more for his children than I had realized before.

Your father knew Churchill well. What was your impression of Churchill?

I only saw him towards the end of his life when he was already a national hero. My father didn’t really trust him at all at the beginning. He first came across him in the early 1920s and until about two years before the war he regarded Churchill as a fascinating mountebank, as indeed most of the nation did; he was thought of as somebody not to be trusted, always out for office and his own self, and for the massage of his own ego. I saw him only after the war when he was already established in his own right as being the great of the greats. I had some professional dealings with him because when my father died I took over Churchill’s war memoirs which the Telegraph had bought. In fact I think I must have been one of the few people ever to have given a sizable tip, twenty thousand pounds, to Winston Churchill. Like all authors he over-wrote his memoirs and although he had sold them on the basis of five volumes, he wanted to write a sixth. Most of the international publishers wouldn’t pay extra but my father agreed to pay for another volume though there was nothing in writing about it. Churchill asked me to lunch and was very much relieved to hear that I was going to honour my father’s unwritten promise.

You have suggested that Churchill would have made your father Minister of Information in 1943 but for the fact that Beaverbrook was jealous and told Churchill that your father was too ill to take the post. What is the evidence for that?

The suggestion that he should be made Minister of Information came from Oliver Harvey, later Lord Harvey, who was principal private secretary to Eden when he was Foreign Secretary. Churchill had agreed to my father being Minister of Information until Beaverbrook – who had been falsely promised leadership of the House of Lords – heard about it and told Churchill that my father, who had had a serious illness five years before, was likely to break down if given any responsibility. The source of that information was Churchill’s scientific guru, Lord Charwell, who was a great friend, very close to Churchill and also close to my father.

What was the origin of the jealousy between your father and Beaverbrook? 

Just that they were the same age, exactly the same age, and both newspaper proprietors. Beaverbrook, by virtue of his Canadian fortune, had started at the top while my father was still working his way up, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of a man of his own age becoming as important, if not more important, than himself in the journalistic world. There were several manifestations of this which I have detailed in my book.

In 1954 you became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph. What were your feelings as you stepped into your father’s shoes? 

My feelings were that I wished to continue his traditions, and to maintain the Daily Telegraph as an institution in such a way that for anyone who really wanted to know what was going on, not only in this country but in the whole world, it would be difficult to be without the Telegraph. My father had already deputed a good deal of the running of the paper to me in any case. In fact he had already nominated me two years before as deputy editor-in-chief, believing it would be a mistake for him to linger too long. We got on very well indeed and he was such a tolerant man, although he did say when he put me in charge that he did not want a new broom, in other words, he didn’t want me to start throwing my weight about and trying to change everything and everyone; rather he wanted the paper to continue to evolve. That was his great feeling about the Telegraph itself, because when he bought it in 1927, it had been a very great paper in the previous century but it was definitely in decline. It wasn’t actually losing money but it wasn’t making any and it might not have lasted another ten years. He permeated it with his own ideas, and although he did bring in a few people, he got rid of very few indeed, and he congratulated himself afterwards since he didn’t think a paper had ever been revived in quite that manner, so apparently effortlessly. That was an achievement he particularly prided himself on, and he didn’t want me to start making mistakes he hadn’t made.

But by all accounts your father ran the Daily Telegraph as if it were a feudal institution; in the words of one observer, ‘he ruled as well as reigned’. Were you at all critical of this autocratic approach? 

It was centralized to a certain extent and he wasn’t prepared to let everybody do their own thing; he preferred always to know what they were doing. Lord Burnham, the managing director, said he wasn’t very good at what in the army they call staff duties, which means apportioning duties to everybody down the chain and making them responsible only to those directly above them. For example, he was continually ringing up the newsroom to talk to people who were running a particular story without going through the news editor. My father interfered in everything if he wanted to.

Was it filial devotion and respect which kept you from altering much at the Daily Telegraph or was it the fact that the newspaper was doing well and there was little point in changing a winning formula? 

The last proposition is always a good idea, but there were one or two things that he would never have let me do, which I did do in the end, but nothing of any importance – the masthead, for example. He took over the Morning Post in 1937 or 1938, and he always insisted on including the Morning Post in the masthead, which I thought rather an anachronism after the war. He wouldn’t allow me to take it off, because he thought there was still some goodwill left in these ageing Morning Post readers, but when he died I did take it off. Apart from appearances I think I also made the paper less stuffy; concentrated on more good writing and introduced more humour.

You have been described as a journalist through and through. Do you see yourself as a journalist by nature, and if so, what does that entail? 

I think a journalist principally is a person who is interested in people and who is immensely curious about affairs and wonders why things happen and why people do what they do. I suppose it’s a form of busybodyness. Everything is grist to the mill.

Although in your capacity as editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, you always defended your journalists loyalty, some people have detected that you are a little uneasy with journalists as a breed, and that you are particularly suspicious of columnists and leader writers…is there any truth in that? 

As a generalization, none whatever. I do think a leader column ought to be consistent, and if it pronounces once a fortnight on some subject, it ought, on the second occasion, to remember what it said on the first. You shouldn’t contradict in your leader something you said in the previous one unless you draw attention to it and do it gently and for apparent good reason. If you have to box the compass, admit to it.

In the quality newspapers there is a tendency nowadays for the intellectuals to rule the roost; newspapers have become platforms for opinion. How do you view this trend in journalism? 

Certain journalists have their hobby horses and one should simply not employ hobby horses because they can’t move anywhere, and then they become a bore. They plug the same line and use their column for their own personal purpose and not for the purpose of the newspaper, which should be a different thing every day.

Richard Ingrams once said to me that journalists who take themselves seriously or believe they have influence are bad journalists. Would you agree with that? 

No, I would say they have to be very good at their job, otherwise they’re bad journalists. Journalists would do well to remember that they hold no position of responsibility in the running of the country, and bearing that in mind, they should acquire a little humility which is quite a rare quality in Fleet Street.

There is, however, a great deal of talk nowadays about ‘opinion makers’ in newspapers. Politicians obviously believe newspapers hold great sway over the way people think…what is your view? 

I don’t know that they do. Because of the rise of television they have far less influence than before. Newspapers tend to provide the public with information, the facts, which televisions can’t do, because it’s trying to do too many things at once. Television is rather like opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera to appreciate the decor, the singing and the music, let alone the words which don’t matter. The same thing applies when people watch television – they are so obsessed with whether a man’s tie is straight or his eyes rotating to hear what he’s saying. But what they are able to do is to get an idea of the genuineness or the non-genuineness of the man talking, and therefore the opinion to a certain extent is made by watching television. In short, people get their information from the newspapers and their prejudices from television. People say that such and such is a very poor performer and conclude that he must be a very bad administrator, and form their opinions in that way. It’s not the way that public opinion is supposed to be directed but that is what happens.

You have always upheld editorial independence. People often recall how the Daily Telegraph criticized Anthony Eden just before Suez and how protests on the Prime Minister’s behalf failed to move you. Did you have any qualms about that at the time? 

Not at all. We’d all thought that Eden was faltering a bit in so far as he was trying to be like Churchill was, always interfering in every department without going through the Cabinet. I well remember a story told to me by Jim Thomas who was First Lord of the Admiralty when Churchill was Prime Minister. Churchill used to ring him up early in the morning, about 7.30 – he of course had been called with a large whisky at about 7 o’clock – and Thomas was always very much annoyed at being wakened at this hour. One morning he rang up: ‘Is that you, First Lord?’ ‘Oh yes, good morning Prime Minister, how nice to hear your voice’ then Churchill said, ‘I’m very worried about that submarine, you know’. And Thomas hadn’t any idea what he was talking about. It turned out that some submarine had brushed a sandbank in Portsmouth; Churchill had read about it in the first editions of the papers, but by the time the final edition came out the submarine had come off again, so it wasn’t news anymore. Anyway, that was the sort of thing that Churchill used to do, but he did it just to keep his ministers on their toes, whereas Eden got the impression that he really was trying to interfere in their business, and he tried to do likewise, only in a rather schoolmistress sort of way, thereby making himself very unpopular. It was Donald MacLachlan our deputy editor who wrote that the government under Eden lacked the smack of firm government, a phrase that put Eden very much on edge. But we weren’t highly critical of him, we just said that things seemed rather a shambles and there was no firm direction. We did criticize him on one or two other things, as one has every right to do, and he took this very much amiss. I remember Lord Salisbury and Butler came to see me at my home and asked if there was anything personal about it, and I assured them there wasn’t, but that the paper wasn’t going to give unthinking support to the government. This was discussed sometime before Suez on which we were generally supportive of him; we were only critical of his having stopped it midway, and having no plan as to what to do next.

It is perhaps not surprising, given your uncompromising stands on critical independence, that your life peerage came from a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson? Were you conscious of a certain irony in that – after all, you were editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, a widely perceived Tory stronghold. 

I certainly wouldn’t have accepted a peerage from a Tory government because it would have looked as if it was payment for the services rendered – not that I was offered one.

But all the editors do that now. 

Well, that’s no business of mine.

But would you have turned down a peerage from a Tory government? 

Most certainly.

Why do you think Harold Wilson gave you the peerage? 

I think it arose because Cecil King, a very strong Labour supporter, also a man of immense self-importance, wanted to be placed in Wilson’s Cabinet and to be given an earldom. Wilson turned this down but offered him an under-secretaryship and a simple barony which made him furious, and so in order to stop the Daily Mirror turning against him altogether – that being the way politicians think – he gave a peerage to Hugh Cudlipp, and I think I was pulled in to balance him. Wilson never told me this, but that’s what I assume.

But tell me, of all the former Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson is perhaps the least talked about, the least respected. Why do you think that is? 

During his government there was so much backbiting and backstabbing, and everyone seemed to act so much out of self-interest, and then he retired for supposedly mysterious reasons. I don’t think them mysterious reasons. I didn’t think them mysterious at all; he was getting past it, even though he was only sixty. Callaghan who took over from him was a much rougher man, made of much tougher moral fibre than Wilson. Wilson was much more like Lloyd George, a tremendous wheeler-dealer but without the same skills.

Did you know him well? 

I knew him quite a bit, yes. When he was Prime Minister I saw him often at Chequers because we had a house nearby. He was always extremely agreeable and could be very funny, but one couldn’t really respect him much.

It is sometimes said that your late wife, Lady Pamela Berry, persuaded Wilson to confer the peerage. Is there any truth in it? 

She hardly knew him.

Your wife was very sociable, gregarious and someone who loved meeting people and giving parties. By contrast you always preferred to remain in the background socially. Was this ever a source of tension between you? 

Not at all. She gave quite a few small lunch parties, but she resented being called a political hostess. A lot of her friends were middle-ranking politicians and perhaps quite a few left-wing journalists, but she really invited them for their conversation. She found them much better company than the more respectable lot. But she was not interested in politics, she was interested in people.

You have a thinly disguised distaste for social life – how on earth did you cope with your wife’s enthusiasm for entertaining politicians, people from the arts and other dignitaries? 

I found them interesting on the whole. But the difficulty for a man in his own house is that he is usually put next to a wife…and although many wives are often very interesting, very often they aren’t. People tend to marry young and when the husband has achieved something in life the wife may have got stuck in her early rut. My wife quite rightly thought that general conversation made the most interesting party. Sometimes one of ‘my wives’ – the ones sitting next to me – couldn’t keep up and kept turning to talk to me. One could not but answer and my wife used to frown at me angrily. I once suggested jokingly that I should give her a silver bell which she could ring when she wanted general conversation – as did a Parisian hostess described by the Goncourt brothers. But this of course would have seemed arrogant in her and rude in me.

Most Englishmen seem to prefer the company of other men, is that because of the public-school background, do you think? 

No, it’s because men are usually doing something, and as a journalist I like talking to people about what they do, not about things at large.

Lord Weidenfeld said of your wife, ‘She had a respect approaching reverence for her husband’s profession’, but he added that she did not exercise influence over the contents of your newspapers. Would you agree with that? 

Yes. Actually she never tried to, and I would certainly not have approved of it. She’d advise me on certain things, but she was never able to persuade me unless I thought it a good idea. She was a great influence on my life personally I suppose, because of our mutual confidence, but she wasn’t an influence so much on what I did as what I was.

Weidenfeld also said that she ‘humanized’ you. What do you think he meant by that? 

I suppose he meant that without her I was inhuman, but I plead not guilty.

The Hartwell house was often regarded as the last private political and intellectual salon in the classical tradition. Were you conscious of that at the time, and do you mourn its passing? 

I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, nor was she, and therefore it’s nothing to mourn. She didn’t regard herself as a centre of political discussion; she only asked people who amused her, and it so happened that some of her left-wing friends she found more amusing than the right-wingers, perhaps because they were more indiscreet which helps conversation. The thing she really hated was to be called a Lady Londonderry type who had vast parties of only one political persuasion – that was what salon was really about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, referring to your keen sense of duty, wrote that newspaper proprietorship for you was ‘a high public trust to which all private and family must be subordinate’. Did you ever come to regret that scheme of priorities? 

Certainly the Telegraph dominated my life, and I daresay I should have been at home more than I was. But I don’t feel any guilt about it. If you’ve got a rather important job, you must devote everything you’ve got to it. I don’t think my family suffered as a result. My wife would have like to have travelled more, but other than that I don’t think so, and certainly my children did not suffer at all.

Would you consider yourself to have been a good father to your children? 

I’m the wrong person to answer that, but I was a good father according to my own lights, and I hope they would agree. Now that they have all made their own way in life we all seem to get on very well together.

Lady Pamela was often the subject of severe criticism in the press. To what did you attribute these attacks? 

Spite more than anything else. She attracted a certain amount of publicity because she associated with the people I describe, and I suppose those who didn’t like her thought she was becoming too big for her boots.

In 1980 Lord Lambton wrote a disparaging article for Now magazine about Lady Pamela. Why did you take such exception to that? 

It made me very angry because it was highly offensive to her. It was written as if she were already dead, and she was suffering from a disease which killed her two years later, she found that particularly damaging and hurtful. I daresay Lambton didn’t know at the time. There was a long story behind it involving Sir James Goldsmith who had been attacked three times in the Daily Telegraph, on three separate occasions about three different things by three different people. Being a very sensitive chap he got it into his head that I had organized and coordinated a campaign against him, and having started Now magazine he decided to hit back at me. His editor commissioned Alan Brien, who could wield a vicious pen and had been on the Sunday Telegraph, to write an article attacking me, but Alan Brien said he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t find anything to attack me on. Then Goldsmith had the idea that if he couldn’t get at me, he would get at my wife instead, and so he hired Lambton, who had been a friend of ours, to do it.

But why did Lambton do it? 

He has a great deal of money but he like notoriety, and thought it rather a jolly thing to do. He was a sort of acolyte of Randolph Churchill who regarded all personal attacks as jolly jokes – that’s what he called them – and this was one of those jolly jokes. We didn’t find it at all jolly; in fact it was astonishingly offensive, so I wrote a letter, and had great difficulty getting it published because it was thought to be libellous. But I offered to guarantee it personally and financially against libel, though later I discovered that is illegal.

Did you ever regret having the letter published? 

No. I was rather pleased with it. My wife was unmollified. She had put so much enthusiasm into working for the great museums that she deeply resented her efforts being rubbished.

Lady Pamela appeared to have been singled out for attack by Evelyn Waugh in letters he wrote in 1962, including one to the Sunday Telegraph. She was accused of being a ‘Judas’ and ‘a Sneakhostess’. The recent publication of Auberon Waugh’s autobiography reveals that it was in fact he who had passed on information to the Telegraph, not Lady Pamela, though he never confessed to his father. Did you suspect the provenance of the diary story at that time? 

Not at all. I quoted him to Auberon Waugh, who was working on the Telegraph, as evidence that was not the way we did things. I had no idea that he’d done it.

What are your views on the current libel laws in this country? 

I think it quite ridiculous for juries to deal in sums of money which mean nothing to them. They know perhaps what money means up to two or three thousand pounds, but beyond that nothing. I can give you an example. We were sued by a real rogue called Lewis who was chairman of a rubber company, the biggest manufacturer of French letters in the country. Without going into the details of the case we reported that he was being investigated by the Fraud Squad. We were given damages of a hundred thousand pounds against us. Afterwards our solicitor’s clerk went into the jury room and examined the contents of the wastepaper basket only to find that each member of the jury had written down what he thought damages should be; it ranged from five thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand, so they settled on a hundred. That’s the way the libel damages are decided – the people who do it have no idea what it means. What does an assistant in a grocer’s shop know about sums over ten or twenty thousand pounds?

What do you think is the duty of a newspaper man, editor or proprietor, when faced with the problem of whether or not to publish potentially scandalous material? 

It’s a question of whether we restrain people who say it’s in the public interest, which means absolutely nothing, since they do it for obviously moneygrubbing purposes.

Yes I agree. It’s becoming a dangerous weapon in the sense that anyone can threaten your livelihood or position for personal gain. 

I certainly don’t approve of that trend. I can give you a good example from my father’s day when he personally refused to do something like this, even though it would have been a great journalist coup. After the war the Duke of Windsor was determined to make himself whiter than white over the abdication crisis he wrote, or rather had ghosted, A King’s Story, which his solicitors brought to my father. The Duke wanted it published in the Daily Telegraph which he thought influenced respectable opinion, and not in the Daily Express, even though Lord Beaverbrook had supported him during his crisis. My father said he wouldn’t even see it, and he certainly wouldn’t publish it as it would only reopen old wounds. But the Duke did publish it; he took it to Lord Beaverbrook who printed it in the Sunday Express which put on an extra three quarters of a million copies. I tell you this to illustrate the Telegraph’s attitude, which would be the same now I think. Certainly we wouldn’t have published Morton’s book.

Are you in favour of the French privacy law which forbids newspapers to pry into people’s personal lives? 

The trouble is the French don’t find the law very satisfactory. It is an extremely difficult problem, but if we instigate censorship, then it has to apply to everybody, and censorship is a very big and undiscriminating club; it may hit the sort of thing we deplore now, but it will hit a lot of other things as well and make freedom of the press very much more restricted in ways unthought of, unexpected and not desired. There are two different sorts: there is the Andrew Morton book about the Princess of Wales which doesn’t involve privacy so much – it may involve indiscretions of ‘friends’ and possibly the encouragement of the Princess herself but one doesn’t know whether that’s true or not; the bugged telephone conversation is quite a different matter – that really is Peeping Tom stuff.  And I think there should be some way of stopping that by law. In America you’re not allowed to tape anybody’s conversation, even if he’s a friend, without telling him you are doing it.

Don’t you think that in Britain we are rather hypocritical about sex? Someone in public life who is a womanizer is a hero among his friends as long as he’s not caught; once caught he becomes ostracized. 

Do you know the famous story about Disraeli and Palmerston? Just before a general election in this country when Disraeli was leader of his party, his aides came to him and said they had a wonderful story about Palmerston – that although over seventy he had made some lady pregnant. Naturally his aides wanted to publicize it; but Disraeli said, ‘Are you out of your minds? If this gets out Palmerston will sweep the country.’

In 1979 there was a public row between the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, over the Jeremy Thorpe affair between the Sunday Telegraph’s offer to buy the memoirs of Mr Peter Bessell, the chief prosecuting witness. Do you think with hindsight it was right for the Sunday Telegraph to offer Bessell a financial incentive for a Thorpe conviction? 

We were advised that it was perfectly safe. We bought his memoirs quite a long time before the case came up; he’d already given his evidence to the prosecution, and it had been circulated to the defence, so there was nothing more he could say other than what was already in his evidence which he was going to give the court. Some bright spark, I don’t know who it was, put in the contract that we would pay him double if a conviction was secured. That’s what got us into trouble with Mr Justice Cantley. I was attacked afterwards in the House of Lords by Lord Wigoden, who is a friend of mine, and Lord Elwyn Jones. I replied at some lengths and Wigoden congratulated me on my speech; he said it was like a speech where an attorney had no case but puts up a very good one.

But with hindsight, would you do it again? 

Certainly not. Principally because Bessell’s story was so frightfully boring – just a repetition of what he’d said in court – and certainly I wouldn’t give double money.

1985 was a very difficult year for you, perhaps the most difficult in your career, when you were unable to prevent financial control of the newspaper slipping out of your hands. The financial disaster seems to have been rooted in two things: your commitment to the £100 million modernization package, and an overwhelmingly generous redundancy agreement with the unions. Would you agree with that analysis? 

No. It was generous, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly generous. The modernization programme was rather complicated but I’ll try to make it simple. It had two components – electronic composing and banks of new-style printing machinery (more modern than anybody else’s), the horse and cart. Unfortunately there was a definite date when the cart had to start so that the time the horse had to be schooled in (a long process) was far too short for comfort. The experts said that eighteen months was the right period to allow for training our own compositors to work electronic composing as distinct from the old Lynotypes using hot metal. The compositors’ union (the NGA) saw here a wonderful weapon for extracting the maximum concessions from the management: it would not allow electronic machines into the Fleet Street building until about Christmas ’84, and even then we didn’t start training until May or June ’85, barely six months before the deadline for the cart. The latter date had been determined by the unexpected action of our Manchester Contract printers throwing us out of their works, so that we had to provide not just our new building housing new printing machines in London but a second one in Manchester, most of whose composing would be done in London. The result in the composing room was chaos. We had to have two composing rooms – one old technology, one new technology – running in tandem. The paper was always late, always filthy with misprints, the malaise spread to other departments, trains were missed, hundreds of thousands of copies remained unprinted, management set a nightly limit on the number of columns that could be set, readers gave up in droves. All this began to happen just as we were finalizing our funding plans. The effect on profits was profound. What’s more, it was just the time when unemployment was reaching its peak and the revenue from job advertising, in which we always led the field, fell right away. To cap it all, the Chancellor in the March budget of ’85, put VAT on advertising which had a tremendous effect on us. So all told, our revenue was slipping away and our costs, instead of going down, were going up. The cost-saving new machinery had not yet come into use.

Max Hastings has said: ‘The great enigma remains the readiness with which Hartwell, without trying to find a more sympathetic investor, sold fourteen per cent of the newspaper to a Canadian he met only once in a New York airport hotel.’ What comment would you make on that? 

In about 1975 we started to look for a new building site, and eventually we found it in the new enterprise zone which had great financial advantages. The question was one of how we were going to finance the new planet. First of all, we tried to raise money on loan from our banks but the banks said our capital base was too restricted. Then our merchant bankers said we’d have to raise thirty millions in ordinary shares, and the syndicate of banks decided they’d put up the money. We came on the market in May and the first twenty millions went immediately. Then there was a long interval, and the last ten millions could not be raised. At that point our advisors found Conrad Black of whom I’d never heard. I had to do something fast since we had the machinery ordered. Conrad Black was unable to come over to London for another week, and since our advisers said they couldn’t wait that long, I decided to go and see him. I got into a Concorde with the managing director (the finance director could not get a visa on Bank Holiday Monday), and we saw Conrad Black in New York where he agreed to back us. But he did not want always to be a minority shareholder and he insisted that should we need more financing he should be able to increase his proportionate stake. I did not see how I could avoid agreeing to his terms. We had been advised we’d get by quite all right, and that’s when the trouble started, because when we did need more money Black had my rights. I didn’t sell out to him; he bought in, so to speak.

It is of course easy to be wise after the event, but looking back, is there one crucial thing which you wish you had done differently? Would you for example have allowed Black the option of increasing his stake to the point of taking control? 

We had been advised that we’d got plenty of money there. I took great trouble going through the prospectus for the investors, but I didn’t take any trouble at all in going through the covenants we were signing with the bankers who stipulate various levels of profits at various stages. I remember that on 30 June, which was the financial deadline, I was made to sign a dozen documents which had been thrashed out by ten lawyers who had been arguing about them for a month. For instance, the saving we expected to make in our costs should have covered the interest on our loans. Of course it didn’t. In the end it turned out that our wonderful new Manchester site actually cost more to run. What was planned is what is called a leasing arrangement. Banks agree to put up large capital sums to pay for equipment which you don’t have to repay until the equipment is installed and running. In return for their patience they expect to see your plan of how you will provide the profits in stages, so as eventually to repay the total. When you borrow in this fashion you covenant at least to reach the level of profitability in the plan. If you fail at any stage, the deal is off, or has to be renegotiated. Thus when in a far bigger scheme like the Channel Tunnel you see that the banks have promised £8 billion or whatever it is but are refusing to advance more than six, it means that the covenant has been broken.

There are those who have suggested that the tragedy might have been averted if you had been more willing to take advice. Is that something you found difficult to do? 

I didn’t get the advice. Perhaps I should have asked for advice. I should have had more detail about whether we would ever require any more money. I didn’t. I was told it was going to be alright so I didn’t question it. I didn’t ever reject any advice; it’s advice I didn’t get which I regret not having.

But before the sell-out you dismissed reports of a crisis… 

It wasn’t a sell-out…I didn’t sell out.

But you dismissed speculation that you would be forced to lose control. You even wrote an open letter to readers of the Telegraph explaining developments in the paper, a letter full of hope for the future. It must have been all the more painful when events took the turn they did. Did you suffer a personal sense of having let people down? 

No, I didn’t. I had a sense of personal humiliation. I don’t think I let anybody down. I personally assisted those who weren’t to continue in the new regime where I thought them rather shabbily treated. So I don’t think I would say I let people down.

I understand that Andreas Whittam Smith, at the time a journalist with the Telegraph, offered you financial advice along the lines of selling shares to Telegraph readers. People say that you were deeply offended by his advice. Was that true? 

Quite untrue. I wasn’t offended by it. In fact I took it on board, but the trouble was we were already in the middle of this issue and it would have been swapping horses in midstream. If I had stopped then, God knows what would have happened. Anyway, you can’t raise thirty million pounds from your readers. I didn’t think it was a very practical idea, but I didn’t take the decision to turn it down myself. I think I referred it to our financial advisers and I was told it wasn’t on.

Shortly afterwards Whittam Smith’s decision to start his own newspaper and take two Telegraph journalists with him was leaked. With characteristic good manners you wished them well, but it is said that privately you felt a deep sense of betrayal. Is that true? 

No. It’s true that I did wish him well, but I didn’t feel a sense of betrayal. I didn’t think the paper would fall to pieces because he’d gone. I didn’t particularly like his taking two journalists; one I was delighted to lose, and the other one I much regretted. I won’t say which.

You are accused of never having stood up to the unions in the way that Murdoch, for example, did. It is said that you looked upon all your employees as friends, that there was no ‘them and us’ situation at the Telegraph. Is this an accurate portrayal, and if so is it something you feel proud of or embarrassed about? 

I did go on a bit about there being no ‘them or us’. Till 1979 my brother and I owned all the ordinary shares; then we decided to make them all over into a trust. We didn’t want to pay big dividends, but if we didn’t pay dividends commensurate with our profits, the surtax people would have taken about ninety-eight per cent, many which should have been left in the company. One of the ways of getting out of their clutches was to put it all into a trust, and the rules of trust were that the income was to be used for either the paper or the employees, all at our discretion. (When it came to the crunch I did lend £3 million to the company to sustain the company’s cash. The trust didn’t have any money so I had to borrow it from my family.) When appealing to staff to try to behave like human beings, I said there was no more them and us, that was the context of it.

But did you regret the stand you took? Would you have done a Murdoch if you had had a second chance? 

You couldn’t do a Murdoch unless you had a separate plant. And Murdoch never intended to do what he ended up doing. His companies were weaker with the unions than practically everybody else, and we were really as tough as anybody. When he put up the plant, an old-fashioned letterpress plant, he told me it was for the News of the World and the Sun, and if it worked happily then later he would add to the plant in order to accommodate the Sunday Times and The Times. That building stuck there for six years after it had been finished, rusting up, and nothing happening. Eventually he made a proposition to the Sun and the News of the World people to move down there, but the unions wouldn’t wear it. He lost his temper and was advised that the only way to get people out was to so manoeuvre them that they would all go on strike at once; and that’s they managed to do. Unlike an ordinary strike where one union is out and you have to pay all the other ones, they all went out at once and they had dismissed themselves. It was a great stroke doing it, and very clever organization, but it wasn’t a thing that anybody else could do because they didn’t have a plant to move to. Eventually when our plant was ready much later, the new management did give new contracts, and if the staff wouldn’t accept them, then they were out. Wapping was a great blessing for everybody else, because you were then able to do this kind of thing, and the unions became like Samson without his hair.

In 1986 you experienced yet more difficulties when effectively you lost editorial control over the newspaper. Was that even more painful for you than the loss of financial control? 

I should have resigned straightaway. Black said he wanted me to remain as editor-in-chief, but he also authorized Andrew Knight, who appointed editors over my head, to report not to me but to him.

You didn’t know Max Hastings, but you said of Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘He couldn’t edit a school magazine, let alone a national newspaper.’ On what did you base this low opinion? 

My experience of him. I used my judgement of him.

Your own son Adrian, though loyal to you, spoke out in Worsthorne’s defence and though he wouldn’t vote against you, he decided to abstain. You must have regretted that the troubles at the Telegraph divided the family in this way.

I did, but because I had lost the vote so handsomely his abstention didn’t make any difference.

You have been reluctant to offer any judgement on the new breed of newspaper tycoon. Does silence conceal contempt in this instance? 

No. Reticence forbids it, though that sounds very condescending. Most of them are not journalists, you see, and I don’t think non-journalists ought to run newspapers. It’s like hiring a jockey who has never ridden a horse.

Are you saying that the old traditional proprietor was basically a journalist? 

Yes. Even Beaverbrook was a marvellous journalist, a natural journalist, and even though he wasn’t trained as one, he quickly became one. He is reported to have said when he appointed Beverly Baxter editor after Blumenfeld retired in the 1920s: ‘I’m appointing you editor of the Daily Express because you know even less about journalism than I do.’ I wouldn’t say he was a very nice man, but he did put sophistication into a popular paper, so that it was read by all sections of the public.

How do you view Murdoch? 

He’s become purely a financier. He’s very good at tabloids, but he’s never had a success with a serious paper anywhere, here or Australia. The success of the Sunday Times is not his at all. Anyway, I don’t like the way it’s going at all, quite apart from the scandals.

How do you view the Telegraph now? 

I don’t want to discuss my successors at all. I think they’re producing a very good paper on the whole. Naturally they’re not doing it exactly the way I would, but maybe I’m out of date.

This year you wrote a letter to the Telegraph which spelt out your own anti-federalist, anti-ERM view of Europe. Do you align yourself with Lady Thatcher in this regard? 

That something of a poisoned chalice, but I personally thought the Bruges speech very sound, though not over-burdened with tact. What ERM means is fixed rates of exchange, and that is always disastrous. Rates of exchange to my mind depend on purchasing power parity, and our purchasing power is not at all the same as it was. That’s why I do agree wholeheartedly with Lady Thatcher who says you can’t buck the market. That’s what we tried to do, with disastrous results. We are striving, it seems, to be at the heart of Europe. The heart of Europe, under ERM rules, is either in Herr Kohl’s waiting room or in Carey Street.

Why do you think the government is sacrificing everything for the sake of a strong pound? 

Why indeed? The exchange rate is the answer to the equation; it’s not a constant.

What is it you are proudest of having done – was it founding the Sunday Telegraph in 1961? Was that the high point of your career, do you think? 

No, it was an obvious thing to do. I preserved the integrity, the popularity and the eventual prosperity of the Daily Telegraph, and the fact that I wasn’t there to see it happen doesn’t matter. The whole thing was planned by my team, and if things had worked out right, we should have succeeded. The costing was right to within two percent.

So what do you see as your proudest moment? 

My first job on a newspaper was on the sports page of the Aberdeen Evening Express and after my first day subbing, the chief sub said to me almost angrily, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d done this before?’

You were perhaps the last great gentleman proprietor and when you left it was in some sense the end of an era. When you look back on your life, do you think mainly of your great achievements, or are they now overlaid with a sense of loss and perhaps failure? 

They are overlaid with a sense of failure; certainly loss, and failure in so far as I didn’t see it through. But I think it has worked out for the best in the end. It has certainly benefited my family, because in the last two years we have made quite a lot of money out of the Telegraph, and it’s gone not to my brother and myself, but to our nephews and nieces and their children. It has been more to their financial advantage than if I had soldiered on with no intention of selling anything.

How have you coped during the last ten years since the death of your wife? 

Certainly it has made me a much lonelier figure. I also feel that she would have been greatly upset at my losing control of the newspaper. She was terribly loyal to me and she realized that I was bound up in this thing with my whole life, and she would have been deeply shocked to see the present regime, or me out of it. She would have been much more conscious of my failure than I am. That she was not there to see it is my only consolation at our parting.

John Bird’s Clash with the Labour Party

John Bird, co-founder of the Big Issue and author of The Necessity of Poverty, published by Quartet in 2012, must have been in a rather enraged form when he let rip at Ed Miliband in an article he wrote for the Daily Mail recently.

His scathing attack on the Labour leader from a man who was himself brought up in an orphanage, served time in a young offenders’ institute in his teens, and slept rough with London’s homeless, shows to what extent Ed has infuriated his followers and lost their respect.

Bird describes his catalogue of gaffs, from clumsily eating a bacon sandwich to pausing in a ‘feminist’ T-shirt made by exploited female workers, in public appearances during recent months.

He goes on to say that few of these moments have been more awkward than his spontaneous decision to give some loose change to a young beggar while he walked along a street in Manchester earlier this month.

Adding to this, he concludes that if that was an attempt to parade his decency it backfired disastrously.

Instead of looking compassionate, he came across as foolish, opportunistic and embarrassed. And to make matters worse, the recipient of his generosity was later identified as a fourteen-year-old girl and Romanian immigrant – some of whom are causing mayhem through their begging activities in our streets.

No wonder the Labour party is becoming a target for derision, with power no longer effectively in their sights.

Ed Miliband’s lacklustre personality will cost them dearly and unless they change leadership and do away with some of their ideological lunacy, they are bound to be cast aside by the electorate and spend years in the political wilderness – from which they will find it hard to shake off.

The Conservatives, despite their numerous problems, especially with Europe and the division within their ranks, must feel re-energised at the spectacle of Labour losing their grip and making fools of themselves and becoming a laughing stock without probably realising it.

The next general election looks like being catastrophic in many ways, but oddly it might eventually bring reform to the political system which has for many years deteriorated almost to the point of no return.

Let’s pray that salvation is knocking at the door, and someone will have the good sense to see it.

Alison Love

Last night Quartet marked the publication of The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom by Alison Love at an illustrious gathering at Daunt Books in Holland Park.

Here is what I said in my address to celebrate the occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are assembled here today to celebrate the launch of a marvellous book by a very gifted author whose style and storytelling are uniquely breathtaking.

When Maggie Hanbury, her charming agent, sent me the manuscript and I started reading it over a weekend, I could not put it down. My reaction was immediate and my enthusiasm to have it published very quickly gave me a thrill which I had not experienced for a long time.

It is all about Soho, my hunting ground for many years and where my offices stood for over four decades.

The story begins in 1937. When struggling Italian singer Antonio meets the wife of his wealthy new patron he recognises her instantly: it is Olivia, the captivating dance hostess he once encountered in the seedy Paradise Ballroom. Olivia is afraid that Antonio will betray the secrets of her past, but little by little they are drawn together, outsiders in a glittering world to which they do not belong. At last, with conflict looming across Europe, the attraction between them becomes impossible to resist – but when Italy declares war on Britain, the impact threatens to separate them for ever.

The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is an epic tale set against the backdrop of war-torn Europe – from a celebrated voice.

You have to read the book to realise the impact of a story told with such flair and compassion that it will leave you engrossed and wanting more.

I need not tell you that your support for the book would reflect the number of copies you buy, so please be generous and give the author the accolade her book deserves.

Let Alison leave these premises feeling encouraged to keep writing works of such great merit.

My Dream for the Holy Land

It’s a great pity that the Israeli authorities have banned Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor and the co-author of Eyes in Gaza (published by Quartet Books), from entering Gaza.

They cite ‘security reasons’ for shutting him off from the Gaza Strip.

The sixty-seven-year-old Norwegian has travelled to and from Gaza to treat Palestinians who are short of medical care due to the high casualties they suffered during the Israeli bombardment.

Gilbert says, ‘When we came back to the Erez border station, the Israeli soldiers told me that I could not go into Gaza.’

The Norwegian embassy in Tel Aviv who took up the case on Gilbert’s behalf after he was refused entry last month, was told that Dr Gilbert was banned for security reasons.

Norway’s secretary of state, Bård Glad Pedersen, said: ‘From the Norwegian perspective we have raised Gilbert’s exclusion from Gaza and asked Israel to change their decision. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is still difficult and there is a need for all health workers.’

Gilbert himself believes the decision is connected to his critical comments against the state of Israel.

The outspoken peace activist wrote a letter to the global media in July this year in which he spoke about the extreme conditions in the Gaza hospital where he worked,

Israel, in this particular case, should feel great responsibility, to say the least, for the carnage – whatever the circumstances – and show the world that humanitarian issues are sacrosanct and put their emotions to one side.

Peace in the long term is the only answer, and both sides in the conflict should wake up to the fact that nothing is gained today through the use of the gun.

I pray that in my lifetime I will see the Holy Land once again in a state of eternal harmony among all its citizens. That’s my dream, which I hope will be fulfilled.

The Irrepressible Jean-Paul Goude

Kim Kardashian West reveals her bare arse to maximum effect.

Her followers on the internet exceed perhaps more than those of Beyoncé or stars of that calibre, yet her rise to fame is mostly through her ability to hog the limelight in every way possible.

She uses her hidden bits in a form that enrages her competitors and exposes them with an audacity rarely encountered by celebrities who play at the same game.

She is without doubt the queen of strippers who has perfected the role of unearthing the gems of her nakedness.

And now, photographed for Paper magazine in New York by Jean-Paul Goude, once described most aptly by Esquire as ‘the French correction’, Goude performs his art to bring nature in closer conformity to his fantasies, which can be outrageously expressed and sexually threatening.

I first met Jean-Paul Goude in 1982 when Quartet published his notorious book Jungle Fever, with a naked Grace Jones in a steel cage roaring like a tigress with the caption: ‘DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.’

The book caused uproar as the feminists went on the warpath and were in a tizzy state of mind that gave the book the commercial edge that publishers dream about.

Goude’s work has always pushed the limits of an artist who uses the best means available to get a point across. In that respect Kim Kardashian has found the perfect photographer to enhance her fantasies as well as his own.

Jean-Paul Goude I’m glad to say has lost none of his sharpness, nor his ultimate goal to shock – especially when he meets the boldness and chutzpah of his quarries.

The pictures of Grace Jones and Kim Kardashian remind us that he’s still on top of his craft and buoyancy, which seem to survive the vicissitudes of time.

As for Kim, the road she has chosen remains a perilous one and like a rose has a prickly stem.

John Mortimer

John Mortimer QC was born in 1923 and educated at Harrow and Brasenose College, Oxford.

He was called to the bar in 1948 and participated in several celebrated civil cases such as the Oz trial. His series of novels featuring an amiable defence barrister were adapted for television as Rumpole of the Bailey. His acclaimed autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father (1971) was filmed for television in 1982, winning an Emmy award.

During the war he worked with the Crown Film Unit and published a number of novels, before turning to theatre.  He wrote many film scripts, and plays both for radio and television – the Rumpole plays, which won him the British Academy Writer of the Year Award – but his most famous script was perhaps the internationally successful adaptation he wrote of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Mortimer wrote four volumes of autobiography, including Clinging to the Wreckage and Where There’s a Will (2003).  His novels include the Leslie Titmuss trilogy, about the rise of an ambitious Tory MP –  Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained and The Sound of Trumpets - and the acclaimed comic novel, Quite Honestly (2005).  Sir John Mortimer received a knighthood for his services to the arts. He died in 2009, aged eighty-five.

I thoroughly enjoyed our interview which took place in 1993. He was a man of great charm, wit and compassion.

Yours was the sort of childhood that, had you grown up into a complete neurotic or developed almost any other kind of psychosis, it would have been entirely explicable in terms of your early years. How on earth did you turn out to be so normal? 

It’s a question whether I am normal at all. In many ways, however, I had a very happy childhood because I had a father and mother who treated me very well and always as though I was a grown up; and I was an only child which has its advantages in that you grow up very quickly. I was treated like a good friend, especially by my father. He flew into terrible rages with other people but never with me, and my mother was long suffering and loving. So although I was very lonely because my father never wanted visitors who would see he was blind and feel sorry for him, I didn’t have an unhappy childhood. I went to ridiculous English schools which I didn’t like, but on the other hand I was able to adjust to them and survive them because I had a very secure relationship with my parents.

Both your parents were adept at not acknowledging reality. Your father did not admit to his blindness and your mother, long after his death, continued to behave as if he had not died. This phenomenon of making light of sorrow and grief, if that’s what it is, is something quintessentially English. Is it something you perpetuate in your own life? 

You’re right – it is quintessentially English. There is a wonderful story about Lord Uxbridge whose leg was shot off at the Battle of Waterloo, and when the Duke of Wellington said, ‘By God, Uxbridge, you’ve lost your leg,’ Lord Uxbridge looked down and said, ‘By God, sir, so I have!’ And nothing else was said on the subject. But that isn’t altogether a failure to accept reality; it’s more a stoical attitude to life which I think is quite admirable. Whether it’s stoic courage or whether it’s a refusal to face facts, I’m not quite sure, but that’s how I prefer to live. I can quite easily put unpleasant facts out of my head – I don’t think about death for instance.

Are you confident that you can look back now and remember your father as he really was, or has the act of extensive writing about him to some extent fictionalized him and put him beyond reach? 

I find it very difficult to separate fact from fiction. A writer is constantly taking life and turning it into fiction, regurgitating it, and sending it out to the world, altered or not. Certainly when I wrote the play about my father, I wrote many lines for him which he never said in his life, and now it’s quite difficult for me to remember which ones were his and which were mine. He’s become a sort of fictional character and not like other people’s fathers who are contained entirely in themselves and their memories.

Was it partly your intention when you wrote A Voyage Round My Father to lose your father? 

Not at all. I wanted to write a play about my father and also to celebrate the peculiarly English middle-class attitude to life of that period. That was my intention, but the effect of it has been perhaps that my father has vanished or turned into a different character from what he really was.

Woody Allen once said of Jesus that he was very well adjusted for an only child. Do you think the same could be said of you? 

I don’t know whether I’m very well adjusted. I’ve had a very easy life compared with anyone who has lived in Europe or in other parts of the world, and the period I’ve lived in has been very safe. Only children are fortunate really, in that they very quickly have to learn to live a grown-up life and they have terrific resources within themselves. I led a very strong imaginative life when I was a child, and was able to adjust well to most things in life.

Despite your professed loathing for public schools, you seem not to have been too unhappy at Harrow, or was that an attempt to make the best of a bad experience? 

Apart from being very homesick, I had a good experience at my prep school, the Dragon School in Oxford, which was a very good school indeed. I was treated very well, and it was a progressive school for the time and even had a few girls. Instead of having to play games which I hated, I was given a bar of chocolate and sent off to the Oxford Rep Theatre, which was very agreeable. Then I went to Harrow where I was just indescribably bored. It was full of vaguely upper-class people whom I learned to dislike. I wasn’t bullied or beaten – none of those dramatic things; I was just bored and being educated slightly above my station.

Is it the idea of sending a young child away at so early an age which is the basis of your objection? 

Yes. It’s a most extraordinary English habit, and I never quite forgave my mother. Strangely enough, I could understand my father wanting to get rid of me, and I sympathized with him, but I couldn’t quite understand why my mother did. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong to be dismissed to some draughty distant building. Not that I haven’t had children at boarding school myself, but that was when I was young and busy and less thoughtful, less considerate perhaps. But the idea of handing over the upbringing of your child to strangers is very weird, and I think people who run English prep schools also tend to be extremely weird. My son went to Bedales, a coeducational boarding school, which I suppose is rather different. He liked it there and met a girl who is now his wife, and they’ve been together ever since. And I myself owe a debt to the public-school system, since it gave me an immense amount to write about it. Making fun of public-school attitudes and English upper- and middle-class attitudes, has been my stock in trade over the years, so if I hadn’t been there I don’t know what I would have to write about.

You have often said that you believe in middle-class virtues. Can you explain to me what these are? 

They are really the virtues I saw in my mother and father, those virtues I was trying to celebrate in A Voyage Round My Father. To begin with, it wasn’t anything to do with money, for they felt money was quite ridiculous and certainly not the most important thing. They were both liberal, my mother a sort of Shavian new woman, my father an old-fashioned Lloyd George Liberal. They were professional people, my father especially in the sense that he gave very good service to the clients he was acting for. He didn’t think about it for money, though he liked being paid. In those days barristers often did cases for nothing, and I certainly started that way. There was a kind of tradition of middle-class professionalism, of tolerance, liberalism, all of those things, which I admire. The middle classes have been the source of most of the strength of England, and most writers have come from the middle class. With the exception of Byron and Shelley, the aristocracy hasn’t produced many writers, and working-class traditions have tended to keep people in rather stereotyped conditions of mind. Political change also has come mainly from the middle classes, and all the best revolutionaries have been middle class.

Your books and plays have evoked, often savagely, the moral decline of the middle class. Do you consider yourself to be a part of that decline? 

The moral decline in England came really in the Thatcher years, when all of those values I admire were derided. The idea that making money was important and everything had its price and had to be sold at the best price, all of those things marked the decline, in my view. And no, I don’t consider myself any part of that. I consider myself to be an old-fashioned liberal middle-class person.

There is a character in Paradise Postponed who is in favour of the working classes running the country while at the same time doubting if these were the kind of people she would have to tea. Does that perhaps epitomize the dichotomy in your own attitude towards the working class? 

In Paradise Postponed I wanted to be as rude about my side as I was about the other side. I was getting at a type of mandarin left-wing person, particularly of that era of the Webbs, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf and those sort of people, who managed to combine the view that the working classes should take over the world, with the feeling that they themselves, being extremely privileged Bloomsbury persons, wouldn’t have them to tea. But I don’t think that that’s my own attitude. I’m as sceptical about liberal left-wing policies as I am about everything else. The radio quarrel with Julie Burchill when she accused me of being a snob made me think very closely about whether I am one, but I honestly don’t think so.

You have sometimes described yourself as a ‘committed leftie’. What does that mean in fact? 

A committed leftie is how I would be described by other people, but it’s quite a difficult thing to explain. When I was at the Dragon School the Spanish Civil War was on, and I read – perhaps quite ill-advisedly – a lot of Auden and Spender and T.S. Eliot when I was really quite young, so those attitudes of the 1930s, the republican side of the Civil War, and so on, all of that was very immediate to me. Then when I went to Harrow which was upper class and full of rich people I became a one-boy Communist cell. There was an English public school Communist Party and I used to get messages from King Street but I stopped being interested at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Then I went into something called the Crown Film Unit, making documentary films during the war, and it was there, for the first time in my life, I met the working class, the workers so to speak. I became a member of the union and I felt extremely left-wing, and then came the great Labour victory of 1945. All those events throughout my life have encouraged me to believe in essential equality and in some version of socialism. But there are all sorts of leftie things which I’m not in favour of, like eating muesli or being against fox-hunting. I don’t really accept the entire left ticket, but I would always vote Labour, though with increasing scepticism.

Do you think your views have changed dramatically since the early days of 1945? 

No, but perhaps if that government had never existed, then it would have been difficult to remain faithful to the Labour Party. Those memories and those ideals have kept me going.

Isn’t that a very English attitude in the sense that those who vote Conservative do so all their lives, and those who vote Labour continue to follow the Party line? Do you think that’s a good thing? 

I think it’s a good thing not to vote Conservative, for whatever reason.

Your fellow barrister Geoffrey Robertson said of you: ‘There is a legal part of John Mortimer’s work which is deeply conservative, deeply rooted in the law.’ Do you think that was the case when you practised? 

It is absolutely true to say there is a part of me which is deeply conservative: I want the countryside to be kept as it is, I don’t want the English landscape to change, and I want English country life to be kept as it is. I’m also very conservative about the British Constitution which I think works very well, and about the British system of justice. My whole attitude towards being a barrister is that the law is a kind of disease and you should try and cure your clients of it as quickly as possible. I always regarded the law as something which was getting in the way of a client’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and that my business was to extricate him from the law as mercifully as possible. When I started as a barrister the divorce law was absolutely ridiculous, in that you had to try and establish who was guilty and who was innocent, whereas there’s really no such thing as guilt or innocence in marital breakdown. So what you had to do was to try and solve people’s problems, and get them out of the clutches of the law. That’s how I always regarded my work as a barrister.

When you say you believe in the British Constitution, does that apply to the monarchy? 

My theory about the monarchy is that it’s much better to have a head of state who isn’t political. The mistake of America is to have the head of state who is the prime minister, so to speak, which gives an American president a quite undeserved patriotic glow because you can’t really criticize the president without criticizing America. It’s an excellent thing to have a head of state who does not have any political powers and for that reason I’ve always thought the monarchy a good idea, though I’m becoming increasingly unsure about whether it can survive, even though it has good constitutional uses. The ridiculous thing is that people expect the monarchy to mirror decent family life or moral standards, but any hereditary line is going to have people who behave extremely foolishly from time to time. We have to evolve our own moral standards and not look to the monarchy to do it for us.

You married for the first time when you were twenty-six and inherited a ready-made family of four children. After the solitude of your own childhood, did the prospect of a large family attract you, as it might have terrified others? 

I think it did. I was really entranced by the idea of a lot of children and since then I’ve never lived without children around. I have children now of all possible ages, from forty-two to eight years old. I think it did have to do with the loneliness of my childhood.

Since your wife had first to secure a divorce before you could be married, you went to considerable lengths to be cited as co-respondent. One imagines that in those days it was a rather sordid business with a great deal of stigma attaching to it… 

It was particularly difficult for me because my father was the doyen of the divorce bar, and it was difficult for him too, although his colleagues behaved very well about it. We used to go to endless numbers of hotels and try and make people remember we’d been there. No one ever did, but in the end a private detective called Mr Smith came to the house and found our clothes in the same bedroom, and then I made a confession. Mr Smith later gave evidence in court that we were living together. The following week I was conducting my first case as a barrister and I had to call this same Mr Smith as a witness to the adultery of the people whose case I was handling. For the next thirty years I called Mr Smith to testify about once a week. We sometimes had coffee together but we’d never refer to the time when he came and inspected my bedroom. One day Mr Smith was walking across a pedestrian crossing and a police car came buzzing along and nearly ran him over, so he hit the police car on the roof in a fit of anger, whereupon the policeman arrested him. Mr Smith sued the police for false arrest. As he needed a witness to say he was a thoroughly reliable and decent chap, I went to court and said I’d known Mr Smith for thirty years and he was an absolutely truthful, honest character. He got substantial damages.

Your marriage to the first Penelope was legendary in its tempestuousness. Most people would find perpetual fighting draining and debilitating, yet you continued to work hard and write hard. Did you perhaps find a certain exhilaration or energy in the conflict?

Not really. I had £5 a week from my father, four children to feed, a very large house in Hampstead, and another house somebody gave us in the countryside. So I really had to work. I not only earned money by divorcing people, but I wrote anything – stories for women’s magazines, anything. Two writers married to each other is an impossible situation, because you’re using the same material and using each other’s lives. It was certainly tempestuous, but it gave us both a lot of material, and it wasn’t without moments of happiness. When I look back on it now, however, I can’t think how I survived it, not only because the marriage was at times stormy, but because I was working flat out as a barrister and a writer, and also enjoying myself quite a lot. I must have had enormous stamina. The funny thing about that time is that I would often leave the house in the morning battered after some long argument or angry scene, and then I’d go down to my chambers in the Temple and give advice to elderly company directors on exactly how they should conduct their married lives. Everybody else’s life was absolutely easy to put right.

Your father was much given to angry outbursts. Did you inherit his predisposition to anger? 

No. His anger made me very calm, and I have very few angry outbursts. What I have in common with my father is a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. He had a long succession of jokes about his life, which he told very well, and he would laugh until the tears ran down his face. We shared a sense of the absurdity of life, coupled with rather a sentimental attitude to it also. My father would weep in the theatre, yet he would make an attempt to deal stoically with his life, which is what I liked about him. I actually miss him all the time and I’m terribly overshadowed by him. When I came to live in his house I found it difficult to do anything to it, to change anything about it for a long time, and I do find myself with the feeling that I’m repeating his life.

In Clinging to the Wreckage you describe your married life as a feverish round of longing for lucrative divorce briefs to defray ‘the family’s extraordinary demands for Farex, Ribena, Johnson’s Baby Powder and knicker linings’. Were there compensations to offset this heavy load, or do you remember it as unmitigated wretchedness? 

Not at all as unmitigated wretchedness. The children were a great pleasure, and it’s very nice that I still see them a lot. And there came a time when the desperation to buy the knicker linings calmed down; Penelope had a contract with the New Yorker, and I was beginning to make money by writing plays and doing bigger divorce cases. So it didn’t go on forever.

One of the things you learned from being a divorce lawyer is that people on the whole don’t rush into divorce as they do into marriage, and that – as you put it – ‘any human relationship, however painful and absurd, can seem better than the uncharted desert of divorce’. Was that the sentiment which kept your own storm marriage going for about twenty-five years? 

I think it was the children really, and it certainly wasn’t stormy all the time. What a lot of my clients feared was being alone; they would rather have the quarrels, or they’d even rather live with people they never spoke to, than be alone. I don’t think I thought that. I didn’t think I’d be alone if I was divorced, so it was really the children, and also there was a lot of affection.

Did you see Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater as a sort of revenge? 

I honestly didn’t. I thought it was a very good book, and I don’t really feel that I’m like the person in The Pumpkin Eater. You’ve got to write about what’s happened to you; that’s what I do too, and it’s not revenge.

Your play The Wrong Side of the Park contains thinly disguised elements of your first marriage. Did writing that make you feel better about the painful aspects of marital breakdown? 

Yes, I think it did, but again I don’t think it should be seen as a deliberate personal act within a relationship. It is an example of the writer’s solitary way of trying to translate his experiences into some form of art.

In much of your writing the distinction between fact and fiction is rather blurred. Are there any dangers in this, do you think? 

Of course there are, and it’s a very interesting subject. Nothing is the literal truth, or the whole truth. That goes for journalism, documentaries and novels. In a sense the most truth comes from fiction. Tolstoy is the writer who comes nearest to telling the truth about life; you get much nearer the truth by reading Tolstoy than you do if you see some documentary or read a book which is meant to be a discussion of history. History is all written from somebody’s point of view; it’s a question of choice. Fiction is telling a story to make people want to know what is going to happen next, but it is really the writer’s attempt to make some statement about life. The facts of the story need not be true, but the statement should be true, it should be a statement of the truth.

After the breakdown of your first marriage you had two promiscuous years. Were those the years you should have had before you married perhaps? 

Absolutely. I became middle aged quite early on, and then I had to go back to being young again. I didn’t go totally mad, but I was always on the lookout. I think I’m naturally somebody who wants to live with a family and children, and I wouldn’t now like to have to embark at my age on a promiscuous period. I think it would be very exhausting – all that planning and wondering and making telephone calls…

Your father thought that sex, like love, had been greatly overestimated by the poets. Did you have any sympathy with this view? 

I disagreed with it at the time. He derived tremendous fun from pricking and preconceived ideas and making them look absurd. For example, he would always say that travel narrowed the mind, and you learned much more by staying at home. So he would dismiss any kind of large idea that sex or love was the greatest thing in the world. Yet he was very much in love with his wife, and she with him.

Are you romantic at heart? 

Yes, I would say so. I like romanticism mixed with – not exactly cynicism – but common sense, as in Stendhal, or Byron.

You wrote in your autobiography: ‘The basic morality on which law is founded has always seemed to me inferior to those moral values which everyone must work out for themselves.’ That would seem to suggest that our legal system is very crude and unsophisticated… 

Yes, I think that’s right. The legal system is like some sort of public utility: cleaning the drains, washing the streets, stopping people knocking each other on the head, or taking each other’s wallets…but not much else. The subtler points of life will not be decided by law. That’s why, for instance, I’m against all censorship laws, because I don’t think the law should tell people what they should read or what they should not read, or intrude into their private morality. Those are things they must discover for themselves. The law can do simple things, like stopping robberies, and compensating if you’re run over, but when it gets into the intricate realms of morality it makes a fool of itself.

Would you agree that our adversarial system is not necessarily conducive to the truth and that success is often due to powerful rhetoric? 

I’m in favour of the adversarial system. An English trial isn’t an exercise to discover the truth, it’s an exercise to discover whether in a criminal trial the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. It’s absolutely right that people should not be sent to prison unless their guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt. That doesn’t mean that at the end of a criminal trial the truth has been discovered; the person might be guilty but there might not be enough evidence to satisfy a jury. That’s a much better system than having a judge as a kind of Hercule Poirot trying to ferret out the truth which he may be wrong about. I have grave doubts about how much rhetoric alters the adversarial system. You can lose cases by making mistakes, but I think it’s quite difficult to win unwinnable cases with rhetoric.

You used to say when you grew up you would decide between being a writer and a barrister. Since you have left the Bar, does that mean you have finally grown up? 

A good question. I didn’t decide for years and years to leave the Bar, and I think I left it about ten years too late. The great advantage of old age is that you can behave quite childishly, whereas when you’re young you’re very anxious to appear grown up. I always was a writer who did a bit of barristering, like a girl who wants to be an actress does a bit of waitressing as a day job. But I still don’t know whether I’ve finally grown up…

You claim always to have felt somewhat out of place at the Bar. Why was that? 

When I started everybody was frightfully correct and conservative, and called each other by their surnames, as though they were at English prep schools, and generally behaved in a sort of English public-school manner; and there was I, rather left-wing, writing plays, going off at the end of a court to go to rehearsals and take actresses out. So I was slightly out of place, though not completely, because I had of course been a child round the Temple. When I first went to the law courts, the ushers used to call me Master John. It was rather like the young squire taking possession of the house.

You defended some famous cases, including Oz and Gay News. Were you aware at the time the significance they would have for years to come? 

No. I got into all that because I was a QC and also a writer. The first book I defended was Last Exit to Brooklyn and I got that off on the appeal, on the basis that the description of sex was so disgusting that it put the British population off sex for about a week. It was a frightfully moral argument which the Court of Appeal liked. The Oz trial just came upon me; like most things in my life, somebody asked me to do it, and I did it. It turned out to be absolutely typical of that strange flower-power generation, which seems to me much more distantly in the past than the 1930s or the 1920s. However, I’m not sure now it did change the face of England.

You grew up in an agnostic household and have never been able to bring yourself to believe in God. Have you ever felt that as a particular loss? Have you envied other people their faith? 

I wasn’t ever christened or confirmed, so I grew up with no religion, but I never missed it at all. And I always admired my father, because although he went blind and had awful things happen to him, he never turned to God. But I am very interested in religion; I think sometimes atheists become obsessed with religion, and I certainly love talking to bishops, or arguing with cardinals. My problem with religion, or with an omnipotent deity, is to see why he puts up with all the evil in the world and why he allowed eight million Jews to be massacred and why he lets Bosnia go on, if he is all powerful. I can’t quite work out whether I would like God if he existed; that’s a kind of intellectual argument which I’m always trying to get the answer to, but I never succeeded. There have been more horrible deeds perpetrated in the name of religion than for anything else, and it’s difficult not to believe that the religions of the world have done more harm than good. As a writer, however, I am aware that Catholicism has provided a wonderful kind of starting-off point for novelists. If you’re Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh you can have a kind of framework for your life and your writing which I don’t have, and which I suppose I might envy. I also do think that a totally materialistic view of life can be a kind of stunted philosophy; you do want to attach some kind of almost mystical importance to something, otherwise your life becomes rather Stalinist.

But as you get older, don’t you hanker after some sort of faith? 

No, I don’t, honestly. And I certainly don’t hanker after immortality. My father used to say that immortality of the soul would be like living in some kind of transcendental hotel with nothing to do in the evenings; and I don’t really look forward to that. It is important to believe in something outside yourself, more important than yourself, but having some political beliefs and also believing in the importance of literature is enough for me.

In your autobiography you quote from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, as if it gave expression to some scarcely acknowledged religious impulse. Have you yourself felt that ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns…’ 

Yes. What you have to find is the mystic importance of the moment of time, that moment when you’re experiencing the country, or solitude, or whatever. And I suppose the nearest I can get to religion is a sort of Wordsworthian reaction to the countryside and pantheism and the importance of nature. I can understand the mystic qualities but not the intellectual qualities of religion.

You once said, ‘Loyalty is a stultifying emotion.’ Can you develop that idea? 

I think that anything which is uncritical is stultifying. You should be able to criticize everything and so if you’re devoted to somebody totally uncritically, it is stultifying. But in saying that I really meant loyalty to groups, or parties, or the old school, or whatever.

Does loyalty extend to fidelity? Is fidelity also stultifying? 

No. I think it’s probably liberating in a way because it removes a lot of complications from your life. It’s something people have to deal with for themselves, but I think on the whole fidelity is rather freeing.

You dislike Mrs Thatcher and all that she stood for, feeling she epitomized what was worst about the 1980s. Is her legacy likely to darken the 1990s equally? 

Yes. It was her legacy that destroyed basic industries in Britain; we’re producing service industries and computers, but nothing basic is being made in the country any longer, and I dislike the whole morality of everything having its price and the idea that nothing was important unless it was making money. Political idealism died in the 1980s and became an object of derision. We’re still living in that shadow.

You made no secret of your loathing for the SDP. Does that extend to the present Liberal Democrats? 

Yes, I can’t stand the Liberal Democrats. They’re just there to spoil everything. We’ve had Conservative governments for so long because the opposition has been split, and when they could have voted against Maastricht and against the government – quite legitimately because they weren’t having a referendum – they kept the government going for no reason whatsoever. I dislike them intensely.

You have often been criticized for being ‘a champagne socialist’ and have defended yourself by claiming your role was to infiltrate the Establishment in order to change it. Do you think you can claim success in that respect? 

I just believe champagne should be freely available to all. Nye Bevan was forever drinking champagne, and that was a very good sign. I also don’t think attacking the Establishment from the outside has much effect. The best form of attack is humour, to laugh at the trappings. If you get the jury laughing in court, you know you’ve won the case. But I don’t think I’ve succeeded very much in changing anything. The great thing about the British Establishment is that it is totally impervious. All a writer can do is to try and promote people’s understanding of each other and their sympathy with each other, and to make established institutions look ridiculous.

Beneath your own cheerfulness and bonhomie, I suspect there is a grim pessimism, and malaise…

Pessimism is a very good basis for a cheerful outlook on life. If you don’t expect too much you don’t get disappointed. I always used to tell my clients that they could go to prison for six years, and when they ended up by being fined £2 they were frightfully relieved. But if you’d told them they were going to be fined 10 shillings and they were fined £2, they would have been very cross. So I think it is better to expect the worst. I do have a fundamentally pessimistic attitude to life, but I hope I don’t have too much malaise, except in the afternoons when I often get depressed.

Your preferred genre for writing is comedy. Do you think that is the best way of saying important things, or is there perhaps a danger that important issues will be seen as trivialized? 

That’s a very good question. Comedy is the most important and the most difficult form of writing. Anybody can be tragic, but to be funny is really hard and requires great skill. It’s a great English tradition from the comedies of Shakespeare like Twelfth Night and As You Like It, which are quite sad plays really, through to the novels of Dickens which can be and comic and savage at the same time. Comedy is also the most truthful thing; if you rule out comedy you rule out half of the truth. Does it trivialize the truth? I don’t think it does. Just the reverse.

You are very sensitive to criticism and unfavourable reviews. Haven’t you reached a stage where you can afford to ignore adverse comments? 

I’ve now stopped reading reviews. They are just quite irritating, and it can be bad for the confidence. Dickens never read reviews, then suddenly he read a bad review of Little Dorrit by mistake and got into a terrible depression. Writers are very uncertain about what they’ve written, and if it gets very well received, that’s a wonderful relief and surprise; if it is badly received, it’s depressing.

There are many contradictions in your character which I am sure you are aware of. You are an upholder of traditional values, but a defender of liberalism; you are both worldly wise and apparently starry-eyed, and so on. Have these contradictions ever worried you? Have you ever tried to resolve them? 

Oh no, I wouldn’t like to resolve them. I would cease to exist if I resolved them. The contradictions are essential, and if you’re writing, you have to have the tensions in your writing which are the different parts of your character.

I have the impression that the fact that you were never able to get close to your mother, even at the end of her life, was one of the hardest and saddest things for you… 

Yes, it is one of my greatest regrets. I think because I had a very strong relationship with my father, she was rather left out. Also she came from the English tradition of – not coldness, because she was not in the least bit cold – but of not being demonstrative. Her father committed suicide while she was in South Africa and her family just sent her the local paper with a note saying, ‘This story will probably interest you.’ As a family they didn’t talk about things like that. And although we weren’t quite so remote, it was never as close as I should have liked.

I believe you are infuriated by the thought of dying. Wouldn’t you be comforted by the thought of an afterlife? 

No. My father’s immortality is that I remember him and that my children are like him. The only sort of immortality I believe in is when people remember you, or people’s lives have been shaped by you to some extent. I don’t want some sort of strange and detached existence floating about the universe.

Looking back on your life, what are you proudest of? 

Of the good things I have written, Clinging to the Wreckage, A Voyage Round My Father, and I’m also rather proud of Rumpole. It’s quite difficult for a writer to keep going in a lot of different generations, and I’m pleased to have done that. I’m proud of my children, and happy to have kept my parents’ house in the condition it’s been accustomed to I don’t think my achievements have been really great. I hope I’ve been on the side of tolerance, liberalism, letting people alone, and social justice, but millions of other people have said all those things, so it’s not anything I feel particularly responsible for.

You have sometimes said that to conduct an interview is much more difficult than to be interviewed…do you still take that view? 

This has been such a good interview that it’s made me think very deeply. I was never quite so well prepared as you, and it is always nerve-racking until the interviewee suddenly says something extraordinary and then you can relax in the knowledge you’ve got the bloody thing wrapped up. I remember interviewing Hailsham and asking him what he did when he sat on the woolsack looking bored. And he said, ‘Well, what I do is whisper bollocks to the bench of bishops.’ And I knew that since I had got him to say that, everything would be alright.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Rihanna is a major star.

Born in 1988 in Barbados, she signed with Def Jam Records at the age of sixteen and released her first album – which sold more than two million copies worldwide – in 2005.

She went on to release more albums and hit songs, including ‘Unfaithful’, ‘Disturbia’ and ‘Umbrella’.

Rihanna has won multiple awards and is considered one of the great stars of the music world.

To add to her fame, which is mainly derived from a rich talent, she has mastered the art of using her shapely body to galvanise her fans and give men and women an insight into what makes her one of the world’s sexiest women by posing semi-naked and exhibiting her curvaceous form to maximum effect.

In her latest shoot the Barbadian sex siren is seen pressing her bare breasts together in a daring pose that makes raunchiness look tame.

In another pose, she flaunts her curvy behind in the bathroom.

Rihanna has always been her own woman, a fearless exhibitionist who is proud of her body and says, ‘When the whole world turning left, it’s when I’m going right. I need someone to let me be just who I am inside.’ And adds: ‘Love isn’t complicated – people are.’

The racy star is rarely out of the headlines, for her popularity today is at its zenith.

I wish her well, and find her hard to resist.

May she continue to thrill us all, as we don’t mind fantasising about her – especially when her gear is off and her music enthralling.

Isn’t life grand when temptation is all around you?