Monthly Archives: February 2010

Encouragement

I received a note earlier, from a Simon Petherick of Beautiful Books, London.

It’s refreshing to receive such an email, and encouragement to be even more active.

Dear Mr Attallah,

We’ve never met, but like you, I run an independent publishing company in Soho. Unlike you, mine’s only been going five years. I just thought I’d drop a line and congratulate you on your elegantly scripted critiques of both the Google Book Settlement and the role of literary agents, which I’ve just read on your blog. I agree with you on both counts. I opted out of the absurdly named “settlement” and I do think that too many literary agents have effectively enslaved themselves to an American corporate model of publishing which says cash is king. The great Allen Lane, if you read Jeremy Lewis’s excellent biography of him, used to conduct Penguin’s commissioning meetings with his two brothers in a Soho wine bar over copious bottles of Rioja every Friday, and for years ran his distribution from an old church crypt that would have failed every single modern corporate requirement for health and safety and efficiency. What a different organisation Penguin is now, and what a different business publishing has become. Long may your spirit and your business continue to flourish!

With best wishes,

Simon Petherick

Beautiful Books

www.beautiful-books.co.uk

Insights: Edmund White

The American author and critic Edmund White is currently promoting his latest memoir, City Boy. Here is my interview with the man, for Singular Encounters.

What are your earliest memories, and what emotions do they stir?

My earliest memory is of my third birthday party during the war. My mother forced me to wear an aviator’s cap and a pilot’s uniform for children, and I hated the feeling of the cap and the idea of having to play with other children my own age. I much preferred being with adults. I didn’t like the idea of being forced to do anything.

I was extremely attached to my mother, though she was a rather melodramatic and emotional person at that time. Now I think she is much more mature, but then she was going through the difficult end to her marriage, a very naive woman who had been handed by her father to her husband. She had always been rather spoilt and didn’t even know how to write a cheque. Being aware that her husband was leaving her for another woman made it a painful period for her.

Both my parents are Texans. My father was a cowboy when he was a boy and then became a self-made businessman. He was a person almost frightened of fantasy. He despised talking about people or ideas, about anything imaginary. He preferred to talk about stocks and bonds, or measurements or scientific processes. The one exception he made was for classical music –which he adored. When I was very young, we lived in Cincinatti, Ohio, which was a town settled by Germans in the 1840’s and so a very musical city. My father loved all that. We went to the symphony every week and often had musicians play in the house. My sister and I both had to learn several instruments, the harpsichord, the recorder, the piano, the violin and so on.

No, I didn’t get on well with my father I was afraid of him. He was very violent. If you spoke at table he would throw a spoon across and knock you out with it. He was a very eccentric man who disliked people, who slept all day and awoke at six in the evening when he’d sit down to a massive breakfast. He then stayed up all night playing harpsichord music till dawn when he’d go back to bed. Since he owned his own business he was able to do the work at home, then pass everything out under the door to his secretary – which is rather an efficient way to work, but not a very human one.  He did it expressly that way because he didn’t like to come into contact with people.  With me he was always disappointed that I wasn’t more athletic, more aggressive: that I didn’t want to take over his engineering business; that I was too cissy, to artistic, too attached to my mother.

When your parents divorced, did it make for great insecurity?

At first it was a great feeling of release because I didn’t like my father.  The idea that we were rid of him, and that my mother, my sister and I could move to another bigger city like Chicago – which is where we went – was very exciting.  I also knew that it was easier to manipulate my mother than my father.  But the second reaction was a feeling of guilt, because, I suppose, I had wanted to get rid of him.  It was almost a classical Oedipal feeling that I succeeded in killing off my father, or at least in disposing of him.  At the time of the divorce we moved into a hotel before moving to Chicago, and while in that hotel I went through a terrible crisis of guilt.  I locked myself in the toilet and kept shouting, ‘I did it, I did it! It’s my fault.’ Finally they had to get the doorman to take down the door to get me out.  About that time, when I was seven, I had an ink-blot test, and the person who gave the test said the results pointed to somebody psychotic.  I didn’t see any human beings in the test, only diamonds and graveyards.  Those were my two great obsessions.

How far were those early years and experiences formative of your adult persona, or can these links be exaggerated?

The links can definitely be exaggerated. I feel not very much attachment to the child I once was.  I have been extremely conscious of childhood influences, but have exorcised them through writing about them. I now feel quite detached from my childhood.  One of the wonderful things about being a reader is that it puts you in touch with other lives and standards of behaviour.  My own family was quite brutal and given to violence, and it was through novels that I learned about more decent ways of behaving.  I wanted to aspire to that, to be like a person in a Henry James Novel, not like someone in Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. I didn’t want to be violent. You have to remember that my Texas relatives were homesteaders, were pioneers who, as late as the end of the nineteenth century, moved to Texas with their rifles, still fighting off Indians.  So we were not very remote from a state of real violence. One of my great-grandfathers was a preacher, and when he was denouncing somebody from his pulpit, the person he was denouncing shot him.

You always insist that you do not conform to the standard Freudian theory: the product of dominant mother and absent father.

When I wrote Nocturnes for the King of Naples, people said this book has a dominant mother and an absent father, therefore, Mr White, you subscribe to the Freudian pattern don’t you? I replied I had not written the book as an illustration of a psychoanalytic period, but as an artistic reflection of my own experience, which may conform to certain Freudian dynamics but which I didn’t feel was universally true for homosexuals.  When I first started writing in the early 1970’s, people would read a novel which was openly homosexual as though it was a blueprint for all homosexuals, as if it was a statement of principle.  I was eager to defend the individual’s right to tell his own story without generalizing about others.

Wasn’t the first draft of A Boy’s Own Story written when you were fifteen?  Did you write it in diary form, or as a kind of therapy to help you face the difficulties of adolescence?

It was written as a real novel.  I began to write it in the first person and in a confessional mode, but I quickly found the book was running away from me and being swamped in detail.  I didn’t know how to make it forward, so decided to go to the opposite extreme and to write it only in the third person, but with a third-person narrator who had no access to the boy’s thoughts. So it was all described in an objective way.  It didn’t really work but it was written as a form of therapy because I felt I was drowning.  I had been sent away, or had chosen to go away, to a boarding school, and every night we had two hours enforced study.  I would get my homework done in the afternoon and then in the evening, between eight and ten, when we had to be at our desks, I wrote my novel furiously until the bell rang.  It was always exhilarating.  I loved writing it and felt it was an example of Freud’s idea of the repetition compulsion.

Freud noticed that children playing with dolls would often times repeat with a doll the same terrible things that had happened to them.  The mother doll would spank the baby doll. Why would they do that, why recreate the pain, why not make a happy story? He realized that in repeating the pain there was pleasure when they became the ones doing the manipulating.  They enjoyed their mastery over a painful situation.  At that time of my life, to write about the very events which were happening to me but to be the one who controlled them artistically, gave me a feeling of mastery over the situation.

At that time of my life I was extremely unhappy. I was besieged by violent, even obsessional, sexual urges that I didn’t like or approve of. There are young homosexuals who have strong desires but never act on them, and who only begin to do something about it later when they are twenty or twenty-two. There are others who become sexual very young, but are very unupset about it and find it easy to deal with. But I was both sexually precocious and guilt-ridden; I had a strong drive to do something about it, but also terrible feelings of guilt. It made me feel I was going crazy.

In the same book you say, ‘It’s the particular curse of adolescence that its events are never adequate to the feelings they inspire.’

I think what I meant is that one often has a big tragic feeling, a feeling that one has lived through bitter and dramatic events, and when, for instance, you read a novel like Wuthering Heights, it is adequate to such feelings; but in the case of the typical teenager, especially for one like me who was rather lonely, who was neglected, who didn’t do much, who just walked around through beautiful grounds filled with mist feeling lonely and melancholy but also tragic, you tend to ask, but what’s so tragic? What have you done? Nothing. Nothing has happened to you, you haven’t done anything. In other words, you have this very strong Hamlet-like response but not to strong events. T. S. Eliot talked about the objective correlative: that you have to have objective events adequate to the emotions you hope to elicit. When you write about adolescence, often times the feelings are extremely strong, but it’s hard to communicate that to a third person, a reader, because the events don’t in themselves trigger such a powerful response for them.

The writing itself, though, came all too easily. I wrote from a kind of obsessive interest in confession and with very little interest in artistic expression, so most of my writing of that period is worthless. In fact it was only towards the end of my twenties, after I had written four or five books, that I began to understand that you couldn’t simply babble, that you had to stop and think and arrange things. In other words, when I began to resolve some of my psychological problems and no longer wrote quite so much from the need to confess, I began to have a certain inner calm. I was able to fashion a text like Forgetting Elena my first published novel, though the fifth or sixth I wrote.

The hero of A Boy’s Own Story says, ‘I feel sorry for a man who has never wanted to go to bed with his father.’ Isn’t that just the Oedipus complex in reverse?

I don’t know. If I read Freud right, he says the boy wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father, but is so frightened of his father and his father’s revenge that he becomes homosexual as a way of distracting his father’s rage – of convincing his father that he doesn’t really want to seduce the mother and doesn’t even like women. That was Freud’s idea, more or less, but he doesn’t talk about a boy’s sexual interest in the father so much. Yet many of the homosexuals I have known and spoken with intimately have had strong erotic fantasies about their fathers, and have often even slept with their fathers or brothers. It’s not unusual. A psychiatrist once told me that people have a very difficult time talking about incest with members of the opposite sex, such as a boy with his mother, or even a boy with his sister, but between two brothers or two sisters, it’s not very difficult to talk about. Father-son, yes. In others words, between generations it’s difficult, or between two sexes it’s difficult, but the same sex, the same generation, is very easy to talk about. People don’t have strong guilt feelings about that. Anyway, I definitely had strong erotic feelings towards my father, though, as I say, I don’t feel they’re classically Freudian.

I think the idea was that whoever was sleeping in my father’s bed was in a privileged position in the family and would gain power. In other words, my father was a tyrant, and at first my mother was in his bed and therefore a privileged person; then my stepmother became a privileged person; then my father had an affair with my sister, and my sister was elevated in the family because of it. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I sensed it because I once walked in on them when my father was brushing my sister’s hair. She had very long blonde hair, and looked quite a bit like his mother, who was very pretty. My father, my sister and my father’s mother were all blonde, whereas I resembled my mother and my mother’s side of the family, the paternal side of the family being considered the more beautiful.

Anyway, my father was brushing my sister’s hair, standing behind her and crying while he did so. It was the only time I saw my father cry. I sensed there was something going on, but I wasn’t certain to what extent. It was only years later, after my sister had a complete breakdown and was in a mental hospital, that I knew for sure. She had tried to kill herself and it all came out, but that was many many years later. I guessed she had always had strong guilt feelings about this relationship with my father, maybe partly because she liked it.

I think she had loved him very much. It was extremely dramatic when my father died, because we had a farm in the north of Ohio where he wanted to be buried, and that was terribly inconvenient for everybody because it took hours to get there. We finally arrived in the small town with its little farmers’ church, and there he was in an open coffin, which I hate. But my sister went up to the coffin and talked to my father a long time, rather angrily and crying. Then she took off her wedding ring and put it on his finger. She was forty-something at the time.

She became a lesbian, you think, because of the affair with your father?

I think maybe. She was married and had three children with her husband, but always had strong lesbian feelings. Finally, maybe, she was able to express it after her breakdown. She seems quite happy now.

You wrote an introduction to Genet’s posthumous Prisoner of Love, but it struck me as rather ambiguous. Did you admire Genet?

Very much.  I’m sorry if it was ambiguous. It’s not an obvious book for an English reader, and I am very naive politically, so I wouldn’t feel too comfortable in saying what I thought about his politics towards the end of his life. But for me his novels are some of the greatest literature written this century. Next come his plays, then his essays, and least of all the poetry.

I never met him. I could have, but by the time I moved to Paris in 1982, he didn’t like to meet white or middle-class people, nor Americans. I was all three, so figured it was pointless even to try. Of course, one of the good things about being a biographer today is that you can watch hours and hours of somebody on video. I’ve seen forty hours of him. You get the feeling of how somebody moved and talked and so on.

You are sympathetic to Genet’s idea that any novel which doesn’t set itself up as an Aunt Sally is a fake, but isn’t twentieth-century literature riddled with enough irony? Is there no reason at all for commitment, or must every idea self-destruct?

I can’t see any philosophical reason why he should be right, but if you look at the novels you actually like, it turns out he is right. The novels that are very engagée politiquement, like Sartre’s, have become very difficult to like – even Malraux I find almost unreadable now. Whereas novels which are deeply ambiguous, like Genet’s, are still readable and seem to have a universal interest.

In your introduction you excuse Genet’s acknowledged admiration for treachery by thinking of it as a code word for an incorrigible subjective voice. Do you think that treachery can really be excused by a semantic shift?

Personally, no. But it’s very interesting, now that I know so much about his life, to find he was actually deeply loyal to the people around him. For instance, he had a lover in the 1960s, a high-wire artist called Abdullah, who committed suicide. Abdullah’s best friend, though Genet never slept with him and didn’t even particularly know him, was given money by Genet every month till the end of his life – that is, from 1964 to 1986. Even then Genet made him one of his three principal heirs.

And in many other instances you find tenacious loyalty on the part of Genet to his early friends, though he would also excommunicate certain intellectuals, usually women, who tried to dominate him too much. He had terrible fallings-out with friends, but I don’t think you can call that treachery, just an eruption of rage.

He liked to present himself as a traitor and to suggest in a dark way, in A Thief s Journal, that he betrayed people, but when you look for real instances in his life, it’s hard to find them. If you say he admired treachery, though, then I do think that it is a philosophical position, that he had a kind of love for the unsalvageable person. When he wrote his last play, The Screens, he chose as his hero not a loyal militant Algerian soldier fighting against the French, but the most miserable proletarian Algerian who betrays even the revolution though he doesn’t like the French either. Again and again Genet was attracted to the person everyone else despised, the lowest person. That’s the person he speaks for finally: the person he wants to redeem. I’m not defending him, but I think it’s interesting how his mind works. In Pompe Funèbre there is Jean, a real person, a real friend, his real lover, a Communist killed by the milice in 1944 during the liberation of Paris. Then Genet, in mourning, sits down to finish this novel as a monument for Jean, but what does he do? In the novel he glorifies Hitler, glorifies especially a young character called Riton who is in the milice, one of the very people who killed Jean.

This idea of embracing evil, of honouring people who are more or less unsalvageable, was very strong in him. It’s partly philosophical choice; he’s partly a Nietzschean. He was certainly very influenced by Nietzsche, and he loved the idea of the transvaluation of all values. Most criminals, when they write, present themselves as wonderful, kind, intelligent and moral. The usual thing for a prisoner who writes is to justify himself in terms of the most conventional morality. What is daring about Genet is that he not only writes about the real evil he’s committed, but exaggerates it and doesn’t apologize at all. From the point of view of homosexual history, that turns out to be something fascinating, because he is probably the first homosexual ever to write without any sense of apology or trying to give a diagnosis of how this strange medical state of affairs came about. Unlike Gide, for instance, who is fairly liberated; or Proust, who distances himself completely from homosexuals so that all the characters in his book are homosexual except him. Genet spoke as a homosexual about actual homosexual life in the ghetto, and it was something brand-new.

In A Boy’s Own Story you say, ‘I was appalled by my own majesty . . . I wanted someone to betray.’ Many people who are not homosexual might there- fore be tempted to think that the urge to betray is characteristic of homosexuals

My feeling is that everything about homosexuality can be explained by two things. One is that it is an all-male culture. In other words, in heterosexual life men are always adjusting to the expectations and values of women, but in homosexual life they are, at least on the sexual plane, interacting only with other men. The other thing is that they are a persecuted minority group.

In A Boy’s Own Story, the boy’s urge to betray at the end of the book is morally ambiguous because, on the one hand, the reader applauds, this being the first time the worm turns, the first time this rather persecuted boy, usually passive and always suffering things at others’ hands, decides to do something himself. It’s a revenge on the adult world, a kind of self-assertion. It’s certainly the end of innocence, but the bad thing, on the other hand, is that the object of this attack is another homosexual. The person he chooses to persecute is one of the few people who has actually been nice to him and who to some degree shares his sexual taste.

But that was very characteristic of that period, because homosexuals who belonged to it hated themselves. How could they not? There was no favourable picture of homosexuality available in that culture. A homosexual was either ill, criminal or a sinner. There were only the medical, the legal or psychological models. There was no other way of justifying them sexually. All three of those images are quite pejorative, and so the boy suffers the usual self-hate. Attacking another homosexual was, in a way, proving one wasn’t oneself so homosexual. The one he attacked was the scapegoat.

But, today, do you still find that homosexuals have special characteristics?

I don’t. I know most people do say that, but I think it’s much like anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and anti-homosexuality resemble each other closely because they tend to look for a unity that doesn’t exist. In his little book on Jews, Sur la question juif, Sartre suggests that the anti-Semite regards the Jew as a synthesis. So if one man says a Jew is not courageous, and another says yes, but here is a Gentile who is not courageous, the first rejoins, ah yes, but the lack of courage of a Jew is different from the lack of courage of a Christian. In the same way, people search for a kind of mystical unity in homosexuals. We all share something which is our condition, but the condition shifts from time to time, so while homosexuals do share something which is their particular social condition at a particular historical moment, I always find it ridiculous when homosexuals talk about ‘we homosexuals’ and mention Plato or Michelangelo. Even if they had homosexual sexual practices, the nature, formation and contours of their personalities, their mentality, must be entirely different from now. A homosexual living on a Greek island today is entirely different from a homosexual living in Manhattan. So which homosexual are we talking about? I suppose you could say that certain middle-class homosexuals living in London at the moment bear certain resemblances to each other because their condition is a shared one, but only to that degree.

Do you think of your work as political in the sense, as you explain in the Genet introduction, of heightening consciousness by making people more aware of different convictions and lifestyles?

Yes, I think my books are political in the sense that they put you in the shoes of another person, but I also think that my most recent work, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is political in an even more direct sense in that I wanted to show the beginning of homosexual liberation and the period of oppression just before it happened in 1969. There are many people who have grown up or become homosexual since then, and I wanted to show them what things were like before, and to end on a very positive note with the idea, the feeling of liberation. Therefore I chose as my hero someone who is extremely middle class, quite repressed, rather self-hating and a reluctant revolutionary. I wanted even the heterosexual reader to say to himself or herself, oh come on, get on with your life, stop tormenting yourself about all these ridiculous scruples. It pleased me very much to see a review by a New York Times reviewer, a heterosexual male who said in effect, I am heterosexual and I barely understand all this stuff, but for Christ’s sake, Mr White, get on with your life. That is exactly what I wanted the reaction of the reader to be. I wanted the reader to be more liberal than the boy himself.

And do you find the ordinary reader today more liberal?

It depends. You see, I’m from the United States, which is a very religious country, and I have all these Texan relatives who are Baptist and are convinced I’m going directly to hell. The ordinary literary reader, living in Paris, London or New York, is quite liberal, as they have been for a long time. But I’ve had people from America writing letters denouncing me, telling me I’m going to hell and so on. America is an extremely religious country.

I feel more like an outsider in America than I do in Europe. That’s the odd thing. In London I have so many friends who are writers, and I feel so warmly accepted that I don’t feel like an outsider at all. If I have a new book out in London, maybe the Independent will do a review, The Times will do a review and the Literary Review will say this is one of the best books of the year and so on, which is very thrilling; whereas in America, if they review me at all, it’s almost entirely in the context of where are homosexuals now and what’s happening to them in this age of Aids? In France, if they were taking a poll of important people, asking what do you think of nuclear power, they might ask 100 people and I might be one of them, but in America The New York Times would never ask me about nuclear power, only about homosexual rights. I feel very ghettoized in America, but that’s not a problem peculiar to me, it’s peculiar to American life. America is nothing but ghettoes. There is no general reader in America, no general culture. It’s all lobbies, ghettoes and special-interest groups.

The reason I’m returning to America now is partly because I was offered a very good job. I’m about to be fifty and I support my mother, and if she didn’t have me I think she would be in the gutter. If I work fifteen years, then I can have a retirement plan and all those nice things, but also, as a writer, it’s dangerous to be out of contact with your country too long. It’ll be interesting to go back, at least for a few years. If I like it, I’ll stay; if I don’t, I’ll come back here. But it was a wonderful offer: a full professor with tenure in Brown University, one of the best universities in America. I couldn’t refuse. I’m going with a friend, who has just got divorced and wants to start a new life. He’s French, and the idea of moving is exciting for him too, so it’s just a good moment to be going back.

But do you feel more appreciated in Europe than in America as a writer?

Definitely in Europe;  especially in England. But also in France. And five of my books are coming out at the same time in Italy now, and five more or less at the same time in Germany, so I feel there’s a big push going on.

But why should that be? After all, you’re American.

Yeah. Well, I asked Alison Lurie once why she was more famous in England than in America, and she said, ‘Because in America I’m writing about familiar subject matter in an unfamiliar style, that is in an English style, whereas for English people I’m writing about unfamiliar subject matter, that is American life, in a familiar, that is English, style.’ I think that’s true of me too to some degree. In other words, there is something exotic about those rich American children that I write about, but it’s in a reflective, more European, more literary style of writing. It’s not the sort of Raymond Carver’ minimalism that people have come to expect from Americans.

In A Boy’s Own Story you say: ‘It seemed to me then that beauty was the highest good, the one thing we all want to be or have, or failing that, destroy.’ Why should a young homosexual feel like that? Is it a thoughtlessness of youth which imagines it will never be old, or is it a more specifically homosexual fear?

I don’t think it’s a fear, and I don’t think it’s homosexual. I think it’s artistic. Artists are susceptible to beauty, including physical beauty, which in real life we all react to. Yesterday I had a party where there was a beautiful young man, twenty-two years old, and all the men and women were reacting. He is also an aristocrat, so that helps, but, you know, he’s blond and his father is the governor of Bermuda and so on. He didn’t have to say a word and everybody found him enchanting, everyone one was giving him their phone number, men and women both. People do respond to physical beauty very strongly, but when they write, they pretend they’re much more moralistic, that they have better values; that is, that they prize nothing but intellect and virtue. But artists are people who love beauty, and one of the forms of beauty, maybe the main form, is physical, human beauty. It’s not any accident that the Greeks made statues of beautiful athletes and goddesses.

I’ve had Americans criticize me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re always talking about physical beauty,’ because oft-times I’ll say about somebody, she is very intelligent, this and that, and beautiful. ‘Oh’, they say, ‘why do you mention beauty?’ Feminists especially, of course, hate that. Yet I mention male beauty as much as female beauty, so it’s not that I’m especially keen on female beauty. Anyway, I do think that physical beauty is an important thing that artists respond to.

How do you view feminists?

Having lived in France now, where feminism is scoffed at and completely over as a movement, it’s hard for me to remember it’s still taken so seriously in England. Recently, when I was a judge on the Booker Prize, there were two women on the panel who had strong feminist sentiments. I found it difficult. I was even shocked by some of the things they said. For instance, to be against a novel because one of the characters is female, masochistic and shown as liking to be mistreated, seemed to me a very shocking response. On the other hand, I consider myself a feminist, but I think of myself as not applying those principles to novels but to actual life.

For instance, after a long debate in my mind, I feel I’m against the idea that Moslem girls should wear the fular here in France, because it is mainly men who are deciding that women should wear them. The women have not been asked at all. It is a way of separating those girls from other girls, marking them and oppressing them. It really is a continuation of male domination. I think that’s all right within the context of the Moslem world, but here in France it goes against two things: the secular aspect of the schools and the idea of women’s rights, which is very important if you are a member of French society. If you were a highly devout Catholic, you would have a hard time living in Syria, just as if you were a highly devout Moslem, you would probably have a hard time living in France. So I would say I am a feminist on questions of economics and legal rights, but I don’t like feminism much when it’s applied to art.

Has women’s liberation helped gay liberation?

What we’ve witnessed in this century is a shift away from an ethic of responsibility to an ethic of pleasure. I’m not talking about aristocrats, because aristocrats have always behaved according to their ideas of personal pleasure, but in other centuries 95 per cent of people were farmers. They needed children to work in the fields, they were watched closely by their neighbours, they were obliged to conform and were obsessed with performing their duty to their Church, their family, their parents, their children. The whole idea was of self-sacrifice to help the next generation and fulfil your duty, which was clearly defined and ordained by God; nobody doubted it. You still see that in Third World cultures, but once it shifts you have a kind of aristocraticization of middle-class life, hence the vast armies of people in the major cities of Europe and America who have adopted the ethic of self-satisfaction and pleasure. They divorce when they’re no longer in love, get rid of their children if they feel it’s cramping their style. They do exactly as they please, treat their lives as a work of art, and are mainly interesting in self-fulfilment. That’s when homosexuality becomes much more important, because if those are your real feelings, then you are going to act on them.

But hasn’t feminism driven some men towards homosexuality?

I don’t think so. That suggests that men have more choice than they really have. If a man is really attracted to a woman physically, so that he gets an erection when he looks at her, then even if she’s a difficult bitch, he’s not going to become excited by a man. Oddly enough, I think women have more choice than men. I do feel that there are women who, for political reasons, have decided to be lesbians, but I don’t feel that there are many heterosexual men who, for political reasons, have decided to be homosexual.

Is homosexuality on the increase, or is it that people are now liberated and have come out of the closet?

It’s that it’s more visible, but there might have been many before who, if they were marginal cases, would have worked very hard, with their psychoanalyst or their priest, to remain heterosexual if at all possible. I know of several examples in my father’s generation of women who married men who really were homosexual, but the men did not act out their homosexuality. They lived with their wives and were sadists. They tortured their whole family. They were alcoholic, disagreeable wife-beating monsters because of their repressed homosexuality.

Has American society yet absorbed the idea of homosexuality? Can it now be regarded as part of the make-up of the nation, or is it accepted de jure but not de facto?

It’s accepted neither de jure nor de facto. It’s become a powerful special- interest group in certain cities, especially in the West where there aren’t other ethnic groups to compete. In New York, where strong Jewish, Italian, Polish and Irish ethnic groups, and now Puerto Ricans, control the city, gays do not represent a very powerful vote even though they are numerous. But in places like Houston, Texas, or Los Angeles which are newer cities and where ethnic groups are less well organized and the largest ethnic groups are comprised of either blacks or Mexicans who tend not to vote very much, gays have become powerful in local government and have even helped to elect a woman mayor in Houston. So in certain regions, gays have gained a lot of clout.

In response to Aids, gays have become very well organized and activist groups, like ACT UP in New York, have done a lot to change legislation, to streamline the availability of new medicines for the critically ill. Before, people who were ill were being told that they couldn’t try a new drug because it hadn’t been tested long enough to see if it was safe, but if you are going to be dead in a month, what difference does it make? Now all that’s been streamlined and there is much quicker access to the drugs, even to dangerous ones, if one wants to try. This has been something achieved by ACT UP, and they’ve gotten much better funding for people who are ill, for home care, for medical bills and so on. So gays do represent a powerful special-interest group in certain regions and certain aspects of American life. But whereas in France a recent poll showed that 60 per cent of heterosexual French people regard homosexuality as a normal variation of sexual behaviour probably less than 10 per cent of Americans would say the same.

Why could no publisher be found initially for A Boy’s Own Story in Britain? Was the country simply not yet receptive enough for gay literature?

Well, A Boy’s Own Story was quickly accepted in the United States but in Britain, where I had already had one or two books published by Andre Deutsch, they didn’t’ like the book. Deutsch rejected it, and then it went to several other publishers and was rejected. It was finally accepted by Picador, who decided it was good and made a big fuss over it.

As a title, A Boy’s Own Story looks deliberately provocative.  Did you feel it necessary to provoke a response when you wrote it?

Actually, you know, the title has slightly different echoes for an American. For the British, of course, it’s clearly provocative because it makes you think of A Boy’s Own King Arthur, a Boy’s Own History of England, the Boy’s Own Paper, but in America, at the turn of the century, there was a series of first-hand oral reports given by juvenile delinquents to an important Chicago sociologist that were printed in a book called A Boy’s Own Story, which was the context in which I first thought of it as a title. I wasn’t really thinking of British books so much. Later I thought it would be amusing to take this very strange boy and place his story, which was anything but the typical Boy Scout’s story, in this very traditional context. Susan Sondheim, who was a very good friend of mine at the time, hated the tide because she felt it made light of the book, that the book was better than the title and the title was ironic in a light way, but I liked it.

Is she no longer a friend?

She’s no longer a friend because she felt I portrayed her as a character in one of my books, which I didn’t mean to do, but she’s been angry with me every since, though I still admire her and like her. I felt she was over-sensitive, and for somebody who has always been an advocate of the freedom of speech, she reacted in an odd way.

Much of your work, I think you acknowledge, is autobiographical. Can you tell me something of the relationship between the life and the fiction?

First of all, I’d like to say that a book like Caracole, which is not at all autobiographical in the obvious sense since it has no first-person narrator and no character obviously based on me, is, I feel, my most autobiographical novel. This is because it’s the only novel I have written in the third person in which the narrator has the ability to get into the minds of all six of the characters: three women and three men. I felt fully expressed in that book, in the sense that I felt I could exaggerate different aspects of my own personality and project them on to those six characters and dramatize my own inner conflicts in the bi-play between them. If you write a so-called autobiographical story, like A Boy’s Own Story or The Beautiful Room is Empty, then you are stuck with only one character, the narrator, and you don’t really have that kind of full expressivity. Certainly in any autobiographical novel you’re always shaping it primarily for novelistic purposes. A real autobiography, written by, let’s say, a famous general like Eisenhower, is written by somebody you can assume the public is already interested in. He doesn’t need to create interest; he can assume it on the part of the reader. But a novelist, and especially a novelist who is not well known or who is only well known for his novels, has to create interest in the book. Therefore it has to operate as a piece of literary machinery to create interest and satisfy the reader’s normal anticipations.

A lot of shaping has to go on. Say, for instance, that you have had three boyfriends in a six-month period. It’s much better to have them become one boyfriend, because otherwise the reader gets confused with too many names, too much coming and going, too much shifting of stage machinery. I also tended with A Boy’s Own Story to make the character more normal than I actually was, because in real life I was more competent than the boy. I was less timid, had had more sexual experience and more artistic success at an earlier age. My boy in the book tends to be a bit timid, unsure of himself; more, I think, like most gay people that I’ve interviewed and talked to. I spent years and years in group therapy with other gay men, listening to their stories. The psychiatrist once said to me, ‘Don’t tell your story to this group because it upsets them too much.’

I had poems published when I was young, I had a play produced on Broadway when I was- twenty-two. In other words, I was not quite as defeated, retarded or slow as the boy in my book, but I wanted to create somebody I thought the reader could identify with, somebody a little more timid. The brassiness in Americans seems very foreign to English readers, especially to English children, who tend to be rather more supervised, but even though I changed all those things, many English readers still said to me, ‘I find the amount of freedom the boy had absolutely astonishing.’ That shocked me, because I had thought of him as being rather oppressed, but English children, brought up in a traditional way, tend to think that the boy has an enormous amount of freedom. So, to return to your question, I’ve changed many things to simplify them, to make them more shapely, to make them more novelistic, but also to make the character more representative.

‘I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness,’ says the boy in A Boy’s Own Story. How long was it before you began to feel differently? Is it just social programming, or does it represent some deeper and more permanent fear?

Many Americans are phobic about sex itself, not just homosexuality, so many times, when American homosexuals are coming out and trying to accept their homosexuality, they find they have an even bigger problem, which is to accept their sexuality at all. And it’s a universal problem; it seems, among certain kinds of Protestant and Irish Catholic Americans.

That’s one thing, but I feel myself to be very involved with the history of Gay Liberation, and deeply indebted to it because the kind of self- assertion, the kind of political activism that emerged in 1969, was liberating for me personally.

Oddly enough, I was the co-author of a book called The Joy of Gay Sex in 1976, published by the English publisher Mitchell Beazley. I wrote it with my own psychotherapist, but that was pure accident. He had already been chosen to be the doctor half of the team when they were looking for a writer. They auditioned ten writers, who all had to write sample entries. They liked mine the best, so chose me, and then I found it would be with my own psychotherapist. He said to me, ‘You must choose either to continue to be my patient or to be my collaborator, but you can’t be both,’ I chose to be his collaborator because I needed the money badly and felt it was towards the end of my therapy anyway. But I told Mitchell Beazley that I didn’t want to sign my own name because I thought it wasn’t a work of any literary interest and would hurt my literary career.

The book, though it had some rather juicy sexual drawings in it, wasn’t in fact very sexual in the end, but tended to be more about life-style than sexual activity. More than half of the entries were about such things as coming out, dealing with your parents, taking a lover, telling a fellow office worker you were gay and all that kind of stuff. And the more I worked on it the more I said to myself, ‘It’s completely hypocritical for you to urge everybody else to be honest and open and then sign a false name.’ So I put my own name to the book, and it was the first major thing I had written that was specifically and openly homosexual. That had a tremendous liberating influence on me. I was rather old, I was thirty-six, and it is shocking to admit how many years of therapy and struggle it took me before I could accept myself. Now I really do.

I can’t imagine myself going to a therapist and talking to him about a problem. Why did you find it necessary and were you helped?

It was very destructive at the beginning because the therapist acted as an agent of repression rather than liberation. It was only when I was in my late twenties and I chose to go to a homosexual therapist – a therapist who was, I knew, openly homosexual and felt relaxed about it – that I began actually to make some progress. But, you see, in choosing him I already made progress. In other words, up to that point, as late as the age of twenty-nine, I was still engaged to a woman, trying to go straight and get married.

But you needed therapy because of your homosexuality?

Yeah.

Nothing else?

Nothing else. Although it had such consequences that it made me quite crazed in other ways  too. I mean, I was full of nervous tics, constantly shaking my head and bobbing. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would eat too much or too little. I had all kinds of anxiety attacks where I would hyperventilate and almost pass out, all kinds of strange psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. My sister too. Then in both of our cases, when we came to accept, really accept, our homosexuality, we relaxed and all these other psychological problems disappeared.

Did your father know that you had homosexual tendencies?

Uh-huh, yes. And he hated it. He hated it and wanted me to stop.

Did you ever go through a period of your life when you could make love to a woman and enjoy it?

Yes. I was always afraid, though, of being somehow captured by women, maybe because I had a mother who depended on me very much when I was a child. After my father left us, even before, my mother would often say things like, ‘Oh, I wish you were grown up, I would marry you,’ I felt suffocated by her need for me. After that, I would tend to choose similar women, women who were very needy, partly because I didn’t have very much self-confidence. So a woman who was overweight, or who had extreme psychological problems and who was very dependent on me, reassured me in one way though in another it reminded me too much of my mother and I felt suffocated by that very need that I liked and trusted. It was all rather upsetting to me. I have the feeling that if I had been able to work out those problems, I might have had a more bisexual life. Certainly the interest in men was very early and strong, but there was a real genuine interest in women that got stifled at some point along the line, mainly because I was afraid of them, afraid of failing sexually myself; because oftentimes I would be impotent with women. Never with men.

You spoke of A Boy’s Own Story as ‘the laying to rest of a section of my life’. It suggests a sort of therapy in which you speak to a public, arranging and qualifying your life for inspection. Would that be a fair analysis?

Yes. I suppose it’s a very American and especially a very Protestant thing, the idea of bearing witness to your life. In America we have revival meetings where everyone becomes hysterical and saved through Jesus. They run to the altar and confess their whole lives. Europeans find it very amusing that Americans have this tendency to confess, but I think I’m typically American in that sense, I can only say in my defence that I feel that very few people have ever made this particular confession before in this particular way, and that it has meant a lot to a lot of readers. I still get letters from readers, and it’s reassuring for people to realize that someone else has had the same experience.

When A Boy’s Own Story was published, the New York Times review claimed you had ‘crossed The Catcher in the Rye with De Profundis -J. D. Salinger with Oscar Wilde’. Was that a claim you were happy with?

I found it an odd remark because it seems to me that, from a technical point of view, the trick of The Catcher in the Rye is that he is still as adolescent, so it is a brilliant act of ventriloquism, whereas with A Boy’s Own Story I felt it was important to have the narrator much older than the protagonist. In other words, the same man is speaking, but he is speaking about himself twenty years before. I felt that the life portrayed in A Boy’s Own Story was that of somebody who was in such pain and who hated himself so much that, if the reader was to come away with a feeling of consolation, he could only get that through an indirect contact with an adult narrator who did accept himself.

In fact, somewhere in the book the narrator says that even though he hated himself, he now loved the boy he was, and it is almost as though it’s autobiographical paedophilia. We love the self we once were, but that self-acceptance trails behind our actual life by about twenty years. And it is true that I do now feel a kind of pity and sympathy with that boy who at the time thought of himself – as I thought of myself – as a kind of monster. But now I see that, given his situation, he wasn’t so bad, he was rather normal. In that sense my book had an entirely different strategy from The Catcher in the Rye, which is a teenage boy speaking to you in his own voice, which was not at all my goal.

As far as Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is concerned, I feel it’s a very elegant piece of blackmail directed at Lord Alfred Douglas. He wants to wring his heart and preach at him, and finally punish the ideal reader of this long letter, who was Lord Alfred Douglas. I don’t feel that my book is at all interested in targeting, punishing or manipulating a particular reader. I suppose what the reviewer had in mind is that it is a cross between a teenage narrative and a homosexual narrative, but then it would have been simpler to say it.

If you were to relive your youth, how differently would you relive it?

Given the circumstances then, I was fairly courageous and probably did as best I could, but I would like to live now and lose less time feeling guilty; to have more fun, having sex and being more self-accepting sooner. I don’t feel I was deprived of sex, because I had a lot of sexual experiences, but I feel I was deprived of love, because I was unable to sustain a long-term relationship – even a six-month relationship because I hated myself too much. In other words, many homosexuals from that period, and even homosexuals now who hate themselves, can perform individual sexual acts, but don’t want to have the piece of evidence that proves they’re gay sitting round day and night. If you have no lover around, then you can say to yourself each morning, well, today’s a new day, everything’s indeterminate and maybe I’ll be heterosexual later, who knows? So the kind of commitment to homosexuality that an actual lover represents was very hard for me then, and if I had to live everything again now, I hope that I would come to self acceptance earlier and be able to experience love younger.

Many reviewers point to a vein of poetry running through your prose. Is that a deliberate or unconscious device?

Oh, like many writers of prose I started off writing poetry, and I probably still read more poetry than most prose writers. I read French poetry, English poetry and American poetry. Ezra Pound said poets should be at least as good as prose writers, and I feel that prose writers should be at least as good as poets. There’s a great deal of careless prose writing, especially now in the age of the word processor. A lot of people have a good plot which is destined ultimately for the movies, and the style is ramshackle, just a way of conveying the plot as quickly as possible. That’s a betrayal of the artistic possibilities of prose. I like a finely worked style. It’s where the English oftentimes lose patience with me, because they’ll say it’s too self-conscious or over the top or arty. That’s why I’m-happy that Quartet is publishing so many foreign works, especially French, because I find English prose a little sterile in its sociological preoccupations with class, with region and its obsession with realism, especially in showing small pictures of small lives. I find all that tiresome.

You have taught a lot of creative writing. Is it really possible to teach people to be creative?

I’m about to start teaching creative writing again, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and one of the things I’ve been thinking is that when I was a boy beginning to write, the only idea that one had of serious literature was the New Yorker. The New Yorker story was a kind of formula that aspiring young writers held in mind as a goal. Of course, now it seems terribly démodé, and I think it would have been useful if somebody had put Proust in my hand at that age – read this, forget about the New Yorker. Young writers now have Raymond Carver and other minimalist writers. I love Ray Carver, by the way. He was a good friend of mine and I admire him as a writer, but he pulled those stories out of his guts and invented the style. He was a working-class man who was an alcoholic, who suffered tremendously but who finally tore those wonderful stories out of himself. But because it is a very plain-spoken style, it is an easy one for people to imitate, and now you see rather spoiled middle-class kids who want to be writers but have never suffered a second in their lives, writing as though they’re tortured. They don’t know any other way of writing because it’s’ all they see around them.

So one thing the creative writing teacher can do is expose the student to world literature. I always ask students, ‘What have you read, and what are you reading now,’ and it’s very interesting. Many of them don’t read at all, and I can say in my whole long life of knowing writers, and I’ve known hundreds, I never met any good writers who didn’t read, except Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And they both read when they were young. Every other writer I know reads all the time – maybe not always fiction, maybe autobiography, history, or whatever they’re interested in. Every writer worth his salt is interested in innovation, and there are two sources: one is by imitating life, that is to say writing about situations that have never been written about before in ways that have never been used before; the other is through parody of other literature. That is a deliberate act of influence and I think you choose your influences very carefully.

There is a school of thought which says there are profound links between homosexuality and artistic talent. Indeed, some people would claim it is difficult to find one without the other.

I think that’s ridiculous. Clearly you can find many great writers and painters who are heterosexual. It does tend to vary according to the arts, and to the period. For instance, very few architects are homosexual, but maybe it’s partly because the engineering, technical aspect of architecture has become so important. I find that most homosexuals don’t like spending years and years studying maths, science and engineering. When I was a boy in the 1950s, the whole world of American painting was extremely macho, and if you were a homosexual you had to hide it because you wouldn’t be considered a serious artist. If you think of the generation of De Kooning, Pollock, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, they were all heterosexual. You barely find a woman and certainly not a gay man. Now, with the Hockney generation, you find many homosexuals, but I think it varies according to the period and the ethic of the period.

If gay men tend to be sensitive in the arts, it’s partly because they are participatory outsiders. If you are a complete outsider, like a gipsy who doesn’t ever get into the inner structure of society but lives as a complete marginal, it’s rather difficult to be a writer, or you can only write about that small world. If you’re a complete insider or a successful Wall Street broker who was head prefect at Eton, it’s hard to question the mechanics of your world, but if you’re a Jew who passes as Gentile or a gay who sometimes passes as heterosexual, you can enter into the world without ever feeling completely part of it. You feel very much like an outsider, but are a participatory outsider; you participate in the system. It’s no accident that Proust, who was half-Jewish and at least half-homosexual, should be the person really to have written about the mechanics of the inner, world of the French ruling class.

But people with great artistic talent nowadays often are homosexual.

There are many exceptions. For example, of the 102 books we read for the Booker Prize, I think only two had any overt homosexual content. It was a shockingly low proportion, and the only one that was good was Sybil Bedford’s Jigsaw, where she was quite open about her own lesbianism. Just numerically, there you have a spread of all the best English fiction of one whole year, and very very little of it was homosexual at all.

Would you want to claim heightened sensibility, as many homosexuals do, and if so, is it cause or effect?

I think you could claim heightened sensibility, which is the heightened sensibility of an outsider, and it’s definitely an effect. It’s an effect of being homosexual, nothing mystical, nothing innate.

From what you have written, the various psychological explanations for homosexuality seem inadequate to you. Can you suggest any reason why people should be divided in this way? Lesbians often point to the brutality and self-regard of men, but presumably a different explanation is needed for male homosexuals.

I think, as I said earlier, that women can choose to be lesbians. There are many women who felt they never had a choice, that they were born lesbian, but I’ve also known many who have actually chosen to be lesbian for political reasons – disappointment in marriage or disappointment in contact with men, or because of their political feminist convictions. But I have never known a man make a similar claim. I read a poll that Playboy magazine conducted of their readers, asking what is your secret fantasy, what would you like to explore that you’ve never had the courage to explore? Many women readers responded that they would like to explore lesbianism, but no heterosexual male reader said they wanted to explore homosexuality. So either they’re not admitting it or, as I suspect, it’s much more clear-cut for men.

I think it’s linked to masturbation. I think that when you masturbate alone, you have fantasies, and those fantasies guide you to what your real desires are. In that sense masturbation is psychologically productive, because it allows you to locate what you actually want to do sexually.

But many women, especially of your generation and mine, did not masturbate until they were in their thirties or early forties, and it’s only at that point that they discover they’re having persistent lesbian fantasies. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

You mean that boys masturbate at an early age, women don’t.

I don’t think that’s the case now, but it was the case before, at least among traditional cultures or people who were from a religious background. Many girls simply didn’t touch themselves until they were older. As a political statement, I would say that no explanation is necessary and that just as we don’t search for explanations for heterosexuality, so we shouldn’t search for explanations for homosexuality. To search for an explanation is to fall into the trap of regarding it as a pathology that needs an explanation. Curiously enough, the translator who is translating Genet material of mine into French, and who is heterosexual, said, ‘I find reading your work so odd because you name heterosexuality as a condition, and every time you present a new man, you say he’s a heterosexual. Heterosexuals themselves never think in those terms. They think of themselves as being a kind of universal nameless class, and then everybody else gets names as exceptions.’

But don’t people want to know more about homosexuality because it’s perverse?

Yes, because it’s different and because it can be threatening. They begin to think, maybe this will happen to me or my children, and what are the early signs? How can I be sure I’m not that way? It’s interesting. My friend who is just getting divorced – I’m his first male friend – has always lived as a heterosexual, with the wedding ring and so on, and he was telling me that in his milieu, which is architecture, many men joke about wanting to have homosexual adventures. It is constantly on their minds, always being brought up but in a joking fashion. They don’t act on it, but it is a thought that passes rather frequently through their heads.

In my own case, homosexuality struck me as a source of freedom. I knew I didn’t want to be bourgeois, didn’t want to have a family or the expenses of a family, didn’t want to have a wife or children dependent on me, didn’t want to need a full-time job. I wanted to be a writer. I never felt I was rich enough to have children, nor did I want to be rich enough to have children. I wanted to be free as the wind and not to re-create the same kind of stifling manly situation that I suffered from as a child.

When my father would come to visit me at university, the minute he left I would rush off to pick somebody up to have sex with. I needed to touch flesh, to prove to myself that I wasn’t like him, that I wasn’t going to be like him. In other words, I was fleeing into a kind of freedom that, for me, homosexuality stood for: the opposite of everything my family stood for.

If you had a choice, would you opt for homosexuality or heterosexuality?

I would opt for bisexuality, because it would be very exciting to be able to experience everybody and everything. I wish I had more flexibility as a heterosexual. I mean, I wish that part of me were developed because first of all I love women and the company of women and think it would be fun to explore that more. Also, women are very tolerant towards older men if they’re successful, but men are not very tolerant, so I think that if the world were ideally arranged, you would, if you’re a man, be homosexual when you’re young and heterosexual when you’re old; and the exact contrary if you’re a woman, because lesbians tend to like older women and heterosexual men like younger women, so a woman should go from being heterosexual to being lesbian.

With people’s awareness and acceptance, however partial, of more sexually explicit writing, a certain kind of literature, which might be called the literature of concealment, has disappeared. Do you think that more relaxed attitudes have always been good for literature?

Yes and no. One of the most exciting homosexual stories ever written is one that’s not at all homosexual, ‘The Secret Shower’ by Conrad; or another ‘The Pupil’ by Henry James. Those writers wrote about highly charged erotic situations that were never specific. Even, let’s say, the paedophilia that is concealed in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is absolutely thrilling and hair-raising, so it’s true that that has a kind of artistic value which is no longer quite so possible; though in my own novel, Forgetting Elena – even though there’s no specific homosexuality the atmosphere is heavily charged with a kind of mysterious and repressed homosexuality and I think the book works perfectly all right, although it was written after Gay Liberation. So it’s still an option if one wants to write about things in that way. I’m now editing an anthology of homosexual fiction for Faber, and the contribution by the youngest of all the writers is a throwback to this earlier period. In other words, it is about the relationship between a white man and an American Indian out West, and there’s a strong homoerotic pull between them, but neither of them appears to be conscious of it. It works as a very exciting homosexual story of a friendship, but definitely physical.

In The Darker Proof, the volume of short stories you wrote with Adam Mare- Jones, there seems to be a note of defiance in the face of Aids. Is this defiance aimed at those who would smugly and piously claim that Aids has nothing to do with them, or is it perhaps stalking the spectre of death itself?

I think both. I have a very peculiar reaction to Aids that nobody else I know has, and that is a feeling of rage and humiliation. I’m a very proud person and I hate to have people condescend to me, but I have felt since Aids came along that many well-intentioned and perfectly nice heterosexual people look at me pityingly. I was very early in coming out as somebody who was HIV positive. I gave interviews early on, and I even wrote in Life Magazine recently that I am HIV positive. Now I find that many people have this way of looking at me as though they know I’m going to be dead in two years, and it’s as though that proves that everything I was saying-earlier about the importance of expressing yourself homosexually was a mistake. It’s as if the Establishment, or heterosexuals or square normal people, are having the last laugh, and it absolutely infuriates me. So in these stories I’m interested partly in showing the kind of heroism, and even the high spirits, with which homosexuals are sometimes responding to the disease. I’m also very interested in showing that it’s not just people who are always at the baths having sex twenty times a day who are getting it. In fact it’s a single exposure that causes it. The viral nature of the disease wasn’t known till 1984, and by that point the disease had already been very widely spread.

It first started appearing, as far as we know, in 1981, so there were three or four years of sexual activity when we didn’t know what safe sex was. Now we know how the disease is transmitted, and of the younger generation, the people who have come out since 1984, only 1 per cent has reported being positive in the United States. It’s a very low percentage. In other words, safe sex is really working, while for the older group there was no such thing as safe sex. People said you shouldn’t use poppers. Now it turns out that that had nothing to do with it. People said you shouldn’t have too much sex, or you should know the name of your partner. All of which is ludicrous, since it’s a question of a single exposure and you can get it as easily from your lover in bed at night in your home as you can at the baths or in the back room. It had nothing to do with the promiscuity, it had to do with the nature of sexual contact.

How much does it worry you?

It worries me constantly. Every time I make plans I make them with a double accounting system. In other words, I can tell you in one breath that I’m going to go teach so that I can have a retirement plan in fifteen years, but the other system of accounting says I’ll probably be dead in four years, which is a statistical possibility, and a very strong one, because I know I’ve been positive since 1985, which is from the beginning of the tests. The view now is that 90 to 100 per cent of the people who are positive will develop the disease. They used to say 10 per cent, then it was 25 per cent. All you can hope for is either that they’re wrong or there will be a vaccine for people who are positive but don’t yet have the disease.

Does that fear make you reject sex, or doesn’t it make any difference?

I never have non-safe sex, but that’s for the other person’s benefit, not for mine. I continue to have a lot of sex, so it doesn’t make any difference that way, but it makes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re going to die. I’ve lost some forty friends, you know – almost my whole generation. We were a group of gay writers, in New York together, and now I’m trying to organize all of their papers for Yale University before the last of us die, so they can have something to study for the future.

Why is it that homosexuals get the virus, and lesbians don’t on the whole?

It’s the nature of the sexual contact. It’s spread by blood and sperm. A homosexual man, or any man, can get fucked in the ass, so he receives sperm, and the nature of the anus is to absorb fluid to make a hard stool, so it absorbs instantly anything that’s put in it. Drug addicts, for instance, will often ‘put drugs up their ass to get high quickly, or if you give yourself a wine enema you will get high very quickly because it doesn’t pass through your liver first. It’s very vulnerable tissue, whereas the nature of the vagina is not to absorb but to conduct the sperm all the way to the uterus.

The anus being highly absorptive, a man can get fucked in the ass, can get Aids that way, and then can turn around and fuck somebody else in the ass. The nature of homosexual men is that they can both receive sperm and give sperm. The nature of a heterosexual man is that he can give sperm but can’t receive it. The nature of a woman is that she can receive sperm but can’t give it. So it’s almost a fact that, mathematically, a homosexual man plays this pivot role of both giving and receiving sperm, and it’s that which makes a homosexual especially vulnerable.                                               ,

What has been the social impact of Aids? I know what liberal response is proper, but is it not time to curb freedoms as Aids spreads through the population? The Soviet Union, for example, has a very small-scale problem, seemingly because homosexual acts are still illegal there and are heavily punished.

Western Europe, at least, is not likely to be very repressive about Aids because there was a period when the disease was heterosexualized, that is to say, it was being presented as a strong heterosexual possibility and people started getting very frightened. Now it appears that the target populations are black Africans, mainly heterosexual, gay men and intravenous drug-users, and the ruling class in Western Europe isn’t very interested in any of these three groups. If they all die, nobody cares. That’s the ignoble side of it. The noble side is that people like the Minister of Health here in France have realized that forbidding homosexuality or closing bath-houses is not really very efficacious in stopping the spread of the disease.

It can take up to ten years before it manifests itself, but there’s no way of knowing who has it. For a while, the Bavarians were trying to give people instantaneous tests before they crossed the border, and other people, like the Finns, were insisting you had a blood test before you went to their country; and India was saying that to have longer than a six-month visa, you had to have blood tests. All of that was quite ridiculous, and in Western Europe it was decided it was against human rights, so now the European Community, with the reluctant acceptance of Britain, which is always more primitive in these matters, has decided it is unenforceable and we must first spread health information to encourage prevention, and secondly pay for research. Trying to stop people from having sex is pointless.

It’s almost twenty-five years since Viscount Montgomery said of homosexuality: This sort of thing may be tolerated by the French, but we are British, thank God.’ Presumably you would agree we have moved on since then, but do you think that the underlying attitude of the majority of British people remains the same?

Yes, I think England is especially backward in the acceptance of homosexuality. But again it extends to sexuality in general. For instance, all the business that was going on two or three years ago with small children, the witch-hunting of parents in Cleveland and all. In France people laughed. They couldn’t believe something like that could possibly happen. One of the main reasons why England is so primitive is its press. In France we don’t have a popular press, a gutter press. There are no headlines saying -‘Mother Tortures Baby’. In Britain you have almost nothing but. Even The Times runs sensational headlines. The level of British journalism is appalling, and it’s interesting, going back to the question of Aids, to find the countries that have behaved the worst have been the United States, England and Germany, those being the three countries which have a great gutter press. The countries that have behaved the best have been those in the Latin world – Spain, Italy and France – which don’t have a gutter press to stir up all this anxiety and craziness.

And aren’t we in Britain much more hypocritical about sex in general than people in Europe?

Absolutely. In France, if you go to a dinner party among middle-class or educated people and you start whispering about somebody’s divorce or somebody’s adultery, everyone looks at you askance. But in England I’m shocked even by my friends about how much they gossip, especially about sex. Somebody said something very amusing recently: that in America people talk about money in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is sex, whereas in France everybody talks about sex in order to avoid talking about the real secret, which is money.

In your view, are you born homosexual or do you become homosexual? Is it nature or nurture?

In my own case I feel it was nature, because one of my earliest memories, during the war, when I was less than five years old, was of sitting on the lap of a pilot who was a friend of our family and being absolutely enthralled by him as a man – I mean feeling weak at the knees with admiration for this huge man with golden wings on his shirt. It wasn’t the usual little boy’s desire to want to be the man. It was the desire to have him, somehow. Admiration of a little boy for a soldier is perfectly normal, but this was something slightly different. Certain societies favour the expression of homosexuality, but the urge towards homosexuality may well be determined biologically.

Now for the important question. What is it about the homosexual that makes him generally more promiscuous than the heterosexual? Where does the compulsion spring from? It’s something everyone wants to know.

It goes back to what I said earlier. Almost everything about homosexuality can be explained by its status as an all-male world. For instance, a study done of lesbian couples, gay male couples and heterosexual couples, showed that if you took a certain age group, say thirty to thirty-five, the lesbian couple had sex once a week, the gay male couple had sex three times a week, and the heterosexual couple had sex twice a week. In other words, heterosexuality is what needs to be explained in that it is a compromise between a powerful male sexuality and a weaker or more restrained sexuality. Many heterosexual men used to say to me before Aids, you guys are really lucky because you can get laid all the time and don’t have to spend a fortune taking somebody out to dinner four or five times, then sitting around waiting and hoping she might put out. You see somebody in the street, you ask him for a light, you go home with him and you have sex immediately. That was the great advantage of homosexuality before Aids. You didn’t have the braking effect of female socialization, but you had the affectionately enhancing effect of male on male. Men were doing exactly what they wanted to do, and what they would be doing with women if they could. I think very few heterosexual men, if they’re honest, would say oh, I like having to court a woman for a month before I can go to bed with her. If you read erotic fantasies by heterosexual men, it’s oftentimes where women are on heat. Many erotic movies are about women who have hungry pussies – they are on heat, they can’t have enough. In fact they don’t exist very often. There are nymphomaniacs, of course, but never enough.

But there’s another thing which is inexplicable. However heterosexual I may be, it’s unlikely I will go to a public lavatory and wait outside for a woman to come out and proposition her. But there are very distinguished men who, before sexual liberation, ran the risk of arrest by visiting lavatories. There’s a compulsion there.

That has partly to do with the repression of homosexuality. Many of those men were married and did not have a homosexual lifestyle, but did have strong homosexual urges and no normal channels for expressing them. They were afraid to be seen in a homosexual bar or pub; they couldn’t take a lover because they had a wife. I have in those furtive situations met men who turned out to be married. I used to cruise all the time, but found I was most compulsive before I accepted my homosexuality, which was when I went to a Freudian woman Viennese psychiatrist when I was twenty years old. My biggest problem was that I was so sexually compulsive, and I asked, ‘What can I do to cure this?’ She said, ‘If you can speak to your heterosexual friends a little bit about why you are homosexual, and if you could be more open about it and could integrate it into your life, you would find you would become less compulsive.’

So in your present settled situation, would you never dream of cruising?

Yes, of course I would cruise. Just as I can imagine how it would be if you were in an airport bar and a very attractive woman sat down next to you and you bought her a drink and started talking to her; and then it was announced that all the planes were cancelled and that you would have to stay in Paris another night. If she invited you back to her apartment or you invited her to your hotel for another drink, what happens next?

Yes, but I wouldn’t go looking for it.

Well, I don’t go to bars and I live with somebody, but I can’t say I would resist temptation 100 per cent if it presented itself.

You say in A Boy’s Own Story: ‘Sex seemed a strange thing to me, a social rite that registered, even brought about, shifts in the balance of power.’ What is the relationship between sex and power?

A sub-text in many sexual acts, even ones that seem quite affectionate, can be sado-masochism. There was a famous American psychiatrist called Stoller who began to record the sado-masochistic fantasies of patients who called themselves sado-masochistic, but he was a good enough scientist to realize that he should record the sexual fantasies of regular people too, and found that they also had fantasies of submission and ‘domination to a shocking extent. The truth is that, even when the sex act, viewed by a camera or a voyeur, looks fairly peaceful, if you were reading the text going on in the head of the man or the woman or the two men or the two women you might find there were themes of submission and domination; that they were very fluid in that some- times one might begin as the submissive one and end as the dominant one. Many of the themes of childhood, the feelings of wanting control and fear of losing control, get played out in the adult sexual act. It’s part of what makes it exciting. Stoller found that the reason couples get bored with each other is that they get to know each other too well and know that the other doesn’t really represent any threat. The ideal sexual moment is when people are comfortable enough with each other to feel free to express their fantasies but don’t know each other so well that there’s no longer a mystery.

That’s true. Can you suggest something of the homosexual attitude towards women? It must be a different kind of relationship in general from that which obtains between heterosexuals, even when there is no overt liaison, nor any likelihood of one.

Friendships between heterosexual women and homosexual men can be some of the strongest in the world. It approaches Hegel’s idea of the brother/sister relationship, because it’s a sister that you’ve chosen. It’s one of the purest relationships because it is completely disinterested.

There’s no sexual tension. You don’t want anything from the woman and she doesn’t want anything from you. What you want is each other’s friendship. That can be very complex too, and it can be involved with social ambition, working together, all kinds of things, but nevertheless I would say it approaches a state of purity, because for homosexual men every other man is potentially a sexual partner.

Has it ever happened that you befriended a woman and she fell for you?

Yes. That’s painful. I try to be very clear from the very beginning, though now that I’m well known as a gay writer I don’t even have to. But before I would always try to be very clear that I was exclusively homosexual so that at least I was being fair and honest about what was possible. It does happen, but less often I find because I tend not to make a mystery of my life and I will often introduce a woman friend to my boy-friend very early on. Therefore it would have to be somebody very unbalanced and strange who would let herself go so far.

I understand that you are also occasionally attracted to heterosexuals. How do you deal with that. Is it possible for you to seduce the heterosexual?

{Laughs} Yes, well, that’s maybe one reason why I like Genet, because Genet never had sex with homosexual men, only with heterosexual men. They were always working-class boys who were in some way dependent on him for money, but he would always arrange for them to have girl-friends. He would even choose their wives and so on. It was the sort of thing that used to happen a lot in the Mediterranean world, especially Greece; the older man who had the younger boy, then set the younger boy up in the world. Many younger heterosexual men admire me as a writer. They’re curious and they want to have an edge on you. I’ve been seduced more by heterosexual men than I have seduced. I don’t think I’ve seduced them very often. But if they want to seduce me, it’s OK.

To come back to Genet and the subject of Prisoner of Love. How do you feel about the Palestinian cause? Are you sympathetic?

It’s a very awkward question. I’ll tell you why. It’s because American publishing is entirely pro-Israel. Recently I was asked if Genet was anti-Semitic, and I said yes and no, but yes to some degree. The publisher said, ‘Well, why are we even bothering to publish your book? Nobody will read it in America.’ So there’s a commercial part of me that thinks I have to be very careful how I respond to your question, but the truth is I’m very sympathetic to the Palestinians.

You can be sympathetic to the Palestinians without being anti-Semitic. I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.

Nor am I. I’m not even anti-Zionist, but all the contact I have had with Palestinians has been very good. I find the Arab people that I’ve met are most cultured, and even their attitude towards literature is extremely sophisticated. For instance, a book like Prisoner of Love would have been a very easy one for the Palestinians to claim and try to use as a political weapon, but in fact, when I was recently at the Institute of the Arab World here in Paris, on a panel with the head of the Palestinian Review, he said that he thought the book should be considered a work of art and not as a political text; that, of course, it did have a political aspect, but it would be very difficult to decode a clear political message. It’s very ambiguous politically. The thing about Genet is that he himself was a homeless person and hated France. He though that he was an orphan. He was always rejected by everybody, and the two political groups he identified with were the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, both of whom had a government but no country. He once said that the day the Palestinians recovered their land, then he would no longer love them. It was very important to him that they were marginal homeless people like himself.

He identified with them.

Absolutely.  He hated France and never thought he was French. When he was a child, he had a persistent fantasy that he was Polish. He loved it when people told him he looked Polish.

Could you write a novel without any trace of homosexuality in it?

I’ve already done it, and that’s Caracole where there are no homosexual characters. Mind you, it’s been a very difficult book to sell because our society is one which packages everyone, and so people were very puzzled by it, especially in the English-speaking world. Why would a homosexual writer write a book where there are no homosexual characters?

I found it exciting and liberating to write. For one thing, in this book I wrote compulsively about heterosexual sex, which I have very little experience of, so it was all my fantasies, and I found that very exciting. Several heterosexual readers have told me they found it exciting too. It was a pure act of imagination, projection and voyeurism.

What’s the greatest ambitions left to you?

I want to finish the cycle that has begun with A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty.  I want to write two more volumes, one about the 1970’s, the heyday of gay life, then one about the 1980’s, about the Aids period. So I want to finish that as a cycle, and I certainly want to finish the Genet book. After that we’ll see.

Young Hitler

Claus Hant’s Young Hitler, the first non-fiction novel to focus exclusively on Adolf Hitler’s early years and answer the question of how an ostensibly unremarkable man could turn into one of history’s most powerful tyrants, will be published by Quartet Books in April 2010.

Until then, here is a teaser, to whet your appetites.

Google

At the outset of launching into this complex issue I need first to declare my hand.

Although I am now of a certain age, I maintain a youthful mind and a hardly diminished zest for life. Even so I am backward in adapting to the internet craze that seems to have infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives.

I am fully aware that to shun technological progress would be to emulate King Canute in his attempt to halt the rising tide. I am also aware that, while the internet has many drawbacks, it is giving access to a vast array of knowledge that was previously not so easy to get hold of. The tasks of researchers have become easier and as a result the world of learning has been democratised and opened out into a harvestable phenomenon by anyone who wishes to use it. Communications have defied distances and information in a readily digestible form is available at the click of a button.

Certainly the technological revolution has brought considerable benefit in its wake to every field known to man.

The downside is that some of its consequences have eroded practices and ways of life that have been personal and endearing in many ways.

When you seek a piece of information on the internet, then that is what you get, whereas when you use a reference book, you are likely to stumble on other incidental and unrelated facts that by happy accident add to the background richness of your own inner network of knowledge. Emails are a miraculously efficient way of exchanging communications, but they tend to impose a sort of depersonalised style that can bear no comparison with the warmth of a sincerely felt hand-written letter. On the telephone a human voice is far to be preferred over a robotic digitalised response that takes you through lists of directives and various long waits, before you are able to converse with someone responsible for dealing with your inquiry at the other end – ­ a cumbersome and irritating process. The mobile phone has made life easier in many respects, and offers many conveniences, but from my observation it has also turned into a fad where much time is wasted on endless gossip and vacuous prattle for the sake of it. Everyone with a computer can now become their own typographer, without needing to absorb any of the principles of good design and layout, and inept examples are all around us. The digital camera does most of the work for the photographer, rendering the old dark-room crafts redundant, making high standards accessible to all but also undermining the intensity of individual talents.

And now the world of books is under assault from new technology and the internet that will make the whole vast field of past and present writing available as never before, with predictions being put forward that we are on the edge of a new age where screen reading becomes the norm and the handling of a traditional printed book features as a rare joy.

I, for one, can feel only dread at the idea of this prophecy coming to pass, and anticipations of the ‘death of the book’ may well turn out to be exaggerated, once the novelty element of the new screen readers has worn off.

As has been said, the printed book is, bar fire or flood, one of mankind’s most durable inventions, and has been so over centuries of history. There are real doubts about whether digitised versions of texts can remain uncorrupted and undamaged in the long run, and, by definition, the long-term durability of the new technology is unproven.

Meanwhile I would prefer to keep the clock turned back, to linger in libraries and what remain of real bookshops, and savour the magic of old-fashioned books, each one of them a labour of love and an object to behold and cherish for future generations.

These remarks are made against the background of the Google Book Settlement. This has come about through Google’s monumentally ambitious project to digitise not only every out-of-copyright book that has ever been published in the United States, but also every out-of-print book, even though these are still within their terms of copyright under international law (five million titles at one estimate). It is an assumption that will also include many British and European authors.

Bearing in mind the ongoing deliberations by Judge Denny Chin in New York, let us consider the facts.

Google set out by claiming that it constituted ‘fair use’ in setting up a virtual universal library of millions of titles, realising an Enlightenment dream.

Yet the scale of it is bemusing and the implications so vast that working them out becomes a specialised study in itself. Over 10 million books have already been digitised and eventually the Google collection can be expected to outstrip the US Library of Congress’s 21 million volumes.

The concerns raised have been many, including the wisdom of having such a universal resource vested in a private company, albeit one that is currently in a dominant and powerful position through its vast internet wealth. The histories of such companies inevitably go through cycles; their assets can be split up and divided in unforeseen ways dictated by market demand rather than ideals of public good. If Google gain a dispensation to override a principle of international copyright law, then they in effect secure a monopoly situation over that part of their asset, despite their protests against this being any part of their intention. The future costs and conditions of access to the information by institutions and individuals will be at the whim of market forces and possible future changes of ownership, when something so important ought surely to be seen as having the status of a public utility.

The technology to access and control such a resource continues to develop at a mind-blowing rate and, like all computer technology, has a built-in obsolescence likely to disadvantage certain users over time. Digital information is not immune to damage or misrepresentation by selection and cannot carry the same feel for a book conveyed by its physical presence.

These are only a few of the implications this revolutionary project has to face.

One would never have anticipated that we would see circumstances where firm principles of copyright and intellectual property would be tailored and modified to suit a private corporation, but we live in times that have seen the unthinkable happen in so many different social and political spheres. Under copyright law the great majority of books published since 1923 are said to be still within copyright, whether or not they are still in print.

Yet one objective of the Google Settlement is to make Google immune to prosecution by rights holders who perceive or discover a retrospective grievance.

The most bizarre aspect in these matters of great significance for the literature and culture of countries other than the United States is that they then come to be decided under American law, in the district court for the Southern District of New York, with the filing of a settlement last November between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

According to Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books (17 December 2009), this filing was  important because it marked ‘the denouement of years of hard bargaining over who will control a large stretch of the digital landscape that is just now coming into view’.

The current situation in New York makes one thing clear: this will by no means be the end of the story.

‘The case may take years to make its way through the courts. Meanwhile, Google will go on digitising; and as the legal situation evolves, it may devise further revisions of the settlement. The public will have to study all the new versions of the settlement in order to stay informed about the rules of the game while the game is being played. Who ultimately wins is not simply a matter of competition among potential entrepreneurs but an issue of enormous importance to everyone who cares about books.’

Within the UK responses these issues have seemed to be oddly muted and there are few signs of a comprehensive awareness of long-term consequences.

One reason for this may lie with the bewildering complexity of the legal documentation involved.

France and Germany have, by contrast, been far more forthright in their objections, basing these firmly on national pride in their respective literary traditions.

Unfortunately in the UK we have seen the idea of literature devalued by an inverted snobbery that seeks to brand such a concept as elitist; but, quite apart from this, it is hard to fathom why the publishing establishment has shown so little will to fight and question a situation of such dubious benefit to our past and present authors.

Is it that we are stuck in a national mind-set where, unlike Europe, we accept anything that US publishing throws at us, or does it have to do with the ownership of many of our publishing conglomerates being in American hands?

These questions are worth asking if they help to stir the much needed debate in fresh directions.

Kit Fraser Enters Politics

What an enterprising fellow Kit Fraser is.

Not only has he written a brilliant book, The Joy of Talk, he is now forming his own political party under the same title.

Given that most MPs are lacking in brain power, and humourless with it, his advent in the world of politics should liven things up.

Whereas it is alleged that Gordon Brown is a bit of a bully, and is certainly joyless, Kit could transform the political arena into a circus of convivial banter and leave the prime minister with the preoccupation of terrorising his staff.

Are Literary Agents Necessary?

The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Its evolution has not always been progressive in nurturing new talents, in stark contrast with the attention given to those regarded as having a ‘track record’ of profitable appeal, which too often means authors who have settled on a formula and who inspire a host of imitators. The bookshop shelves at airports are full of such examples. As a result, the emphasis has been elitist, excluding many struggling for recognition. With the electronic age robbing the industry of the personal touch, it is easy to feel drowned in a modern technology expedient but soulless.

Writing, being a lonely profession, requires warmth and passion if it is to manifest itself to its full potential. It also feeds on encouragement and empathy as well as full access to those whose advice is significant and who can help to make things happen. In theory, that should be the role the literary agent fulfils.

But how often does she or he do so? In my long career in banking and retailing, in show business and as an independent entrepreneur, I have rarely used a go-between to conclude a transaction. I have always found that a direct approach to the source was more efficient and less time-consuming, and ultimately more rewarding for the parties involved. The inclusion of a third party in the equation often disturbs the balance, slowing down procedures, and in some cases creates unnecessary conflict which springs from an over-exuberance on the part of the intermediary. The agent’s motivation is naturally to maximise his earnings, but sometimes this can be pushed so far as to risk aborting an entire negotiation.

Over the years, literary agents have become more powerful and have gained what I term as disproportionate influence. They often exert the kind of hold over the industry which proves counter-productive to the small independent publisher, who has by and large been side-tracked through his lack of financial clout. In years gone by the industry was more concerned with literary talent, seeing the newcomers in the field as representing its seed corn for the future.

Now the focus is all on immediate gain.

It has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry intent on backing financial certainties like Dan Brown and the other paperback blockbusters, dwarfing any hopes for a newcomer to enter the arena, especially one who is trying to develop an original talent that does not fit the present mould.

To make matters even more difficult, the sales shelves are over-crowded with the oeuvres of the new cult of celebrity. Few of these books show any particular writing talent, but the trend has employed a host of ghost writers and flooded the market with fabricated best-sellers to order. A prime example is Jordan, whose enlarged breasts have, believe it or not, earned her a fortune in the literary world.

Admittedly the components of writing and sex have always fared well together, but are now bereft of literary merit. The situation has been brought about by the capitalist philosophy that money is the ultimate objective, without which even respectability tends to come at a premium.

Since my advent into publishing in the summer of 1976, I have learnt much about this idiosyncratic industry and have seen many changes, among them the emergence of the conglomerates. These octopuses have, throughout the western world, swallowed the larger chunk of small independent publishers. Alongside this development, literary agents have risen to prominence and become key players in concluding contracts worth millions for the benefit of super-rich authors whose influence in the media has simultaneously gained ground at an alarming rate. You have only to open a newspaper to see the coverage they receive. They have become the new royals of the publishing industry, with their agents acting as their chancellors. In their quest to do well by their authors, and justify their fees, the agents have gradually embarked on amending the accepted formulas for publishing contracts till they have taken these to the limits of credibility. Whereas in the past a publisher’s rights to publish lasted as long as a book remained in print, the most unreasonable and ridiculous contracts today will seek to specify a limit to the period of five years; though more liberal contracts may extend these rights to ten years. On top of this, to add insult to injury, the division of earnings has been tightened in favour of the author, thus eroding the publisher’s profit margins.

These extra pressures have come about at the same time as the book chains demand more and more discounts, the result being catastrophic for the small publisher, who comes under fire from all angles and whose future survival is a constant matter of concern. No wonder the book trade is on the wane.

Unless something is done to shift the balance in other directions, we are likely to witness the industry suffering mortal damage. The literary agents ought to be seeing it as in their interests to give it an uplift as a whole, rather than catering exclusively to the whims of the conglomerates. Otherwise their usefulness will ebb in time. They work hard to steer their authors in the direction of fame and fortune, but by so doing unwittingly distort their talents through a limited understanding. They need to see a future in the small independent publishers, who have for years been discovering the writers of the new generation and whose task remains vital if our cultural heritage is to remain unassailed in times when fads seem to govern the way we write, think and measure reality.

In my view, there is more to life than making money. The current obsession with wealth is lethal. It changes our character, and instead of improving our lives, it sometimes destroys them. The more that sustainable wealth can be steeped in culture, in music and in the ability to create an environment, the more supreme will be its nobility of spirit.

However, the question remains. Are literary agents necessary?

Perhaps. But they have to reform if they are to fulfil their task properly. Dealing with literary endeavours is almost a vocation in itself. A lot of sacrifice and commitment are needed, with less emphasis on superficial gains.

They should be more open to new talent and willing to share in taking risks, rather than concentrating on what they think are certainties.

No Longer With Us: Harold Acton

On the subject of beauty, you have written that those who philosophise most loudly and persistently about it seldom have intrinsic taste. Is beauty purely subjective?

I fear it is. In my case I’ve been privileged: born in Florence and surrounded by beautiful things with a father who was a painter and collector and whose friends were art historians, art critics. I think of Offner, whose centenary will be celebrated very soon, and Berenson, and Herbert Horne, who bequeathed his collection to Florence – his palace is now a museum – and Stibbert, another Englishman who lived not far from where I do. All these men were collectors and I imbibed something of that atmosphere when I was young. There were many beautiful villas, all full of treasures.

The British community was then predominant, though it’s been ebbing now for some time, ever since just before the last war. People gave up their houses and went back to live in England. I suppose that they were scared away by fascism. Life was made very unpleasant for them by the young blackshirts, you know, so they started to retreat, to leave their lovely houses in the Italian countryside. One or two, like Lord Lambton, have in more recent times bought properties here in beautiful situations near Siena, Signa, Pistoia, all around here. In fact some parts of Tuscany are today quite Anglicised, you might say. Young English historians and art critics like John Fleming and Hugh Honour live near Lucca and write well on Italian painting, and those are the few who remain. Formerly every other Englishman here was an art historian or collector or painter. It was like a kitchen of the arts.

You have said that your most valued experiences have been aesthetic. Could you elaborate?

A single visit to Florence can answer that question, though Florence is suffering from new horrors. There is an appalling lack of architectural taste today. It’s rather sad, this degradation of architecture in Italy which I don’t think applies in the same way in England. Incidentally, where England is concerned, I do think Prince Charles is very enlightened. Aren’t we lucky to have a prince who takes an interest in architecture.  It’s unique. After all, architecture in England has always been very important, but lately people have closed their eyes to the horrors that have arisen in London. Prince Charles is absolutely right to point it out.  Of course, good architects do exist, but Prince Charles is in revolt against the vulgarisation of everything. He’s a man of taste. I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh cares two hoots. As for the Queen, she has other things to think of.

Are there any objective, or at least non-subjective, criteria for beauty?

Yes, I think there are. The French, after all, have Versailles, and they have so many marvellous buildings which are perfectly proportioned in every sort of style. They have the classical tradition of remarkable taste, but unfortunately, as soon as the petite bourgeoisie takes over, then it becomes grotesque. French taste has gone down the drain. Even their painting is now very poor. Only think what they used to be in the eighteenth century.

The whole question of taste is very difficult because taste is so personal, so private a thing, but I think that a person who has a certain classical education is entitled to some say in matters of taste. Classical education is the background. I’m afraid there is also natural bad taste, and bad taste is more general than good taste. When I see the garish, the obvious, the bright, the sexy, all of that appals, alas.

In your memoirs you say: ‘In spirit I remain a nomad, a restless and nostalgic ex-pat.’ Is this still true?

The older I get the more true it seems. With age I feel that I am more devoted to travel in search of art, of international art, not limited to English or Italian. I’ve always been drawn, for instance, to Chinese art. I also like their drama, which I have translated with L. C. Arlington, and I have translated popular Chinese plays which are immensely artistic and beautiful in performance. Unfortunately China today is too different from the China I knew in the seven happy years I lived in Peking. I have no particular yearning to return under the present regime, but all the same I’m haunted by the happy years I lived there just before the war.

All the accounts that friends bring me of China today are rather depressing, but I love the country and I like the people. Wherever I went, whether in the north, to Honan and Hoonan, or all the way south to Hong Kong, I always got on well with the Chinese. I feel homesick sometimes for China but I know it’s been transformed under Mao Tsetung. How could it be otherwise? When I was there, there were still the remains of the Imperial Manchu dynasty. I met several who were talented painters, Prince P’u Ju P’u Hsin-yu, for instance, a cousin of the ex-emperor who was a very talented poet and painter and who I think eventually fled to Japan. I don’t expect he’s alive now, but I knew him well and his palace was not far from where I had a house in Kung Hsien Hutung.  He painted a portrait of me, which I haven’t got because I left everything behind in Peking, expecting to go back after the war, but of course the revolution changed all those expectations. Instead I returned to Italy where i was born, and here i have remained: all ny eggs in one basket

You wrote about your early years: ‘I cannot remember thinking of myself as a child for I was as embarrassed by children then as I am now and whined when I was referred to as one of the species.’

I’ve always been uncomfortable with children and they’re uncomfortable with me. I don t know why, but I never felt at ease with children, and of course if you’re surrounded by works of art then you’re always terrified that they’re going to break them; and those children that I know will immediately go towards a little statue and Crash!, within a moment the statue is down and in smithereens on the floor. Children are very destructive, particularly English children, though I don’t think I was ever destructive as a child. I was always rather careful I had a natural instinctive love of art and so was always extremely careful of everything in this house. I never played with the statues or the paintings I admired. Quite early in life I became attached to Italian art. I used to go the galleries, which children would not normally do nowadays, and would feast in the Pitti an dthe Uffizi and the different churches of Florence.

I don’t know that I could say I had a very happy nature. I enjoyed Florence, I enjoyed Italy, so when I was at school In England I was very homesick for Italy. I never settled happily in the English atmosphere.  Not when I was a child, at any rate. Oxford was another matter. Those days in England were very exciting.

There were the three Sitwells, for instance, all of them publishing and reciting their poems to music composed by William Walton. They too had a place here in Florence at Montegufoni, a huge palatial structure about  fifteen miles on the way to Siena. It was bought by Sir George Sitwell, the father, and there they stayed for many years.  Sir Osbert Sitwell loved there after Sir George’s death, and continues to write, and I think his work, which is detailed an beautifully written will be more appreciated in the future for the history of our time and the figures he knew in the arts. Sacheverell Sitwell, too, woke people up to appreciate the baroque and his book on Italian Baroque is still excellent.  Of course, baroque has now come to be generally understood and appreciated, but the Sitwells were voices crying a little in advance of the present success.

Of all the literary people you knew during your Oxford days, you speak with special fondness of Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein.

Both of them in their ways were poets. Edith Sitwell is probably underestimated as a poet today, but she brought new life, new colour into the English language with Facade, set to music so beautifully by Walton. Gertrude Stein was playing pranks with the English language, but as recited by her, her portraits of human beings sounded rather imposing. Anybody who reads them, and reads them in her slow American voice, will see how they were very sharp portrayals of artists and people she knew. She was in Florence at a time when Mabel Dodge lived at the Villa Curonia here, and she did a portrait that doesn’t make sense from a logical point of view but which is somehow a creative abstract portrait of Mabel Dodge. I think it is quite extraordinary how she managed it. In terms of abstract language, her portraits of people are really rather good. Nobody else has done it; she’s unique. Her first book, Three Lives, is still a rather remarkable work, not especially exciting but successful as a literary experiment.

You once said, ‘Most novels are confessions in disguise; most “confessions”, like Rousseau’s, are novels in disguise.’ Where did your poetry fit into such a scheme of things? Did you see your early poetry as confessional or were you aware that others might view it as such?

I think all poetry is confessional. It seems to me that the poet unburdens himself of his dreams, of his subconscious, and I’m sure that my poems, which I never look at nowadays, were really subconscious confessions that had to come out in one way or another. Though I’m a Roman Catholic, I don’t think they ever came out in the confessional. They had to come out in more elaborate ways and they came out in verse.

You said of writing that you wanted to pour honey from your hive, but what people wanted was gall and wormwood. Were you ever tempted to compromise?

I was never so tempted. All the poets around me, such as Auden, Spender and others whose names I forget, were left-wingers producing poems of protest. There will always be poems of protest, but poetry should take other forms, should not be limited. Poems of protest have existed since Dante, you might say, but I’m not at all politically minded, and I take the view that politics and poetry do not combine. I suppose Byron with his love of Greece was politically minded, but it is not something you find very often at the heart of the English tradition. Among Italian poets – Leopardi and Carducci – you do, but in English poetry I don’t think it’s ever that important. With the English, in poetry as in painting, it is nature that is all-important. My poetry was just colour and rhythm, and it was joyful, but as I now realise, it had no depth. It was no more than the exuberance of youth, and every young man has a poetic mood. I was just trying to express my joie de vivre, which is nothing to be ashamed of. The older I grow the more I admire the quality in other people.

You once called Cyril Connolly a treacherous Irishman on the grounds that he was a hundred per cent homosexual at school, slept with everyone, then turned against those who remained so.

Well, Connolly was personally antipatico to me. He laid down the law, a little dictator surrounded by yes-sayers, all of whom agreed with him, though it also has to be said that he did a good job editing the magazine Horizon. When we were contemporaries at Eton I used to get very irritated with his dictatorial manner. He was rather a bully, and he was entirely homosexual, then he changed over to the women and never stopped. He discovered the girls rather late in life, and then it was one after another. A treacherous Irishman is what he was, and I didn’t care much for him.

You sometimes make Eton sound like one of the ‘cities of the plain’.

Oh, no. It was the most innocent place. No cities of the plain there. In fact a sharp eye was kept on the morals of the Etonians by the housemasters, so they could not stray, though I suppose subconsciously there was a good deal of homosexuality.

Your friendship with Evelyn Waugh spanned many years. Did you admire him as a man and writer equally?

I admired his writing far more than I admired his character, but he was a delightful, warm-hearted, hot-tempered personality such as you rarely find today. He was a man of extreme views and a convert to Catholicism, and a passionate convert at that, which is also rather rare nowadays. He was a deeply religious person, but his gifts were not really in the most serious vein. His gifts were humorous and I think his best novels are the least serious. For instance, Decline and Fall, his first novel, dedicated to myself, is still I think one of the most brilliant of English light novels. He got a little more serious towards the end, and he lost somehow the light touch, so rare in English literature. Not many people have that light touch. Evelyn Waugh was a master of prose as well; he wrote very good English. That’s another thing that is rare nowadays: good, sound, logical English.

I wouldn’t say Waugh was depressing as a person. He was rather more depressed than depressing because he saw the way the world was going and it didn’t appeal to him at all. But he had a heart of gold and I was really very fond of him. I was best man at his first wedding, a marriage which went badly, alas. I’m afraid he married a rather superficial lady who flirted with others and he couldn’t stand it. He was very old-fashioned, expected his wife to be loyal and faithful to him. He couldn’t stand the strain of her going off on her own. He was a proud man and he was very loyal as a friend. We stayed friends till the day he died and he’s one of the few friends I’ve never quarrelled with. I’m also a friend of his son Bron.

Towards the end of his life, Evelyn became a kind of recluse, except that he loved his family, and loved to be in the company of his devoted wife, surrounded by his children. He didn’t care to join literary societies, but liked to stand on his own. He was independent. There’s too much nowadays of congregating in these literary societies, of people blowing their own trumpets, but Evelyn was dignified about all of that.

It has been said that characters in Brideshead Revisited are based on your own character. Do you find the idea flattering or provoking?

I think it very flattering, but I don’t recognise any character in Brideshead connected with myself. He’s taken little traits from me in one of the characters, certain physical traits so that people confuse me sometimes with that particular character, but I don’t think it was in his mind. A novelist has to take everything in his experience and use it. That’s why we respond. If we felt a novelist’s work was false, we wouldn’t admire it, unless his fictions were absolutely farcical and fantastic, and Evelyn’s is only farcical up to a certain degree. There is a seriousness underlining all his fiction.

Max Beerbohm and Somerset Maugham seem to have belonged in quite separate worlds, but you knew them both. Were they at all alike?

They were not very alike, except that they belonged to the same period in a sense, Beerbohm being very much a figure of the 1890s, a sort of dandy of that era who survived into the present century. Maugham, too, had all the mannerisms of a man of the nineteenth century: very formal and living in the South of France in sumptuous splendour. He was not a modem; he didn’t really change with the century. He had this stutter, poor man, which only vanished on certain occasions.  When he had to speak in public he stopped stammering, but in private life it was embarrassing because he took a long time to come out with any sentence. Pathetic. He used to stay here next to us before he went to the South of France.

As for being an admirer of his writing, I would have to answer yes and no I think he’s a first-rate novelist. Of Human Bondage is a book that will last, and there are a lot of things he wrote that exactly struck the mood of the moment.

Is there any foundation in the rumour of a rift between you and Gore Vidal?

It’s a fabrication. He’s not exactly one of my heroes, far from it, but he is in a way a very amiable young man, though very naive. He thinks himself sophisticated, but he’s really very simple. If there’s any disagreement, it’s entirely on his side not on mine. I live, as you see, in a totally different atmosphere. He was in Rome, I think, for a time, used to turn up here occasionally, but I have very little in common with him. He’s not an aesthete, not by any means. The arts don’t mean much to him He’s an embryo politician and all his ambitions are towards the Senate in the United States. He’s a fish out of water here in Florence. We have never quarrelled on my side. On his, I do believe he bears me ill-will I’m very sorry for it because to me he is just like an American sophomore I can’t say I take him seriously as a writer.

You have dismissed most English novelists as preachers who mistake their vocation.

Lately they have tended to preach less. I don’t think, for instance, that Somerset Maugham was much of a preacher and the Bloomsbury writers, Virginia Woolf – or even Aldous Huxley – did not preach much. But the Victorians were eminently preachers. If you pick out any Victorian novelist, you find they have a tendency to speak from a pulpit to address an imaginary public.

If I were to have my reading confined to one English novelist I should sat Dickens because I think he was a man of overall breadth of view and knowledge of society. Though his language is very dated, it is very vital English. As you read him you are still living in a sort of Victorian present. Thackeray is also remarkable, but I feel he is more of the past. I don’ t feel he is as alive as Dickens is today.

As for the English being a literary nation, I find the claim exaggerated.  I fear they’re not literary. They do not buy literary works, they want something different.  Nowadays it’s sex, sex and lively fashion magazines.  The stress of modern life drives them to the frivolous by contrast it seems to me.

On the subject of religion, you write that the Protestant faith has much misery to answer for. Why single out the Protestant faith?

I think it could be said of many religions, but as a Roman Catholic I remain firm in seeing all around me in this country how religion lives among the people and how it is the inspiration, the joy and the philosophy of the Italians that has kept them going for centuries. I feel a stronger Catholic here than anywhere else, though it is always a delight, a joy to me when I go to England to find that Westminster Cathedral is full. I can’t say I’m deeply religious, but I believe religion is essential to us and that without it we lose our bearings. It is extremely important for us to have a faith if we’re fortunate enough. I cannot imagine being without faith, I cannot imagine the purpose of life in that case.

After a good long life, my faith is stronger than ever. My belief is in the Church and in our wonderful Pope. I have the greatest admiration for him. He is a heroic man. I’m very happy to have been with a Polish squadron during the war. They were all deeply religious: heroic boys, but deeply pious. If you went to Mass in Blackpool it was all Poles at that time. They sang beautifully, and in their voices you could hear their faith ringing out. It was quite splendid, an inspiration, and wherever I’ve been – even in India – the Catholics were always far more vocal than the Protestants. I wouldn’t want to make any sort of comparison, but it was a great inspiration. There’s only one faith for me. It’s in the Church of Rome.

Of course the Pope is a traditionalist. The Church is traditional, it has to be. We can’t revolutionise what Our Lord has preached in the past, we can’t change his words. I freely admit, though, that I was saddened by the abandonment of the Tridentine rite. The strength of the Church is in the old Tridentine.

Do you believe in sin?

I believe rather in weakness than in sin, though certain politicians make me believe seriously in sin. If one turns to politics, one has to admit that there are evil people about.

Can you think of any really honest and straightforward politician?

I remember at Oxford how the young men who were going in for politics and the Union were very shallow, very superficial. They were only ambitious for themselves. I stayed aloof from all those brilliant geniuses who were passing all their exams with top marks, double firsts and all that, then disappearing into the House of Commons. We’ve   heard nothing of them since. Those with the biggest reputations at that time have vanished. Roger Hollis is still known, perhaps, though he was a scandalous fellow, a traitor. I also met Guy Burgess, but I prefer to forget him. A boorish sort of fellow, not an intellectual. He was nothing. I don’t know why people talked about him. He had a talent for making a noise, that’s all.

Speaking of politicians, I did admire Churchill. He was an outstanding person who also wrote well. He was enlightened, the sort of universal man who can be admired anywhere in the world. He was a great draughtsman and he could also paint. Some of his earlier work will endure, I’m sure, but then he became experimental. The desire always to be young, always to experiment, always just to beget children has been, in my view, a great loss in art. Instead of clinging to his own natural talent for beautiful draughtsmanship and colour, Churchill turned his back on his talent, and, like several other painters today, though they don’t realise it, was led astray by the critics. I think the wish to be modern at all costs, to alarm, to shock, to startle is the trouble, whereas great painters in the past were not thinking about startling anybody, they were just devoted to their vision and to trying to interpret it in a way others could share. I don’t believe anybody can share the visions of Picasso, or even Matisse.

The political animal is something very foreign to me, though, because I have lived in a world of aesthetics, of love of the arts, which it seems to me is natural to anybody born in Florence. Although a good many Englishmen born here were not as interested in the arts as you might expect, generally speaking all the English who were here had one foot in the art world.

Did you ever live in Italy under fascism?

The atmosphere was too unpleasant for me, so that was when I went off to China. But whenever I came back in those years I could feel this rather unpleasant atmosphere of coercion, and many of my English friends sympathised with fascism, thinking it very splendid and dramatic. It’s hard to believe now, but they were taken in by the show, by the theatrical element. My parents were here under fascism. I paid them a visit and found the atmosphere very bellicose at that time. It wasn’t something that could be said of the Italians in general, because they were peace-loving and didn’t want war at all, but the people one met – journalists, writers – were all very bellicose and attracted to Nazism. The Germans had tremendous influence. My parents were both in prison for a short time before getting away to Switzerland.

Eventually I felt I couldn’t sit there in Peking any longer, enjoying life while Britain was at war. I had to do my duty in some way and so went back to England and joined the RAF. I didn’t fly because my vision and my age were against me – I was already in my thirties. They took me because of my knowledge of Chinese and things Oriental after living in China for seven years. The war was also by then being fought in the Far East, and so I was sent off there after a period at various air stations to pick up the methods. I was in Intelligence, so called. The people I met were all very brilliant, but I never give those years a thought today. Now that I’m eighty-five years old, it’s strange to think of how I was once restricted to air stations in England as an interrogating Intelligence officer, listening to the crews who had been bombing Germany when they arrived back absolutely worn out from their sorties.

Have you ever been a romantic?

I’ve been an admirer of Schiller, of the romantics, and so on. I think we’ve all gone through a romantic phase, particularly in youth.

Did you ever fall in love?

Oh, yes, I think we all did, but I suppose I haven’t got the depth of character to fall desperately in love, like so many of my friends. No, I never had that. I suppose I must be a cold-blooded fish, really – more mental than physical.

Certainly it occurred to me to marry. I was proposed to many times, but I lived in China then and it would have been very inconvenient. I liked to be an independent bachelor in Peking, having my choice of friends and of girl-friends. I preferred my freedom. I’m happy now. I’m an old bachelor, but I don’t suffer from solitude. I sometimes regret that I never chose such and such a person, but I have many particularly good friends here.

I spent a long time with a Chinese woman, which was a very happy time, except when I had to leave, of course, but you couldn’t continue forever.  It was a rewarding relationship. The Chinese have such an exquisite old civilisation and Chinese women have a wonderful instinct for affection. They’re warm hearted, and I like everything about their figures: very graceful and unhairy. I don’t like a lot of hair, so they appealed to me. If I had married I would have married a Chinese.  So I was living with a Chinese girl for many years, and happily because I was never disturbed; no scenes, no jealousy, nothing of that sort. They had another tempo. With an Italian woman it would be a series of scenes and life would become impossible. I know, because I have so many Italian friends.

I never felt any regret at the lack of an heir.  I’m leaving everything to New York University. I don’t think Oxford would look after it properly, and anyway, they haven’t got the money. I offered it all to Oxford first, but met with such little response that I changed my mind. So everything goes to New York University and they will take the villa over and use it as a centre for Italian studies. My father didn’t like the idea at all. I discussed it with him before he died and he, of course, would have preferred me to marry and have children, but I never had that desire. I never had a feeling for children and family. Even my mother didn’t have much feeling of that kind, and I think she agreed with me fundamentally. She always preferred the place to be lived in by people who appreciated the arts.

Do you feel you had to forsake the pleasures of the flesh for the sake of art, or can the two go together?

They can go together, of course, but the pleasures of the flesh were verv small in my case. They are an important part of life, but they didn’t dominate me in the way they dominate so many people. Talking of Maugham, he was always in the hands of some dreadful creature. Gerald Hackston, for instance, who dominated him, or his wife, whom he hated. In my case I have nothing of that sort, thank God. No hatreds. I feel I have chosen wisely to be my own master and to leave everything to a university that can enjoy it and use it. After all, Florence will continue to be the capital of the arts. It’s bound to be. It always has been since the Medici.

Have you ever been attracted to erotic art?

As a juvenile I was rather interested in certain Beardsley drawings and others appealed to me. I still think Beardsley is a very good draughtsman but on the whole I think that art should rise above the erotic.

How do you see the relationship between art and morality? Presumably the two can never be separated.

Many artists have been considered deeply immoral. Art is to me beyond morality. If you start moralising then art disappears. It becomes a sort of preaching.

Throughout your memoirs you display an irritation with and contempt for critics, especially for art critics.

I think that many art critics are would-be painters. They are disappointed and frustrated and consequently their frustration is brought out in their criticism of others. That’s my opinion, particularly in England where many of the critics I have known personally have been painters on the sly who have had no success and no chance of success and consequently have been bitter about others.  I am afraid it is a weakness of human nature to be like that, but it is a sad thing that most of the critics are failed painters.

Literary critics are larger, broader. I’m not capable of judging, for instance, modern poetry, because I’m rather indifferent to what I see in the way of poetry today, but on the whole I consider that our literary critics are excellent. I read the Spectator every week with pleasure for its admirable, clear, well-written criticism. It’s an excellent journal, and the New Statesman and others of high quality compare well with any publication of the past. The late Victorian publications seem rather heavy-going now if we try to look through them, but still they contain some very good criticism.

Are scholarly work and critical explanations the most helpful ways of making art available?

No. I don’t think people pay much attention to the critics. The critics don’t possess much weight any longer. In the days of Ruskin, of course, it was quite different.

What about Bernard Shaw?

He was a very loud, able and brilliant critic, but I think he was somehow deeply inhuman. I met him once at a public meeting. He had a most beautiful voice and great charm of manner, there’s no doubt about it, but I think he was fundamentally a eunuch. I don’t think he had any sex. That’s my own private view. He was married, of course, but I don’t think he was a marrying man. He was all brain and, in spite of the beard, I don’t think he was very virile. At least, that was my own personal impression.

Why inhuman? Well, I think that of people entirely given to politics and the stage and boosting themselves. He was a tremendous egocentric, the best propagandist for himself that ever was.

You say of Charles Loeser: ‘He would question every objet d’art until it vouchsafed an answer.’ What sort of an answer, and in what way does one question an objet d’art?  You go on to speak of the way Loeser would interpret a great master’s drawing. What is it to interpret a drawing?

Oh dear, very difficult. Loeser had an impeccable eye. He was one of the first people to collect Cezanne and he used to tell his servants or his ignorant cook to come in, and he would ask them, ‘Do you feel that is a landscape?’ And they’d say, ‘Si, si.’ ‘My cook knows more about it than I do,’ he would say. ‘She has the eye, she is unspoilt, untutored. I am unfortunately a Harvard graduate with too much education to be able to see properly.’ Of course, he was exaggerating, but still, there was a certain amount of truth in it. He was a very original man.

At the beginning of your memoirs you write: ‘Peace and goodwill towards men will only be brought about by individuals like myself.’ Can you elaborate?

It’s a very conceited statement. I’m rather shocked that I ever wrote it. But I think that people like us, who are only interested in culture and history, do perhaps a little more for the general public than is recognised and yet we are dismissed by journalists as decorative people on the fringe. In fact we influence people far more than they’re ready to admit. That’s my opinion.

It sometimes seems that high art must necessarily be a restricted pleasure. Do you think the taste of the connoisseur can ever really coincide with the larger, more democratic taste, if you like?

It can’t coincide, but it’s a guide. The connoisseur must guide taste and most people pay attention to the connoisseur when they know he’s genuine. They may laugh at him to begin with, but they follow. They laughed at Whistler, but his ‘Ten O’clock Lecture’ is a wonderful piece of prose, quite apart from the fact that the message had a great influence.

What do you think an aesthetic emotion is? Is it really distinguishable from other sorts of feelings?

Oh, yes. It’s the most difficult thing to put into words. Aesthetic emotions require a Walter Pater, who wrote his book on the Renaissance with great difficulty over many years. It was a product of careful thought, and we cannot suddenly express that in a few words. Think of the aesthetic philosophers in Germany and in Italy. They are rather long winded and obscure, and it’s very difficult to tone that down to the level of popular understanding. Very difficult – though I think that the average person confronted with a great statue can tell the difference between that and, say, the sort of abstract stuff that is supposed to be a statue now. I think the average man or woman in England can respond immediately to a genuine work of art, a fine Niobe or an Apollo and Marsyas. I think it is extraordinary that the public tolerates the sort of thing that I see very often being put up in London. In my day we’d have tarred and feathered those statues, but they’ve even spread to Italy. It’s a blight.

Some literary artists like Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot have seemed to allow art to border on the trivial by saying that all art is useless, as Wilde did, or by calling it a superior entertainment, as Eliot did. What are your feelings about  this?

I think they’re both very mistaken. I think art is an essential to civilised life, to our private existence. I cannot conceive of an existence without art. But alas, in many places, in industrial cities in the North of England, people manage to live without it very well, but still it’s a severe loss to them If they had beautiful things to look at, it would inspire them to do even better work. But art in England has always been a small group of people, wealthy, old families with an interest m painting or architecture. It’s never been open to the masses, unfortunately, and we have suffered accordingly.

You quote Andrew Marvell’s lines, ‘My love is of a birth so rare/As ’tis for object strange and high./It was begotten by Despair/Upon Impossibility.’ Why did these lines seem to you to explain the otherwise inexplicable?

Marvell was a man of profound vision and of deep spirituality which is rare in the poetry of that period. But it seems to me that these lines are modern and can convey that twilight of the consciousness which is so seldom expressed nowadays.

Over the centuries many hundreds of men and women have devoted their lives to music or painting or dance. Does such a devotion in itself give value to their art?

Certainly. It must give value to their art, if they are devoted in the real true sense of the word. Pavlova, until she was quite old, was still dancing. I remember seeing her when she was about to retire She was still the most graceful sylph-like figure one could possible dream of. She was exquisite, and that’s a triumph of art.

You record in your memoirs the fate of works of art at the hands of the Germans in Florence. You describe, for example, an ‘Adoration of the Magi being used as a tablecloth and stabbed with a knife. At the same time you praise the Germans and say that in courage and fortitude they were certainly our peers. Why did they behave so badly, do you think?

Well unfortunately, that’s a sort of racial thing that they have inherited: the rough, primitive instincts which have been glorified by certain great geniuses like Wagner. Wagner glorifies the coarsest instincts in The Ring. It’s a sign of strength they feel, this great love of their own strength, their own power. It’s quite a good thing in a way from the point of view of art, because that is the way good art is produced, but also, alas, bad art.

Why do you think that art seems not to affect people’s behaviour as one might hope?  Both the Germans and the Japanese seem to have been capable of terrible savagery concurrently with an appreciation of the subtlest effects of art.

That’s a very strange point, yes. The Japanese can certainly be split personalities. I’ve never quite understood their Buddhism; it’s not like the Buddhism of the Indians, not contemplative. Everything that they do has got to be active in a hysterical sort of way. They are very peculiar, the Japanese, very peculiar people. The women in Japan I should say, are superior to the men. They are people of very refined taste: the way they dress, the way they paint, the poems they write. Many of the best novels written in Japan are written by women, such as The Tale of Genji. The Japanese are full of surprises, because the women are so refined and elegant and the men fundamentally so crude and rough. They believe strongly in virility, of course, and virility is mixed up with militarism. They occupied Peking when I was there and behaved appallingly. I have no great love of the Japanese male.

It is very difficult to say anything definite about Germans because they are so different from each other.  Germany’s a land of individualists. People think that they are all together, all followers of Bismarck, Hitler, or whatever it is, but they’re not. Germans are strongly individual characters. You can see that in their music, in their philosophy, in their works of art.

The journey to your home in Tuscany has become a kind of pilgrimage for many. Are you happy to end your days in Florence, or do you ever feel like coming home?

I was born here, so my home is here. I feel Florentine and I’m an honorary citizen of Florence, and all my life-long friends, my closest associations are with Florentines. I left for China because of fascismo and China was my next love, but of course in view of what’s happened there, its worse even than fascismo was here. So I could never think of going back or living as i did in Peking in a private house, surrounded by Chinese.

What was it that drew you to China initially? You say you felt strangely at home there.

I always loved Chinese art. The Chinese written character is in itself a very beautiful thing, a work of art, and their cooking is a very important element in civilisation. I think people who feed well are on the side of the angels. It s very important that people should eat decent food, properly cooked, and the Chinese do. It’s strongly in their favour.  And their poetry is sung. When I was there, they would sing their poems. The effect was so very striking. Unlike our poets. We can hardly say that they sing.

I understand that the Chinese do not distinguish between an original work of art and an exact copy. Is that the best approach?

Their tradition is so strong that they go on painting in the same style as they did in the fifteenth century. Landscape artists for instance cotinue to paint in the style of the fifteenth-century Ming dynasty.  It may be  a sort of limitation to talent. I don’t think that always remaining so traditional is such a good thing. The great artists have always broken with tradition. Turner, for instance, with his billowing seas and all that, broke with the tradition of the eighteenth-century landscape in his landscapes. That’s the way art should be: alive. Start with the tradition, but then break it; rules have got to be broken.

How can we really enter into the appropriate frame of reference to allow us to respond properly to work in an alien tradition, like that of China?

I feel there’s too much emphasis on the word alien. I think it’s exaggerted A Chinese artist can appreciate a drawing by Michelangelo and Michelangelo would appreciate a good landscape by some eighteenth-century Chinese. Art is a republic, not a monarchy.

Writing about China, you say: ‘Behind the broad main streets were networks of alleys, rather slummy, with their mounds of refuse and mongrel dogs. Did you not find this public indifference distressing?

The back streets were full of families all living together, crowded but not really squalid, because they had a certain dignity. The Chinese lived in a very agreeable way. I wouldn’t have minded joining one of those households.

You also record that in the average year, 29,000 corpses, the bodies of over-worked young mill-workers, were gathered on the streets. Didn’t your knowledge of this interfere with your admiration of China?

I think all countries have something of that kind, you know. It’s not publicised, but I think it’s not so extraordinary. It happens everywhere.

Do you think there is anything left in Communist China of what originally drew you to the country?

The landscape remains, and they have protected a good many of their old monuments, I imagine, and from what I hear the Forbidden City in Peking remains the same. But the spirit perhaps has gone as people are unified by Marxism. I can’t believe that that suits the Chinese, not the Chinese I knew, who were very independent and individual. But I never think of China now. I try not to think of it because I was extremely happy there and saw it couleur de rose.

What is it like to smoke opium?

I never became an addict, but I occasionally joined a Chinese friend and smoked a pipe and very much enjoyed it. It seemed to clear my mind and allowed me to forget about the tiresome irritations of life. I found it soothing. And I think that the danger of opium is grossly exaggerated. I have known many people who have smoked it for years who are now old, and yet in spite of their age are flourishing.

You give an account of a visit to an astrologer in Calcutta. Do you, or did you, believe in such things?

Oh, yes, I believe in these things. I don’t begin to understand it, but that it exists and that it has existed for centuries and is very strong in India there is no doubt at all. I feel that the Indians have got another sense for astrology which we lack here. Our lives are so different from theirs in that way. We can’t keep pace with that strange other-worldliness.

You wrote that a book of memoirs should concentrate on all that is vital and attempt to recapture the moments of exultation and delight. Is there no place for a recollection of sadder times?

I don’t think that sadness adds to other people’s vitality, and I’m all in favour of vitality. The sad, the gloomy, the depressing are life-diminishing, and I’m for the life-enhancing. So much is life-diminishing nowadays that we must return to the National Gallery and the Louvre to refresh ourselves. In all our lives we have had sad, not to say tragic times, especially during the world wars. One is surrounded by tragedy, but man is helpless against that sort of tragedy.

I would say I have been fortunate in my own life. I’ve been privileged to live here in Florence in a fifteenth-century villa with a garden surrounded by statues by well-known sculptors. If I were unhappy it would be a crime. But I do have a horror of death, an absolute horror of it. I enjoy life so much that I would really not welcome death at all. So many friends of mine commit suicide or threaten it. I just don’t understand. Life is so wonderful, there’s so much more to discover. We’re given these blessings, and living here in Florence I’d be mad to wish to die.

I don’t consider my work to be of much importance, but I don’t think I have done yet what I have it in me to do, which is to write a good short story. But if I were to live my life again, I think I would do the same things again. I would write, I would edit magazines at Oxford. I don’t think I could have chosen another path. My only regret is that I didn’t write better, that I haven’t done more with a flow of imagination. But you can’t force that. It is something you are born with. Otherwise I have nothing but thankfulness for the life I have enjoyed.

What fortifies you nowadays against life’s disappointments?

It’s a very difficult question, but with age I enjoy the beauty of landscapes, scenery and architecture more perhaps than ever, and that keeps me alert and optimistic in my outlook but otherwise I’m afraid I don’t really enjoy the present moment. It’s only through art that I exist: through my love of the arts. I have no belief of any kind in my genius.  No that is part of youth. In youth we’re all geniuses.  When one is young one has spirit, but it grows rather feeble as the years pass.  Now I find myself rather disappointed with life.  I suppose that is part of creeping age, of getting feebler with the years and becoming mentally not quite so alert.  I don’t really feel so buoyant as used to.  I used to be very active, particularly when I was at Oxford, editing Oxford Poetry and surrounded by very talented poets like Peter Quennell and Robert Graves, and a great many distinguished dons like Beazley, the greatest authority on Greek vases in the world, and Gow on the plough, famous also as a Greek scholar.  It seemed like a renaissance when I was at Oxford but that renaissance didn’t last.

Insights

In October 1999 we were due to publish Insights, my collection of interviews with, among others, Ludovic Kennedy, Joan Bakewell and Richard Holloway.

After painstakingly correcting the original proofs, the editor at the time sent the approved version to our offices at Quartet, to be sent on to our printers in Finland.

It was only after the book had been printed, stock distributed to our warehouse and review copies sent to members of the press that we discovered disaster had struck.

The original, uncorrected proofs had somehow been sent to the printers instead, and the final article was riddled with mistakes. No reviewer had spotted this – in fact, the TLS reviewed it very favourably – but I was horrified. I pulled the publication, and the book never made it out into the public domain.

It was a great shame, because the book is a real gem and has, in my view, the most beautiful cover design we have ever produced.

That is why here, on my blog, I plan to reproduce some of the interviews, as well as use the jacket design to illustrate future ‘Insights’.

In this way, I hope to produce something positive from what was for Quartet, at least until now, a low point.

Insights: Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell was born in 1933 and educated at Stockport High School for Girls and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read history and economics. She has presented many programmes for the BBC including Meeting Point (1964), Late Night Line Up (1965-72) and, since 1988 the religious – ethics series Heart of the Matter. Her publications include The Complete Traveller (1977) and The Heart of the Heart to f the Matter (1996)

I read your book The Heart of the Heart of the Matter, subtitled A Memoir, and was surprised how little of you actually emerges. Are you conscious of the fact that much more seems to be concealed than revealed?

That’s probably a professional habit, in that because I chair a television programme in which diverse moral issues are debated, I make a point of covering my tracks quite a lot personally. The book is a memoir of my working life, about my experience of the stories it contains. But it would never do if everyone were to know that actually I’m pro-abortion and anti- smoking, or whatever; I try to keep all those kind of popularly held arenas of opinion to myself.

You describe your upbringing as ‘lower- middle-class’. How would you characterize ‘lower-middle-class’ in those days? And was it something that you were conscious of at the time?

Yes, we were very conscious of where we were coming from. It’s an extremely tricky business to describe, to get the nuances across. My grandparents all lived in Coronation Street terrace houses, as it were, in quite poor areas of Manchester. One grandfather was a man who made beer barrels – a wonderful craftsman – and I don’t know what my other grandfather did, but they were definitely working class, by which I mean they worked with their hands and their wives stayed at home and had lots and lots of children, and they slept four to a bed, and so on. My parents aspired to better themselves, and to that end they leapt into the middle class to seek what opportunities they could. Within the British class system that is a very big leap, much greater that from the middle class to the upper class, since you can always marry into the aristocracy. The move to improve yourself, however, is fundamental. Both my parents left school at thirteen but they tried to pass lots of exams and they took apprenticeships. They both became draughtsmen in an engineering company – that is where they met. My father ended up as the managing director of one of the companies, so they moved from the terraced house in the centre of Manchester and bought themselves a semi- detached house which was their pride and joy. That’s where I was born.

How unusual was it for someone of your background to get to Cambridge, and how was this achieved?

Well, I went to the grammar school so my education was very good. The education act of 1944 transformed my life because all my schooling then became free. I loved learning – indeed I was regarded as a bit of a swot – and I passed the exams. I was the second girl ever in my grammar school to go to Oxford or Cambridge – it was a relatively new idea.

You evidently had quite an uneasy relationship with your mother who seemed to react against the effects of your university education. Was that because you had moved up in the world, so to speak, and were therefore rendered more distant from her?

It was much more poignant than that. Since her death I have come to realize that she was probably a very intelligent person indeed. She went to a grammar school for two terms, but she was the only child who couldn’t afford the school uniform and was mocked for it. She was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen because she was the eldest of eight and her mother needed the money. She resented that a lot and although she became a very skilled tracer, she continued to sustain blows and defeats to her intelligence which had the effect of turning her in on herself. She became deeply unhappy, and she may even have been depressive, all of which made her very tense to live with. In that sense, uneasy relationship was actually about her own disappointment in life and her seeing me get the chances that she had wanted.

You say her depression may have been the result of lack of fulfilment… Was your own career born partly out of a reaction against your mother, do you think, a determination not to be like her?

Quite a lot of my behaviour has been a determination not to be like her, but since I was the elder of two daughters, I was in a sense the son of the family, the darling of my father’s eye. He would sit with me while I did my homework, and he would be on call whenever I needed to ask him anything. My career was born also out of the close interest he took in my achievements – that made all the difference. I wanted to please him. I also wanted to please my mother, but she was less forthcoming.

You wrote very movingly about the illness and death of your father whom you loved very much. That stood out as a very personal and private matter…

It’s interesting you should say that. It is the one personal bit I let through and there was a strange enjoyment in writing about it. It pleased me to put on record the friendship that had existed between us. He had always said as he grew old, ‘You will be there, won’t you, when it comes,’ and I told him I would. When the time came, I held his hand, which was very important, because although he had lost his speech, he knew that I was there and that I had kept my promise. That mattered a great deal.

In your career have you found that being a woman is principally an asset, or have there been disadvantages?

I disavow the word ‘career’ as a matter of fact, because in a sense I have always worked where I wanted to do something, and I have never regarded myself as being on any career ladder. Indeed, there is no career ladder for presenters. The BBC is full of hierarchies, but I am a freelance presenter and journalist. Right from the beginning I made my choices, knowing that the world wouldn’t make it easy for me in any institutional career pattern, since that was very much the temper of the times. So I chose work where I knew I could be my own boss. I have turned down more programmes than I have ever made because I have discriminated at every point and only ever done work I wanted to do. This is perhaps why I have been so happy in my work – and I have never had to worry about promotion. It’s much easier now for women than when I started out; there are whole swathes of them in the BBC, very bright and with a good deal more confidence than I ever had. It’s wonderful to see.

Sheridan Morley credits you with being the first woman ever to get her sex taken seriously on television, and the first never to use her sex to get there. I imagine you feel particularly proud of that accolade…

I was very pleased to read that, and I phoned at once and left him an effusive message of thanks. I’m very flattered because it seems to me a fine tribute. Being a woman must be intrinsically part of my personality, and of course I bring my personality to bear in my job, so quod erat demonstrandum, part of it has to be to do with being a woman. Being a woman is completely integrated with who I am- can’t imagine either not being me, or being a man.

You have said yourself that attitudes were very different towards women in the early days – in the 1960s, for example, when you were doing Late Night Line Up. It was long before equal opportunities and the laws on sexual harassment, and so on. How did you cope?

Women knew how to cope in those days – it was in the air you breathed, and you knew the techniques for fending off men you didn’t want, you just knew how to freeze them out. It was a social skill. Young women nowadays don’t have it, because they feel that they can wizz around, that it is their right to do so, and then they are always surprised when they get jumped on. On the whole I managed not to get jumped on very often, but I was aware of the fact that that was what men did, and the attendant possibilities and tensions.

Did you find that your famously short skirts and sexual allure stood in the way to some extent of your intellect being taken seriously?

When people came to be interviewed they wanted to do good interviews, so to that extent they would collaborate with me in the serious job in hand. When it came to, say, literary editors looking for someone to review a book, I was sometimes seen as a pretty girl on television; and that was the bargain, I suppose.

Most intelligent career women are feminists to some degree. How far would you go in asserting the right of women to be equal in all respects to men?

Quite a long way is the answer, I suppose. Where I find it difficult is at the cutting edge of decisions, so to speak. For example, I made a programme about whether women should be allowed not only to be in the forces, but actually to carry a bayonet and to be in the front line, to kill the enemy and be killed. The girls I spoke to said that since they were ready to do it, they should be allowed to do it. I did, reluctantly, agree that they should be allowed to, but the fact that they wanted to surprise me a lot. Intellectually, I feel that women have the right to do almost anything men do, but I have reservations about why women would want to. Equally, I have reservations about why men would want to go bayoneting people, so it’s not simply a feminist issue. Something similar applies when women want the right to have fertility treatment to enable them to have babies at sixty. I tend to think that we should perhaps make it legal, because only a handful of women will ever want it. The rationale of my position is that my logic allows it, but my emotional reservations are catered for by the fact that not many people will follow it up.

You are perhaps best known for your Heart of the Matter television series in which you present moral dilemmas and ask the central moral questions of our time. The work must be a constant challenge… is it ever a burden?

Oh no, I love it. What is interesting is that there is never a shortage of dilemmas; just as we come to terms with one difficult situation, a new one opens up. Also, it isn’t always intelligent people with strings of degrees and doctorates who are necessarily intelligent about these problems. Dilemmas make even very intelligent people confused, and often it is natural common sense which scores most highly. I like that aspect too.

Could it be said that in striving so conscientiously always to see both sides of every question, you end up in a state of more or less perpetual ambivalence about everything?

Yes, I think it could. I have very often found myself falling into conversations with people and simply out of habit challenging their opinions even though I probably share them.

You mention in your book that it is possible for those involved in the making of these programmes to change their minds, yourself included. This seems to imply that your judgement was wrong beforehand, and right now, but how can we ever be sure of that?

You can’t be sure of it. One always has to keep an open mind and acknowledge that one day perhaps one might in fact think that bringing back hanging is a good thing.  I can’t imagine it but one should always  revisit the arguments. There is no point in making up your mind at thirty and just not opening the cupboard any more. I quite like to five the example of the lesbian could who adopted children; I was so moved by them, it made me realise how dogmatic I’d been before.  You see,  I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was too sure of myself. I had good arguments and I’d thought about it and I had come to a conclusion, but I hadn’t revisited my conclusion in the light of the evidence. My work can be very illuminating – that’s why I love it.

The Nigerian novelist Buchi Emenchata accused you of ‘deplorable imperial superiority’ for describing as barbaric and brutal the practice of genital mutilation on small girls. You seem to have accepted her rebuke – as she did yours – in ‘a spirit of mutual tolerance.’ How difficult was it to be tolerant on that occasion?

We were there at Christmastime and after she’d made this rebuke,  she then brought in  as a treat a tray of warm mince pies. And I thought then that she was trying to make overtures to our culture, and it was all very good humoured. I don’t think she ‘s right; indeed I absolutely categorically think she is a hundred percent wrong, and even though she gave and exposition as to why she  held her views, and it’s much more important that people like me keep talking to her, rather than just saying, ‘Huh, I can’t have anything to do with you.’

Has there been any occasion when your own sense of outrage has overcome the need for patience and calm?

I did a programme with the National Front because I thought it was important to show the public how quite ordinary people become the source of dangerous philosophies. I found that very hard. I interviewed their general secretary and he was rude to me, but I didn’t have any problem being rude back, and it showed. On that occasion they transmitted the big clash and it was quite clear where my views lay, but I felt that my opponent’s views were so dangerous and outlandish there was no problem about just not being able to tolerate them. I interrupted him and shouted him down, and he shouted back. The whole exchange was kept in the programme.

In your book you present the case for and against the freeing of Myra Hindley with scrupulous fairness, and this chapter gives a very clear impression of the amount of work and dedication and sheer distress which must go into the making of your programme. Do you find your job stressful, and was it particularly so in the Hindley case?

Not stressful in any personal sense, because I bring a professional approach to it. But I do get very involved and it tends to take over my personal life, which makes me very thoughtful and possibly not very sociable. The Hindley programme was a really difficult subject to come to terms with, and hard to balance out the different views. I suppose that logic and a sense of right demand that Hindley should be allowed to finish her sentence and come out of prison. Socially, however, it is probably impossible for her to do so. This is one of the rare cases where there is an actual impasse. People would hunt her down, the tabloids would pursue her, and any Home Secretary who let her out would be a dead duck politically, so the practicalities mean that she won’t be released. None the less, I do wish to belong to a society which would allow her to come out, have her anonymity and live out her modest final years.

Could you be persuaded by her in the same way as Lord Longford has been?

I have a hearty respect for Lord Longford’s enormous Catholic generosity. I am quite shrewd about resisting the devious charms of people, but having spoken to her priest, I think the theory about her being a cunning manipulator is based on very little evidence.

You show great compassion for and understanding of the behaviour of Ann West, the mother of the little girl murdered by Hindley… is this principally because you are a mother yourself?

This woman’s life has been a tragedy from the moment her daughter went missing. When I interviewed her all these years later, her grief was still patent. We were all completely shell-shocked when we packed up the equipment and left her home. Normally, film crews are chirpy, but we didn’t even speak on that occasion; we were so shattered by the abundance of her grief. It was like a Christian exposition of how dreadful and tragic human life can be.

Presumably your compassion stops short of inflaming public hysteria against Hindley, which is the effect of Ann West’s campaign

What I would like to do for Ann West is to move her life into some other area for some part of it, and to give her a little joy. She really deserves to have some joy in her life, and if one could only seek to moderate the hatred, that would be worth doing. All that hatred is so corrupting.

You were brought up in the Church of England, but ‘walked away’, as you say, from your Christian faith except at Christmas and Easter and major rites of passage when you need its comfort. In what does this comfort consist, would you say?

The familiarity of early faith has never gone away; I can still tap into all those feelings. I still embrace wholeheartedly the sense of tradition and continuing beauty of the Christian story, the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount forgiveness, the centrality of love, and so on. I enjoy the rituals, I love church music, church architecture, the prayer book, the Authorised Version and all of those are living parts of my own aesthetic and my own morality. What I would call the superstitious part of it all, I now find unnecessary.

Have the so-called comforts of religion anything to do with truth, do you think? What I mean is, one can easily see that in bereavement, for example, it is consoling to believe in an afterlife, that one day we will be reunited with those whom we have lost. But is this anything more than a way of coping with the pain of bereavement? The Greeks, for example, had no need of an afterlife – they thought this life was all we had and should be lived to the full.

Yes, I tend to the Greek view myself. Of course, if people were to tell me what they think the afterlife might be, I would be quite interested. Clearly it isn’t knocking on the pearly gates, it isn’t men on clouds, it isn’t the burning pit – all of that is imagery. So what might it be like? I certainly can’t conceive of it, and if that is a limitation of my imagination, then so be it, but I’ll settle for that. In his later years, my father said to me, ‘We’re not going anywhere, are we?’ and I told him I thought not, and he said, ‘Well, that’s all right.’ So I don’t have any fear of what will happen after I the. This life is for living and celebrating and relishing – I have a great belief in that.

Your younger sister died recently of breast cancer… did you find yourself turning to religious faith then, and if so, did it help?

No, I didn’t turn to religious faith. There was a rather beautiful service, and I took great care in organizing what was read and said at the funeral. Since then I have created in her memory a little garden at my house in the country. In the middle of the flowerbeds there is a stone with just her name, Susan, engraved by a master craftsman, David Holgate. It’s not a tomb, and it’s not a memorial; it’s just her garden, and it’s a very peaceful place. You can sit there and see the sun go down, and you can never sit there without thinking of her. This is not religious, but it’s part of my inner life.

People often talk about eternal truth – do you believe there is such a thing?

I think it must be eternally true that for human beings to behave with love and generosity is good, desirable, should be striven for, and might make the world a better place. It is, however, almost impossible for human beings to achieve that; and that’s probably also an eternal truth.

You make several references to your ‘simple’ faith. What does that mean exactly? Is it a faith untroubled by any particular creed or dogma?

Well, it isn’t really anything. It’s probably what a good Catholic would call a lot of waffle. I have a friend who is a rebellious Catholic priest in Northern Ireland, and I asked him to send me the Catholic Catechism When I read it through I thought it was the most brilliant piece of logic’ Jesuitical is perhaps a better word. It sets out the truths very clearly, and anyone who challenges these truths is the voice of the devil. I thought it was such a neat stitch-up. It is a brilliant document, just as all these encyclicals that pour out of the Vatican are so brilliant and apparently logical. But I can do without all of them.

You seem critical of those who get bogged down in theology. Is this an intellectual objection or a moral one?

It’s just a human one really. I think if theology can’t be more accessible to ordinary people, it’s not serving its purpose, though it’s probably quite a lot of fun for self-perpetuating hierarchies. I’m reminded of a brilliant Catholic bishop who told me of a religious enclosure where they conversed in Latin, and at first I was dreadfully impressed because there’s a bit of intellectual glitter about that, but then I began to wonder how it was serving the supposed purpose of the church. Of course, there would be another clever answer to that point, but I just thought it was a way of keeping an exclusive club going.

After interviewing the Reverend David Paterson about his beliefs, or rather his unbelief’s, you went to his bishop feeling, you confess, ‘as though I was shopping him to his boss’. And indeed he was duly rebuked and forced, more or less, to recant. On reflection, do you feel regret for those interviews, or satisfaction at exposing what could be considered clerical hypocrisy?

I actually sent the proofs of the book before it was published to David Paterson, and he wrote back a really charming letter saying how much he had enjoyed the chapter, how happy he was with it and how he had loved arguing with me, and so on. So this is a man who is very secure in his ambivalence, if I can put it like that. No, I don’t regret the interview, because it was good journalism serving an honourable purpose. There is such a lot of – not so much hypocrisy – just muddle and inconsistency between members of the same church. I don’t know why David Paterson wants to be in a pulpit; it just doesn’t seem appropriate to me.

You say that scientific logic and biblical scholarship have undermined faith… is that altogether a bad thing, do you think?

I’ve always thought it’s good to question things, but you should listen carefully to the answers too. I brought up my children to question everything – even what I told them – and as a result they sometimes gave me a rough time. Now, when I see youngsters who are drunk at thirteen and pregnant at fourteen and demanding the right to live on the state, I sometimes think they’ve questioned and not stayed for any answers. What I believe is that you need to bring children to the point of education at which when you tell them to question everything they’ve got the resources to make sense of the answers. I actually think a lot of teenage mindlessness is very alarming, because it’s not rooted in any profound kind of security in themselves. They are simply adrift, and that’s terrible to see.

You say at the end of your chapter on the church that you find the idea of disestablishment ‘a melancholy prospect’. Why is that? Many have gone to the stake for their God rather than belong to the established church… why should disestablishment have a lowering effect on spiritual inspiration?

I studied history at Cambridge, and I became very fond of the history of England; I feel steeped in it. The disestablishment of the church would be the fragmenting of something that is staggering on, albeit in a rather confused way. It would become nothing more than a cult with some rather a weird groups of people. So while I suppose it’s rather nostalgic, I don’t think historical change should be too fast. I’m an evolutionist, not a revolutionist. Besides, I have a residual fondness of it. I think of all those parish churches…

Do you think that words like ‘truth’ and ‘faith’ have largely lost their meaning in modem times?

No, they have merely fragmented. We all have our own truths, our own faiths, and some of them are very bizarre. It is almost as if there are as many faiths now as there are individuals. You can believe in crystalst you can believe in cloud formations, you can believe in scientific absolutism – the options are huge. People make it up – it’s knit-your-own-religion time…

Let me put it another way. Can truth and faith stand alone and have any real meaning or integrity other than that which people choose to give them? All sorts of people – from gurus to the man on the Clapham omnibus – talk about truth and make claims for truth as if that had a an absolute value..

There is a danger in any society when there are so many different opinions and no agreed central ground. It seems to me absolutely important – from primitive tribes to sophisticated groups of people – that in order for their society to have a balance and integrity, certain basic principles have to be shared. If for example democracy were regarded as just one option, then we could also have a little fascism…but then the whole structure which is so intuitive and taken for granted would completely collapse.

Your work in Heart of the Matter relies heavily on argument and intellectual debate. How much weight do your think should be accorded to feeling, to instinct, to passion – as opposed to reason?

Well, we can’t have people going around saying, ‘I felt like doing it, officer, I don’t know what came over me, i just raped her – though I’m sure that’s passion, and the instinct and the good wholesomeness which for the basis of human nature make me an optimist. I do believe that if you treat people well and don’t fuel their darker side with ambitions or greed, or gossip of hate, they will themselves become the vehicle of good values.  This is the job of education just as much as the three R’s.  We have to nurture young people to feel secure in the values we hold most important.  Your children can then do away with the values that are threadbare of superficial, but they will hang on to others if they are nourished in them.

Do you believe there are any moral absolutes nowadays?

I would have thought that not killing people is a moral absolute. That’s why I’m against the death penalty, and that’s why going to war is an extremely problematic enterprise.  The Gulf War bombing, for example, alarmed me a great deal. At that point we really ought to strain to understand how we can find ways of avoiding it.

Legalized abortion would once have been considered unthinkable… is there anything now unthinkable?

Abortion has never been unthinkable; it’s been illegal, but not unthinkable. There’s always been abortion in human society, so the only question was the legal situation. Euthanasia is the next one we will change, because people can now be kept alive in states of intolerable misery which would never have happened in previous times.

Yours was a conventional English family in which sex was never mentioned, and you say you hope that things are better for the young nowadays with ‘less guilt and fewer inhibitions’. You say that your own children found their own paths through the sexual minefield without conspicuous damage to themselves or others’. Does this imply without guidance from you?

I did not interfere in their lives, but I made it very clear very early that I thought sexual relations, one, were very important, two, were not trivial, and, three, could be handled without having children that you didn’t want. So yes, there was a lot of early guidance which aimed to avoid heightened emotional conflict or heartache. My children knew it all from an early age, and they understood how and why they would need to know about it.

Was it less of a minefield in your youth, do you think? Or given the almost total lack of instruction, was it just as dangerous?

It was grim when I was small because we weren’t told anything, so I was completely baffled a lot of the time. The situation is much improved now, with all these magazines that tell young girls where to go for advice.

You are very certain that in the age of AIDS, sex education can be a matter of life and death and must be imparted in as explicit and detailed a form as possible. Yet the classroom lesson given to thirteen-year-olds which you describe in your book – was one you obviously found testing, perhaps even shocking…

The thirteen-year-olds weren’t in the least embarrassed as they carried out experiments with rubber and carrots, and the instructor was only eighteen and she, too, was completely without embarrassment. It was wonderful to see, and very touching in its way. I was the one who was embarrassed – that’s why I mocked myself.

In your first marriage, both you and your husband were unfaithful and acknowledged your infidelities. You have said that this went against your own moral code, yet you didn’t feel guilt, and indeed your affairs were ‘life- enhancing’. Why, if that is the case, did they then go against your moral code?

What I meant was that they went against the moral code in which I had been brought up. I had been brought up to know that certain things were wrong absolutely and not to be discussed. I thought they were worth discussing whether they were right or wrong, so to that extent I had moved from the moral code of my family into an area in which I felt you should discuss what had happened.

You expressed surprise that you appeared on the front pages after your affair with Harold Pinter became public. Your surprise was at the scale of the fuss. Looking back and taking into consideration the climate in which we live, does that surprise now seem naive?

I spoke about it in a book, and that I believed was the proper context, and I’ve not spoken about it since. Everything else has been stitched together by sub-editors, but I regard it as being contained in my life and not something I talk about.

Can I ask you this: you described the relationship with Harold Pinter as being very intense and very fraught, and you say, ‘As we lived through the events, there really was a moral imperative to do the right thing.’ But in situations of great emotional intensity and high passion, isn’t it almost impossible to know what the right thing is? Isn’t that the essence of la condition humaine?

Absolutely right, and that’s exactly as I wanted it expressed. I did express it that way, and I think I got it right.

You were distressed at the time – twenty years ago now – to find details of your affair with Pinter described in his play Betrayal. Was that because something intensely private was being turned into an art form, or was it more to do with the word ‘betrayal’?

I was surprised at it being called Betrayal, but I realize now that it’s a very fine play. I’ll leave it at that.

You said of your first marriage that it broke down because people change as they grow older. Since, as a matter of fact, we necessarily grow older all the time; doesn’t this suggest that nothing is fixed or certain, that no marriage can ever be secure?

Absolutely. We do change, and the blessing is if you change together and develop together in a way you both want to go; if it doesn’t work like that then it’s more disappointing. Whether people choose to stay with a disappointing situation or choose to break off a disappointing situation is up to them; but only they will know.

Has it been hard living up to your reputation as desirable female icon, or has it been great fun?

I don’t feel that has anything to do with me.

You must know you are desirable…

But how would you expect that to be reflected in my behaviour? I go home and peel potatoes, I make a nice supper, I buy the paper… we’re talking media nonsense here, it’s just a joke. That’s how I experience it.

How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as the best granny in the world. I have five grandchildren and I’m a doting grandmother. One of the great experiences of growing older is to have grandchildren – it’s tremendous and thrilling. Nobody tells you about it, so it s complete discovery, as rich in its way as becoming a parent.

Insights: Lady Longford

The following interview with the late Lady Longford, mother of Lady Antonia Fraser, is taken from my book More Of A Certain Age.

Elizabeth Pakenham was born in 1906 and educated at Headington School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she took a degree in Literae Humaniores and was one of the few women to be in to the intellectual cicle led by Maurice Bowra and Hugh Gaitskell. In 1931 she married Frank Pakenham, the 7th earl of Longford. She twice stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate, but laid aside her political career in favour of liking after her eight children.  Her publications include a two-volume biography of Wellington, The Queen Mother, Eminent Victorian Women, Elizabeth R and her autobiography, The Pebbled Shore.

Lady Longford, in your autobiography you describe your childhood as containing the conflicting ingredients of Puritanism along with middle class comforts, affection with restraint, and your father’s insistence on Victorian standards of obedience and sobriety. Did you regard it at the time ad a perfectly normal childhood?

Absolutely, yes, although I did sometimes question his ruling of moderation in all thinks. For example when my brother and I wanted to take a gramophone on a picnic on the r River Medway in Kent, my father forbade us, and I realized then that he thought it was bad for children to be too happy, to have everything they wanted. It was good to be moderately happy but not absolutely happy, and I must day that did make me begin to wonder about his standards which certainly differed from those of my friends’ fathers.

Before you were born your parents had had a religious battle which your father lost – the Baptist faith was surrendered to Unitarianism. Presumably you knew nothing of this at that time.  Did it help clarify some of the mysteries of your childhood once you learned the family history?

It certainly did. At the time I didn’t understand why my father was such a keen lay preacher. Or why he liked getting into the pulpit.  That was something else my friends fathers’ didn’t do, and it was years before I understood that he’d given up his religious beliefs to his wife’s, and that since his own beliefs had been much stronger than hers, he had to do something to make up for them,  to keep them fresh and lively; and so he became a Unitarian preacher.

Your father comes across as a very sober puritan figure and not altogether stable, and it took a great many years before you yourself could make what you called ‘a dent in that austere emotional legacy’.  Was that something that you held against him?

I held it against him when I was a child, but luckily I had the support of my eldest brother to whom I was very close. I didn’t go on resenting it when I was grown up; somehow or other it just seemed to be  a fact which I accepted.

It was only  year or two before his death that he made any effort to be affectionate, something you say he had not thought of doing when you were young. Has that been a source of sadness and regret in your life?

My only regret now s that  I didn’t show him more affection, because I realize with hindsight that he was shy and difficult and that if I had taken the lead, he would have responded.

You belonged to an extraordinary generation at Oxford- John Betjeman, Maurice Bowra, Osbert Lancaster, and so on. From the outside it seemed as if it must have been intellectually thrilling and in all ways stimulating.  Were you aware of that feeling at the time, that you were part of a very special and talented group of people?

I certainly thought like very thrilling and intellectually interesting. Before I got my scholarship I very nearly became engaged to a charming young doctor, but when I knew I was going to Oxford, that was consigned to the past.  I remember as I got into the taxi at the station to go to my college, a voice, my own voice, said to me, ‘this is going to be a new life and it’s going to make a difference to everything. ‘ I was tremendously stimulated and influenced by my contemporaries particularly John Betjemen who was the first person to show me that you could laugh at something and at the same to me be devoted to it, and that the same is true with people.  Maurice Bowra influenced me academically more than anybody, and led me to read Classics.  I had gone up to read English, but my college showed imagination and let me change. Osbert Lancaster was more of a friend than an influence. I would say I loved him and his wife deeply. Of course I was influenced in a sense by being in Osbert’s company. He was a genius and it’s wonderful to be in contact with genius.

At Oxford you were friendly with Hugh Gaitskell, who even proposed marriage. Do you ever think how differently thinks might have turned out if you had accepted?

Yes, they would have been very different. But it wasn’t one of those grandes passions where you can never see the person again if it doesn’t work out, we always remained friends. Hugh had a very happy marriage and I’ve had a very happy marriage, so obviously we did the right thing. Hugh influenced me politically more than anybody while I was at Oxford. I wasn’t interested in politics at the beginning of my time at Oxford, only in poetry and literature, but Hugh really took me in hand. He was a born teacher and whoever came to know him would be changed and improved by him. He was a most remarkable character.

Gaitskell talked later of ‘the heavenly freedom of Oxford’, where the happiness of the individual was ‘the only acceptable social aim’. Was that an ideology you shared?

I didn’t think about it in those terms. He had an analytical mind, and he would see things in terms of principles for which he made many sacrifices. My mind, I’m afraid, works differently, and I judge everything by individual actions. After I’d gone down from Oxford his training must have had some effect, however, because I became, and still am, a very enthusiastic member of the Labour Party. But I began to realize you can’t just think of the happiness of the individual; there are other important factors.

You were one of the very first and very few women to be admitted to the male intellectual enclave of Oxford. Were you aware of that at the time? Did you feel privileged, or did you regard it as your right?

I certainly didn’t regard it as my right. It was more a feeling of being tolerated than having rights in that particular society. I knew perfectly well that a great number of them were what we used to call queers or pansies – we didn’t have the word gay in those days. But I was very fond of them and enjoyed their brilliance and their literary and artistic lives.

What was your attitude to homosexuality in those days’?

It was of course still a criminal offence to be gay. I remember when Hugh Gaitskell was vetting me, so to speak, before he passed me as fit to be introduced into the holy of holies, namely Maurice Bowra’s rooms, the question he asked was what I thought of Oscar Wilde and all that. I knew exactly what he meant though I don’t think I knew a single homosexual; it was all just through reading, or intuition. Luckily I gave the right answer, otherwise it would have been no good; he wouldn’t have introduced me, and quite rightly. I must say, however, that at Oxford they were mostly ambivalent, because they nearly all married afterwards, except Maurice. But even he made several proposals, not only to me, though I was the first, but also to two others. His friends thought he was right to have failed, that it wouldn’t have worked. The others led perfectly normal happy family lives with children, so their apparent homosexual leanings were partly to do with the Oxford spirit.

Why do you think that religion and politics were of little importance to you at Oxford? Was it because Oxford was too much of an ivory tower protected from the outside world?

I would say that was true for perhaps three quarters of my time there. But after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and then the slump, people began to change, in the way of being more serious and more connected to the real world. The heyday of homosexuality went at the same time. Quite a lot of people began having girlfriends in my last year, who hadn’t before, and gradually the outside world began to sweep in.

But you were not influenced by religion in your student days?

Not at all. I had quite a number of dear friends at Balliol College who happened to be Roman Catholics, and had been to Ampleforth or Downside. I knew they were Catholics, but that’s as far as my knowledge went. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested or influenced by them. I can tell you a rather ridiculous story to illustrate the point. I don’t think I had ever met a Roman Catholic priest until I went to some lunch party at Balliol with these undergraduates. They had invited a very famous Catholic priest called Father Martin D’Arcy. He was extremely brilliant, charming, and right-wing, and I remember thinking, with rather a tremor, of childhood stories like Westward Ho by Charles Kingsley, where the Catholic Church is the scarlet woman. Father D’Arcy was very good looking with crimpy hair, a faintly hooked nose, and very fine features. I decided he was Mephistopheles and that I must beware. When we got up from lunch he helped me on with my coat, and to my amazement I noticed that he handed it the wrong way round, so that the sleeves were hanging down inside. This gave me a sudden new intuition that he couldn’t after all be Mephistopheles, who was a very polished courtier-type gentleman who would never hand a lady’s coat the wrong way round. I concluded that he must indeed be a priest, and I took a great interest in him from then on.

You were related to Chamberlain, so politics were in your blood, but it was Frank Pakenham who awakened political interest in you. Do you think the fact that you were drawn to the left was ever a serious threat to your relationship?

We had tremendous arguments about it. He was a professional in politics while I was an absolute baby. I put up very silly arguments, but I believed in them all the same. In any case, being half Irish there was a kind of leftward vein in him which remained at peace until he met me, and then I stirred it up. He had his revenge on me by getting rid of my rational humanism.

You say that Frank was deadly serious and intellectual about politics, whereas you were emotional. Did you remain that way or did your different attitudes rub off on one another?

Frank’s rational attitude certainly rubbed off on me. I had never read a political book in my life until I met him, but I then began reading the famous bibles of the Labour Party, like R.H. Tawney and different writers of that generation. Did I rub off on Frank? I suppose he must have thought, ‘If I love this girl, there must be some sense in what she’s saying,’ and he set about trying to find it.

When you first met him, did you fall madly in love with him?

To begin with I didn’t know who ‘him’ was. All I had seen was this figure, two nights running, at college balls, but each time he was alone, detached from the world, fast asleep. The first time he was sleeping in a chair and as I stood admiring his very handsome, wonderfully classical features, I wondered whose partner he was and thought how strange that she should have let him spend the evening asleep instead of dancing the happy hours away. Next evening at a New College ball he was fast asleep on his friend’s sofa. Hugh Gaitskell had taken me up to his room, and I recognized the same lyrically handsome, classical features; so I planted a kiss on his innocent forehead. This woke him up and that was the beginning of our romance.

I had the impression that although you contested two elections, your heart was not really in politics and the pull of motherhood was stronger. Is that a fair assessment?

It’s true that the pull of motherhood was stronger because I did make a choice at one particular point in my life. There was a time when I was very ambitious and was encouraged by some of the dear old boys in the Labour Party – I remember Ernest Bevin telling me I ought to stand for the women’s section of the Executive – and this rather fanned my ambition. However, it was just a temporary blaze, and when I was forced to choose, I chose the family. I did not have too many regrets because I suffered also from a common disability, migraine, and if I had been elected to Parliament, I might easily have had an attack in the middle of a speech, which wouldn’t have been a very good show.

As you describe it, Frank’s diffidence and complete lack of confidence in himself as a future husband, all but wrecked the marriage plans. You were obviously affected deeply by his despair. Did you manage to keep faith, or were you seriously worried that you might lose him?

I knew we would get married, that we would get over all these things, and that it would be a success. It never crossed my mind that it would break up, and I was right. Although I wasn’t in the least bit superstitious and I didn’t believe in Providence or anything like that, the coincidence of our first meeting did seem to me a most extraordinary thing. Afterwards Frank discovered that he had actually seen me, without my having seen him, when he was sharing digs in Oxford with Hugh Gaitskell. I was visiting Hugh for tea one day and Frank asked the landlady who I was. The landlady said she thought I was a French lady, the greatest compliment that’s ever been paid to me. Nobody could have been less French looking, though I longed to be.

Your husband’s conversion to Catholicism which he kept secret from you shocked and distressed you and although you say you knew that ‘even the rustling curtain of priests would never separate us’ you must have felt very angry, betrayed even…

I wouldn’t say betrayed exactly. I certainly felt indignant and angry that he should have taken this step without consulting me and certainly without my consent or any discussion. I realized, however, that it was better for me to have been faced with a fait accompli than to have an argument that went on forever; I would have felt bound to keep my end up and to have thought of all the arguments against it, even to have created some in order to keep the battle going. So in a way, although I didn’t agree with the principle, in practice it worked out better.

But did it take you a long time to get over the shock?

No, not very long. I began to think it was one of God’s mysterious moves. Frank had done this to annoy me, and he had annoyed me so much that the Holy Spirit entered into this angry person, me, and before I knew it I was reading books about religion which I’d never looked at since I was a small child.

Evelyn Waugh had greatly influenced your husband in his conversion. Given that Waugh had already opposed your marriage and offered the opinion that Frank had married beneath himself, you must have felt outraged by his interference?

I was more amused than outraged, because I was very fond of him and I didn’t know at that stage that he had opposed our marriage. In fact, all the evidence was that he’d pushed it forward. On one occasion before we were married Evelyn came to stay with us at Frank’s brother’s house in Ireland. He was very friendly and we were all fond of each other, and I remember when the party was breaking up one evening and Frank and I were going off in slightly different directions but in the same wing of the house, Evelyn suddenly gave me a push and said, ‘Go on, follow him, go after him’, which I did. Nothing happened, I may say, except that we had a very nice conversation sitting on the edge of his bed, but I would never have been brave enough to go up into his quarters if Evelyn hadn’t given me that push. So Evelyn’s attitude was totally contradictory.

Were you angry when you heard about his remarks regarding your marriage?

I knew that he was extremely reactionary, and that he liked to make fun of women as well as falling in love with them. The way in which he liked to poke fun at me was by making out that I was a great hockey player who loved the games fields and women’s netball teams and all that kind of thing, which was pure invention. It didn’t make me angry because if you’re basically very fond of a person, which I was of him, those kind of aberrations don’t really matter. They didn’t do me any harm; they didn’t make Frank suddenly say, ‘My God, I’m married to a blue stocking who galumphs about a hockey field.’ It was only years afterwards when his letters were published and sent to me in manuscript that I realized he had taken this extremely class-ridden snobby line; with no effect, I’m glad to say.

How much do you think the fact of war influenced your husband in his decision to convert?

A great deal. It was Evelyn who actually said to him, ‘You’re going out with your regiment; who knows what will happen? You’ve got to make up your mind now. You’ve dallied long enough on the edge.’

Your own response to the war was to have another baby. Was that a way of making a hopeful statement in time of uncertainty?

That was the abstract reason, but the personal reason was that I already had children, and I couldn’t go away and have a wartime career and leave them with somebody else; I had to be at home. Frank came home on leave now and again, and afterwards he became Beveridge’s personal assistant, so he was around at weekends, which made some sort of family life possible. I also believed in the family and in children, and in those days the country was worried about the fall in the birthrate, so everything seemed to come together for good.

Some years later, you also converted to Catholicicsm, though I have the impression that your approach was far more pragmatic. There was no Road to Damascus vision, it was much more that you felt an awkward division in the family vis-a-vis churchgoing, and that your own father had died so that you would not have to contend with his disapproval, and so on. I didn’t sense any of the agony which one expects to accompany such decisions.

No. There was no agony. As you rightly say it took several years, six in fact, and I had spent time gradually reading more about Catholicism. One book in particular by a French Catholic interested me, because it was the first Catholic book I had ever read which took a left-wing point of view, something I hadn’t thought possible. I was really entranced by this wonderful revelation. There were one or two setbacks, however, such as when Frank became Sir William Beveridge’s personal assistant over the Beveridge Welfare State report. Frank had been invalided out of the army, and this became his war work and he put everything into it. The very first Sunday after it was published we went to church together in Oxford, and the subject of the sermon was -The no-good Beveridge Report’. This was a cold douche for something that we were both absolutely devoted to, but we couldn’t help laughing – Frank’s greeting by Mother Church was to say his work was of no use.

Evelvn Waugh, after your conversion, wrote to Nancy Mitford, ‘Lady Pakenham is my great new friend’, and this made you feel that you had been received, and not only into the Church. Did you ever feel that you had capitulated in a sense, that it would have been better if Waugh had been able to accept you on your own terms? Catholic or not?

One couldn’t say no to a question put in that way, but I don’t really think I minded. I can remember asking myself why he now liked me so much, what had changed. Although I was not as close to him as Nancy, because temperamentally I wasn’t his cup of tea, he was always writing to me, and we met a lot. Before that there had been all those insults about the hockey field, but now I was in the family of the Church and he seemed to have a kind of supernatural feeling that my having been baptized with holy water had literally changed me, not only in myself, but to him; that it had been a real physical change.

One of your worries about Catholicism before you converted was that it would prejudice the children in their careers and in life generally. Did you ever have occasion to feel that afterwards?

Never. It was one of the most fallacious predictions or feelings that I’ve ever had. In fact I often think now how wonderfully lucky we were that we were able to bring up all our children successfully. I often think of other parents and wish they’d had the same good fortune.

There is also some evidence that the Establishment is anti-Catholic although this is always very difficult to prove. What is your view?

I’ve heard so many conflicting views on that subject. I don’t think I know the Establishment well enough to judge, but I do know when I was young, long before I had any connection with the Church, people used to say that the Foreign Office was biased in favour of Catholic candidates, which was exactly the opposite of what I later feared. Two people in the Oxford Labour Party objected when Frank became a Catholic, because they had the same feeling that I did, that he would be under the influence of an outside power, namely Rome, but I myself never came across anything of that sort. In a way I’m sorry, because I think religion doesn’t mean as much to people as it used to when I was young, and therefore although you have fewer of the bad effects you also have fewer of the good. Certainly my father would have made a tremendous to-do. He would have thought it was condemning our children to inferior treatment, but he would simply have been wrong.

You have written a great deal on the monarchy and are obviously a royalist. Catholicism has no place in the royal family – for example, if Prince Charles were to convert to Catholicism, he would not be able to accede to the throne. How do you feel about that?

The Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act should be repealed as quickly as possible. They might have done a little good in the reign of George III but they are totally outdated now and positively harmful. The world of princes and princesses is naturally a very small one and to shut out a whole section of European and other nationalities or other populations from any kind of real friendship or inter-marriage with the royal family is the most colossal mistake nowadays.

Your new book on the future of the monarchy was commissioned before there was any serious doubt about its future. You yourself are still a firm believer in its survival. How far did you take into account recent events and upsets within the royal family?

My dear, I can’t tell you, it was an absolute nightmare. I never finished a chapter without having to rewrite it completely. I’m glad I did it now, although I daresay if I’d been told at the time how it was going to develop, I might have been chickenhearted and declined, but of course I hadn’t the faintest idea. I just thought it was going to be an abstract discussion of the question, based on my knowledge of recent royal history, and when I wrote to the people I hoped would give me interviews I still didn’t know. The letters arrived just when the whole balloon went up, so I must have been regarded as absolutely crazy, writing without a word of apology and just assuming they would talk to me.

The survival of the monarchy seems to have depended, in the twentieth century at least, on an ability to combine popularity with an almost mystical regal aura. Surely that delicate balance has been upset by recent events?

Yes, but something else has taken its place. In any case, whatever the private lives of the members of the royal family, that mystical aura would gradually have faded away because it depended partly on remoteness. The royal family in the past have been distant figures, flashing past as Queen Victoria did in a carriage, the public only just catching a glimpse. Now the people have heard their voices on television, have really seen them, and know everything about them from the tabloids and other newspapers; so the aura has been dissipated. What has replaced it is a feeling that the royal family care, that they really are involved with every person in the country, whatever class they come from, whatever walk of life they occupy. They start projects, they travel about, they work a hundred times harder than any of their ancestors would have done. On top of that you have to have one dominant figure to represent the nation, and we have the Queen who couldn’t be better at it.

The impression one had from your review in the Times of Andrew Morton’s biography of Princess Diana was that he had transgressed the boundaries of good taste. As a royal biographer, are there certain things which you would choose not to reveal?

I don’t want to sound prudish or priggish, but I like to think that if I had been offered the story Morton was offered, and if Princess Diana’s friends had come up loaded with all these personal secrets, I would have declined. It was absolutely wrong to publish that book, and we can see now that it was the start of all the trouble. And who benefited? In the end because life goes on and God is kind, Princess Diana may be happy; I certainly hope and believe Prince Charles will. But it was a totally unnecessary and wrong passage in both their lives. I wouldn’t go as far as to say nobody should have read it; you can’t ask impossibilities of people if it’s there in book form, but I don’t think The Sunday Times should have serialized it. Rupert Murdoch may say he’s a monarchist, but the effect of serialization was not to forward the cause of monarchy. It’s been suggested that in the end the monarchy will be strengthened by all this coming out, but those are just words to me.

Where do you stand on the great public ‘right to know’ debate. Is the royal family public property in that sense?

We look on the royal family in two ways which might be said to be incompatible. In one way we take pride in saying they’re just like us, but in another way we like to think of them as being above us, and the two don’t go together. The royal family somehow have to satisfy both these requirements, and I think they do on the whole, unless some really bad thing happens, like Diana, Her True Story. After reading that you couldn’t possibly think that a model was being set for the nation, either by the Princess of Wales herself or the Prince of Wales, or by Prince Philip, the Queen, or indeed the Queen Mother. They are described as implacable, which means that they can’t be placated, that they’re cruel.

Do you think perhaps there’s a case to be made for more careful selection of those marrying into the royal family?

That would be very difficult. In the case of Prince Andrew’s bride, for example, she was very well connected on one side and they also knew her family on the other side. They didn’t know anything about Koo Stark’s family, but my personal view is that she would have made a much better duchess.

Do you think the nation actually benefits in any way from knowing the inside details of the royal family’s life, or is it at the level of entertainment and scandal-mongering?

It is ninety per cent at that level, but some individuals may have benefited from the knowledge that life can be very difficult even for the royal family on occasion. It used to be thought that life in the royal family was a bed of roses, and it may now be seen to be rather different. But it is better to bring this awareness in the form of Elizabeth R, the film to celebrate the Queen’s fortieth anniversary, which showed the difficulties in a perfectly natural and yet convincing way, with no aspect of scandal. Once you get into the realms of scandal it’s like the old saying: bad money drives out good, and scandal drives out good news.

You must remember Edward VW’s abdication in 1936 when he made his famous ‘woman I love’ speech. That too must have rocked the nation, but the monarchy survived, even perhaps was strengthened by it. Are there any parallels with what is happening today, do you think?

In that instance the rent in the monarchy was mended very quickly, because we had a really wonderful king and queen to step in, and people soon realized that a king and queen with a family was far more stabilizing than anything that the Duke of Windsor could have achieved, even if everything had gone as he hoped. I suppose he never would have had any children, so it would have come back to where it did, but only after many years. In my opinion these would have been lost years, because the future king and queen wouldn’t have had the experience and practice of a long reign and long lives; that’s absolutely definite. The only faint parallel I can see now is that all the pieces are in place so to speak for a very successful royal family. I have an enormous admiration for Prince Charles; he’s got real ideas of what he wants to do, and what he wants to contribute to the country. He’s genuinely active and not at all keen on being just a centrepiece. I can’t say anything about his personal life, but at least the two princes are there in place, so the situation could develop almost as well as it did after the abdication. It is very difficult to imagine after 1992 that we are suddenly going to have an annus mirabilis. There will be a transitional period, but I feel full of hope for the future.

Do you think there ought to be a constitutional difficulty about having a divorced monarch, or indeed a remarried monarch on the throne? Don’t you think there is something very unrealistic about expecting Charles to be a bachelor king?

Absolutely. I don’t think that’s right at all. We know now that there are bishops who would be prepared to remarry him, and I would say that’s absolutely right, and I feel sure there will be the same attitude, if not an even more affirmative one, in the future.

You were clearly very affected by the Queen’s Guildhall speech. Did you identify with her as a mother?

Yes. I felt I knew that she really was as unhappy as she looked at that moment.

Your own children’s marriages have not always run smoothly, but you have taken comfort from their happy second marriages. In the eyes of the Catholic Church marriage is for life. Did you feel very anguished, not just at a personal level, but on a religious level on account of your children’s divorces?

No, not at the time. All I can say is that if at the beginning of my married life, when my children were being born, some prophet had told me that we would be a Catholic family and yet we would have these divorces and second marriages, I would have felt amazement, disbelief and great unhappiness. But for most people life doesn’t strike with one great hammer blow; it gradually happens, and you get used to it, you accept. You know the people involved, you admire them and love them whatever has gone wrong, and so you’re buoyed up; you know it isn’t the end. The Queen must have felt the same about her children. I don’t think it’s the business of parents to blame; it is the business of parents when their children are young to teach them as rigorously as possible, and to make rules and see that they’re kept, but once the children are grown up parents should not reprimand or criticize; they should give support where it is needed.

I ‘m going to ask you a rather sensitive question, because of the religious aspect and because I am also a Roman Catholic. The marriage of one of your children was annulled, even after the birth of six children. Did you have any intellectual difficulty with the idea of that annulment? A lot of people are very critical of annulment and think it is a fudge, or a way of clearing one’s Catholic conscience. How do you view it?

I used to think that annulment should be much more common, and that it should be made much easier, and I held that view for many years. It would leave the faith as it was while allowing that there never had been a marriage in the Catholic sense. But I’ve rather changed my mind and I now think, in my heart of hearts, that divorce is really the true state of affairs; that there has been a marriage, that there no longer is, and therefore it’s ended. I don’t really believe in annulment, and I believe that divorce is the way of the future. But I know that isn’t the teaching of the Catholic Church and I wouldn’t dream of teaching it to anybody else.

Quite a number of people in the public eye are granted annulments . . .Caroline of Monaco, Frank Sinatra and so on. Do you think this points to there being influence at play?

I’m not sure on these very difficult questions, but I now think we should use the word divorce, not annulment. It seems to me that the truth about most broken marriages is that they weren’t always broken; the argument for annulment is that they were broken from the start, only one didn’t realize it. That does not seem to be the accurate description.

Are you saying that if you divorce, the Church should be able to marry you a second time in the faith?

Yes. That is what I am saying.

Your own marriage has had a wonderful symmetry – Frank converted politically into your camp, and you converted into his religious camp. Did this bestow a kind of equality in the marriage which made it endure?

We laugh about it; it’s really too symmetrical for anything but a joke, but it did happen just that way. We were like two magnets for each other, and if one moved in one direction, the other followed. The teaching about marriage, two being as one, is very true in many ways. I often know what Frank’s going to say, and he often knows with me, but of course that’s perfectly rational and explicable in two people who have lived together for over sixty years.

You have headed a kind of literary dynasty. Your children, and now your grandchildren, having carried on the tradition of writing. You must feel immensely proud of that. Yes, and very thankful too, because it’s such a happy pursuit. If it has disappointments they’re nearly always one’s own fault; there are no resentments and regrets as in some other professions.

I detect that the task of writing your own life may have been much more daunting than writing the lives of others. Is that because you dislike being introspective, or that your curiosity about other people does not extend to yourself?

Both are true. I’m not an introspective person by nature. I’m sure I would have benefited from psychotherapy, but I couldn’t endure being on a couch and talking about myself. I can only just enjoy the business of talking to you. Various people suggested I should write my memoirs and naturally I listened to them, but the obvious difficulty was that nothing had ever happened to me. I’m not dissatisfied with life, and I feel I’ve been very lucky, but that’s doesn’t make good reading. You need disaster, then to be restored, then hard work, then another dreadful fall, and so on – that’s what’s interesting to read about. Also when I began doing it, I suddenly felt rather unhappy in a very unexpected way. It brought home that all these happy times really were past, the children being born, and Frank and I being young. I’d never quite acknowledged that these things were over and were never going to happen again. It was rather a melancholy discovery.

You once wrote, ‘Frank’s lack of interest in appearance and possessions gradually earned him a halo for eccentricity. This was kept polished by his own activities.’ This seems quite an indulgent attitude – have you never minded his eccentricity?

No. When I first married him, his great friends, the Birkenheads, told me always to have plenty of safety pins because his clothes were all kept together that way. I soon knew exactly what they meant, but it’s a very superficial thing; it isn’t like somebody belonging to the great unwashed. He has beautiful manners, he was extremely well brought up, and he still stands up when a lady comes into the room. I try to stop it, ‘but it’s ingrained. He doesn’t take an interest in possessions and surroundings, doesn’t even look at them. When we had a burglary, he suffered for me, and was very unhappy because I lost things, but he was not unhappy for himself, for he did not notice what was gone. It is just as well – it would be terrible to have two people moaning together.

Are you ever indignant about the way your husband is portrayed in the press sometimes?

Yes, I used to be, but only about one thing: an absolutely scurrilous suggestion was made that he only visited prisoners who were well known, in order to get publicity for himself. This couldn’t be more untrue. He visited prisoners for years and years before the famous ones that he is now connected with, and he visits totally unknown prisoners still.

He is well known for his campaigning on behalf of Myra Hindley, something you shared in. Did you understand the strength of public feeling against that?

Oh yes, because I felt it myself when I first heard the news. Frank understood perfectly well too, but one of the most important things about Christianity is that you’ve got to help people who are in trouble. There’s no point in helping people who are doing well; they don’t need your help. If you’re lucky in your own life, in your own circumstances and in your friends and family, you’re all the more bound to help the people who are not. Whether it’s their fault or not doesn’t make any difference; if they are in that position now it’s your duty to help.

He also campaigned for many years against pornography. If pornography is corrupting, why has he himself not been corrupted long ago?

I don’t think he had the douche quite long enough. He only had one expedition to Copenhagen, but supposing he had gone there every week for a year, it might have had some effect, who knows? I’m very glad he didn’t.

Isn’t there something disagreeable and paternalistic about the idea of censorship, about some people being able to decide for others what they may or may not see or read?

Certain things cause so much damage in human relations that it is right to prevent people seeing them. Personally I would put pornography quite low on the list, but at the top I would put any kind of racialism or anything that incited teenage children to bully. There is a very difficult line to draw between freedom and censorship, but it’s the duty of people in government to find that line and not go over the edge in one direction or the other.

Since the 1960s we’ve tended to favour licence and freedom without considering how far we’re affecting other people’s lives. All human life is a compromise of one sort or another, and freedom should not mean the right to complete licence ever.

Like most people who have lived a long time, you have had your fair share of sadness, and more than your fair share in Catherine’s tragic death at the age of twenty-three. Many people at such times are disappointed in their religion. Were you, or were you consoled by it?

It was and still is an appalling pain, and I still suffer. Religion doesn’t stop you suffering, but you don’t suffer in a meaningless way. What’s so awful is the feeling of waste in the case of premature death. Catherine was twenty-three, just beginning life with everything before her. She was very pretty, had lots of friends and an interesting job; it was just the most appalling waste. But I felt an absolute conviction that she was all right. I know she’s all right, and I feel that because of my religion. Religion also prevents you from asking the purely selfish questions: why me? why should it happen to me, when there are millions of other people it could have happened to? why should I suffer? why should God allow suffering if he’s a loving God? Those are the Questions you ask before you’re religious; you don’t go on asking them afterwards, which is a great blessing.

Catherine was the first of your children to e born a Catholic… was that to prove to be a solace to you and your husband, or did it merely add a special poignancy to her death?

I don’t think it was relevant at all. There was no room for more poignancy.

Do you feel that you’re going to see each other again?

I find that a very difficult to visualize. IN a sense I believe we shall  but we are not going to have mortal bodies, so how are we going to recognise each other? I don’t know how these thinks work… but then as I don’t even understand how a simple think like television works, I would be amazed if I understood a great mystery like the afterlife.

What do your regard as your greatest achievement?

The creation of one of the fifty million families in this country.  I really do believe that. The second best I suppose is to have written some books which may be of interest, possibly even for another fifty years. Luckily if it turns out that they’e all sent to the Christmas bazaar at Sir Thomas More’s church, I shan’t know.