Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs was born in London in 1934.

He went to Wimbledon School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. From 1961 to 1987 he was a part-time lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic, during which time he became an author and freelance illustrator.

His talent for eccentric comedy was established with his Mother Goose Treasury (1966), for which he won his first Kate Greenaway Medal. The second was awarded for Father Christmas (1973), which uses the comic-strip format, as do other notable publications, including Fungus the Bogeyman (1973), The Snowman (1979), When the Wind Blows (1982), Ethel and Ernest (1998) and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001).

I interviewed him in November 1998.

From what I’ve read you seem to have something of a reputation for being gloomy. Would you say that under all the gloom there is a happy man struggling to get out? 

There’s a happy man struggling to get in, I think. I do feel basically very gloomy about life, I suppose because it all ends in death. Most of my work seems to have a sad ending, so they tell me. But these so-called happy endings like ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’ are not really endings at all; they’re beginnings. An actual ending is always sad, I think.

I have the impression that you hanker after the past and that the modern world is somehow too much for you. Is that right? 

That’s a question of age. Once you get to sixty you start idealizing the past and thinking, oh, it was so much better in the olden days. Of course, it probably wasn’t, although I have to say I do think things have gone slightly mad with technology, which has possibly done more harm than good. In the old days people came into their offices and there was an in-tray full of letters and there would be a few phone calls in the course of the day, but now there are faxes and e-mail and voicemail, and the whole system bogs up. In much the same way, we have all these wonderfully improved communications nowadays and yet you can’t phone anybody anymore. Where I live in the country we can’t phone our village policeman, the local railway station, the local bank any more – all you can do is speak to a girl looking at a screen up in Liverpool or somewhere.

Would you say you are ill at ease with the times in which we live? 

Yes, I think anyone of a certain age is. The world is run by people aged between twenty and forty mainly, and by the time you’re sixty you feel that your heyday is over. People who are slightly older than me, people in their seventies, won’t use an answer phone. If my elderly relations phone me and get the machine they won’t leave a message on it. They say, oh, I can’t talk to these things, and they put the phone down. That’s the way I am with computers.

Your upbringing and background, and in particular your parents, have provided rich source material for your books. Would you say that because of this concentration on the past, as it were, you are someone who prefers to look back rather than forward? 

Somebody said that most artists work out of their childhood, and I think that applies to children’s-book artists too. Besides, it’s a natural thing to do when you get to my age.

But do you feel old at sixty-four? 

Yes. I’m very much aware of the end approaching at sixty-four. My father died at seventy-one, and I remember feeling that he’d had a good innings and that it wasn’t a bad age to die. Now that seventy-one is only a few years away, it seems horribly near, and although I don’t have Philip Larkin’s obsession with thinking he would die at exactly the same age as his father, I don’t feel I’m somehow going to leap into some wondrous new existence. I wish I could, it would be terrific, but I just don’t feel the same enthusiasm. I’ve done about twenty or thirty books and I just think, oh, here we go again.

Do you believe that the person one becomes in adult life can be explained entirely in terms of childhood influences and events? 

Gosh, that’s a difficult question. I don’t know that it can be explained entirely, but it is certainly explained partly. There’s no doubt that the kind of childhood I and the people of my generation had – playing out in the woods, climbing trees, damming streams and all that kind of outdoor life away from home – doesn’t happen any more. Most boys go straight home to their computer screens after school, and that technology combined with this supposed danger of lurking child-molesters at every corner, stops children going away from home as much as they once did. When I was eleven or twelve, we used to come right up into the city from Wimbledon Park and go beachcombing down by the Thames at Blackfriars, and get out on to the roof of St Paul’s, where you’re not supposed to go – all that kind of thing, which is unthinkable today. My parents would let me go off for the entire day and not expect to see me until the evening.

Was the experience of being an only child ever lonely or burdensome? 

No, I didn’t notice it at all. I don’t think I envied my friends who had brothers and sisters – it just seemed to me perfectly natural. Looking back on it I was rather glad actually, because it meant that I got more attention and I had a room to myself. I’ve always been very keen on privacy. Being in the army on national service was the worst torture, because I had to share a room with twenty-eight other people. There was never a second’s privacy, except in the lavatory.

You described yourself as being an adored child…did you ever feel the pressure of having to behave in a way that merited this adoration? 

Yes, but not oppressively so. They were very easy-going parents really. Later on when I seemed to be a student forever, my mother kept on at work to support me, so I did feel massively obligated at that time, and that made me work a bit harder than I otherwise might have done. I felt it was a terrific privilege, and I couldn’t bear to see other people lazing about at art school. In the army the men thought it astounding that I had reached the grand old age of nineteen without going to work and were quite indignant about it. I remember one Scotch chap who was a friend of mine saying, why the fucking hell should we pay for your fucking education, and I thought, yeah, quite a good point, why should you? There was a grant for all those years at art school paid for by the taxes of working people, and that gave me quite a guilt complex.

Would you say that the important decisions in your life were very much tempered by consideration for your parents? 

I’m not aware of having made any great important decisions really. It was more that I had my parents ingrained. The morality at that time consisted in hard work, being respectable, not doing anything too outrageous, and I suppose I inherited that. I mean, I didn’t go in a pub until after the army, I didn’t drink alcohol until I was twenty-two or so, which by today’s standards is incredible.

What about sex? 

That came terribly late too. I don’t think working class people of my parents’ generation and background were particularly active, certainly not if they wanted to be respectable. And of course in those days there wasn’t the pill, so people were kept fairly moral in the 1950s and there was a completely different attitude to sex.

And were you shy with women as a young man? 

Oh yes, absolutely. During my five years at grammar school, up to the age of fifteen, I’d scarcely spoken to a girl in that time. I was very underdeveloped physically, my voice hadn’t even broken, and it was absolutely terrible at school because for the first two or three years I was quite good at sport. But then at fourteen all these people in my class turned into great big men with enormous penises covered in hair, and I was still a little boy. I left school at the height of five foot two with a piping voice, and was plunged into art school with all these gorgeous girls of sixteen and eighteen. This didn’t give me much confidence on the women front.

But later on in life, did you consider sex important? 

Important, yes, but slightly intimidating. If you’re one of these terribly good-looking men, women chuck themselves at you all the time and are quite content to have a fling and forget it, but the women who would go for an ordinary chap like me were usually wanting a fairly deep relationship and had to fall in love. I was always fearful of involvement in that sense.

I gather from reading Ethel and Ernest that you rather disappointed your parents by choosing to go to art school – they would have much preferred you to have an office job and wear a collar and tie. Did you feel very sure of what you wanted to do? 

Yes, I wanted to be a cartoonist and I was determined to go to art school to learn to draw. I hated the grammar school anyway and wanted to get out of it, so my parents were terribly disappointed. To them art school was something completely foreign and incomprehensible and probably not very respectable. But they did support me, which was very good and broadminded of them.

The idea of being an artist must surely have seemed quite a romantic concept, not just for your parents but also for you at that time… 

Yes, being an artist in the painterly sense was terribly remote. When I went to art school I hadn’t even heard of Van Gogh, in fact I knew nothing about painting at all. My one idea was to draw cartoons. As for my parents, they thought of artists in terms of long hair, drink, nude women and general bohemianism, so it was very noble of them not to make more fuss.

You married Jean, who suffered from schizophrenia. That must have been very difficult… 

It’s a full-time occupation looking after someone with schizophrenia. Those who suffer from it have a very tenuous grasp on reality, and they have physical seizures, rather like epilepsy. There is also fainting and teeth-gritting to contend with, both of which are exhausting, and they can have delusions, actually seeing things in the room that aren’t there – although Jean didn’t have much of that. She suffered more from what’s called referential mania, where she would see a piece of writing and think it was a message for her of some kind, that someone was trying to tell her something. She saw significance in signs and notices, because schizophrenics are so intent on themselves that everything occurring in the outside world is somehow related to them. People can even think that the twigs blowing on a tree are somehow signalling about them.

Did you have any clear idea of the nature and extent of your wife’s mental-health problems when you married? 

Oh yes, yes. She’d been like it for some time. Schizophrenia quite often comes in the late teens, which it did with her, but she felt – and that’s what kept her going – that there was a cure round the corner. Sometimes it can disappear and then either come back or not come back; some people have florid periods for a couple of years and then no more, but other people suffer all their lives off and on with lucid intervals in between, and it has to be held down with drugs so that life becomes bearable. It’s quite a thing to live with. I don’t think one could have managed a child with it, quite apart from the child inheriting the blessed thing anyway…

There were ten years of marriage before your wife died. Presumably there were highs and lows in that time… 

Oh, yes. I myself think schizophrenia in one sense is a gift, by which I mean that the person is intently emotional and moved by things. They’re the very opposite of boring, because you never quite know what kind of mood they’re going to be in, either the depths of despair or tremendous elation, or claustrophobia or agoraphobia – all these things seem to come into it at different times.

How did you cope with the bad times? How did you stop yourself from going mad? 

I did get symptoms of fear, which sounds crazy now. I used to think: what are we going to do this evening? How are we going to get through the time from teatime to bedtime, this yawning gap of time? I felt fearful, and I developed slight claustrophobia which I’ve still got, dating from that time. For example, I don’t go on the tube. So you do become affected by it; you don’t catch schizophrenia itself, but you get a kind of nervous exhaustion from living with it, which produces its own symptoms.

She was young when she died, and it must have been very hard…was there a sense in which you were able to think about it as a release from suffering? 

Yes, I did think that. She was in hospital with leukaemia but continuing to have schizophrenic attacks, and I remember writing at the time that I had never seen such suffering. She had both things going on together, which was appalling.

Your latest book Ethel and Ernest, the story of your parents, is a way of making quite ordinary lives seem extraordinary in terms of the integrity of their daily existence, the dynamic of their marriage, and the values they embraced. It is also a handsome tribute to them. Was that important to you, to pay tribute to them, I mean, somehow to mark their lives? 

No, I didn’t do it with any kind of high-minded attitude of paying tribute to them; I just thought it would be interesting to look back on that time, particularly perhaps the house itself and the fact that they stayed in the same place for forty-one years, I just wanted to relive the whole thing, particularly the building, and of course their relationship. I was especially inspired by the way they met – the fact that my father was cycling along the road and my mum was dusting this big grand house and just walked to the window to shake the duster at that precise moment. It was split-second timing, and if the window had struck, or if he had stopped at the traffic lights or something, they would never have waved at each other. I always thought that was a marvellous story.

Are you in danger of romanticizing your parents, do you think, or the lives that they led? 

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve been sentimental, or idealized their lives. They had their rows and disagreements, but there were never any major breakdowns in their relationships at all, no affairs that I know of. My mother certainly didn’t, and my father – well, I don’t know what he did on the milk round, but I just think it most unlikely. There’s a scene in the book based on a story he told me where a chap asks him to deal with his highly sexed wife, but he politely refuses.

There is a dignity and simplicity about your parents’ story which you seem to suggest have all but vanished. Is that how you see it? 

It’s much more difficult for people today to lead that simple kind of life, partly because of television. My mother had never heard of homosexuality, for example, until she was over sixty, and even then she didn’t really quite believe it. Nowadays when marriages are under strain men can get on a plane and go to San Francisco for a business trip, and anything can happen while they’re there, whereas if you’re only going down the road to deliver milk there’s not so much chance.

One gets the feeling that although you profoundly admire what might be called the values of your parents, you do not necessarily share them…your world is much larger than theirs, you would not be shocked by the same things… 

Oh no, very much not. I’m not bothered by homosexuality or what people do at all. I think there was a terrible song and dance made about the Clinton business – it’s so boring, so irrelevant and uninteresting. What people do sexually is so desperately unimportant really.

Your parents never questioned anything, they simply accepted their lot and got on with that life threw at them. Nowadays the culture seems to be to question everything, to be concerned with rights much more than with duties. Is that a source of regret with you? 

One of the sad things that has happened is if you say the word ‘duty’ you immediately sound pompous and people start smirking behind their hands at the mention of the word. The theme of the film Brief Encounter, for example, was duty; two people madly in love, but they know they’ve got a duty to their wife and husband and their kids, and so they don’t proceed with their affair and ruin the lives of several other people, and I think that was admirable. People tend to laugh at that film now and think it’s a joke, but I don’t. I think it’s a shame that the concept of duty has almost disappeared.

There is quite a lot of political comment in your books…are you a political animal, would you say? 

Not terribly, other than having been broadly left-wing all my life, I suppose, and now slightly right-wing, which seems to happen to everyone as they get older. I still get incensed about the House of Lords, for example, all these hereditary peers able to contradict what the elected majority want to do. In that sense, I feel fairly in tune with the right-wingish Labour government we’ve got at the moment. I was passionately against the unions being over-powerful, as I think they were at one time – we used to have trouble even in my profession when the print unions refused artwork unless you had your chapel number on the back of it. I didn’t know what a chapel number was, but it turned out that the work of freelance artists was only accepted if you joined their union, which was insane, because they knew nothing about our kind of work. It was simply a dreadful kind of blackmail.

You describe yourself as having ‘an obsessive personality’. Has that been an advantage for your work, would you say? 

Yes. Unless I’m obsessed, I can’t get it done, and if it doesn’t obsess me there’s no point in doing it, because it means the idea is lukewarm. I’ve had several lukewarm ideas since I did Ethel and Ernest, but none of them has obsessed me enough to make me want to get on with it. I also get obsessions about silly things, you know, like collecting things.

What sort of things? 

Electric fires. It sounds lunatic, doesn’t it? But they all work, and if they don’t I get them repaired, but I’ve got more than I need to use, so I’d like to have a bigger place where I could use them all. I’d like to display them properly but I haven’t got room for them.

I get the impression you’re not a religious man…do you sometimes wish you could have the comforts of religion? 

Yes, but you can’t have the comforts without the pain. All this nonsense about having the heaven without the hell…well, I certainly don’t believe in hell, nor do I believe that the whole construct of the world came from a kind a loving God. If there is a God at all, I always say he must be an absolute bastard. I have seen what he does to people like my wife – all that suffering. Obviously people have to die, but they don’t have to die in prolonged agony. God could just let people fall asleep or fade away; they don’t have to suffer in this appalling way. So I don’t believe in God at all, and I’ve always disliked Christianity intensely. Indeed most religions seems to produce a state of mind which leads to warfare and killing.

You are quoted as saying: ‘Life’s ultimately sad, because people idealize their children.’ Can you explain what you meant by that remark? 

I just feel that when people have a new baby, things are absolutely wonderful, as of course they are, but then it seems to me that as time goes on things become less and less wonderful. The huge event is the birth, it’s supremely miraculous that this amazing creature has appeared from nowhere, and then they become more and more pedestrian the older they get. By the time they’re teenagers they have become fairly insufferable, and then when they grow out of that stage they turn out to be quite ordinary, like the people next door. So there’s a slight anticlimax to the whole thing; you might still love them, of course, but they’ve become fairly ordinary.

But you don’t think we idealize our children because they contain the future, they are symbols of hope? They might not turn out as we hope but if we stop hoping, is that not worse? 

Oh yes, it would be awful if people didn’t idealize their children – I would be exactly the same and, as you say, they are the future and each generation thinks they are going to get it right. It’s just that it doesn’t turn out that way.

Do you think you would have enjoyed parenthood? 

I think I’d have been all right at it, the worst soppy devoted parent imaginable and inclined to spoil the child. Thinking your children are wonderful is a form of conceit, and since I’m conceited anyway, I expect I would have thought my own children the best. But I Certainly wouldn’t have sent them away to prep school and public school – that’s something I always find incomprehensible.

Your books are also very much concerned with love. Ethel and Ernest, for example, can be read at one level as a moving love story. Are your books the vehicle for expressing love which you might find difficult to express more explicitly perhaps? 

I suppose that’s possible. I do believe that love is a good thing, as long as it’s not the kind of love which leads to insanity. The more enduring prosaic kind of love is terrific and it’s what society is founded on really; without that it wouldn’t be anything. Love makes life bearable.

How have you coped with the business of being famous, have you found it difficult? 

I don’t think I’m particularly famous. I’m certainly not famous to the extent that I get recognized in the street. That would be impossible to bear. I simply couldn’t cope with that. But the kind of mini-fame that I have is nothing to cope with at all. I did have a stalker recently who came about because of the so-called fame, and he shat on the doorstep when I wouldn’t do what he wanted. He wanted me to give him Bob Geldof’s phone number, but I scarcely know who Bob Geldof is, let alone what his phone number is.

Several of your books are concerned with the business of death or dying, either in terms of life being lived and coming to an end, as in Ethel and Ernest, or in terms of death being imposed by war, as in When the Wind Blows. Even The Snowman is about death. Have you always had this sense that life is a short and fragile thing, which can be snuffed out at any moment? 

I suppose so, but it becomes more apparent as you get older, especially when your contemporaries start dying. People under thirty think they’re going to live forever – that’s why they all smoke and think death doesn’t apply to them, but when your parents go and then your wife goes, you realize it’s very close. 

What is your attitude to your own death? 

I dread the stuff that comes before, but I don’t mind being dead. Larkin said he hated the idea of non-existence, but I can’t see what’s wrong with it, because if you don’t exist you’re not aware of not existing. It’s the ghastly lead up to death that can be so awful, and I’d like that to be quicker. I am quite a strong believer in euthanasia; when the situation is hopeless you should be able to get the hell out of it. That seems perfectly natural and reasonable to me. I saw a programme on television in which you actually saw the doctor give the chap the final injection. He was in his own home with his wife and he was able to say goodbye, and it seemed fine. We go to sleep every night so we might as well go to sleep for ever.

Thought For the Day

I have always reckoned that the more you read the more you realise that history repeats itself and that there is nothing new on the face of the earth.

As researchers keep finding out, many of the things that occur today go back as far as three thousand years ago, even such things as post-traumatic stress.

Warriors in ancient Iraq, now the battlefield of extreme Islamic insurgency, had been the first to suffer the excruciating stress as a result of hard battles carried out over a long period of time.

The first account of PTSD was believed to date from 490BC, following the Marathon Wars between the Greeks and the Persians. But researchers at Anglia Ruskin University discovered texts suggesting it could have existed as far back as 1300BC, during the Assyrian dynasty with the symptoms explained as being caused by the spirits of dead enemies, the victims killed in battle.

Researchers now believe men in Assyria suffered from PTSD because they had to fight every three years under National Service. Their new research paper says: ‘Ancient soldiers must have been just as terrified of swords, sling-stones or iron-hardened tips of arrows.’

Human beings never seem to change. Despite the progress of science and civilisation we remain instinctively with a barbaric streak that manifests itself when we are challenged, or when driven by conquest out of greed, or the compulsion to enslave others under the banner of glory.

The world in the twenty-first century has not learned from past conflicts and is now like a boiling pot ready to overspill if the fire is not contained or switched off.

Is strife inherent in our genes? I don’t for a minute belief this to be the case. It is perhaps our competitive culture that’s behind it all. A top dog scenario is like the trigger of a gun raring to be pulled to achieve our goal, irrespective of the damage we inflict on others.

The power of supremacy can create a dimension of evil hard to stifle or keep in check, for our nature is perhaps the ultimate culprit.

Gayet Surfaces Yet Again

François Hollande’s role in trying to broker a peace deal between Russia and the Ukraine – accompanying the German chancellor Angela Merkel – has to some degree enhanced his otherwise falling popularity and given him some credence in political circles where he has been constantly the target of derision.

His love life, however, seems to hound him without any signs of respite.

Women have so far been the cause of his nagging fall from grace and it seems that his addiction to them has a buffoonish edge to it.

His on-and-off squeeze Julie Gayet, the actress and producer, landed him in trouble again last week after it emerged that she has used a government car for a four-hundred-mile round trip to a film set accompanied by two state employees, one of them Mr Hollande’s bodyguard, according to photographs published by Closer, the glossy magazine.

One was the agent the magazine pictured last year taking croissants to a flat opposite the Elysées, where Mr Hollande would visit Ms Gayet for trysts, wearing a moped helmet as disguise.

‘We know that the bodyguard has privileged links with the president, or at least very attached to him, so she is effectively being treated and protected like the First Lady, without having the status,’ said Laurent Pieau, the editor-in-chief of Closer.

She said the photos, which had been ‘given’ to the magazine rather than commissioned, were in the public interest.

‘Today, (Miss Gayet) has no official presence. This hypocrisy must end,’ she told BFMTV.

Sebastien Huyghe, spokesman for the Opposition Union for a Popular Movement, said: ‘If Ms Gayet is the official partner of the president, she should say so and it would be proper for the state to ensure her protection. But if that is not the case, there is no reason to use public funds to accompany, transport and protect Ms Gayet.’

Gerard Carreyrou, at Europel radio station, said Mr Hollande’s behaviour was reminiscent of that of François Mitterand, the socialist president elected in 1981, who kept his mistress and their child at the palace without the public knowing until 1994.

However, the difference in my view between Hollande and Mitterand is that the latter was a wily old fox who had the respect of the nation in general, while the former is struggling to keep his head above water with the constant threat of drowning.

I believe that Hollande’s best bet is to marshal his willy to some sort of discipline, and come out clean by admitting that his libido is perhaps more pronounced than most of his other activities – including politics. Then the French will start to love him and his popularity will soar as his menu will have politics as the hors-d’oeuvre, sex in a variety of positions as the main course, and dessert as a well-earned siesta to refuel his energies.

Who can now say that the French presidency is not every man’s dream of heaven on earth? Those cynics who believe there is a better place, let them show their hand and prove me wrong. I will then eat my words and seek refuge in a monastery.

How Sexy are our Politicians?

Mothers are the best barometers available to judge which politician they think would make the best lover.

They should know, for motherhood goes through stages where their bodies and love lives constantly experience a transformation as a result of the miraculous conception they undergo by giving life to another human being.

In a recent survey, mothers have disclosed how they rated the sexiness of politicians who are vying for their votes.

One member of Mumsnet, the parenting website, called Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, a ‘sexy beast’ while another said he looks ‘capable and meaty’.

The first description, I can understand, while the second one is rather vague. Looks capable of what, I may ask? Whereas ‘meaty’ is not necessarily a complimentary term. Pejorative perhaps, who knows?

Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, was described as ‘mysterious and moody’. An accurate perception, but does not tell much about his bedroom antics – if any.

As for Boris Johnson, the bonking mayor, he was seen as ‘fun’. No doubt he is, in all manners of speech, and a confident sexual performer to boot. 

Ed Miliband fared less well in the discussion, which involved four hundred women, as did David Cameron.  Many mothers said they would rather have a night of passion with the Labour leader’s brother David.

David looks good and rather flirty, but how capable is he in bed? This is another side of his, which needs exploring.

One user said, ‘David Cameron is a bit too arrogant to be generous in the bedroom.’ Maybe so, but he certainly does not ooze with carnal appeal. I can’t see him as a heartthrob.

Others thought George Osborne would be ‘fumbling’, Tony Blair would want to look in a mirror, and with Nick Clegg it would be over very quickly.

What a brilliant commentary of the last three. Fumbling is a word that characterises Osborne beautifully, while Blair’s mirrorphobia is something he projects so well.

And as for Nick Clegg, he could be the dark horse and perhaps prove us all wrong. It is a pity his wife Miriam was not asked to shed light on his performance outside politics.

Maybe she will, if she thinks that will boost his chances of surviving the forthcoming general election…

Brian Sewell in a New Light

Just a teaser to alert my good friends who habitually read my blog that a new book by Brian Sewell, targeting adults and children of a certain age, will be published by Quartet Books in early March.

There will be a lot of media coverage and we expect the book to appeal to a large majority of the public, who know and admire the author for both his literary skills and his undeniable mastery of the written word.

It will be his first work of fiction – at the age of eighty-three – and will certainly garner a great deal of unprecedented interest and, hopefully, a new league of followers will emerge to discover that Brian is not only the best art critic we have, but also an intellectual giant who never ceases to surprise us with his bag of talents.

So be ready to order your copy before the rush begins, and be among the first to enjoy a moving story that brings tears to your eyes but also leaves the reader in a joyful mood that will linger in his or her memory for many years to come.

Beautifully illustrated by Sally Ann Lasson, the famous cartoonist, who has magically added a visual enchantment to Brian’s narrative  -turning the book into a gem hard to resist. At £9.99 it’s a giveaway to treasure.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield in 1939 and educated at the Mound School, York, a Quaker boarding school.

She won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved a double first in English. She published her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, in 1962. This was followed by other novels including The Garrick Year (1964), The Millstone (1966), The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Radiant Way (1987), The Witch of Exmoor (1996), The Peppered Moth (2001), The Seven Sisters (2002), The Red Queen (2004), The Sea Lady (2006) and The Pure Gold Baby (2013). She has also published biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson and was one time editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

I interviewed her in February 2000.

For most writers childhood is a fertile ground, particularly, it seems, if it has been unhappy, as yours was by all accounts. Do you think the unhappy childhood, however clichéd, helps the creative process? 

Yes. An unhappy childhood gives you a lot of material, and it’s much easier to remember unhappiness than happiness. Some writers have had very happy childhoods which give them a sort of golden time to write about, but for me personally it’s been very useful to have had a lot of grievances and miseries to look back on. They may be exaggerated in later life but they give you an argument with the world.

It is only comparatively recently that you have felt able to talk about your rather dark and troubled childhood that was tyrannized over by your depressive mother. Have you managed to lay the ghosts, would you say? 

I’ve just finished a novel about my mother, and I found it really hard to write because she is a difficult memory. While she was alive I was always thinking two ways: that I must keep her happy and that I must try to keep things going. And it’s taken me all these years since she died in 1983 to come to terms with everything.

Do you miss her? 

I don’t miss her at all. While I was writing the novel I thought about her a lot, on the whole quite miserably. But just occasionally I would have a dream in which she was happy and we were having a nice time. Then I really felt that I was redeeming things, but that happened very rarely. I miss my father, but that’s another matter.

Did your mother have any qualities that you admired? 

Yes, she had many admirable qualities. For example, she was very honest, not about herself but about other people; she wasn’t a deceiving woman, and she was very proud of her children. But she also had this depressive, manipulative quality which made dealing with her extremely difficult. It was so hard for my father, and for all of us. She imposed her sense of what was wrong with the world on those around her, and it cast a big shadow.

How did your father cope with her? 

He was always trying to placate her, to make life pleasant for her, but it was never enough and he never succeeded. They both came from very humble backgrounds, but he did well in the world, becoming a barrister and then a QC, and he was always so careful; to get good domestic help, but it was never quite enough for her. He took her on holidays but she always wanted a bigger or better holiday – she could never be satisfied. My theory is that it was because she had no career. She was a clever woman who had lived in the period when you didn’t do anything but look after your children, and I think she must have resented us very much. She never said she did, but I do think that if she had been born a bit later she would have had a better time.

Your childhood is generally packaged by journalists into a neat tale of sibling rivalry with your older sister Antonia Byatt. Is the truth more complex than the stuff of journalism? 

Much more complex. There was rivalry in the sense that Antonia was very jealous when I was born, but that is an absolutely commonplace situation, the older child being jealous when the second is born. What the journalists never comment on is that I have another sister and a brother, so the situation extends beyond the two sisters who happen to be in the public eye. We were a family, and I think my sister, indeed both my sisters, would agree that the problems were with our mother and not with each other. My mother was a very ambitious woman for her children, and if we slipped a bit or didn’t get the top A grade, she was very critical. There was a sense of having to do the best all the time, which is very difficult with siblings, even when they’re close and supportive of one another. A competitive situation can be made worse by praising one child at the expense of another, and that certainly went on.

But was there a time in your life when you and Antonia had a warm relationship? 

Oh yes, we were very close. As the younger sister, I adored Antonia. I thought she was wonderful and I used to listen to her as if hers was the voice of the Lord. We used to play amazingly complicated games, with my younger sister as well, and it was only when we grew older that we split. But that again is normal; children do grow apart when they get older.

The family feud theory is one that appeals to those interested in the private lives of authors, but how much of the so-called ‘rift’ between you is to do with family reserve and a way of coping with fame in the same field? 

Coping with fame in the same field is certainly difficult. I think Antonia said at some point that she really wished that I had stayed being an actress because it would have been much more convenient for her, but unfortunately that’s not what I ended up doing. I wanted to be a novelist and so did she, and in those early years she saw us very much in competitive terms. However, being in the same field isn’t necessarily difficult for people. For example, my first husband was an actor and his brother also became an actor. There has been the occasional mix-up when they have been cast by mistake for each other – a potentially nightmare situation – but those two brothers are close and good to each other. I wish my sister and I could have been a bit more supportive rather than allowing ourselves to be set in opposite camps. It’s a pity. I do greatly admire my sister’s work and I am always very excited when she rings me up.

You say that you and your sister followed unquestioningly the pattern which your mother had mapped out for both. Were you aware of that at the time, or was this something that became apparent only in retrospect? 

It became apparent in retrospect. At the time I was quite happy to go along with the programming. My mother wanted us all to go to Cambridge University, so all four of us went to Cambridge University. I now see I should have gone to Oxford, and if I had, then all might have been different. Antonia and I would have belonged to different worlds – she would have been a Cambridge writer and I’d have been an Oxford writer. But I wanted to please my mother because she was unhappy.

How did your younger sister and brother fit into the family situation? Were their lives also mapped out? 

Yes, they were. My younger sister was also sent off to Cambridge, but she made the big decision after her first year to change from English literature (which my mother had read) to art history. It was very sensible and she became a very successful art historian. My brother had the advantage of being programmed by my father. He went to Downing, my father’s college, and he became a lawyer and later a QC. He also had the good luck to be at university in the 1960s when everybody was rebellious, so he had a slightly different experience of Cambridge from the rest of us. It has worked out fine for Richard, although he had a difficult time with my mother, being very much the youngest and isolated with her for years because of the family structure.

Why do you think that you, the second daughter, became your mother’s favourite? Did the fact that you seemed to have inherited her tendency to depression have anything to do with it?

That’s a very interesting question. I never thought of it that way, but it’s possible, yes. Both Antonia and I were quite highly strung. She was a delicate child, quite dangerously asthmatic as a little girl, and I was depressive with a bad stammer, so we both had problems. My mother’s line on my sister’s asthma was very unsympathetic. She was quite Yorkshire and she just said, well, you’ve got to learn to live with it. She was hard with both of us and I really don’t know why I became the favourite. Perhaps it was because I was more patient with her, whereas Antonia got really fed up. I paid her more attention, and that lasted until she died.

Have you tried to avoid having a favourite child of your own, and have you succeeded? 

I have tried passionately not to have a favourite child, and I can honestly say that my favourite child alternates day by day. At times I feel my eldest is closest because he’s intellectual; then I think my daughter’s the closest; and then I think my youngest boy with his little children is my darling.

Your mother suffered very severely from depression, yet you say you were able to control yours and even to forget about being depressed. This does not sound like clinical depression – was it perhaps straightforward unhappiness with you? 

It’s possible. It’s also possible that my mother wasn’t clinically depressed; she just had no outlet. When I was at Cambridge in the late 1950s the world was just opening up in the most thrilling way, not only for women but for young people generally, whereas when my mother was at Cambridge things were difficult. She couldn’t get a job, and so she was driven in on herself. I think I am depressive by nature, but I’m never manic. I just go through black patches when things don’t seem worth doing.

Do you agree with your mother that you suffered because of heightened awareness, or do you think it is to do with a chemical imbalance? 

I really don’t know. I feel in my case it is something much more spiritual, a sort of melancholy that comes over me.

You attend the Mount School in York, a Quaker boarding school. Was it something of a relief to be sent away to boarding school, would you say? 

Yes, I loved it, and I was very happy there most of the time. It was a good school and I had good friends there, one or two of whom I still see. There were things that I didn’t like about it, but by and large it suited me very well.

Why were you sent to a Quaker school? 

Very complicated reasons. My parents were quite left-wing and didn’t want to send us to a snobbish girls’ school where you learned to be a lady, and also they quite liked the moral seriousness of the Quakers and the egalitarian idea of decent people together. They wanted the best of both worlds really.

You have described your father as ‘a very good man’. What does that mean in your terms? 

He was kind, he was fair, he was generous, and he was sensitive to his children. He was a completely unpretentious man, he thought a great deal about social issues, he believed in a better world, and he was always worrying about other people. He was also a gentle man, too gentle perhaps.

Your criticism of your mother is understandable, but have you come to feel compassion for her, perhaps as you yourself have got older? 

In a way I have always felt compassion. I have always believed that she had a bad deal, both historically and personally. But, yes, I think I now understand more what it was that she suffered from. The actual causes of her feeling so unhappy are clearer to me now than they were; but I always felt sorry for her, always.

How difficult has it been to avoid becoming your mother? Is that something you have consciously resisted? 

I’ve tried to, but I now hear myself saying some of the things that she said. However, I honestly don’t think I impose my will on my children in the same way – maybe if anything I’ve gone too far the other way. I think I should have watched them a bit more closely at certain points and been a bit more pushy on their behalf.

You describe marriage at twenty-one as being ‘the only way to make one’s sex life acceptable to one’s parents’. Do you think the reasons for marriage nowadays are any more soundly based?

Yes, I think that people who choose to get married have thought quite seriously about why they want to enter into this state and what it means to them in terms of commitment. A lot of my generation married just to get away from home, but marriage now is much more of a choice than an escape hole.

Your first novel, you say, was the result of loneliness and joblessness. Do you believe that if you had an interesting job and felt completely fulfilled by marriage and motherhood that there might have been no novels? 

It is perfectly possible. If I had found employment as an actress or if I had been perfectly happy and busy I might never have found time to write a book. My first husband and I were both in love with the theatre in those days. We actually met in an amateur production of an Ibsen play at Cambridge – he became a very good actor and I was not a bad actress. But there were far fewer parts for actresses; it was a much more difficult career than being an actor.

Your early novels are very strong on portraying the complexity of feelings accompanying motherhood, which is presented with all its conflicting demands and frustrations. And yet you say somewhere that motherhood for you has been ‘the greatest joy in the world’. Is this a feeling which came retrospectively, as it were, once the early experience of motherhood had been lived through? 

No, I think I felt it all the time. I wasn’t very keen on being pregnant, it’s true, and I thought the whole thing was a big mistake, but as soon as I saw this little creature I was completely enraptured and have remained so ever since. Of course, there are difficulties, and my early novels were written to cater for a clientele of mothers who were having a terribly time, but even the mothers having a terrible time are also having a wonderful time. What I felt when I saw that first baby was always with me; it was always the most important thing. And this is true for the majority of women – it’s the most important experience of their lives.

The heroine of The Millstone describes the experience of pregnancy and motherhood and says at one point, ‘I am sure that my discoveries were common discoveries; if they were not, they would not be worth recording.’ Was that your own experience too, that the new things you discovered about yourself were part of something universal? 

Yes, it was like suddenly being part of the human race. All the way through school and college, I had been pushed into some special position and told to be different. But suddenly there was this totally common bond.

 Time and again in your novels there seems to be a concern with the most ordinary experiences in life… 

Yes, I think extraordinary experiences are interesting, but ordinary experiences are what make us what we really are.

Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to ‘de-intellectualize’ the business of living, to demonstrate that the truth is all around us, not simply in the scholarly pursuits? 

That is absolutely correct. It’s not that I don’t respect scholarship, it’s just that I feel a lot of what is very important is not understood by scholars, not accessible to them. I particularly value the common bonds rather than things that set people apart.

Your heroine in The Waterfall, Jane Grey, says at one point: ‘I could have turned myself into one of those mother women who ignore their husbands and live through their children. But with me, this did not happen; my ability to kiss and care for and feed and amuse a small child merely reinforced my sense of division – I felt split between the anxious intelligent woman and the healthy and efficient mother.’ How much do these words reflect your own experience of those days? 

They certainly reflect a period in my life when I felt that my entire milieu was being used by children, and that the woman in me was not being allowed to speak at all. When you are a young mother there are a lot of conflicts; you can’t be sexually attractive, look after a baby, clean the house, and in my case write a book all at the same time. It’s less of a problem for women now than it used to be, because women are allowed more roles, more freedom than before.

Jane Grey is an example of what has been referred to as ‘the brains and breast dichotomy’ – this was presumably something you yourself experienced rather acutely. Do you think it was resolved satisfactorily in your case? 

It was resolved, yes. I have had a perfectly satisfying intellectual life and a perfectly satisfying physical life, so I guess I have no complaints at all. I think I had the capacity to be a don, in which case I would probably have read a lot more books and been able to understand deconstruction and all the things that I find quite difficult intellectually; but I don’t regret not being a don, because I have had so many other things that I might not otherwise have had.

Do you believe that what can perhaps be articulated and resolved in fiction often remains inexplicable and unresolvable in life, and in oneself? 

Yes. Quite often in fiction one is describing a dilemma that is a perpetual dilemma, and one invents characters who solve it and you can feel as a result that you’ve solved it in life, but in fact it comes bouncing back at you. The business of my mother is a case in point; through fiction you can make a shape out of it that satisfies you for a while; but you can’t really resolve it.

Doris Lessing, whom I know you admire, said, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Are you inclined to agree with her? 

I know what she means, but on the other hand I am also quite interested in the truths that you can’t fit into fiction. I know Doris found her mother just as difficult as I found mine, and she eventually came to the conclusion that her mother had been driven mad by the First World War. That situation fuelled all her fiction, but it was only in writing her two volumes of memoirs that Doris discovered what her mother was really like. So there is fiction, but there is also fact, and it’s very strange when the fact seems to contradict the fictions that you’ve made out of it. It’s a very rich area and constant two-way process.

You are being described in your own Oxford Companion to English Literature as being associated with early feminism. Can you perhaps elaborate on what you understood by feminism then, and what it means to you today? 

With early feminism it was a question of equal rights, educational opportunities, equal pay, access to the professions, and also, absolutely crucially, it was to do with nursery-school provision. When I had my babies there were no state nurseries at all. This is still a problem but at least we know that we are thinking about it. A lot of the issues to do with providing mothers with support are exactly the same, but the process of feminism is completely irreversible – I don’t think we will ever go back. Every now and then there’s a backlash and we are all told that it is very bad for mothers to go out to work in some ways, but we are never again going to see women staying at home in the way that my mother stayed at home. The future of feminism is making it happen for the benefit of everybody, for women, for children, and for men, so that they don’t feel pushed out of the side of the frame. When I was young, feminism was very much a sense of wanting to choose your own life and that has now happened to a large extent.

But do you think it is still a man’s world? 

Not totally. It seems to me that young men, my sons and their age group, are very helpful in ways that husbands used not to be, so I think that women have much less to complain about. Women are taken into account much more than they used to be.

Do you dislike what Doris Lessing called ‘the shrill voice of feminism’? 

[laughter] Doris has been very much got at by feminists who tell her that she ought to agree with everything they say, and being a very independent-minded woman, she doesn’t agree with everything they say. I myself certainly get very irritated with feminist literary critics who tell me how to write my books, so that particular kind of shrill voice I dislike very much.

There is a high degree of social comment in your novels, and a concern with moral problems. Do you think that writers have a moral responsibility towards their readers? 

I greatly admire writers like Proust and James Joyce, and they have no sense of moral responsibility whatsoever. I am more in the mould of the writer who worries about social inequality and the disadvantaged. I was brought up to think about these things, and to me it is a natural way of writing, to try and include in my fiction a sense of the world we live in and the injustices in it. But I don’t go to extremes – I’m not a didactic writer like George Orwell. I am a bit of a moralist in that I am always looking around and wondering if things could be better; that’s all really.

Your 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, is concerned with the possibility of social justice, touching on racial prejudice, greed, factory farming, and so on…it is quite a bleak picture you paint in some ways… 

That novel is a sort of satire really – it is meant to be more funny than bleak. It caricatures a number of ridiculous things that go on in our society. And I must say that I found the BSE business really shocking and completely fascinating. The whole saga was very much a product of greed, and it probably needs a real satirist, a Jonathan Swift, to deal with it. But I don’t take a bleak view at all. I think that life is very much pleasanter in Western democracies for most people than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago; not perfect, but better.

Has New Labour done anything to alleviate your concern about social inequality, or have you been disappointed in the government? 

I was very disappointed to begin with because I felt it was all talk and photo opportunities, but they have in fact increased the minimum wage, and it was they who introduced it in the first place. I feel that I now have more faith in their long-term agenda than I did at the beginning. Gordon Brown in being very clever in redistributing wealth to some degree, something which is much needed because in certain parts of England poverty is absolutely endemic. Tony Blair says there is no north and south divide, but he should go and have a walk round South Yorkshire where my parents came from. It’s dismal there, and the depression is emotional as well as economic. There are no jobs and life is quite without prospect for a lot of people. I can’t stand the jargon of phrases like social exclusion, but nevertheless they do mean something. This government is at least beginning to try to bring people into society again. So I’ll give them another term or two, and I wish them well.

According to Roy Hattersley, in a recent Guardian profile, you reject the idea of a fellowship at Newham because the cleaning woman who made your bed every day and laid your fire would have been on your conscience for life. Some people might think this a kind of snobbery masquerading as egalitarianism… 

I don’t think that’s quite what I said to Roy. What I meant was that a fellowship was so seductive that if I accepted I could see myself never being able to get out of my ivory tower. I’m sure that if I had taken it I would never have written the novels, because I would only ever have seen the world with my made bed in it and my laid fire. I was really talking about the dangers of being cosseted to the extent that you can’t see what the world is made of.

The heroine of your novel The Needle’s Eye sacrifices her own happiness ‘for the sake of the children’ – that well-worn phrase – and the novel deals in depth with the lovelessness that often passes for marital love. Do you think the moral problems presented in The Needle’s Eye remain as relevant today as thirty years ago? 

Even more relevant, because fortunately it’s easier to get divorced than it used to be. Sticking together for the children is not always a good idea. I know a lot of people disagree with me, but having been divorced myself, and being on excellent terms with my first husband, I just know that it was right for us and the children.

Some feminist critics, were disappointed in the message of that novel – they swathe heroine choosing self-sacrifice over self-knowledge. Would you write it differently today? 

I do think today that she probably wouldn’t have made that decision. But she was a slightly masochistic character actually; she suffered from guilt through having far too much money, so psychologically it was a perfectly convincing portrait.

I think it’s fair to say that your novels are concerned with moral problems and ambiguities. Do you believe that there are any moral absolutes? 

I feel very strongly about one or two issues – capital punishment, for example. I believe that the state should not kill. I also feel very strongly about cruelty; we should not ever be cruel physically to anyone, and we should try not to be cruel mentally either. The trouble is that life is full of ambiguity, and cultures are all relative.

What are your own guiding principles? 

Oddly enough, one of my guiding principles comes from my Quaker background. I’m not a Quaker myself, nor even a believer, but I do agree with the Quakers when they say there is the light of God in every man. I do believe that there is arguably in every human being something good or redeemable, and if you treat them as contemptible or negligible. People become better if you believe they’re better, and I suppose that’s something I’ve clung to.

Your mother was a declared atheist, and your father a half-hearted Church of England adherent. What effect did this rather mixed-up religious background have on you? 

My father did have quite a religious temperament actually, and in fact both my parents became Quakers later. And a lot of Quakerism does appeal, but it’s a very sad matter to me that I can’t believe in the Almighty God. Just occasionally I have moments of apparent certainty when I think that perhaps it isn’t just black space, and I think this comes from the Quakers. They have no dogma, just the idea that you keep striving, and any kind of movement towards the spirit is considered good. The other day I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on the way up to Sheffield, and I just knew there was a God, and then of course as soon as the music was over, it was gone; but there are moments of profound conviction.

Do you pray? 

Yes, I do, but I don’t know who I’m praying to. If I think something bad is happening to the children, then I do look upwards and say, let it not happen, but I don’t try to make bargains the way I used to.

As a child you managed to convince yourself that you had committed what you called ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ – where did this idea come from? 

I just don’t know. Children used to be tormented by hellfire a lot in those days, but I certainly didn’t have that at school or at home, so I don’t know where I got it from. It could have been an overactive imagination, I suppose, but I really did feel terrible for quite a long time. I had this sense of profound guilt and sin, which I never have now.

Don’t you ever suffer from guilt now? 

Only perfectly justified guilt, when I’ve done something awful, but I never feel that sense of overwhelming guiltiness.

Have you ever had any kind of what might be termed a religious experience, any sense of the numinous? 

Yes, I have that that from nature. If I got for a walk in the country, I can feel completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. There’s a walk I do regularly in Somerset, up the back behind our house, and in the evening it is just amazingly beautiful. Your heart stands still and you feel that the whole world is full of design and beauty and order. It also gives you a sense of eternity because you feel that when you are gone this beautiful world will still be here.

Have you ever longed for what are usually referred to as the comforts of religion? 

No, because I suppose I have always felt that people who seem very secure have probably been through doubt. The religious people I respect most, like the Bishop of Edinburgh, are rather full of doubt themselves. I know that there is comfort in the natural world so I don’t want the comforts of religion. We must all find our own spiritual comfort where we can, and I can’t find mine in any kind of creed or ritual.

The Guardian reports that you have become detached from the world’s vanities, refusing to be nominated for prizes, finding little interest in reviews and giving support to worthy causes. Is this the result of a happy second marriage with your husband Michael Holroyd? 

It always sounds better than it really is, because there are days when I’m absolutely full of rage and irritation and overwhelmed by petty, petty feelings. But on the whole I am much calmer than I used to be, and Michael has been a very good influence because he takes the longer view on things. When I get very upset and overwrought, he points at something just slightly beyond it, and that’s very good for me.

You have described the times in which we live as ‘a particularly pointless age’? Can you elaborate on that? 

I must have said that when I was in a bad temper because I don’t feel that at all. I actually think it is rather an exciting, positive and open age. I’m a disappointed optimist in that I thought by now we would have a more even society, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor, that we wouldn’t have sink schools or terrible children’s homes. I thought all that would have vanished by now, and we would all be living in a much more egalitarian, happy, sharing world. That hasn’t happened, but on the other hand it hasn’t turned out too badly either.

Remembering Dennis Potter

The unexpected and untimely death of Lynsey de Paul last October reminded me of a very special time in the early 1980s when I produced the movie Brimstone and Treacle.

I first got to know Dennis Potter when Quartet published his novel version of his award-winning BBC television series, Pennies from Heaven. He and I hit it off straight away, though he was a famously complex and cantankerous character. This was largely the result of the terrible chronic illness he suffered from most of his adult life. Known as psoriatic arthropothy, it affected his skin and his joints. He had to endure constant physical pain and was incapacitated in many ways, which gave him a focus for his anger.

Despite these handicaps, he was a man of the most remarkable achievements whose delving into the seedy depths of human motivation riveted his audience. He had a feeling for the drama and its need to defy convention which gave his work a rare quality seldom equalled by any of his contemporaries.

He had an obsessive nature that in some ways was not dissimilar to my own. Artistically he was driven and inflexible. He loved a quarrel and his relationships with close associates were always tempestuous. This was especially true with Kenith Trodd, who worked with Potter over many years on his television projects. Theirs was a relationship that oscillated between love and hate and caused consternation within their circle.

Dennis’s perception of women was strange as well as intriguing. He was attracted to the dissolute type of woman whose sexual vibes stir man’s most basic instincts. He certainly preferred the image of woman as sinful to the idea of her as pure.

The seething underbelly of nightlife with all its sexual connotations was a theme he was drawn to explore time and time again. The association between disgust and guilt was very real for him. Somehow he felt at home in an environment where prostitutes lurked or had a dominant presence. But his was a unique talent and his output was prodigious, given the health constraints under which he worked.

Of my own involvement I said in an interview with Screen International in early 1982 that ‘investing in films is a logical progression to my publishing activities’, that ‘I’ve always been interested in the media and I’ve always wanted to take risks. I do not see the point in investing in things that you know are going to work. For me the gamble of doing something you believe in is vitally important’.

Dennis told the Daily Mirror that in his ambition for the play to be turned into a film he was prepared to work for nothing to see the project through.

The subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle was guaranteed to attract controversy. In the mixed reception given to the movie by the critics after its London première in September 1982, discussion undoubtedly centred more on its theme than its artistic merit. There was a general consensus that Sting’s performance was a triumph, and most commentators agreed he was not its only revelation and Brimstone and Treacle was definitely a film to watch out for. It was remarked that it represented ‘a most impressive move into film production for the publishing impresario Naim Attallah’.

The party following the première was a lavish affair at a mansion in Regent’s Park. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were there, deep in conversation with Captain Sensible (wearing a skirt), while Lynsey de Paul giggled with her new man, designer Carl Dawson. Sting arrived alone but was soon surrounded by a cluster of beautiful women, including Selina Scott and the singer Marsha Hunt. Everyone at the gathering heaped praise on Sting for his acting ability. ‘He was so good, he made me sick,’ joked Bob Geldof.

Sting was in his element as he gasped, ‘It’s all so amazing.’ His sudden transition from rock star to film star left him quite bemused. Even the great photographer, Helmut Newton, who took the publicity photos for the film and had seen plenty of sights in his time, was dazzled by the event.

When Quartet gave Dennis Potter a commission to write a novel treatment for Brimstone and Treacle, he passed the task over to his daughter Sarah, whom he was encouraging to do some writing. His utter devotion to Sarah suggested she was the closest to him of all the women in his life.

Remembering people and events such as these are simply a tonic to keep us going in old age which, by and large, has its own limitations.