Lord Blake

Robert Blake was a political historian and biographer of Haig, Bonar Law and Disraeli.

He was born in 1916 and educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Norwich and Magdalen College, Oxford. During the war he served with the Royal Artillery and was taken prisoner in Italy in 1942. He escaped in 1944 and was mentioned in dispatches.

From 1947-68 he was tutor in politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He then became Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford and from 1971-87 he was pro-vice-chancellor of the university.

From 1980-90 he was joint editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. He was made a life peer in 1971.

I interviewed him in 1998 and he died in September 2003.

Do you believe there is such a thing as historical truth, or is it all a matter of interpretation? 

I think there is historical truth in the sense of their being some facts which are certain. For example, one can’t deny that William the Conqueror came over in 1066. But of course there is a great deal of interpretation involved within a framework of fact.

Let me ask the question differently. Is there such a thing as the correct perspective in history? 

I doubt if there is, since the perspective is always changing as time goes by. One particularly notices this if one is dealing with very recent history, which I happen to be doing at the moment. I’m trying to update my history of the Conservative Party from 1983, where it ended before, to 1995, but I’m sure that whatever I write, although it may be useful for the time being, may look quite a distortion in ten years’ time.

Gibbon said that history is little other than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. Would you agree? 

I think he was being unduly gloomy about that. Some good things have also happened in history. Gibbon did have a rather sombre and pessimistic view, but one needn’t regard history quite like that. I don’t anyway.

Historians very often say that a knowledge and appreciation of history is essential to an understanding of the present, and yet the empirical evidence would seem to suggest that in fact we learn very little from history. What is your view? 

I think we do learn something from history. I don’t believe history repeats itself; particular situations may look alike but there’s usually a difference. There are certain lessons one can learn, however, and certain things which cannot be understood without historical knowledge. All the current arguments about the monarchy, for example, are pretty difficult to understand without some knowledge of how the British monarchy has developed.

Is there perhaps a case for saying that we learn from the historian rather than from history itself? After all, the past has gone, we can’t really know it, and historians are creative people like novelists, making things up, reflecting on the present, but in the context of the past. Is there anything in that? 

I think there is. Historians reflecting on the past can certainly help us to understand the present. What I’m against is claiming too much for historians. Although I’ve been a historian most of my life, I find some of them overpitch their claims. There is an inherent interest in understanding the past; that’s all I say.

Do you think history and biography are sisters under the skin…in other words, the greatness of a person’s life is directly related to the response that he makes to the times in which he lives? 

I would agree with that, although I wouldn’t go so far as Disraeli who said, ‘Read no history, only biography.’ You cannot understand or assess an important political character in the past without knowing something about the surroundings and atmosphere in which he operated.

You are distinguished biographer of Haig, Bonar Law and Disraeli. I read recently that Edmund White, himself a biographer of the writer Genet, believed that biography is a way which allows little men to take revenge on giants. Is there any truth in that, do you think? 

I hope not in my case. There are biographers who are simply in the business of debunking, finding out something discreditable, making the person concerned have feet of clay, and so on. I deplore that kind of biography and it’s certainly not one which I’ve ever engaged in myself. And, of course, you can go to the opposite extreme. There are biographers – many of the famous Victorian biographers were cases in point – who can see no wrong at all in their subject and they start erecting a marble tomb almost. It is possible, however, to have a balanced biography, even of detestable figures in modern history. Alan Bullock, for example, wrote a very good book about Hitler. He gives a rounded picture, while in no way diminishing the odiousness and horror of most of the things that Hitler did.

Your biography of Disraeli is an acknowledged classic. Is that the publication which has brought you most satisfaction? 

Yes. I spend eight years on it altogether, and greatly enjoyed doing it because although Disraeli had many defects he was a fascinating figure, and at the time I was writing, between 1958 and 1965 roughly, there really was room for a new biography which would put Disraeli in his proper political context. I think I could say I did achieve that to some extent, and without boasting unduly, I don’t think subsequent biographies of Disraeli, of which there have been quite a number, have really added very much to what I did.

Why do you think that today we have no politicians of the stature of Disraeli? 

That’s not at all an easy thing to answer, though I think the fact is true. On the other hand, there are people of immense stature. Margaret Thatcher was very remarkable indeed, and a proper biography of her, which can only be done after she’s no longer with us, could be a very interesting work.

Do you think history and historians will be kinder to Margaret Thatcher than they are to her today? 

Yes. They’ll have to recognize a lot of things she achieved, and virtues she had. Hers is one of the most remarkable prime ministerial careers in the twentieth century actually, and historians will look at her in a more rounded and fairer way, while recognizing of course that she did have many defects.

It has sometimes been said that you allow your own political views to colour your writing…does this not detract from the historian’s objectivity? 

It does if he allows it to happen, but I don’t think I have actually. I am known to be a Conservative in politics and I’ve never pretended to be otherwise, but I don’t think that made me necessarily unfair to Gladstone, for example. Indeed the Gladstone family were very pleased with my depiction of him and invited me to give an important Gladstone memorial lecture on one occasion. So I think I am reasonably detached in that way.

How much was your own choice of career due to your family background and to the fact that your father was a schoolmaster? Do you feel you owe him a great deal? 

I do feel I owe my father a great deal. He was a senior history master at the school I went to, so he actually taught me. My original intention, however, was not to be a historian at all, but to go to the bar. But then the war came and I was in the army for six years, and somehow I had a different perspective after that. Rather out of the blue I was offered the post of politics tutor at Christ Church, and I thought I’d take it on. I’ve never regretted it. I might have made a lot more money if I’d been at the bar, but I’ve got enough.

Did you get on well with your father? 

Yes, he was always a very interesting man, with a great sense of humour, and he was always a devotee of history and a very good teacher. Everybody who was taught by him in those years would give testimony to the fact. My mother too – although not an influence to the extent that my father was – was a very affectionate and kind person. She also had a great sense of humour and was fun to talk to. I feel lucky to have had a very happy upbringing.

Do you feel you have influenced your children to the same extent as you yourself were influenced? 

You’d have to ask them that, but I like to think I’ve had some influence on them. I have three daughters who are independent and pursue their own courses, and they are, if I may say so, extremely nice and pleasant girls, and very affectionate towards me.

Your academic life has been a great success. Has it been equally important to be successful as a family man? 

I’ve never thought of comparing them, but I think it is important to be successful as a family man. I’m probably not the most impartial person on this, but I would say I have been reasonably successful. Of course, I was enormously helped by my wife, who died a year ago; she was really the one who had most influence on my daughters.

Disraeli said that a university should be a place of light and liberty and learning. Does that definition reflect the state of the modern university? 

I wish it did. I agree with Disraeli’s definition, but the universities are becoming almost factories for turning out graduates for a future career. The old idea, which I certainly adhere to, of learning for its own sake, because of the inherent interest in it, does seem to be diminishing at the moment, and this is partly because the universities are so underfunded. The university world is not a happy one at all, and in many ways I’m quite glad I’m no longer in it.

There are many who would say that our standards of education have fallen far below those of our European counterparts. Would you agree? 

I would, but I agree simply because I’m told this is so. I’m not very knowledgeable about French, German or Italian education systems, but it seems to me widely accepted that the introduction of comprehensive school in Britain has been damaging to the standards of education, substituting a dull mediocrity for bringing out the best in the cleverest and ablest people. There are many signs that the Labour Party, New Labour, is recognizing this for the first time, and it may be that we shall have a bit of reaction against that type of mediocre teaching which was dictated in part by the trendy notions of the 1960s.

Putting it another way, do you think a young student graduating in PPE from Oxford today is likely to be as well educated as you and your fellow students graduating before the war? 

Probably yes, because the people who get to Oxford even now are not mediocre boys and girls; they are the cream of the schools. The teaching, at Oxford and Cambridge at any rate, has not gone down. The standards are pretty good, and I would have thought the students to be fairly near to being of the same calibre as we were. It all sounds rather condescending…

During the war you were a prisoner in Italy and made a daring escape when the Germans took over the camp. Does all of that now seem to have happened a lifetime ago, or was that experience so significant that It goes on shaping your life today? 

I’ve certainly never forgotten it. It was a very vivid and exciting experience, and I and my two companions who escaped with me were very lucky not to be injured or hurt in any way. We got through to the British outposts of the Eighth Army in Italy in January 1944, and it’s something I shall never forget. But I wouldn’t say it continues to shape my life, since my life as it is today and as it has been for quite a long while would probably not be very different if I’d never escaped at all.

When I interviewed Diana Mosley, she told me that the experience of being interned during the war taught her to hate discomfort above all else… 

I would agree with her on the whole, but it’s fair to say that being a prisoner of war of the Italians was not remotely as distressing and grim as being a prisoner of the Japanese. That was not just discomfort, that was extremely painful and unpleasant. My main memory of being a prisoner of war in Italy was boredom and never really having quite enough to eat. But there were books in the camp, and I read the whole of Gibbon and all Shakespeare’s plays, and I read the Bible from beginning to end. I don’t think I’d have done any of those things if I hadn’t been a prisoner of war, so there were possibly some countervailing advantages.

Your war service was completed at MI6 where you worked under Kim Philby…presumably you suspected nothing? 

Absolutely nothing. I knew him quite well, liked him, he was charming to talk to, with a rather engaging stutter, very amusing, good company. Very few suspected anything at all.

When you discovered that Philby was a secret agent, did that make you think that the basis for recruiting people in those days was seriously flawed? Didn’t it tend to be done on the strength of ‘there’s this chap I know…’? 

I think one should recognize that Philby was a very exceptional case, but the method of recruitment was pretty uncertain to say the least. Too many people were recruited at the bar of Whites. It was very haphazard.

You once contemplated a safe seat in the House of Commons but claimed you were too lazy. Have you ever regretted the decision not to become an MP? 

No, and considering what goes on now in the House of Commons, I regret it even less. It’s been a very agreeable consolation prize, which I never expected, to be a member of the House of Lords. It is a much more enjoyable place than House Commons.

What does it mean to be a Conservative nowadays? 

I would define it by negatives. One of the things that made me firmly a Conservative was that I disliked a great deal about Labour. I still believe the Conservatives are a preferable alternative to Labour.

Given that the Labour Party has changed its leadership and Blair looks very different from the others – even Margaret Thatcher seems to think he’s all right – has that altered your view? 

Blair has given a very remarkable performance, and he has made a lot of people feel that a change wouldn’t be so dangerous for their values as it would have been when Labour was dominated by a very left-wing clique. I would never have believed that Labour could change to the extent it has. But it remains to be seen how far it really has changed. But he has achieved a great deal, and ironically he has fulfilled Margaret Thatcher’s objective. She always said, ‘My purpose is to destroy socialism’, and the new Labour Party has certainly taken over a great many of the things which the Conservatives were propagating and maintaining in the 1980s. Having said all that, I would never desert the Conservative party. New Labour is an improvement, but I would still prefer to stay where I am, and I should say at once that I’m a great admirer of John Major. He is a remarkable and tenacious prime minister and he’s much more formidable than people recognize. His chances of winning the next election are pretty slim, but I wouldn’t rule it out altogether. A great deal can happen in politics in a very short time.

But you’re almost a lonely voice in that respect. I mean, John Major does lack charisma… 

He lacks charisma, yes, but that isn’t necessarily fatal. I always think of Bonar Law who was a very successful leader of the Conservative party, and he had no charisma whatsoever. But he was respected and trusted, and he was intelligent and quick in his mind. Another man I would compare John Major with even more closely is Stanley Baldwin; and he didn’t have much charisma either.

The problem with that argument is that in those days politicians were not exposed on television, or even in the newspapers to the same extent. You do need charisma today to win elections. 

That is the big difference, I agree, and undoubtedly this is a difficulty which John Major faces. But it may not be insuperable.

As a Conservative you are presumably naturally sympathetic to authority and institutions. When authority and institutions are shown to be negligent, does that also undermine conservatism? 

I think it does to some degree. The Scott Report has been damaging to the Conservative party. I say this without having read it, but I read the debates in both Houses of Parliament, and although I think the enquiry was flawed in many ways, the general impression that Whitehall was not working as it should has got out, and this is undoubtedly damaging to the Conservatives. It has given a general impression of incompetence and cover up.

But nobody paid the price for it. 

That is perfectly true, nobody did. I think it was more incompetence than plotting, but they got away with it. My own view, if one was going into detail, is that William Waldegrave didn’t do anything outrageous, but the Attorney-General actually ought to have resigned.

Where do you stand on the question of the monarchy? There now seems to be a real feeling in the country at large that it is an expensive and undignified anachronism… 

I don’t take that view myself, and how far the country at large really does take that view, I don’t know either. There’s no doubt that the activities of the Royal Family have been damaging to the monarchy, but one has to remember that the monarchy really comes down to the Queen, and nobody has anything against the Queen. She has behaved impeccably, and her constitutional role has never been criticized. For that reason I believe the monarchy is not in any immediate danger. I also believe that Prince Charles will succeed to the throne. I don’t agree with the theories that he may abdicate or be pushed out in favour of his elder son. His whole life has been built on the assumption that he would eventuality succeed as king, and I think he will succeed as king, and I don’t myself believe there’s republican feeling of any strength in Britain. There have been many periods in the past when the monarchy has been pretty unpopular. For example, it was only right at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, after her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, that she gained any degree of popularity. The monarchy doesn’t depend on temporary popularity and opinion polls; it would take real revolutionary sentiment to convert Britain from a monarchy into a republic. Historically when monarchies have disappeared it’s nearly always been through defeat in war, or an actual revolution like the French Revolution; they have very seldom just petered out.

As a member of the House of Lords, do you find the principle of an unelected body of legislators difficult to defend? 

On grounds of logic it is very difficult to defend and nobody beginning from scratch would create a body like the House of Lords, a large of whom are there by virtue of descent and not inheritance. The hereditary system is difficult to defend except on the argument that there are a lot of hereditary peers who are very able and sensible and make good speeches. My own feeling is that it would be better to leave the House of Lords as it stands, because its powers are very limited; if it had a lot of power, that would be a different matter, but it’s really essential as amending chamber and hardly ever throws out legislation. It would certainly not be a good situation to have the House of Lords as a giant quango, consisting solely of life peers like myself.

There is still a climate of secrecy in government. Is this something you support? 

I think I do. I may be prejudiced having worked in MI6, but I am very conscious that there are some things which governments simply cannot reveal. You cannot conduct diplomacy or foreign policy or trade policy in a goldfish bowl; it can’t be done. This isn’t to say that we couldn’t go a bit more in the direction of open government than we have – I think we should – but government can never be completely open. It will never be as open as the opposition will invariably want it to be at any one time, but that true with governments all over the world. The Americans, in spite of the freedom of information act, are very secretive about some things, particularly trade policy.

After the heavy Conservative defeat in 1966 you advised your party to sit tight and avoid damaging divisions within the ranks. What would be your advice to them today, if they are to avoid defeat at the next election? 

I would give the same advice to a large extent. I’d put it like this: the Conservative party has been defeated even when it’s been united on occasions, but if it is disunited, it is always defeated. This is perhaps true of political parties generally, but it is especially true of the Conservative party. The great danger for them is Europe. I can see a split coming in the party almost as bad as the one that occurred in the days of Balfour and led to a tremendous Liberal victory. Whether unity is achievable given the attitudes of the party at present I don’t know, but that certainly would be my main advice.

When you look at the member of the cabinet today, can you honestly say that they have the statesmanlike qualities of those in the past, even a generation or two ago? 

No, I think the quality of politicians has declined. I’m not all clear why it has, or what we can do to remedy the situation, but I’ve lived long enough to see that although, of course, there have been plenty of mediocre cabinet ministers in the past, the general standard was much higher. The same people don’t go into politics nowadays; there are a lot of other avenues they can go into to fulfil their ambitions. There is a noticeable shortage of good lawyers in politics, and the reason for that is that you can’t combine a career at the bar and a career in Parliament at all easily, whereas you could in the days of F. E. Smith and Carson. Also they ought to be paid more. I have never shared the view, based on envy, that we shouldn’t pay politicians more because there are plenty of people ready to do the job for the current pay. I think they should be paid about double what they get, about sixty or seventy thousand a year.

You said back in 1966 that the great Conservative victories have usually occurred because the radicals, whether Liberal or Labour, have made a hash of things. ‘Historically, what is encouraging about the matter is that they very often do make a hash of things’ to your own party perhaps? 

I fear I would. At the moment that is just what may happen. New Labour, at least ostensibly, appears united, and the Conservatives, while they haven’t exactly made a terrible hash, have given a general impression of hanging on too long.

Over twenty years ago in an article in the Guardian you suggested that pulling troops out of Northern Ireland and ceasing to defend the union was not an absolute impossibility. You said, ‘The Conservative party must be extremely careful not to get into the situation where it is the only party defending the principle of British troops in Ulster because of traditional views about the union.’ What is your view now? 

To withdraw troops from Ulster now would be courting disaster. I would be against that. There would be a major backbench revolt in Parliament apart from anything else, and Labour wouldn’t back withdrawal either. My feeling is that things have moved a lot since 1966 as far as Ireland is concerned, so I would to some extent eat my words.

Do you think the peace process is unlikely to succeed? 

I hope very much it will succeed, and I’m absolutely convinced that John Major is quite right to try. But if you’re in parliamentary democracy where the ordinary rules of freedom and liberty apply, it is very difficult to combat a small group of fanatical terrorists who are prepared to murder and kill innocent people for the sake of a cause which they will never achieve.

Is there anything in life you would like still to achieve? 

I have reached the age of seventy-nine, so I’ve got to do it fairly quickly. What I would like to do is to write a sensible book about the British monarchy, a subject on which an awful lot of nonsense is written. Although I am pro-monarchist, I’m not a starry-eyes adulator of monarchs; I am very well aware of the defects and errors. Oxford University Press wants me to do a history of the British monarchy from the ascension of Queen Victoria to the present day. That will be enough to be going on with.

Disraeli said: ‘Youth is a blunder, Manhood a struggle, Old Age a regret…’ Have you found it thus? 

I’m not sure that I agree about youth being a blunder. I don’t think I made any very good blunders when I was young. I’ve had to struggle a bit in manhood. Old age a regret? No, I’ve had a happy old age.

Is a Woman’s Bosom Her Most Promotable Asset?

In fact, it must be the case.

For men’s obsession with those feeding, fleshy and warm parts of a woman’s body, which they experience as children, remains with them as they grow into adulthood but with an added emphasis.

This time, a sexual tangent appears to give them a foreplay of great delicacy.

Emily O’Hara Ratajkowski is an American model and actress. Born in Westminster, London on 7th June 1991. She rose to fame after appearing in the music video for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, which became the number one song of the year in 2013 in several countries and was the longest running Billboard Hot 100 song of the first half of the 2010s in the United States.

Her modelling career has since mushroomed from retail adwork to art house erotica and high fashion. Her progression saw her appear on the cover of the March 2012 issue of erotic magazine Treats!

What a treat it was, in the real sense of the word.

She became a high-profile sex symbol much desired by the glossies, and naturally in a different way by a flock of sexually-driven young hopefuls who fantasise with the prospect of bedding her – even if only in their dreams.

Who can blame them?

Her pictures shown here are in my view a celebration of womanhood, as the Creator deemed it to happen.

Let us therefore be grateful for His bountiful heavenly gift and sing His praises in appreciation.

Meeting with a Legend

The success of Todd Haynes’s movie at this year’s Cannes festival, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, brings to mind my visit to Switzerland in 1993 to interview the reclusive writer.

As it was necessary to drive through the Swiss Alps from Italy to meet that elusive and very private writer, I needed the help of Ros Milani-Gallieni, who was working for Garrard on special projects.

Apart from her driving ability, Ros’s company was a sheer delight. We flew to Milan, where we hired a car and proceeded towards Lugano, the nearest town to Patricia Highsmith’s hideaway, where we spent the night before negotiating the Alps in search of her. She had given us directions to a small village, where she said she would be waiting.

She was there when we arrived, looking dishevelled and rather strange. She asked Ros to stay behind and invited me into her car. We drove up a mountainous road for about twenty minutes before reaching our destination. The house stood in a semi-wilderness and its interior was sparse, its decor rather grim. It struck me as an unhappy environment in which she must have led a kind of monastic existence. She offered me an alcoholic drink as we entered, but I declined. I needed to have my wits about me for this potentially difficult encounter.

The interview was full of drama, as I suspected it might be. Twice during the course of my questioning Miss Highsmith stood up furiously and refused to proceed. As I tried to placate her with apologies for any intrusion into her private life, she poured herself a large whisky and gradually became less tense and more amenable. Her hostility finally disappeared when I referred to her book People Who Knock on the Door, which she had dedicated to ‘the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in their struggle to regain a part of their homeland’. Her face then became animated and I realised how committed she was to the Palestinian cause.

From then on the interview became less of a burden and I felt I had achieved my goal. Any unpleasantness had been avoided, partly because of my Palestinian origins. Her initial anger somehow turned to sympathy. She drove me back to where Ros was waiting and the parting was more congenial than the reception had been. Ros drove us down to Milan airport, handed in the car and we flew back to London. For a short trip, it had had more than its share of melodramatic moments.

The Path from Oblivion

The Labour Party is in total disarray thanks to Ed Miliband, whose strategy brought calamity to the whole concept of leadership, in a manner reminiscent of the late Michael Foot.

But whereas the latter was an intellectual, Ed thought himself to be one but was deluded in the process.

Where is he today? And what happened to his cohorts and his inner circle of sycophants who rallied around him only because they reckoned he was a winner? None of them mentions his name now even though they colluded in the eventual tragedy. Had he not betrayed his brother David, the result of this election would perhaps have veered in a different direction – but whatever the outcome in that eventuality, Labour would have lived to fight another day.

Not so now, the harm done to its prestige and credibility is too severe to mend. It was technically a mortal blow to which its resurrection will take more than one decade to materialise.

Left-wingers in today’s world are not in vogue except perhaps in a literary sense, but in reality their days of glory are long past. The individual whose lot has dramatically improved through hard work and incentives is no longer an easy target to convert to the dogma of equality.

We are not born equal and to reverse this divine thread has never succeeded so far and is unlikely to do so, even with the advances of medicine. So how can we expect equality as a viable concept in the real competitive world of today? Help for the badly down-trodden should be our main target and a more caring society should evolve and be sympathetic to their needs. But it should never encourage idleness or give the impression that social benefits are available to the scroungers in our society.

So Labour, to have a chance to survive, must now sing a different song and prove to the nation that their hatred of business and incentives, especially to the struggling middle classes, are absurd and will lead them nowhere.

Sleep in Old Age is the New Elixir

Whoever said that old age is fun should run to see a psychiatrist – and those who crave for retirement are equally living in cloud cuckoo land.

Age and retirement are factors with which I feel totally uncomfortable, for the simple reason that both rob you of the vitality of youth – although brainwise, in most cases, refutes the notion of having to accept that the body no longer functions efficiently and becomes languidly irritating.

Reading my Daily Telegraph recently, I came across an item that attracted my attention. As I am a beaver for knowledge, I learned a study has found that insomniacs and other problem sleepers are more sensitive to pain. Sensitivity was linked to how long it took to fall asleep, not length of sleep, the International Association for the Study of Pain said. Rates of reduced pain tolerance were fifty-two per cent higher for those who reported insomnia more than once a week, and twenty-four per cent higher for those with insomnia once a month.

In my youth and until my seventies it did not matter the time I went to bed for it took me less than ten minutes to fall into a deep sleep; however, in my eighties, although I go to bed usually at 9 pm and rise at 5 am, I now experience a struggle to switch off and fall asleep, sometimes tossing and turning for two hours.

As a result, my lower back, much too sensitive to pain, becomes inflamed and rather tetchy and on the rare occasions, when due to a hard working day at the office, I glide into a heavenly sleep the moment I hit the bedsheets, it is then that my lower back begins to feel the great benefit of a repose that mind and body must yearn for from time to time.

So oldies, take heed. Sleep and the love of women are the magic formula for keeping yourself in good nick – or at least making your life more interesting and, hopefully, worth its long duration.

For those cynics my message is of hope and should never be interpreted as a negation of life.

Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford had a long and distinguished career in writing and journalism.

She was born in Berlin in 1911 and educated privately in Italy, England and France. She wrote her first novel when she was nineteen and around that time she became friends with Aldous Huxley, whose two-volume biography she published in 1973-4. As a reporter she covered the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt and the Lady Chatterley trial at the Old Bailey. Her books include A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and its sequel, A Compass Error (1968). Her autobiographical novel, Jigsaw, appeared in 1989 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

I interviewed her in 1998 and she died in 2006.

In an epigraph to one of your novels, A Compass Error, you quote victor Hugo: ‘Le passé est une partie de nous-mêmes, la plus essentielle peut-être.’ Is that something you believe yourself? 

Very much. All my writing has always been about le passé. I can’t write about what happened yesterday, I have to write about events of fifty years ago. It’s a big drawback.

There appears to be something of a contradiction in your character: in the one hand you want to shroud your life in mystery, to muddy the waters of your own biography; on the other hand, your novels are full of detail and events from your own life. Does it seem much safer to you if such things are confined to the pages of a book? 

It’s not a question of safety. I write as I must, and when I do, a great deal comes out which I normally don’t talk about. Most novelists use the experience of their own lives, and I am no exception. I am a very private person, but there is a compulsion to writing.

You left Germany at the age of nine and did not return to till long after the war. You have described that early period as being ‘suspended in amber’ till you came to write about it much later, in 1956. Do you think you were in some way scarred by your early experiences in Germany? 

Not at all because I was a small child. The book you refer to sprang from a great distaste and dislike for Prussia, and I’ve always had an antipathy towards the German side, but I had no difficult experiences in my early childhood. It’s not quite correct that I never went to Germany till after the war because, in fact, when I was twenty-one I visited Germany with Aldous Huxley. I was absolutely appalled to see the Hitler Youth march about. I was, of course, half Jewish – two thirds Jewish, in fact – but one never talked about such things then.

In view of later events – Hitler and the rise of National Socialism – did you ever come to feel ashamed of having associations with Germany? 

I had no associations with it.

But you were born there. 

Yes, but I was born in Charlottenburg, which was a suburb of Berlin, and I was always very keen to put Charlottenburg rather than Berlin on my passport to make it sound a little bit more respectable. I had an early introduction to fascism because my mother married an Italian when I was a child. I went to live in Italy with her and her husband, and in their own very small way they resisted fascism.

Your father was German, wasn’t he? 

Yes, but he belonged to the south German aristocracy who married into Italians and into the Tyrolese. He lived most of his life in Paris or in Spain or in Corsica because he loathed Germany and was very cosmopolitan minded.

Do you think you have drawn strength from the richness of your background or has there been a problem of national identity? 

The richness of background was very good, except I never felt I had the German identity, the Germanic mind. I feel I’m a complete outsider, but the fact that I had any connections with this terrible country became a curse of guilt, and for some time I tried desperately to anglicize myself entirely.

I suppose your childhood was not very unusual for its time, although it would be considered and even traumatic nowadays. Your father died when you were nine; you joined your mother in Italy, but you were sent off to England to be educated by tutors; your mother had a drug addiction problem – and so on. Did it seem difficult to you at the time? 

I think I was perfectly happy until I was about five, when my parents got divorced. My mother was always having great love affairs, and she deserted my father, which hurt his pride very much. My father was much older than my mother, but a very good-looking man. He was a great womanizer in his time – the Parisian demi-monde, and so on. My mother was his second wife, but she only married him because she couldn’t marry her great love. All this was told to me as a child, and they certainly didn’t want me. I was a terrible disaster. My mother had just decided to leave my father when she discovered she was pregnant. They were living in Spain at the time, which my father adored, but Spain was too primitive for a baby. When they divorced he got custody of me. That was a very difficult time because I felt very alone, and when my mother left there was nothing – no money whatsoever because he had none. I was wretched because my father was almost sixty, and although I think he loved me very much, I never had any maternal love. My mother was not interested in children, not at all. She once said to me: ‘You were very sweet as a baby, but you’re going to be very, very dull for a very long time, perhaps ten or fifteen years…we’ll speak then when you’ve made yourself a mind.’ Of course I thought that was quite normal.

Did you ever regret not having a more formal education? 

Very much. I longed to go to university, I longed to learn, but I never had a proper education at all. Tutors never came, there was never any money.

Your novel Jigsaw described the cruelty of the emotional and physical neglect of a child by her parents. I know you are sensitive to there being too much extrapolation to your own childhood, but the similarities are obvious. Did you find it difficult to forgive your parents? 

Not at all. I used to wonder if my parents would forgive me. I actually behaved unforgivably to my father because I didn’t love him and I couldn’t show him affection. I was acutely aware of his loneliness, but I was like an ungrateful child. I grieved him awfully. As for my mother, I had a lot to be grateful for because she taught me everything about literature and art and world affairs. She was very well educated and she instilled in me that it was a very grand thing to be a writer. She was a great influence on my intellectual life. I suppose I always had a passion for writing, but being brought up to talk about Dostoevsky at breakfast was a great advantage. I owe her an enormous amount.

Did you love her? 

No. I was frightened of her as a child. She had a terrible tempter. I began to love her when she started taking drugs and became unhappy in love and lived a lonely life. It was all much worse than in my novel because it went on longer.

A Legacy was reviewed favourably by Evelyn Waugh in The Spectator. He said: ‘We know nothing of the author’s age, nationality or religion, but we gratefully salute a new artist.’ I imagine these words gave you a tremendous thrill… 

Still do…still do. It’s the one thing I hang on to sometimes when I start to wonder what I have done with my life. It’s much the best thing that ever happened to me.

When you were eighteen or nineteen and living in Provence, you met a number of writers, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht…do you think that was a significant turning point in your own aspirations? 

Not at all. We were living in a small seaside resort when all the refugees arrived, and although one was of course very much aware of their plight, they all called themselves princes or poets. They had enormous pretensions, and people like Brecht and Furtwängler and the Manns, they were very grand. They were not all poor exiles, and we thought how extraordinarily badly they behaved. They were more figures of fun in our milieu.

It was at that time that you also met Aldous Huxley, who was to be very influential in your life. You became close friends with him…were you also in awe of him? 

I was absolutely awestruck because I had read him when I was fifteen and admired him enormously as a writer. I thought that one day, in ten or twenty years’ time when I became a writer myself, I could perhaps be like him. At first the Huxleys were friends of my mother’s, and I was just a young person sitting at the lower end of the table, but after all the terrible things happened they befriended me, and my moral education was really due to them.

Was Huxley’s wife influential? 

Enormously…she was one of the best human beings I’ve ever known. It was she who made his life possible. She was a near saint.

Was there perhaps a part of you that was in love with Aldous Huxley? 

No. I loved him enormously, but I was not in love with him, no.

Isaiah Berlin said of Huxley that he had helped liberate a generation by shedding light in dark places…do you go along with that? 

I think he did, and he continued to do so with a later generation when he became religious and then a mystic. He liberated a great many English people who had been entirely bound by Victorian morality. He did not do it for me, of course, because in my milieu and with my parents’ history we lived sexually emancipated lives.

Huxley was very concerned with moral anarchy in a scientific age and he made a number of sinister prophecies. Do you think at the end of the twentieth century that his pessimism was perhaps justified? 

It was completely justified, but I think he was far less pessimistic than I am about it now. In his later life he thought that mankind could be saved by goodwill and at the very end of his life, when he was asked what was the most important thing, he said that we should all try to be a little kinder to each other. That was the measure of a man.

In another life you might have been a barrister and when you were young you used to go to the law courts. Your book The Faces of Justice is a study of legal and judicial methods in different countries. Do you think that what happens in a country’s law courts sheds light on other aspects of national identity? 

To my mind it does to a large extent. I must admit that I was infinitely surprised when I went to Germany by the quality of fairness in their law courts. It reflected the new spirit of the Germans. By contrast I was horrified by what I saw in French courts. The French are so civilized and yet their courts are so corrupt and so encrusted with neurotic issues. English law is fair as one might expect it to be, but then it’s not so very good at finding out the truth. What struck me so much about the continental system was that at least the trials tried to bring out what actually happened.

You covered the so-called Auschwitz trial for the Observer. Were you able to treat that as a professional assignment or were your emotions involved to some degree? 

My emotions were entirely involved but you learn as a writer to control those. When I was asked to do it I thought, I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it, but because I had felt so much about it all my life, I thought it was my duty. Everything one heard was so appalling.

The judge was anxious that the trial should not be a short trial or a foregone conclusion but there should be a genuine effort to get at the truth. Do you think the truth was uncovered? 

Yes…the truth was there for everyone to see. It was a very fair trial indeed.

The trial lasted for nearly two years. You describe how Doctor Hofmeyer, the judge who had kept calm throughout the proceedings, broke down at the end because of the emotional strain…what were your own feelings at the time? 

I can’t really remember my own feelings, I just knew there was great pressure at the end of the last afternoon and my piece had to be telephoned to England next morning from Frankfurt. I had no time to think about my own emotions. I became simply a machine which received information.

You also covered the obscenity case against the publisher’s of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Did you as a writer have a sense of incredulity that this case was actually being brought, that the establishment could believe that there was a serious risk of the nation’s morals being corrupted, and so on…was there not a fantastic element to the whole proceedings? 

Oh, it was grotesque. I sat in court with like-minded people. I shared the special correspondents’ bench with Ken Tynan and we were nearly thrown out of court because we had to laugh, which wasn’t allowed of course. Yes, it was utterly fantastic. It sounds absurd now that it was all taken seriously.

What is it that makes you write do you think? Irish Murdoch describes it as an attempt to bring order out of chaos…how would you describe it? 

I like to shape in words what I have received. It’s a strange urge, and I don’t know where it comes from. I have no confidence in my own writing, and I find it very difficult, but in writing one pays back the life that one has had.

In talking about your novel A Legacy V. S. Pritchett mentioned your ‘passion for justice, for moral courage, the truth of the heart’. Do you recognize that in yourself? 

Passion for justice, yes, though perhaps not moral courage. I admire moral behaviour, by which I mean forgiveness, gentleness, and the fight against all the things I’ve had to contend with in myself, like bad temper, jealousy, unkindness, acts of selfishness.

Were you jealous in love? Did you have a weakness where men were concerned? 

Not a weakness, no. I was very fond of some men; I had a few liaisons, a few affairs, but I didn’t ever fall in love with men. One never fell in love with men.

Not even the ones you had liaisons with? 

Oh no, there would be friends whom I admired or father figures, or very intelligent men perhaps.

S. Pritchett also detects two other emotions in your novels – pity and sense of indignation. Do you agree? 

Yes. I’d forgotten that. One mustn’t be too indignant, because it quickly turns into self-righteousness. I’ve been trying for the last twenty years, not very successfully, to reform myself…

In A Favourite of the Gods which was published in 1963, you examine the nature of love. Would you say that your fictional treatment of love has come from your own experience and observation, or is it purely imaginative? 

It comes from my own observation and experience, yes. I wish I’d written more books and spent less time being in love. It’s very difficult doing both at the same time.

In that novel the character Anna displays a certain ineptness for love. Do you think people in real life are either suited or unsuited to love? 

Yes. In Anna I was thinking very much of Lady Byron, or of my own maternal grandmother. They all had a horror of the sexual love life, which is to my mind a curse. Some people are born like that, and it’s very unfortunate.

Which would better describe your own disposition…suited or unsuited? 

Suited, most definitely. It was immensely important. I have had the great fortune of having received and given a great deal of love. Some of it has been unrequited love and I have suffered as a result of love, but on the whole I’ve been very fortunate.

You married Walter Bedford in 1935 but the marriage was short-lived. Was that a very painful time for you? 

No, not at all. It was a very dangerous time, but not painful. It was an arranged marriage, set up by the Huxleys, because I needed British nationality. He was a homosexual and Aldous Huxley gave him twenty pounds to take me out to the Criterion and then to a musical. The marriage was never consummated; it was a complete fraud and a rather comic interlude, but because the Home Office stepped in and tried to prevent it, it was very frightening.

In A Compass Error, published in 1968, you describe a love affair between two women. Would you have written about this kind of love earlier if it had not been such a risky topic? 

Oddly enough I did not consider it a risky topic. In any case it was quite delicately done. Nowadays, God knows what they do.

But do you see love between women as an extension of friendship? 

Not as an extension of friendship. It can be fulfilled and complete sexual love, as fulfilling as heterosexual love.

How do you know? 

Because I’ve experienced it in sexual love. One knows when love is love.

Doris Lessing spoke of the shrill voice of feminism. Is that also how you have found it? 

Oh, I can’t bear the feminists. I think they are appalling.

Have the feminists ever tried to claim you as one of their own? 

Virago once wanted to put my name on their masthead but I wrote to them declining. Apparently my letter was so awful they hung it up in their lavatory for years. Nobody’s ever asked me again.

In most of your novels there is a sense of the transience of love, the impermanence of things. Is that something you have accepted easily? 

No, it is a source of great sadness. Times change, places change; I’ve lived in places which I loved, the South of France between the wars, and then the five years in Rome, but everything came to an end. I’ve lost so many very dear and important friends, particularly in the last two years and that of course leaves an appalling age gap. One misses them terribly, and one misses the stimulus.

You were brought up as a Roman Catholic, weren’t you? 

Yes. But nobody practised, although when we were living in the country at Baden my father went to mass on Sunday. I turned against the church very early and for childish reasons, because the village people told me my parents would go to hell since they had divorced. I couldn’t accept that, so I decided that religion couldn’t be true. But one doesn’t lose it that easily, and I used to be quite frightened sometimes that hell might exist. But now I’ve lost it more, and I dislike the Catholic Church very much, the Church of England even more.

Jigsaw ends with a sense of forgiveness and of hope. So these feelings come from a religious sense, would you say? 

No. I believe in forgiveness and hope for their own sake. Looking back on my life, there are certain acts of selfishness and meanness which I would like not to have committed. But what I can say is that all the people I’ve loved, I loved till the end. I mean, not only to the end of one’s living with them and one’s affair with them, but as long as they lived. That is a very rare thing.

Colour is the New Trend to Follow

Are diamonds no longer a girl’s best friend? Or have they been relegated to second place in favour of coloured stones?

The signs are they have been supplanted by coloured gemstones as this year’s ‘must have’ jewellery, according to experts.

Being in the jewellery trade for over three decades, as the CEO of the Asprey Group, which included Garrard, Mappin & Webb, Hamilton & Inches and Renée Boivin in Paris, I was always in favour of coloured stones as opposed to diamonds, firstly as by nature I considered colour more alluring and as a long-term investment more likely to increase in value with the passage of time.

For contrary to general knowledge, diamonds are plentiful but exploration firmly kept under tight control in order to keep prices up.

Bonhams, the auctioneers, said that coloured gemstone prices are up 2,200 % in a decade and are rising faster than diamond prices, which have started to ‘soften’.

The boom in popularity has led its experts to proclaim 2015 the ‘year of the coloured gemstone’.

Jean Ghika, head of Bonhams Jewellery in the UK and Europe, said: ‘There is a new move towards colour. Women are bolder in their choices and looking at alternatives to diamonds when it comes to engagement rings and everyday jewellery. As ever, fashion is partly celebrity-led and we are seeing some of the world’s biggest stars looking stunning in coloured gemstones on the red carpet.’

She added: ‘Some gemstones were selling at auction for more than six times their valuation. Recent gemstone sales by Bonhams have included a sapphire and diamond ring set with a cushion-shaped Sri Lankan sapphire, weighing 30.08 carats, which sold for £326,500 against a pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000. Ten years ago a similar-sized ring sold for £15,000 at today’s prices.’

I can understand why emeralds, rubies and sapphires of gem quality, which are rare to find, are very desirable to have. Their sparkle is magical and they seem to bring to the wearer a scenic joie de vivre which is hard to explain.

For aspiring girls, opt for colour, be wise and jolly, and give a new meaning to your life. You will look even more beautiful and, believe it or not, your prurience will get a jolt from heaven.