Monthly Archives: December 2009

Outrageous Parties, Part Two

Quartet’s immediate attention was focused on the promotion of Tony Lambton’s new book, Elizabeth and Alexandra, for which we were mustering all our energies. We considered this to be a potential bestseller, and planned the campaign with the precision of a blitzkrieg on all fronts.

The launch party was to be hosted by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava and myself at the Dufferin London home in Holland Park, where guests could spread out and drift in the neoclassical garden. The invitation card was so heavily embossed that, as some journalists remarked, it must have broken half the thumbnails in London. Catering was arranged by my cook, Charlotte Millward, aided and abetted by Charlotte Faber. Both were talented cooks and artists and the sublime ideas they introduced achieved a new high in buffet presentation. The sumptuous cocktail they devised had pieces of real gold leaf floating on the surface of each drink.

The Quartet girls were provided with specially designed, slightly transparent, flowing evening dresses in lilac to wear while circulating among the guests, their exquisitely toned, gold-painted bodies shining through from underneath. The concept and stage management of all this were down to the two Charlottes, whose creative imaginations knew no bounds.

Among the Quartet girls was a new recruit, Richard Ingrams’s daughter Jubby, who was already making her mark, both within the ranks at Goodge Street and in the world beyond. Jubby was a free spirit whose sense of fun was to find a place on the London scene, though sometimes to the dismay of those encumbered with a stuffy outlook. Her impishness had a whimsical appeal for the literary set as well as for the young ravers who clustered around her, always on the lookout for mischief.

At the party itself there were four hundred guests from every walk of life. Aristocrats were there in hordes to celebrate Lambton’s first major novel, including his family. Lady Lambton (Bindy), unmissable because of her imposing presence, was seen chatting to Lady Soames. She stood at a distance from his companion of many years, Claire Ward, the mother of the film actress Rachel Ward. The tension between the two women seemed to be allayed by the grandeur of the occasion. Sir Jack Colville and old political colleagues like Lord Jellicoe and Viscountess Lymington mingled with the group round Lady Sylvie Thynne, who was drawn in turn to the haute art set, among them Lucien Freud and Kasmin.

Princess Michael of Kent and Nicky Haslam were engaged in good-humoured conversation. Others busy circulating included the satirist John Wells, the novelist A. N. Wilson and the columnist Nigel Dempster; Auberon Waugh and Richard Ingrams; John Saumarez-Smith from the Heywood Hill bookshop; Lord Durham, the Earl of Wilton, Emma Soames, Susan Ryan, Countess Fitzwilliam, Arabella Weir, Roc Sandford, Lady Delves-Broughton, Lynn Arial, Ari Ashley, Dennis Walker MP and Mrs Walker, Nigella Lawson, Laura Faber and Amanda Lyster, to pick names from the guest list at random.

The Quartet girls looked stunning and entertained the guests with their usual social aplomb. In his account of the party Auberon Waugh waxed lyrical, describing Lambton as ‘the great swordsman turned novelist, being fêted by the most glittering people in England and the most beautiful young women’.

Tony Lambton was definitely back in the limelight, but this time in triumph rather than for reasons of political disgrace. The scandal that had wrecked his political career was relegated to the past and no longer mattered. His emergence as a first-class novelist was a clear sign of a new dawn for the man who had once been a rising politician. The difference was a change in direction, and in his new role he would excel.

Significantly hidden behind dark glasses, he was delighted to see the large number of celebrities who had answered his invitation call. Among the crowd of people who were keen to shake his hand were David Dimbleby and Diana Rigg. His indiscretions had clearly been forgiven by the establishment, while to the bohemian section largely made up of the young set, many of whom referred to him as Uncle Tony, he remained a hero. Possibly they admired his wicked sense of humour, which could be biting indeed, and a disregard for conformity he tempered with a certain aristocratic fastidiousness.

Elizabeth and Alexandra was well received by the critics. The Times wrote, ‘Antony Lambton shows himself to be a considerable novelist, deftly handling a large cast of characters from Queen Victoria to Joseph Stalin.’ The Listener called the book ‘a good solid read’. The Daily Telegraph concluded, ‘Antony Lambton’s research has clearly been prodigious, and his description of the stifling atmosphere of the Russian court is memorably convincing.’ In line with that opinion, the Observer considered ‘it accumulates respect . . . by sheer archival industry’. And the Literary Review called it ‘a massive achievement’. The book attained the bestseller status we had anticipated for it. Quartet’s promotional campaign proved highly effective.

The prevailing party mood that year was summed up by Auberon Waugh in his ‘Diary’ column in Private Eye:

Monday

Naim has many talents – he can sing all the arias from Verdi’s Ernani while accompanying himself on the french horn; he is a yachtsman, no mean shot, and very good at balancing lumps of sugar on his nose. But above all, he is the greatest party giver of our time.

Among the 500 guests who flock to the Arts Club in Dover Street are about 100 of the most beautiful young women in England, most of them called Emma or Sophia. They are not only beautiful to look at but shapely, well-mannered, cheerful, intelligent, and juicy. Some of them even wear black stockings.

I find myself gasping that so many delicious creatures should have emerged from the last decade of comprehensive education, fluoride in the water and watching filth like Roy Hattersley on television. Then it occurs to me that these lovely ladies are all that is left in England.

Consider the less lovely ladies who go to parties given by Lord Weidenfeld, the plain women who seem to be creeping into Spectator parties, the frankly hideous old slags to be seen at New Statesman dos. Then reflect on all the embittered females who never get asked to any parties at all. The country is a dung-heap. This is just the glorious foliage on top of it.

Earlier in the year we published paperback editions under the Robin Clark imprint of all the five novels Bron had written at the start of his career. Bron recorded the event:

Thursday

My paperback publisher who mysteriously calls himself Robin Clark (his real name is Rebecca Fraser) has decided to reissue five novels I wrote in my youth. They have names like Buttercups and Daisies, Hypodermic Syringe and Cowslips Over the Moon. In order to publicise them I summon a hack from the Gruniad and ply him with champagne in my penthouse suite at Gnome House.

Unfortunately, he becomes over-excited by this treatment. In a confused account of his experience, he omits to mention the name of the publisher (Robin Clark) or the books (Buttercups and Daisies etc.). I have decided to ask Naim Attallah, the Christian philanthropist who owns Robin Clark, Rebecca Fraser, Harrods stores etc. if he will give a party to celebrate the books.

The above is an extract from my book Fulfilment & Betrayal: 1975-1995.

No Longer With Us: Mark Birley

Mark Birley became a friend after I interviewed him in 1990 for my collection of interviews in Singular Encounters.

He was the only son of Sir Oswald Birley, the portrait painter, and had a background of Eton, Oxford and national service done in the Intelligence Corps. He became well known in the nightclub business, and founded three notable watering spots in London’s West End: Annabel’s in Berkeley Square (named after his then wife, who later married Sir James Goldsmith), Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club, all of which became fashionable institutions to wine and dine in.

Many regarded Mark as a bit of dark horse, not easy to fathom, but none could deny that he had a formidable charisma. On the international scale, he seemed to have the knack of knowing anyone who mattered. He was also accepted as an arbiter of good taste, a man meticulously obsessed with the fine things in life, always aiming for the highest standards in any enterprise he undertook or acquired. His establishments were run with autocratic precision; but he was loved and revered by his staff and his wishes were certainly what they lived by.

He had always turned down any request to talk to the press, and it was hard work to get him to agree to see me. Finally, after I had told him about my plans for Singular Encounters, he said he would take part. We fixed a date, but then he fell ill with flu, and as fate would have it, I started to run a high temperature on the same day. Nevertheless we agreed to go ahead, despite being indisposed. I was afraid, knowing his aversion to interviews, that any postponement would mean the chance never happening again. I therefore rose from my sick bed and took a stiff dose of codeine tablets before staggering round to his house. As I entered, he met me with a glass of champagne. We completed the interview in our mutually feverish states, and managed to communicate with an openness beyond anything I had hoped for or expected.

In the years that followed, he regularly invited me to lunch at Harry’s Bar or Mark’s Club, and whenever I sought to reciprocate, he agreed on principle ­ but then, on the appointed date, phoned with all manner of excuses to say he expected me to come to him instead. Next time, he promised, it would certainly be my turn. In fact my turn as a host never materialised.

I felt that he had a soft spot for me, probably after opening out in the interview, and I became his confidante. The last time I had lunch with him was at Harry’s Bar a few weeks before his death. He was by then very ill and in a wheelchair, and it was clear his memory was fading. This did not stop us having our usual conversation and I was glad I saw him then. I will always remember Mark with the utmost affection, and will miss his company and his contagious love of the best that life can offer. The interview that we did together follows, and seems well worth reading for its rare moments of self-examination in a man who resolutely guarded his privacy.

Any question about my relationship with my mother is rather hard to answer. It must have had some kind of lasting effect. It wasn’t so much a strange relationship, more the absence of any normal relationship. To her credit she was very keen on my taking an interest in everything artistic, including music and the ballet – she had been one of the original supporters of the Diaghilev ballet – but I was not musical. I think we got on better in her later years because there is nothing left to disagree or argue over. An absence of affection, that was the point. We were rather a divided family: my sister and I, my mother and my father. It was a pretty good mess.

I suppose the fact that my father was 50 when I was born must have made for some remoteness in the relationship there. I was extremely fond of him, but he was almost like a grandfather. We were sometimes rather united about Mama. The age gap was wide between them as well. I always got on pretty well with my father, but there were too many people pulling in too many different directions in the family: my mother saying one thing, my sister another and my father trying to get on with his work and painting and wanting a bit of peace and quiet occasionally. You can hardly blame him.

I never really thought of my nanny as being a kind of surrogate mother figure, but in a sense I suppose that is what she was. She’s still alive today at 96, and quite extraordinary. She has had every kind of stroke and should have gone but hasn’t. She has moments of rather brief lucidity. I was devoted to her as a child. Frankly I was glad to leave that period of my childhood behind me, although I’ve wiped my mind pretty clear of all the bad things that happened. I expect it was Annabel who told you I detested Eaton. I didn’t detest it at all. I was relatively happy there, the thing about the place being that you had your own room and felt you were a bit grown up as soon as you arrived.

I do admit to having many regrets about wastage of time. I certainly didn’t work hard enough during my only year at Oxford. At that stage I lacked any sense of direction and didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. Not that may people do know, but I think I was more lacking in purpose and direction than most of my contemporaries. I had certain artistic ambitions at one point because I was born with a talent for drawing. Had I worked at it, I probably could have done something with it, but I grew bored. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want to be an artist, though that, in any case, was a time when artistic talents were being treated rather contemptuously. Had I been born in France, things would probably have been quite different.

The point where I first came into my own was, I think, when I opened a sort of advertising office, some years before Annabel’s got going. At least the agency represented independence and I had it for quite a few years. Looking back, it was really great fun. Afterwards I had the Hermès shop in the corner of Piccadilly Arcade and Jermyn Street, but then I came to think that what I wanted was somewhere bigger and better, probably in Bond Street. Annabel’s was just starting, however, and so I sold out, having decided I wasn’t after all really interested in embarking on a larger shop which would only have taken up much more of my time.

Annabel’s arose out of my friendship with John Aspinall. When gambling became legal, he was looking for suitable premises. I already had an idea for some kind of piano bar somewhere, something on a relatively modest scale. No. 44 Berkeley Square had then been empty for about 12 years, and after Aspinall saw it himself, he told me I ought to take a look. Of course, the basement to the house was very small, but we had the garden dug out and we connected up the whole building. I needed to persuade people to invest in it since I didn’t have any money myself just then.

When Annabel’s was being built, I was trying to gather a little team around me, and even then I realised that the key person was going to be the manager. I knew perfectly well that, unless I had the right person, I would be in every kind of trouble because I didn’t really know how to do it myself. I remember calling at the Mirabelle and saying to Louis, the manager there, ‘I’m looking for a manager. If you can think of anyone you think might be suitable, please let me know.’ It simply didn’t occur to me that he would want to come to me, but it was just at the time when the Mirabelle was being taken over and its staff were a bit unsettled. Louis said he thought he might be interested himself, and of course that was my lucky break, because he has been with me ever since and without Louis the story could have been very different. Then Mabel, whom I’d know at the old Wilton’s, came to run the ladies’ room, and still does, and George Hobart, whom I’d known at Jules’ Bar, was barman, though he has since died.

I know there are a lot of people who think I’m very difficult about a lot of things. Who’s put you up to asking? I suppose it is true, yes, because I want to get people to think the same way as I’m thinking straight away, and if I can do that, then everything’s fine. With Louis, for example, we mesh well and we’ve hardly had a cross word in the last 27 years. The fact that I insist on my staff always addressing me formally doesn’t indicate a lack of friendliness or camaraderie or anything of that kind, it’s just that I feel that degree of formality should be maintained. When you’re not working, it’s a different matter altogether, but I don’t really like the American system where everybody’s Jim and Bob and goodness knows what, and everything’s wonderful, except on Monday, when it’s, ‘Bob, you’ve done a great job but we need your desk.’ That’s all superficial.

I’m not good on committees. One of my failings is a lack of patience, and when I feel I’m right about something and that everyone else is wrong, then the whole process of listening to all the arguments makes me rather impatient. I’m used to taking my own decisions in my business without reference to anybody else, obviously within the constraints of what is possible. That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages, but one of the main advantages is that it makes for speed and makes your employees happier, I think. They like somebody who can say yes or no.

Speaking of management really does hit on one of the problems. I find that aspect very difficult. I suppose I’ve got about 200 staff now, and one of the difficulties occurs in part because my headquarters in Hays Mews is exactly the same as it was when I started 28 years ago and I can’t make it any bigger. Another office, in Charles Street, deals with the accounts side of the business, but the businesses are actually managed in quite an unorthodox way. It is still all a bit of a one man band. The latest effort of building the Baths and Racquets Club has put a great strain on the office, because it took a great deal of time and effort. The new club’s been open about a year now, and I still have endless problems with water leakages, builders and staffing. It needs a hell of a lot of everyday attention.

Management is a simple reason why I remain reluctant to take Annabel’s across the Atlantic, though people keep suggesting I should do so. The usual concept behind this operation is to pick it up, put some paper round it, get on Concorde and dump it on a corner of Fifth Avenue. Yet I couldn’t very well stay in America for a year or so and leave everything here in London to get on with itself. It would never work out.

I’ll give you an example. Harry’s Bar in Venice is owned by Arrigo Cipriani, who inherited it from his father as a kind of license to print money. He wasn’t content with that and he had to go to America and get involved in a great shemozzle in New York, transporting all the key staff from Venice to New York. Of course, the bar in Venice started to go downhill. Who needs these headaches? He certainly didn’t need the money, so what was the point? Nobody is content nowadays to do what they do and stick to it. It was the same with Geoffrey Vennison, who was very well known as a wonderful antique dealer before he became an interior decorator and did so much for Annabel’s and Mark’s Club. He also became a very great friend, and was a splendid raconteur as well as a bit of a snob. Well, whenever Concorde tickets arrived from all these very rich ladies in New York who said, ‘Will you come and advise us on our cushions?’ Geoffrey couldn’t resist it, and off he had to go. It killed him, you know.

It’s not so much perfectionism I’m after in the way I run Annabel’s as the way I think things ought to be. This is not necessarily the same as perfection. I just want to get everything right in the way I think to be best. Of course, it is a matter of going on and on for years and staying interested enough to try to improve things.

In some funny way, Annabel’s has managed to satisfy people’s needs. It’s a place they really like to be in. If you asked a selection of people to define their ideal nightclub, they would all answer with different specifications, but probably none of them would answer truthfully because they will all have little secrets which their not going to disclose. But I think I happen to know what some of these secrets are, and Annabel’s incorporates a few of them. Since I launched Annabel’s, quite a number of other clubs have sprung up, and every time a new one comes along there’s a fresh wave of excitement. I know perfectly well that a lot of people will go rushing off there, but equally I’m pretty certain that they’ll be back. I strongly believe that, if you do your utmost to look after people properly, they will remain loyal.

Contrary to what one might suppose, there haven’t been many appalling scenes in Annabel’s. There really haven’t been any big fights, though we’ve had lots of drunken behaviour. Geoffrey Keating, who used to be in charge of public relations at BP and who helped to promote Montgomery’s reputation when he was on his staff during the war, used to sit there as if he owned the place. Whenever things got too much, after he’d insulted whole parties of Arabs and so on, we had a procedure for getting him out. One of the doorman used to walk him home through Berkeley Square, and as he passed the J. Walter Thompson Building, he would stop, undo his flies and pee into the letterbox with great accuracy all over J. Walter Thompson’s expensive stationery. After that he would be quite happy. He was like a lamb once he’d been lead home. The stories of Geoffrey in Annabel’s are absolutely legion. I used to have frightful rows with him, but I adored him. He was one of my greatest friends, and was never frightened about the consequences of his behaviour, drunk or sober.

Perhaps I do have a slightly withdrawn personality, though it depends on the circumstances. I’m the opposite to extrovert, I suppose. I need to have people around me, but I don’t need a lot of people. People think I’m a melancholic because I’m not forever grinning at everybody. Nowadays everybody is expected to wear a permanent grin from ear to ear.

I find it perfectly easy to have close relationships, but I also find I’ve reached a point in life where I’m probably not going to make, or don’t particularly wish to make, many more close friends. Certainly there are a lot of people I love to see and who are going to be friends, but I’m not going to make anymore very intimate friends. We all know hundreds and hundreds of people and it all becomes too much. The assumption of a lack of warmth on my part springs from an attitude of, oh my God, this restaurant owner really hasn’t been to charm school, has he? I’m expected to remember everybody’s name from either side of the Atlantic, and to say all those things people say when they’re 21. That’s not my style. One of my strengths at Annabel’s and the clubs is that, when I’m there, I think of myself as a kind of customer and so get a detached feeling about it. This is very helpful. If you allow yourself to grow too close to it all, you can only attend to detail and you can’t see the thing whole.

If Louis says that I have a wonderful sense of humour, then all I can tell you is that Louis’ idea of a good sense of humour is so awful and disgusting that the girls in the office have to be trained to listen to the stories he produces. As for being happy, I think it all depends. I don’t know that you can exist in a permanent state of blissful happiness, though you go through periods of happiness. If you are too happy too much of the time, it seems to imply some kind of complacency that is rather unattractive. I realise I have a reputation for being a misery. I can become unhappy for all kinds of reasons, but to call me melancholic is to aim wide of the mark. If people say I find it difficult to show affection and to trust on an emotional level, there is maybe some truth in it. You’ve been doing quite a lot of research, I must say.

No, I wouldn’t consider that the British have good taste. If we’re talking about the post-war years, I would say most definitely not, and in fact they’ve been swayed in the opposite direction in hundreds of different ways. Architecture is the most obvious example. I’m one hundred per cent behind Prince Charles on that one. The whinging of architects who feel they shouldn’t be criticised by anybody unless it’s by another architect seems quite extraordinary. It’s such a pity we don’t have a Lutyens around today.

My own passion for collecting is a sort of acquisitiveness, I suppose. I can get caught up in a new interest at the drop of a hat. If I had the time to go round all the salesrooms, there would be no end to the stuff I could get interested in. At Sotheby’s recently they had the most beautiful old picnic baskets which I wanted to buy, but I didn’t manage to go.

I once had the most frightful disaster, bidding for some drawings at Christie’s. My secretary is very good at bidding – very quiet about it where I get over-excited. Here in the office that morning I told her I wanted her to bid for 10 drawings and that when I wanted her to stop bidding then I would shake my head. Simple. The trouble was that we went separately to Christie’s and I couldn’t find her when I reached the salesroom. When the lots came up I thought she’d disappeared off the face of the earth, so started bidding myself. Just as the items were being knocked down to me, the auctioneer said, ‘Ah, a new bidder at the end of the room,’ and on the bidding went again. When I got out of the salesroom, I found my secretary and asked, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ She replied, ‘Well, I couldn’t find you, but luckily I managed to buy one or two.’ By bidding against me, she had managed to pay the world record price for one drawing.

I see quite a lot of Annabel, and yes, she is a most important person in my life. Getting married to her was the most important thing that happened to me, and Annabel, when all is said and done, probably shaped my life more than any other person, though without being particularly aware of what she was doing. The thing that you say she said to you, about me being the true love of her life, is reciprocated. Though if Jimmy Goldsmith walked into this room now, I’d be perfectly pleased to see him.

My God, do you have that typed out: ‘Difficult to have as a lover, but, once the affair is over, the most wonderful friend?’ I’m sure the first statement is absolutely true. I’m not aware of being so difficult, but I suppose whoever told you must be right. I feel very comfortable in the company of women. By today’s standards, I should think I probably discovered women pretty late. It was after I left school, I suppose, when I was up at Oxford. They have been important in my life, but none more so than Annabel, you know. But if I have never remarried, it’s not because I consciously avoid long-term relationships. I have been with the same person now for quite a long time, and I don’t know whether we’ll get married or not. We probably will.

In respect of possessing patience, I probably made a very bad father. I should have gone to my children’s school more often, but I think they probably forgave me for not doing so. I remember one awful sports day, pouring with rain, when Rupert found a pavilion, and said, ‘Pup, don’t you worry, you stay in here. I’ll go and get you a glass of brandy.’ All the other parents were busy doing something constructive around the place, talking to the masters or whatever, but I hated it. The children were certainly very much closer to their mother at the beginning and, to be truthful, probably are still, but we got on with each other well now.

When you look at your children, I think you look to see whether your own worst characteristics are emerging, but Robin, for example, is much more mature at 30 than I was at his age. He has a better aptitude for business; he’s extremely hard-working. He gets up very early in the morning, a thing that I have always found very difficult to do. My daughter is the only one who has really inherited my artistic ability, and now she fully understands that talent needs to be combined with a lot of hard work to produce results. She is a good artist. I sense she’s going to do great things. She is enormously talented and is working hard; she paints in oils, she draws. She has always drawn since she was a child, but now she has a very disciplined pencil. Her first exhibition was a great success and she’s going to have another. John Ward, whose opinion I respect, thinks highly of her.

It is rather difficult to know whether one of my children will take over from me when I retire. I think Robin would eventually be quite interested, if for no other reason than that it could be a hell of a launching pad for something else. Rupert was far more literary. He would have liked to be a writer. When I asked him what benefit he thought he had derived from Oxford, he said it was the ability to write. When he came down, he found it quite difficult to get a job. I’m all for people going to university, but I think that too many sons and daughters go up to Oxford and Cambridge and are promised by their tutors that the world is theirs if only they get a decent second in PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s not necessarily the case. I felt that Robin could have gone up to Oxford quite easily, but part of the strength of his position today is that he did not do so, but started work instead. Things have been difficult for Robin for various reasons, mainly because of an accident he suffered in childhood, when he was only 11. He was mauled by a tiger and the injuries were very serious. The lower part of his face was crushed in the tiger’s jaws and he came within an inch of death. Luckily there was a hospital which dealt with motorway accidents and urgent cases only two or three miles away. They got him there very quickly, he was operated on and they managed to save his life.

The boys absolutely adored each other, though I would say that Rupert was the closest to me. I’m sure he could have become an accomplished writer, but unfortunately he wanted first to prove to all his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some vague scribbler, that he could actually make a success in business too. So he went to Togo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. I hope you never have to go. All I can say about it is that it is a bloody miserable place. Even the American ambassador to Togo apologised to me for just being there. Rupert didn’t exactly like it either, but he managed to make friends in a most extraordinary way. Everybody adored him. When I got out there after the accident, the warmth of feeling I found for him was quite extraordinary.

I did discuss with Rupert whether he would ever want to take over from me, but he was very sensitive and didn’t want to be given anything on a plate which he felt he hadn’t rightfully earned. He also felt that that would be unfair from Robin’s point of view, so he was rather confused about what he should do. But quite certainly I think that he would’ve come into the business eventually.

On the subject of tragedies in my life, I’ll tell you something. I really hate people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. I simply don’t want to show how I feel sometimes, and if I can manage to conceal it, so much the better. The spectacle of a man breaking down in front of people, in public, is always rather a sad thing to witness. I’d rather it wasn’t me. In Rupert’s case, at least there was something I could do. I was sitting out on my balcony having a cup of coffee before going to the office when my secretary rang and said she had someone from Togo on the line. I absolutely knew at that second that the news was bad. All they could tell me was that Rupert couldn’t be found.

There was no reason at that point, or even after we got out there – Robin came with me – to assume he was dead. There was certainly no time to sit and mope. The question of abduction arose and we felt we had to get to the truth of the matter. I called in a firm of investigators, which deal mostly with kidnappings, and I must say they were very good, very thorough. At all events, we satisfied ourselves that there was no question of an abduction. Rupert used to go swimming at a particularly horrible beach where the currents were strong and you could easily be dragged out. There had been quite a number of other cases where people weren’t recovered, and this is what almost certainly happened with Rupert. It was a very great shock to us all. Robin was absolutely marvellous. I had to have awful phone calls with Annabel, who used to sit by the telephone in London waiting for me to ring in the evening. I went back to that bloody God-forsaken place to or three times. I think Rupert was the only white man who ever went out there through choice. I miss him terribly.

I would describe myself as being more heart than head. I am perhaps a little on the cynical side sometimes, but hard-headed, no. I am vulnerable to failure, or when I lose a friendship, and I dare say self-esteem comes in there a little bit. But I am hyper-sensitive, not thick-skinned at all, and I very easily get hurt.

We’ve all got regrets, mostly about things we didn’t do rather than things we did. Timing is also important. I would like to have done everything a few years earlier. Probably we all feel like that. I expect I would live my life differently if I had the chance again. One often thinks, if only I was 25 years younger and knew what I know now. It would be like putting a bull who had already had one fight into the ring. I’d have been a much better student and everything else. In those days the dividend, if there was one, seemed far too remote to be worth bothering about. On top of that, schools were then very different. Boys nowadays look forward to going back to school after their holidays because they have much more fun. They have more freedom, they’re more grown up and, of course, they travel. I was at school during the war years, and went abroad only in 1946 or 1947 for the first time, when I was 17. I know children nowadays who have been absolutely everywhere by the time they’re 12.

I am not unduly apprehensive about the future. In general, I feel reasonably confident and optimistic. I am not planning to take on a lot more work. I think I’d rather work a bit less fairly soon, though I don’t see that I can retire. Anyway, what is it one would retire to? A kind of blank day.

Any question about my relationship with my mother is rather hard to answer. It must have had some kind of lasting effect. It wasn’t so much a strange relationship, more the absence of any normal relationship. To her credit she was very keen on my taking an interest in everything artistic, including music and the ballet – she had been one of the original supporters of the Diaghilev ballet – but I was not musical. I think we got on better in her later years because there is nothing left to disagree or argue over. An absence of affection, that was the point. We were rather a divided family: my sister and I, my mother and my father. It was a pretty good mess.

I suppose the fact that my father was 50 when I was born must have made for some remoteness in the relationship there. I was extremely fond of him, but he was almost like a grandfather. We were sometimes rather united about Mama. The age gap was wide between them as well. I always got on pretty well with my father, but there were too many people pulling in too many different directions in the family: my mother saying one thing, my sister another and my father trying to get on with his work and painting and wanting a bit of peace and quiet occasionally. You can hardly blame him.

I never really thought of my nanny as being a kind of surrogate mother figure, but in a sense I suppose that is what she was. She’s still alive today at 96, and quite extraordinary. She has had every kind of stroke and should have gone but hasn’t. She has moments of rather brief lucidity. I was devoted to her as a child. Frankly I was glad to leave that period of my childhood behind me, although I’ve wiped my mind pretty clear of all the bad things that happened. I expect it was Annabel who told you I detested Eaton. I didn’t detest it at all. I was relatively happy there, the thing about the place being that you had your own room and felt you were a bit grown up as soon as you arrived.

I do admit to having many regrets about wastage of time. I certainly didn’t work hard enough during my only year at Oxford. At that stage I lacked any sense of direction and didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. Not that may people do know, but I think I was more lacking in purpose and direction than most of my contemporaries. I had certain artistic ambitions at one point because I was born with a talent for drawing. Had I worked at it, I probably could have done something with it, but I grew bored. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn’t want to be an artist, though that, in any case, was a time when artistic talents were being treated rather contemptuously. Had I been born in France, things would probably have been quite different.

The point where I first came into my own was, I think, when I opened a sort of advertising office, some years before Annabel’s got going. At least the agency represented independence and I had it for quite a few years. Looking back, it was really great fun. Afterwards I had the Hermès shop in the corner of Piccadilly Arcade and Jermain Street, but then I came to think that what I wanted was somewhere bigger and better, probably in Bond Street. Annabel’s was just starting, however, and so I sold out, having decided I wasn’t after all really interested in embarking on a larger shop which would only have taken up much more of my time.

Annabel’s arose out of my friendship with John Aspinall. When gambling became legal, he was looking for suitable premises. I already had an idea for some kind of piano bar somewhere, something on a relatively modest scale. No. 44 Berkeley Square had then been empty for about 12 years, and after Aspinall saw it himself, he told me I ought to take a look. Of course, the basement to the house was very small, but we had the garden dug out and we connected up the whole building. I needed to persuade people to invest in it since I didn’t have any money myself just then.

When Annabel’s was being built, I was trying to gather a little team around me, and even then I realised that the key person was going to be the manager. I knew perfectly well that, unless I had the right person, I would be in every kind of trouble because I didn’t really know how to do it myself. I remember calling at the Mirabelle and saying to Louis, the manager there, ‘I’m looking for a manager. If you can think of anyone you think might be suitable, please let me know.’ It simply didn’t occur to me that he would want to come to me, but it was just at the time when the Mirabelle was being taken over and its staff were a bit unsettled. Louis said he thought he might be interested himself, and of course that was my lucky break, because he has been with me ever since and without Louis the story could have been very different. Then Mabel, whom I’d know at the old Wilton’s, came to run the ladies’ room, and still does, and George Hobart, whom I’d known at Jules’ Bar, was barman, though he has since died.

I know there are a lot of people who think I’m very difficult about a lot of things. Who’s put you up to asking? I suppose it is true, yes, because I want to get people to think the same way as I’m thinking straight away, and if I can do that, then everything’s fine. With Louis, for example, we mesh well and we’ve hardly had a cross word in the last 27 years. The fact that I insist on my staff always addressing me formally doesn’t indicate a lack of friendliness or camaraderie or anything of that kind, it’s just that I feel that degree of formality should be maintained. When you’re not working, it’s a different matter altogether, but I don’t really like the American system where everybody’s Jim and Bob and goodness knows what, and everything’s wonderful, except on Monday, when it’s, ‘Bob, you’ve done a great job but we need your desk.’ That’s all superficial.

I’m not good on committees. One of my failings is a lack of patience, and when I feel I’m right about something and that everyone else is wrong, then the whole process of listening to all the arguments makes me rather impatient. I’m used to taking my own decisions in my business without reference to anybody else, obviously within the constraints of what is possible. That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages, but one of the main advantages is that it makes for speed and makes your employees happier, I think. They like somebody who can say yes or no.

Speaking of management really does hit on one of the problems. I find that aspect very difficult. I suppose I’ve got about 200 staff now, and one of the difficulties occurs in part because my headquarters in Hays Mews is exactly the same as it was when I started 28 years ago and I can’t make it any bigger. Another office, in Charles Street, deals with the accounts side of the business, but the businesses are actually managed in quite an unorthodox way. It is still all a bit of a one man band. The latest effort of building the Baths and Racquets Club has put a great strain on the office, because it took a great deal of time and effort. The new club’s been open about a year now, and I still have endless problems with water leakages, builders and staffing. It needs a hell of a lot of everyday attention.

Management is a simple reason why I remain reluctant to take Annabel’s across the Atlantic, though people keep suggesting I should do so. The usual concept behind this operation is to pick it up, put some paper round it, get on Concorde and dump it on a corner of Fifth Avenue. Yet I couldn’t very well stay in America for a year or so and leave everything here in London to get on with itself. It would never work out.

I’ll give you an example. Harry’s Bar in Venice is owned by Arrigo Cipriani, who inherited it from his father as a kind of license to print money. He wasn’t content with that and he had to go to America and get involved in a great shemozzle in New York, transporting all the key staff from Venice to New York. Of course, the bar in Venice started to go downhill. Who needs these headaches? He certainly didn’t need the money, so what was the point? Nobody is content nowadays to do what they do and stick to it. It was the same with Geoffrey Vennison, who was very well known as a wonderful antique dealer before he became an interior decorator and did so much for Annabel’s and Mark’s Club. He also became a very great friend, and was a splendid raconteur as well as a bit of a snob. Well, whenever Concorde tickets arrived from all these very rich ladies in New York who said, ‘Will you come and advise us on our cushions?’ Geoffrey couldn’t resist it, and off he had to go. It killed him, you know.

It’s not so much perfectionism I’m after in the way I run Annabel’s as the way I think things ought to be. This is not necessarily the same as perfection. I just want to get everything right in the way I think to be best. Of course, it is a matter of going on and on for years and staying interested enough to try to improve things.

In some funny way, Annabel’s has managed to satisfy people’s needs. It’s a place they really like to be in. If you asked a selection of people to define their ideal nightclub, they would all answer with different specifications, but probably none of them would answer truthfully because they will all have little secrets which their not going to disclose. But I think I happen to know what some of these secrets are, and Annabel’s incorporates a few of them. Since I launched Annabel’s, quite a number of other clubs have sprung up, and every time a new one comes along there’s a fresh wave of excitement. I know perfectly well that a lot of people will go rushing off there, but equally I’m pretty certain that they’ll be back. I strongly believe that, if you do your utmost to look after people properly, they will remain loyal.

Contrary to what one might suppose, there haven’t been many appalling scenes in Annabel’s. There really haven’t been any big fights, though we’ve had lots of drunken behaviour. Geoffrey Keating, who used to be in charge of public relations at BP and who helped to promote Montgomery’s reputation when he was on his staff during the war, used to sit there as if he owned the place. Whenever things got too much, after he’d insulted whole parties of Arabs and so on, we had a procedure for getting him out. One of the doorman used to walk him home through Berkeley Square, and as he passed the J. Walter Thompson Building, he would stop, undo his flies and pee into the letterbox with great accuracy all over J. Walter Thompson’s expensive stationery. After that he would be quite happy. He was like a lamb once he’d been lead home. The stories of Geoffrey in Annabel’s are absolutely legion. I used to have frightful rows with him, but I adored him. He was one of my greatest friends, and was never frightened about the consequences of his behaviour, drunk or sober.

Perhaps I do have a slightly withdrawn personality, though it depends on the circumstances. I’m the opposite to extrovert, I suppose. I need to have people around me, but I don’t need a lot of people. People think I’m a melancholic because I’m not forever grinning at everybody. Nowadays everybody is expected to wear a permanent grin from ear to ear.

I find it perfectly easy to have close relationships, but I also find I’ve reached a point in life where I’m probably not going to make, or don’t particularly wish to make, many more close friends. Certainly there are a lot of people I love to see and who are going to be friends, but I’m not going to make anymore very intimate friends. We all know hundreds and hundreds of people and it all becomes too much. The assumption of a lack of warmth on my part springs from an attitude of, oh my God, this restaurant owner really hasn’t been to charm school, has he? I’m expected to remember everybody’s name from either side of the Atlantic, and to say all those things people say when they’re 21. That’s not my style. One of my strengths at Annabel’s and the clubs is that, when I’m there, I think of myself as a kind of customer and so get a detached feeling about it. This is very helpful. If you allow yourself to grow too close to it all, you can only attend to detail and you can’t see the thing whole.

If Louis says that I have a wonderful sense of humour, then all I can tell you is that Louis’ idea of a good sense of humour is so awful and disgusting that the girls in the office have to be trained to listen to the stories he produces. As for being happy, I think it all depends. I don’t know that you can exist in a permanent state of blissful happiness, though you go through periods of happiness. If you are too happy too much of the time, it seems to imply some kind of complacency that is rather unattractive. I realise I have a reputation for being a misery. I can become unhappy for all kinds of reasons, but to call me melancholic is to aim wide of the mark. If people say I find it difficult to show affection and to trust on an emotional level, there is maybe some truth in it. You’ve been doing quite a lot of research, I must say.

No, I wouldn’t consider that the British have good taste. If we’re talking about the post-war years, I would say most definitely not, and in fact they’ve been swayed in the opposite direction in hundreds of different ways. Architecture is the most obvious example. I’m one hundred per cent behind Prince Charles on that one. The whinging of architects who feel they shouldn’t be criticised by anybody unless it’s by another architect seems quite extraordinary. It’s such a pity we don’t have a Lutyens around today.

My own passion for collecting is a sort of acquisitiveness, I suppose. I can get caught up in a new interest at the drop of a hat. If I had the time to go round all the salesrooms, there would be no end to the stuff I could get interested in. At Sotheby’s recently they had the most beautiful old picnic baskets which I wanted to buy, but I didn’t manage to go.

I once had the most frightful disaster, bidding for some drawings at Christie’s. My secretary is very good at bidding – very quiet about it where I get over-excited. Here in the office that morning I told her I wanted her to bid for 10 drawings and that when I wanted her to stop bidding then I would shake my head. Simple. The trouble was that we went separately to Christie’s and I couldn’t find her when I reached the salesroom. When the lots came up I thought she’d disappeared off the face of the earth, so started bidding myself. Just as the items were being knocked down to me, the auctioneer said, ‘Ah, a new bidder at the end of the room,’ and on the bidding went again. When I got out of the salesroom, I found my secretary and asked, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ She replied, ‘Well, I couldn’t find you, but luckily I managed to buy one or two.’ By bidding against me, she had managed to pay the world record price for one drawing.

I see quite a lot of Annabel, and yes, she is a most important person in my life. Getting married to her was the most important thing that happened to me, and Annabel, when all is said and done, probably shaped my life more than any other person, though without being particularly aware of what she was doing. The thing that you say she said to you, about me being the true love of her life, is reciprocated. Though if Jimmy Goldsmith walked into this room now, I’d be perfectly pleased to see him.

My God, do you have that typed out: ‘Difficult to have as a lover, but, once the affair is over, the most wonderful friend?’ I’m sure the first statement is absolutely true. I’m not aware of being so difficult, but I suppose whoever told you must be right. I feel very comfortable in the company of women. By today’s standards, I should think I probably discovered women pretty late. It was after I left school, I suppose, when I was up at Oxford. They have been important in my life, but none more so than Annabel, you know. But if I have never remarried, it’s not because I consciously avoid long-term relationships. I have been with the same person now for quite a long time, and I don’t know whether we’ll get married or not. We probably will.

In respect of possessing patience, I probably made a very bad father. I should have gone to my children’s school more often, but I think they probably forgave me for not doing so. I remember one awful sports day, pouring with rain, when Rupert found a pavilion, and said, ‘Pup, don’t you worry, you stay in here. I’ll go and get you a glass of brandy.’ All the other parents were busy doing something constructive around the place, talking to the masters or whatever, but I hated it. The children were certainly very much closer to their mother at the beginning and, to be truthful, probably are still, but we got on with each other well now.

When you look at your children, I think you look to see whether your own worst characteristics are emerging, but Robin, for example, is much more mature at 30 than I was at his age. He has a better aptitude for business; he’s extremely hard-working. He gets up very early in the morning, a thing that I have always found very difficult to do. My daughter is the only one who has really inherited my artistic ability, and now she fully understands that talent needs to be combined with a lot of hard work to produce results. She is a good artist. I sense she’s going to do great things. She is enormously talented and is working hard; she paints in oils, she draws. She has always drawn since she was a child, but now she has a very disciplined pencil. Her first exhibition was a great success and she’s going to have another. John Ward, whose opinion I respect, thinks highly of her.

It is rather difficult to know whether one of my children will take over from me when I retire. I think Robin would eventually be quite interested, if for no other reason than that it could be a hell of a launching pad for something else. Rupert was far more literary. He would have liked to be a writer. When I asked him what benefit he thought he had derived from Oxford, he said it was the ability to write. When he came down, he found it quite difficult to get a job. I’m all for people going to university, but I think that too many sons and daughters go up to Oxford and Cambridge and are promised by their tutors that the world is theirs if only they get a decent second in PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s not necessarily the case. I felt that Robin could have gone up to Oxford quite easily, but part of the strength of his position today is that he did not do so, but started work instead. Things have been difficult for Robin for various reasons, mainly because of an accident he suffered in childhood, when he was only 11. He was mauled by a tiger and the injuries were very serious. The lower part of his face was crushed in the tiger’s jaws and he came within an inch of death. Luckily there was a hospital which dealt with motorway accidents and urgent cases only two or three miles away. They got him there very quickly, he was operated on and they managed to save his life.

The boys absolutely adored each other, though I would say that Rupert was the closest to me. I’m sure he could have become an accomplished writer, but unfortunately he wanted first to prove to all his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some vague scribbler, that he could actually make a success in business too. So he went to Togo. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. I hope you never have to go. All I can say about it is that it is a bloody miserable place. Even the American ambassador to Togo apologised to me for just being there. Rupert didn’t exactly like it either, but he managed to make friends in a most extraordinary way. Everybody adored him. When I got out there after the accident, the warmth of feeling I found for him was quite extraordinary.

I did discuss with Rupert whether he would ever want to take over from me, but he was very sensitive and didn’t want to be given anything on a plate which he felt he hadn’t rightfully earned. He also felt that that would be unfair from Robin’s point of view, so he was rather confused about what he should do. But quite certainly I think that he would’ve come into the business eventually.

On the subject of tragedies in my life, I’ll tell you something. I really hate people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. I simply don’t want to show how I feel sometimes, and if I can manage to conceal it, so much the better. The spectacle of a man breaking down in front of people, in public, is always rather a sad thing to witness. I’d rather it wasn’t me. In Rupert’s case, at least there was something I could do. I was sitting out on my balcony having a cup of coffee before going to the office when my secretary rang and said she had someone from Togo on the line. I absolutely knew at that second that the news was bad. All they could tell me was that Rupert couldn’t be found.

There was no reason at that point, or even after we got out there – Robin came with me – to assume he was dead. There was certainly no time to sit and mope. The question of abduction arose and we felt we had to get to the truth of the matter. I called in a firm of investigators, which deal mostly with kidnappings, and I must say they were very good, very thorough. At all events, we satisfied ourselves that there was no question of an abduction. Rupert used to go swimming at a particularly horrible beach where the currents were strong and you could easily be dragged out. There had been quite a number of other cases where people weren’t recovered, and this is what almost certainly happened with Rupert. It was a very great shock to us all. Robin was absolutely marvellous. I had to have awful phone calls with Annabel, who used to sit by the telephone in London waiting for me to ring in the evening. I went back to that bloody God-forsaken place to or three times. I think Rupert was the only white man who ever went out there through choice. I miss him terribly.

I would describe myself as being more heart than head. I am perhaps a little on the cynical side sometimes, but hard-headed, no. I am vulnerable to failure, or when I lose a friendship, and I dare say self-esteem comes in there a little bit. But I am hyper-sensitive, not thick-skinned at all, and I very easily get hurt.

We’ve all got regrets, mostly about things we didn’t do rather than things we did. Timing is also important. I would like to have done everything a few years earlier. Probably we all feel like that. I expect I would live my life differently if I had the chance again. One often thinks, if only I was 25 years younger and knew what I know now. It would be like putting a bull who had already had one fight into the ring. I’d have been a much better student and everything else. In those days the dividend, if there was one, seemed far too remote to be worth bothering about. On top of that, schools were then very different. Boys nowadays look forward to going back to school after their holidays because they have much more fun. They have more freedom, they’re more grown up and, of course, they travel. I was at school during the war years, and went abroad only in 1946 or 1947 for the first time, when I was 17. I know children nowadays who have been absolutely everywhere by the time they’re 12.

I am not unduly apprehensive about the future. In general, I feel reasonably confident and optimistic. I am not planning to take on a lot more work. I think I’d rather work a bit less fairly soon, though I don’t see that I can retire. Anyway, what is it one would retire to? A kind of blank day.

No Longer With Us

Mark Birley was one of four remarkable men I had the good fortune to interview for my book Singular Encounters, who have died in the last couple of years.  Each was a leading figure in his own field.

The others were William F. Buckley Jnr (died February 2008), Dominick Dunne (died August 2009) and John Updike (died January 2009).

My interview with Mark Birley has been posted on my blog here and the others will appear in the New Year, starting with William F. Buckley Jnr and followed by the remaining two at weekly intervals.

A brief biographical note on each should certainly help readers of my blog to get into the spirit of the interviews, familiarise themselves with the subjects’ respective careers and whet their appetites for what to expect.

William F. Buckley Jnr was throughout his life an upholder of the anti-liberal, staunchly conservative strain in American politics, which was not necessarily the same thing as being an uncritical supporter of the Republican party.  In 1925 he was born into a devoutly committed Roman Catholic family. At the age of thirty he founded the influential National Review, a journal devoted to being a forum for conservative views and ideas. He became a syndicated columnist and a chat-show host on television, both of which activities gave him the opportunity to range his guns on what he saw as the sentimental inconsistencies of the liberal position. His first attack on the liberal establishment came with his book, God and Man at Yale (1951). He went on to publish many books, including American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (1970) and a series of spy novels, one of which was controversially about the queen of Great Britain, Saving the Queen (1976). Politically, he was formidably well-informed, and he never wavered in his principles. At the time of his death he was working on books about Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Dominick Dunne was the second of six children in an Irish Catholic family in Connecticut, his father being an eminent heart surgeon. After serving in the Second World War, he went on to working in theatre and movies, producing among other films, Ash Wednesday and The Boys in the Band.  In becoming a writer, he overcame what had been his problem with alcoholism and produced several best-sellers, and was for many years a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. He was acknowledged as a master of the ‘true crime’ genre, having started on this path after the murder of his daughter, Dominique, by her boyfriend, who received what he saw as a derisory sentence for ‘voluntary manslaughter’. His celebrated article, ‘Justice: A Father’s Account on the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer’, was published in Vanity Fair. He went on to cover various high-profile murder trials, including those of O. J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow and the Menendez brothers. His last assignment, before he died from bladder cancer, was in 2008 for the second O. J. Simpson trial on charges of kidnapping and armed robbery.

As one of the most prolific and distinguished American writers of his generation, John Updike had come from a small-town Protestant Pennsylvanian background that gave him much of his fictional material both in his appreciation of it and his reactions against it, analysing its concerns with sexuality and sensual detail. His term as a staff member on the New Yorker from 1955 to 1957 influenced his focus on literary craft and style, and he contributed many stories, poems and articles to the magazine over the years. Among his most famous works of fiction were Couples, the Rabbit tetralogy, The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick, but he produced on average a book a year into his seventies, alongside his undertakings in literary and art criticism.

My Formative Years as a Publisher

An extract from my book, Fulfilment and Betrayal 1975-1995:

In March 1982 Hugo Williams, the well-known poet, wrote a lengthy profile of me in Time Out, after interviewing me at Namara House. The article appeared with a grim-looking but forceful picture of myself, seated with a cane in my hand, beneath which, in bold lettering, was the title, ‘The Smile on the Face of the Tiger’. It was eye-catching, to say the least, and given the rather forbidding aspect of the picture, quite dramatic.

The article itself started off well enough and had the poetic turn of phrase to be expected from its author. As a prelude it had the following paragraph:

‘After a long and difficult journey, the tigress arrives in Tiger Heaven. From the build-up of her relationship with Eelie the dog and Harriet the leopardess, through her early attempts at eating a porcupine and her surprise encounter with a bear to her first kill of a Sambar fawn, the reader will be spellbound…’ So goes the blurb of Tara, A Tigress, one of the tiger books published by the Palestinian entrepreneur, Naim Attallah. It sounds like Attallah’s own story, with Eelie the dog played by David Frost, Harriet the leopardess played by Mayfair jeweller John Asprey, the porcupine by Times Newspapers and the bear by Lord Grade. The Sambar fawn is clearly Anne Smith, the unfortunate editor of the Literary Review, whose sacking last year won Attallah a marzipan pig from Women in Publishing for ‘outstanding services to sexism’.

From that point on the article lost its way, relying on fantasy and recycled gossip rather than properly researched facts. I might have contemplated buying The Times newspaper and supplements when they were for sale, as the article speculated, but would never have suggested removing John Gross, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, to replace him with Anne Smith. The notion was preposterous beyond the realms of fantasy; I happened to be a great admirer of John.

Far more than by this sort of nonsense, however, I was exercised by a repetition of the old canard that I had swamped the Literary Review with pro-Arab propaganda. The article had its interesting side, but this outrageously untrue and easily disproved assertion demeaned it as a whole.

There were other inaccuracies relating to the dispute with Anne Smith and the supposed ‘sacking’ of my close friend Stephanie Dowrick from The Women’s Press. These finally robbed the piece of any charm and authenticity it might have possessed and provoked me into contemplating legal proceedings against Time Out.

It was still a dilemma for me, since I liked Hugo Williams for his wit and nerve, but I could not let these grave accusations go by. Fortunately common sense prevailed and eventually Time Out printed an apology detailing the main inaccuracies. Stephanie was also naturally incensed and the editor of Time Out reproduced in full the letter she wrote from Australia:

There was much to object to in your article about Naim Attallah (TO 604). However, I will narrow my complaints to what directly concerns myself. Not only was I not dismissed as managing director of The Women’s Press by Naim Attallah but I have found him to be, in the five years of our business partnership, an intensely loyal man, capable of putting friendship ahead of all other considerations. When I discussed with him my current sabbatical his support was immediate and has been utterly consistent. Perhaps this kind of loyalty is difficult for your reporter to understand? For the record: Naim Attallah and I continue to own The Women’s Press jointly. I continue as a director of the company. Ros de Lanerolle is in a permanent position as managing director of The Women’s Press. I will return to The Women’s Press in the summer in a chiefly advisory capacity while I continue to write.

Over the years Hugo Williams and I have bumped into each other from time to time. He still remembers the unfortunate Time Out incident, but we have both mellowed and our meetings are friendly and warm. What on earth he had in his mind about me in the conclusion he gave his article, however, is still a mystery:

Attallah once nearly produced an £8 million biopic of King Abdulazzid al Saud [sic], Lawrence of Arabia’s old adversary. ‘It’s the most marvellous story,’ he told me. ‘Can you imagine anyone else in this century founding a nation with the sword?’ A tiger smiled at me over his shoulder. ‘Why yes, Naim. You.’

Some time during that summer I received a letter from Auberon Waugh. It was an invitation to a lunch he was hosting at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho. The objective was to bring together the leading publishers in England to ask them to debate the merits of their respective imprints and provide fodder for a lengthy article Bron was writing for the Sunday Telegraph magazine. I declined the invitation. My feeling over Quartet’s position in the publishing hierarchy was that there was not so much an outright rejection as a tacit non-acceptance of our status as an integral part of their world. We were perhaps seen as being on the fringes of the industry, and I did not want to stir the pot before we were ready, convinced as I was that I would only be plunged into a situation not of my choosing. As it turned out, I could have been right.

Details of the lunch were given in the ‘Bent’s Notes’ column in the Bookseller of 7th August, which listed the publishers who were there: Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, Lord Weidenfeld of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Christopher Maclehose of Collins, Alan Brooke of Michael Joseph, Matthew Evans of Faber & Faber, André Deutsch of André Deutsch, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson of Hamish Hamilton and John Murray of John Murray. Among those invited but who failed to turn up, the report concluded, was Naim Attallah of Quartet, who declined to join ‘a bunch of Zionists and left-wingers’. When I read this unwarranted distortion of the truth I was naturally furious and demanded that the Bookseller retract the statement. ‘Bent’s Notes’ of 21st August duly made a gentlemanly response:

I apologise. I referred to Naim Attallah of Quartet declining an invitation from Auberon Waugh to lunch with Tom Maschler, Lord Weidenfeld, Christopher Maclehose, Alan Brooke, Matthew Evans, André Deutsch, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson and John Murray. He had not, as I wrote in my column of 7th August, declined to join ‘a bunch of Zionists and left- wingers’ ‑ that was the paraphrase put on it at the lunch but not what Naim Attallah had said. He had, in fact, replied in these courteous terms: ‘My own view concerning publishing is alas not one that other publishers would share and I therefore feel inadequately placed to cope with established figures whose motivations rarely coincide with mine. Their world is one which I feel neither comfort in nor draw any comfort from.’ I apologise for any distress or embarrassment I may have caused him.

In the Sunday Telegraph article, which appeared later that year, Bron, whom I had not met up to this point, was very complimentary about Quartet, and me personally:

When Naim Attallah of Quartet started publishing six years ago, he gave the impression of being concerned by what he saw as the excessive Zionist influence in British publishing. But his list, which includes among its greater successes Nigel Dempster’s HRH Princess Margaret: A Life Unfulfilled, does not really support the idea of a holy crusade. There is a surprisingly pleasant and relaxed atmosphere at Quartet under such a dynamic man (Attallah is also the financial director of Asprey’s, the jewellers) but the list is unmistakably one of the more interesting around. Currently they are chiefly excited about the recent publication of Red Square, a faction novel by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky, about a supposed plot to topple Brezhnev.

The Sunday Telegraph magazine then proceeded to list our turnover as standing at one million four hundred thousand pounds, more than half that of John Murray, founded in 1768.

An indication of how Quartet’s profile was increasing in prominence came in the June issue of Publishing News, which reported on an idea from the Book Marketing Council for a new wheeze as part of its ‘Books are Fun’ campaign. Desmond Clarke, as perceptive as ever, observed how the image the man in the street had of the average publisher was of a boring old fart in baggy grey flannels. This he considered not entirely conducive to what the BMC described as a ‘book-buying situation’.

The first part of Desmond’s plan was the creation of an annual Oscars ceremony for publishers. Naturally the proceedings were to be chaired by someone as charismatic as Martyn Goff, Desmond himself or his brother Charles. Publishing News lost not a moment in putting forward its own inventions for prize categories alongside nominations for the 1982 ceremony:

  • The Edward Victor Award for Services to Agents: Sphere/Pavilion for their £130,000 blockbuster Hello, Pontiff!
  • The Thomas Maschler Award for Self-Promotion: The young lion McCrumb edged out by the old pro himself, Lord Longford.
  • The Robert Maxwell Award for Services to Printers: Sphere/Pavilion for their lavishly produced Hello, Pontiff!
  • The Au Bak Ling Award for the Encouragement of New Talent: Naim Attallah, who has worked so hard to bring stimulating new blood into Quartet.
  • The Henry Pordes Award for Services to the Remainder Market: Sphere/Pavilion for their 500,000 copy extravaganza, Hello, Pontiff!

I was equally chuffed when, in July, Horace Bent of the Bookseller, with whom I had not always seen eye to eye, wrote:

Having nothing better to do I spent an evening last week poring over old copies of the Standard. In one of them I saw Naim Attallah described as ‘perhaps the only publisher in the world who compares the company he runs to a woman. Both, he says, are “dangerous, unpredictable, attractive”. Like an Italian sports car I lusted after in my youth.

The reason I was chuffed was because, even in a land of old farts, it is sometimes possible to come across a human specimen with the capacity to step out from the rest. The piece by Horace Bent, despite its tongue-in-cheek tone, was to me most reassuring.

A new book on Ibn Saud, The Desert Warrior & His Legacy by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, will be published by Quartet in the Spring of 2010.

Outrageous Parties, Part One

As part one in a series titled ‘Outrageous Parties’, designed to celebrate the rich history of Quartet and its, shall we say, notorious past, here is an extract from my book  Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995

On 28 February 1984 we celebrated the publication of Derek Jarman’s autobiography Dancing Ledge by throwing an outrageous party at the Diorama in Regent’s Park. All a guest needed to do to gain entry was buy a copy of the paperback edition of the book for a cut price of five pounds.

A large proportion of London’s gay community converged on the venue in a state of high anticipation and were admitted so long as they were clutching a copy. The numbers who gained access rose dramatically till they reached a figure later estimated at twelve hundred. The crush became so intense that there were fears for public safety and damage to the very fabric of the building.

It was far from being an exclusively gay affair. The crowd was made up of a heterogeneous mix of literati, aristocrats, Sloane Rangers, showbiz personalities and punks. Collectively they represented the most colourful of London’s hedonistic high-camp society, as well as its most illustrious. All the beautiful people stood side by side with the ugly, the profane and the bizarre, and were letting their hair down without the least regard for propriety or convention.

The all-night event turned into an orgy of excess resembling a saturnalia. Into the midst of this phantasmagoric confusion and merriment there erupted a surprise cabaret organised by Derek Jarman, the star of which was Elisabeth Welch, the sultry-voiced singer who, at seventy-six years old, was a veteran of numerous musicals and for many a living icon. Escorting Miss Welch was a troupe of fire-eaters who set off total panic among the crowd.

The observer who best summed it all up was Auberon Waugh in a piece in Private Eye, written in his uncannily insightful style and accompanied by a cartoon by Willie Rushton (the original of which still hangs in my office today):

Latest entertainment idea to hit the London scene is a group of hideous naked women and one man called the New Naturalists. I saw them at a party given by Naim Attallah the Lebanese [sic] philanthropist, but now they are everywhere. They come on stage completely naked except for combat boots, their bodies painted in green and blue. Also painted blue is what could be described as the man’s generative organ, but might more accurately be called his willie. They start peeing all over the stage and everybody shrieks with laughter. Those who stayed on at the Quartet party – for a sensitive autobiography called Dancing Ledge by 1960s raver Derek Jarman – had the enjoyable experience of seeing it all cleared up by Miss Bridget Heathcoat-Amory, one of the most enduringly beautiful of Naim’s string of delicious debs. I wonder if the Church of England should consider a Thanksgiving Celebration Service of Relief along these lines.

The party was widely covered by the press, with pictures of the Marquess of Worcester with Lady Cosima Fry, Aileen Plunkett with her grand-daughter Marcia Leveson-Gower, and Viscount Althorp, now Lord Spencer, brandishing cash in hand to acquire his passport to entry.

Dancing Ledge was Derek Jarman’s first major work of autobiography. He was already established as Britain’s most controversial independent film-maker and the book gave a kaleidoscopic account of his life and art up till then, from sexual awakening in post-war rural England to the libidinous excesses of the 1960s and subsequently. He told his story with openness and flair, describing the workings of the imagination that lay behind the making of the films Sebastiane, Jubilee and The Tempest and the frustrations he was suffering over his as yet unrealised project, Caravaggio. This was to be made in 1986 with Nigel Terry, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton, the same year in which he discovered he was HIV positive. Dancing Ledge was republished by Quartet in 1991 in response to public demand.

Working in the shadow of his diagnosis, Derek Jarman managed to fulfil himself as a unique creative spirit, with an extraordinarily productive output in various fields, in the few years he had left. He was a prophet of punk who linked homoerotic imagery and thought with increasingly profound themes of time and death. More films were produced and he painted and wrote poetry.

He died from the effects of AIDS on 19 February 1994 at his Prospect Cottage on the shingle banks at Dungeness in Kent, where he created an extraordinary garden in his closing years. It mixed indigenous maritime plants with stones from the beach and sculptural objets trouvés washed in by the sea, and it makes a strangely haunting and touching memorial.

The above is an extract from my book Fulfilment & Betrayal: 1975-1995.

Auberon Waugh

Following on from my post this week on the great Sir Ludovic Kennedy, I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote for the Literary Review, in 2001, on the death of my good friend Auberon Waugh.

After the death of Bron in 2001, I borrowed his usual space at the ‘pulpit’ and penned the following piece for the Literary Review readers. For those who still miss him, as I do, here is a reminder of what sort of man he was – and why his loss is irreplaceable.

I never imagined a time when I would, just for once, be taking Auberon Waugh’s place in the pulpit. His death on 17th January is still hard to accept. He leaves a gap on the London literary scene that no one else can fill. At the Literary Review, we view his departure with special grief. A unique voice has fallen silent.

I have a clear memory of the day he came with Victoria Glendinning to talk to me about establishing the Academy Club in the basement at 51 Beak Street. A venue was badly needed, he said, where impoverished writers could congregate in relative peace and enjoy a drink and a snack at affordable prices. I also remember his delight when we managed to get a drinks licence, and the celebration that followed. He held impromptu court in the Club, surrounded by a cluster of bright young women, and sparkled in response to their undivided attention.

His love of life was contagious. In his company one felt that material things and difficulties scarcely mattered and that the capacity to overcome the elements was the key to leading a full and fruitful existence. His health was precarious, ever since he lost a lung in an accident while doing his national service. Yet he always lived without concern for this hindrance. He drank and smoked and championed the drink and tobacco industries without the least regard for whatever harm their products might inflict on the body. The argument for him was about freedom of personal choice. His old-time philosophy held that hard living enhanced the quality of life and that the desire for longevity could exact a price too high to be acceptable.

To pay proper tribute to Bron is a hard challenge because of his many facets. As a journalist and satirist he was without equal in his generation. His prose was by no means contrived and it had a universal appeal that went across political boundaries. His wit was never-failing in its capacity to amuse, enthral and scandalise. He was an entertainer who used words as an art from and utilised his ingenuity to the full in expressing any opinion. His Private Eye diaries remain a testimony to this matchless craftsmanship.

The news of Bron’s death rallied both friends and foes to pay him tribute. Past quarrels and rancour were put aside to acknowledge the immense contribution he had made to the literary world. Even the Sun newspaper, so often the target of Bron’s acerbic pen, was magnanimous in its leader column and showed genuine grief. The solitary exceptions occurred in the obituary notices in the Guardian. An unforgiving piece from Polly Toynbee was only to be expected, but it was Geoffrey Wheatcroft who made the unkindest cut of all when he claimed, in a burst of spite and pomposity, that the Literary Review ‘was not so much bad as pointless’ (despite himself being an occasional contributor). In the circumstances, Mr Wheatcroft merely showed himself up as a midget in comparison with the man he was writing about.

No one can talk about Bron today without mentioning the Literary Review. It became an integral part of his life. Bron was its inspiration and its driving force. He worked tirelessly to get additional backers for the magazine when my own resources became depleted after supporting it for over twenty years. We were united in our commitment to maintaining the magazine. Occasional tension is not unusual in a relationship between proprietor and editor, but during the years of Bron’s editorship there was never a word said in anger on either side. On the contrary, we worked in perfect harmony, each recognising and respecting the role of the other. Our friendship was the culmination of that relationship.

About three months ago, when a vacancy existed for a business manager, Bron came to me to enquire whether I would agree to having Robert Posner back. Robert had worked at the magazine many years before and had run the Academy Club. He was very popular, but his unorthodox style and free spirit caused ripples in some quarters. Nevertheless, Bron and I retained a soft spot for him and had toyed with the idea of his return. When the day finally came, Bron was so excited he practically skipped with joy as he left my office. Nothing could better describe the spirit of the man I knew.

Only days before he died he telephoned me, frail and depressed in the sense that he was bored. He was quite unused to inactivity. First he asked me how I was. He knew I was battling with some financial problems and endeavouring to marshal them in a positive, constructive way. He wanted reassurance that I was coping. It was typical of him to think first of others when so very ill himself. He ended the conversation by saying I should feel free to dispense with his services if that would help. I almost wept on the phone as I retorted that the suggestion amounted to sacrilege and would never be entertained, that we loved him dearly and awaited his recovery and return to the fold. I had been aware for some time that Bron’s health was failing, but refused to accept it, hiding the knowledge deep inside. I went on hoping for some miraculous recovery to set back the clock and reinstate him in all his physical and intellectual vigour.

But the good Lord in his infinite wisdom had other ideas. I guess he wanted Bron close by. The great task of managing the Universe needed some cheering up, and with his wry, sharp wit, who better than Bron to keep Him happy.

The Menuhins

In 1989 I interviewed Yehudi Menuhin after receiving a strong recommendation from Richard Ingrams. Several years before that I had struck up a friendship with his father, Moshe Menuhin, who was then living in California. Moshe had written to me after the publication in 1979 of The Palestinians, with a text by Jonathan Dimbleby and photographs by Don McCullin.

The book was virtually the first of its kind to describe the Palestinian side of the conflict from the years of the British Mandate to the creation of the Zionist state and its consequences. The tone of the book was temperate, well balanced and objective. Nevertheless the Zionist lobby attacked it mercilessly. Amid the vocal turmoil of the assault, one Jew stood apart to express the voice of reason.

This was Moshe. He sent me not only a warm letter of congratulations for having published the book, but also a tape-recorded interview he had done with Colin Edwards, a British journalist, about his life as a young boy in the city of Jerusalem. It was high time, he said, that someone stuck up for the Palestinian Arabs and gave their side of the story. The tape, when I came to play it over, moved me totally. After that, although I never met him face to face, we kept up a regular correspondence till his death.   

In my view, the tape has subsequently lost none of its significance, and is of even more topicality today when the international community is renewing attempts to find an equitable solution in the Middle East. Earlier failures to resolve ‘the Palestinian question’ have undoubtedly shaped the world we live in and our fears for its future to a phenomenal degree. The voice of Moshe Menuhin takes us back to a basic understanding, buried under years of Jewish and Arab rhetoric, and for that reason alone I feel I should transcribe it in full. With this goes the hope that it may move people in the way it did me when I first heard it more than three decades ago.          

When I was taken to old Jerusalem by my mother I was a little embarrassed because I had ear locks and was wearing a kaftan, like a long nightdress, so the boys of the Jewish colonists, who were already more ‘civilised’, looked down on this Jewish boy with his ear locks, though no one ever harmed me. The Arabs, I always found, were friendly, decent, kind people, entertaining me, talking to me. We used to hike from Jerusalem to certain places holy to the Arabs, the Jews, the Christians, to certain non-kosher areas where Jews were not supposed to go. Every summer I went to Rehovat to eat grapes on an uncle’s estate, eating them till I was sick, though it was supposed to be good for me. At the end of my stay one of the Arabs who worked for my uncle drove me to Ramallah, where in those days not a Jew ever lived. He would let me off the horse and buggy to sit around outside the railway station to wait for the train from Jaffa to take me back to Jerusalem. Nobody ever molested me, I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t aware of being a foreigner. (I spoke Arabic fluently by the way.)

Under Turkish Ottoman rule, the officials, the judges, the working people were all Arabs. We ­ about 35,000 of us when I arrived in Palestine ­ were just a meek, quiet Jewish bunch. There was no such thing as oppression from the Muslims. I could never apply the word ‘oppression’. I cannot recall a single incident. The Arabs gave me more joy than the Jews ever did. They were nearer to life and the Jews had obstructing safeguards against mixing with the world. In those days there was no interest among the Orthodox in Dr Herzl and his Zionist movement. The insane political nationalism that would give rise to the First World War was meanwhile taking its hold in Europe and becoming the religion of the world, and the Zionists swallowed it. I would go to the House of the People in Jerusalem to hear when Zionists ­ non-religious Jews ­ gave lectures and used to arouse the people with the slogan ‘Our nation, our country, our homeland’ and of course people fell for the clever speaker.   

Already there was the preliminary to warring from the Jews among themselves. You were told don’t go to an Arab dentist, don’t go to an Arab merchant, or a grocer or fruit trader, even though there weren’t enough Jewish traders to go round. People had to buy from Arabs, but there was this constant programme of preaching individually. We had good teachers at the gymnasium in Jaffa, but I would say, to summarise, that underneath the teachings there was one principle premise, repeated again and again, ‘Our country, our nation, our homeland’.   

Yet I cannot recall one student in the entire gymnasium ­and they were all nice boys and girls ­ who’d been born in Arab Palestine. We were all immigrants who’d come from Russia to escape the pogroms, or to get a Jewish education, or a Zionist education in most cases. Day after day we heard the slogan whenever a teacher could stick it in; even in science they somehow managed it. It was to subvert us, to poison us, into becoming Jewish nationalists. I never met a rabbi and there were no religious services of any kind ­ they were all agnostics or atheists. The gymnasium became a hotbed for wild, insane political nationalism. We were taught to hate the Arabs, to despise them, and to drive them out from ‘our’ homeland, ‘our’ country, ­ ‘ours’ not theirs, quoting the Bible, of course. For five years they were pumping into me the Jewish nationalism, Zionism, happily,­ for me as a civilised being who belongs to the world and not to any nationalist group, unsuccessfully.   

There were few Jewish colonists: 35,000 Jews where there were 600,000 normal, healthy, hard-working, innocent, unknowledgeable Arabs. There were few farming cooperatives, though I always remember the kibbutzim with affection and admiration. Many a time I slept and worked on the kibbutzim in Galilee during my student days. The kibbutz was the one and only outstanding, eternal contribution that Israel might contribute to the world if it stops going back on itself, as it begins to do already now, and stressing political nationalism. There were 2,000 or 3,000 Jews among the cooperative farms of Galilee. The Arabs could have wiped us out in no time if there had been any organised scheme, but there was no group that planned to do anything among the Arab population. They were individuals. Zionist fanatics and Orthodox fanatics now kept going to Palestine, but most of the Jewish  people chose to go to the United States, to Canada, to South Africa, to South America. Even ten or so years after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Weizman had to go to Romania to plead with the Jews, ‘Look, we extracted the Balfour Declaration out of the British, and now they keep asking us, “Where are your Jews?” If we are to have a Heretz Israel, come to Palestine.’   

There were 9,000 Jews who came in, though 6,000 emigrated. It was only when the Jews had to run away from Germany, or from Russia to work in Palestine, that they came in any numbers ­ the Jews who were ghetto Jews, who had a hatred for the gentiles and then had it a hundred-fold for the goy in Palestine.   

As a boy I suffered terribly from bad teeth. They were uneven and some of them protruded to cut my lips. At one point the pain became so unbearable that, when I was walking through a narrow alley in the old city and saw a sign indicating an Arab dentist, I stopped and went inside. After negotiating some narrow stairs I reached a crowded waiting room where people sat awaiting their turn to be seen by the dentist. I sat myself down in in a corner and stayed there till the room had emptied and the dentist treated his last patient. As he came out of his surgery he saw me sitting there, obviously in great pain. Although he was ready to leave for home, and I had neither appointment nor the money with which to pay him, he invited me to come into the surgery. As he examined my teeth he was horrified by the rotten state in which he found them. If I came to the surgery the same time each day, he suggested, he would attend to me and not expect to be paid for his services. At the end of the treatment I said the day would perhaps come when I could repay my debt to him. He simply replied, ‘Ask your people not to stir trouble so we can live side by side and share the land of our forefathers.’

Many, many decades later, when I was living in old age in California, I had occasion one day to see a dentist, and he was astounded at the good condition of my teeth. Then I told him the story of that kind and wonderful Palestinian dentist who had looked after my teeth as a boy in Palestine, and treated them with such love and dedication. That is the reason why I find it always traumatic to watch pictures on the television of scenes in the Palestinian refugee camps and the misery surrounding them, wondering whether any descendants of my noble dentist benefactor languish there with no hope of ever seeing their land again.

Moshe encouraged me to talk to Yehudi. His son was, he said, a great humanitarian and a man of peace. Although he had given his unconditional support to the state of Israel when it was first proclaimed, this had been modified and was now conditional on a pact with the Palestinians. Through his music, he had become an ambassador of good will, seeking to bring the two hostile camps together.

My interview with Yehudi was published in my collection, Singular Encounters, in 1990, but before Yehudi died, I also interviewed his wife, Lady Menuhin. This lengthy script, done for the Oldie magazine, was never published. Diana Menuhin became fearful that it might get Yehudi into troubled waters and pleaded with Richard Ingrams not to reproduce it. Richard in turn asked me to honour her request and I acceded with good grace.

But now that both Yehudi and his wife are dead, there seems no reason why it should not be published, especially since it spreads further light on Yehudi and his difficult relationship with Israel. In any case, Lady Menuhin had a particularly interesting life of her own and readers will be intrigued by her narrative and the way she came to devote her entire married life to being a stalwart pillar of support to Yehudi Menuhin, the great, but infinitely modest, man of music.

The following is a transcription of my interview with Lady Menuhin in December 1992.

NA: Lady Menuhin, it is sometimes difficult to remember that there must have been life before Yehudi. Do you see your life very much in terms of Before and After?

LM: Very much, because first of all I was a born believer. It sounds rather conceited to say this, but I was very much a metaphysical child, and I used to hear voices. I’m perfectly sure that I was born before, somewhere in central Europe, perhaps in Tashkent. I’ve certainly got a Byzantine face. One of the things Yehudi and I have in common is that we both were born knowing exactly we wanted to do. It wasn’t ambition; it was aspiration, which is something quite different. His was the talent of a genius, but mine was not a bad talent considering that out of all the dancers in England I was chosen by Diaghilev when I was 14 years old, and by Pavlova when I was nearly 16. Unfortunately I had a black fairy at my baptism, and they both died, Diaghilev one month before I was to join him and Pavlova ten days before I was to dance with her. Thank goodness that fairy doesn’t follow me when I’m working for Yehudi, which I’ve done for the last 45 years. As a child I used to be able to get outside myself. The only place of privacy for an English child in a household with nannies is the loo, and so when I had the longing to escape I used to go there, close the door and lock it. The loo, like all those in England in the 1920s, had a black and white chequerboard floor, and as I sat there and concentrated, the floor would rise up, and I would swing round with a terrible feeling in my heart, and I could see myself sitting there. And then I would have this shock, and come back again as myself. At that age one hadn’t heard anything about meditation; on the other hand my mother was a Christian Scientist, and we were all brought up in that religion, which gives you an enduring disposition at the price of a ruined constitution. If you’re born into it as I was, you know exactly how to switch off, but you do grow up without any sense of reality. The concrete, as one might call it, simply isn’t there. When people used to wonder how I could tour with Yehudi all the time I was pregnant and drop the baby wherever the violin was on the ninth month, I used to tell them that was the way I was brought up, never allowed to complain about anything physical. It gives you an extraordinary way of being able to separate yourself from what seems actual. On the other hand it separates you from what is actual and you always feel slightly apart, which if you’re going to go into a career like the ballet isn’t very helpful. I was brought up with three disciplines: my mother’s Edwardianism, which meant only the servants got toothache, the Christian Science religion in which toothache didn’t exist, and the Russian ballet where if you dared admit to illness your role went to another girl. These three solid disciplines have been very serviceable for life with darling Yehudi, who prefers to live on cloud nine, which he seems to have rented for the whole of his life.

Your childhood seems to have been characterised by a struggle against difficulties and disappointments. Do you remember it as a time you survived rather than enjoyed?

This is what I ask myself. All my life I’ve talked to myself, actually not to myself, but to God with whom I have been furious most of the time. I was quite a different child from my brother and sister. They were the intellectuals, both blond and blue eyed; my brother called me ‘battling Gould, the wild half-caste’, because I rushed around the whole time while they were cool and clever. I was a romantic, passionate, wild creature who was slowly beaten into English diffidence. It was the only way to keep out of trouble from nanny and from my mother, who was not cruel, just gloriously indifferent. Like my mother I’m an absolute professional, only I haven’t acted or danced since I married Yehudi, whereas my mother remained centre stage all her life. When you marry somebody like Yehudi, there’s no question of being centre stage; in fact I don’t think anybody even recognises me. When he was still conducting a great deal I was always in a corner of the dressing room putting the cap back on the thermos, and picking up his damp clothes. But I haven’t answered your question, have I? Michael Redgrave used to say of me that I had a mind like a crab; it always goes sideways, and it’s perfectly true.

We were talking about your childhood…whether it was happy or not…

What is a happy childhood? You can always complain, you can always blame your own mistakes and shortcomings on the rocking horse which frightened you when you were two, but what’s the point? We were brought up in the most marvelous way. The English mother of that period was still someone who came to the night nursery dressed beautifully to go out in the evening and just said ‘Goodbye darling’. When my father died we were left with practically no money, but we had a lovely house with beautiful furniture and £800 a year. It was the most wonderful upbringing, because we had beautiful things around us, and although there was not a penny of pocket money and we lived on bananas off the barrows, yet it was with style. I think this is what I miss very much these days – style and grace hardly exist anymore, and wit has become bitchiness and spite. Style is now called snobbism, and grace has dissolved. I feel quite alien to this world, and it is a feeling I passed on to my children. For example, I remember when my third child survived for only an hour or two because of all the touring when I was pregnant, and nanny brought Yehudi and the children to my bedroom. We told the boys that there wouldn’t after all be another baby and my elder son, Gerald, who was six at the time, suddenly said: ‘I don’t believe in death, I believe in a circle of lives.’ Yehudi asked him if he thought this was his first life and he said, ‘Oh no, I used to think that I would come back in the next world, or had been in the last one – I was a tree, an animal, anything – but now I know that I always have been and always will be a humour being’ – ‘humour’ being the nearest he got at six to ‘human’. So he had even in those days the same faculties I had as a child.

Presumably you have very little memory of your father, who died when you were very young. Do you have any recollection of the impact his death made on your mother?

Yes. It had the effect of making her withdraw even further. I don’t know that she would ever have been a very warm woman. She was enchanting, and I know that she helped dozens of young musicians with their careers, but in the home, you couldn’t say that she was an affectionate mother. I remember the exact time when I stopped kissing her. I was always very spontaneous, unlike Grizelda and Gerard who were self-contained, and I would rush into the room and fling my arms round mother. Once when I did this she said, ‘Oh, Diana, really, you’ve broken my watch chain.’ I was eight years old and I never ran and hugged her again.

There is usually a special bond between fathers and daughters. Was your stepfather ever able to fill that role?

I was very fond of him. Grizelda and Gerard were not, because he was very navy blue, a real sailor. He was away all the time at sea, but I always got on with him because I didn’t categorise people. When you grow up in the ballet world from the time you’re eight years old, you meet every kind of person. My stepfather was a simple straightforward utterly good man, and worshiped my mother absolutely. She had that extraordinary and enviable capacity to make men worship her, although my stepfather apparently said to Harold Nicolson, ‘Sexually, my little wife is an umbrella rolled up.’

You describe the ‘total dislocation’ you felt when your mother died in 1950 – this is in spite of the fact that you had never been particularly close. Do you think you were in part grieving for something you had never experienced in her lifetime?

I had so many awful things happen in my life, like Diaghilev and Pavlova dying, and a cruel ballet mistress who picked me out as a special victim, that I seemed to grow up with very little love, and had this strange fatalistic attitude that I couldn’t expect love. You may be right about my mother, but I didn’t analyse until it was too late.

In the context of your mother’s death you described the huge gulf which had opened up between your total commitment to Yehudi and the previous life which you had abjured on marriage. Were you able to reconcile the two in your own mind, or were you forever going to find it difficult to look back and come to terms with your past life?

I’ve always looked upon love as service. To me the two have been together ever since I can remember. Secondly, everything in my life has been a challenge. When I met Yehudi, my metaphysical attitude to life made me realise that he was my destiny. He fell in love with me, and I was in love with him, but as he was married with two small children I never told him. It took two and a half really terrible years for him to get his divorce, because he is so angelic that he can’t hurt anybody even if he knows he was not to blame for his first mistake. I may have been his second mistake, but he hasn’t found out yet.

The ballet conjures up images of beauty, elegance and glamour and one forgets that it can be a grueling, almost masochistic world of hard slog and bleeding feet. What attracted you in the first place to the world of dance and what made you determined to stick it out?

Because I never give up anything, and because I had to do something about the music inside me. I went to the Ballet Rambert for ten awful years. I came back, cried into my pillow every night, but accepted my fate, because there was a kind of terrible endurance taught in the religion I was brought up in, and the feeling of always being separate.

When you look back, were the rewards commensurate with the effort and applications required?

Always the rewards came and then fizzled out. I was chosen by Diaghilev, so what greater compliment could there have been? It was absolutely wonderful, I can see it to this day. He stood in the doorway watching us dance, and I didn’t even realise after an hour and a half that I was the only one in the class still dancing, the others had all gone. And then he turned to Rambert and said, ‘la belle jeune fille…’, and he was angelic to me for those ten days in which the ballet was there. I had seats every night and went with either Rambert or mummy to see the show, and he would come out of the pass door and take me by the hand and lead me backstage and introduce me to all the great dancers of that period. He designated someone to look after me and be my guide, in exactly the same way as happened to Markova about two or three years before me, but Markova didn’t have a black fairy at her back.

Were you very popular with men generally?

I was known as ‘the goddess’ but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I suddenly woke up sexually. I was the oldest virgin on the stage in London, because I couldn’t possibly have gone to bed for anything but love.

Was your first love affair with Yehudi?

Oh Lord no. He was the twelfth aspirant that year. I used to call myself a Foreign Office moll, because I had six proposals from young secretaries in the foreign office. I don’t know to this day whether if I were born again I would be the same, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to go to bed with Alexander Korda, with Gilbert Miller, with Charles Cochrane, or even with attractive men like Massine and Balanchine. When you’re brought up as asexually and primly as I was, when you live in a period where the contraceptive is very uncertain, and when you’re an incurable romantic, it’s easy to be revolted by having your dress torn off by Mr. Korda, as he was then, or by the others; but even with men like Massine or Balanchine, it would have been the wrong thing. I would only go to bed with a man I loved, and I fell hook line and sinker for a man who was a total monster but a wonderful lover, and of course when it was over I suffered all the agonies of a mature woman plus the silliness of somebody completely unpracticed. He was a stallion who had to seduce every beautiful woman – it sounds conceited, but I did win beauty prizes. Everybody said they’d never known him stay with a woman as long as he stayed with me, but in the end he just threw me out, which is a terrible blow to one’s pride, especially if you go into the relationship as a virgin.

Your account of the war years in London sounds impossibly romantic. You continued to dance, and the bomb which fell on your house during the blitz is described as ‘an irritation’. You must surely have experienced things differently at the time?

What I’m going to say is going to sound utterly callous, but I am intensely dramatic, and I was known by my sister as ‘the tragic fuse’. I was nearly killed in the bombing three times, and each time I was only furious, not in the least frightened. I couldn’t call myself brave, but I actually enjoyed drama. I’m not saying I enjoyed the war, but I didn’t suffer from fear.

In 1944 you went to Cairo and Alexandria which you described as ‘blissful’. Was it possible to forget the war when you were there?

No, because the place was full of soldiers on leave, and although the war was almost over, nonetheless it was still going on. What I meant by bliss was getting away from dried eggs and not having to queue up for one orange. I had a Zulkeika Dobson time. I did Frou Frou in The Merry Widow, rewriting the whole script in gutter French, and because the other language of the Egyptians is French, it literally stopped the house. I was sent for by Farouk in the royal box after the first night, and he asked me out for supper, but I backed away and said, ‘Je m’excuse’, and disappeared.

When you left Egypt you say you wept for the lover you left behind…

Yes, I had my coup de foudre in Egypt. He was an English poet. There were a lot of poets there, because they were either not serviceable as soldiers or they were conscientious objectors. This particular one had gone to the Quaker ambulance service in Syria. He was asked to stay on at the embassy in Athens because he wrote the ambassador’s speeches, but he wouldn’t dream of it, and said he would not get out of killing people to have an easy life, so he went to drive ambulances instead. The coup de foudre is something you don’t know anything about; it comes right out of the blue.

You have described your love for Yehudi as ‘service in the highest sense’, and have said many times how very lucky you are to have married someone you could serve. The notion of service seems to include the idea of one person being subservient or subordinate to the other, rather than the idea of a partnership, but perhaps you don’t see it that way…

I think that’s a good point, but my infinite capacity for turning away from any kind of analysis of myself would make that difficult to answer. Sometimes when Yehudi was playing in the theatre, I would go backstage to the dressing room and when I saw the fourth wall, as we call it, the blackened theatre, then my heart would give a turn. There I was, no longer coming out centre stage, no longer embracing the public, no longer giving what I had to give; but then I would remember the bleeding toes, the glass in my powder and the tin tacks in my shoes, the intrigues and horrors, the disappointments, the exhaustion, the lack of pay, and all of that was enough to stop me being sentimental. I have a capacity to undertake whatever the job is, and that’s why diplomats fell in love with me. But I never really analysed. Harold Nicolson said that’s what kept the English from succeeding in anything other than literature were all those upper class shibboleths such as don’t advertise yourself, don’t boast, die with your boots on, stiff upper lip, and so on.  They are so automatic in my generation that you immediately close up when other thoughts occur to you. I’ve always been a worker: my sister Grizelda used to say that whenever Diana has nothing to do she spills soup down her clothes and cleans them. I’m an incurable, incorrigible worker. I think that’s what Yehudi liked so much, and he recognised with great relief that we had a tremendous amount in common, that we’d both had aspirations since we were born; that I had enormous experience because I hadn’t been protected by wonderful parents who had given up everything for me. He remains to this day the most incredibly modest man, and I think that’s what the audience feels. Yahudi’s a medium…the music comes through him; he feels a responsibility to the composer, dead or alive. He was very sad and very lonely when I met him, because his marriage had really broken up, and Yehudi wouldn’t admit it; and if he had admitted it he would have blamed himself. Yehudi never blames anybody else, ever, for anything. But he told me that when he first saw me at my mother’s house, he went away to sit on a pouffe at the end of the drawing room, and thought, ‘I am going to have her.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it was your daughter’s fifth birthday.’ For I didn’t know then that the marriage was already no good, but Yehudi has a way of knowing what he wants, and he gets it.

You married on October 1947, a day on which you said ‘the dark years finally fell away’ – a reference to the difficulties of the break-up of Yehudi’s first marriage. Did those years continue to haunt you after you were married?

I didn’t let them. Now, in old age, however, it comes back more, and I wonder how in the world I stood those two and a half ghastly years; I won’t talk about all I went through, but it was total agony. One of the men who was in love with me at one time said, ‘You will always be badly used by men; we will always fall in love with you, and we will always use you.’ I was then about 23.

Did you feel used by Yehudi?

I wanted to be used by him. I can’t feel that one has any right not to help. I’d love him to have more rest, I’d love him not to become an institution, but it is Yehudi, so what can I do? All I can do is to help, to have very little life of my own, no social life whatsoever. I even read the newspapers in order to be able to regurgitate like a mother eagle for Yehudi. Any energy I have left I use for resting, and I would like him now not to do everything at high speed.

In your autobiography you say: ‘the blackness and bleakness of stolen love are private pain, and were to be transmuted into a love the more sensitive and valuable for its near loss.’ You must have agonised a great deal before your marriage. Did you ever doubt it was the right thing to do?

No. I knew, just as I knew that whatever it cost I was going to dance. I never lost faith, however many terrible disappointments and cruelties I had to endure. I never raised a finger to help him get rid of his first wife. I never told him I was in love with him, because I didn’t want him to feel any obligation towards me. Of course he knew, but I never said it, and when he told his wife about me and mentioned the word marriage, she just said no, although she had god knows how many lovers herself. And Yehudi, who is utterly good and sweet, but can also lack a certain will, blamed himself for everything.

In an interview, your husband spoke of his ‘reprehensible behavior…bordering on the criminal’ during these two years when he was separating from his first wife. It seemed as if he carried a terrible burden of guilt. Did you share in that guilt?

No. Yehudi had two visits here, one in the spring when he was doing a film. That was when he fell in love with me, and we had these marvelous talks together about what it was like to be born with an aspiration; what it was like to know that you simply had no other life but that. Then the first fine careless rapture suddenly becomes a conscious one. He came back in the winter of ’45 and rang me up suddenly and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ I said, ‘You’re mad, Yehudi, never let me hear you use that word again – you’re already married, and you have two small children.’ But I was in love with him, the way I’d hoped to be in love ever since I can remember. I hadn’t met his wife, though I had heard rumours about her behavior and of course I’d seen the results in him. He was completely broken by it and had even decided he would give up playing the violin. I agonised about what to do. I remember saying to him – we spoke mostly in French those days – ‘Yahudi, j’ai peur’. Finally his wife told him that he had to stay with her and the children. It trailed on and on with her promising divorce and then breaking her promise over and over again. Then, thank God, one day she realised that from a practical point of view it would be better for her to marry whichever lover she had at that time, and so after two years she let Yehudi go.

Yehudi was attacked in the Jewish press for marrying outside the faith…was that an added pressure on you at the time?

Oh no, I didn’t bother about that. In any case the whole of that cabal was not because he’d married a gentile, but because he had insisted upon going to Germany. He has incredible courage, Yehudi, immense courage. He went to Germany and played night and day for every cause, Jewish and German. When we were there we heard that Furtwangler had had to run away in the middle of the night because the Gastapo had come for him. He had done nothing except get on with his job and stay in the country. I knew Furtwangler because my mother had a musical salon to which every musician in the world came, and Furtwangler would have lunch with mummy when he was over to conduct the opera, but Yehudi had never even met him. Furtwangler was decent and had helped Jewish members of the orchestra to get to America. He also wrote very dangerous letters to my sister from Denmark. He was mad about her, adored blondes, and he wrote: ‘When I think I am writing from this country, occupied by my people, it makes me ill.’ One night his friends came to him and said, ‘Run, because the Gestapo is coming for you,’ and he escaped at night with his second wife, the lovely Lizavet. Yehudi was told that the Americans wouldn’t give Furtwangler his purification trial, so Yehudi sent off a two page telegram to American – Yehudi’s telegrams are full of notwithstandings and neverthelesses – saying it was a disgrace to the Americans that they hadn’t at least given him the chance to clear his name. Furtwangler got his purification trial, he passed 100% clean, but of course you can imagine what the cabal in New York did about it: the ones who were jealous of Yehudi were heard to say, ‘At least we’ve got Menuhin.’ So the press attacks were not really because he had married a gentile but because he had defended a German.

What has been your attitude over the years to the vexed Jewish question and the complexities of Yehudi being a famous son of Israel? Have you influenced his own attitude in this regard?

Influence is a word I don’t like. I have counseled. I’ve lived in a far broader world than he has. Before Hitler one didn’t analyse Jewishness or non-Jewishness. For-example, I realised only afterwards that many of the musicians who came to my mother’s house were Jews, but to me they were Russian, or Hungarian, or German, or Austrian. Until the time of the Hitler incitement, one wasn’t Jewish conscious. On mummy’s Sundays when sometimes 100 people would be there, I remember once an Englishman putting a small union jack in the middle of the drawing room floor, just to remind people that this was England, because every language could be heard there. I had a very broad spectrum, but it was different for Yehudi. His father had sensibly taken him away from Europe when Hitler came to power, but his American experience was very limited because his parents simply didn’t go out anywhere.

Your father-in-law was an outspoken critic of Israel, a man who extolled his universalism and humanity rather than his Jewishness. Did this ever make for tension between father and son, or create difficulties in Yehudi’s public life?

That’s a complex question. When I first married Yehudi he was more or less estranged from his family because they very foolishly condemned his first wife, the last thing to do to a man who refuses to condemn anybody. So when I first went out to California I told Yehudi that no Jew was ever separated or estranged from his family, above all from his mother, and I persuaded him that we should go and visit them. Abba loved America because he felt he could trust the people; everywhere else in the world he thought everyone was cheating him. Mamina is a completely emancipated Jewess, totally and absolutely Russian, though she speaks six languages beautifully. When Yehudi made his incredible debut at the age of 9 and 10, all the Jewish community in New York naturally wanted to claim him as their star. She held them off, which led to the feeling among the Jewish community that she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Abba was an inspector of Hebrew schools, but they didn’t often go to synagogues, and Yehudi was brought up with no sense of what is kosher; there was nothing kosher at home at all. So there was no question of their being ritual Jews. She would never touch Yiddish, and in fact spoke good German, which laid the foundation for Yehudi’s assertion that his entire culture came from Germany and Austria. After that the Jews saw their opportunity to murder him. Yehudi’s father was only anti-Israel because he had divided loyalties. He was very proud to be American, yet he was of course a Jew, the grandson of a rabbi. When they first went to look for rooms in New Jersey when their baby was about to be born, they found a very nice landlady who must have found them an attractive pair – Abba was extremely handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, and Mamina was quite incredibly beautiful with golden hair she could sit on and Tartar blue eyes. As they left, the landlady said, ‘Well, I’m very glad to have you two young things, because I simply hate Jews, and I won’t have them here,’ whereupon Maminka turned and said, ‘Well, you won’t be having us because we are both Jews.’ And as they walked away, she tapped her tummy where Yehudi was prenatally stored and said, ‘This child is going to be called Yehudi, the Jew.’ And yet that was the last Jewish gesture she made. For Abba, the greatest thing on earth was his American passport; it made him feel that he was somebody, because Mamina certainly didn’t make him feel that. Zionism threatened to break apart the feeling of being an American; it was going to demand a dual loyalty, so he joined the Philadelphia lot, a group of very distinguished Jews. It was called the American Council of Judaism, and it was made up of all those first and second generation Americans who felt that it was terrible to be asked to be less that 100% loyal to their American naturalisation; and this was the basis of his anti-Zionism. Secondly, the Menuhins were Jews who had never suffered. Abba didn’t know how important it was for the Jews to have a homeland. I talked to them and explained what it must have been like to be have been a Jew in Europe. I had lived amongst it all. The Menuhins didn’t know how necessary it was for the Jews to try to escape the pogroms; they had never been through a pogrom.

It’s true, isn’t it, that Yehudi was very pro-Israel in the sense that he couldn’t see anything wrong with whatever the Israelis did…

Yehudi was not really pro-Israel. He hated militant Zionism, yet he realised the necessity for a land for the Jews, while at the same time refusing to talk about it. Yehudi was not one of your pro-Israelis at all, and that is why they tried to kill us when we first went to Israel. With a certain amount of counseling from me he realised that something had to be done about the Jews, what was left of them, but he never wanted to be a militant Zionist. He played at concerts to raise money for the Jewish fund of course…that was the least he could do. But because we had already been to Germany, there followed a period of Jews being told to boycott his concerts. His concerts were always sold out, but only gentiles were sitting in Carnegie Hall. The Jews were told by all the Jewish newspapers to send their tickets back too late to have them resold, and that Menuhin was anti-Israel. It wasn’t true. He was only anti the militancy which was being shouted from the rooftops. He went everywhere where the Jews had really suffered, where they had been taken out and burned. He even gave a concert in Berlin for the displaced persons camp. Unless you’ve seen what had befallen those wretched Jews who had survived, what was done to them by the Germans, you wouldn’t believe it. They came crowding round the car in a wave of hate such as you’ve never seen. The military police accompanied us into the hall where people were literally hanging on to the pillars, and the howl of rage was really quite terrifying. But Yehudi has a radiance that makes people suddenly understand what he is trying to be. He got up on to the platform, with a huge policeman each side. There was an agent provocateur with a club foot, and he was trying to incite the crowd even more. Yehudi said, ‘Let me speak, let me speak.’ And he spoke to them in excellent German, telling them that Jews did not go begging to others because they had been maltreated – ‘We are a great race and nothing can extinguish us.’ Then they clapped, they applauded, they said, ‘Yehudi, Yehudi, you are wonderful…’ He changed the whole mood of the crowd and when the agent provocateur got up, he was booed. When we left people were crowding round the car, saying, ‘Yehudi, please come and play to us again, please.’ It was the most moving thing you can imagine. Yehudi hates talking about this and he may be angry with me if this comes out, but it was a wonderful moment in his life.

Did you get on well with Moshe Menuhin? I couldn’t help noticing that in his book of some 250 pages, you are mentioned by name only twice, and in your own book he does not feature very prominently.

I’ll tell you why that is. Firstly in my own book I was allowed only 200 pages to write this palimpsest of a life. Secondly, the reason for my not featuring in Abba’s book is that I didn’t realise that by marrying Yehudi I had displaced Abba. I didn’t even take it in, because I don’t think of myself particularly. Abba did everything for Yehudi, went through all his bank accounts, and so on, but when we married I told Yehudi that he had to be independent, he had to have his own lawyer, his own financial advisers. Yehudi didn’t even have stocks and shares; all the money was put into bonds, and although I don’t know much about finances, I felt it was better if he managed his own. I didn’t realise that this was doing Abba out of the one job he passionately loved; all his energy had gone into being Yehudi’s chartered accountant, Yehudi’s lawyer, Yehudi’s everything.

Your childbearing years were fraught with difficulties…two live children out of five pregnancies. How did you cope with the cumulative grief of the miscarriages and the baby who died?

Again I coped for Yehudi’s sake, because I didn’t want to make him feel guilty for having let me stay with him under all circumstances. Yehudi doesn’t analyse at all, and with my upbringing it never occurred to me not to accept illness, even death, as long as you were doing what was right, which was to keep by Yehudi’s side. As time went on it was difficult with the children too. They resented my being so much with their father and so comparatively little with them. Every time I came back from a tour, I spent every day with them, never taking a rest; I read to them, took them for walks, but I did have to put up with being a scapegoat, the aunt sally at the fair whenever there was a coconut to be shied. I used to ask the children if they would rather have a father who put his bowler hat on in the morning and took his umbrella and went off to the office at 9 and came back at 6 and read the evening paper; or would they rather have their father, an extraordinary and complex man. I also told them, ‘This man does not belong to me either, darlings…he belongs to the world.’

Do the children consider themselves Jewish?

I don’t think they consider themselves anything. You know what children are nowadays…they’re secular, and of course, when children are in trouble these days, they turn to the psychiatrist.

People are naturally suspicious of perfection and undiluted harmony within marriage. Has that been difficult to deal with?

As I told you, I’ve always kept in the background. No one knows I am Yehudi’s wife. I know my place, as the English servant says. We have practically no social life. We work very hard. I help with Yehudi’s huge correspondence, help edit his articles because Yehudi never went to school and never got the blue pencil through his schoolwork. We think alike although we have, thank God, enormous arguments, usually about certain things that he either is going to write or has written. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t, but I couldn’t bear a sort of sugary marriage.

Yehudi is a genius; he’s adored and worshipped by his followers almost like a pop star. Have you ever been jealous? A man like Yehudi must attract women…

First of all Yehudi is of such an extraordinary quality that the attraction to him is semi-religious. He doesn’t present himself as a sexual object, and that is the difference between a pop idol and Yehudi. I myself have had many lovers – I’m not saying that I’ve slept with them all – but he’s had nothing other than one collapsed marriage. I must be ready to take it if it happens to him late in life, if he falls for someone. He won’t seek it at all, because we have such a full life, and we have so much in common. In the past there have been one or two – not that he had affairs with them – but they were all extremely gifted women who were not in any way trashy, to whom, in his wonderful way, Yehudi did respond. And it gave him something. They were what the French call amitiés amoureuses. And I did my best to be understanding; if I felt at all displaced, I reasoned with myself that that it could have happened in a really horrid way and didn’t; and that Yehudi was getting something out of this relationship. And why shouldn’t he have it? Why should I be mean? I’ve never been mean in my life.

When I spoke to you ten years ago, on the subject of fidelity in marriage, you said, ‘I think infidelity can be carried out with great love and sweetness, that it often refreshes a marriage when one or the other has some little affair, and feels just enough guilt and shame to love the other more.’ Was that a generalisation, or was it something you had both worked out in terms of your own relationship?

What I said, I still stand by, but since I married Yehudi, there’s been no time or place for me to have an amitié amoureuses, and I’m not likely to have one now.

The sacrifice you have made for the sake of Yehudi in terms of career, family life, privacy and so on, has been enormous, and although it has been willingly and lovingly made, without a doubt, I somehow have the impression that you maintain this in part because you dare not contemplate anything which would destroy your image of perfect harmony nurtured over the years. Is there any element of that, do you think?

If you do it chemin faisant, as the French say, then you don’t suddenly have to make a great effort in later life. Yehudi just goes blindly on his flight, playing too much, conducting too much, working too much or undertaking too much, while I constantly, like a good yachtsman, change the sails to catch the wind so that the boat doesn’t capsize. The question of harmony is something I’ve put a certain amount into all the way along, when, for example, it was necessary for him to enjoy the homage of some woman. I wanted to give up my life because to me being with Yehudi is the natural prolongation of what my ballet career meant to me. I don’t mean to say that marriage is a career in that common sense, but it is in a way.

If I may pursue this question of sacrifice…when I interviewed your husband in 1989 he said of you that you had an extreme protestant sense of not giving yourself pleasure, a feeling that you could never indulge yourself. He described it as a kind of self-denial and said, ‘As soon as anything can be turned into obligation or duty, she’ll do it straight away.’ Have you ever tried to analyse these impulses in yourself?

Yes. My darling stepdaughter who ran away from her mother to me when she was 12, said to me, ‘Diney, you’ve simply got to lose a little pride and a little control. It’s inhuman.’ And I said, ‘No, I daren’t, I simply daren’t…and anyway it’s too late.’ I sometimes think of my crazy side, the dotty side, when everything was ghastly and we were underfed and underpaid; I was 16, 17, and Freddie Ashton was 22, and we would do a comic act between the two shows, the matinée and the evening. I would be the male partner and he would put on my shoes and be Anna Pavlova, and I was known as the funniest dancer when I did that…I have sometimes blamed Yehudi for not giving me the opportunity to be my old wild self. And that I do miss.

Looking back on your life now, are there any unresolved difficulties or regrets?

Regrets that I wasn’t the dancer that I hoped to be when Diaghilev chose me, and Pavlova chose me…that, yes, of course. The original expression of my own self was denied. That’s why, when Weidenfeld asked me to write a book, I thought, I must take care, because I think I’m feeling dried out, and I’m determined never to be bitter. I was once very much a person, I was somebody in my own right; and I gave up every talent I had to looking after Yehudi, tidying up the awful mess I found him in, poor lamb…