Lionel Blue

Lionel Blue was born in the East End of London in 1930.

He read History at Balliol College, Oxford, before taking a degree in Semitics at University College, London. He was ordained a rabbi in 1960 and has been a lecturer at Leo Baeck College since 1967.

He is a writer and broadcaster and a regular contributor to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. He is the author of many books including A Backdoor to Heaven (1979), Bright Blue (1985), Tales of Body and Soul (1994), Sun, Sand and Soul (1999), Kindred Spirits (1999), The Godseeker’s Guide (2010) and two autobiographies, My Affair with Christianity (1999) and Hitchhiking to Heaven (2004).

I interviewed him in March 1999.

According to one interviewer you have turned Jewish neurosis into an art form, which puts you up there with Woody Allen and other gifted neurotics. Would you agree with that analysis, and if so, are you happy with the company you share? 

Oh, yes. There’s a quality about Jewish neurosis which is optimistic. Somehow you manage to some to the surface, ever after something like the Holocaust. I watch this bobbing-up quality in Jewish life and I have seen how, despite all the neuroses, people create little sane communities on the ruins of the old. I think Woody Allen is extraordinarily funny, and he’s got that survival quality. When he asks the girl out on Saturday night and she says, ‘Saturday night I’m going to commit suicide,’ he says, ‘OK what about Friday night then?’

During your childhood you were left with your grandmother while your father looked for work and your mother was either ill in hospital or working late. Do you think that a troubled childhood was a prerequisite for the rather angst-ridden adult life you have led? 

I suppose it was. But I did have an awful lot of love, and although some of it was very manipulative, there was a lot of it around, and it gave me a lot of strength. However, since I was the only grandchild in my family, I was also expected to be the messiah. And there were some tough bits, especially after my mother grandmother died, like wandering the streets after I came from school and watching all the other children go and have tea with their parents.

As you said, you had love in abundance, being the adored only son, doted on by your grandparents. Why then do you think, long before the trauma of wartime evacuation, you saw yourself as an outsider, the class oddity, the monster of ugliness, which clearly you were not? 

For one thing I was destabilized by the amount of anti-Semitism there was even in the East End of London before the war. There were the Mosley marches going on, the refugees were coming in, and some streets were too dangerous to walk on. I honestly thought at that time that Hitler was unstoppable. The other thing was that I was a sort of displaced person because my mother desperately wanted to get out of the ghetto and out of the poverty trap, so the one thing I was required to be was clever. She dressed me in little silk suits which made me a kind of oddity in the playground, but sometimes when I had had enough I used to kick them off and go roistering with the gang.

 You have written at length about your mother who lived with you until she was ninety. But what about your father who is mentioned only rarely? 

I think he was too good a man for me. You see, my mother and father weren’t happy for many years of their lives – it had been a sort of arranged marriage which didn’t really work out – and I knew in order to survive I had to go with one or the other. My mother was the stronger character so I went with her. My father died over thirty years ago, at a time when I was still reacting against both my parents, and so there was an awful lot unsaid between us. He was a very good man, but he wasn’t a successful man. I always remember one incident on Whitechapel Road. It was a Saturday evening when we were supposed to be a nice family going out in our best clothes to the West End. My father saw a coloured man being thrown out of a pub, and he went in all fists flying, and there was an absolute riot, and my father was knocked out. When he came to, the owner of the pub said, ‘Herschel’ (that was my father’s Yiddish name), ‘do you know why I threw that man out of the pub? I kicked him out for making anti-Semitic remarks.’ My mother was heartbroken, not least because the Saturday night was ruined. Again, both my parents, had such different deals from me. My mother wanted me to be a solicitor, a sleek businessman, while my father, who was a referee in the boxing ring as well as a tailor, wanted me to be an athlete. The two just didn’t combine, and in the end I did the dirty on both of them by becoming a rabbi.

At the age of sixteen you talked to your mother about your sexuality, and you know she told your father, yet he never mentioned it. Have you held this against him? 

No. He was always courteous to anybody I brought back home or was in love with. He was a very traditional man, and yet he somehow seemed to absorb it all, because the only thing he was interested in was my happiness. And both my parents felt a lot of guilt about me. Like most parents, they thought it was all their fault, which it wasn’t. But my father never made things difficult or protested at all – he wasn’t like that.

How did you father’s death affect you? 

At the time I never grasped it. I only absorb things after a very long time. It was a good day, and I just thought my father would have liked it because it was a fine day for gardening. It’s only in the last ten years that I have really mourned my father. It’s taken me a long time.

As an evacuee during the war you were moved sixteen times, which seems appalling by any standards. Why was it necessary to move you so often? And why did your parents allow it? 

Well, my parents wanted to do the best for me, and they overdid it as they always did, and I ended up getting the worst of all possible worlds. First of all, my mother’s boss said as a favour to my mother that I should go to Canada and be with his children, and so I was sent from place to place waiting for a ship, but every ship that I was supposed to go on got sunk. And so I got shifted around from place to place with no time to make friends or put down roots, just waiting for this blasted ship. After Dunkirk it looked very much as though we were going to be invaded, so my parents then said I’d better come back to London. The happiest time of my life was when I was with both of them in London during the Blitz.

Were you always sent to Gentile families? 

Yes, because not many Jewish people live in the country. I saw Christianity in all its brands. I was quite interested in all these variations, and I insisted on going along to Christian assembly at school, and also religious instruction. I read The Pilgrim’s Progress and that book has remained with me for the rest of my life. It taught me that life is a journey and that we are not just bodies travelling the world but also souls going towards eternal life. The one Jewish family I remember were Rechabites, who were against the demon drink. We used to go in processions singing, ‘My drink is water bright, water bright,’ and I remember singing this when I went back to see my grandfather. He was furious because he himself was a great believer in whisky.

You were fourteen when you became fully aware of your homosexuality, and were horrified. How did you explain it to yourself? 

I remember my father was reading a Sunday paper and he remarked to my mother about these awful perverts, men who liked other men, and I just went white and rigid because I realized that was what I was. At least it indicated that there were other people besides me like that in the world, but I didn’t know where to find them, because not having brothers or sisters or even the time to build up a relationship in which you could ask such things, the only evidence of these other people was the graffiti in the public loos. Very depressing. So I was aware that I was a part of an underworld but I didn’t know how you got in touch with it or what you did there.

Did you see homosexuality as innate or did you feel that your life experience had somehow caused it? 

I saw it as innate. Before I was evacuated I was interested in little girls – like most children we used to play doctors and nurses, and I think I have always been bisexual, but I am mainly homosexual.

Were you later attracted to girls? 

I wasn’t actually attracted to girls at all, but I did fall in love with some girls, although not physically. Later on there was a girl in my life I was able to talk to, and she loved me, and we were thinking of getting married, but there were so many problems that I eventually said I thought we had better not. It’s one of the greatest might-have-beens in my life.

Was the relationship purely platonic? 

We had sexual intercourse about twice, which gave me awful feelings of tremendous panic. But there were bits of it I enjoyed. For example, the actual orgasm was much deeper than anything I have encountered in homosexuality, but it was overlaid by so many layers of complex feelings. Putting it simply, if I was sitting in a cafe and a beautiful girl passed by, and then a beautiful chap passed by, well, the girl was beautiful intellectually, but I would be physically attracted to the chap straightaway. Girls went against the grain, but there was definitely something there, which is why I think of myself as bisexual. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d got married, but I think the poor girl had a hell of a time.

Sexuality apart, do you enjoy the company of women? 

As a matter of fact, I prefer women’s company and I’ve always had women as my closest friends. Put it this way: homosexuality was natural for me, whereas heterosexuality was difficult and awkward, though there were some things in it which I enjoyed and which –who knows – I might have enjoyed more and more if I’d stayed with it. But I don’t think it really was possible, because the first attraction was always to a man.

You say you considered marriage…yet you were fully aware that you were gay and presumably she knew… 

Yes, of course, I told her.

She was also an Anglican, which meant a difference in basic religious outlook…I hope you will forgive me if I say it sounds to have been quite a mad idea. How could it possibly have worked? 

Because she loved me, and because I was beginning to love her, and that made all the difference. I think in the end she would have become Jewish and done anything for my sake. We didn’t get married because I didn’t think it was right to put all this on somebody, but I’m very muddled about it still.

Did you hope to have children? 

She wanted children. I just didn’t know what I wanted. I also didn’t know what sort of father I would make. An awful lot would have depended on her. It was something that was out of my reckoning. It was her I wanted, not children.

Do you regret that you are childless, that the family line ends with you? 

Sometimes. That is why I was very happy when I looked after my mother and aunt when they were in their nineties, because they were my children, and I liked it. Yes, I’m sorry that the whole line ends with me, it seems a bit f a waste, but in a way, in doing Thought for the Day you end up with a lot of children. It’s the same with teaching in the seminary. That’s the only way I can deal with it. How I would have behaved with a real child, I just do not know. There are many homosexuals who want children and many of them have become wonderful parents, but I find myself and my partner, that our relationship is more than enough for me to cope with.

Your saving grace as a lonely, friendless schoolboy was that you were clever, but instead of its boosting your self-esteem you felt the increased pressure of family expectations. Why didn’t you feel you could meet those expectations? 

I think because I felt they didn’t do justice to me, in the sense that my family’s idea of worldly success somehow seemed very cramped, and in the last resort I wasn’t that interested in money. Just when I thought I would be a real drop out, two things happened: one, I caught religion, and two, I met an analyst at a party. The two together were my salvation, and I was born again, so to speak.

Why was the analyst your salvation? 

He was the first person I was able to be honest with. I had tried before to be honest, first to a rabbi, then to a teacher, and they both were horrified and sort of threw me out. The analyst was the first person who seemed to like me as I was. I met him shortly after I caught religion and I asked him in a rather prissy way if my sexuality would destroy my religion and he replied that in so far as my religion was neurotic, it would, but in so far as it wasn’t neurotic it wouldn’t. He also became interested in spiritual matters and went to an ashram in India, so that was something else that connected us.

How were the two things – sex and religion – connected in your mind? 

To begin with I thought I had to sublimate all the sex to religion, and in trying to sublimate sex I found myself back in my childhood again being neurotic, and I thought, no, no, no, it can’t be like that. Then through the Quakers I developed a kind of inner voice which told me to break out. At that point I felt I had had enough so I decided to say yes to everything, and I went to Amsterdam, which was the sort of Greenwich Village of Europe at the time. And there I found religion again, because I discovered that people are very vulnerable, especially with no clothes on. I found out a lot of other things as well. For example, I went to a kind of gay sauna in Amsterdam and after experiencing the two or three seconds of relief, I began to think it was the biggest con trick ever. I thought, is this the thing I’ve been mad about all these years? And the inner voice said to me, ‘Lionel, you don’t get much from it because you don’t give much.’ I then realized that religion and sex had to be brought together. I had been a terribly repressed person, so I needed a bit of relief, but going beyond that bit of relief you ended up in the sphere of beginning to make love, and that was a different matter.

You don’t find a contradiction between sex and religion? 

No, no. Religious people often say that if you have too much sex it will damn you, but what I do think it can do is trivialize you. You can end up as just genitalia and not much else, and I went through that period myself. After I came back to England I wanted to find someone to settle down with, to have a home with, to recreate my grandparents; house within a homosexual context. It took me a long time to find it. Once again, because I didn’t know much about relationships, I would try to turn people into my fantasies, and it took me ages before I realized that people don’t change and you have to love what is there in front of you. It sounds a very simple truth but it took me a very long time to like people as they are, not as I would wish them to be. My third really long-term relationship has proved successful, which is what I always wanted.

Adolescence was hell for you and when you made it to Oxford you found you could not cope and you came close to a total breakdown. The suicide attempt you describe – leaping from the top of a wardrobe – seems to have been a bit half-hearted…was it more a desperate cry for help? 

Yes, it was a way of saying I couldn’t cope. And you have to remember at that time, in the late 1940s, early 1950s, counselling was not the norm. Oxford was a place where public-school chaps went for cold showers, and homosexuality was still a crime.

You have been in therapy for more than forty years. Would you say your need for therapy is based on the trauma of your evacuation years, or more on the burden of your homosexuality? 

I just don’t know. It could even have been a pre-birth problem – who can say? During some of the sessions with the analyst, there seemed to be a kind of birth experience, and I couldn’t talk, I could only make baby sounds. My childhood was certainly a complete muddle, but on the other hand, many people have had worse childhoods than me and come out fighting fit and normal. All I can say is my cry for help was answered.

Christianity had attracted you during the wartime years because you hated being the odd man out, because you were in love with the dreaming spires of Oxford and the tolling bells, and not least the seductive figure of Jesus. But your flirtation with Christianity ended suddenly when you were overcome with rage at the appalling anti-Judaism of Christian teaching and tradition which had led straight to the murder of six million Jews. What puzzles me is how your flirtation could have begun in the first place since you must have known all about the Inquisition and the Holocaust… 

I suppose it just didn’t connect up really. And of course Christianity wasn’t all anti-Semitism. The Christians I met were remarkably nice and I found them easier to talk to than rabbis. They didn’t want my body but they seemed to like my soul, and that was something. There were three or four things I got from Christianity, which even the rage I felt afterwards did not take away completely. One was that I began to see all my problems in a new light. Christians showed me that my problems could also be my spiritual capital, that perhaps the only way I could come to understand compassion and mercy for other people was to suffer myself. Therefore I began to see my problems as blessings, and once you feel that there’s a purpose in problems and suffering, then they have a new perspective. The next thing I found out from Christians was that home could never really be in this world, this world wasn’t perfection and it could only be a corridor. Later on I realized that you only get a glimpse of love in this world but the real thing is in a different dimension. It’s no accident that heaven is a word which comes into the titles of many of my books, for I began to realize that if you did something for heaven’s sake, then heaven happened. The third thing I found was that religion could be a love affair, and also a friendship. I was not interested in a God who was a parent figure because I had enough problems with parents, but I needed a friend so badly, so Jesus became my friend, and we used to chat to each other. Sometimes I wondered if I was a ventriloquist’s dummy or if I was getting schizoid, but what Jesus said to me made remarkable sense.

Do you still talk to him?

Yes, whoever he is. He’s a combination of the guardian angel my Polish-Russian grandmother believed in, and the Jesus whom I met at the Quakers. Put it this way, I have a friend in high places. And that friendship is central to my life. I still go, for example, to a Carmelite priory near Oxford, not to be converted or because I desperately want the ritual; but because there’s a lot of space there to go into my inner conversations and nobody thinks I’m a fool – it’s accepted. Every so often I get a summons from my friend, and he says, ‘Hey, hey, what about me? I think we’d better have our little chat.’ Divine friendship is no different from human friendship; you have to invest time and attention a bit.

Going back to the fleshpots of Amsterdam, whatever happiness you found there was human and understandable, but it was not an odd place to discover that you wanted to become a rabbi? 

No, because actually I found that after making love people often used to talk to me. Before that, I used to want to get away as fast as I jolly well could after having a climax, but later I used to lie in bed just talking, listening to people. If you ask me where do I find God, I will tell you I find God in people. They bring out the Yiddish Momma in me and I have a great sense of compassion. I remember there was one particular chap, and after we made love I told him that I was to become a rabbi, and he told he had been in the SS, and we just lay silently for a while and a great feeling of compassion came over us both. He wanted me to forgive him and I told him it wasn’t in my remit, as it were, that I didn’t have powers of forgiveness, that I wasn’t a Catholic priest. But I felt for him and I just held him in my arms until the morning. I couldn’t have sex with him again – I’m not a sexual prowess kind of person anyway – but hold him in my arms I could. Another time I met a girl in a pub in a German port, Bremen I think, and she was well dressed with a sort of Parisian charm, but she turned out to be a transsexual, and that was the only place that would accept her. I went out with her, we went to the opera together, and once again there was compassion. I had been brought up in a respectable suburban world, and suddenly I was discovering the underside of Europe. My friend from above was with me, and he seemed to take over. I began to feel at last that I could become a minister.

Do you think it was necessary to leave England to discover these things? 

I hadn’t realized until I went to Holland how mannered a place like England was, how one uses conversation not to communicate but really to hide. I liked the way the Dutch called a spade a spade. The thing I must make clear about Christianity and why I didn’t become a Christian is that I’d read the Gospels and the New Testament and there were too many things there not for me. But at the same time Christianity did give me a friend and that was extremely important. I remember when my second relationship folded up, a sort of black hole developed, because we’d been together for fifteen years, and I went into a little chapel nearby and asked, where the hell do I go from here? And this voice came and said, ‘Look, Lionel, in this world you only get reflections of things, reflections of love, but one day you’ll get the real thing.’ I took that to mean when I died, so it rather changed the centre of gravity of my life. My boyfriend and I shared a home in North London. We had had an enormous row about who owned this and who owned that, but I remember when I got back I suddenly heard the voice again and I just said to my boyfriend that we should toss a coin about everything to decide who owned it. He said, ‘Lionel that’s the most intelligent thing you’ve said for years,’ so we went to a pub, tossed a coin, and although the relationship finished in the formal sense, at the same time the affection stayed on and we remained fond of one another.

You tell us that Tina – the woman who ran the sauna in Amsterdam – ‘made an honest rabbi’ of you…did that mean that you kept your homosexuality a secret for some years after becoming a rabbi? 

Oh yes, because it was criminal.

But did this not make you a dishonest rabbi in a sense? 

Well, actually I told the senior rabbi and he said, ‘Well, Lionel, I can only afford one of you, but one of you I’d better have.’ And I told all my closet friends in the rabbinate and even though I couldn’t say the whole truth I tried not to lie.

In the Church of England some priests are known to be homosexual, but living with a partner is not officially permitted. Has your congregation accepted your way of life without protest? 

Yes, but if I had been an ordinary congregational rabbi it might have raised a lot of problems. I’ve been a religious bureaucrat; I teach at the seminary, I do retreats for alcoholics, HIV people, that sort of thing, and everyone has accepted it because I don’t make my homosexuality a threat to them. If people feel threatened they get angry, but if you don’t sort of slap it in their faces they are on the whole quite pleasant about it.

So you’ve never had any problem with that? 

Until 1968 I had to be careful, and with all this care I probably destroyed my first relationship because we had to hide so much. It was too big a strain. I always remember, for example, that during a time my friend was badly ill and I had to go to a religious conference. This meant finding a hotel for him nearby, and sort of sneaking out to see him. It didn’t make for an easy domestic life.

Deep inside, do you consider homosexuality natural, or is it an affliction? 

It’s not an affliction. Put it this way, it’s a more difficult fit, physically, socially and emotionally, but you get to the same place in the end. You do find real love, real companionship. They are more difficult to get to, but they are there.

At the end of your book My Affair with Christianity, you say that you do not believe in the Messiah. The idea that ‘a Messiah would drop from the sky to sort out our problems’ is, you say, ‘the illusion of children’. I had thought that the Jewish Messiah, so long awaited, was something more profound that the Mary Poppins figure you describe, dropping from the sky to sort out our problems… 

Yes, that is true. I suppose it was a rather shallow statement. My view is that there is a redeemer in each of us, and that if you are prepared to play the role of redeemer, yes, the Messiahship is open to you if you want it. I suppose I’m too Jewish to think of it in terms of another Jew, or even of another human being, and I don’t really think that perfection is possible in this life.

But the way you portray the Messiah does rather trivialize a hope which has been clung to sincerely through two thousand years of persecution…

Yes, not there’s a lot in that hope which is not for me. I don’t hope to be ingathered to a promised land; I do not think there is a perfect world which is going to come. I went through that perfect world business when I was a Marxist and saw the sort of damage it can do. It seems to me the best thing to do is to concentrate on the little things of life and make sense of them.

Like so many modern Christian churchmen you say that you believe in looking for God within yourself. You describe it as ‘a power of redemption that works through all of us, which brings good out of evil, niceness out of nastiness, bliss out of tragedy, and so on? 

Yes. I am. That meeting with the SS man is a good example. I don’t think he’d ever have been the same afterwards, yet we didn’t exactly go through any ritual or anything like that. He’d never have been the same about Jews, just as I’ll never be the same about Germans.

In the same book you write: ‘When we die, time and space dies with us, so there cannot be an afterlife but there is a beyond life, which is the source of our souls and of all goodness.’ Can you try to elaborate on that? What could all that possibly mean in ordinary language? 

Time and space do die with us, and at the same time in this life we already touch heaven, that is to say a little bit of oneself is already invested in it. As I said, if you do things for heaven’s sake, heaven happens to you. Heaven happens to me, and I think heaven happens to most people. I met a woman who told me she’d never had a religious experience but then she recounted how she had been in a supermarket and the woman in front of her had muddled up her credit cards, the girl at the checkout was having hysterics, the man behind her was getting so annoyed he was pushing her in the bottom with a loose trolley. This woman I met was about to join in the fray when instead she burst out laughing, helped the woman sort out her credit cards, pacified the checkout girl, even waved her bum about a bit so that the man could have a better target for his trolley. Now, what she was describing for me was a state of grace for someone’s who’s touched heaven.

So when you die, what do you expect to happen? 

I think I’m going to meet that voice I’ve been talking to for years. I will have a sort of appointment. When I die, time and space will die with me, and that is why I call it a beyond life because then I will be in territory which my mind cannot grapple with. In my restricted language I can talk about it in terms of a meeting, and I’m looking forward to that meeting because he has been the best friend I’ve ever had, and even if we just sit holding hands that will be enough.

The resurrection of the dead, like the coming of the Messiah, is a key belief of Judaism. Doesn’t a rabbi who abandons key beliefs do so at his peril? 

People think of resurrection in very different ways. Some people think of it as just their souls going home. The only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll meet my voice. The rest is for me speculative.

In the context of your two heart attacks and your treatment for cancer you have said that you used to be frightened of death but not any more. ‘If the worst comes to the worst I don’t feel this world is my only home.’ I’m wondering where exactly you will go if there is no afterlife… 

I will go in pursuit of the voice. The voice is my home. Lots of people who have seen their houses being blown up know that their house is not their final home. The things which look so solid aren’t, and the Jewish tradition was that this is not your final home. My home isn’t here; this world is like a departure lounge in an airport; you make yourself as comfortable as you can, and you get to know people, but at the same time it’s not your final destination.

In March 1996, speaking at the symposium on electronic information, you mentioned prayer as a means of communication and described it as ‘the divine spark incarnating itself inside myself and others’. Yet in 1998 you told an interviewer that in time of trouble you never turn to prayer and dismiss it as ‘pre-scientific ju-ju’. Were you correctly quoted? 

Yes. I don’t know the context in which I said these things, but prayer in the sense of one saying, I want this, I want that, is nonsense. Think of all the prayers that must have been said in the wagons and the concentration camps; they weren’t answered in any way we know of, so prayer in that sense is certainly pre-scientific ju-ju. I gave that sort of thing up when I was five years old. Prayer for me is…let’s see, what would it be…prayer for me is the going into another gear, it is just chatting to my friend; it’s not like asking for this or that. Sometimes you do seem to get what you want, like when I was really at the bottom and I found religion and my analyst – you can say then that my prayers were answered. But there have been too many people who haven’t had answers for me to trust prayer. The best thing to do is not to think of it along those lines.

You have jettisoned a great deal of orthodox Judaism. Do you still keep an orthodox kitchen and follow all the dietary laws? 

I don’t. I’m vegetarian, well, more or less vegetarian, because I do not want to eat battery-farmed animals. I don’t want to have battery veal and I prefer not to have battery chicken, so that accounts for awful lot of it. In any case, it makes life simpler not to be absolutely orthodox. It means everyone can come to eat with me – Moslems, Christians, anyone – and I can also eat out. For example, I’m not going to worry if the person who washes up is menstruating, or whether the plates have had both milk and meat on them.

Do you eat pork?

Not knowingly. The only thing I would eat in that like is breast of chicken, and it has to be free range.

What remains of your Judaism, would you say? 

Feeling that Abraham was my great-great- great- great- great- great- great-grandfather and Sarah was my great- great- great- great- great- great- great-grandmother, and that it’s my family. Now I might not agree with all the members of my family and I might not like all the members of my family, but it’s still my family, and I’m a part of it. I also got to make sure that I convey to the next generation something of the kind of world I was brought into; I have to be a link, part of the chain of tradition.

You have sometimes said that all programmes for human betterment are undermined by human frailty. Is this a way of saying that despite all the technology and electronic marvels we are still beset by the same problem as primitive man – how best to live together and use out tools for the good of the community? 

One of the tragedies of modern times is the uneven development of things. The technical part of our mind has grown enormously but the emotions have not grown at the same pace. Take an aeroplane, for example. If you look at the engine, the miracle of technology hits you, the wisdom that’s gone into this thing, the exactitude, the respect for truth if you like. But then a man with unresolved potty habits comes along and can hijack the plane and crash it – all because his mother didn’t put him on the potty properly.

What do you think gives rise to anti-Semitism? Have you any theories about that? 

Jews are a minority and they can’t hit back. And also, Jews tend to occupy a moral high ground which they can never be thrown off, and it is dangerous when you start thinking along those lines. What happened in the Holocaust was a nastiness which was pretty unparalleled, because it didn’t just set out to destroy people’s bodies, but also their souls and spirits. But I have learned from looking deep into myself that there is probably a bit of a Nazi in everyone, in me too. I remember seeing a fascist procession going down the East End of London and my mother pushing me into a doorway, but I actually wanted to change places with the marchers and have a drum. I was fed up with being on the Jewish losing side, with all the laughter through tears, and the suffering; the pain in Jewish history was sometimes too much to support. So you have to be careful as to what lessons you learn from the Holocaust. I mean, I sometimes sit back and wonder what an Arab child in the Lebanon must think of the Jews, and it frightens me.

You describe your grandmother’s ‘medieval’ mix of superstition, self-sacrifice, piety, mysticism, prayer, faith and food…don’t most people have that kind of mix, even if not the same ingredients? 

I don’t think most people have the piety my grandmother had. She was an unreconstructed medieval Jewess and she had the kind of piety which comes from another age. People now are so calculating, because of the society we live in. But my grandmother was not a calculating woman; she made great basins full of soup, and everyone came in, whether it was marching miners or the madwoman who lived on the corner. It was hospitality at its best. It’s something I don’t do and can’t do. I can’t welcome all the people in the street to my home; I simply haven’t got the piety or the courage to do it. I’ve learned to be frightened, and she wasn’t. That’s where the Judaism comes in – this magic of turning a house into a home, relationships into a kind of marriage, poverty into charity. All of that I’ve seen with my grandmother.

Your book is called My Affair with Christianity, but it does seem as if you do have a predisposition for affairs – not just with Christianity, but Marxism, Quakerism, Anglo-Catholicism, psychoanalysis. Are you sometimes afraid of giving the impression of being a crazy mixed-up kid? 

I suppose people might think so, but in my grandparents’ generation what you were born into you stayed in; religion was standing on a fixed point and there you were for ever. People now are not pious battery hens; we’re free range, and we make our journeys through the world, like in The Pilgrim’s Progress, taking in the bad and the good as we go. Judaism is my religious home. Yes, I make all sorts of excursions from it and I bring back things to it, but it’s my home, not my prison. I suppose the journey hasn’t stopped yet, but Judaism has lasted with me for a very long time.

If you hadn’t been a rabbi what do you think you would have done in your life? 

If I went back to a job now I think I would be a hospital chaplain. First of all, it would be no great penance for me; I’m not trying to be Jesus on the Cross, because I like hospitals and I’ve had my happiest times there. My mother liked hospitals too – we both liked the busy wards with all the people going up and down, just like our little street in the East End. The other thing is that when people are vulnerable you see a lot of God in them, and it always surprises me in hospitals, considering what people are going through, how nice they are to each other. It’s also a safe and secure environment, and I like that.

Femininity Triumphs

It’s strange how advertising has become more innovative in its search for elements which propels sexuality into every possible sphere in order to boost sales of a product.

Taboos are things of the past and feminism has degenerated into the political arena where femininity has become the target of the strident, uninspiring women whose objective is to spread discord between the sexes.

But I’m glad to say that Heidi Klum, now turned fashion designer, has unleashed three of her stunning models to parade outside Buckingham Palace wearing her latest lingerie products from her new collection – which had a mouth-watering reception from the usual crowd of visitors to London.

Though the former supermodel denied being behind the stunt, the trio brought joy and unexpected diversion to a crowd who witnessed these young models clad in as little as possible, barely covering their magical bits with a hint that what’s hidden is worth exploring.

German-born Ms Klum, forty-one, took over the collection from her former catwalk rival Elle Macpherson last year and relaunched it under her own name in New York recently.

She said she had kept most of the classic styles from the past twenty-five years and put her own twist on them.

What a bold coup this stunt managed to create in a competitive market full of newly emerging talent, but possibly lacking her German determination and flair to entertain with the femininity that she knows will captivate the milling crowds outside the Palace.

Getting her knickers in a twist after such a brilliant display of her wares, irrespective of who organised it, is the limit of folly. However, her picture above does tell a different story.

Cameron on a Tightrope

David Cameron has boobed at a time when the Tories are gaining ground against Labour.

His latest gaffe is to say that if he’s returned at the head of a Tory government he will not serve a third term.

The cynics will label him arrogant, whereas his followers will accuse him of flippancy, for instead of demonstrating to the public a puissant determination to win, he is speculating about his possible successor.

I’m afraid his unbridled tongue has endangered his chances once again at a crucial stage when the fate of this tightly-fought election is in the balance.

His advisers must rein in his loose-cannon tendencies, for the stakes are much higher now and more complex than they have ever been.

This general election will decide whether Britain will remain a major power, or lose its credibility in the league of nations.

Labour are dogmatised in a way that can only spell disaster to the future standing of Britain economically and will rob us of a vital opportunity while they continue to fantasise about political correctness and equality in a world where competitive incentives are the way forward and idleness, the scourge of our century, is their avowed preoccupation.

We must wake up to this nightmarish possibility and do something concrete about it. The Conservatives are a lesser risk, although they have to marshal their policies in a more equitable form and stop bleeding the middle classes and serenading the rich. They will then earn the voters’ confidence and return the political arena to its rightful place in society.

We can only hope that this is possible as resentment of the political establishment has never been higher.

An Unconventional Therapy

Karen Danczuk, the MP’s wife, seems on the face of it to be a very strange woman who is seeking publicity in a case where she’s accusing her own brother of abusing her as a child.

She’s constantly in the news with sexy selfies, claiming her obsession with the unconventional reaction is a form of therapy to help her get over her painful ordeal.

In the meantime, her brother and the rest of her family have strenuously denied the accusation while the police are in the midst of conducting their own investigation as to the substance and validity of her claim.

The truth will no doubt surface in time, but Karen is certainly not doing her self a favour by posting salacious selfies – this time from Costa Blanca, where she is currently on holiday.

Folks who are not familiar with such unusual therapies are unlikely to give her the sympathy she is no doubt seeking. Or is she perhaps in need of psychiatric counsel, to stop her engaging in risqué behaviour which is demeaning if nothing else.

I strongly suggest that she gives her smartphone a rest, and stops her unworthy shenanigans before she does her credibility serious harm.

We live in an age where the majority of similar accusations deserves, for the sake of justice, to be taken with a guarded measure of caution lest the innocent suffer with a surge of what could possibly become a hysterical and unbridled headhunt with no real tangibility.

An addiction to selfies, especially of this particular kind, spells danger in the long term and can cause self-inflicted impairment.

For wisdom now demands a period of calm, rather than indiscretion, and less of an exposure of our most physical attributes.

Spaniards in Glass Houses Shouldn’t…

According to a book published in Spain, we British are not what we seem to be.

Our invincible hypocrisy is the butt of jokes across Western Europe; we drink like camels (although these animals of burden do not consume alcohol) and the closest many of our marriages will ever come to a sexual thrill is cracking thirteen down in a crossword.

Alberto Letona

Alberto Letona, the author of Sons and Daughters, has identified three prevailing pastimes: money-grabbing, binge drinking and avoiding any form of intimate touch. ‘The British are considered by the rest of the world as a puritanical culture, little given to physical contact, much less having sex,’ he writes. Doing a crossword together might prove to be the ‘height of the sex life of some British couples’, he claims.

For Letona, the country’s cultural ambassadors are not Adele or the Royal Family but the eccentric Keith Richards, the sleazy John Profumo and the stridently feminist Claire Short. Of the British class system, he derides the middle-class people who in his opinion are more given to hypocrisy. ‘They might say “ring me and I’ll take you to lunch” when it is the last thing they want to do. The upper class do not need to pretend to be friendly.’

Compared with their continental cousins, a lack of personal hygiene is another trait Letona claims the British display. Although British food has shaken off its reputation for being ‘horrific’ in the eyes of Spaniards, we have become gastronomic snobs, he writes, obsessed with healthy continental-style cooking and Spanish wine (he must be kidding!) – however, believe it or not, he finds something about the British which he extols: the benefits of a Sunday roast and fish and chips.

The author, aged sixty, is a former journalist, who lived in St Andrews and London, and is married to a British teacher. After returning to Spain he intended to expel some clichés that Spaniards harboured towards the British, but was also unsparing in his criticism of other foibles. ‘The Spanish think all the British are like the hooligans who come on holiday to Malaga and Magaluf. That is not the case,’ he said.

Cleanliness, however, is by no means next to godliness in the UK, Letona alleges. ‘It is true that the toilets are not as clean as in Spain. British people don’t need to shower as many times as they don’t live in a hot climate.’

Letona contends that the English are undergoing an identity crisis. ‘The English appear jealous of the Scots, Welsh and Irish with their own parliaments. They don’t seem to be happy with their national identity.’

He’s equally critical of Anglicanism which to him is ‘wishy-washy’ compared to Catholicism. (He certainly has a point there!) But overall his perception of the British is far off the mark. The hypocrisy he refers to is more a salient point of the Establishment which is gradually losing its grip as the new generation shows signs of ignoring it. Calling John Profumo sleazy is a rather unkind remark. He was a gentleman who erred, but remained distinguished throughout his ordeal.

The British are not sexually bereft as his book infers. In fact, I think that, contrary to expectation, they are as vibrant in the bedroom as the Latin lovers we read about.

As for British women, most are a delight to be with. Unassuming and friendly, they top my list of the multitude of women I have interviewed all over the world. I have nothing but praise for their ingenuity and ability to converse freely without the least inhibitions in dealing with any topic.

The author ends his book on a more positive note when he says: ‘I tolerate the British capacity for hypocrisy, their practical sense and nobody is better able to convert its symbols into a souvenir culture. I like their eccentric way of dressing which does not play to the gallery.’

But to some extent, I fear Alberto Letona must have lived in a sort of social wilderness while in Britain, for some of his remarks I find to be bordering on the perimeters of hogwash.

Pam Gems

Pam Gems was born in 1925 and grew up in the New Forest.

She began writing for the theatre in the early 1970s. Her first commercial success was Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi. In 1997 Queen Christina received its premiere with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did Piaf in 1978 and Camille in 1985.

She is also author of The Danton Affair (1986) and Marlene (1995), and her play about the artist Stanley Spencer, Stanley, won the Evening Standard Best Play Award in 1996 and the Olivier Best Play Award in 1997.

Pam Gems became a close friend after I interviewed her in December 1999. Subsequently whenever one of her plays was performed in the West End my wife and I were always at her side. I enjoyed her company and she mine as we seemed to have developed a special bond that was hard to define.

She led a difficult life partly due to her youngest daughter being born as a ‘Mongol’, a term she preferred to use herself over Down’s syndrome and to describe her daughter’s incontinence. Despite this terrible ordeal she was full of fortitude and a real delight to be with. Her professionalism never left her to the very end. I do really miss her, although we led different lives, but as I said earlier our relationship gelled from the very beginning of our encounter.

She sadly died in May 2011.

Your father died when you were only four years old, an event which was traumatic in its consequences for you. Do you have any memory of your father or of his death? 

Yes, I do. I was the oldest of three children and I have memories of him playing with me. The next child, my brother, was asthmatic, and the baby had a heart defect, so they were invalids. I remember how my father could open a parcel without cutting the string, and peel an orange without breaking the peel. When he was dying they put him into what we knew as the workhouse, but the name had been changed to the infirmary. He was dying yet we were not allowed in to see him because we were children, but there was a kind nurse who would wheel him up to the window and because I was too small to reach my mother lifted me up so that I could kiss him. One day he gave me a lozenge – he had nothing else to give me – and of course it was hot in my mouth, and I was very puzzled as to why my father would want to poison me. When he died he left me his war book which I used to read in bed by the light of a candle – we didn’t have gas let alone electric light. I loved it because he gave it to me, but it was terrifying – there were cartoons of the Germans as boars with traps on their noses which ran with blood. I loved my father dearly, and no other man ever compares.

Did you get on with your mother? 

No, I was the cause of her downfall. You see, my mother was one of six children, three of whom won scholarships, but it was not possible to take them up because the family had to eat. Both grandpas went in the First World War, so there was terrible poverty. My mother was very bright and she went to work as a maid for the woman who had been the mistress of Edward VII. When she heard my mother sing she said that her voice must be trained. Unfortunately my mother got pregnant after falling in love with my father who was a soldier, so that was the end of her possible career. She was very bright but she had no education, although she read four books a week from the library and listened to classical music on the gramophone. I was made the scapegoat for all this and I had to bring up my two younger brothers because she was charring all day in the big houses where they wouldn’t even give you an orange. That early experience has given me very strong feelings about class.

Your father’s death caused your mother to become – in your own words – a melancholic, someone of whom you were frightened, who had to be placated. And yet you say that you and your brothers were somehow in love with her. Can you talk about what gave rise to all those conflicted feelings? 

Well, there was the fact that she was a widow and a younger widow than the widows from the First World War, so that in itself gave a little cachet – ‘my mother’s a widow, you know’ – but it wasn’t just that. Unlike me, she was tall and thin with blonde hair and pale blue eyes – frightening they were. We would hear people whisper in the street that she looked like Greta Garbo, and being very vain, she did her mouth and her eyebrows like Garbo. She was stunning, and during the war when she used to work as a hat-check girl in the local officers’ club, she had many opportunities to marry – men fell in love with her all the time. But she never got over my father. She never even looked at another man, and we had to suffer for that.

Your grandmother had a very strong influence on your life, much stronger than that of your mother. Was your mother jealous of that relationship, do you think? 

I think she was, but of course everything is so puzzling for a child. We would go to my grandmother every Sunday, three miles there and three miles back, the youngest in the pushchair, the other two walking. My grandmother fed us, she gave us what little money she had, and also clothes she had been given by the gentry. My mother never had a good word to say for her, nor indeed for my Aunt May who was married to a successful man in the army and therefore had money. It wasn’t so much jealousy, more the poverty; it makes people full of hate.

You once confessed to neglecting your mother. What did you mean by that? And have you felt guilty about it? 

Yes. I couldn’t wait to get away, you see. I joined up partly because of that, partly because of D-Day plus 2, when a lot of the chaps who were billeted on us got killed, and I had a rage and joined up. But it was mainly to get away from my mother; the house couldn’t contain the two of us. I was beginning to go out and have dates, and the atmosphere was diabolical.

Was she jealous of you when you went out with boys? 

Yes, I think it had to be that. She was suppressing so much in herself. But we did adore her; it was like living with a goddess. And she was generous. The first fifty pounds she ever got, which was from singing at the night-club plus tips, she bought an upright Bechstein piano for my brother to play.

Did you mean it when you said in an interview I read: ‘I was the plain daughter of a beautiful woman…my father’s family were short and fat – I took after them, for which she never forgave me.’ 

It’s quite true. I remember walking across the recreation ground with her one day – I must have been nine or ten – and she said, ‘Walk in front of me or behind me. I don’t want to be seen walking with you, you fat thing.’ I also had cross eyes and glasses, which didn’t help. [laughter] It was pretty hopeless.

But despite all you say, you seem to have been successful with boys… 

Darling, you couldn’t not be. I was fifteen when the war came. There were more men on the street than sand in the gutter. We used to get engaged all the time and wear the rings around our necks – I had five or six – and if one got killed we threw that ring away.

You were born into extreme poverty and now, through your own talents and hard work, you are successful and relatively affluent. Is childhood hardship character-building, would you say? 

I don’t think you can generalize. Some people go under, others thrive. As a parent you try to protect your children, but even in a happy affluent, contented family you can’t offer complete protection. I’m inclined to think that success is far more dangerous, more corrupting, than hardship. One of the reasons I have never gone in for publicity, which I could easily have done, particularly when I was younger, is because I thought it would be bad for my children. I’ve seen the children of people who are famous, and they don’t do well.

Would you have been a very different person if you had been born into the sort of family whose houses you and your mother used to clean? 

I think I would have been ghastly. I’m a bad enough snob as it is, simply from growing up in the kitchens of these people. The woman whose coach house my gran lived in had six indoor servants, not to mention two or three outside – imagine, all those servants for one woman! And when there were guests, my mother used to have to crawl in with no shoes and pads on her knees to light the fire so it would be glowing by the time people woke. I’ve done that too. Crawling is not nice. I hated these people though I also thought they were wonderful. Because they smelled so nice. My Aunt Ruby was private maid to a woman who was known as the Rose of Devonshire, though she was a drunk by the time we knew her. She used to take my aunt to Biarritz, and give her wonderful, handsewn silk underwear, which of course Ruby never wore. It was just brought out to be shown from time to time, and this while we were starving. Nowadays poor people can live off the detritus of others – there is so much. But in those days people had nothing except what you could poach and what you could grow yourself. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of the food was a good deal safer, but we were all so ignorant. We were brought up on white bread and sugar. People said, ‘Oh, you can’t give her meat, it’s much too strong for that little stomach.’ We were quite uneducated.

You won a scholarship to a grammar school and even working-class locals thought it was a waste for someone of your background. How hard was it for you and your family to take up that scholarship? 

I had two chances at the scholarship, because my birthday was on 1 August. Technically I shouldn’t have been taking it the first year, but I was bright and my headmaster put me forward. But I was left-handed, and my writing in ink in those days was very bad, so when the letter arrived saying that I had won the scholarship, I thought, well they’ve made a mistake, and I just put the letter up behind the clock and I don’t think we looked at it for a couple of days. Then my mother read it and she said, memorably, ‘Well you can’t go of course, but you have had the honour of winning.’ Fortunately she mentioned it to the relieving officer – that was what we called the man from social security, he was very nice, one of those lost-generation men, crippled in the war, and when my mother told him he said that I must be allowed to take it up. He went to the British Legion, and they paid for my uniform and my books. I will always be grateful to them. So I went to grammar school, thanks to the fact that my mother was so frightened of this middle-class man, the relieving officer. When you were working-class in those days, you were very obedient, often for fear of losing your job. You did as you were told.

How did you fit into grammar school? Did you feel you were in the wrong place? 

Fortunately there were a number of scholarship children in each form. We had the mark of Cain, of course, and the teachers treated us differently, and we weren’t asked to the class parties. I remember a girl called Amy May, the daughter of the headmaster – she was in my form and she palled up with the scholarship girls, partly because we were brighter and more fun, and her father hated this. He was a very cruel man. But some of the teachers were helpful and gave up their time to teach us how to say ‘how now brown cow’, instead of ‘heow neow breown ceow’, which was realistic of them. They knew we’d never get on in life, speaking as we did.

As a child did you feel any bitterness? 

No. I think you’re so full of life, and there is so much to do, that there’s no time to feel bitter. I didn’t realize until many years afterwards that I had been quite stressed.

You say, ‘I never wanted to become a writer; I always was one.’ Did grammar school strengthen this self-belief? 

I don’t think it needed to be strengthened. I wrote my first play at the junior school, when I was eight. Again I was lucky, for I attended a wonderful church school with a headmaster who’d grown up in Stratford-on-Avon and who spouted Shakespeare all the time. My first play was a fairy play for seven-year-olds, and I remember being extremely angry because Mrs Collins, their teacher, cut some lines, and I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that to the author. I’ve never got over it. [laughter] Writing came naturally to me – it wasn’t something I showed off about any more than I showed off about my fat legs.

Is the creative impulse every bit as strong now, or is it diminishing with the passage of time? 

Sometimes when I look at something that I wrote ten years ago or so, I think, ‘God, what energy!’ and I don’t think I have that now – it’s almost a kind of sexual energy. But I come from a family who mature late, and I think that perhaps what I lose in energy I gain in profundity and wisdom.

Why did you choose to study psychology at university? Did you expect it to be a help in creating characters? 

I didn’t know what psychology meant. I went up to university to do English, and when I got there the queue was round the block. I met and talked to another girl who was ex-navy like me and she told me they were going to sling a lot of people out at the end of the first term because they were oversubscribed. We service people were used to swinging the lead, so we went to find a short queue, thinking we’d be sure to get in. The shortest queue was psychology – it only had four people not counting us. ‘What’s it about?’ I asked her, and she said, ‘I’ve bugger all idea,’ but we signed up for it anyway.

And having signed up for it, did you enjoy it? 

No, I hated it, because we were all more stressed by the war than we knew. I had been in the Fleet Air Arm where we lost far more in training than we ever did in combat. We used to put the aircraft up, then the ceiling would come down and they’d go into the nearest hill, partly because they were kids, partly because they in bad aircraft – the good aircraft were on carriers. So we were quite stressed, indeed a lot of us were very damaged. Besides, I didn’t agree with Jung or Freud, who were the gods there. It was all middle-class, Jewish, Viennese, in-de-siècle stuff. But I was a farm girl; I had stood and watched the horses being served, and I couldn’t subscribe to the Freudian basis of RIS, repressed infantile sexuality. Come off it, not where we came from. Also we had to visit loony bins, and they were terrifying then. All the boys used to faint. I’m afraid I have kept my hatred for a lot of psychiatry.

At one time, as a wife and mother, you apparently kept open house for troubled adolescents who had fallen out with their families. Was this as a result of your interest in psychology, or was it a purely human response? 

It was simply because I’m a country peasant at heart and I always thought it was better to have the children under my roof and keep an eye on them. We had a huge house in Kensington when my children were adolescent, and they always had friends who were in trouble. One girl came for a night and stayed for a year, and brought her friend who was also heavily into drugs. In fact she died. I had such compassion for adolescent boys. I know it sounds rather doubtful, but having two younger brothers, both invalids, I get very affected when I see boys in trouble. Adolescent boys have more problems than girls. Girls know who they are; boys are never quite sure.

With all these troubled adolescents in the house, did it ever occur to you that you were perhaps venturing on dangerous territory? Were you never confronted by an angry parent, for example? 

Oh yes, more than a few times. One woman got very upset because her daughter ran away from school and ended up with me, and I had to front for her when the police arrived. And somehow it all became my fault because I have given her house room. What was I supposed to do? Turn her out into the street? I also remember one upper-class boy whose family would be well known to you, and once he got into drugs and started on the needle, they couldn’t be rid of him fast enough, they simply didn’t want to know. But of course aristocrats don’t rear their own children; they’re reared by servants.

Turning to your plays, you are a feminist and your work has often shown women as victims, fighting for independence in a male-dominated world. Yet lately your tone has changed. Although you were never a man-hating feminist, you now actually see men as victims in the sex war, riven with fear and even hatred of women. Can you talk a little about how this happened and what you think it means for the future? 

That’s a big question. I think the problem started perhaps with the industrialized nations of the world moving from heavy industry to light, with the result that medieval notions of honour being invested in male strength began to go out of the window. By the end of the nineteenth century the typewriter had been invented and women with their smaller fingers suddenly became viable commercially, and that has gone on and on through the computer age. When neo-feminism became a force and women began to assert their rights, they started to encroach on areas which had up till them been exclusively men’s. I know this sounds patronizing, but I feel a deep, almost maternal angst about men. I have three wonderful uncles, two wonderful sons, a wonderful grandson, and two wonderful bothers, and I do not believe you can have a society where men are demoted in this way. The breakdown of marriage has threatened the old notion of a man as the head of his family. It’s a man’s nature to be protective, and when he’s denied that he becomes baleful and angry, and I think it’s wrong. I believe in the family and I believe in the protection of the family, that women have a right to have children in a protective situation. I lost my father and I know from bitter experience what it’s like to be without a father. A father is a lovely idea, and by God, let’s save it. But to do that we have to have men who have self-respect and good jobs.

What does being a feminist mean in your terms nowadays? 

It means what it always meant for me – fairness for every citizen, male or female, young or old. It doesn’t mean to say that women have to wear suits and behave like men. It means that every commercial building should have a crèche in it, because men and women should see their children. The old commuting thing where men left early in the morning and came back late at night meant that they might as well not have been fathers at all. The reason I love Steven Spielberg – though I’m not a fan of most of his films – is that I’m told he has a crèche with glass walls at his place, so that the people who work there can keep an eye on their children. That’s the mark of a civilized man.

You claim not to have known there was a middle class in Britain until you joined the Wrens, on the outbreak of war. Until then in your experience there had only been upper and lower classes. Are you still very much aware of class distinctions? 

Well, legislation and time and habit are chipping away more and more. For example, when I was a child people spoke in an absolutely ridiculous way, a bit like some of the royal family speak now, you know, those tones which seem to suggest, ‘I’m very cross with you.’ Even the received English of the newsreader in the 1940s and 1950s now sounds slightly ridiculous, so we’re modifying all the time to the point where the ‘in’ dialect is now Essex. But while we still have a formalized aristocracy, that is to say, dukes and earls and the royal family, then we are still pegged in. We still have the public schools which were really created as breeding grounds for people to go out and run the empire and to govern. And that ethos still exists, that some are naturally born to govern.

Speaking, I think, of modern times, you say that the true artist addresses a classless society. What do you mean by that? 

Laurence Olivier put it very well when he said that drama is an affair of the heart. To me, it’s quite simple: to write plays is to pierce people. Descartes said that feeling is thinking, and that is my criterion. You can become a politician and try to change things by putting an amendment, or you can be really subversive and write a play. It was fashionable in the 1970s, when there was all that pseudo-Marxism, to claim that plays don’t change anything. Well, if they don’t, I might as well shoot myself because I’ve been wasting the last thirty years of my life. The thing about drama is that it subverts; you can change the climate of opinion by telling jokes, or by using sexuality, suspense, or any of the other tricks of the trade, providing you manage to keep people sitting forward. Once they sit back you might as well give up. I am an anarchist by nature, in the true sense of the word, not in the sense of blowing things up, but by devolution of power from the centre.

Do you agree with Tony Blair’s recent claim that the class war is over? 

No. The dear boy is being misled. However, he would be right to say that the upper classes no longer dominate in the way they did a hundred years ago. They have a certain cachet in certain quarters, but that’s all; real influence and power they don’t have.

You were well into your forties before you realized that – as you put it – to expect sexual loyalty of a man was to expect an abnormal man. Was it a shock and disappointment to discover this? 

I suppose it was. First loves are romantic loves, and you pledge fidelity, but then of course you get wise and you realize that your own energy gets deployed in rearing the children, that desire wears off, and that everything changes. I have known a man and wife to be completely faithful, sometimes in cases where they don’t have a very strong sexual urge, for example, but I can’t believe that passion can last for seventy years. In cases like that they just become loving companions.

You have had a long and stable marriage to your husband Keith, but you think that women should accept that total fidelity to one woman is impossible for a man. How hard has it been for you to accept that? 

Intellectually not hard at all, but emotionally it is rather different. As Lady Longford said when she was asked if she ever thought of divorcing her husband, ‘No, never, but I have often thought of murdering him.’ That’s my feeling too.

You’ve always said that it is the deception you hate…why is the deception worse than the infidelity itself, would you say? 

I’ve tried to think this one through, and I believe it may be something to do with the secrecy. If your husband comes back and says, oh, I saw Jeannie today, she was looking well but she’s having trouble with her left toe, I would say, fuck off, I don’t want to know about your bloody mistress, she’s boring anyway. On the other hand, if I see my husband going out with a certain look on his face and I know he’s up to mischief, I resent it.

Do you accept that some women might prefer the deception? 

I think a lot of women would rather not know, because once you know you’re exposed to murderous feelings, however noble you try to be, however much you might want to rise above it.

You express tolerance of male lust, but contempt for male dishonesty; yet you say of Stanley Spencer, about whom you have written the play Stanley, that his mistake was to try and bring the truth of his art into his private life. Is this a change of mind, or a resigned acceptance of the way of the world? Why do you think he was mistaken? 

Because he made an awful mess of it. It proved that whatever he did, it was wrong. It was naïve and innocent of him to imagine that the standards of total truth that have to apply in art and could apply in real life. We’re all sinners according to Christian belief and indeed most other beliefs, and I’ve had to learn, as I suppose every woman has had to learn, and now a few men, that what can’t be cured must be endured. And, you know, if the price of fidelity is to have some boring guy underfoot all the time, well who needs it? We live so long now, which makes marriage for life even more impossible. People used to die by the time they were forty.

But why do you think women feel so strongly about sex? A woman can be married to a man for twenty or thirty years, have children with him, a happy life, security and everything, but when she hears that on a trip to New York he bedded another woman she goes out of her mind… 

I’ve known friends who have done just that. I just hope attitudes can change.

The point is it often means nothing to the man – his willy goes up for one night and then it’s forgotten about. He still loves his wife, in fact probably he feels even more loving to his wife because he betrayed her… 

Yes, the little present is nicer than usual, and everybody wins. On the other hand, when everything is invested in the marriage, women are very vulnerable.

You have always been fascinated by the business of lying and truth-telling, and the dilemmas surrounding them. You say: ‘We live on lies – we’d kill each other if we didn’t lie.’ Could you elaborate on that perhaps? 

We lie to each other all the time. We suppress information, we act out different parts to different people – our children, our business acquaintances, our close friends. And it’s a loving thing. You can’t go into a room and say to your dearest friend that she look flabbier than ever, even though that may be what you think. Of course, there are vile lies, vicious lies, but not so many; most people lie to protect themselves and to protect others.

What about the Jonathan Aitken lie? What about the Jeffrey Archer lie? Are they to be morally condemned, or are they just examples of frail humanity? 

[laughter] Oh, you do ask difficult questions. Their behaviour is quite disgraceful, but I have no desire to wag the finger at those two boys. I mean, everybody knew at the time that Jeffrey Archer was lying. Why else give two thousand quid to a tart? It’s so silly. You know what I think? I think he won his libel suit and got the five hundred thousand pounds because that judge was effectively saying to tarts, ‘Just don’t even think of it.’ If Jeffery Archer hadn’t won, then every tart could go to the News of the World and say, ‘I was with such-and-such a judge last week.

In your thirties you realized that you had always been attracted to men who were rather repressed, the kind of men who grew up in the big houses you worked in…’England,’ you say ‘has always been in a mess sexually, we send our boys away to school and all that.’ Have you analysed what it is that attracts you to this type? 

I think that my attitude to men is extremely maternal, being the older sister with two younger brothers. My bowels turn over for some men, particularly when they’ve been damaged psychologically. It’s worse than a physical aliment which you can easily survive. But when your soul has been damaged by a cruel mother, it’s quite different. I had a cruel mother, and that can be worse than being hit, you know.

Your youngest child was born with what’s normally known as Down’s syndrome, but you prefer the word Mongol, believing that to be called one of a race, however inaccurately is better than being a syndrome. Do the rest of your family agree with you about this? 

I don’t think they have feelings either way, because we never refer to her as either. She is Lalla, our daughter, sister, darling one.

You speak of your daughter only with great fondness, but caring for her must have made life more difficult for you as a mother, especially when you found that your friends deserted you. How did it affect you and other members of the family? 

The children were always very protective of her; it seemed to be natural for them. For me it was difficult. I think it was Bob Bolt who said, in A Man for all Seasons, ‘People move towards the light and they move away from the dark.’ And anyone who has had a tragedy will know that people stay away, because they feel awkward, they can’t do anything, and they don’t want to feel fed up. I experienced all that. But what it did for me in some ways, was excellent, because I was a sentimental southerner and it put steel in my soul. I got quite angry and it became a question of ‘love me, love my Lalla’. Or else. I would deliberately take her out with me, even though she was incontinent, and when she wet the floor, I would just watch how people behaved. I became very anarchic in the popular sense of the word, because I couldn’t hope to be middle-class or grown-up or intellectual, simply because I had this barmy kid. She took up a lot of my time, but it was wonderful.

If amniocentesis had been available, would you have taken the test? 

Yes, I probably would have. And I would have aborted, yes.

You say religion helped, though you are not an orthodox Christian. Did you have a religious upbringing? 

Intensely. I come from a town with a priory church which has been there for nine hundred years, and I went to the church school. My brothers were choirboys, so I heard oratorios and organ music throughout my childhood. The church and the music were unbelievably beautiful, but I could never quite work Christianity out. The Father and the Son, yes, but the Holy Ghost I never quite got.

I’ve read somewhere that you believe in reincarnation…is that a serious belief? 

I think there’s some evidence for it. I used not to believe it, but now I have an open mind about it. I myself have also had many psychic experiences, including out-of-body experiences. After my son David was born, for example, I was in bed with flu and I suddenly found I was floating out of the window, and when I looked along I could see bright green grass growing in the gutter, and then suddenly I was back in my body. I said nothing for a week, and one day I mentioned to Keith that I thought the gutter might be blocked, and sure enough when he put a ladder up, the gutter was full of grass. I went up after him and it was exactly as I had seen it when I floated out of my body.

Are you afraid of death? 

Sometimes I am surprised that I am not more afraid, and I think that has something to do with being a gardener. All this cyclic reduction from compost to flower to dying seems very natural to me. Of course, like everyone else I fear illness and being put in a position where you can’t behave with dignity.

Stanley Spencer is underrated and unpopular, you believe, because his icons are Christian, and you think that people are tired of Christian iconography – ‘After the Holocaust, nobody believed in anything any more,’ you say. The Christian God may be unfashionable but he does rather refuse to die, wouldn’t you say? 

I think that’s true. People are generally post-Christian until there is a tragedy or a crisis. You know, it’s like when you go through a ward of wounded soldiers – they’re all crying out for God or their mother. We can’t throw God away because in extremis that’s where we go for help. So there you are. But there is so much about orthodox Christianity that I don’t care for. It’s such a miserable religion, and so anti-sex. Catholicism is the worst of all. Why be celibate? The idea of denying the body that God’s given you, assuming you believe in God, simply doesn’t make sense to me. The Hindu religion is far better. If we’re going to enshrine our lack of knowledge about the Great Out There in some kind of formal belief, why not make it nice? What’s wrong with hedonism?

Do you find it strange that we have elected, and apparently continue to admire, a prime minister who is an avowed and practising Christian? 

No, I think it’s a damned good thing. It makes him a good boy, makes him live by the rules. When I grew up you had the church and class structure which made for a stabilization in society which no longer exists. People nowadays are Macbethian; since there’s no God they can do as they want, and the devil take the hindmost. Young people say to themselves, I’ve only got one life, so I’ll get as much money as I can, and bugger everybody else.

You’re a passionate defender if the family but see it as an endangered species. Why are you so worried? Is it not possible to redefine and reshape family units? 

There are many groups who are like families but who aren’t blood related, and they can be very successful, whether they are gay couples or sisterly communities – nuns, for example. But there is something very special about the blood relation; it’s inimitable, and in times of real stress there’s a bond that isn’t the same if there isn’t a blood relationship. I’m influenced by the fact that I come from the New Forest and in that area I had about forty relations – I miss that, very much. And I actually think it’s the natural primate way of living, something we have to try and establish for the sake of our psychological health.

You accuse extreme feminists of having taken individualism too far and in so doing bringing about the destruction of the family. How could this have been prevented? Wasn’t it made inevitable by easier divorce, equal education and vastly improved opportunities for women, including reliable birth control? You surely wouldn’t want to deprive women of these freedoms… 

No, and that’s a very good question. You see, I think these are stages that we have come through. Progress is always by the pendulum. Women started off trying to model themselves on men, but now it is becoming fashionable to have babies again, and settle for domesticity. It’s all right to stay at home now, but not of course if we are just to put our brains to sleep for ever; we constantly have to find new ways.

When you were younger you spoke about the writer’s desire to change the world. Is there any of that idealism left, would you say, or has something else taken its place? 

I don’t know how to be honest about that. To write at all you have to be very arrogant. In my metier you have to say to people, give me money, sit down, shut up and listen to me for two hours. You tend to justify it by saying, ‘I want to change the world, I want to make it a better place,’ but as I get older I realize it isn’t true, because as a writer you always disappoint. Ibsen disappointed first the left and then the right, and I always disappoint the feminists who never get what they want from me.

What would you most like to be remembered for, first as a writer, and then as a person? 

I particularly like several of my plays, and I would like to think they had an afterlife. As a person, I’m a fat lazy old thing but I would like people to remember me as always having an open door and a pot of tea. I can’t ask for more.

 

The Love Bird from the Mountains of Lebanon

Lydia Canaan, the delectable Lebanese chanteuse who was once again invited by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to address them at the Palais des Nations on humanitarian issues, was on excellent form as usual.

Her speech about terrorism and torture, under the heading ‘HumanE Evolution’ and delivered on Friday 13th March, was acclaimed by an audience which gave her a standing ovation.

I must at this point declare my personal interest in this enchanting lady with whom I have corresponded for a number of years, yet we have never met.

All I can deduce from her musical repertoire and our exchange of emails is that Lydia is highly emotional, romantically driven and full of incomparable zest for a creative life. She deserves to be acknowledged on a much larger scale for her musical talent and be supported for her charitable involvements in a diversity of roles.

People can become attached even in the absence of close proximity, more so because the mystery of imagination plays a vital role in a bonding that transcends the usual realities of physical availability, as in our case.

For people who are keen to know more about Lydia, here is her speech in full.

Torture is a global epidemic!

This viral practice has infected and defiled international culture to the extent that a mere quarantine simply will not suffice; what is needed is an aggressive purification, a relentless purge, a cleansing that is intolerant of corruption.

The injustice system worldwide must be reformed. The ends do not justify the means. We cannot justify criminal means to fight crime; we cannot terrorize to fight terrorism. We cannot devalue human life in the  name of preserving it.

Information and evidence gathered by unethical means may be admissible in a court of law, but is unacceptable in the Court of Life.

The global power elite subscribe to an amoral philosophy that it is right to do wrong as long as one theorizes that good will come of the evil done. But what good can come of evil? It is never right to do wrong. They are only concerned with the consequences of their behavior, not whether their actions are right or wrong. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The spiritual bedrock of all enlightened beings, is not just the philosophy that one should always do what is right; it is also the philosophy that one should do what is right, right now; for the illuminated individual lives and acts in the present moment, and with the present moment alone is he concerned. When one acts righteously, one needn’t concern oneself with the consequences of one’s actions: doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.

Agencies, institutions, installations, and entities, inclusive of those clandestine, bureaucratic, military, and corporate almost unilaterally function from a consequentialist point of view, espousing a philosophy that denotes that their goals – professedly good – be accomplished by any means necessary, even if those means are themselves evil.

To torture and terrorize in the name of fighting terrorism and torture, is the most ironic hypocrisy. When we succumb to utilizing the tactics and methodologies of opponents to peace in order to counter terror, what then separates us from those we oppose? What have we become? If we descend to their moral level, we become what we hate. And we also contribute to the becoming of those we oppose; torture radicalizes the radicals, to terrorize a person generate the terrorist; when we adopt the strategies of our enemies, we don’t just hate them – we create them. Thus, we are faced with a vicious cycle: torture breeds terrorism, and terrorism breeds torture.

However, I am merely patronizing for the sake of argument by entertaining the idea that those who harm in order to help, really intend to help at all, but to maintain – and extend the boundaries of – an insidious imperial order: those fearful of losing power will do anything to retain it; those greedy for more power will do everything to attain it.

We, the people, are told that secrecy is justified by security, when, in fact, more often than not, it is truly a means by which to conceal unspeakable wrongdoings. Furthermore, as disturbing as the leaked reports of secret torture are, it can only be imagined what covert tortures are yet unknown to us; accordingly, it is insufficient that we solely scrutinize the heinous activities we know of; it is also our responsibility to investigate those acts which we are unaware of.

Militaries, intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, and detention facilities must be held accountable. And they mustn’t be merely forthcoming, but profoundly ethical; they must be more than translucent – they must be translucid.

Endless preoccupation with, scrutiny of, and debate over policies and politics is both futile and foolish; this has not worked so far, and will never work; these are matters of the mind, and we must get to the heart of the matter – which is the human heart.

In the course of human evolution, have we undergone humane evolution? Has there been spiritual evolution parallel to the development of our intellect? It is not enough that we be revolutionaries; we must be evolutionaries. I call not just for a global revolution – I call for a global evolution.

Copyright © Lydia Canaan 2015