Sir Ludovic Kennedy

Sir Ludovic Kennedy, who died on 18th October aged 89, was a complex character, highly opinionated and uniquely different from his peers. A confirmed atheist, he rejected the notion of an afterlife as pure rubbish.

I suspect the readers of my blog might be interested in an interview I conducted with him 10 years ago, in 1999, which I now reproduce here.

NA: You have written a best-selling autobiography and given many interviews, so it is easy to think that one already knows a great deal about you. What I wonder is this: is it all there for anyone to read or is there another Kennedy behind the public persona, one that I have little hope of reaching?

LK: No. I’ve always been very open, sometimes perhaps too open in what I say to people about myself, so there’s no hidden agenda anywhere. What you read is what there is.

Going back to your roots, we all know you adored your father, but you seem actually to have disliked your mother and blame her for the self-doubt and anxiety which have marked your life. In retrospect do you think you have given a fair picture of her?

Fair to me, though it may not appear to be so to other people. My relationship with my mother was never a happy one for the simple reason that she never showed me any affection at all. As far as I can remember she never gave me a cuddle when I was small, and when I grew up and greeted her or parted from her she never kissed me; she merely offered her cheek for me to kiss, and I resented that. But I was powerless to do anything about it and I thought, as people do in those circumstances, that the fault was mine. But later I came to attribute some of the anxieties I had as a young man and beyond to those early days when I lacked that affection.

But with your own experience of being a parent, do you ever think that you have perhaps judged your mother harshly?

No. My mother concentrated on my faults the whole time. She was forever saying: ‘I think we ought to sit down and thrash the whole thing out.’ Well, thrashing the whole thing out just meant my sitting listening to her going on and on about my faults. Did I judge her too harshly? I don’t think so.

You were the first child and the only boy in a family of three with an often absent father…one would expect the usual scenario of intense mutual love between mother and son…

You are wrong in supposing that my father was often absent. I was born in 1919 and he retired from the navy in 1922, so for all my young years he was at home and I got to know him pretty well, though he was not an easy man to know. I suppose my love for him was in a way exaggerated because of the lack of love between me and my mother. He never got angry with me, even though I did some silly things when I was young. My mother always called me feckless, but my father never did; I appreciated that.

Did your sisters find their mother equally difficult?

My elder sister, Maura, suffered in the way that I did. My young sister, Catherine, did not, for the simple reason that she was adored. Nothing was too good for her, and my mother gave to her all the affection which she had denied to my elder sister and myself. Why, I don’t know.

Both your parents were Scots by birth, and you were named after your maternal grandfather, Sir Ludovic Grant, a distinguished professor of law at Edinburgh University. Yet you were sent to an English prep school and then to Eton. Why was that?

Although I was born in Edinburgh I didn’t live there. I went to an English prep school because we lived in England at the time, and then a trust fund set up by my grandfather – this was before the old boy went bust through speculating on the stock exchange – enabled me to go to Eton. I adored my grandparents and used to go to Scotland for holidays to visit them. When I got up there on my own without my parents I had the happiest of times. I used to play golf with my grandfather on equal terms when I was twelve and he was seventy. He had been a former captain of the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews and was a very good golfer. He would go a hundred and twenty yards straight down the fairway and I would go about two hundred yards either to left or right. That was great fun and we had a very close relationship.

You have talked about the inferiority complex inflicted by the English on the Scots, but to a neutral observer might it not seem that Scots who choose an English education for their children are perhaps contributing to this sense of inferiority?

I don’t know about that. What I would say is that the English have always regarded Scotland as an extension of England; they simply don’t realise it’s a quite different place, with its own culture, its own laws, its own education system, its own tradition of literature, music and painting. The English simply don’t appreciate this, and they feel rather aggrieved. Indeed, the latest attempts by Scotland to regain its own parliament and even to go for independence is something that many English people feel rather offended by. They would prefer us to stay with them and forget all about our own parliament. But we can’t. We’re an older kingdom than England and we are very proud of it.

In the past you have stood as a Liberal candidate for Parliament. Did you become more nationalistic in your views as the years passed?

I suppose I did. I went back to live in Scotland in 1966 and stayed there till 1984, first of all in the Border country and then in Edinburgh. Living in Scotland gave me a sharper sense of what it meant to be Scottish, and so it did grow, this feeling.

Did you ever consider joining the Scottish National Party?

I considered it, and in the end I rejected it. I spoke for the SNP on one or two occasions. In fact, I spoke for Winifred Ewing when she got in at Hamilton in the famous by-election and I was glad to do so because there was no Liberal candidate standing. Actually the Scottish Liberal Party hardly ever spoke about self-government, and that’s why I gravitated towards the SNP, but I never wanted to commit myself wholly to them.

Your book All in the Mind: A Farewell to God is one you say you have been wanting to publish all your life. You have always been at odds with the Christian religion and say it has done you good to write it. Is that reason enough, would you say?

Yes, I think so. All writers want in the first instance to find something out for themselves. My reactions against religion in the early part of my life were spontaneous and emotional and I wanted to discover whether I could justify them by reason; that is why I researched the book, wrote it, and then finally published it. I am now certain in my mind that what I wrote was the truth. It may not be the truth for you, it may not be the truth for the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it was the truth for me.

On the final page of your book you seem to admit the possibility of a God of creation when you write: ‘Whether it [the world] came about by a purposeful act, a physical evolvement, or something accidental, must remain a mystery beyond human comprehension.’ What ‘purposeful act’ could it have been?

I don’t know, I think it is a mystery. A lot of people think there was a purposeful act, but I can’t go along with that because I don’t know. I also said that it is not in my view the distant past which should exercise us now, but the future. We are now profoundly influenced by such things as global warming, pollution, nuclear bombs, the possibility of terrorist attacks with anthrax, the possibility of a new plague spreading across the world, and so on. There are numerous threats to human life on this planet, and we should really concentrate our minds on them instead of wondering how we got here.

Since you admit you don’t know certain things, wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe yourself as an agnostic rather than an a-theist?

Yes, except that all religions believe that their god is the real one. I say I am ‘a-theist’ – against gods; I simply don’t go along with the whole idea of gods. I don’t want any truck with gods, they don’t mean anything to me.

You fear that you may have left it too late to attack religion, since you claim it is dying already. Yet seventy-five per cent of Americans are churchgoers and eighty per cent of the Irish still attend mass; to say nothing of the seventy per cent of non-churchgoing people in Britain who nevertheless profess belief in God. Might it not be said that reports of God’s death have been somewhat exaggerated?

First of all, the Americans are a law unto themselves. America was founded on the Puritan ethic by people who came from Europe where life was nasty, brutish and short. They crossed the seas and left everything behind except their faith, and their faith sustained them to set up dwellings and to cross the prairies and cope with Indians who might be lurking under every bush. It’s a very primitive kind of faith. The Irish are a different matter. It seems to me that the Catholic influence has profoundly lessened. It used to be the great thing to have a priest in the family in Ireland; it isn’t so now, partly because there have been terrible stories about child abuse by Irish priests. As for non-churchgoers still professing to believe in God, that is easily explained. If someone knocks on the door and asks, ‘Do you believe in God?’, people who haven’t got much education or self-confidence are very unlikely to say no. It’s a kind of insurance against being struck by a thunderbolt. Remember that poem of Hilaire Belloc’s: ‘Better to hang on to nurse for fear of finding something worse.’

Your recounting of all the torture and killings and the wars of religion and of the Inquisition are horrifying to read, but of course they are not news nor have they anything to do with what Christ preached. Does the fact that people have committed atrocities in the name of religion amount to a good argument against religion?

I was really trying to explain why it all came about. The appalling atrocities which the Church in the Middle Ages inflicted on people came about simply because the Church was a tremendous force for social cohesion. Today we don’t get that feeling of social cohesion from the Church; we get it from sport, from television, from football. The great binding force in all countries is the World Cup. It’s not a religion, but it is a substitute for the cohesion which the Church used to offer.

But is it not the case that even if you set religion aside, the human capacity for the infliction of evil and pain is ever with us? I mean, religion was dead in Russia and in China when Stalin and Mao Tse-tung outdid the Nazis in torture and killing…

Yes, that is so, but you are making a political point. What I’m saying is that you can have a democratic society such as ours in which the people have abandoned the Christian religion on the grounds that it has outlived its usefulness. That doesn’t make them any the less good people. The Scottish philosopher David Hume said we should do things that are right and good, but not because the chaplain or Jesus Christ or God said so. I agree with David Hume.

But in the absence of religious guidelines how are we to differentiate between good and bad?

It is possible to put something in the place of religion. For example, I mention in my book the Victorian poet Walter Savage Landor who wrote a famous poem before he died: ‘I strove with none; for none was worth my strife./ Nature I loved and, next to nature, art;/ I warmed both hands before the fire of life./ It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’ Well, that’s my philosophy too. He didn’t mention religion, only his love of nature and of art, and that is what I myself feel very much too. When I go to Scotland and walk in the mountains there, I think about the line from the Psalms, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength.’ I’m tremendously moved by music and poetry and particularly religious poetry which I find inspirational. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy religiously inspired lines.

In your final chapter, ‘Touching the Transcendental’, you describe your own experience of the spiritual, especially when on night-watch at sea. This is what you say: ‘Stars, billions of miles distant, seemed a watchful presence above my head…for me it was both a glimpse of eternity and the peace that passeth all understanding.’ You use the language of religion to express what you felt. Has it ever occurred to you that you might have been having a religious experience?

No, I can’t say it did. It was a spiritual experience. Only a Christian would say I was experiencing God, but I don’t recognise God. I love the experience, but I don’t want to specify it in any particular way. The experience is very personal and very profound, but I keep God out of it.

When you say ‘spiritual’, do you mean something beyond the body? And if so, is it something which might survive death?

Good heavens, no. I’m not saying it’s beyond the body, I’m saying it’s part of the body, part of the mind. And when I die I will be cremated and my body will be gone; in its place will be a small bowl of yellow ashes. Don’t get the idea that there’s something else called spirit which is unconnected with the body because I simply don’t believe it. If you talk about a spirit outside the body, let me ask you this: can this spirit see, comprehend, judge, observe, have a relationship? Can it do all those things or any of them?

I don’t know. But the fact that I don’t know doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

But why postulate? There are a lot of batty ideas floating about but you don’t have to pay any great attention to them.

Your daughter Fiona describes how, when the family were involved in a serious road accident, you travelled to Scotland, still unaware of the details, not knowing if they were all alive, and you prayed and prayed and even sang hymns. Is this true?

No, I didn’t pray. What happened was this: I was putting on a television programme that night and the editor suddenly told me he had received a call from the police at Hawick in Scotland about a very bad road accident involving my wife and children. He arranged for a car to take me to Victoria for the train to Gatwick to get the last flight to Edinburgh. Half way between London and Gatwick the train suddenly stopped and the lights all went out. I was terribly shaken and I found myself, not praying, but singing, rather out of tune as I always do, Abide with Me. It was an absolute spontaneous outpouring of sorrow and grief and hope mixed together, and afterwards I wondered if this meant that I had found something beyond myself which was going to be a permanent part of my life. But it wasn’t; it was simply a thing that occurred at that moment, although as an experience it was perfectly true and perfectly valid. It also helped me understand that many people do get comfort from such a feeling, and not just when there is some dramatic event, but as a permanent part of their lives. That’s why I say in my book that I’m not in any way criticising people who get inspiration and comfort and faith from Christianity; indeed I wish them well.

When you were on the train you must have envisaged the possible death of the people you loved most dearly. Could you do so without the hope of an afterlife, of some way of being reunited?

The so-called afterlife is one thing I’ve never subscribed to. It seems to me such wishful thinking as not to be worthy of consideration.

Does it disturb you to find intelligent people, including some distinguished scientists, usually physicists, still believing in God?

It doesn’t disturb me but it does surprise me.

Several of your books refer to your being plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. Given that you had these feelings, how did you find the courage and confidence to take on the establishment over the many cases you considered miscarriages of justice, for example?

I don’t know. All I knew was that I had a burning sense of injustice within me. I have always believed that to be condemned and tried and punished for something you haven’t done is about the worse thing that can happen to you, and if you’re executed for it, as poor Timothy Evans was, it is the final dreadfulness. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s house in Edinburgh going through William Hodge’s Famous British Trials on the top shelf of his library. What fascinated me at that time was the immaculacy, the majesty, the accuracy of the law, and I had the most profound admiration for it, because I’ve always been a bit of a romantic. I never thought for a moment then that witnesses could lie, policemen could perjure themselves, judges could be biased. After the war when I started to look into some of these cases and found this was exactly what was happening, I was profoundly shocked, so that’s why I started to write about it.

In her review of your Farewell to God, Jane Gardam asked if you can say farewell to something you have not only never known but believed never to have existed…

That’s a charming way of putting it, I suppose. The fact is that in my early days I did feel that I ought to try and believe in God because it was the common thing to do. When In was a young man just before the war, the force of conformity was terrific; people just didn’t question the existence of God, and I was never told at school that some people had other ideas. So it was a struggle, and I felt that it was my fault that I couldn’t believe.

Let me take a slightly different approach. No doubt you would agree that there are many individuals who hold sincere religious beliefs and lead what we might call good and decent lives, and the fact that they live good and decent lives may be connected (at least in their own minds) to their religious beliefs. Is there anything wrong with that?

Nothing wrong with it at all, and I wish them joy and success. What you say is true, but there are also many Christians who are uncharitable, not compassionate, bigoted and so on. The conservative Christian is really a very undesirable character, and there are many about who are emphatically not good people at all.

What about those in religious orders who devote their lives to God and to prayer? Are they to be disapproved of? Are they to be pitied? Or are you happy to leave them alone?

If they are getting satisfaction from what they do, I’m delighted for them. I think they are misguided, but that’s not the point. If they have found something that gives them a rich life, then good luck to them. Many of them are unselfish and courageous people and I know what good works they do.

So you do admire them…

I admire people who are committed to some path in life which they feel is taking them somewhere. Yes, I do admire them, but not specifically more than many other people.

You reject the idea of an afterlife, and dismiss it as mere wishful thinking. What exactly is wrong with wishful thinking? If there is only oblivion, it will hardly matter, surely?

I quite agree. There is nothing wrong with wishful thinking. If you want to believe in rubbish, by all means believe in rubbish.

For further reading, please refer to my book Dialogues (Quartet Books).

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