Monthly Archives: January 2010

No Longer With Us: John Updike

Following the first anniversary of John Updike’s death, here is my interview with the great man from my book, Singular Encounters.

Your distaste for the idea of someone writing your biography led you to write your autobiography.  Why should the idea of someone else writing about your life be so disturbing?

I’m still trying to inhabit my life and there is not room for two people there; I’d rather be alone.  Also I’m still using my material and my memories, still coming to grips with my own life.  The biographies of living people are either libellous, in an attempt to make the life sensational and interesting, or very dull, and since I have a limited amount of energy I would rather put none of it into dealing with a biographer.  I have four living children, and ex-wife and a present wife, all of whom deserve some privacy even if I don’t.  When I am as old as Graham Greene, and if I am as distinguished, perhaps I will invite a young man like Norman Sherry in, but I’m nowhere near that stage of eminence.

I admit an outsider might be more truthful in a way, but in my autobiography I tried to put down some of the things only I could know.  The things anyone can find out I will leave for someone else to deal with.  A life is a very strange thing.  My mother died last fall, and I’ve been reading letters I wrote to her in the 1970’s, which isn’t so long ago, but how much I’ve forgotten of the day-to-day routine!  I suppose a biographer goes through all that: finds the letters, tells what was happening all those years before.  I don’t want to face that now.  I’d rather try to be a creative writer while I still can.

It is flattering to think a lot of people might find me interesting to read about, but I honestly don’t know how many there are who want to know all about me.  Perhaps six: ten at most.  We begin life usually with our mothers being very interested in everything we do.  They record every word we say and every bowel movement we manage, and maybe that’s enough of that kind of attention.  I would rather have my works interest people, but have them come out of a slightly mysterious centre.  It’s very hard in this day and age to maintain any privacy or any personal mystery at all, since people are interested in the real lowdown, as we say in this country.  We do pick up a lot of books expecting to learn what the writer has been doing lately, which almost brings it down to a level of gossip, though maybe it’s a healthy kind of interest.  We read the books of Erica Jong or even Philip Roth in part out of curiosity about them as the authors of their previous books.  But one would like to think that writers do more than just divulge their recent histories, and there is some capacity to imagine lives other than their own, or some capacity to draw larger lessons from their own lives.  Without being as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Sallinger, I have tried to stay out of at least some of the gossip columns and to avoid some of the many interviews I’m invited to give.

You become less effective as an artist the more interested you become in yourself as a person; and the more you become interested in yourself as a person, the more you’re in danger of becoming a fatheaded, lazy artist.  Better to wear your hairshirt and hide in a cave than come out and try to be a beautiful person.  There are so many beautiful people in the world now – so many in the New York nightclubs and the London clubs – that I don’t think a writer should attempt to swell that particular throng.  It’s one thing to wish your books to be elegant, another to wish to be elegant yourself.  I’m all for elegance in the right places, and my concern is to try to be elegant in the books.  But I’m not sure that elegance is the supreme human quality we should aspire to.  It seems to be like a pear.  It goes rotten very quickly.  Maybe we need some sturdier virtue, something more like a potato that will keep for months and even a year in the cellar.

Did you always want to write?

Not really, but my mother was a frustrated writer.  She would send off manuscripts and get them back, and was trying to write through much of my childhood, so the notion it was a worthy thing to try to do dawned upon me.  But my first artistic itch was to draw.  I did a lot of drawing as a child, and continued certainly through college.  I was on a magazine at Harvard and did cartoons and covers, but by the time I got out of Harvard, the writing side of me had become stronger and seemed the more saleable, the more useful side.  I had some early acceptances, and by the time I was about twenty-three was committed to being a writer.  And I’m lucky, because you can draw in writing – in a way, incorporate the visual art into the writing – but you can’t really write in drawing. Writing is quite a broad activity in which you can use almost anything you know at some point, and I would say that my drawing skill has been useful to me. I draw very rarely today. Occasionally an amusing birthday card to a child. The New Yorker have sometimes asked me for illustrations, so I have had three drawings published there, always attached to an article. It’s strange how, when you sit down after years of not drawing, the art picks up right where you left it. Basically I still draw the way I did a twenty-two. I’m no better, but I’m not much worse. It’s fun to try, but I really don’t have the time to draw for pleasure. When I had small children I occasionally drew them as babies. Then I bought a camera and stopped drawing.

Do you find writing easy?

Some days are easier than others, and it’s never totally easy. There’s always a little jump into it, like into a swimming pool. I tend to postpone and make a cup of tea, and circle the desk and answer some letters. But by and large I’ve been pretty good about sitting down to it finally and doing a certain amount each day. I would not class myself as one of those people who really sweat out each day’s work. I think I write fairly easily as writing goes, maybe too easily, yet there’s always some effort to it, and some serendipity, some surprise. You always find things you didn’t know you were going to say, and that is the adventure of writing: that you can’t plan it entirely but need to have faith each day that you launch yourself at this blank piece of paper, knowing in a general way what you’re going to try to cover but not knowing exactly. You hope for things to happen that you can’t foresee, and the life of the prose is in these unforeseeable harmonies, these characters who do something other than was planned. All those little surprises are what make it such an entertaining profession. People who can make a living writing are very lucky because not only is the day short and the labour not too difficult, but you have a kind of self-therapy. You’re always, in a way, expressing yourself, which they tell us is healthy if you do it to a psychiatrist. You’re constantly finding out what you know and feel which you didn’t know you knew or felt before.

You’re right that it is lonely. One of the reasons I was happy to come and meet you was that I must vary the loneliness somewhat. Now that my children are grown up and my wife works, I’m alone in the house for much of the day. All day, from seven to six. But then I was an only child, and maybe my tolerance for being alone is greater than that of many. I can take several days of not talking to anyone without too much discomfort. After a while, of course, the need to make contact becomes very pressing, but on the whole I like it and I guess I talk to myself and I’m my own company. I have telephone contact with various editorial people. The mail is of great interest to me, probably more than for a painter, say, or a musician. There are these various ways of relieving the loneliness. But there’s no doubt ever that you must be alone at the moment of actual work. You must face yourself to that degree, and many don’t want to do that. Most people enjoy the constant company of others. It’s like having the radio going in the elevator – something to chase away the silence, this awful silence at the background of our lives that we’re trying to shut out. The writer in some ways tries to face the silence, at least for the three or four hours a day that he works.

Nobody can be entirely self-sufficient. I’m very dependent upon the fact of getting published. My enjoyment of writing is not so keen that I would do it if there were no rewards. Proust and Kafka would both seem to have had fairly low expectations, though both had some publication. Proust paid for his first book to be published, and Kafka fought to be published, but even writers as hermetic and exquisite as these at some point welcome the actual experience of getting published. And for me, who’s been published quite early, it would be very sad if my publishing house and the New Yorker magazine were to stop publishing me. I need that kind of stimulus. I seem to need a fair amount of attention, in fact, or I wouldn’t publish so many books.

Some American authors go years without publishing. Thomas Pynchon just now published a novel after seventeen years of silence. I don’t think I could ever go so long. For all of my tolerance of solitude, I do like that annual fuss that surrounds the book. And like many children in this country, especially of my generation, I have a sort of love affair with New York City. I was a small-town boy – in fact I was a farm boy for a while – and I thought that where I was going to find happiness. was in New York, presented to my generation as Fred Astaire and Top Hat, penthouses and beautiful women in lovely long white gowns. So I always thought I’d live in New York. When I got there I found there were some of the things I had expected, but there was also a great deal of hassle and no place to raise a family. My wife had no natural social life there, and was lonely. I was working, so was not so lonely, but we didn’t stay long. Yet I’ve been able to keep a hold of New York with the writing. I talk to it often. I have friends there. When I go I feel at home. I’ve tried to be a New Yorker without paying the very real price of living there.

Can you tell me something of the relationship between the life and the fiction?

I suppose I am somewhat more autobiographical than other writers appear to be, though when you look into a writer like Tolstoy, who seems almost a god-like omniscient above it all, it turns out there is a surprisingly high degree of autobiographical material. We all need some kind of personal stimulus, some moment that we want to expose or tell about, and writers can be variously clever over how they’re going to package it. But these two elements – a personal sharing and a kind of packaging – I think are true of everybody. In my case, the package sometimes may seem very thin, a little cellophane around the nugget of life, but it is in my mind always a package. Even if I tell the events of one afternoon in my life, I’m not telling every afternoon, so there has been an act of selection and a sense of shaping.

Some of my work may look more autobiographical than it is. I prefer to think it doesn’t really matter. I’m alive now, and having a life of a kind, and while I’m alive I must share what seems to me momentous about it. To be too discreet or too cunning would be self-defeating. But always I see it as a change, a metamorphosis. There’s no such thing as offering the reader your life. What you offer is a set of packaged moments that in some way you have witnessed, maybe out of the dead middle of your experience or maybe in the sense of imagining. I don’t think the distinction matters terribly much. In some way you must make your life interesting, must give it a kind of relevance, an application beyond that of just telling what happened today. As long as you do that and make the ideal reader care, you’ve fulfilled your responsibility. Meanwhile you live your life the best you can.

People talk about being put into a book as though they can be actually lifted out of life and inserted, but we know that the two orders of existence are really very different. There are the flesh-and-blood people who have all kinds of qualities and fully occupy space and time, and there are fictional characters, who are really just a few words tossed on to a page. It’s such an enormous difference between the world, on the one hand, and a book on the other, that I’ve felt fairly free about writing sometimes about my life fairly directly. Take one example. Couples was a long novel that was certainly about a kind of milieu that I felt, and I made the observation that we were all set up as couples and expected to be very happy yet weren’t. Having decided that here was the sociological condition worth telling about, I felt obliged to disguise all of my friends heavily so there was almost nobody in there who could say, ‘That’s me,’ though they could all recognize the general feeling.

There’s a little novel of mine called Of the Farm, which is autobiographical in tone. It’s first person and is about a woman very like my mother, set on a farm exactly like hers, but the situation is false. The hero has a second wife. I did not have a second wife at the time, and didn’t acquire one for another ten or more years. So more often than not we write not out of what happened but out of what might have happened. We write out of tendency as much as of the fact.

Are fictional characters more interesting than real ones?

I think not. A real person has endless depths. Just the anatomical qualities of a real person are fascinating: what makes the molecules click what makes the psyche and the mass of memories each person carries around. A real person is overwhelmingly large in terms of potential data that could be expressed. Fictional characters are therefore interesting in part because we can stand them. They don’t overwhelm us, they’re often very simple. If you look at even complex-seeming characters in fiction they’re really quite simple: basically dolls with maybe three or four moving parts so our minds can encompass them. They’re interesting because they’re involved in a story, and a story is a suspense of some kind which makes us care about what’ll happen next. We read it in the faith that it’s going to have an end, that all of our immediate questions will be answered one way or another.

So we are excited by stories, whereas life doesn’t seem quite to have a story, but is many stories all interwoven. Perhaps we read fiction in part as a relief from the enormous factualness of life that seems to have no clear point. A fiction writer has assumed a certain obligation He will somehow resolve the fate of his characters. Even fairly avant-garde works do this in a way. When we put down Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past, we feel it’s come to an end and that the author has said everything he wants to say. In Ulysses Molly Bloom gives a kind of blessing to life itself, and in Proust the author arrives at the revelation that time can be made to reverse itself, or does reverse itself and it’s this which justifies a life. We always come to some point of satisfaction in fiction, and we consent to be interested in the faith that all of the anxieties and questions aroused within the microcosm of the novel will be answered and placated; that, unlike life, there is no tomorrow with its own set of questions. When the book ends, there is no tomorrow. A fictional world must have both lightness and weight, the lightness coming from the fact that, when one mind is processing it, it will somehow add up and be entertaining and, unlike life, won’t contain long dull stretches. But it must also have some weight. There must be an illusion that this is enough like life so that the processes we observe in the work of art can be applied to the life we then lead. This feeling of actual instruction as to how to live is very much one of the reason why we read a fiction, in so far as we do – and most people don’t. Not only do most uneducated people not read books, but a lot of intelligent people, especially men, abandon fiction. Therefore fiction has rather a small audience, but those of us who do read it and try to write it hope for some revelation about life; that we somehow emerge from the book slightly more humane and able to cope with real-life situations.

In the past twenty or thirty years fiction has become much more sexually explicit and realistic, and this has been deplored in many quarters. But for me it often has the great moral virtue of attempting to tell us how the other sex feels about sexual transactions and, in demonstrating the sexual adventures of the characters, making us more knowing and perhaps gentler and less deluded; less egocentric in our own romantic behaviour. I often read female novels just to be illuminated as to how women think, though clearly not all women think alike. Nevertheless it is interesting for me to read about romance from a female point of view: what the expectation is and where the disappointments lie. All of that is information, and we do read for information. A slight embarrassment is that, given two novels of equal virtue, we would rather be in one about Saudi Arabia, say, than one about the city we live in. We’re interested in strange places, in other lives. We travel in a way through fiction, since we can’t travel entirely by ourselves, and all this fairly humble curiosity gives the writer an opportunity to expand the consciousness of his readers, to give them experiences they won’t otherwise have since life is so short.

Do you subscribe to the idea that sex is the lifeblood of our existence?

In a word, I do. You might broaden sex to something like love or Eros, and if what goes on between the mother and the infant is sex, then certainly sex would cover the whole field. A lot of what we do is apparently unsexual, but I think Freud is correct: everything really has a sexual goal. In other words, the hard-working Wall Street expert in financial mergers works all day so he will cut an impressive figure, perhaps so he can buy seductive clothes. He will certainly try to enhance his own maleness, his own plumage, as it were. The job, the work, the factory, all these are male plumage. I think a lot of what we do for the pay-off comes in erotic terms. And we’re far from truly knowing how our emotional life as children blends into the erotic life of the mature adult, though surely it is a continuum in that we are at every point of our lives seeking for confirmation and approval from someone else. At a very humble level, we want our bodies approved of and accepted in the various physical ways that sex allows. Beyond that, we want in some way to be confirmed in our immaterial being as well. I suppose this to be an erotic search which can be carried on via many partners or one partner, or via a stamp collection. There seem to me to be a lot of people who really should not be enlisted in the sexual armies, as it were. There are people who have honourable reasons for just not caring, many who in the older societies would become monks or priests or eccentric bachelors – formerly a very honourable thing to be. We’re in danger now, in the late twentieth century, of forcing everyone to become a sexual hero, a sexual superstar when there are probably a number of alternative ways of working out the basic erotic patterns of your life. But when all is said and done, novels are almost invariably about love. It’s as if we were saying that we are most alive when we’re in love.

A writer’s experience must include other people’s books. Is there a distinction between what comes from experience of the real and what comes from books?

You certainly shouldn’t write out of other books. I’ve not taught much writing, but I have done a little, and the students by and large haven’t really learned to see, to have the language for their own lives. They don’t see what they’re living, and all they know is what they’ve read in books, and so they have to process their reality through what other writers have done. It’s quite rare for a young man or woman to come into their own voice, their own material, much before the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, because the books we’ve read control what we see and screen out so much of what is real about us. We are all creatures of literary tradition, and it is the ability to be excited enough by the world of print to wish to enlarge it, to take a piece of your perception and experience, turn it into print and make it join on to this big Antarctica of things in print, which is the basic impulse. In other words, to take your life out of being something impermanent and trivial and purely personal and make it something that can in some way enlarge the experience of people you don’t even know. It’s a great act of transformation, and if you can do it, it’s a great privilege to expand that world of print.

It’s true there are too many books, and most are junk, but to a young person it’s a sacred world and a world he is totally locked out of. To find the way into it and be on the other side of that wall, to be one of the producers of the books is, even at the age of fifty-eight, still exciting.  As to influence, I think you do somehow close down and that the major reading experiences of your life occur before you are twenty-five or thirty. That is to say, the writers who really give you your voice are apt to have been encountered by that age. The more of a voice you get the less you can start to change it and the less you are struck by other people’s, but the writers whom you really value and love are the ones you think have shown you the way to what you know. In my case there is the English writer, Henry Green, who in some way opened me up to what prose could do. And there’s the American writer, J. D. Salinger, whose short stories seem to belong to my world. I thought I could write stories like that, whereas I couldn’t write stories like John O’Hara or Hemingway. In some way, you need those few spirits who release you, show you the way to speak yourself. When you’re in college you tend to read what they tell you, and having a lot of catching up to do, I read mostly English classics – Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare. But for all the admirable writers you read in college, in some way you’re reading them to fill in your sense of history and prepare for examinations. Once I got out of college, I read a lot of Proust, in English, because I didn’t have enough French to take him in French, and that year I spent at Oxford I read Henry Green and some more Salinger, as well as a lot of Kierkegaard for personal reasons. But I think Kierkegaard did something for me as a writer. There’s a tremendous energy and rhetorical skill in him, and he’s not afraid to do something thoroughly. The gift of being able to write novels came in part, I’m sure, from Kierkegaard and Proust. I also read Kafka, but I’m not a very Kafkaesque writer. I found him exhilarating because he faces those depressing things, our entrapment and our importance, and there’s a kind of relief in just voicing them. Of course, you tend to feel somewhat superior to Kafka as you read him. You think, well, I’m not that sick, not that neurotic, so in some way you can lick the sugar off the pill and not swallow it.

That’s one thing we always do in reading, of course: take what we want out of a book, and there’s always more we don’t take. Unlike the motion picture, which gives you itself and all of itself in a big bang, a book will only give you as much as you’re ready to hear or to see. It’s amazing to reread a book you read ten years ago. You realize you didn’t read it at all. It’s almost like a brand-new book. One of the marvellous things about books is the layeredness and the way, all the time, they have secrets to give.

To come back to the novel as the product of expert imitation, is it more convincing when experience like marriage or parenthood can be taken direct from life?

You can fake quite a lot, and the level of realism we demand from the novel isn’t extraordinarily high. Our wish to be entertained and instructed is so strong that we will forgive quite a lot of fakery, but there comes a point at which fakery invalidates a novel, and we put the book down, realizing we are learning nothing. Flaubert, though unmarried, wrote well enough about marriage, and there’s an American writer, Ann Beardey, who has no children but has just written a book about the problems of child rearing. So it is possible. There’s also many a sex change where a male writer has more or less plausibly become a woman and vice versa. Nevertheless, what we really have to share is stuff we’ve experienced.

As soon as I was married my writing almost immediately became better, I think because I was somehow a step up the ladder of life. Marriage is something that most writers should not seek to avoid. I wouldn’t have missed having children for anything, and when I had them around me I certainly wrote better about children than I would have if I’d never known any – better, in fact, than I can do now. In my most recent novel, which has a ten- year-old and a four-year-old, I found I knew what they were like, having had four children of my own and lived with three stepsons, but also that I had grown a little out of touch with how children of that age act and think. In general I would say use your imagination, but there are limits to what imagination can do.

It’s very possible to draw upon a personal encounter so early that you don’t yourself know what you’re using. Some of Henry James’s later novels have this quality. He was drawing from very youthful memory without quite knowing it, but in the end a character is a person, and we have to have some general knowledge of people before we can begin to write novels. I don’t think that even a very superior mentality from another planet, with all kinds of statistical information about human beings, could write a novel. In a novel, we are recycling people we have met, and we may be using the nose of one or the arm of another, or it may be a nose we saw in the movies, but there’s certainly some human input that has to happen before there can be any output in the form of character creation.

I don’t think the craft can do these things by itself. There is craft, and more of it than the romantic conception of the artist allows, but the ability is to make a thing coherent. It’s like making a bird house. You imagine it in your head, and then do the little fitting that needs to be done. A great deal of what you might call carpentry goes into making a satisfying book, but in making a bird house you still need to have the bird inside it, and the bird flies out of your experience and your own passion about your experience. For example, I went to Harvard, not far from where we sit now – an admirable institution, but I’ve never been moved to write very much about it; enough people have already done so.

I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people in my life, but perhaps only a dozen have really gotten through to me in a way that prompts me to want to make them characters.  I use the same people again and again, because only they somehow have got to me.

Therefore things have to get to you, and not all of your life will; but when you sit down to make a book or a short story or a poem, you have to have something that you want to package, something you want to present to people in some form.  The craft can do the form to a degree, but an awful lot of what we call writerly craft is nothing more than authenticity. It’s not putting down phoney words; it’s trying to have a voice that speaks; it’s really wishing to communicate. That is what makes a great deal of the style, and no amount of rules is going to give you that voice.

What sets ‘literature’ apart from other fiction?

In part a willingness to forget or sacrifice readers, to push forward. You can still be quite a popular artist and do this. It’s a feeling of adventure and a willingness to take risks which makes the real writer distinguishable from the unreal one. It often takes a century, of course, to discover who was real and who was not. It’s not always apparent at the time, and there are many creditable writers now who probably won’t matter much in a hundred years. You could even call literature a higher degree of playfulness, in that the literary writer is willing to play with the thing and not just trying to construct an engine to process a reader’s emotional patterns.

I don’t read much cheap fiction, I just don’t have the time, but when you watch television, you sense these machines instructed to run you through a set of emotional manoeuvres. You’re supposed to care about the guy, you’re supposed to want him to sleep with the girl, you’re supposed to get excited when they’re in a car being chased. There’s a kind of mechanical working over, a little like a massage. Some kind of massage accompanies a literary masterpiece too, but somehow it’s more than a massage. The writer, as he or she goes along, makes discoveries perhaps, and in some way is open to interventions from outside the mechanical pattern. I suppose you can also merely say that literary writers are brighter than the others; that their vocabularies are bigger, their willingness to play with language and their intuitive knowledge about the world greater. The quality of their writing has an adventurous experimental freedom. The great artist is more free: freer to see more and to eliminate more; to do without certain kinds of obligatory performance.

Your autobiography is often provided with footnotes on the use you made in fiction of some incident or person.

That’s a rather arbitrary set of footnotes. Just what occurred to me as I was writing.  Several times I’ve given female characters experiences based on my own. I turned a pulled tooth into an abortion for a female character, and also reversed a churchgoing situation. It doesn’t much matter, you know. As the structuralists say, the opposite is often virtually the same thing, and what’s important is the structure. To put it onto a woman or to make it upside down is no great trick. I thought it would make the book in general more fun to read if, in some places, I acknowledged, yes, you have seen this before, or this may ring a bell for those who are devoted Updike readers. It was fun to do. It added a little dimension.

I am interested myself when writers talk about books, especially if they’re admirable books. It’s interesting to read Graham Greene on the period of his life when he was writing the early novels. The Power and the Glory and so on, because even though he doesn’t say much it’s all helpful, and in a way it humanizes the books. A book in the end has to float free of the man’s life, but while he’s alive it’s fun to see these stings and to realize how much he made of something that was little; to see the imagination in operation and realize how little it needs sometimes to take off in a big way.

You wanted your autobiography to be in some sense ‘representative in it’s odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in the world’, but is it not inevitable that some lives are more interesting than others?

I suppose some are more interesting than others. What I think is irreversibly interesting, and true of all of us, is that we’re trapped inside a certain body and a certain set of circumstances, even a certain moment in time. Although I suppose this could be dismissed as a metaphysical riddle saying that you had to be somebody, so why not you, my childhood perception, as I began to grapple with being alive was the extraordinary strangeness of being me instead of somebody else. And so the philosophical emotion behind the autobiography was the feeling of being self-conscious, of being conscious of being this self instead another self. Then you stay self-conscious, and it’s probably not a good thing. The memories which are most affecting are gathered by and large when you were least self-conscious, when you were either young  or intensely engaged in some life experience. I’m aware of myself as a writer now, as a man who is recognized on the street, as a man who has the costume of a writer. In a way it’s like a little static in the head all the time, which I try to tune out, but there’s no doubt that I am somewhat self-conscious.

But no two lives are alike and we would rather live some than others.  Most lives on this planet are miserable, and one of the tragedies surely involved in the human race right now is that so many lives are wasted before they’ve begun, largely because of poverty. I’ve been very fortunate. Anybody who’s fairly healthy, and was born into the United States when I was, is in a tiny minority of blessed people, living in an area that is more or less disease free. Even compared to my grandparents, how relatively little pain I’ve had. Think of the toothaches that people in the nineteenth century put up with, the infectious diseases that would lift away a whole set of children, the powerlessness of all that.  To be alive in an era when so much of that particular kind of powerlessness is gone is a great privilege.

Anyway I wasn’t writing about how lucky I was to be me, but more how strange it was to be me. It’s a little like Heidegger trying to write about being, being as an entity: in a sense it’s absurd and doesn’t get you anywhere, but on the other hand it is something to face.  There is a kind of miracle involved in anything existing, a kind of miracle involved in being you.  So I hoped that some of that sense of the miraculous would express a gratitude, a glad-to-be-here kind of feeling

You wrote about Christmas and the way the idea of a snowy Christmas was more real to you than the bleak brown ones you actually knew.  Was it that imaginative vividness that prompted you to become a novelist?

Certainly a susceptibility to that kind of imagery was what prompted me.  Al those snowy Christmas illustrations that appeared in children’s books and old-fashioned magazines lie the Saturday Evening Post were very real to me, more real than the muddied brown world around me.  Had I not responded so strongly to those little pretend worlds, had I not wanted to enter in and get on that hearth and rug with Santa Claus in the sleigh, no doubt I would never have chosen to live by my imagination the way I have done.  From early on I loved these images of another world: comic strips, illustrations Christmas especially.

The stylization of Christmas was so far advanced in American commercial art.  Artists knew how to draw it, how to make those little windows with the frost in.  There was a kind of vocabulary of Christmas that had descended through generations, so it was intense as a totally imaginary experience that had nothing to do with the real Christmases I experienced. All that excited me, and it seemed a good way out of the world I was in.

The experiences that gave you such pleasure as a child, like being out of the rain, but only just out of it, you explained as pleasurable because ‘the experiencer is irresponsible, safe…there is nothing he can do or ought to do.’ This sounds very like an analogy for the art of the novelist, who is also ‘morally detached, safe and witnessing’.

That’s very good, and entirely your invention.  I hadn’t thought of it like that, but now that you mention it, writing a novel is rather like being out the rain that you’re creating there on the page, but just out, so you can smell it, feel it and hear it.  Being in a little shelter out of the rain still affords me pleasure.  The house I live in now has a kind of open garage, and it still gives me a thrill to stand there with the rain falling all around but not quite on me.  I guess that novelists are often people who are fascinated by the rain but don’t want to get wet.  It’s a good point.

Edmund White once dais it was the particular curse of adolescence that events were never adequate to the feelings they inspired.  Do you feel something similar?

It’s true that when you write about them you have to be careful somehow to make them seem in proportion to the response. It’s possible to be very superior to adolescent experience. On the other hand, it is a human experience. We are as alive at thirteen as at thirty-three, and it deserves to be put into print. I think we have to try to rid ourselves of our own myths about adolescence and write about it. What is awkward from the standpoint of a novelist is that adolescents don’t really have their grip on the handles of the world yet. They can’t make decisions they can’t decide they will marry, they can’t decide they will sell the company. They aren’t quite grown up. All they can do is feel and thrash around, so in that way they’re unsatisfactory. I found I could write about adolescents quite easily in short stories, but that they won’t carry me through a novel. You need adults who can do grown-up things to get you through a novel.

You wrote in your memoirs that you were conscious of wanting to ‘show them in Shillington’, to revenge your father for the slights you and he felt had been put upon him. Did you come to feel at last that you had done so?

I wrote that when my mother was alive, and I suppose, had she been dead, I would have included her, because in a way I was trying to work some kind of revenge for her as well. It was she who felt that Shillington was a hard place. To me it seemed enchanting. It was kind to me and I love it, but I was aware that somehow there was a level of respectability that my parents didn’t quite get into. Among my motives has been a wish to show Shillington that we weren’t intimidated. It was a typical small town full of people, none very rich, none very poor. Somehow I have a wish to show Shillington people that we can make more money than the factory workers from the hosiery mills. What sticks in my mind as a social insult was that my father, though he had the prestige, such as it was, of a schoolteacher, made less than the full-fashioned knitters, and there was a funny feeling about being, not exactly at the very bottom of the social scale, but certainly at the lower end. If I’d stayed in Shillington I’d probably be at the lower end of the social scale myself. I had to get out to show it.

You describe yourself in your memoirs as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. That is certainly not how you are perceived publicly.

I think that anybody who knows me would agree with all those adjectives. I was an only child who never had to compete with a sibling, and my parents were both, in their way, very loving and indulgent. Just the fact that I had the presumption to become an artist is rather ridiculous isn’t it, with no qualifications except that I felt treasured as a child. When my mother died, among her things in the attic was a scrapbook containing many of my drawings done when I was three and four.  Not every child gets that kind of attention. The good side of t is I have a certain confidence, and by and large I’ve acted confidently in my life and had good results. The bad side is that I like to be at the centre of attention.

As to being malicious, I think I am more than unusually malicious. That joy, that Schadenfreude we take in other people’s misfortunes, is well developed in me, though I try to suppress it. I detect within myself a certain sadism, a certain pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I don’t know whether I’m average in this or whether it’s exceptional, but I’m interested to a degree in the question of sadism. People who are sadistic are very sensitive to pain, and it’s a way of exorcizing the demon of pain.

I’m so aware of my enviousness that I try not to review books by contemporary Americans. I’m not sure that I would really give an honest opinion, and that’s sneaky. ‘People who are cowardly and don t especially enjoy confrontation or battle tend to be sneaky. In this unflattering self-characterization though, I was no doubt just doing my Christian duty of confessing sins. Human nature is mightily mixed, but surely all these malicious and cruel aspects are there along with everything else.

One reviewer, talking about Couples, called you ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did you resent the tag?

Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired. In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe actual sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do. One is always sensitive to criticism to a degree. If they tell you you’re the best thing since Shakespeare, you want to know what’s so great about Shakespeare. I remember especially some reviews I got early. When I began to write, the big figures on the scene were Jewish, by and large: Malamud, Bellow, young Roth and so on. The literary world was Jewish and up comes this little WASP out of the country, writing in a style influenced by Proust. I think I irritated some people, because I did receive a number of harsh reviews of books that were in their way quite innocent and well meant. I was told I had nothing to say, was told it repeatedly, so some of those darts stuck in my skin and I still remember them.   On the other hand, it’s part of the game. Every profession has its hazards and harsh reviews.

At least I mattered enough to get bad reviews. I was enough of a presence to deserve to be debunked, and I should have taken some comfort from that. I’ve never consciously tried to adjust my writing to please critics. It would be a mistake, because you’re never going to please many of them. Some of the things said were no doubt fair, as I see now, but when you’re a practising artist you can’t afford to be too much into the critics’ skin. You have to push, to keep going with your own vision and your own sense of reality, and let others make the judgements. On the other hand, I was always protected from adverse judgements by the fact that I had the New Yorker magazine in my corner. They liked me and took most of my things, which meant that my livelihood and my ego gratification came from the same source. I could always hide behind the fact that I was a New Yorker writer and the people who weren’t were just jealous.

I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology. It also turns out that it was the pre-Aids, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies and young people, but upon middle-aged couples, yet was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment. Those wives did not work, but now, in that same economic group the wives would have jobs, or half-jobs. But these were people who married in the 1950s and thought family life was going to solve all their problems, then discovered it didn’t.

I hope it’s not too dated. I haven’t read it since I checked the last proof. No doubt some of the writing I would improve if I could get my hands on the text again, but I don’t think it’s dated more than any book that has some roots in a historic moment. All novels belong to a certain time, to two times in fact – the time in which they’re located and the time in which they’re written. That book was written a few years farther on from the moment it describes, so in a way the characters are innocent Kennedy characters, whereas I wrote it in the era of Johnson when the Vietnam commitment had deepened and widened under us and people were beginning to burn flags. In a way I was already looking back on an innocent little paradise.

In a novel like Couples, aren’t you concerning yourself with what is really an American middle class?

I think our middle classes are pretty distinct, and because we don’t admit we have a class structure, the other classes are less accessible in a way than they perhaps are in a very class-conscious society like Britain.  Somehow to know that there are upper and lower classes, and even some of the traits that determine them, seems to make it easier for writers like Graham Greene or Henry Green or Evelyn Waugh to cross those lines and put before us convincing thugs and servants and what not. Whereas, in this allegedly classless society, we are timid. On the other hand, American experience places you in proximity with quite a range of class. I have no first-hand experience of city ghetto life, but I do remember what it’s like to be shabby small-town and shabby country, and I’ve been able now to get a peek into the moneyed classes, so in a way I have a sufficient social range. But the English do seem to create multi-class novels more easily.

With an acceptance of more sexually explicit writing, much of the so-called literature of concealment has disappeared. Have more relaxed attitudes always been good for literature?

Any strategy of concealment can benefit the work of art, because it imposes certain demands. Rhyme in poetry, for example, had the advantage of forcing people to recast lines and a certain ingenuity came in. Often they were driven to find words they wouldn’t ordinarily have found. And so it was with sexual concealment. In a way, you closed the bedroom door, you conveyed something was going on, and everyone knew what. It seemed important to me in the early 1960s to write about sex explicitly, because it was a little frontier. Some had crossed it already, but always in banned books. Henry Miller crossed it, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover had crossed it, but Joyce was the best model in this because, unlike Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence, you can’t say Joyce is sex obsessed. Ulysses is not about sex but about life, yet sexual words and references occur and it feels right in the sense that, on a spring day in Dublin, this is how people’s energies would be flowing. With that in mind, it seemed to be important to be as realistic as I could. I don’t feel the need exists in the 1990s. Now people are more or less free to write what they want. I do it less because it does seem not to be an artistic frontier at all, though I would like to think that the freedom still exists for those who want to exercise it – even freedom to be pornographic if pornography is taken to be exciting. I don’t see why a piece of writing can’t be sexually exciting. Certainly writing excites us romantically, after all. Why not try to excite us sexually?

You have sometimes been accused of sentimentalizing your women characters.

I’d have to know the characters in question. I have tried to grow in my depiction of women without abandoning my own sense of women and my own wisdom and experience of them, but I suppose I’ve tried to give them more credit for being something in addition to being interesting to men as sexual opposites. The women in Couples might be sentimental. I’m not sure. I’d have to read the book again. But as women have become increasingly vocal about their feelings, their long-held anger and their long resentment of male views about them, so any male writer to some extent has to look into his heart and try to make his portrayal of women as honest and fair as his portrayal of men. I wouldn’t want to treat them better than I treat my men.

Women have been important in my life, from my mother on, in ways I don’t even know as well as a lot of ways I do. I married young, and my first wife was exceedingly helpful, shaping not only my work but my whole outlook. My second wife too. If I had to be condemned to one sex, I would rather spend my time with women than with men.

You parted from your first wife. Are modern divorce rates prompted by modern conditions, or is it that divorce has become less difficult and more affordable?

The alternative activities to marriage that society has provided have, I think, diminished. It was quite possible to be very unhappily married in Victorian America and not exactly know it. You were off at the office; you then went to the club. The wife had her own circle and sets of entertainments. In a way, once you were past the child-making phase, your contacts could be fairly few and formal, and expectations or marriage were perhaps not quite so high. The post-war world in the West has put many of its eggs, as far as personal happiness goes, in the marriage basket. The demands on marriage have upped, which increases the stress. Also, of course, this is a Protestant country without the Catholic restraints on marriage, so that many a marriage that people would, in the old world, have lumped with the help of lovers, or doing without, or the Church, or any number of other things, now has no convenient way out except divorce.

Having been through one with children who, if not exactly babies, were a little too young to have their parents break up, I’d say it’s something to be avoided if possible, but it’s not maybe the worst thing to happen in many circumstances and the fact that it happens to so many children now has to some extent lessened the burden on each of them.  You’re no longer the pariah or odd-ball if you have a split family, since at least half your friends do too. It’s not that we are indifferent to marriage; it’s expecting so much of it that makes people become dissatisfied.

Do you write better under stress?

I have written under stress, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a steady thing. As Wordsworth said, emotion recollected in tranquillity is the optimum, so by and large I try and arrange a tranquil life around myself, and I write best in it. Of course, you have to have something to write about and that often does involve undertaking or going through some stress.  I’m a compulsive writer who doesn’t wait for the perfect day before he writes, so I’ve written on some poor days and written when I was in considerable discomfort. The one thing to be said for writing when you’re unhappy is that at least you’re having an experience of unhappiness. In a funny way, if you’re always tranquil, always satisfied, always the orderly writer who goes and does his job, words are in danger of becoming too cheap. You write too easily. Some of my best writing has been done under stressful circumstances. Nevertheless a simple bourgeois monotony is to be desired for a steady productive life.

Dr Johnson said that a man not married was only half a man, but Cyril Connolly added to the dictum by saying that a man who was very married was only half a writer.

It raises a ticklish issue. It’s true that people are always only partially married, and that a writer writes to some extent with the unmarried the lonely, the solitary adventuring self. My own temperament has led me twice toward marriage, maybe because I don’t have Cyril Connolly’s needs. He was a bit of a gadabout, I gather, as many writers have been.

I have the feeling that, like many Englishmen, he needed a generous amount of bachelor freedom to feel a hundred per cent a man. Trying to think about notable twentieth-century writers who seemed thoroughly married and none the worse for it, I come across two immediately: Thomas Mann and James Joyce. I’ve seen too many American writers suffer in a way from not being married or being stable enough. You can easily fritter away your talent in drink, wasted energy and exhausting skirt chasing; or, indeed, in pants chasing – why leave the women out of it? In marriage the mind is unmarried enough. The mind is a kind of a bachelor, in any case. It’s maybe a good mix to have the body very married.

You spoke of your memories of growing up as being ‘used up and wished away in the self-serving corruptions of fiction’. Do you feel that somehow you are intruding upon the reality of those who live in memory?

I suppose so. I feel also that you are selling your life in a strange way, including the people who were standing around while you were living it, which brings something a little shabby into the transaction. When I was a little boy, I was much impressed by a fairy story about a wishing hide hanging on the wall. Every time you make a wish, a little piece flies off.  Eventually there’s no hide left. I think I have that same feeling about writing. Each time I turn something into a story or a novel, another piece of the hide is flying off. Fiction is self-serving in so far as the writer is ultimately in control and anything too embarrassing will be suppressed. The general trend of the distortions is therefore in his own favour, so in that way it’s corruption. Nevertheless it’s what I do for a living, so I can’t be too apologetic about it. But there’s something consuming about it and a typical writerly fear is that you’ve used up everything you want to say. In fact you never do. Somehow, with a little patience, there’s always more. But you write very close to what feels like exhaustion, to what feels like the end of your story.

In what sense do you live your novels as you write?

Things sharpen as you write. On the other hand, you have to have some notion of the little scene. I saw a lot of movies as a young man, and I still go to the movies. There is some degree to which our imaginations are all cinematic. I think of the novels as scenes, but I often don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes the characters say less than I had hoped, sometimes more, but in general they hold within certain bounds of what can occur. A novel is unlike a play in that there is a weave of the verbal action with the background: the room, the scenery, the kind of day has somehow to come into it. The human mind wanders constantly, picks up little bits of the past and so on. All of that has to be written too, as well as the voices. It all gets sharper, and you hope it gets sharper again when you see proofs. Sharp seems a good way to think of it; clear. There should be a kind of clarity and a certain clash of edges; little jumps whereby the reader knows we’re going forward. Each sentence should be a slight shock. I once saw that as a description of style, and I’ve tried to remember it: that good style is a succession of small surprises. I don’t think it was Cyril Connolly, but it could well have been an Englishman. And so, yes, there are the surprises which are surprising to the writer, and then to the reader.

Do you feel at your peak as a writer now?

It’s hard to know if I’m getting worse or if my critical sense is getting better. Just looking at the life curve of most writers, in America especially, you tend to peak young when your memories are fresh and youthful. It’s a rare writer in this country who gets better after thirty, and many have blown up by the time they’re in their forties. So at that age you’re working against the trend, but in some ways I know more than ever. I’m less naïve, and it’s only a question of energy. Writing is in part an athletic feat. It’s all in the head, but it’s a matter of images and words, of making it all have a kind of spring and a tension.

You have written only one play, Buchanan Dying. Was that just a matter of seeing if you could do it?

I’d tried to write that book as a novel first and found that the historical novel posed problems in terms of fakery and bluff that I couldn’t meet.  I might be able to do it now when maybe I’m not so inhibited about faking but writing it all as a play was a way of unloading the considerable amount of material I had accumulated. It was bliss to write a play, bliss to try and picture the stage and to know you were making an artificial thing and could do away with all of that scenery that the prose writer is constantly creating. If the play had been produced on Broadway and been a great success, no doubt I would have tried to write others, but since it was too long and produced only in a few truncated college versions I received no encouragement to become a playwright. Evidently I don’t feel strongly enough about the form to do it on my own. I’ve never much enjoyed other people’s plays, frankly and I m not a great theatregoer, so a number of things have combined to prevent me from trying another, though some day I might. I don’t know the theatre very well, and I’m scared of getting involved with all those other people: the director, the actors, the agents.

You once described living in modern America as like skating on thin ice.

I don’t remember saying that, but a lot of being alive is a little like thin ice There’s a sense that you must keep in motion or you’l1 fall through, that there’s never a settled place. You look at European societies, let alone Asian societies, and there seem to be moments of rest, certain roles that people achieve whereby they are honoured by the societies. Think of how a fifty-five-year-old Italian man looks, with his grey hair and wonderfully trim suit – everything just so, everything exactly right on him. He is happy, filling his skin totally. Englishwomen of a certain social class have that same air of filling their skin.  Their role, their expectations and their abilities are in exact accord, and there is a satisfaction Here I don’t think we are provided with these niches of final achievement. You always need a little more, are always running, always in motion, always having to prove something. That is I guess what I mean by skating on thin ice.

I believe Americans more than Englishmen have a sense of a void underneath, maybe because we came to a wilderness and there’s so much of the land that’s still wild and raw: the sense that nature is not a tame collection of fields and villages, not a man-made thing; that we are strangers on the planet and the void is all around us. That’s an American idea, a part of the blackness Melville talks about: the American sense of reality that makes one anxious.

Do you feel pressure as a writer to reflect the times you live in?

At thirty I was on the crest of cultural developments: the songs being sung were the ones I was singing and so on. Now I’m fifty-eight, I’m aware of there having been several cultural waves since me. But in general I feel we all reflect the times we are alive in, are products of a certain set of decades and might as well admit it. Although not all of my books have specific years and dates, many of them do. We are all so calendar conscious in this day and age. The fashion designers change fashions, the news media keep producing new stories. It would be silly to try to write a timeless book about a century that is so very time conscious. Just by beginning to particularize, you’re going to get into a certain time-specific feeling, no matter whether you want to. I always admired Ivy Compton-Burnett, who always wrote about families who were having their discussions around 1900, and she made it work.  We’re not too interested in what fifty-eight-year-olds do any more: the interesting age for us as novel readers is the mating age, people, more or less, up to the thirties. It used to be that people or characters were all twenty, surprisingly young in fact.

The English novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury wrote of you: ‘His books are uneasy celebrations of American life, troubled interplays between bright domestic interiors and dark history . . . which sense like the couple themselves that Grace has gone but might be restored with aesthetic care and attention.’ Do you believe that Grace has largely disappeared from the American way of life, and are you in the business of restoring it?

I’ve read that description and it seems just. Maybe it’s typically American, however. I was reading another English critic the other day, and she makes the point, about American writing in general, that it’s all against a background of Utopian expectation. The Puritans came here expecting to create a Utopia, so we Americans tend to be very hard on our own society, because it isn’t perfect. No society is, but perhaps only this one expects to be perfect. My life has taken me from the Depression, of which I have selected memories, to the Second World War, which I remember quite well, from an adolescent’s point of view, as a time when we and the British and some few others were fighting what seemed to be the forces of utter darkness. We emerged triumphant as well as very powerful, so obviously from the high plateau of 1945 there could only be a slide down.

I’ve been a witness to that long slide, but on a political level I’m probably more pro-American than most American writers, and more willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, in the texture of life around me, in the way people behave toward each other, the way the cities look, the amount of garbage of all kinds – garbage in the trash masher, garbage on the television sets – there’s a lot to complain about. I suppose I have registered this in my novels, but basically I try to describe the human condition as I happen to have seen it as an American. If I had been born in England or France, I would be writing about Englishmen or Frenchmen, but I happen to have been handed this subject and love the idea behind America and the natural landscape we were handed – or rather that we grabbed. But there’s a lot wrong with the country when you compare it with the ideal we’re trying to live by.

With so much talk of censorship in the air at the moment, would you say people’s lives are particularly changed or affected by the fictions they read?

Well, mine has been. It’s not the only thing that’s affected my life, but certainly I’ve been affected by the books I’ve read, especially by a book like Madame Bovary. One is encouraged to fall in love by reading about people falling in love. In some sense our erotic expectations are shaped by what we read, as our notions of our responsibilities to society are also, I’d say, somewhat shaped. I’m trying to distinguish between my reactions as a citizen, as it were, and my reactions as a writer, because clearly, as a professional writer, I’m especially open to being affected by books. I’m always trying to learn how to do things or always willing to be surprised. But one very good American novel, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, not only really told me about Chicago, which I’m happy to know, but also excited me and made me feel better about being American.

I think that censors are correct that books, even in this day and age, can be quite important. They’re very important in societies where they’re censored, and where, of course, it has a reverse effect. The Soviet Union was until -recently a country where writers mattered enormously because they were almost the only people who would even begin to tell the truth. They couldn’t tell all of the truth, and they often got kicked out and had their books censored, but nevertheless, in both the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, they were caretakers of the truth. That will probably change as the pressure on them becomes less and less, and they’ll eventually achieve the status of writers in the West, where what they say doesn’t seem to matter much. But it does matter to a degree. Our notions of how to be human are to a considerable extent affected by what we read, and even if we don’t read we go to the movies, we watch television shows prepared by people who have read, so in a way there’s a trickle-down effect of significant writers in that it permeates pop culture and affects the way people act.

If my own books were censored, I’d quite mind it. I’m not used to it, of course.  As an American I was raised on the Bill of Rights and so regard all attempts at censorship, even fairly mild ones, as a great affront. George Steiner kept telling us in his columns that Eastern European writers were better writers than Americans because they had to cope with censorship. This may be, but it’s still not a price I want to pay. I don’t like the revival of puritanical school boards and library staffs. The pernicious effects aren’t so much at the front line, because there are lawyers to fight these suits and the censors often lose, but at a remove, when the publishers start to pull in their horns; they would rather not go to the trouble of seeing a controversial or too sexy text into print.

So even when they apparently lose in the courts, the censors win in the publishing houses. I can’t think of too many cases where I’d be for a book being censored. In wartime I might consider the right of the government to censor a book that gave away military secrets, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything sexual that should not be put into print now. I find censorship offensive, and every artist has an obligation to resist it.

What indeed, about television? I would say that is a real issue. Without wanting to sound too pontifical, the United States has a fairly puritanical past. We were founded by Puritans, we participated in the great Victorian prudery, and in pop culture we have always lagged behind France and Britain with what could be shown. Bare breasts on television, for example, are highly uncommon here, not that I think that seeing the human body will harm children. Presumably they have experience in their own little lives of naked adult bodies. I would say the violence is more alarming than the sex.

I just wouldn’t know where to draw the line, though neither would I trust the censors to know what’s good and what’s bad for us. No sooner had we suppressed violence in television that it might turn out that psychologically, it was saving lives to have all this surrogate violence. Bruno Bettelheim wrote a very nice book about the violence in fairy stories and how they should not be bowdlerized, should not be made less violent, the violence being the point. It helps the child to exorcize its very real fears. So although I wouldn’t say there never can be any censorship, in general I don’t trust the people who would administer it and I’d rather take my chances in a censor-free society.

Well-intentioned liberalism, some would claim, breeds ironies, such as that there have been more deaths in abortion clinics than in the whole of the Second World War. How do you, as a writer, cope with such ironies?

As a citizen you take certain stands, like everybody else. You vote for certain candidates, have certain feelings, some strong and some weak, about positions. But almost all things worth discussing have two sides so there is always more to be said about the paradox of liberalism. I was struck, during all the Vietnam protests, by the eagerness of American liberals to wish upon the South Vietnamese a kind of government they wouldn’t want for themselves. That, to me, seemed paradoxical, but no doubt there’s much to be said on the other side. As a writer of fiction, you can certainly enjoy having two opinions or more about everything, and give them each a voice. A novel is a good arena, not to vote, but to express your knowledge of the contradictions.

In writing fiction, I’m not compelled to express a view, but I am allowed to be as alert as possible to the paradox and the tension involved in all these instances. To be human, after all, is to live in a state of tension between opposites, making decisions that are the best o^ a series of bad choices. So many of our choices have a bad side. It’s one of the things in which the Christian doctrine of original sin makes a kind of sense. We’re in a position as humans where we cannot but do something wrong, no matter what we try.

At the time of the American involvement in Vietnam, you were misinterpreted and castigated as a ‘hawk’ and government supporter, but wouldn’t a policy of non-interference have matched your sympathies most closely?

I just don’t think that the United States, at least in the mid 1960s, could avoid interfering. The Vietnam involvement went back to Truman and Eisenhower, and Johnson was in a way just picking up the overdrawn cheques that other administrations had written. I suppose an all-wise government would intervene only where it could win, and stay out where it would lose, but I don’t think there is any government that wise. I could understand perfectly well how we got into it. I could have wished we could get out, but I did differ from many of my dovish confreres in understanding how we got there. It wasn’t so different from Korea. We were trying to prevent the southern half of a country from being taken over by the northern half. I admired Truman for looking at China back in 1947 and saying we’re not going to get involved with that. We didn’t, and it’s still running its course. I suppose an all-wise president would have looked at Vietnam and come to the same conclusion, but I did feel sorry for the administration and for the Americans trying to make sense of this muddle, and I was shocked by the amount of hatred for our own government that seemed to be present in the young and the old in this society.

It seemed to me wrong to be enjoying the benefits of being an American and to pretend we could enjoy those benefits while always having clean hands. I don’t think you can. Obviously the great power is great in part because it’s willing to use force, but all peace, including our personal peace and our right to walk down the street, is based upon a threat of violence somewhere behind us. So I was happy when we got out of Vietnam and sorry we were there so long, but it seemed to me a more honourable attempt than was alleged by many.

Famous novelists are often called on to sign public petitions for good causes. Do you have any feelings about that sort of pressure being morally intrusive?

It is morally intrusive. On the other hand, if it’s a cause I believe in I’m happy to sign. I’ve signed a number of petitions, but they may not be as common here as in England. I get a lot of requests from Britain, strange to say, to sign things, or to contribute to this and that. I have no quarrel with most liberal causes and I once signed a petition saying that Cassius Clay – Mohammed Ali – should be allowed to be heavy-weight champion even though he had resisted going into the army. I got some theatre tickets for doing it, so I remember that particular cause with pleasure.

May I quote you something you wrote that reminded me of Blake: ‘The essential self is innocent and when it tastes its own innocence, it knows that it lives forever’? Can you elaborate on that?

That’s one of those feelings you don’t have all the time, but there are moments when you seem to be tasting your essential self and the kind of bliss that goes with it. There’s a moment near the end of The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas in which he describes this moment, a sense of revelation and of everlastingness that I think is a real human sensation for whatever reason. If we ever try in our imagination to delve beneath our circumstances toward our actual selfhood, as in the course of my memoir I did, I think we come upon something that tastes good rather than bad, that tastes delicious. Our basic feeling about cosmic matters is that somehow life is good, and that it is good to be alive and be a witness to the world in its processes. I suppose that’s another way of talking about this essential innocence: a certain goodness at the root of things that we feel but can’t prove.

You have had to contend with psoriasis, stuttering, claustrophobia, asthma. Have such problems tended to isolate you and turn you into an observer, hence a novelist?

The psoriasis was isolating to a degree where I felt insecure and didn’t feel I had hundred-per-cent credentials for being human. I was embarrassed and in some way ashamed, and entered more timidly into the standard human adventures than I would have otherwise.

On the other hand, psoriasis is not to be classed with having a real disease or bad eyesight or one arm. I want to keep it in proportion, but it certainly did have an isolating effect and made me feel that I was somehow singled out; and this feeling of being singled out also helped me in choosing a solitary profession. I think I’m less claustrophobic now than many people. I seem able to fly in aeroplanes and go through tunnels without much of a quiver, whereas some people really can’t, so I’m not as claustrophobic, it turns out, as I thought. I’ve had a pretty successful life by and large, so that’s eased me out of some of my neurotic feelings. Asthma was not good, but it seems to have been cat related and did go away. I still think of myself as a basically healthy person.

But you actually say that nothing, not even love and sexual contentment, has reconciled you to your psoriasis.

Certainly the psoriasis has made me doubt my humanity in the ideal way, and that kind of doubt isn’t easily erased. The personality you acquire as a youthful psoriasis sufferer will stay with you all of your life. I’m really beyond being made to feel wonderful. My skin insists on having psoriasis. We’ve tried everything against it, with immediate success, and then a slow leakage back into failure. That’s happening now, and now it’s returning I realize that with it returns this sense of being unclean and unfit, which I suppose has the effect of channelling me into myself as a writer: the books don’t have psoriasis, the books are clean. I’ve had a lot of love compared to many, but no amount of love would ease away the self-distrust that comes from having had psoriasis at such an early age as I did. I notice that my daughter, who has a little bit of it – it came on in her twenties – doesn’t seem to have this really bad feeling. She just accepts it as normal. It’s not her fault and doesn’t much matter, whereas I feel it is my fault and does matter greatly.

Would you now see the early reviewer, who said of you that you wrote very well but had nothing to say, as having passed an unintended compliment? Auden, whom you admire, once said that art cannot be a midwife to reality, so perhaps writing well is exactly what a novelist should do, and there is no real reason why he should be more right about life than anyone else, is there?

It was a kind of a compliment, and Auden is to a degree right, though he is perhaps more right about poets than prose writers. The basic itch has to be the verbal itch, the wish to play with words; and content follows upon the fascination with words. It is felt of a prose writer in this country that he ought to have something to say, and it is true that you write best when you feel you have something to say and your subject is sufficiently strong to give an energy and thrust to the writing. Therefore I was hurt to think I had nothing to say. It seemed to me I did have things to say, and that they weren’t the things that had been said already. The trouble with that kind of critic is that he thinks everybody is going to write like Dreiser or James Jones, but I had my own message and my own particular slant, and I believe the fundamental desire, without which you do not have a writer, is the wish to make books and to find something to say. So I suppose it wasn’t such a bad thing to have said about me, in a way.

Talking about the way a writer’s work is reproduced endlessly, you called it ‘a mode of self-assertion that leaves the cowardly perpetrator hidden and out of harm’s way’, but isn’t the opposite true too – once something is in print there is no going back and you are subject to all the vagaries of taste and opinion?

On the one hand you are out of the rain, as we were saying earlier, but on the other you’re getting all wet constantly because you’ve extended yourself, you’ve thrown this hostage out there. It’s not you, it’s cut off from you. It’s like a baby, only even more remote than a baby. Once the publication has occurred, your mind is on other things and you don’t really see the effects it’s having on any but a few people. You read a few reviews, you get a few letters, you see the sales reports. Otherwise the book just fades away and you don’t have to harvest the results. It’s not like a personal act where you must be there to reap the grain, so it’s an extension of you, but a relatively painless one. I’ve always had a distinct feeling that I am myself John Updike and have a certain history and birth date and a certain body, but that what my books say is quite detached from that, is in a way the real me. I try to be honest, to describe what it’s like to be a person, an American male, but it’s not really me and I don’t feel endangered by the books as they make their own way in the world.

You asserted that: -My assets as a novelist I take to be my taste for American life acquired in Shillington.’ What is it that is really characteristic of American life?

Having written that, I wonder if it is true. Maybe I’ve had enough American life. We are certainly becoming more European as we become more civilized and the wilderness recedes. Yet Europe has learned many lessons from America in the past forty-five years, but the difference, I suppose, is that this country was based upon the notion of equality. It was there at the very start in the Puritan settlements, was reinforced by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the notion we are all equal and must prove ourselves is still there. So we are not hopelessly handicapped by any conditions of class, even of race, though certainly to be black in this country isn’t an easy row to hoe. Then there’s the fact that so much of our culture is in the way of being lowest-common-denominator culture. On the one hand, it’s vulgar and simple minded, on the other there’s a kind of energy. Think of the Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, which were mass culture with a vengeance, yet they now seem works of art in their style. We’re able to see that in fact this was an art form and that it can’t be done now. I like the levelling that happened in America and the fact that any structure is going to be put up from scratch. You can begin again, and every generation begins again. That’s what I would say the difference is between America and Europe.

In view of some of the rather unsavoury aspects of Christianity through the centuries, what now remains of Christianity in your view that seems worth clinging to?

Well, it says: ‘Fear not.’ It tries to assuage our basic dread, to placate our fear that comes from being a death-foreseeing animal. The New Testament also holds out the idea of people being equal in the sight of God and that is as useful a way to try to form society as any. It obviously holds up a number of other ideals, not all of which it has always lived up to, but I like the need, the empowering yes of it. In my own life I’ve taken courage from a sense that I was doing something useful and relatively harmless, but to some extent the energy has all been generated by faith, and by unreasonable faith, because it’s a long way from Shillington to the Ritz Carlton. And so, having lived by faith, I intend to be more indulgent of faith.

I’d say my Christianity is a way of coping with life. It regularizes my week, puts something in it that is entirely voluntary. I get to see a lot of other people who’ve also gotten up on a Sunday morning and put on their good clothes, and it holds up a set of standards that aren’t strictly worldly. It says there are other standards, and it’s healthy for a writer to realize that what matters so much maybe isn’t the results we get but the spirit in which we do something. Sometimes the best success comes to people who don’t try too hard, and Christianity has enabled me maybe not to try too hard but to try enough.

I wouldn’t say I’ve found that I become more religious as I get older. I was most religious when I was in my twenties and most scared. The older I get the less scared I seem to be, and in a sense the less needy. Yet I’m still a churchgoing Protestant, though it’s been many years since I read theology with any real passion. I used to read a fair amount of it. I was so desperate to find some place where I could stand. Now I seem to think I’m standing on a place, but the rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment.

I don’t think a society should enforce religion. In this country there’s a lot of constitutional language saying it should not, though America does seem a little too pious. All the presidents talk about God, for example, as though he’s right next door, even though some of them have not been very religious, or at least very faithful churchgoers. It seems very bad when a country professes an official religion, and I would resist that here, and resist even the tendencies toward it. Government of the society presided over should be minimal. It should be the least number of laws that can create order, and everything else should be left up to human initiative and human emotion, even human whim. A society that tries to create goodness is in danger of becoming a tyranny. This constitution, as I understand it, doesn’t expect people to be good but allows for them to be bad up to a certain point and then says the rest must step in. This seems a more realistic approach than the kind of total package the ayatollahs of Iran, say, would like to enforce, or which you find, for that matter, in Mao’s China, where a total lifestyle, a total set of directives is offered you by the state.

For the last ten years or so you have displayed signs of anxiety at growing old. Are you fearful for your art, or is it more to do with mortality?

One doesn’t like being mortal, and one certainly doesn’t like feeling one’s body stiffen and age under one. I’m not in bad shape at fifty-eight, but there are things I used to be able to do that I can’t. I used to be able to hold a broomstick in my two hands and jump up in the air and over it while still holding on. This is not a great accomplishment, but it was something I could do, and at a party in the late hours I would sometimes do it and astound the other party-goers. When I was little I used to wonder how these big people around me could stand being so close to death, and still walk around, smiling, being silly and cheerful, reading the newspaper. How could they hack it? Now I’m in that position, I see that you hack it in part because you have no choice.

I don’t think I’m abnormally aware of being old. My wife has a healthy and brisk attitude towards the ageing process. She doesn’t deny it, but she thinks life is there to be lived and our duty, as long as we’re alive, is to enjoy it in some way. A lot of writers are dead at my age, and certainly many are dead as writers, so some of that may be a pep talk to myself, saying don’t give up, don’t stop trying, don’t get complacent, keep trying to learn. You have fewer grey cells, but maybe you can make better use of the ones you have. There are advantages to being fifty-eight. A lot of decisions have been made already, a lot is behind you. Your child-raising years are over, you’ve made your career choices. In a way your mind is clearer to concentrate on meaningful things. I’m aware that I tend to make my men older than myself. I put a lot of them in their sixties, for some reason. My present novel is all about getting old and useless, though I myself still feel in pretty good shape.

Do you still feel you have an unfulfilled task?

I haven’t many regrets, things I’d go back and change. I’ve certainly behaved badly on occasions and foolishly on others, but the basic decisions of my life were the choice of profession, where to live, which women to marry, which college to go to. I’ve been lucky in those decisions. I think they’ve been the right ones, and the world has tended to confirm me in that thought. I have hopes of writing books better than the ones I’ve written. I do feel I have something still to say, and to locate that thing and say it seems possible and worth doing. I’m in a position in which what I write will get published, will get some attention, so I’m well located and should try to measure up to the opportunity I still have.

I’d like to think I’m pretty adventurous still. A certain safety enshrouds me now. I can’t escape safety to a degree, especially since American writers, as we’ve said, burn out so notoriously that if I do nothing it’ll be no great disgrace; I’ll merely be behaving like most of my predecessors. If I look back on my novels, they’ve all had an element of self-challenge. They’re all stunts in a way, they all had some trick at their heart. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I was able to write them because the trick amused me.

Fiction is potentially frivolous, and since I came from a line of practical people, doing something so impractical and making a living at it makes me feel guilty in a way. My initial ambition was aimed a little under where I’ve actually landed. I wanted merely to be a cartoonist or a magazine writer and to make a living at it. Instead I’ve found myself catapulted into trying to write literature, really trying to write lasting and significant stuff.

I suppose the kind of language I use is a way of protecting myself from the true awesomeness of trying to write really well. It doesn’t mean I don’t try to write well, but I have to frame it in some way a little lightheartedly or bashfully to make it possible to be productive, because it’s quite possible to get overawed by writing. The only final response to the awesomeness of what you’re trying to do is silence, and I don’t want to become silent.

The Challenges Facing the Book Trade in 2010

Christmas 2009 will, in the annals of the book trade, be the one that never happened: a low, dark point in publishing history.

The lead-up to the holiday is traditionally a season when publishers and booksellers can anticipate the boost of Christmas buying. This time it simply has not happened and the whole book industry is in turmoil.

In part this can be attributed to the recession, but there are various other factors in play, not the least being the demise of small independent bookshops that have kept the focus on the book as an individual product rather than a mass commodity. Among the chains, Borders and Books Etc. have tried to do the same, but they have failed to stay the course and have gone into receivership. The result is a knock-on downward spiral, damaging to the small independent publishing houses, who have to carry the brunt when they can least afford it. The effect is then to limit hopes even further for individualistic originality in the market place.

Within this crisis, the short-term drive has naturally become to focus all sales efforts on those books that are ‘sure to sell’. This is not the same thing as a measure of worth or quality. In the long-term it points towards an arid future where creativity is suppressed and excluded. There is also an inverted snobbery in the air, with attempts to brand a concern for books and their value as a form of élitism. In this atmosphere, with local bookshops and small publishers doing their best to develop survival tactics by whatever means are at their disposal, newcomers on the writing scene already find it extremely hard to gain space or recognition. Literary consideration and the encouragement of budding talent are left far behind in a scramble to promote solely what is seen as commercially viable.

In these post-Thatcherite times, we may as well adapt a phrase from Charles Dickens and say that the cost of everything is known, but the value of much is forgotten.

Where does the blame for this lie, and what is commercially viable in any case? There are many factors. One, probably inherent in the book trade for many years, is the problem of a lack of efficiency. From my own recollection, it is a matter that has always figured high, but unfortunately it is getting steadily worse. The arrival of bookstore chains in our city high streets highlighted the problem as they mushroomed at an alarming rate from the time of Mrs Thatcher’s advent as prime minister. Her monetarist gospel spread like wildfire across the UK, making the new religion of greed and profit a marker for business success, irrespective of its other effects. It gained a new momentum from an unlikely source. The Blair years proved even deadlier than those preceding them. The Blairite government, in its masquerade as New Labour, not only pushed the gospel of money-making to disastrous limits, but also, as we have seen, gave greed and gain a false respectability that entrenched a routine corruption of attitude among certain of our politicians on both the left and the right.

Another feature of Mrs Thatcher’s dictates was the starvation of funding for the public libraries. This funding was diverted instead to the grandiose service industry in the City. Literature and the arts were left to fend for themselves. It was all an erosion of the financial underpinning that made it possible to maintain diverse publishing programmes and the principle of free access to the printed word at what had been an enviable level in individual communities. The attack on the public libraries has by no means ceased under New Labour, and local authorities have often been positively encouraged to close some of the libraries in their care and, for those remaining, create commercial incentives that have little to do with books.

Running parallel with this process, the book chains elbowed small booksellers aside and starting many a gimmick to attract the reading public. ‘Buy two books, get one free’ became a common slogan. A war of discounts followed, and with it the industry’s efficiency sank to ever lower levels. The standard of sales staff employed became a joke, since it was evident in many cases that their knowledge of books fell below the national standard.

Until the book trade shakes itself clear of practices that wrongly target money instead of improving services, there will be little prospect of any recovery.

We should not be ashamed of preaching a different gospel, one that celebrates informed service, efficiency and the importance of the written word. The publishing of books was once considered to be among the most noble of professions. It helped to develop the mind and the cultural life of the nation. To divert, entertain, inform and self-educate are the truly democratic uses of the book as social artefact.

The fate of the independent publishers has often followed a pattern similar to that of the bookshops. In fact the roots of this change went back even further into the 1960s, when large publishing groups from the North American continent began to buy into London’s publishing tradition. It was a culture shock on several levels. Old family firms that were household names received offers they could not refuse, and the new brooms, as they came in, swept the boardrooms clean with a ruthlessness shocking to those brought up in the ‘gentlemanly’ assumptions of the trade. Eminent publishers found themselves put out to grass ahead of their retirement agendas. The Sunday Times and later the Times itself came under the ownership of the Canadian Thomson Group, which was soon adding book publishers to its portfolio, and trying to impose on books the sort of profit levels that it looked for from journalism. In a portent for the future, the power within publishing companies shifted from the pre-eminence of editorial flare and intuition to the rule of sales management and accountants.

It was not a bad thing in itself for the economics of book publishing to come under a fresh critical scrutiny, but there were losses and casualties too, not the least of these being an undermining of the relationship between publishers, editors and their authors.

The onward march of the conglomerates hastened this trend even further, as publishing became a mechanised industry, devoid of the very essence of that formerly valued relationship.

Can this basic transformation hold benefits for the cultural life of the nation? It seems unlikely. How long will we continue to be in this a long-drawn-out period where money-spinning celebrities corner the market at the expense of less ephemeral values?

It does not augur well to see Random House advertising for a ‘celebrity editor’ against the backdrop last month of the worst retail figures for the book trade in living memory. Yet it was this book trade that created the ‘gift book’, which revolutionised Christmas as a commercial phenomenon,­ perhaps the most remarkable retail innovation in the past 150 years and one achieved despite the systematic destruction of public libraries, the abandonment of reading as a required skill in educational performance (40 per cent of our children now leave school unable to read complex sentences), and the relegation of literary coverage in the popular media to afterthoughts in supplements listing television schedules.

Where the large chain bookshops are concerned, questions begin to arise over how helpful they really are to the book trade in the forms they take today. They seem to have produced a situation not dissimilar to the supermarkets’ relationship with agriculture, where the profits belong to those a long way further along the line from the primary producers (for ‘growers and farmers’ read ‘authors and their publishers’), who are squeezed into accepting lower and lower returns on their labour. Inevitably this involves devaluations of quality and lowered expectations on the part of the reading public.

In the media push, it is the obvious and predictable that tends to get into the foreground, while the less obvious, which needs more searching out, is relegated and left trailing.

Serendipity is one of the joys of reading, when you are led down a byway you never expected to travel, or you stumble on a book you never knew about that comes alive for you. In giving this sort of service to the reader, the book chains simply cannot replicate the advantages of the small independent bookshops, especially when these are imaginatively run and responsive to their customers within a local context. The purpose of reading was always to jolt us out of our tramlines. We need to find ways of restoring that slightly subversive edge.

Other questions go to the heart of the matter. To begin with, there are the massive discounts the book chains insist are necessary (45 per cent minimum, rising to 52+ per cent); the so-called ‘marketing fees’ they impose to promote new titles in front-of-shop positions (ranging from £500 to £3,500+); their absolute right of return of any unsold stock regardless of when it was ‘bought’; and generous payment terms (60/90 days after delivery).

In other words, they have no responsibility for any of the stock they buy, and no incentives to work with books as individual objects that need to be matched with individual minds.

Therefore it seems perfectly valid to ask ask how, with all these overwhelming trading advantages, we have still witnessed three major book chains collapse during the past ten years, owing a great deal of money to British publishers? The fact is that it is hard to see how main-street shopping centres can go on sustaining enormous, unwieldy chain bookstores for much longer, when these can never hope to match the performance of the discount-warehouse, e-commerce portals. Amazon, and the rest offer the customer better discounts, efficient, no-cost delivery and every book in print from accessible websites, with the ability to browse content, check on reviews, make comparisons and shop around. Why therefore should publishers support the chains, especially on the draconian terms the chains demand? The hope of matching quality with individual choice seems a more likely prospect within the on-line retail sector, where paradoxically it has a better chance of being consumer-led. Book marketing, book-buying and book-reading habits are changing in evolutionary ways along with technological development. The future will force many altered assumptions.

Leaving nostalgia aside, I mourn the passing of those individual publishing companies in Britain where the personality associated with them made an unmistakable mark. In retrospect, their generation seems like a golden age. From their various political, social or literary viewpoints, Billy Collins, Hamish (‘Jamie’) Hamilton, Jock Murray, Victor Gollancz, André Deutsch, Allen Lane, John Calder, among others, all published books for their times, sometimes defiantly. Their heritage has now mostly been swallowed by the publishing conglomerates, but to me those were the glory days of book production when the sheer individuality of the publisher rated so high that it left a mark to define the objective and essence of publishing valid for generations to come. We can never re- create that in our changed economic circumstances, but all trends outrun their use in due course and matters turn full circle.

Not all the signs are discouraging. People have become alert to the threat of library closures for reasons of ‘rationalisation’, and are willing to campaign to try to prevent it. While sixty-nine bookshops closed in 2008-9, as Rachel Cooke reports in a recent Observer column, thirty-four new ones opened their doors. Where the opportunities of a niche market are perceived, there is likely to be an enthusiasm and confidence notably lacking in the wider picture.

What the impact of the digital revolution in word reproduction is likely to be on publishing is still unclear. The economic realities and technological factors in the way books are produced have always been elements in successful publishing. George Eliot was denied the option of producing shorter novels, since the Mudie Lending Library, the Amazon of its day, made more money from three-volume novels, the DVDs of their day. There is clear evidence that what has happened with the music industry will be directly replicated within the book business, with problems to be solved of copyright protection, piracy, perceived rights to having everything free and the generation of income from the use of someone’s intellectual property.

A fresh vision is needed in the interacting roles of publisher and author as we move into this brave new world of uncharted territories. But the history of the book as object has shown remarkable resistance to extinction.

Let us hope Christmas 2009 is some sort of turning point for the book trade, rather than a one-way street sign. Personally I think it could be.

No Longer With Us: Dominick Dunne

I’m not sure that I had a happy childhood. I was one of six children, and we were a large Catholic family in Hartford, Connecticut, a very WASP city. We were outsiders and I hated being an outsider as a child. It wasn’t that we were discriminated against – I can’t say that – but we were different from the others. It seemed, for example, that children’s parties were always on a Friday, and in those days Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. I used to turn scarlet every time I had to decline the chicken or whatever it was we were being given. I would be brought a poached egg, and I hated all that, but the discrimination, if that is what it was, was more on my side than on theirs, if that makes sense. Now, as an adult, I love feeling like an outsider, because I think that’s what gives me the insights I have as a novelist and journalist. All those feelings I once hated I treasure, because that is what has helped me more than anything else as a writer.

One of the main influences of my childhood was my grandfather, after whom I am named. He was an extraordinary, brilliant man who had had very little formal education, yet was one of the most educated people I have ever known. He had an incredible love of literature and poetry. He made his money in the grocery business, but never forgot that he was born poor and had poor relations. He used to take care of the poor in the city of Hartford, and eventually he was knighted by the Pope for his charitable work. My brother and I would spend Saturday nights at my grandfather’s house, where he read poetry to us after dinner. We hated it at the time, but it had an enormous influence. Then, on Sunday, he would take us down to the poor areas of the city. It was all an important part of our growing up.

I was close to my mother too, but I never got on with my father. I always felt I was a disappointment to him. I was not a good athlete. I was shy and had a stutter. I was very insecure. I was not a good student. Then, when I was eighteen, I went into the army. I was very scared, but drafted out of my fancy boarding school and finding myself with all these tough people. I had one friend, a boy from Yale who was a year older.  They used to call us the gold-dust twins. During the Battle of the Bulge we were in combat for the first time and I was absolutely terrified. It was dark and raining, and we were retreating, losing the battle. Some men had been wounded, but although the lieutenant was told about the wounded men, he said we couldn’t stop for them since his orders were to take us back. Something happened then that I have never been able to understand. My friend and I looked at each other and some energy or something took over the two of us. We turned around and ran toward the enemy in the night, artillery shells flying over our heads in the pouring pissing rain.

God knows how, but we found two wounded soldiers in the pitch dark. My friend carried one and I carried the other to the nearest aid station, in the basement of a bombed-out house. The duty orderly said he couldn’t do anything since his orders were to retreat, but we made him help. We turned on a generator to get some light and eventually got the guys into an ambulance. I was covered in blood, and never even knew the name of the one I’d carried. I never heard if he lived or died. But as I put him on the stretcher, he took hold of my fingers and squeezed them as if to say thanks.

My friend and I both got medals for that, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was maybe the first indication that inside I had some kind of strength that I never understood. I felt I had the ability to do anything at that moment. It was almost like I was outside of myself watching. I didn’t talk about it for years and years. Then, two winters ago, I had an amazing experience. There’s a coffee shop near here, and sometimes, when I work late, I go over and have a sandwich at the counter. One day I looked up from my New York Times and saw a guy looking at me. It was the other gold-dust twin. We hadn’t seen each other in over forty years. We both got up and each of us walked across and just hugged the other, and cried.

Hollywood is very unforgiving of failure. It will forgive, even overlook your forgeries, your embezzlements, and occasionally your murders, but it will not forgive failure.’ I’m glad you picked that to quote at me from my latest novel. It’s one of my favourite lines in the whole book. And it’s true. If the guy’s last four pictures are successful he will be forgiven anything. Take the famous forgery case out there a few years ago. The whole industry rallied behind the man that forged the cheque. He was the head of a studio, and they stood behind him. Again – this is dicey to talk about so I’m not naming names – a very famous man out there may or may not have ordered a killing; certainly it’s been in all the papers that the possibility exists. No charges have been filed, but the possibility remains. That man is not shunned. And God knows, there’s one case after another of financial irregularities. During that famous forgery case, people whom I knew at the studio would say, ‘It was only $10,000.’

Not all my days in Hollywood were unhappy. I had some great years there, until it turned bad for me and I began to hate it, but not every minute of my twenty-four years there was horrible. For more than half of that time it was wonderful. Even now, when I go back, I always have a funny feeling there, and I’m not just talking about my daughter’s death. If my daughter hadn’t been murdered I would still have this feeling. I grew so desperately lonely and unhappy there and I used to blame others for the destruction of my film career, but ultimately I came to realize that it was myself who brought it about. Maybe it was some sort of elaborate pattern in the grand plan of life to get me to go and write. None the less I didn’t understand that at the time. I was drinking, I was taking drugs, I was doing all kinds of things, and my life became just awful.

In any case, I began to feel I might have some talent as a writer during my last years in Hollywood when my whole career as a film and television producer came apart. Having been very successful and then having started to be very unsuccessful, I was also experiencing this inner feeling that I should be writing. Of course, I was of an age when the whole idea of shifting career seemed just ludicrous, so I didn’t act right away. Eventually, in about 1979, I moved from California to Oregon and started writing my first book. I had gone to my former wife’s house, where I had things stored on the third floor. Among my belongings that I had long since forgotten were letters written to me during the Second World War when I was overseas, eighteen years old and a private soldier in combat. Those letters from years and years before were from my mother, father and sisters, and several times my father, who I thought didn’t like me, said that my own letters home were so descriptive that I should really think about writing as a career. So I think it was always there; it was just dormant in me. I’m happy now, because I have found contentment in my work. I love working for Vanity Fair and I love writing my books. I often get asked to go back to Hollywood to write or produce a movie again, but that’s all gone, that’s over. I seem to be bringing out a novel every two years, and in between times I write stories for Vanity Fair and travel a great deal. I have the kind of life where I don’t have to answer to anyone. I go to Europe four or five times a year and to California just as often, and I love living like that. I actually don’t need other people in my life. I’ve finally come to that conclusion. I love having friends, but I am basically a loner. I haven’t even had a long relationship with a woman for quite a few years.

When People Like Us and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities get spoken of together, I am enormously flattered because Tom Wolfe is one of the really great writers of our time and I admired his book enormously. But our books are very different. He’s much more of a satirist than I am, and I think I see more hope than he does. Everybody is ultimately bad in his book, there’s nobody to root for, whereas I don’t think things are that bad.

Three other writers I feel affinity with are Scott Fitzgerald, John P. Marquand and John O’Hara. All three have influenced me. As a kid I couldn’t wait for J. P. Marquand’s books to come out, and he had an enormous influence on me. I have a great affinity with John O’Hara in that he, too, was an Irish Catholic and moved in high social life, as I apparently do. I always identified with those two, and then, later, I read Fitzgerald, who’s probably the best writer of the three.

When, in People Like Us, I described smart ladies in long ball gowns stepping over the down-and-outs in the street, it was an exaggerated image, but what eventually happens to New Yorkers, even the most wonderful people, is that the blinders go on and they stop looking.  I have actually seen them coming out of a swell party and getting into a limousine, pulling minks around them and putting their jewels into their bags so they won’t show while they’re waiting for the chauffeur to close the door; and all this while homeless people are lying right there in the street.

When I said, ‘The Reagans brought out the worst in many people,’ it was what I really thought. I’m not a fan of the Reagans at all. From the very beginning of their administration, Mrs Reagan had this sense of opulence that went beyond the norm one expects from the First Lady.  Everything had to do with possessions: she gave extraordinary emphasis to clothes, and there was the famous business of the china that cost so much money. I think that kind of set the pace for the rich. When the Reagans could have invited fascinating people to the White House, they chose the rich and fashionable instead, and sent a signal out to the country that flamboyance was OK.

Since you quote me my remark that the 1980s was the decade when the rich went public, I have to say that I can really only speak for New York, because that’s where I lived during that whole decade. The rich were richer than they’ve ever been before, and it was truly disgusting how they flaunted their wealth. And the way they would invite the media into their lives used to fascinate me. All their houses were photographed. It was the era of instant art collections, instant antique collections, instant porcelain collections, instant jewellery collections. People just talked about money the whole time. You’d be sitting in somebody’s house at dinner, and you’d know that the apartment you were sitting in was sold for $6,800,000, that the hostess’s dress cost $22,000, that the centrepieces from Marlow cost $600 and that the curtains from Sister Parish cost whatever. I couldn’t get over it, this thing about money, money, money. It was really obscene. That was when I decided to write People Like Us. It’s too early to define the 1990s yet, because I don’t think a decade defines itself until about the fourth year. But the lives of these people have certainly gone into the closet again. And that s for the good, I think. Critics always say this thing about writers, that they have a strong desire to belong to the world they write about, and I don t really know the answer to that question. I don’t feel I want to be part of that world, because once you’re a part of it you can’t comment on it any more. As it is I ride a very fine line between mixing in that world and writing about it. It’s a very curious thing. I found that during the time I was writing People Like Us, which was about New York society and people involved in social advancement, I really did live the life of those people. I could never live like that again. I did it for several years, and I’m glad I did it, but I never have to do it again.

As for how, as a successful novelist, I can escape the fate of the rich  as I describe it in my novels, I can tell you, in the first place, that my house is fairly sweet, very cosy, but also very small. I have no desire to move to a fifteen-room house. This is the way I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I’m really not interested in all the things that go with money, acquisitions and so on. I have been rich and successful earlier in my life, when I was in the movie business, and it did change me when I was young. I turned into somebody I never want to be again so I’ve already had that experience. And it’s not going to happen again. If people see a strong moralistic line in my novels it is something which has evolved. What happened to me in my life has changed me for ever. I have been involved in drink and drug abuse, though that was years ago. I’m still a regular participant in AA, but even if I didn’t go to AA, I would never drink or drug again.

Ask me about my writing. I don’t like questions like that – about whether respect in the States is fundamentally linked to money. Answers always come out making me sound like an asshole – you know, giving great opinions. I’m just a writer. Yes when Women’s Wear Daily somehow got hold of a very early draft of People Like Us – I never knew how – it was a very interesting experience for me, though I was scared at first; They likened me to Truman Capote, and said that, like him, I had bitten the hand that fed me. Truman Capote revealed confidences and secrets that people in society had told him, and I knew I hadn’t done that. I therefore decided just to wait it out, and I almost enjoyed the experience of being shunned by those who had previously invited me. Some did call me up and ask how I could have done such a thing, and a couple of people had their lawyers ring and threaten my publishing house. It was just fascinating, and I began to wonder, what do they think I know about them that I don’t really know? Anyone who’s read this book will see that it deals with the public life of these people. I don’t know what their secrets are. Once the book was out, most people calmed down, but there are still a few who have never spoken to me since. I don’t think, in fact, that I’ve ever betrayed a confidence. I always make sure that I combine three or four people into one character. Someone may recognize certain aspects of their own character, but never the whole.

In my interviews people tell me things they’ve never admitted to before. I truly don’t know why, but all my life people have told me things. The simple answer, I suppose, is that I’m a good listener. A letter arrived today from a friend whom I had told of my experience the other night at a party in New York where a woman talked to me about the death of her son. This friend of mine writes: ‘The image I have been unable to shake from my mind is the one you put there the other morning when we talked on the phone of your encounter with’ – I’ll make up a name – ‘Mary. I’m dead certain that she hasn’t had that conversation or even anything like it with another soul. What Mary told you may not strike the world as significantly historic, but I can tell you, even though I think you already know, that for her that was one fucking precious moment. I’ve played it over and over in my mind, the murmur of other conversations going on around you, the smell of the room, the rustling of dresses, getting up from the table and so on, until she came back into the room to kiss you good night. It all haunts me in a rather pleasant way and perhaps the reason why I can’t shake it or don’t want to is because practically everything else about her son’s death haunts me in the most unpleasant way.’ That letter perhaps shows that it just so happens that people tell me things.

The fact that public figures are no longer so protected from their indiscretions as they once were raises an interesting question. I’m in a dilemma about how to answer it. I don’t think I would ever reveal something that was terribly private to a person’s life. If I discovered that someone had committed murder I think I’d tell it, or if someone had stolen something – that’s a different thing, if the person has harmed someone. But if it’s about someone’s sexuality, or someone’s illegitimacy over which the person has no control, I wouldn’t tell. I would say, though, that the investigative journalism we now have in the United States has gone too far. I’ve stopped reading Spy magazine. I used to be amused in the beginning, but it isn’t funny any more. It’s just cruel, and people are deeply hurt by it.

If I say I have come to terms with tragedy in my life, it sounds so arch. I believe in God, and I think that, no matter what happens, you go on, you don’t give up. I believe very firmly in this. There are so many people who suffer a tragedy in their lives and never recover from it. I go out and talk a lot to groups or to people who have been through homicide experiences, and what I try to say is that your life can go on again, you can go out, go to movies again, laugh again, go to parties again. What has happened will always be part of you and will change you, but you have to go back to work, and if you’ve got other children, you have to focus on them rather than focusing on the tragedy that has occurred.

I was myself able to use the tragedy of my daughter’s murder in a novel and in an article in Vanity Fair. Why shouldn’t I? I was so enraged by the justice system that I could never have returned to my writing career if I had not written that article. My anger was at such a level that I was obsessed by what I had witnessed in the courtroom, and it was a release for me. I’m also very proud of that article. It’s been used by district attorneys, by judges, and it’s read in some law schools to show what can happen when a case goes wrong in court. The book did not deal with the tragedy; it dealt with the aftermath, with how you deal with feelings of revenge, of getting even with the person who has done this terrible thing to you. In People Like Us as I wrote it – I’m not talking about the movie of it, because the movie was a piece of shit where they changed the whole emphasis – the character of Gus Bailey was the seemingly passive person who worked as a journalist in New York, and none of the people with whom he interacted knew that he was planning a violent act, which was to kill the person who had caused him harm.

I know that in real life you have those feelings, and I know that in the groups of people I talk to they have those feelings of wanting to kill the person who has killed the member of their family. Now, I also know that you can’t do it, nor would I do it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the feelings, and as a novelist I could create a situation in which I could deal with those feelings, could act them out in a story in a way I couldn’t act them out in life. Yet the fact is that when I got to the part where he shoots the killer, I couldn’t make him shoot him, even in a book; so his hand moves as he shoots, and he wounds the guy but doesn’t kill him. In life, however, I can never forgive.

If I could rewind the tape of the life I have lived, I would certainly have moved away from Hollywood sooner and started writing. But I also believe in the whole perfect pattern. Perhaps I’m better as a writer for having gone through so much, for having been broke for ten years, for having to worry about rent money, for having been successful, then unsuccessful, and having people whom I thought were my friends in Hollywood no longer be my friends because I was no longer successful.  I hated that while I was living it, but I got through it and now I wouldn’t trade it. If it’s all been just perfect for you all your life, you’re going to have nothing to write about. You have to see both sides.

If I had it all again, what would I do? I would try to get to know my father better. I was afraid of my father, and I understand now that he was the kind of man who didn’t have the ability to be gentle. It made me scared of strong men for most of my life. When I was in Hollywood I used to be terrified of heads of studios. Anybody who was in authority over me would frighten me. I no longer feel like that, but I’m a different person now. I used to hate being a Catholic in an Episcopalian city, but now, if I had to live it again, I would want it to be exactly the same. I used to think all life would be easier for me if only I was a Protestant instead of a Catholic, which is ludicrous. But I guess we never understand our lives until later.

I allowed my Catholicism to lapse for many years, but I have come back to it. I had a child who died, and after my child died I was in a state of despair. I was living in California then, and a man – a most unlikely person who had been a figure in the movie industry, been divorced I don’t know how many times, been a great womanizer and everything else – came to see me and told me of a priest he thought I should go and see. I was so startled that this guy with his rogue life should have this idea, that I went to see the priest, and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I started going back to my faith. I have stayed with it, and although I’m not the best Catholic in the world. I do practise my religion.

My broken marriage was a source of sadness to me. Still is. I was married to a wonderful woman. She’s still my great friend. She has multiple sclerosis and is a total invalid. She lives in a wheelchair and cannot do a single thing without assistance. That all happened after we were divorced, although she was ill during our marriage and it was never diagnosed. I never wanted to get divorced, and neither of us ever married again. We went through a bad period, but the point of marriage should be that you weather out the bad patches. It’s always upset me that my kids’ lives were shaken up during that time. I wouldn’t have gotten a divorce if I had it to do over again. She’s probably still the most important person in my life. I think the failure of the marriage was my fault not hers. It would have been nice if things had turned out differently. For years and years I’ve missed the noise of a house, the children’s sounds, dog sounds, maid sounds and so on. When I went to live alone, it took me years to get used to the silence. Now I’m used to being alone, and I kind of like it. My chief regret has to be that I wasn’t a better husband. That really took a toll. I hope I have been a good father. I know for a fact that my children love me, and that’s a nice feeling, but it’s not to say that all’s been perfect with the kids.  Sometimes my sons can be really tough with me, but i suppose it’s good that they feel secure enough to do so.  One of my sons gave me hell the other day.  A TV movie of one of my books came out, and it dealt with my daughter’s death, something that was not in my book.  It really bothered me too, but my son said that it was my own fault, that if I had taken an interest and hadn’t distanced myself from the movie so much and put it in other people’s hands, this would never have happened.  He got really mad at me, and i was hurt by it, but i realized also how much had changed.  There was a time in my life when, if he had spoken like that, I would simply have hung up the phone, but instead I understood his anger.  Even though he was angry with me, he still loved me, and i knew that he knew that I loved him back.

Back to Global Warming

The global warming brigade is at it again. On the website, under the heading ‘The Climate Change Boycott Gambit’, James Hrynyshyn has accused Quartet of fabricating the existence of a boycott in order to cover up for the ‘failure’ of Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – The Missing Science.

In fact he is wrong in this, as such accusations from his side of the fence usually are.

Heaven and Earth has already had five reprints and its sales are still going strong.  This is despite the fact that it has not had the benefit of any reviews, apart from the now famous article that appeared in the Spectator about three months back.  The rest of the media has by and large ignored the book, except for the Guardian newspaper, which has denounced it in no uncertain terms.

Any claim from the climate fundamentalists that Quartet is conjuring lies in order to boost its sales is quite preposterous. Our response is clear: such tactics are unworthy of any reply.  The facts speak for themselves.

Indeed, here is a sample of one of the emails threatening a boycott of Quartet Books:

From: Gary [mailto: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx]
Sent: 14 December 2009 13:35

Subject: Heaven and Earth – boycotting Quartet books thanks to Ian Plimer

Dear Quartet,

Through a Guardian article today I have been made aware of your promotion of Ian Plimer’s book “Heaven and Earth”.

I am sure you are making a great deal of profit from this deceitful climate change denier. My response is to inform all of my contacts to boycott any books that you publish until you make a public statement distancing yourselves from Ian Plimer and immediately stop printing, promoting and supporting his lies.

There is simply too much at stake here. I would appreciate your positive response in this matter.


Gary Evans

If Ian Plimer has, indeed, written a ‘deceitful’ work of fiction, then why not engage him in a head-on debate?  So far no one of any substance has agreed to take him on here in the UK.

Why not? Even the BBC has failed to give discussion space to those who, like Plimer, decline to follow the orthodox government stance on climate warming. It is refreshing to note that the Board of Trustees of the BBC has now asked the corporation for an inquiry into whether its coverage of this very important issue has been even-handed.

Meanwhile, the climate change deniers are being ostracised in a democracy whose foundation is based on free speech. Instead of a healthy debate on the causes of climate change, the public is constantly being fed with all sorts of information, some of it inconclusive, some of it actually wrong. The melting of the Himalayan glaciers has been made into a specially emotive issue, with claims that they could all disappear within twenty-five years, a warning that had been given in a UN report.

As reports in the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail now confirm (17 and 18 January 2010), this vital piece of data has been traced back via a 2005 report by WWF to  a news item in the New Scientist in 1999 that was based in turn on a telephone conversation with an Indian scientist, Syed Hasnain. Mr Hasnain now says that any off-the-cuff remarks he made at the time were ‘pure speculation’. This piece of ‘irrefutable science’ had therefore never been subject to the rigorous peer review normal for scientific conclusions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had simply accepted it at face value, and now sees its own credibility undermined. In the Himalayas those glaciers most at risk are shrinking at two or three feet a year, but many of them are hundreds of feet thick.

Here both Britain and Europe have seen a winter creating havoc, with the heaviest snowfalls in four decades, yet still we are told that global warming is the reason. Those same informants have been unable to forecast the weather accurately even a week ahead. The claim that ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are two quite different questions does not carry much weight for the man in the street. He was told that last summer was set to be a hot one for Britain, followed by a mild winter. The prophets could hardly have got it more wrong, but still they carry on with their task the same as before. No wonder experts are so distrusted, yet we are expected to accept anything they say unquestioningly when they predict what climate change has in store for us over the next three decades.

It is a great tragedy that democracy should have seen its worst recent spell occur under a Labour government. A feature of this has been the use of ‘doomsday scenarios’ as instruments of public persuasion. Most notoriously it happened with the spurious claims regarding Saddam’s WMDs, to bring the public on side for the Iraq invasion. It is happening with climate change. It has even happened with the swine flu scare, in which the incidence of infection has fallen to about 5,000 a week, far fewer cases than would be usual in a routine winter flu epidemic. As a result the Department of Health has landed the NHS with 60 million doses of vaccine for which it has no use.

The worst effects of all, however, have been the erosion of civil liberties and the fact that the country is financially bankrupt. Even our gold reserves were sold for peanuts some years ago by our enterprising prime minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yet the government still fantasises that its economic policies, now destined to penalise those whose contribution to the economy is vital, will see us safely through the recession.

Add to these miseries the discrediting of Parliament itself, whose members have brazenly bent their privileges with an expenses bonanza and have in principle got away with it. Who would have thought the day would ever dawn when we saw a Home Secretary claiming a refund for pornographic films for the entertainment of her husband, while others have claimed expenses on bogus or fictitious grounds?

So why should we believe anything the politicians say, even when it comes to global warming? Everything they touch seems to turn to dust, and even the scientist has become a kind of civil servant willing to do the government’s bidding.

Most people of a certain age who have seen better times hanker for the good old days when a government was expected to lead the way in integrity and high moral standards, bereft of greed and free from spin. Mrs Thatcher’s legacy of a money-induced form of capitalism has been brought by Labour to its ultimate form at the cost of fine ideals and the slow erosion of our cultural heritage.

I have been a Labour supporter for as far back as I can remember, but no longer.  The sooner this ‘New Labour’ is out in the wilderness, the better it will be for all of us.

This lot deserve to get the boot.

No Longer With Us: Sir Nicholas Henderson

Sir Nicholas Henderson was born in 1919 and educated at Stowe and Hertford College, Oxford. His diplomatic career took him to Athens, Vienna, Santiago and Madrid before he was appointed ambassador to Poland in 1969, where he remained for three years.  From 1972-1975 he served as ambassador to Germany, from 1975 to 1979 as ambassador to France and finally as ambassador to Washington from 1979 to 1982. His publications include a volume of diaries, Mandarin (1994), and Old Friends and Modern Instances (2000).

Sir Nicholas died in March last year and the following interview, conducted in July 2000, is taken from my book, Dialogues.

You had what might be described as a Bloomsbury childhood, having been taught by Marjory Strachey, the youngest sister of Lytton. To what extent did you imbibe the Bloomsbury philosophy, their interest in ideas, their individualism?

I think I derived two things from my very young association with Bloomsbury. One was an interest in beautiful things, a love of being surrounded by them and not despising them or having what I would call a philistine attitude. The other was a readiness to discuss everything – ideas and behaviour and habits – without prejudice and without conventional reactions. Nobody was excluded from such discussions.

The Bloomsbury set had a remarkable lack of inhibition – as you say, they were able to discuss anything with complete freedom, no matter what it’s shock value. Did you admire these traits and did you adopt them into our own life?

At the age of ten I don’t think one is able to admire something like unconventionality because one doesn’t really know at that stage what is conventional and what’s unconventional. I simply assumed that everything was discussable, without inhibition, and that people who dismissed subjects without being ready to analyse them were unthinking and in a sense inhuman. I think I did adopt these principles into my life. For example I wasn’t brought up in any religion or subjected to any sort of religious education. My parents were modern and didn’t have me christened, and from early days I heard things discussed around me and assumed that this was a reasonable thing to do. I certainly have never felt inhibited from talking about everything, expressing a view, not necessarily aggressively, but also showing readiness to listen.

Would you say the Bloomsbury experience equipped you well for later life?

I don’t think my Bloomsbury experience equipped me for the profession I later adopted, though in a sense it shaped the company I kept for pleasure, the world in which I lived privately. But I didn’t lead at all and unconventional life, although I suppose you might say a free spirit helped me to analyse without prejudice the culture in the various countries in which I lived.

During the summer you went to school at Charleston, the house on the Sussex downs where Vanessa and Clive Bell and Duncan Grant lived. You say you were influenced fro the rest of your life by the beauty of Charleston. Can you elaborate?

I spent several summers there when I was very young, and I imbibed not only the beauty of the Downs and the landscape but the fact of having pretty plates, pictures on the walls, painted furniture and a wonderful garden. I somehow felt that these things became a part of me, that I took them into my body and spirit from those early days.

Patrick O’Donovan described your background as being ‘the sort of high-minded liberalism usually attributed to Hampstead’.  Do you plead guilty? Do you see what he meant by that?

Patrick O’Donovan was of course the complete opposite. We knew each other as undergraduates at Oxford, but he was a very devout Catholic at Ampleforth, and in those days he was very conservative, very right-wing, whereas I was sort of left-wing.  I think he regarded that as rather peculiar in someone, and presumably attributed it to the world of Hampstead.  But I must for the sake of accuracy and truthfulness point out that my father didn’t share the Bloomsbury ethos. He was a professional economist, a very clever man, and he was very disapproving of Bloomsbury, and in fact he put a stop to my being educated by them and I was sent to boarding school. From then on I didn’t have anything which could remotely be called a Bloomsbury upbringing.

What were the reasons for being left-wing at University?

In 1936, anyone who was at all sensitive and, say, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five would have found it difficult not to be left-wing. There was terrific unemployment, considerable social discontent and there were already terrible threats from abroad – Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain and Hitler in Germany, all of whom you might say in crude terms were right-wing.  It was very rare to find someone of what I call any understanding of the underdog spirit who was anything other than ‘left-wing’.

In recollecting your time at Stowe you call yourself ‘a boy of immaculate insignificance’ – and this claim, you say, is made without false modesty. How did you arrive at such a judgement? Did you feel yourself to be inferior to the other boys?

I was inferior in several respects but by far the most important was that I had medical trouble. I got TB and I ceased to be able to use my left shoulder and arm. I had been very athletic and keen on games, and suddenly I was unable to play them, and for boys that matters. Because of my physical trouble I felt inadequate and odd and different, which I was. But I also had other limits, I wasn’t particularly interested I books as a boy, in literature or poetry; I much preferred philistine things and so I was, you might say, backward.

You say that Stoics were encourage to attach importance to the visual senses, how did this shape your life, would you say?

I think it’s true that all boys at Stowe take in the beauty of the park and also the monuments and statues. And my generation were influenced a great deal by the attitude of the headmaster, J.A. Roxburgh, who had a great influence on everybody of his time. He thought it was wrong for pupils to focus too much on the traditional things like games, and he encouraged interest instead in architecture, art and music.

You have said that the proper study of all diplomatic practice is man, the understanding of some of the deepest instincts of human nature. What sills and special qualities are asked of the diplomat, would you say?

I think you have to have quite a rigorous intellect to analyse where your country’s interest lies in some particular problem, but I  regard it as absolutely essential also to have some sensitivity about what really matters to the other side. This is a quality I think you are born with. I believe that in all great negotiations, not just diplomatic, but also business and military, you have to have this. Some of the best diplomacy is carried out by people who have very much a quiet approach. Oliver Franks was extremely good; he never boasted, and he never revealed his hand until he’d found out what other people thought.

You write in the introduction to your book Mandarin that ambassadors are apt ‘to be subjected to alternating currents of awe and hostility, curiosity and contempt.’  Is that something you accepted with equanimity, as being just part of the job?

You have to accept that in a particular profession that a great deal of work will be drudgery, where you have to do routine activities for which you may be despised, and that there are many moments which are totally inglorious. But that I do believe is an extremely important part of public service in the realm of international affairs.

Has diplomacy changed over the years?

You are raising one of the biggest subjects there is. The great change in diplomacy was the invention of the telegraph in the middle of the nineteenth century, and from then on of course things have continued to change. You might argue that the relevance of the role of man on the spot has reduced, because prime ministers and foreign secretaries fly all over the world now. But you could equally say the opposite. If a prime minister has arrived somewhere, he often doesn’t know where he is, who the hell anybody is, so he’s got to be briefed, and the man on the spot is the only man who can do that. So in some respects the role of diplomat has become more important.  I personally don’t think it has diminished significantly, since all the problems that are going on in the world now – how to deal with Russia, what is to be done with the Middle East, the G8 meeting, what about the underdeveloped world- they are all in sense diplomatic problems.  Kissinger used diplomacy and foreign policy exactly interchangeably, and I think he is right.  Diplomacy is a way of achieving your ends in foreign policy, but they are deeply interlocked.

Diplomats tend not to work in the limelight. Has that suited you, or would you have preferred a more public role?

That is the great difference between being a politician and a diplomat. A politician must be happy in the limelight, and I don’t think a diplomat should want the limelight or seek it.  I myself wasn’t really equiped for a role in politics of which the limelight is the main ingredient. When I was young I thought I might have liked it, but now I believe it is a much more dreadful career than I thought when I was young.  It’s certainly very difficult to find a politician who reaches the age of sixty-five and feels he has had a happy time with his career.

Your book about your time in the Private Office at the Foreign Office makes clear the power and influence which a private secretary can have on foreign affairs. Did you relish that power?

Well, power is a loaded word, a very difficult word to start using.  I liked to feel that one was wanted and what one contributed was of value. Having said that, I attach enormous importance to the Private Office and to private secretaries in this country, who are different from those in any other country I know.

What would you say is the difference between influence and power?

Influence is a means of effecting a result, power is actually achieving a result. I think you could say that William Beveridge exercised power by bringing about the Health service, but there were many people who were advising and influencing Beveridge on how to do it. The achievement of power is actually very rare.  People talk about going into politics because they like power, but it’s very rare that a politician actually does anything that wouldn’t have been done otherwise, or is entirely due to him.

You were Assistant Private Secretary to Ernest Bevin, a man who you greatly admired.  Which qualities do you remember in particular?

His down-to-earthness, his sense of reality, his capacity to lead, his contempt for triviality and passing whims of fashion, and the fact that when he went abroad or even when in London, he could say, ‘When I speak, I speak for Britain,’ and nobody would question it.  He was marvellously unbiased, and he didn’t have any inhibitions or hang-ups about people who had come from a different background. Even in those days, 1945, 1946, there were quite a lot of people who took the line that those who had been at public schools had no right, or certainly less of a right to be in prominent positions. But I remember Bevin talking about his time as Minister of Labour throughout the Second World War and saying that when young men were needed to fight our battles in the air or at the front, the public school boys were the first to come forward. I shall never forget that.

In 1994 you were rebuked for publishing your account of an ambassador’s life in Warsaw, Bonn, Paris and Washington. The foreign Office considered that the book portrayed Mrs Thatcher as being nervous during the Falklands War. Earlier, in 1989, you had sought and been refused permission to publish extracts from your diaries. Why did you later decide to go ahead?

I thought the banning of my book was outrageous and unjustified. I didn’t believe that my book was in breach of the Radcliffe rules, and I thought the people in the Cabinet were wrong to reach that interpretation.  I didn’t like being accused of betraying the public interest, and so I wrote to them, telling them what I thought the Radcliffe rules really meant.  And four or five years later, by which point I had complied with the stipulated length of time since ceasing to be a career official, I went ahead with  publication.

You have suggested that Harold Wilson regarded all foreign office people in the same light, as sort of ‘upper-class twits,’ a description from which you exempt yourself on  account of your claim that your class and Harold Wilson’s are essentially the same. What is the basis for that claim?

The basis is that my background is absolutely the same as Wilson’s and I feel rather indignant at your implied suggestion that it is not.  My grandfather, my father’s father, started life sweeping the floor of a small bank in Aberdeen, and he ended up as chief executive of the Clydesdale Bank in Scotland. My father won scholarships to school and then to Cambridge, and that is my background.  I am very much against all this class talk by the way.

What did you think of Harold Wilson?

It would be perfunctory of me to give a judgement on him or his career because I only saw him superficially. He was personally always extremely agreeable and amusing company, as long as you talked about all the things he was interested in, but I didn’t admire him as a public figure. In my view he was the person who started this passion for spin-doctoring and thinking all the time about eye-catching initiatives.  But he is much maligned and rather discredited now, and you very rarely hear anyone saying he was one of the great prime ministers.  I don’t myself think he was either, but he has some good human qualities.

You mention that Mrs Thatcher disliked the Foreign Office as an institution, but liked many of the people there. How did this dislike manifest itself?

She said that to seek to have good relations with a country in the abstract was pointless. What was needed was to pursue a particular objective, that there was no virtue in being on good terms unless it was directed to some particular issue.  I disagree with that profoundly. I think having a basis of good relations is something on which you build up credit with a country and on which you can draw at some stage when you need help or understanding.  I don’t think she ever quite appreciated that.  She was also fond of trumpeting something as a triumph, as she did with negotiations over the European Community.  Nothing could be more likely to cause trouble; indeed scoring off people is the worst way of conducting diplomacy because they come back later and they won’t trust you in the same way again.

You compare Ronald Reagan to Mrs Thatcher, suggesting that they had no sentimental or guilty feelings about underdogs.  Did you come to this conclusion from private observation?

Yes. They may have recognised at some level that certain people needed help, but on the whole they thought it was up to people themselves to make the best of their lives.

In 1979 when you were ambassador in Paris you reached the age of sixty and retired from foreign service.  In the valedictory dispatch which it is customary to write on retirement, you strayed way beyond the normal bounds and chose to write about the decline of Britain and its reputation abroad. The despatch was leaked and subsequently published in the Economist which gave it a much wider audience than it might otherwise have had.  First of all, why did you eschew the standard dispatch?

Because I was so overcome by a sense of despair at the position my country and countrymen had reached.  By 1979 there was a lack of self confidence, a lack of dignity, and I felt that this affected and jeopardized all attempts to conduct a proper foreign policy.  But the corollary of what I said was that part of your trouble was our failure to make up our minds about our relationship with the other countries of the European Community; and those two things went together in my mind.

Do you know who leaked the dispatch and why?

No. All I know is that the Economist told me they had received several copies of it.

You said in your dispatch that Britain was ‘in decline, poor and unproud.’  Did you come to regret saying any of that; did you come to revise your views?

No. I am sure I was right to say what I did. It may have been a transgression of the conventional habits of ambassadors, but I felt that the circumstances required something rather different.  I never felt any regrets about what I had written at all or the fact that it had become public knowledge.  In fact I think I should have been more resolute. At the time I was a bit worried about having gone too far; I don’t feel that now.  Interestingly enough, I wrote something similar ten years later and published it in book form, but because that was published and not leaked, as it were, it received absolutely no attention whatever.

What is your view of Britain now, its standing in the world, its moral leadership?

I have no right to say…I’m not in a position to have a view on that.

But you don’t hold office now…

No, but I can’t judge what they think of us in Peru. I only have one view that is relevant or pertinent at all, and that is that I think we have made a terrific mistake in not defining our role in Europe more clearly and committing ourselves wholeheartedly to taking part in what I regard as a very important international achievement: the creation of a strong and reunited and pacific Europe.  I am rather ashamed that we haven’t made that commitment.

Leaks are in the news once again, and clearly they are not new.  They are usually designed to damage someone. Who was the target in the leak of your despatch, do you think?

I don’t think there was a target really.  It was leaked because people felt that I had said something that should have been known beyond the narrow confines of the Foreign Office.  This brings me to a point that is perhaps worth making.  I always thought it was a great waste that one served all over the world and took a lot of trouble to come to a view about the country and one’s own relations with it, and yet this information would simply be read by someone in the appropriate department and then put away.  I felt it was a terrific waste of knowledge, information and wisdom, and I still think it to this day.

After Mrs Thatcher took up office you were brought out of retirement and appointed as ambassador to Washington.  Did this appointment turn out to be the high point of your career?

When Peter Carrington rang me up and asked me to go to Washington he told me I should know that I wasn’t the first choice.  I guessed it was Ted Heath who was first choice, but he felt he couldn’t accept it.  Yes it certainly was the high point of my career because Washington is the most important place. It doesn’t follow from that, by the way, that you can make all that much difference.  I always felt that the only place in which I made a difference was Poland.  My wife and I felt we were a lifeline for the Poles to the Western World, a world to which they aspired but couldn’t join.  Sometimes a small post can be extremely important and difficult, more important really than a great one.

There were rumours at the time that your appointment to Washington was a rather unpopular one. Was that difficult to deal with?

I don’t know whether it was unpopular. Michael Palliser, who was at the time Permanent Secretary and the Foreign Office, told me not to believe any of the talk and assured me that everyone there at any rate was very pleased.

You greatly took to America and Americans….what was it that so appealed to you?

It was so difficult to generalise about America – it’s a country of enormous differences and variety. But my job was perhaps made easier by the fact that there is much less inhibition and difficulty in conveying your government’s views in America than anywhere else.  I spent a lot of time in congress, trying to persuade them of our position and they never regarded it as an impertinence.  In France, for example, you couldn’t have done that sort of thing without being accused of interfering in their affairs, but Americans have no sense of that.  They are so open and forthcoming and ready to listen.

You followed Peter Jay as ambassador.  Was he a hard act to follow, would you say?

I don’t know about that.  He certainly had good contacts and made a lot of friends at a high level in Washington, there’s no doubt about that.

Was he a help to you when you took over?

He wasn’t a hindrance, but I don’t think a retiring ambassador can ever particularly help a successor.

You obviously crossed swords with Mrs Thatcher over the conduct of the Falklands war. How serious was that disagreement?

It was a great problem.  It was essential to have US support in arms and intelligence for our case in the Falklands.  We simply had to have America with us.  America had all sorts of difficulties about supporting us – a lot of people, for example, believed we were looking after our colonial empire.  Besides, South America was part of their hemisphere.  They also wanted to be sure that we weren’t being aggressive, that we would try, and continue to try in every way to bring about a negotiated settlement, and Mrs Thatcher never thought it would be possible to have a negotiated settlement.  She was perhaps right, but it was difficult to persuade her that one had to go through the motions of trying to reach a settlement of a negotiated kind in order to get the Americans to support us.

Referring to a crucial meeting at Chequers in 1982 you describe how ‘the PM veered the whole time towards being uncompromising, so that the rest of us found ourselves under attack from her for being wet, ready to sell out, unsupportive of British interests, etc…’ Which view do you think history will vindicate, yours or Mrs Thatcher’s?

I don’t know what history is going to say.  It’s quite difficult to put oneself back into the atmosphere of the time, an atmosphere which was very different in America from here. Pym, who was our Secretary of State at the time, flew over to Washington twice, and each time he was astonished by how different it was from the feeling in London.  Trying to bridge that gulf was the problem, and to hold the Americans with us.

Professional diplomats are famed for sitting on the political fence.  Now that you can risk a little indiscretion, what view of New labour would you express, and how do you rate their performance so far?

I don’t actually agree with the preliminary to that question.  I never felt one was inhibited from having a view of one’s own simply because one was a diplomat. One may have to be quiet and rather reticent or tactful in how a view is expressed, but one could always express a view.  There is no doubt about it that Blair has achieved an incredible worldwide renown and admiration, but I am personally disappointed in what I regard as a somewhat hesitant policy towards Europe.

Can you recall a time when you felt uncomfortable in your diplomatic role?

Yes, Suez.  I was serving in Chile at the time, as far away from the scene of the crime as it was possible to be.  I asked my wife Mary ‘Don’t you think I ought to resign?’ and she said to me, ‘Have you lost your sense of humour?  How could anybody take your resignation remotely seriously? How could you think it could make the slightest difference?’ But though I couldn’t do anything about it I was deeply ashamed of the Suez episode.

You were evidently a close friend of Donald Maclean at one time. How did that come about?

I met Donald Maclean in Washington, when I went there in 1947.  He had already been for some years in the chancery there, and I got to know him very well.  I saw him again from time to time in London before he disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

Did he strike you as strange?

Only in retrospect, once I knew he was involved in a completely double life.  I had had some suspicions of extreme left-wing leanings which certainly emerged over the Korean War.  He was then head of the American department in the Foreign Office and he complained to me bitterly about a minute I had written in a file explaining why I thought we had to take up the cudgels on behalf of the UN over Korea.  Later he came to a small dinner party I gave and again the subject of Korea came up.  He was drunk and he became extremely aggressive and outspoken – you might say pro-North Korean, pro-Communist.  So when he disappeared I wasn’t as surprised as a lot of people, and I was also pretty sure where he would have gone.  But as a man he was very agreeable, human, humorous and extremely cultured.

Did your association with Maclean involve a career setback?

No, although it emerged I had been a suspect for a number of years when they were still looking for the third man.  I had been very ill again in 1955, and I was in London recuperating at the time, and it was then I was subject to a very long interrogation by Scarman of MI5.  During the interrogation it was revealed that I had been under observation for some tine and that they had been tracking me.

According to your daughter, you are not much given to shows of affection.  Do you regard this as a personal strength or a weakness?

I don’t know what she’s talking about.  I can’t imagine why she should say that since I spend all my time with my grandchildren.  Its true I don’t go in for a lot of kissing in public; I usually regard kissing and holding hands as a sign of deteriorating relations.

I could find no reference to religious faith amongst your writings. Are you religious at all?

No. I am not a believer.  On the other hand my wife is Greek Orthodox and I was married in the Greek church, and my daughter was christened not only in the Church of England but also in the Orthodox Church.  So I am not against other people having faith.

What do you think happens when we die?

It’s just death, like animals dying.

And we’re gone…

Oh, yes.

So there’s no hell, no heaven…

Goodness me, no.  You don’t believe that, do you?

I’m not sure…aren’t you afraid of death?

No, of course not, death is a most natural phenomenon.

When you’re in pain, when you have difficulties, do you pray?

No, never.

You were knighted in 1972, how important to you was this formal recognition of your service?

I don’t regard it as a sign of anything except upholding the tradition of someone who is serving abroad as British ambassador being called Sir somebody rather than plain Mr. That’s all – it doesn’t make any difference otherwise.

But you must have been proud of your achievement…

No, I don’t think so.  The only time you might say I made a difference, and I certainly don’t want to make much of it, was over the Falklands, over keeping the Americans on our side. And I certainly got no form of recognition for that.

Are you dismayed when you look around the world today and you find it a very far from peaceful place, that man is no nearer to being able to get on with his fellow man than in the past? Will it always be so, do you think?

I’m a Hobbesian.  I regard the life of man as nasty, brutish and short.  I don’t think human nature is going to change.  There will always be conflict, rivalry, envy, pursuit of personal gain.  It’s not that I’m a pessimist, but nor am I complacent.  There are lots of things about the modern world I hate, but I am not against the modern world.  You simply have to pick the things you like, and avoid the things you don’t like.  I hate hearing it said that all the young are ghastly; I don’t feel that.  They are different, and of course they don’t know about the past, but I like a great deal about them.

January 1986: More Memories of Bron

Securing Bron as editor for the Literary Review was a remarkable coup. He honed his wit in the first piece he wrote for the magazine, before he had actually left Private Eye and taken over the editorship:

‘By the time you read this, you will probably be in the middle of your two-week Christmas ‘break’. The Institute of Directors has now urged factories and firms to stop work for a fortnight after Christmas. It all seems lamentably boring. In the old days, when the majority of Christians believed that God had taken human flesh in Bethlehem, the feasting was all over by Boxing Day. Now, when the majority of bishops and theologians do not believe that Jesus was God, and doubt whether he ever went near Bethlehem, we are all obliged to celebrate for a fortnight. At least the problem of presents was solved for me this year by the proprietor of this paper, Mr Naim Attallah. I have given most of my close friends boxed sets of the stunningly alluring Avant l’Amour scent, with its accompanying Après l’Amour. Clearly, this stuff works! I have had a most suggestive thank-you letter from the ever-lovely Suzanne Lowry, suggesting that we spend a two-week break together on a Hebridean island, watching the crones weaving tweed underwear on the looms. I will let you know how we passed this vacance in the next issue.’

Bron was always supportive of his family and friends, so it was typical of him to plug Parfums Namara as a first gesture of solidarity.

The next step was to bid Emma Soames farewell and to welcome Bron into the Namara fold. A party was scheduled for February, when Bron was officially due to assume the editorship. Meanwhile the press had been surprised and intrigued by the appointment. The headlines varied. ‘Bron Sacks Private Eye‘ was how the Sunday Times expressed it, while Peter Hillmore in Punch referred to what was going on as a ‘Waugh Game’. He added that all sorts of fierce disputes with Richard Ingrams were being put down as the reason for Bron’s departure. Bron himself stated, however, that there was no animosity between him and Richard, who apparently told him that ‘it is stupid of you to go and work for Naim’, who ‘is a madman’.

In fact the press announcement took Richard Ingrams as much by surprise as anyone. He could not bear the fact of Bron’s leaving Private Eye and, in the view of many observers, his vacating of the editorial chair  in favour of Ian Hislop only a month or so later came about as a direct result. I can well understand Richard’s feelings on this score. Bron’s uniqueness made him irreplaceable. I too felt the gap in my life after Bron died many happy years later.

Private Eye revealed a hint of pique when it printed a column asking what was he really like, this man who was dismaying and horrifying his friends and colleagues by ‘storming out of the most important job he has ever held’. Might his resignation be because he had devised ‘some long-term game plan to carry him to even dizzier heights in his career’? More probably, it implied, the reason was nothing more than ‘the reckless, impulsive action of a middle-aged man in the throes of a mid-life crisis’. As soon as the dust had settled, it predicted, he would ‘never be heard of again’. Meanwhile Bernard Levin in the Times, assuming Bron had departed from Private Eye before he had actually left, took the chance to fire off another shot in their long-running personal feud, attacking Bron for the ‘terrible’ column he had contributed to the Times fifteen years earlier. In Bron’s opinion, the dig was provoked by his review published in the Daily Mail of Bernard’s latest book, in which he said, ‘In twenty years of reviewing I can think of few books which were more penny-chasing and bogus.’

Nothing daunted, Bron then proceeded to round off one of his last pieces in Private Eye with yet another salvo:

‘Bernard spent his mid-life crisis on the Bagwash’s ashram in Poona with a Greek pudding for company. I will spend mine on the Literary Review surrounded by beautiful and intelligent young women from the Attallah Seraglio. After that I shall retire and drink my way through the huge cellar of wine which has been quietly maturing in Somerset. But what does one do with a tiny fifty-seven-year-old bachelor journalist who has seen better days? Someone must have the answer.’

While all this excitement was still in the offing, Tatler had published its Christmas issue, featuring under the heading ‘Special Treat’ what various friends, acquaintances and famous people had said in answer to the question what sort of Christmas treat would make them feel beautiful.

With some measure of flippancy, I came up with the saucy reply that it would be having my toes sucked by a beautiful woman. Unlike Bron, who was amused by my frivolous reply, many people reacted with outrage and it took me a number of years to live down the remark. Byron Rogers was one of the first to seize on it as a piece of good copy in his television-review column in the Sunday Times at the end of January. Channel 4 had asked me to fill the ‘Comment’ slot after the end of the Seven o’Clock News and I took the chance to attack the moral standards of politicians then in government. Mr Rogers wrote:

‘[On] Tuesday night a figure crying ‘Woe, woe’ like Solomon Eagle during the London Plague, burst on to Channel 4. Mr Naim Attallah, probably the most mysterious figure of his time – publisher, parfumier, employer of Auberon Waugh, and now prophet – was delivering the Comment . . . [the same] Mr Attallah who a month ago was telling Tatler readers of his dream of having his toes sucked by a beautiful woman . . . A dark-eyed figure, his tie lit by red, blue and green flashes, he stared grimly out of the television set. “And now a look at the weather,” said the announcer…’

The launch of the new Parfums Namara cosmetic products had meanwhile taken place as planned in February. They included bath and shower gels to go with both Avant l’Amour and Apres l’Amour, as well as a ‘Miss Asprey’ scent, elegantly packaged in the Asprey colours. I commissioned my friend Nicholas Haslam to come up with ideas to give the occasion an air of extravagance laced with decadence. It was a tall order, but Nicholas rose to the occasion with his usual flair. ‘Londoner’s Diary’ in the Evening Standard described the launch so succinctly that it would be hard to find a better account. By giving the piece the heading ‘Smell of Excess’, it evoked the ambiance splendidly. Both title and piece were spot on. Among the untutored at the fragrant launch, it said, there was a slight confusion between Naim Attallah’s ‘retired nymphets, his present “harem” and the waitresses at the Pal Joey nightclub’.

‘One obvious distinction was that former employees wore dresses of a respectable length, reigning beauties wore dresses that barely scraped their thighs and the waitresses wore black tails and nothing else. In the midst of the sea of blondes and Auberon Waugh stood a triumphant Naim by a luridly lit bowl of ice containing his new bath gel and, by some curious kink, caviare. This was all that remained of Nicholas Haslam’s “design concept”, which had been dismantled by fire officers during the afternoon.’

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

Climate Change and Free Speech

From its beginnings, Quartet saw itself as publishing voices of dissent and radical opinions, believing that these needed to be heard as part of the ongoing democratic debate.

They published people like May Hobbs, who had brought out the night cleaners at the Ministry of Defence on strike with her Cleaners’ Action group, in protest at deplorable work conditions, and Willie Hamilton, whose republican polemic My Queen and I appeared at a time when ‘republicanism’ was a dirty word through the activities of the IRA. They published Des Wilson’s Minority Report: A Diary of Protest 1970-73 and espoused the causes of the world’s underdogs, including the Palestinians. They undertook to publish the first edition of The Joy of Sex when it was still at risk of prosecution; and while the customs seized and destroyed many of its earliest shipments, that was not enough to prevent Quartet from pursuing its right to publish what the establishment objected to at the time.

I would therefore be betraying the principles on which Quartet was founded if I refrained from publishing a book because it represented a minority or alternative view.

Such a book is Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – The Missing Science, Professor Plimer being a dissenting voice on the issue of the causes of climate change.

The irony now is that Quartet has suddenly found itself being bombarded by an orchestrated blizzard of emails from a bunch of protesters who take great objection to the fact that we have published it at all, and seek to run a campaign for the boycott of Quartet Books.

An even richer irony is that this has been stirred by a journalistic clique on the Guardian, a newspaper that claims to fly the flag for liberal freedoms.

The author’s offence is not to accept the doctrine that human activity is responsible for the changes we see in the world’s ecosphere, and to argue his case that they are far more likely to be part of the pattern of cycles of natural change that have taken place throughout the millennia of the planet’s history.

Climate change is an area where there are many shades of opinion and a need for continuing debate. The purpose of this campaign is, however, to gag Professor Plimer’s voice altogether. It bears all the hallmarks of coming from those with fundamentalist beliefs who cannot tolerate any contradictions to their own opinions. They have conveniently put aside any claims to alternative points of view and, while professing to be the guardians of democracy and free speech, are actually bent on destroying those very qualities. It seems like another example where political correctness goes all the way into the ridiculous.

Ian Plimer has always been ready to engage in open debate on the issue, but the result has usually been that his opponents try to bury him under mountains of abuse and insult rather than with reasoned counter-argument. The emails Quartet has been receiving certainly come under this tactic.

Calls from this misguided militant minority to boycott Quartet are not the way forward. Where the issues involved are this important, we are all for civilised debate, and those who think otherwise are not doing their own cause any favours.   

Readers, who are not so locked into dogma, should be free to judge for themselves.

Outrageous Parties, Part Four

My office at 18b Wellington Court remained the hub of my activities. I spent a great deal of time there when the publicity surrounding my various acquisitions was at its height. The place began to teem with young women keen to join the staff.

The latest to take what Nigel Dempster called ‘the perfect job – working for Naim Attallah’, was Davina Woodhouse, a daughter of Lord Terrington. She had quit being a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret the summer before, having gained a name in the press reports for her limitless stamina as part of the royal entourage: night-clubbing till dawn and then going straight to work at Kensington Palace. For Namara she took on the role of public-relations officer, with special responsibilities at Quartet.

Her first assignment was the launch of a book by the Duchess of St Albans, Where Time Stood Still: A Portrait of Oman. There followed two illustrated lingerie books, the first being The Lingerie Book, photographed by Mitchel Gray and with a text by Mary Kennedy, and the second Chastity in Focus (a title I chose). The latter was a celebration of the quality lingerie of Janet Reger, who did as much as anyone in Britain to revive the idea of women’s underwear as a fashion accessory with erotic trimmings. She brought to the London scene what the French have always known: that it is possible to combine excellent taste with overt sex appeal. The foreword was by Francesca Thyssen, a daughter of Baron Heini Thyssen, and Fiona Campbell Walker, the famous model of the 1950s. The design of the book, devised around a large selection of fashion plates of the Janet Reger range, was by Brian Clarke, an artist in stained-glass whom Bevis Hillier once described as ‘a most extraordinary and atavistic phenomenon in the England of today’.

Chastity in Focus provoked murmurings of disapproval from the feminists, not only for its contents but also for the manner of its launch. A party was held at the Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden, where literati, celebrities and journalists mingled with model girls wearing saucy underwear, stockings and suspender belts, enough to make a deep impression on any susceptible male. The cavernous studio space was infused with a bizarre fetishistic glamour; there had never been a publishing party quite like it before.

As the evening went on, Francesca Thyssen helped me to compère the proceedings when we raffled some of the lingerie items to a rapturous audience. Some ladies, lucky enough to have a winning number, were urged on by the crowd to try on their prizes then and there. Only very few had the courage to oblige, to the delight of their fellow guests. Francesca was the ‘It Girl’ of her generation during her time in London, and later became an empress when she married the Archduke of Austria. A photograph of her appeared in the book, seated on a leopard skin to model a lacy black camisole with a flowing black-silk negligée, and raised eyebrows some years later when a German newspaper rediscovered it. In her subsequent life she exemplified, in many ways, the Quartet philosophy: extracting fun from life but also engaging with more serious issues, such as the protection of works of art in the war-ravaged Balkans, promoting art projects to try to slacken the region’s tensions or organising charity auctions to aid the victims of the Danube floods.

I was particularly pleased that one of my secretaries, Suzanna Crean, a statuesque young lady of particular beauty, had volunteered to be included in Chastity in Focus. The double-page spread on which she appeared in stunning lingerie, revealing just enough to delight the senses, was for me the most enchanting picture in the book. It brought back memories of my visit with her to the Janet Reger shop, just across the road from Asprey, to help her choose the outfits for her photographic session. I was quite apprehensive that someone from Asprey might see me entering Janet Reger’s premises with Suzanna and wonder what was going on. Luckily no one did, so acute embarrasment was avoided and the mission was accomplished.

In his full-page write-up for the Glasgow Herald, Alex Hamilton proclaimed that it had been ‘a jolly good party, even if some of us felt overdressed’. He concluded his piece with a witty evocation of the atmosphere:

‘Everybody behaved beautifully. I’m not aware of any of those fourteen girls, draped each one in a few ounces of diaphanous, provocative tissues, being molested. But, come to think of it, what does that say for the product? Or for us, effete, good-mannered creatures? What other point could there be in prancing about in the stuff? Old Veblen the sociologist would have said “conspicuous consumption”. If these girls didn’t look so healthy, you might suppose he was thinking of pneumonia.’

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

Outrageous Parties, Part Three

In September 1985 I was putting the finishing touches to the planned launch of two perfumes I had created. One was called ‘Avant l’Amour’, the other ‘Après l’Amour’. As a preview to the launch, which was scheduled for the end of October, samples were being tested at various events to gauge the public reaction. One such occasion was a party to celebrate the publication by André Deutsch of A Turbulent Decade: The Diaries of Auberon Waugh, 1976-1985. Bron himself wrote up the event for his Private Eye ‘Diary’:


To Gnome House for the publishing event of the century. Not since Shakespeare’s First Folio appeared in 1622 has there been anything like it.

All the elegance, beauty and talent in London parade themselves on the floodlit lawns. In silk-walled drawing-rooms there are fountains of champagne with lovely topless Quartettes splashing in them (by gracious permission of His Highness Sir Naim Attallah), disguised as mermaids, to the sublime music of the London Symphony Orchestra playing snatches from Gilbert and Sullivan; . . . [in] those familiar rooms, the scene of so many momentous events, where now the indescribably delicious perfumes of Avant l’Amour and Après l’Amour compete tantalisingly with each other.

A lot of press coverage followed. The Sunday Times announced my foray into the world of beauty by calling me the whimsical entrepreneur whose Parfums Namara was bringing out two scents, the ‘sweet relaxing Après l’Amour and the more stirring Avant l’Amour’. My secretary, Amanda Lyster, told them ‘this is the latest venture by a man who likes to try all walks of life’. The Sunday Express went for a more sensational approach, citing my liking for pretty girls, the unashamed names I had chosen for the scents and then quoting the blurb:

‘Enter my fragrant world and discover the age-old secret of perfume’s seductive spell . . . For the women whose nights of passion dissolve into clear mornings of tenderness and tranquillity, I bring Avant and Après l’Amour . . . They are created out of love, created for women who enjoy love and dare to show it . . .’

In retrospect, I should have used less flowery language but I let my enthusiasm run away with me. I would have achieved far less in life without this tendency, however, even if it did occasionally expose me to comments that verged on ridicule.

The launch party was an exotic affair. Charlotte Faber’s creativity as usual knew no bounds. She dressed eight of the Namara girls, including several from Quartet, in rubber dresses with laces up the back and velvet at the hem and collar. Four of the dresses were in white rubber, and four in black. It needed a lot of talcum powder to squeeze the girls into the garments, and much giggling was involved as they struggled and helped each other. But once they were in they looked weirdly evocative – ‘rather like Sloanes in bondage’, as one journalist went so far as to put it.

Then a problem no one had foreseen occurred. If one of them needed to go to the loo, she was going to have to take the dress off first, and there was no way she could cope with the manoeuvre on her own. ‘You will just have to go in twos,’ I told them.

The guest list was fragrant with aristocratic, political and social names. Auberon Waugh was accompanied by his daughter Sophia. Others included Tony Lambton, Annabel Heseltine, Vanessa Llewellyn with her estranged husband Dai, Laura Ashley’s son Nick, the model Camilla Scott and Christina Oxenburg. Two huge promotional bottles containing three thousand pounds’ worth of the perfumes were on display, prompting Henry Porter of the Sunday Times to be fearful that, ‘if one should fracture, it could represent a considerable hazard to either the emotions or the ecology of Central London’. The Observer described me as scurrying around, ‘like a gleeful genie out of one of his own cut-glass bottles, giving away samples in frilly velvet pouches’.

Anna Groundwater, Quartet’s PR, went on to a fashionable restaurant after the party, still wearing her rubber dress. She claimed that all the diners rose to give her a standing ovation.

‘The ebullient Attallah’, the Observer said the next week, ‘has been amazed by the response; people want his scent. Harrods has taken it exclusively for the first two weeks of its new perfume hall; it’s selling well, and from next week it will be available in other major stores, at £75 for a 1-oz bottle and £30 for a 2-oz bottle of eau de parfum. For which prices you could buy a goodly number of books.’

Namara was now definitely in the perfume business. An office was established in Paris, run by a very attractive lady, Annie Faure, to oversee the marketing and distribution on a worldwide basis. In London, all the famous stores, along with Harrods, were maintaining a stock; Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges were among the first to take it.

Elizabeth Arkus, arguably the doyenne of the French beauty industry, wrote a piece for the magazine Les Nouvelles Esthétiques, printed opposite a full-page picture that juxtaposed the stretched-back silhouette of a beautiful naked young woman with one of the bottles, its sensuous shape adapted from an art-nouveau design.

‘Perfume is always being reborn,’ said Elizabeth Arkus. ‘Who,’ she asked, ‘will be the woman to choose “Avant l’Amour” and who the one to choose “Après l’Amour”? What, you don’t yet know these amazing perfumes produced by Namara, i.e. Naim Attallah? The first comes in a black glass bottle, the second in a container of the same sculpted shape, but transparent as (a very relative!) innocence regained. Both bottles have the same shape, with a broad base and a carved phallic stopper. This is the first time we have been presented so boldly with a passionate perfume in such a frankly erotic flask.’

Avant she characterised as ‘dark, mysterious and deep as night’. Its fine floral fragrance carried an element of chypre and a ‘trace of tuberose hinting at sin’; its lingering scent of musk was ‘archly tinged with iris and peach’. Après was also floral, ‘with a hint of powder . . . made sensual with vanilla, elegant with myrrh’. She continued: ‘Avant is full of warmth, Après is bright, joyful, scintillating. They certainly do not leave us indifferent. And since the perfume was created to gratify the senses, we hope [Naim Attallah] will continue to astonish, amuse us or trouble us. Will he produce the perfume of the twenty-first century?’

All the posters advertising the perfumes were shot to a high graphic standard and the Namara girls took turns to act as models in promoting them. Jubby Ingrams was without doubt the model par excellence. She displayed a natural affinity with the product and was always willing to try out some novel idea. Her delightfully mischievous responses were inspired, and watching her turn a photo session into a hilarious event was pure joy.

From then on Private Eye began to refer to me as the ‘seedy parfumier’ in addition to its usual sobriquet of ‘Attullah-Disgusting’.

Peter McKay, in the Mail on Sunday, wondered what anxieties about his twenty-year-old daughter went through the head of the proprietor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, as he sat pounding away at the organ of his parish church, knowing she had been ‘the model on a suggestive colour poster designed to advance the sales of a new scent concocted by her employer, who was quoted as having boasted, “I have created the perfumes of love.”‘ ‘When I called this man a seedy parfumier,’ Richard Ingrams was said to have countered, ‘he called in Jubby and asked her what “seedy” meant.’

Two years after the perfume party Jubby remembered her white rubber dress without any fondness. ‘First of all,’ she told an interviewer for the Telegraph‘s Sunday Magazine, ‘it’s freezing cold on bare skin and it takes half an hour to get on. And once it is on, it’s impossible to go to the loo, and I look like a top-heavy milk bottle. I can’t wear any knickers under it. I can’t walk fast in it. My boobs bulge out at the front and fat bulges through laces at the back. I sweat in it and when I finally manage to peel it off, I stink of rubber’.

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

One of the Funniest Reviews I’ve Ever Had

After the battering I received from the critics on the publication of my first book, Women, it was a relief that my second book, Singular Encounters, fared much better.

Victoria Mather in the Literary Review liked the book. In her conclusion to a comprehensive review she commented:

‘The fascination of Singular Encounters, and it is compulsive entertainment, is its gossipy, conversational nature. The men let Naim Attallah in by the front door. What he has done is nipped through and unlocked the back door for us.’

The Daily Mail, which usually took a hostile line where I was concerned, had a friendly piece from Polly Sansom, who later married David Gilmour of the leading rock band Pink Floyd. I was famed for
my fascination with women, she said, eulogising them at every opportunity, though ‘the real Naim Attallah is not as his sugar-daddyesque image might suggest’. The overall effect of the new book was ‘rather like being at a gentleman’s club as the port is passed around. Witty, indiscreet but sometimes incoherent. The fact that the men in this volume talk so openly is surely a testament to his charm which until now was only really known to women’.

But the response to the book I remember best was the skit, in lieu of a review, penned by the late Humphrey Carpenter for the Sunday Times. It was beyond doubt a send-up, but its wit and hilarity were its saving grace. He constructed it so as to beguile the reader with its originality. I loved it for what it was: a little gem encapsulating the English sense of humour at its best. I wrote to Humphrey, whom I had never met, to tell him how brilliant I thought his piece was and invited him to lunch. It thrilled him that I had taken no offence at his ribbing. I have continued to admire the piece to this day, but to enjoy it means it must be reproduced in its entirety. I hope the reader will appreciate it as much as I have done. It is a joyful piece of writing, skilfully crafted and irresistibly amusing.

Hallowed Be Thy Naim

1. And the Lord created Naim Attallah and sent him from Palestine to London to be chairman of Quartet Books. And the Lord God said to his servant Naim, Increase and multiply.

2. And Naim Attallah published The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex, and showed his balance sheet to the Lord, and said, Lord, I have increased and multiplied, and done thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

3. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If thou art going to be a prominent London publisher, then thou wilt have to get thyself a lot of women, so that people will talk about thee. And Naim said unto the Lord, Lord, I will do thy bidding.

4. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways of Sloane Square, and hired a lot of young women with double-barrelled names to work for him, and said Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

5. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If people are are going to talk about thee, and if thou art going to make the gossip columns, thou wilt have to become intimate with a lot of successful members of the opposite sex. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I understand, and will do Thy bidding.

6. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways and found 318 remarkable women whose common denominator was achievement. And Naim Attallah published the interviews in a book called Women, and said unto the Lord, Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God sighed and said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

7. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I am bored and dejected now that the excitement of publishing my book Women is over, so I will go and publish a book on men. And the Lord God said, Naim, my servant, why on earth do you suppose anyone wants to read a book about men?

8. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said Lord, I will call it Singular Encounters, because then some people will suppose it to be a sequel to More Joy of Sex, but actually, Lord, it will be a book of interviews with twenty-nine remarkable men whose common denominator is achievement.

9. And the Lord said, Naim, didst thou say twenty-nine? Why hast thou not interviewed 318 like last time? And Naim said, Lord, I am not as young as I was, and anyway, I do not like men as much as women, because I was not at an English public school.

10. And anyway, went on Naim, it was very difficult to persuade even twenty-nine men to take part. Most of those I approached, Lord (as I say in my introduction), were over-cautious. But then Richard Ingrams said yes, and encouraged some others, and soon Auberon Waugh agreed too.

11. And the Lord God said, Who is this Richard Ingrams and this Auberon Waugh? And Naim said, Lord, Ingrams is a man whose daughter works for one of my companies, and Waugh is the editor of the Literary Review, of which I am the proprietor. And the Lord God hid a smile and said, I see, I see.

12. And the Lord God said unto Naim his servant, Naim, who are the other twenty-seven that thou hast persuaded to take part? And Naim said, Lord, there is Willie Rushton, Nigel Dempster and A. N. Wilson. And the Lord God said, Who are these people? And Naim said, They have all written for Private Eye, as have Ingrams and Waugh. And the Lord God said, Naim, thou dost not appear to have a very big circle of friends.

13. And Naim said, Lord, there is also Sir Harold Acton and Monsignor Alfred Gilbey. And the Lord God said, Who are they? And Naim said, Acton was a friend of Waugh’s father and Gilbey is well known unto Wilson. And the Lord God said, That leaves twenty-two to go. Thou hast not covered much ground yet.

14. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said, Lord there is also Michael Aspel, J. K. Galbraith, Yehudi Menuhin and Lord Rees-Mogg. And the Lord God said, And what made you choose these men? And Naim the servant of the Lord said, Lord, they are all great and famous men. And the Lord God said, I see. I was beginning to think they were just chaps you just happen to have met at dinner-parties.

15. And the Lord God said, Naim, what questions hast thou asked? And Naim said, I have asked two of my interviewees whether it is true they have long-running feuds with Gore Vidal. And I have asked Willie Rushton whether he has opened a lot of fêtes. And I have asked the Warden of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, what is the secret of his charm. And I have asked . . .

16. And the Lord God interrupted Naim and said, Naim, how on earth did you think of such daft questions? And Naim not listening went on, And I have asked André Deutsch about his disagreement with Tom Rosenthal and I have asked Lord Lambton why young journalists find Margaret Thatcher sexually attractive. And the Lord God said, I do not believe this.

17. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, smiled and said, Maybe, Lord, but I have featured in magazines and have made the front page of the Style section of the Sunday Times, and I have never had such coverage before in my life. So maybe, Lord, I know what I am doing after all.

18. And the Lord God nodded, and said, Naim, my servant, maybe you do.

My admiration for the piece notwithstanding, I succumbed to the temptation of writing a letter to the Sunday Times, which they published. It was meant to reciprocate the humour:

Your celestial mole has misinformed Humphrey Carpenter. The Lord’s original bidding was done by William Miller, a founding father of Quartet Books. He continues the work of the Lord in Japan while I, a humble disciple, carry on in the highways and byways of Sloane Square and Soho.

The Lord God knows there is no mystery about the ‘daft questions’. His servant has become a journalist.

And there was a final amusing shot in the Sunday Times from Mr Simon Kamlinsky in Manchester:

And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah his servant, Why have you not included Humphrey Carpenter in your book Singular Encounters. He is distinguished in the field of jazz and letters, has written biographies of Auden, Pound and Tolkein, besides children’s tales and a study of Jesus, a subject very dear to my heart, though regrettably issued in the Past Masters series. Furthermore, he seems to have written on, if not been acquainted with, Sir Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh, who both feature in your book, the latter albeit at second-hand.

And Naim said unto the Lord, Not only is this Carpenter not related to my twenty-nine chosen men, but his daughters are not yet of an age to be endowed with the attributes necessary to serve under me. Moreover, he has worked for the BBC and is thus very likely to be a bit of a Bolshie, a word which I am told is common coin in English public schools. Finally, he is published by others whom I would not sully my lips or offend your ears by mentioning.

And the Lord God said unto Naim, My servant, you have acted wisely. Long may you prosper in my tents. Go thou now out and hearken unto others so that you may spread my Word and feather your nest at the same time.

Long live English humour!