Monthly Archives: March 2010

Panorama, Mossad and Kill Khalid

Watching Panorama last night on the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, I became more convinced than ever that Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas, the book by the internationally known war correspondent Paul McGeough, is a must read for anyone interested in the way the dreaded Mossad operates.

The book chronicles a Bond-like operation to kill Khalid Mishal in Amman in 1997 through a deadly poisonous gas. The plot failed only because two of the Mossad agents with forged Candian passports were caught and the Netanyahu government at the time, under international pressure, was forced to hand over an antidote, which saved Mishal’s life.

Kill Khalid, a meticulously researched book, is a masterpiece of its genre and available from the Quartet website.

Please hurry and get a copy while stocks last.

Panorama: Passports to Kill

For those of you who read our best-selling book Kill Khalid, don’t miss Panorama tonight for an analysis of the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was murdered in a Dubai hotel room in January by a disguised hit squad with alleged Mossad links.

Panorama is on BBC One tonight, at 8.30pm.

The Best Physiotherapists in Town!

Two years ago I had an operation on my right shoulder and had to have my arm in a sling for four weeks.

It was a most uncomfortable experience as I could hardly use my right hand to write with, and the frustration of it all made me feel useless and inadequate.

However, my return to normality dictated that I should undergo a course of physiotherapy that lasted over three months.

Although the treatment was at times painful the rewarding side was meeting my favourite physiotherapist. A New Zealander by birth, she runs a practice in Harley Street whose patients are the elite of London society. I soon discovered why.

Her name is Kathryn. She is beautiful, extremely talented and has magical hands. Her girls, most of whom also come from New Zealand, are equally endowed with that rare quality of professionalism and a natural instinct for pin-pointing the areas that need the most attention.

Kathryn was responsible for my full recovery and I will always be grateful for her unstinting care, which made it possible for me to use my right arm as well as I could before.

To all my friends on Facebook and those who read my blog, I urge you to take note that West 1 Physiotherapy & Pilates, at 106 Harley Street, is the place to go if you need treatment!

For more:

T: 02079355652

F: 02074860356

Paul Hogarth

I received a letter this week from Francis Kyle, of the Francis Kyle Gallery in Mayfair, congratulating me on an interview I did with the artist Paul Hogarth some years back, and informing me of a new exhibition of his work.

The interview, which featured in The Oldie, was in fact an excerpt of a larger interview due to be published in my book, Insights. The book never made it into the public domain, for reasons explained here on my blog.

Similarly, this new exhibition comprises watercolours and drawings from 1953 to 2001, which, until recently, had remained unknown or been thought lost.

So it is with great pleasure that I now reproduce the full, unabridged interview alongside news of this major retrospective. The exhibition, at the Francis Kyle Gallery, 9 Maddox Street, London W1S 2QE, continues until 15th April.

Paul Hogarth was a painter, illustrator and draughtsman. He was born in Cumbria in 1917 and educated at Manchester College of Art and St Martin’s School of Art in London.  His commitment to the radical left in the 1950’s led to working trips to China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  He collaborated with many writers including Doris Lessing, Brendan Behan, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, John Betjeman and Lawrence Durrell.  He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1984.  His autobiography, which includes many reproductions of drawings and paintings, was published in 1977. He died in 2001.

You have led a varied and interesting life, but your autobiography tells us only the bare facts about the more personal aspects of your life.  Was this deliberate policy when you were writing it?

I actually blame it on the editor who, I understand, used to work for the Readers Digest, and so the more colourful episodes were wiped out.  There was an attempt to make the book acceptable to the largest audience and since a lot of its personal character was as concerned with the disasters as the triumphs, this was eliminated, making it a rather colourless text. I thought.

I am curious about your father, for example. What sort of man was he, and were you close to him?

I think sons can be close to their fathers up to a certain age when they share their father’s interests. I remember being fairly close to mine when he taught me how to tickle trout in the streams in the lake district, and how to find bird’s nests, but when I ceased to be interested  in that sort of thing he ceased to be interested in me.  He simply didn’t understand that i was developing in another way.  He was a very limited man, in some ways canny, but limited all the same, and since I was a one off, relations cooled considerable by the time I was in my teen years.

And what about later on in life?

Well, he never accepted the fact that I was succeeding as an artist, and he would take every opportunity to denigrate what I was doing.

Did you ever mind being an only child?

Yes. It used to make me introspective and I would certainly have liked sisters and brothers. But I think the experience of being an only child drives you in on yourself, and you become much more resourceful. I’ve always lived with myself, in myself, and it’s been an extraordinary source of strength.

You say of James Boswell, the painter: ‘if he was the father I should have had, I was the son he never had.’  You are referring, of course, to the encouragement he gave you, but it is implied criticism of your father entirely fair, do you think? After all, your father did not have the education or experience…

Oh yes, but Jim was absolutely what I would have wanted from my father.  He was an educated man, not in the English way, since he was a New Zealander, but he was very democratic and understanding. He helped me enormously to develop as an artist; he told me the directions to go in, he encouraged me to study drawing and painting. In  many ways he was much more than a father, but he also gave me that fatherly encouragement.

You won a scholarship to Manchester School of Art. Before the course was over your left-wing views caused such offence to your Conservative voting parents that you left home.  How did they react?

They were appalled. What happened was that they thought that a scholarship would last only one year, and they kept going to the school of art and saying to the director, ‘Hasn’t he has enough yet?’ and, ‘When is he going to leave?’ and, ‘What kind of work is he going to do?’ To them study at a higher institution didn’t mean anything; they simply didn’t understand what it was leading to.  On top of that they made it so difficult for me that I left home. I would be sitting in the winter by the fire reading books and my mother thought I would drive myself mad because I read too much. They didn’t realise this was the natural thing for an enquiring teenager, and I just couldn’t stand the atmosphere. Leaving home at the age of seventeen was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, but I just had to get away from that regime.

Where did you go?

I found an agreeable hostel in a very unpleasant part of Manchester where I had my own room. I met students from Manchester University and discovered vegetarian meals, and so on.  It was a very happy period, but then the whole balance of my life was thrown off because I became interested in political activism.  In the end this destroyed my studies, and when I look back I just wonder how the hell it happened.  But I got involved with a group of artists who turned out propaganda for the unionists and the communist party, and I found a certain camaraderie and friendship there which led me to neglect my studies.

Yes, in fact you became so involved with left-wing activities that you gave up art completely and went off to Spain with the International Brigade to fight for the Republican cause.  Looking back, are you proud of what you did, or do you regard it as a romantic gesture?

Looking back on it now, I was completely mad.  But youthful idealism is a powerful, irresistible force.  Besides I found amongst the intellectuals in the Communist Party the affection that I didn’t have in my family life, I suppose.

You became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party which caused problems for you when war broke out and you were called up…

At that time if you had had any kind of military experience, you were called up.  But as we have only recently discovered, there was a spy network based on former members of the International Brigade. If you had been a Communist and you’d had military training, you were very much persona non grata. After seven months I was discharged.

In 1942 you married for the first time but you tells us almost nothing about the girl who became your wife.  Was she also a communist?

No, though her brother and her mother were. Her father was dominated by his son and his wife, and it was a crazy family.  My wife was a maverick character with a great sense of humour, and I very much loved her. She was a natural satirist and she would create charades based on the news. She was brilliant at mime and would make up songs about the politicians of the time. The whole family was completely mad, straight out of Frank Capra.

The marriage lasted only four years…what went wrong?

I think when artists marry young it is bound to be a disaster.  They are developing at such a rate and although I needed someone who was non conventional, I just got bored with the whole relationship.  She couldn’t help me, you see, and I desperately needed someone who could.  She loved me , but love wasn’t enough.  That’s one of life’s mysteries: you want love, and when you get it, you don’t want it.

You and Ronald Searle went to Poland in 1948 and were astounded by the extent of the destruction.  At the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, you drew luminaries ‘making fools of themselves by siding with the Soviets against the Americans’ – as you put it. Did you write that with hindsight or had disillusionment with Communism begun even then?

That’s hindsight. What I did see and what I remember feeling was that these people who were communists has so much vanity, the same amount of vanity and egotism as anybody else, and that was quite a revelation.

You speak of Searle with admiration as by far the superior craftsman, and you hoped that travel would bring out the artist in you. You say at one point: ‘Like a Christian pilgrim of old, i sought spiritual adventure.’ Can you explain what you meant by ‘spiritual’ in that context?

I tried to find things that would move me. I tried to find issues that I could draw, and dramatize, but it wasn’t until I went to Greece during the general’s regime that I found a theme which I could interpret – the scenes of suffering outside the prisons in Athens, the political prisoners, and the lines of women carrying food parcels.  Communists had done terrible things in Greece, but the generals were also very harsh and I only saw that one side. Experience of life, that’s what I was seeking, so that I could develop as an artist.

You travelled and practised your craft in Spain, France and Italy, where your Communist Party card allowed you to stay in the many Houses of Culture.  What was that like?

That was principally and Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party was different from any other Communist Party, having much of their intelligentsia in its ranks. They opened these palaces in places like Sienna and Florence, Verona and Pisa, indeed throughout Italy, and to stay there made me feel that in being a Communist you could embrace culture.  There were always art exhibitions and you could talk to young artists of your own age.

Post-war London under a Labour government, in your opinion, wallowed in an afterglow of misplaced optimism.  What did you mean by that?

I meant that nothing changed, and yet there was all this talk about a New Jerusalem.  Capitalism flourished, and it didn’t seem to me to be any different.  The Labour Party didn’t seem to make any headway.

But you have changed you mind about capitalism since?

Oh yes. Some kinds of capitalism are unacceptable, but I think private capitalism is a personal achievement.  State capitalism seems worse, eminently worse, than the private variety.

Despite the fact that the Labour government was struggling with post-war difficulties, wouldn’t you say that it did great things?  For example, granting independence to India, establishing the welfare state, creating the National Health Service…weren’t these positive steps?

I suppose they were, yes, but strangely enough, when you held a particular political view, these things could still seem flawed. I thought, well, they’re breaking up the British Empire for Christ’s sake, and I couldn’t see t6hat it was in any sense necessary at that point. I suppose the whole cultural atmosphere seemed to be so depressing. I couldn’t stand those bloody Ealing films, the awful ludicrous British eccentricity. I thought there had to be something better. I was wrong.

It was the beginning of what you call your literary life when you started working with distinguished writers on the literary left, such as Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary. I was slightly surprised to read that when the financial backer of Circus, one of the magazines you worked on, learned of your Communist Party connections, the magazine was closed down.  I know this was the Cold War era but wasn’t this an extreme, almost McCarthyite reaction?

I think it was a natural reaction. We were slightly unfortunate in our literary editor, John davenport, who went to Paris one weekend and was overheard to say that Randall Swingler (the managing editor) and I were Reds.  This got back to Tony Hubbard, our financial backer, who promptly closed what he thought was a subversive enterprise.  What he didn’t realise was that we were good Communists, and that we were trying to develop an interesting and progressive magazine, which would be better than Lilliput.  We weren’t interpreting the party line at all because we hated the party line; we hated the political leadership of the Communist Party.

Did your Communist Party connections ever work to your advantage in your career?

I think so, yes. I was invited to China in 1954 because I was considered a talent worth developing, and China was the inspiration which turned me into an artist. I was ambitious and I let it be known that I’d go anywhere, and this earned me the hatred of my fellow Communist artists who weren’t interested in working. They just sat on their backsides and argued about what constituted socialist realism.

After dropping your magazine work you went back to travelling and drawing, again in Eastern Europe. You say of that time: ‘Life there seemed to have a sense of purpose, or so I imagined then…I recall those days with a sense of nostalgia.’ What was it that you remember with such fondness?

In the early days of the Communist regime in Poland the major task was to rebuild the country; that was the priority. The whole population was organised to like an army and it seemed to me that they were getting things done, and there was a spirit of Euphoria.  Then one gradually began to notice that it was becoming very much a totalitarian state on the Soviet model, with marches and statues of Stalin everywhere, and I didn’t like this. It made me very nervous. It seemed to me that all the effort was being channelled into developing a martial spirit, with soldiers on the streets and with every May Day parade full of tanks and weaponry. I saw and heard too much, I suppose, and began to realize that a regime was evolving which I dint have much sympathy with.

Travelling through China in 1954 in the company of People like AJ Ayer and Stanley Spencer was a wonderful experience for you, increasing your visual awareness and reshaping your artistic taste.  But what was your reaction to China itself at that time – five years after the revolution and before the horrors of the Cultural Revolution?

At that time China was completely different, and it was a cultural shock for me.  China was a country which had yet to be affected by any industrialization; and I was stunned by the sheer novelty of what was essentially a feudal regime.  If you were out on the street you could go into a market and have your ears cleaned, or hair cut; everywhere there was a sort of medieval pageantry, a sort of visual spectacle straight out of Breughal. This was what interested me.

In 1956, while on your way to Poland via Hungary, you found that no one was allowed to leave the train in Budapest because a state of emergency had been declared following the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops and tanks. In Warsaw there was an uproar of anti-Soviet protest and it was there that the scales fell from your eyes and you saw that communism as practised by the Soviet Union was tyranny.  How far reaching was this insight?

Although the scales certainly fell from my eyes in Warsaw in 1956, there had been a steady process of disillusionment going on before that.  I used to attend a lot of conferences and peace congresses – I was commissioned by various magazines to draw them – and I met a lot of Communist intellectuals there and observed a mood of mounting disillusionment.  We already knew about the persecution in Soviet Russia, and there was a feeling that in these Communist regimes everything was not as it seemed. Even amongst the Communist writers with whom I mixed, there was a mood of criticism. I went on to Warsaw in the train to attend a congress of the International Brigades and was welcomed at the station by my old friend and caricaturist Jerzy Zaruba.  He took me to the offices of Swiat, which was the Polish equivalent to Private Eye, where editors and journalists listened to the radio and wept at the accounts of the bitter street fighting in Budapest.  Eventually Khrushchev himself agreed that the moderate Gomulka should be released from jail to form the new government.  He made a speech promising reforms, though we now know that behind the scenes a gun was being pointed at his head, and Khrushchev was waiting with the tanks to move in.  After Gomulka spoke there was another demonstration which demanded that tall the Russians get out, but this was subject to incredible violence, and squads of riot police launched a series of savage attacks on the people.  There were also scenes of violence at the congress I attended where Russian observers were being challenged by Polish and Hungarian delegates to produce their heroes of the Spanish Civil War.  According to one delegate they had been shot on the orders of Stalin.  That really opened my eyes.

Was it only the Soviet version of communism you rejected. Did you still cling to the idea that had first attracted you?

Yes, I did, and then I gradually lost that belief too. Bu before that we were simply ignorant of the issues; we didn’t know what was going on really, the extent of the horror and the persecution. It beggared belief.

When you send an account of what you had seen in Warsaw to the Sunday Times you say you felt like a Judas.  How long did it take for that feeling to disappear completely?

It took a long time because being a Communist is like being a member of an army, or a religious sect. I felt that I was letting the side down. On the other hand, I had to report what I saw, and my old friend Randall Swingler said, ‘Well you did right.’

You married for the second time in 1953, a journalist called Phyllis Hayes, and with borrowed money bought a house in the country – a good place to bring up the children Phyllis longed to have.  Was the fact that you did not have children together a major factor in the break-up of that marriage?

Not really.  She’d been a journalist for the Hungarian news and information service, so she was a Communist, and I was growing away from Communism. It was a relationship which was really born out of shared ideas, but when we no longer shared the same ideas it fell apart. She was very didactic, and I just felt I couldn’t go on with the relationship, so I gave her the house because I had borrowed the money off her father, and that was that.

In your memoirs you tell us in a few sentences that in 1959 you eloped with a woman artist, Pat Douthwaite, with whom you had fallen in love, leaving behind Phyllis who, you say, had become increasingly tyrannical’..

Well, she wouldn’t let me work with Brendan Behan, who has offered me a chance of collaborating with him on a book about Ireland. She said she was sick to death of these drunken writers I worked with – indeed she showed a general hostility towards writers. I was having an affair with Pat at the time, and she told me I was an artist and a free spirit and that I should go. So we eloped together.

You were invited by Life magazine to do the illustrations for their issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and you were paid twenty thousand dollars.  Did this mark the beginning of real success and recognition, as well as an end to money troubles?

Yes, it did for quite a while, because I was able to buy a house and cover overdrafts. When I left Phyllis I was really on my back, doing drawings for local magazines at a guinea a time, living in a rented farmhouse in East Anglia and planting potatoes to survive. The Brendan Behan’s Island really took off. It became a bestseller and book-society choice, and then Life magazine got in touch with me after seeing drawings I’d done for a local magazine. I was suddenly discovered.

It seems to me you were never really able to impress your parents with your success. When they turned up at the opening of your ‘Looking at People’ at the Whitworth Gallery your father refused to enter the exhibition…was that hurtful?

I think the occasion intimidated my father, and my mother was too timid to urge him to go in.  When Margeret Pilkington, the director of the gallery and a wonderful woman, came out with a glass of champagne, my father just took fright. He’d never had a drink in his life, and after glimpsing the private view in full progress, I think he got scared. They were both dressed up and obviously had the intention of going in, but when they saw this grand art gallery with columns and lights everywhere and champagne being quaffed, they just couldn’t take it. Well, my mother could take anything, she was very gregarious, a lovely friendly woman- and she tried to take my father into it, but he just turned away.  He was a farmer’s son form the hills of Cumbria, and they were different people from the townspeople in the plains. He was rather silent, uncommunicative and inarticulate. My mother was very articulate and could make people laugh, but at the same time she respected her husband and deferred to him; it was that kind of marriage.

The death of a man’s father, whatever the state of their relationship in life, is an important event for most sons.  What was your own reaction when your father died in 1967?

I was very saddened. I was in Tangier doing a story for the Daily Telegraph, and when I went back he w3as laid out in his coffin. I was very moved, very remorseful that I’d been so awful to him, that I’d been such a bad son. Of course, I hadn’t been so very bad; it was just that a man of his background found it difficult to understand a son who wanted to be an artist.

Your mother lived to the age of ninety-seven and you say that in her widowhood she began to be a little more appreciative of your achievements. Only after she died, however, did you find the complete collection of your books, wrapped in transparent film. How did you react to this discovery?

I burst into tears. I used to send her the books, but there would be no reaction. I never knew that she cared.

Which of all the famous writers with whom you have collaborated impressed you most?

Graham Greene. There are writers who are immensely sympathetic towards artists and certainly he was one of them. He was easy to work with, but very exacting. He had an innate understanding of artists and what interested them, and it was there all the time. He was a man’s man and yet a woman’s man too; he had both a feminine side and a masculine side to him. He came out of that tradition of English writing – extremely sophisticated with a great sense of humour. However he did need nudging by Yvonne, his partner of the later period, who used to challenge a lot of his statements and was able to make him slightly less pompous that he sometimes was. But he was very moved by my effort to portray his world and he paid me a great many compliments over certain drawings which evoked memories for him.

You went to Majorca to do a series of drawings, and it is at this point in your autobiography that you mention the existence of a three-year-old son. When and where was he born?

Toby was born in 1960 when my partner was Pat Douthwaite. He’s a lovely boy and we’re very close, though he’s been a bit of a prodigal son, a wild boy on a motorbike, part of that generation. He had a terrible wild boy accident when he nearly lost his arm, but it was saved by a doctor in Palma who specialized in putting bullfighters back together again- an incredible man.

You have been married several times…do you look on your relationships with women as success or failures?

Oh, that’s a hard one. Pat and I divorced too. I was away in America a lot and she was feeling increasingly that she was neglecting her own career. I was very much in love with her, and the idea of having a young son was wonderful but she wanted to be a famous Scottish painter, so she went off to Edinburgh. I think perhaps you’ve got to have a few failures to have a success. My fourth marriage, my present one, is the most successful I’ve had. We almost certainly couldn’t have made a go of it if we had been younger – she has three children, and I would probably have shied away from that commitment before, but now I can cope with it, and we have a good life together.

In 1974 you became a Royal Academician, and as a member of the selection and hanging committee you had to choose a painting by an unknown artist who turned out to be Prince Charles.  You have come a long way since your communist youth, but would you describe yourself as a monarchist?

No, I’m not a monarchist. I like people for what they are. Besides, the royals don’t do things right any more than anybody else. As regards the painting I just reacted to the standard of the work and it was quite competent.

I’m assuming that as a Communist you are not drawn to religion, even though many Italian Catholics are also communists…am I right?

I’m drawn only to religious music. I love the music of the Catholic composers, particularly Purcell and that period. I do go to church now and again because my wife is a Scottish Episcopalian. I feel Christianity is a myth, but I like the culture it created.

What do you think will happen to you when you die?

I would like to think I could join some Elysium and meet up with some of my old friends. But what I actually believe is that it will be ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And that will be it.

Insights: Sir Julian Critchley

Is there life after the House of Commons, would you say? Or is it a slow and painful decline from the world of politics?

I’m afraid it is a slow and painful decline. I was unlucky enough to fall ill in 1991, and although I remained an MP, I missed most of the last Parliament and could not stand at the last election because of ill health. Had I been fit enough to stand, I would have held the seat and would now still be a Tory member of parliament. Of course, I love living in Ludlow, and because I come from this part of the world, I’ve always wanted to retire here. But I was obliged to retire much too early. So much is happening in politics in general and with the Conservative party in particular that I feel utterly frustrated that I have no real part to play anymore. There is nothing as ex as an ex-MP, and as I make what living I can out of freelance journalism, mainly political, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so with the passing of time.

In your autobiography, A Bag of Boiled Sweets, you seem obsessed with your own failure or lack of achievement. There is a slight sense that you protest your failure too much. Would you agree?

That is not an unreasonable criticism. If I do protest my failure too greatly it is for two reasons. First, I was always brought up to admire the intellectual capacity of my father, and my mother always used to say that I was nothing like as clever as he was. Secondly, politics is such a transparent profession; at any given time it is possible to judge the progress of a member of parliament within his own party, and it is very tiresome to observe the soles of the feet of people climbing above you up the ladder of politics – particularly when you regard them as not particularly bright. As a consequence of my relative failure, I became an observer of politics as opposed to a participant. The more I observed, the more enemies I made, and my greatest mistake was to confuse political journalism with politics, and you can’t ride both horses. I had no money of my own, and since I was not a businessman or a lawyer or a company director, the only way I could earn money was to scribble. In the early days as a very young man in the House, I did not appreciate the extent to which the old things in the Tory party were upset by the fact that I wrote about them in my Spectator column. People didn’t do things like that then. The main person who destroyed my political career – if it can be described as such – was Francis Pym, Ted Heath’s chief whip. Pym told a friend of mine in the whips’ office that he did not consider me a Conservative, and that opinion was passed on to Ted. So Pym was – to use the politically incorrect phrase – the nigger in the woodpile. Promotion was also blocked by Margaret Thatcher, but with good reason, since I was very hostile to her. All I could do after that was be my own man. I believe I pursued that course honestly enough, though that is of course a matter of opinion.

Jeremy Paxman called your memoirs the most entertaining to have been published for years and said they were free of the mendacity, distortion and self-importance which characterize most political memoirs. Was that the highest form of praise as far as you were concerned?

Yes, I was delighted with that, because I think what he said was broadly true. And Paxman is a pretty formidable character, not given to flattery.

In your book you quote Graham Greene’s view that fear is the dominant emotion of childhood, but you relate it to your move from prep school to Shrewsbury. In the context of your early family life, would you say that you had a happy childhood?

How nice to be asked intelligent questions for a change instead of being interrogated by some silly girl who doesn’t know her arse from her elbow. Well my mother and father are dead so I can tell the truth. I was happy at home, but unhappy for a great deal of the time at school. My father was a distant, clever man who suffered from the English disease of not being able to touch. He never showed affection, never kissed me – it would have been inconceivable. My mo0ther and he did not get on, but this didn’t dawn on me until I was an adult – it’s curious how blind children can be to the unfortunate nature of their parents’ relationship. When I said that fear was the dominant emotion, i was referring to my experience at Brockhurst when I was ten, when the very formidable and unpleasant headmaster, knowing that I was terrified of water, threw me into the deep end in public in order to ‘make a man of me.’ I was also thinking of my time at Shrewsbury, which in 1945 had not really changed from Arnold’s Rugby. One was either frightened of being beaten by older boys, cold because the central heating was minimal, or hungry because it was the height of the rationing period. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression on this; fortunately I was powerfully built, and my uncle, whom I adored, taught me how to box, with the result that nobody took me on idly. In the public-school system your first two years are hell, your third year becomes marginally better, and in your fourth year you come into your own and begin to do to others what others have done to you However, since I was a bit of a rebel, my housemaster told me at the end of my third year that however long I stayed at Shrewsbury he would never make me a monitor. In effect he deprived me of a fourth year, cheated my father out of his money and me out of my education. The truth is I was a sensitive, difficult child, nervous and neurotic, and it did not help to be sent to the wrong sort of schools.

Where do you think the neurosis came from?

I guess it was a genetic inheritance from my father. As a small boy in Bristol, where he lived, he was so neurotic that he could tell how long it would take for him to get to a public lavatory from whatever position in Bristol he happened to be in, even if he was on a bus. I have not shared the same neurosis, but there were others. I don’t know whether you read my father’s obituary notices – he died in October – but he was much cleverer than I am. Indeed, Jonathan Miller once described him as the greatest medical philosopher since Locke. I therefore always had a sense of inferiority, of not living up to his standard – an idea reinforced by my mother.

In your autobiography, you describe your mother in warm, human terms: chain smoker, a gin drinker, an amusing companion; but your father is a remote figure, emotionally shy, and your brother scarcely emerges as a person. From the reader’s point of view, there is a definite imbalance . . . was it conscious on your part?

No. I’ve always got on well with my brother, but he was five years younger and the gap meant that he didn’t loom very largely in my life. We went to different schools and universities. My mother was indeed all of those things you describe until she became a sick woman towards the end of the war. She drank a great deal, and she never recovered from a series of illnesses and died a miserable death. Father had tremendous wit and elegance and verve, but only for other people; when he came home he switched off. Like an actor, he went out to perform and came home to rest.

It is often said that you inherited your wit from your mother. What qualities has your father passed on to you, would you say?

A degree of intellectual curiosity, and also a generalized interest in subjects which he knew a great deal about – for instance, nineteenth- century French history and Oscar Wilde.

You and your father had little to say to each other until his old age. Did you try to make up for all the silent years?

Yes, I did. My mother died in 1974 and father married a woman who was approximately my age. He retired to Somerset where I used to go every summer to stay in my cousin’s house, and it was then that I attempted to make up for lost ground by taking father and his wife out to lunch. There were terrible problems, however, when I sent him the draft of A Bag of Boiled Sweets. It was a great mistake, for he took intense objection to various comments I made about him. They were frivolous and marginal, but by then he was old, and since he was always vain and had a Victorian idea of privacy, he hated the idea of appearing in what might be described as a frivolous book. For example, I told the story of my mother overhearing a couple in the grocer’s saying: ‘That’s Mrs Critchley – she and her husband are the sort of people who drink wine with their meals.’ I wrote in my book that while this was certainly true, it was mainly Algerian wine. Father wrote me a very stiff letter saying that he had never drunk Algerian wine in his life, and for the next four and a half years we had no contact except to exchange increasingly irritable letters. When I got my knighthood he didn’t even write to congratulate me. Last September his wife and my brother arranged that we should meet for a sort of reconciliation, and I think father then must have known that death was near as he was ninety-seven after all. We had the meeting; there was no emotional scene – which might have been the case had we been French or Italian – we shook hands, and within four days he was dead. So that was good news, because I could go to his funeral without the awful feeling that there was unfinished business and that the business itself had been so trivial.

Your unwillingness to be confirmed at Shrewsbury, lest it led to further compulsory church attendance, was part of a nonconformity established at school and continued as a Tory MP. But you confess it was partly a pose, and that while you played poacher, you wanted to be gamekeeper, and would have welcomed promotion in both spheres. Have you consciously encouraged the pose?

Yes, I think I have. There is certainly a thread of nonconformity running through my life. I disliked intensely what was called the house spirit at school. I did not want to watch on a compulsory basis the house playing football on a wet afternoon; I would rather have read or done anything else. My nonconformity was carried on almost instinctively throughout my life, and certainly held me back within the Conservative party I’ve often wondered whether I made the wrong choice of party. I think I would have been happier as a Liberal, but as Liberals did not get elected in those days unless they were extraordinarily fortunate, the only choice was between Labour and Conservative, and since the whole of my background was professional middle class, thanks to my father’s brains, it had to be Conservative. I remember Michael Heseltine and I – we were great mates at Oxford – talking about politics, and deciding there was only really one party we could join. But that was not an intellectual decision; it was a social decision, forced upon us by the attitudes and outlook of our families. We had almost identical backgrounds.

Could your father’s record of outstanding achievement – subconsciously perhaps – have anything to do with what looks more like a failure of will than lack of ability?

There is perhaps a failure of will. The fact that I only got a fourth at Oxford was due not to a lack of intelligence, but to two other factors, namely, that it took me a long time to learn to work on my own and also the fact that I contracted polio. The latter certainly was traumatic in its effect on me and, sadly, it has come back to haunt me after forty years 1949-51 were the years of the great polio epidemics and, as a neurologist my father must have seen half a dozen polio patients a day. He would come back in the evening with tales of the iron lung. As a nervous, neurotic youth, I was convinced that I was going to get it, and by God, I did.

Did it affect you psychologically as well as physically?

Indeed, it did. I became very depressed. But it’s an ill wind, as they say, and instead of going into the Rifle Brigade, which would have had me buried on some hillside in Korea, I went instead to Paris where I met and fell in love with Prue. That was the immediate consolation for polio, but when you are a young man in your prime, good looking as I was then, vigorous and athletic, it is a terrible business suddenly to become a cripple, unable to run for a bus, unable to walk at more than a steady pace, always anxious lest you find yourself in a situation in which you are walked off your feet by someone else. All this added up to a feeling of negation, and for a time that blunted my ambition. In 1991 the paralysis spread down my leg, so that now I can barely walk at all, and I can’t stand for any length of time. Over the last five years, I suppose I’ve been without pain for only about four days. I have to suck opiates most of the time.

You describe life at Shrewsbury as consisting of cold baths, freezing dormitories and filthy food. You speak rather disparagingly about the ‘sensitive’ and ‘misunderstood’ souls who write about the horrors of public-school life, and you refuse to be numbered among them. Why?

I don’t think I deliberately denied the connection, but it’s a simple matter of fact that the happy schoolboy upon whose tomb is the epitaph HE WAS HEAD OF SCHOOL does not put pen to paper about his education. You could not find a more able and successful man than Michael Heseltine, worth about seventy-four million, and yet he was utterly neglected at Shrewsbury, and treated with a sort of contempt because he was not athletic. He felt exactly as I did, that it was a pretty appalling place. And so it was. Shrewsbury in the 1950s and 1960s was full of iconoclasts, but the Richard Ingrams and the Willy Rushtons were the next generation to the Heseltines and Critchleys. They were kicking at an open door, but we were kicking at a bolted and barred door, and the sanctions for us were much more severe than for those who came after us.

On a visit to Shrewsbury from Oxford, Michael Heseltine proposed a motion, seconded by you, in a debate on the future of public schools, in which he castigated them as ‘breeding grounds of class privilege, intellectually narrow and conformist and a gross encouragement to homosexual practices’. Did either of you believe any of what was said, or was it all in fun?

Oh, we believed it. All the younger boys voted for us, while the older ones were dragooned into voting against us, the villain of the piece being a housemaster who went on to become headmaster of Eton. He had the unpleasant habit of beating boys on their bare bottoms and then kissing them on the same bare bottoms. He was a sadist without a shadow of doubt, and we absolutely went for him. I can see his face to this day. He was absolutely humiliated and made furious by it. I rang up the Press Association and told them that a great public school had voted to dissolve itself and was then accused by the school authorities of selling the story. In fact, I was so green, I didn’t know you could sell a story to a newspaper, but of course the headmaster was rung up at 6 o’clock in the morning and the Daily Mirror had it all over the front page. The authorities looked into whether or not they could expel us both from the Old Salopian Society, only to find that neither of us had joined in the first place. It was all very childish but extremely satisfying revenge for my three miserable years.

Did you feel any qualms about sending your own children away from home?

My two daughters from my first marriage were sent to Dartington over my dead body. I couldn’t prevent it. My first wife’s mother had a lot of money and that is why they went there. When I visited Dartington I would be greeted by my daughters and a long line of other children, all with a Woodbine at the corner of their mouths. The school was a disgrace, though it was very fashionable before the war as a progressive place. The girls were always having affairs with the masters, there was a degree of drug-taking, the richer pupils arrived by helicopter and, in the end, the headmaster’s wife appeared in the centrefold of Playboy – and that was the end of Dartington. There is the old story about Dartington which Shaw uses in one of his plays. A mother visits the school and knocks on the door, which is opened by a small girl, stark naked. The mother is horrified and takes a step back, saying, ‘My God!’ – to which the small girl replies, ‘There is no God,’ and slams the door in her face. My other two children by my second wife, Melissa and Joshua, were rather different. Melissa went to a Catholic convent at Farnborough, on the basis that this was the middle class’s best educational buy. She hated it, though I don’t think she was bitterly unhappy. Nothing would have persuaded me to send Joshua to Shrewsbury, and in fact he was a day boy at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, and did very well.

You went through Oxford with Michael Heseltine and became close to him. Have you been wounded by the withering of your friendship with him?

Yes, I have. We were very close indeed for a long time – we hunted together, so to speak. I was his best man and he was mine. I’m a year or two older than Michael and initially I made rather faster progress than he did in the Oxford Tories, but he overtook me pretty quickly. I’ve never known anyone with such overweening ambition and such high horsepower. He is not an intellectual, he may not even be a particularly clever man, but he makes up for that by having a twelve-cylinder engine, the looks of a Greek god and a stamina which I could never match. We fell out over my editorship of Town magazine and the fact that I couldn’t make a success of it. Incidentally the magazine lasted only a fortnight after I left and had never made money in its six years of existence.

He sacked you, didn’t he?

Yes; but what hurt me more than anything else was that we were both living in the same house and, as an old friend, he should have taken me on one side and told me that the magazine was losing money and perhaps given me three months’ notice and time to find another job. But instead he got his henchman to make life unpleasant for me, and that I disliked intensely. We were driven out of our flat as well as my job, and it took me a long time to forgive him. There is definitely a ruthless side to Michael. He chooses his friends for what they can contribute to him, and when they can no longer make a contribution, they are expendable.

But that’s not true friendship . . .

No, of course it isn’t, but this is how he’s developed. However, I don’t want to be bitter and twisted about this, and to give him his due he is almost certainly responsible for my knighthood. He came to visit me here when I was out of action, and as he left, he said that he was determined to get me my K. And in 1990 I supported Michael throughout that very intensive election campaign; I was never off the telly or the radio, being nice about him and backing him up, with the consequence that the local Tories wanted to de-select me. They failed, but it was a very unpleasant experience. Michael thanked me for risking my career on his behalf, and since then we’ve been good acquaintances, but never close friends in the way that we were.

Matthew Parris said that loyalty to your friends was one of the nice qualities which have been your downfall. Would you agree?

I’d like to think I’m loyal to my friends, and the other side of the picture is that I’m certainly loyal to my enemies. I think I’m a bad enemy and a good friend. Whether it’s the cause of my downfall, I don’t really know. As I indicated, the essential reason for my lack of progress was a suspicion, not altogether unjustified, that I was not really a natural Conservative at all. People detected that pretty quickly.

Would you go as far as E. M. Forster and put loyalty to a friend before loyalty to country? For example, would you have voted for Heseltine as leader even though you thought someone else would have made a better prime minister?

No, I don’t agree with falsehood. And I think one’s country is more important than one’s party, and my loyalty would always lie there, so I would never fall for what is a very seductive Forsterian idea. I voted for Michael because I thought that he would make the best leader of the party and very probably the best prime minister. Don’t forget, we never knew each other properly at Shrewsbury because we were in different houses and although we were friendly at Oxford, Michael got married in 1966, and I don’t think his wife Anne liked me. Wives are always a little suspicious about close male friends of their husband’s, not because there was ever anything sexual between myself and Michael – that’s unthinkable nonsense – but because of so much shared experience in which they cannot participate. And Heather, who was my wife at that time, couldn’t bear Anne, so it didn’t make for a happy relationship.

You say in your memoir that you were never either converted or convinced by Conservatism and you entered politics with no sense of social obligation. This strikes me as the most astonishingly honest statement any politician has ever made . . .

It’s absolutely true. I entered politics because I thought it was an honourable trade and also immensely exciting. There was no intellectual experience which turned me into a High Tory, Low Tory or Conservative. Trollope says that the greatest honour for an Englishman is to have the initials MP after his name; I’m sure that was true in the nineteenth century, but it also appeared to me to be true in the early 1950s. The party system was a necessary evil and since no independent candidates ever got elected, one was obliged to join a party. I thought that the Tory party was a broader church than the Labour party in those days.

The problem as you describe it is that you have never believed strongly enough in anything . . . have you regarded that as a handicap or not?

I have believed strongly in European unity – I’m an idealist in that sense. I would look forward to a United States of Europe and I hurriedly concede that the common currency is a political and not an economic matter. Another passionately held belief was collective security as a means of avoiding nuclear war. But I could never really get worked up very much about internal politics. I was also very hostile to Margaret Thatcher, on the grounds that I didn’t like her and I didn’t like her policies. I never considered her a Conservative in any meaningful sense at all. She was also a very unpleasant woman to work for, or rather to work with.

There is no attempt to set yourself up as champion of the poor, or as a solver of problems other than your own. Is this a false impression? Do you have a social conscience under the veneer of bon viveur and satirist?

Not much. Of course, I had my constituency surgeries and correspondence which I worked on assiduously, but in general I am vulnerable to your charge. I don’t have a particularly strong social conscience.

As a specialist in defence you consistently criticized the government’s nuclear policies, spoke out against apartheid, and supported ‘the wind of change’ in South Africa, and you were always pro-Europe. It seems you were a liberal in fact, but to join the Liberals would have meant political wilderness. Did you never suffer from political wilderness in your own party?

I did indeed. It wasn’t so apparent perhaps, but clearly I was not regarded as officer material. I had two heroes in politics: Macmillan and Roy Jenkins. Macmillan, because he controlled to a very great extent Britain’s decline in power and was responsible for our adjustment in straitened circumstances – something he managed despite a party of fools. My admiration for Roy Jenkins was based on the fact that as a young Labour MP he would advocate the cause of Europe in cross-party meetings, and he advocated brilliantly.

Why then did you say that joining the Labour party would have been unthinkable? Can you explain ‘unthinkable’?

In that context it might have been slightly careless writing, but what I meant was this: having, as it were, made no progress within the Conservative party, but having become none the less much better known as a public figure than most of the ministers who were not yet cabinet ministers, I had carved out a comfortable niche for myself. And writing a lot enabled me to make quite a bit of money – in my terms, that is, since I’ve never been rich. Had I gone over to Labour, I would have had to start all over again and I probably would have found myself kicking against the pricks in the Labour party just as vigorously as I’d been kicking against the pricks in the Tory party I thought I might as well remain a minor celebrity . . .

The early career of Tony Blair has something in common with yours – his father also made the leap into the professional middle-class which enabled his son to have a public-school and Oxford education. Do you admire him and his social conscience?

Yes, I can’t help but admire Tony Blair. He has dragged the Labour party kicking and screaming into the last part of the twentieth century, or perhaps into the twenty-first, and that is no mean achievement. He has helped to destroy Marxist Socialism, which of course was the bane of Labour, and he appears to have helped shore up the monarchy when it was in danger. To be honest, I think Blair’s a very good thing, and if I were forced to choose between Blair and Hague, I would choose Blair. Instead of Ken Clarke, we were foolish enough to choose an entirely untried thirty-six-year-old whose frivolity is self-evident. Propriety is suffering from a collective nervous breakdown. I think if I were coming down from Oxford today I would be a member of the Labour party.

In your book Palace of Varieties you describe the worst aspects of the Tory party as jingoism, anti-Semitism, obscurantism and self-righteousness –

No wonder I wasn’t promoted . . .

– are these elements still alive and well in the Tory party?

They, my dear friend, are flourishing. The party shows every sign of becoming a right-wing rump, obscurantist and nationalist. They aren’t necessarily anti-Semitic, simply because it’s not a big issue, but if you scratch them you’ll find that many of them are anti-Semitic; they’re certainly anti-black. By and large, most of them are so unattractive I wonder that I stayed with them as long as I did.

In the 1975 leadership election you voted for Mrs Thatcher who, you suggest, won comfortably for no better reason than she was not Ted Heath. Was that a sufficient reason to elect her, and did you ever regret voting for her?

I did regret voting for her, very much indeed. lan Gilmour writes in one of his books that, given the circumstances of the time, it was not surprising that many left-wing Conservatives, despairing of Ted Heath, voted for Margaret. But we certainly had a rude awakening. I remember in 1977 lunching with Reggie Maudling, then her opposition-front-bench foreign-affairs spokesman, and he said to me, ‘What on earth are we going to do with this dreadful woman? I cannot make her see sense and she will drag us into war unless we are very careful. She is intolerant and intolerable.’ So it didn’t take long before I realized the extent of my error, but I was not the only left winger to have decided that since Ted had lost three out of four elections, he was never going to hold the support of the bulk of the Conservative party. He was also, like so many of us, his own worst enemy; he would pass you in the corridor without so much as a nod in your direction, and he treated a lot of the Tory backbenchers with contempt. I don’t blame him, I would have done the same myself, but I wasn’t standing as leader of the party.

In 1980 you wrote an unsigned article for the Observer attacking Mrs Thatcher comprehensively and bringing yourself instant notoriety when you confessed to authorship. As I understand it, you regretted not signing it in the first place, but you did not regret the contents, is that right?

That’s true. I was foolish. I was prepared to lie to the press, but I was rung up by the most prominent Conservative supporter in Aldershot, a personal friend and a man whom I admired. He asked if it was me, and I felt I had to say yes, and then of course it became public. Curiously enough, some years later I ran into David English who said, ‘You should have kept your bloody mouth shut and gone on denying it.’ But as in the Spanish proverb, the blow that does not kill you, makes you, and I moved from being a minor player in the political field to being a kind of celebrity, a focus of anti-Thatcher Conservatism. The short answer to your question, however, is yes, it would have been more sensible to sign it.

I was interested in your comments on class, something which featured a great deal in A Bag of Boiled Sweets. You have been called a snob, a term which you refute. Yet behind the emphasis on the humble origins of your family on both sides, and the jokes about ‘passing for white’ among Tories because of your public-school and Oxford education, is there not some truth in the charge?

I will confess to being an intellectual snob and if it were not the case that I find class differences in England hilariously funny, I would be guilty of being a snob. A snob is a person who finds class differences in speech usage, in what people wear, in what they eat. A snob is a person who takes these particular distinctions seriously, and I don’t. If you can talk about it in an amusing way and laugh with it and at it, I think you’re not a snob. What gave rise to the charge of snobbery was my teasing of the Thatcherites. This was fun because there were a lot of them, they were very obstreperous, and you could make fun of them on the grounds that they were the sort of people who ate peas off their knives. It was quite deliberate satire which I used against certain people – for example, Tebbit, whom I dislike intensely. In my view, he is a savage man who is full of hatred. One of the ways of pricking the bubble of Thatcherism, and by God, she had enough sycophants around her one way or another, was to pretend that they were all as common as muck. This would annoy them intensely, and that got me the reputation of being a snob.

You write about prejudice, and in particular anti-Semitism, which you deplore and which you say was quite common among your fellow Tories. It puzzles me that you felt it necessary to identify Jewishness in your writing. For example, Keith Joseph at Oxford is described as ‘a charming Jew’, while Leo Amery, born in India, is described as ‘of Levantine origin’, which struck me as a phrase straight out of the novels and prejudices of John Buchan. Is this something you’ve thought about?

I was wrong about Leo Amery. I was told by John Rogers, a mischievous old boy, that the Amerys were of Levantine extraction, and I didn’t bother to check it. But I don’t think it is a sign of anti-Semitism to mention the fact that Keith Joseph is a Jew; in fact, the reverse. It’s people who are afraid of being thought anti-Semitic who don’t use what is a perfectly accurate term. My mother was bitterly anti-Semitic in a sort of Shropshire-working-class way, and what hurt me even more was that my father, whose brains I respected, had also caught from his lower-middle- class, upper-working-class background a similar anti-Semitism, and they were both so beastly about my fiancée, who was a Jew, that I felt driven into marriage with the poor girl. It turned out to be a terrible mistake.

As a young man you fell in love with Prue and you describe a romantic time in Paris, a passionate affair conducted without sex. Do you think you were unusual in exercising such restraint?

No. This was the tragedy of people of my generation and class and up- bringing. Prue and I were both well-brought-up middle-class children, passionately in love, who could do practically anything except sexual intercourse. In a sense, my mother was responsible, because whenever I left the house to meet pretty girls at the Hampstead Young Conservatives, she used to shout, so loud it could be heard down Harvard Road, ‘Don’t you get those girls in the family way!’ I would have loved to have got those girls in the family way, but I knew jolly well that they were not the sort of girls who would permit you to get them in the family way. This was 1951, not 1991. Prue and I would book into a hotel, go to bed but not undress entirely, and we would lie there doing something called necking. None of my children know what necking is, but necking was the substitute for sexual intercourse in those days.

You have been what is sometimes known as ‘a serial monogamist’ – that is, you have loved and been loved by three beautiful women in turn. You insist you have not been promiscuous. Is that a point of honour, or part of your nature?

Part of my nature really. When I fell in love with Prue and she gave me the push in 1952, that broke my heart. Both my wives discovered, tucked away in drawers, pictures of Prue which they promptly tore up. For a variety of reasons the first marriage didn’t work, and the second didn’t either, although it went on a long time. Falling in love again with Prue and coming to live with her here in 1992 has closed my emotional circle; despite my illnesses, I have never been happier in my life.

When your early love affair with Prue came to an end you suffered all the anguish of unrequited love and resolved never again to be the injured party in any love affair. Did you manage to keep to your resolve?

That resolve was perhaps not to my credit, but I was determined not to be broken-hearted again. Once was enough.

You say you are happier than you have ever been. . . would you, if given the chance, have chosen the promise of domestic happiness over the hope of high office? Mill Street, Ludlow, rather than No. 10 Downing Street?

It’s not really a fair choice. I would have preferred to have been fit in the last six years, to have lived with Prue, to have remained a member of parliament, and to have participated with her in political life. She would have had my constituency eating out of our hands within twenty minutes, and we would have been a very successful duo without any doubt. But it hasn’t worked out like that.

What did you make of the so-called Tory sleaze? Was it all hysteria whipped up by the media?

First of all, you have to define sleaze. If sleaze is asking questions for financial reward, then I would disapprove very strongly of that. Fortunately, the lan Greers of this world never approached me – because of my political reputation there was no door I could open for them. But if sleaze means sexual misconduct, that doesn’t worry me particularly. Although I am a journalist, I hate the British press, the tabloid press in particular. I think the press can be remarkably cruel. Prue and I were very lucky; we escaped with the minimum of public attention and that was because I invited Lynda Lee-Potter, of blessed memory, to come and interview us and talk to us about our affair. She did it sympathetically, so sympathetically that it made us cringe, but none the less she did it. And this put a stop to all the speculation in other papers. Prue and I just behaved like thousands of other people behave; it’s sad, but also joyful.

You do not mention if any of the women in your life had an independent career. Would it have worried you to have a wife earning more than you and deemed to be more successful?

It wouldn’t have worried me had she earned more than I did, providing our relationship was good. If she had become more important than me, that would have been more difficult to deal with.

In your memoir you do not – as you put it – ‘do an Osbome’ and write unkindly about your wives. Most people cannot resist the urge to claim that they behaved well in marital breakdowns while their partners behaved badly. Have you found it hard to resist that urge?

I think I was right to write that, since that is very much what I believe, but I must be very careful here because in the case of wife no.1, there is an injunction out against me, so I can’t mention her name. What I do begrudge is that after thirty-five years of separation I’m still paying her over a thousand pounds a month. I don’t want to get into legal trouble, but she was no angel, and yet she has a meal ticket for life. That makes me bitter when I think about it. I have to work hard all the time in order to find the money, and it is becoming more difficult for me now as an ex-MP to earn the sort of money that I did two or three years ago. That is the great anxiety of my life. I wish I had had enough money to pay her off, but I never did, so she’s been an albatross for forty years. She has more money than I have, and yet the law of this country means that I have to go on paying through the nose. It’s very unfair, but then life is unfair.

How would you describe your personal code, the principles and values by which you have lived?

You flatter me to imagine that I have ever worked out a pattern of behaviour to which I’ve adhered. I think I was ‘well brought up’, and that has lasted, save for my marital difficulties. I am honest financially, and although I might be accused of marital dishonesty, I still have a sense of honour. I would like to think that I have behaved well.

Do your children blame you for the breakdown of your marriages?

No, not at all. They know what both the women were like.

Your record of criticizing your own party, although carried off with great wit and style, nevertheless deprived you of ministerial office. Has the price of freedom to speak your mind been worth it, would you say?

I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I would have liked to become a cabinet minister, or more particularly to have had junior ministry in defence or foreign affairs, particularly in the 1970s. I would have accepted that with alacrity. But I also know my own limitations. I lack stamina and I have not got my father’s brains, and I don’t think I would have made a cabinet minister. Alan Dark, even as a junior minister in a rather inconvenient ministry, found it was absolute hell. Your first appointment was at half-past eight in the morning, your last appointment was at 9 o’clock at night, and then you had to go into the House of Commons with everyone else and stay there till 3 a.m. I couldn’t have stood that.

You say that a religious temperament – that is, faith without scrutiny – is the principal quality required for success in politics, and it was a quality you lacked. Is religious faith in the conventional sense a feature of your life?

No. I sometimes wish it were. I’m not afraid of death itself, but I am afraid of dying, and as I have prostate cancer I am anxious about how it will develop. I’m afraid of a painful death, and I think that euthanasia is a justifiable concept.

Have you been changed by illness ? Has it put a different perspective on things?

Yes. My cancer was diagnosed four years ago, and every three months I have an injection which castrates me. The fact that I am impotent has not in any way upset my relationship with Prue, thank God, and we had a marvellous four years before that. But there are times in the middle of the night when one becomes very frightened.

Are you ever tempted to acquire faith, so to speak, in order to deal with the fear?

Not really I think we all face annihilation, and we live only for as long as people who remember us live, and after that we’re forgotten. I know that religion is a comfort for people in my position, but I would regard it as something like cheating to go to a priest at this stage. For the whole of my life I have looked on Christianity as useful for keeping the social order, but have certainly not believed in the mysteries of religion. If there were a God, I don’t think he would appreciate so late a conversion. No it’s a bit late in the day to start asking for favours, and I am stuck with my agnosticism.

No Longer With Us: John Paul Getty

In 2003, the year the great John Paul Getty died, the Spectator ran a piece containing, in its words, ‘the only interview he ever gave’.

I had in fact interviewed him in 1998, for the Oldie magazine, and wrote to the then editor Boris Johnson accordingly. Mr  Johnson replied, most courteously, a few days later, thanking me kindly for ‘setting the record straight’.

My original interview, in full, is reproduced below.

You seem to have achieved almost mythical status in your adopted country. Is this a cross to bear, or is it something you are comfortable with?

I’m very proud of it, to tell you the truth, although I do find it sometimes a bit of a cross. As you can imagine I get enormous bags of mail after every exposure in the  newspapers. I really don’t like any publicity -I think it’s an invasion of privacy – but as you can see, I can sometimes be made to cooperate. On the whole I would welcome  privacy laws. I don’t believe the public has the right to know what everyone is doing in their private lives.

Have you ever been hurt by publicity?

Of course I have/ on behalf of my children particularly. I myself can take it but I don‘t like the way it affects the people I love. Your parents divorced when you were only four years old and you were brought up mainly by your mother.

It. seems to be the convention to describe one’s childhood as either happy or unhappy … which was yours, would you say?

Mine was very happy. I wouldn’t want to live it over again, but it was happy yes. My mother wasn’t a particularly good mother in the posturing sense she left that up to my grandmother, who bossed us about and got us ready for bed when my mother was off doing other things. But my mother was always very good company and had a great sense of humour. I think I was her favourite child, which isn’t fair to my brother and sister, but it was true, and I basked in her approval.

It is notoriously difficult for the sons of famous fathers have you also found it so yourself?

It’s monstrously difficult. I never felt I had any of the genius of my father and although I loved him very much he was always a remote figure and I only saw him once or twice a year when I was a child. I wish I had been able to see more of him. When I did see more of him I was working for him and I used to regret that he treated me more like an employee than like a son, although I know that he loved me. Indeed, for much of the time I was his favourite, but it didn’t last. It was my fault, not his.

Whenever there is mention of your father he is usually described as a colourful entrepreneur who took most of the policy decisions himself, and also a man of legendary miserliness. Do you think this is an unfair portrait?

It is unfair, because it only shows one side of him. He was very careful about money, just as most American millionaires have been, but he had many other sides to his character. He had a huge personality and he could be very funny, although he had a few favourite jokes that I must have heard hundreds of times over the years.

Your father was, like you, a great art collector … was he also a lover of art as you are, or merely an investor?

He loved art, but he never divorced it from the investment side. He started his collection in areas of art that were at that time cheap – French furniture and classical art, both considered to be undervalued. So he was certainly always conscious of the value of what he was buying. He wasn’t impulsive about buying things, but he knew a great deal about his art, and he was a serious collector.

Did you inherit your aesthetic sense or is it completely your own, would you say?

I must have inherited my father’s genes, although my own interests are very rarely in the same field as his. I don’t really like French furniture and I have no desire to collect in the areas he collected in. In any case I’m not a serious collector in comparison to him.

When did you start collecting things?

When I was about sixteen, I suppose. I started with gramophone records. I was at a girlfriend’s house and her father was playing a record in the background, and I heard this marvellous voice coming from some corner of the house. I asked what it was, and was told it was Caruso. I had no knowledge whatsoever of opera at the time, but I had heard of Caruso, though I didn’t know that he’d lived in recent enough times to have recorded. It was a great sound, and so I immediately became fascinated by him and started to collect his records. Then I extended it to early recordings in general After that, I fell in love with the writer Scott Fitzgerald, and – would you believe it – when I was about seventeen, none of Scott Fitzgerald’s works were in print, and so I had to go to second-hand book shops to buy them. Before long I couldn’t stay away from second-hand book shops, and I’ve collected books ever since.

You have been described not simply as knowledgeable about art, but also erudite. How and when was this learning acquired?

That’s a difficult question. Just over the years, by looking at art… just by osmosis.

You followed your father and grandfather into the oil business but you hated it. Was there no opportunity to choose your own career – as an art historian for example?

Well if I had my life to live over again, I might have been a marine biologist. I often think I might have done that, and my life would certainly have been very different.

You were not born a Catholic but you went to a Jesuit school. How did this come about?

Like many American boys I had been sent to military schools. I don’t think they exist anymore, certainly not outside of the United States as far as I know, but when I was about fourteen I decided I no longer wanted to go to military school, nor to any kind of boarding school, so my mother investigated the schools in our area of San Francisco where we were living at the time. I’m very glad to say she selected Saint Ignatius, a Jesuit school, and I’m grateful for the education they gave me.

I’ve read that you very much liked what you learnt from the Jesuits. Would you care to expand on that?

I liked the slant on classical education, and I liked the Catholic service, the Latin, the incense, the smells and bells. Before, I had always gone to boarding schools where they would take us off to the nearest Protestant service and so I sat through endless Sundays at churches of various denominations of the Protestant faith. That helped turn me into a Catholic.

Are you still a Catholic?

Yes, I am, though I very much regret the Second Vatican Conference and the loss of the Latin mass.

The Jesuits famously believe in the moulding of children… give us the child and we will give you the man… do you think that applied to you at all?

I was more than seven years of age of course, but I suppose it applied to me just the same.

Your youngest half brother, Tim, died after surgery on a brain tumour. How old were you when this happened? Were you deeply affected by it?

I must have been in my 20s. I was working for my father in Milano at the time, it must have been about 1959, and although I didn’t know Timmy well – I’d only seen him as a very young child – I was very moved by his death.

I’ve seen it reported many times that after this tragedy you became your father’s favourite, and equally I have read that you and he never got on well. What is the truth?

Well, we got on as well as we could. I always felt ill at ease with him since he was such a grand figure and he didn’t make himself available to his children. For example, I remember when I. was about 14 I wrote him a letter, actually the first letter I’d ever written him. I waited anxiously for an answer and after some weeks the answer came, but it was just my own letter with the spelling corrected. So I saw him more as a criticiser than as a loving and helpful father, though I’m sure that isn’t what he meant in his heart. He was a remote and lofty figure, and I was very much in awe of him. He was very careful about his things which we weren’t allowed to touch. He loved maple sugar candy, which is a Canadian speciality, and he used to have it in the deep freeze, the first deep freeze I’d ever seen. It was absolutely full o f maple sugar candy, but there were notes in the chest, saying DO NOT TOUCH. (laughter) It was his own private stock and we were forbidden to go near.

You were not born in America, but in Italy I believe…

I was born on a boat. I was supposed to be born in Paris, at the American hospital, but unfortunately my parents were on their way by boat from Naples to Genoa when I came along. I  was taken off the boat in my mother’s hatbox, before proceeding by train to Paris. That was my birth.

Did the knowledge of this, the fact that you were not born in America, have any bearing on your desire to live away from the USA? Did it make it easier to renounce your birthright?

No it had nothing to do with it. I came to love Europe when I first visited in 1949, and in 1951 our mother brought Gordon and me to Europe for the summer, and I loved it. From then on I always had Europe in the back of my mind until I finished up in Europe and never got back to the Sates except for short visits.

You recently confessed that handing over your American passport, which you were obliged to do in person, was traumatic. Was this because of the solemnity and finality of the act itself?

Yes i was very conscious of the importance of American citizenship and I didn’t give it up lightly, but since I have no intention of ever going back to America to live, it made things easier to get rid of that part of my past. It’s not that I dislike America, it’s just that I live here because I love it here and my family is here.

Are there any aspects of the American way of life that you still miss?

No, I don’t think so. I have American friends whom I still se. They come over here, and I shall be going to America in January if they give me a visa. When I gave up my Passport they rather harangued me in an attempt to dissuade me from renouncing my citizenship. I was told that I might never be allowed to go back to America again and I wouldn’t see my family, but I felt strongly that I would deserve a visa as much as any other British citizen would.

Do you take any interest at all in present day American politics?  Do you think it is right, for example, that President Clinton should be so relentlessly pursued for hid sexual peccadilloes when he seems to be doing well otherwise?

I don’t take any more interest in American politics than any other British citizen would, but I do think that it’s absurd to harass Clinton about his sexual peccadilloes. That’s really between him and his wife and has nothing to do with the press or the American public. I don’t greatly admire him myself, but I know he’s kept the country on a good financial keel.

You served in the US army for a short stint during the Korean War. Did you see any action?

No. I’m glad I had the experience of the army, though I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I very much wish that my boys had had the opportunity of serving their nation. It certainly taught me a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise have learned, and I met whole strata of sodety that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. It can also be character building. I don’t advance myself as an example of that, but I can’t help thinking that my son Paul might have benefited from some discipline that he didn’t get from his family.

I have seen a photograph of you demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Did your army experience help you to form anti-war feelings or was it just all part of the mood of the time?

The latter. It was just the Zeitgeist. I wouldn’t march for nuclear disarmament now.

Your interest in English history and your admiration for English culture are well known, but it is sometimes said that you have a rather idealised picture of England, that you see it in a romantic light. Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would. I see England as I would like it to be, I’m afraid. I’m very much against this government, for example, and what they are doing. I think they are very trivial in many respects, and also authoritarian. Telling us not to eat beef on the bone – that kind of thing is just absurd.

But the old Tory government in the end were not very impressive…

Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more. They had to go, no question about it, and I actually wanted to see Labour win -I just didn’t want them to get such a huge majority. That’s a great mistake, and I think this country will regret it.

Tony Blair is pledged to reform the House of Lords, but only as far as depriving the hereditary peers of their right to vote. Most Americans would see this as elementary democracy … do you?

I don’t think they should get rid of the hereditary peers entirely. Many of them do a great job of work and have areas of knowledge that no MP has, and that is very important for the rest of us. Labour doesn’t like being outnumbered by hundreds of conservative hereditary peers,  but I wouldn’t scrap them. What are they going to replace them with?

Elected ones, I suppose.

That sounds terrible to me.

What are your views on the monarchy? Do you think it can last very far into the next century?

I certainly hope so. I think Prince Charles will make a fine king, and I look forward to his firstborn son becoming king in his time. The system of monarchy works in this country.

Is it better than, say, the American presidential system?

I think, it suits us-I certainly don’t want to see a President Blair. We’re very lucky to have the monarchy, and I think we should stop complaining about it and get on with it. And the royal family shouldn’t be too accessible – that’s where all the troubles have come from.

In spite of your efforts to shun publicity, everybody has heard of you as a public benefactor on a grand scale, but your generosity extends beyond the big causes to quite maverick examples of largesse – rescuing a homeless dog, for instance. Do these causes, large and small, seem to you to be equally worthy, equally important?

I don’t think for a minute they are equally important, but I derive equal satisfaction from them, while recognising they are of a different order.

You once said: ‘Everything is motivated to some extent by my religious beliefs.’ Do you see your own philanthropy as perhaps just a way of fulfilling your Christian duty to be charitable – in other -words, the principle remains the same, only the degree to which it is applied differs?

It’s much more than that, really. We take a lot from society and from history and we should give back what we can, and that’s what I try to do. It’s more than just paying my tithe; it’s to do with compassion and being humane.

You are now very much a practising Catholic and have emerged from the years of ill health and loneliness which followed the death of your wife and your son’s kidnapping. Did your faith help you to recover from that terrible time?

It had more to do with friends and Victoria, my present wife. I had largely abandoned my faith in those days. It was only when I started to get back on my feet that I started practising again.

How do you feel when you look back on those bad days?

I regret the waste of time.

You mentioned some changes in the Catholic Church. Do you think it will have to go further? Would you like to see celibacy, for instance, becoming an option for the priesthood rather than an obligation?

I think it must. Vocations are falling off so badly that they’re going to have to do something in order to get priests back in the parishes. There simply aren’t enough people out there who are willing to be celibate any longer.

How important is sex in the scheme of things?

I think it’s great, but I don’t think it’s vital. I know celibate people who appear to me to be happy and well adjusted and living a useful life and serving the common good.

Yet in your time you have been very attracted to women…

Yes, well, I myself don’t intend to be celibate [laughter] But I think one can live without it. One does have periods when one does; on the other hand there are other periods when one can’t…

Did any of your children have a Catholic education?

No, I’m sorry to say they didn’t. It is a matter of considerable regret to me.

They don’t seem to have a religious aspect to their lives, but I hope that might come.

What do your American friends think of your love for cricket, a game which other nations find totally baffling, or boring, or both?

I think I have actually managed to convert a couple of them to it, at least to the point where they understand it. I suppose most American friends think I’m eccentric, but I don’t mind, what they think. I am fanatical about cricket. It’s given me a lot of pleasure, both in watching the game and in the friends I’ve made through cricket.

It has been suggested that cricket is like jazz, in often having particular appeal to intellectuals … would you agree?

It seems to be the case. Let’s face it, cricket is a very complicated sport and it takes a fairly good brain to manage it. I tell my American friends that the difference between baseball and cricket is the difference between draughts and chess – chess being the more intellectual game, and cricket being the more intellectual sport.

England’s women players have enjoyed a great deal of success in international contests, more perhaps than their male counterparts in recent times. Have you ever invited the women’s team to play at Wormsley?

Actually I haven’t, but we have had one woman bowler, an Australian, play at Wormsley for a team called the Crusaders, and I was very amused when she trooped off with the lads into the showers afterwards.

Did you vote for women to be admitted to Lords?

I voted against it, I have to say, because I felt there was a political correctness element to the question. I hate political correctness in all its forms. But I wouldn’t vote against it again. They’ll bring it up again in a year or two and I expect I’ll support it.

In the libel case brought by Imran Khan against lan Botham there was much speculation in the press that the jury had been swayed in Khan’s favour, that the handsome, Oxford educated aristocrat could not be guilty as charged by the rather lowborn Botham. What was your reaction to the affair in cricketing terms, and to the influence of class in English society in general?

That’s a terrible question, really diabolical, [laughter] Come back and ask me that another time, will you?

OK, let me ask you this: does the class aspect of cricket worry you?

It doesn’t worry me so much as the fact that the comprehensive schools don’t have any place to play cricket, don’t have any time to play it, don’t have any staff to teach it, coach it – that’s what concerns me about cricket. I deeply regret the fact that all youngsters are not being given the chance nowadays to play the game and learn from it. It shouldn’t be elitist, it should be available to everyone.

I note that you think that the appointment of Tony Banks as sports minister is the government’s way of putting two fingers up to cricket. Is it not simply the realisation that the overwhelming majority of people in Britain equate sport with football perhaps?

Again I’m deeply sad to see football becoming the middle class sport. I also hate to see it eating into the time available for cricket. It wasn’t so long ago that a man could play both sports professionally, and that’s no longer possible because the football season overlaps into the cricket season. I regret that a lot.

The prohibition of drugs in almost every civilised country has totally failed to curb their use. Would you add your voice to those who call for their use to be made legal, to defeat the drug barons, even if that meant an increased demand at first?

Absolutely, absolutely. I am one hundred percent in favour of that, yes. It would be much better to put the drug barons out of business and make drugs available to those who would keep them under strict control.

You and your family have been afflicted more than most by the effect of drugs, together with the dangers of great wealth. How far would you say you were victims as opposed to architects of your own troubles?

Oh, I think we make our own problems. I can’t blame anybody else for my problems.

You’re philosophical about that?

I guess so.

Your life has been touched by deep tragedy; indeed many people describe it as a curse. on your family. Do you see it at all as a curse?

I see describing it as a curse as superstitious nonsense.

In literature, tragedy poses questions about the nature and purpose of life, and yet it stresses the redeeming aspects, such as nobility in suffering, or those lessons we can learn from disorder and breakdown. In your experience, would you say that life imitates art in this sense?

That’s a very difficult question. I wish you’d submitted that one in advance. [Laughter] Certainly literature is based on human experience, so to that extent tragedy is part of human experience, but whether we actually learn from it is another matter.

You are regarded by most people as a man who has overcome the unhappiness and tragedy of earlier years to become the greatest philanthropist of all time. Are you happy to be regarded in this light?

Well, I’m certainly not the greatest philanthropist of all time. The great American philanthropists – Carnegie and so on – were in a different league altogether. It would make life a lot easier if I wasn’t known as a philanthropist. I often wish that I could just quietly do it and not have it known, but that just isn’t always possible.

It’s natural to see your life as a success story … but perhaps you have paid a high price for success ?

Nothing I wasn’t willing to pay. No, I’m glad I’ve got this far.

How would you like to be remembered by all your friends?

I leave that to them…

Modern theologians have more or less watered down the idea of Hell and are increasingly vague about Heaven. Do you have any vision of an afterlife?

No I don’t. I believe there is such a thing, in that I don’t think life ends here, but I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t think we’re going to sit on clouds strumming harps. But I do believe there’s something else out there.

Do you feel at ease with your faith, at peace with yourself?

Life is not always easy. But I don’t think my faith has done me any harm. It’s served me well, and I’m glad I have it. I think I can die peacefully now. After all, I’ve had the Australian cricket team playing at Wormsley so I have nothing left to live for…. (laughter)

Thought for the Day…

I read The Bookseller with interest today, particularly the news that the major retailers have defended marketing charges in their shops.

The problem with charging for promotional tables is that it indirectly favours big publishers who can afford this additional burden.

In bad times such as today the little publisher is always struggling to keep afloat, and this extra charge does not help matters.

No Longer With Us: Leni Riefenstahl

It was in the late seventies when I acquired Quartet Books that I first became interested in Leni Riefenstahl.

By chance I had watched a programme on television, which included extracts from some of her films, notably Olympia and Triumph of the Will. The visual impact of her work was stunning and I resolved to try and track her down. I wrote to her at her address in Munich suggesting a possible publishing project, but my letters remained unanswered. In the meantime I talked to others about her, trying to find out what I could. Everything I was told made her seem more mysterious and intriguing.

Had she really been Hitler’s mistress? Had she danced naked before the Party Faithful? Had Goebbels in fact made a pass at her in the opera house? How, I wondered, did these rumours fit in with her extraordinary creativity and cinematic artistry?

About ten years later, after I had more or less abandoned hope of discovering the answers to these questions, I was introduced to her by a German acquaintance at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She was there promoting her memoirs, which were to be published in German. That first meeting was unforgettable. Although she was 88 years old her eyes shone and sparkled like a young girl’s. When she spoke her hands moved through the air elegantly, complementing her words, which hypnotised and charmed in equal measure. Indeed her whole body moved in harmony with her ideas. I knew I was in the presence of someone truly remarkable, creative, complex and highly original.

One meeting led to another and before long we exchanged contacts for Quartet to publish her memoirs, The Sieve of Time, to coincide with her 90th birthday in 1992. In order to discuss the project I travelled to Munich to visit her at her home on the outskirts of the city. I was welcomed into the house by Horst, her companion of long duration and forty years her junior. Horst managed her affairs and was utterly devoted to her. In the sitting room there was an open staircase, which spiralled into the centre of the room. I sat on the sofa waiting for Leni to appear. Before long she made a dramatic entrance, moving down the steps with all the grace and elegance of the dancer she had been in her youth – this despite sensational stiletto heels. She wore leopard skin leggings and a slinky top.

We talked for hours about her life, in which it seems that each outstanding triumph has been matched by a disaster just as overwhelming. Her early promise as a dancer (and as a film star and mountaineer in Joseph von Sternberg’s silent films) was blighted by accidents and illness. Later, the artistic excellence of her films was tainted by her so-called association with the Nazi regime. Although she was officially cleared by the denazification court after the war, her connection with Hitler continued to plague her, and her film career was effectively stopped.

She always strenuously denied any suggestion of an affair with Hitler, and insisted that her motivation was purely artistic and not political. It must be so. She may have been naive, but it is easy to be judgemental 80 years on, knowing what we know now. In Germany in the thirties there were six million out of work, and there were many people who thought that Hitler would be the new messiah.

In the mid-fifties Riefenstahl read Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa and so began a love affair with Africa. She made a total of seven expeditions and went to live among her beloved Nuba, adopted their lifestyle, and took a series of photographs for which she became justly famous. Her three Nuba books rescued her from poverty, but she was still dogged by accusations that her devotion to an African tribe had overtones of fascist aesthetics.

At the age of 72 she took up scuba-diving. (She lied about her age to her instructor, claiming she was 52.) She and Horst spent much of their time off the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

As with all her other projects she brought enthusiasm and artistry to her underwater filming, and Quartet published a book of exquisitely beautiful photographs taken on her dives.

Among her more unusual commissions were photographs of Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca for the Sunday Times and, by contrast, a portrait of Albert Speer on his release from prison.

Leni Riefenstahl will always be remembered as a controversial figure, but her genius is not in doubt. Despite her many tribulations, she never gave up the struggle and remained full of inspiration and vitality until her final days. She is rightly regarded as having been one of the world’s greatest women cinematographers, and she belonged to a generation which is now almost extinct.

A Real Treat

Last week the Quartet stable went to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, courtesy of Midas PR, for the launch of The Angel’s Metamorphosis by Karen Ruimy. The location provided the perfect setting for such an occasion; cultural, convivial, and with champagne flowing throughout, the party was a tremendous success.

Here are some photos from the evening.

The Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery.

Here I am with the author of The Angel’s Metamorphosis, Karen Ruimy.

Karen with Mariella Frostrup.

The Quartet stable.

And here I am with Quartet’s David Elliott and Gavin James Bower.

Singular Encounters

In October 1989 Quartet had announced my forthcoming book Singular Encounters, to be published in the autumn of 1990. This time the subject was men. It was to consist of an exhaustive study of twenty-five of them. The interviews, designed to unlock the subjects’ innermost secrets, would cover their private and professional lives, their ambitions and aspirations, and would delve into areas that carried the warning: ‘proceed at your own risk’.

The first assumption made by the press was that it was out to make Anna Ford’s recent book on the  same subject seem like a toe in the water  compared with the murky revelations I would try to uncover. ‘It’s not going to be yet another book of interviews,’ I told the Evening Standard firmly. ‘I’m doing it for the challenge. My reputation as a writer will rise or fall on the book.’

From the start I saw Singular Encounters as a highly ambitious project, one that was bound to determine my future as an interviewer. The men I was seeking to engage were leaders in their respective fields and were unlikely to make any concessions to the fact that I was a novice in this journalistic medium. The women’s book was comparatively simple. My natural affinity with women had been an immeasurable help. I could not as yet advance the claim to have a similar affinity with men. Whether or not the right empathy was there would only emerge with time. Moreover, where the women’s book had been, broadly speaking, a compendium of their views on subjects affecting women in general, the men’s book must aim to present an individual in-depth study of each participant. As such it needed more background research and a more focused concentration during the interviews.

A. N. Wilson had his reservations at first, though he soon relented, and they had been on entirely different grounds, as he explained in a ‘Diary’ piece in the Spectator.

My friend Naim Attallah . . . is compiling a volume of interviews with the thirty most important men in the world. I believe it [will include] revealing conversations with Yehudi Menuhin, Lord Goodman, Monsignor Gilbey, J. K. Galbraith and Richard Ingrams. I was flattered to be asked to be of their number.  The company is so grand that it really feels better than being given the OM . . . I said no at first, because I was frightened that Naim would only want to ask me about sex, but in the event he twisted my arm by saying that if I did not consent there would be no young men in his book. In the event, he did not ask me about sex at all, having covered the subject exhaustively with the others. I was glad to help him out by being the voice of youth.

In fact I got him on to the subject of sex by way of Christianity’s disapproval of sex, which brought him out firmly against St Augustine, St Paul and the puritans. But what about the puritan argument that sex was addictive, I asked, and that from addiction comes perversion? ‘Obviously, if you’re a healthy grown-up person, your sexual impulses go on, but that’s not the same as saying something is addictive. To say that is like saying food is addictive.’ ‘But if you suddenly had three or four women, and you start having sex with them, wouldn’t you want to have more and more?’ I pressed him. ‘What an adventurous life you must have led, Naim,’ Andrew replied. ‘I’m not qualified to answer that question.’ Despite his reluctance to rise to the bait, the riposte was very much vintage Wilson in its sharpness and humour.

Another reluctant target was Mark Birley of Harry’s Bar and Annabel’s. He procrastinated but in the end agreed as well. Until then he had always refused to submit to any press coverage and his inclusion in the book was a bit of a coup. However, it was a chance I almost missed. On the appointed day I was struck down with flu. If I had cancelled he would no doubt have jumped at the excuse not to reconvene the session at another time. To ensure this could not happen, I rose from my sickbed suffering from a fevered, aching body, swallowed two codeine tablets and phoned Mark’s secretary to confirm I would be arriving for our appointment. To my astonishment, as if by a conjunction of fate, she told me Mark had the flu as well but would be willing to do the interview at home if I was happy to make the effort. We ended up sipping champagne together in a state of near delirium and conducting a serious conversation in a codeine-induced haze. The unusual encounter marked the beginning of a friendship that remained strong over the years. Lord Goodman raised a stumbling block of a different order. I saw him over a lavish breakfast at his London flat, initially to be assessed for my suitability to be an interviewer of this giant among men. I outlined the concept of the book for him and mentioned several people who had agreed to participate, including Lord Alexander QC and Lord Rees-Mogg. Evidently I passed muster because a month later I conducted the interview itself. Then, a few days later, a letter arrived from Lord Goodman withdrawing his permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams would be appearing in the same volume: ‘It was inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to have withheld the fact that Mr Ingrams is to be included in the book.’

I replied with a soothing letter, reminding him of his avowed opposition to censorship and questioning the wisdom of bowing out in vexation. The strategy worked, though his reply was designed to put me in my place: ‘In view of your pathetic plea, I am prepared, albeit reluctantly, to allow the interview to appear.’

I heaved a sigh of relief. Lord Goodman, a staunch defender of the cause of the arts, commanded great respect as a legal adviser to both political wings and the establishment itself. He knew nearly everyone in British public life and had been called upon to advise virtually every great national institution. Indeed, he came close to being a national institution himself. It seemed strange that he should have felt so strongly about the one-time editor of Private Eye, though the magazine had once allegedly libelled him. He talked only in general terms about libel in our interview. ‘I’ve always deterred people from becoming involved,’ he said. It seemed that in the case of Private Eye he was unable to follow his own advice. The whole little episode was completely at odds with the image he cultivated of being a sage, invulnerable in his judgement.

Harold Acton made a sharp contrast: though he had the reputation befitting a grand aesthete, I found him easy-going and charm itself. Our interview took place in Florence over dinner at his home, La Pietra, a Renaissance villa that was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton, or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring.  He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me.

As a student at Oxford, Harold had been well known for flouting convention and mixing in male undergraduate circles where bisexuality was in vogue. His close friends included Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, who reputedly used him as a model for some of the more outrageous characters in his novels. I used to tease Harold about girls and enquire if he had ever slept with one. He would put on a show of being greatly shocked at this sudden intrusion into his private life before rolling his eyes and smiling an enigmatic smile. Then he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. This only encouraged me to urge him on, and on one occasion he told me about an intimate encounter with a young Chinese girl during the time when he lived in China, teaching English at Peking National University in the 1930s. He described the silky skin of her naked body with obvious relish, but that was as far as he ever went. The mystery of whether he actually slept with any girl remained unsolved.

During one of our conversations, he expressed his regret at the way Oxford University had turned down his offer to bequeath them La Pietra with its collection of priceless art works, forty thousand rare books and fifty-seven acres of grounds in his will. They felt they could not have afforded the cost of repairs and restoration. Instead, after he died in 1994, La Pietra went to New York University as a study and conference centre. Although he had an American mother, he would have preferred the legacy to have gone to a British institution. In the years after his death, the estate became the subject of a long-running counter-claim from the descendants of Harold’s illegitimate half-sister, with a judge giving authority for the exhumation of his father’s body from the family grave in Florence. Happily, it seems there has been no need to disturb Harold’s remains, though his father’s were reported as confirming the DNA link.Harold entertained well, but he had one curious phobia about electricity consumption. When I needed to visit the cloakroom he would escort me to switch on the light and linger in the vicinity to make sure it was switched off again after I emerged. It was part of his economy drive to maintain his lifestyle without compromising it with waste. Or that was how he explained it.

John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-renowned economist, was a difficult proposition: he was imperious and patronizing. From the outset he tried to dwarf me by orchestrating every aspect of our conversation, refusing to give me a straight answer when he felt a question might compromise him. Instead he would skirt around it and avoid tackling its essence; or refrain from being specific when challenged. Whenever I tried to insist on a proper response to a question, he brushed it aside with a curt dismissal: ‘Move on to the next question.’ The tone in his voice made it clear he meant what he said and I knew that, if I stood my ground, I would soon be shown the door. Since he was a name to be reckoned with, I swallowed my pride and moved on under his overbearing direction. Eating humble pie was better than having no portion of pie at all. He was a man totally secure in his self-confidence and impressively grand in his immense knowledge.

The experience of meeting him was worth it for the painful lesson it gave me in self-control. The ennobled Gordon White was another example of someone who made me feel uneasy. This was not because of any display of high intellect, but it had everything to do with the fact that he was a right-wing bigot, bereft of any compassion for the underprivileged and under no compulsion to conceal it. He was without doubt a brilliant market operator, who had found his niche in the United States and been a perfect counterbalance for his partner, Lord Hanson, who was altogether more mellow and less strident.

Lord White was also working hard to re-enact his youth at the time I met him. He had a young girlfriend, with whom he was desperately trying to keep up physically by exerting himself in the gym. His motivation was so transparent as to make it open to ridicule. The adage, ‘There is no fool like an old fool,’ was particularly apposite in his case. I somehow found myself unable to relate to him at any level. A tone of self-congratulation ran through the interview and even impinged on what he would like to have been if not a businessman – a major figure in the sporting world or an actor. ‘I was once offered a screen test,’ he said, ‘but didn’t have the courage to do it. I was afraid of failure. You see, I looked right. I was a very good-looking guy when I was younger.’ He was an ardent admirer of Mrs Thatcher, to whom he owed his elevation to the Lords.

With the broadcaster, Michael Aspel, who was introduced to me by Theo Cowan, I had a different kind of problem – one that threatened to blow up into a major row. The interview itself went extremely well. I was particularly struck by Michael’s total candour and his willingness to touch on matters that had at certain points blighted his life. His was a story full of pathos and sorrow, and it was indeed moving. The chemistry between us must have worked most effectively and I felt delighted to have extracted from him some gems that would help to make the final version a most absorbing and sympathetic lesson in soul baring. Away from the limelight of his profession, Michael revealed his true self and showed his skills and vulnerabilities in a human light.

A few days later I received a phone call from his agent requesting a sight of the edited interview. It seemed Michael was beginning to feel concerned about certain aspects that he would like to reassess and perhaps omit. Instinctively I felt the agent was angling to doctor the interview and thus fillet out its quality of spontaneity, reducing it to the usual homogenized, polished sort of interview so common in show business – the kind that avoids delving too deeply into inner feelings or dwelling on the frailties of the subject’s life. My reaction was not the one the agent had expected. I fought hard to maintain the integrity of the interview as I saw it, while also feeling some embarrassment at the prospect of having to air our views in public with the indignities likely to follow.

Theo Cowan was keen to prevent any falling out and took on himself the role of peace broker. He worked tirelessly to arrive at a solution to avoid a rumpus that was going to benefit no one. Peace was eventually restored, but at a price. Compromise is not always the best way forward. In the event, we ended up with something more like an entente cordiale, having had to sacrifice some deeply held principles for the preservation of something called ‘image’. That, alas, is more or less the way of the world.

Dominick Dunne became a household name in the United States when, after producing a number of Hollywood films, he turned to being an author and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. A recovered alcoholic, he had tragedy in his background, his daughter having been murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. The impression I had gained on meeting him was that he would have been more at ease doing the interview than being interviewed. He had an irritable impatience and I found it hard going to keep him focused. He did not appear to be interested in any of my questions, but would rather have been formulating his own and then giving what he considered to be appropriate answers. I persevered to the very end without seeming to be rattled. He was not a person I would have chosen to be marooned with on a desert island. I felt that his demons had never left him and he sadly remained a tortured soul. Possibly our encounter was ill-timed, or perhaps I myself was in a state of mental turmoil that I mistakenly projected on to him. All I could remember subsequently was my sense of relief when the interview was over. As I walked away, revived by a light breeze, the sun was shining and New York looked at its best.

Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-orthodox Catholic Society priest who resided, till his death a few months after I interviewed him, at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge. He lived in grand style and entertained his guests for dinner at the club with healthy measures of good wine, obviously not believing that abstinence from culinary pleasures was needed to ensure an easy passage to heaven. For the interview, I met him for dinner and then retired with him to a quiet corner to conduct it. He certainly had a rare eloquence and gave the impression of a single-minded individual who was not afraid to court controversy, especially when it came to his views on women. Tackled directly on the subject, he swiftly emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were strictly male preserves. His view, he considered, was ‘wholly compatible with the God-given design of women as complementary to men’, which was to say they were not the equal of men. I could only feel he was taking an unnecessary risk. What if God turned out to be a woman? What then for Monsignor Gilbey?

The distinguished writer Edmund White remains the most explicit individual I have ever interviewed. Endowed with formidable powers of communication and an elegant prose style, he had the ability to shock while retaining an icy composure. His life was marred as a boy by a violent father and he was later to experience the trauma of losing his male lover to AIDS. Yet his eloquence never deserted him, even when discussing the most explosive of subjects, such as a homosexual son’s incestuous feelings for his father.

Many of the homosexuals he had known, he said, ‘had strong erotic fantasies about their fathers, and have even slept with their fathers or brothers. It’s not unusual . . . I definitely had strong erotic feelings towards my father.’ An extraordinary story then emerged from his family situation.

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 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 . . . Anyway, my father was brushing my sister’s hair, standing behind her and crying as 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 later, when 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 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 hated. 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.

It was one of the most surprising moments of revelation in the whole book.

I particularly wanted to interview John Updike. He was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews. As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes. I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said well, it was either that or nothing. I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This did not really match the public perception of him, I suggested.

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

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

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

I then raised the question of a reviewer of his novel Couples calling him ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did he resent this tag, I asked.

Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic. I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired. In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do . . .I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination.

It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology. It also turns out that it was the pre-AIDS, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies, but upon middle-aged couples, yet was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment.

There was general agreement that Yehudi Menuhin was not only a great musician but also a great human being. I had already been in contact with his father, Moshe, over The Palestinians, and was interested to hear the son’s views on some of the issues involved. My lead-in to the subject was a question about Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had remained in Germany and continued his career as a conductor almost till the end of the Nazi era. As a result he had been much criticized.

Yehudi Menuhin‘s assessment was both eminently sane and full of insight.

A very great conductor and an absolutely clean man, no question of that. He stood up for Hindemith, he protected a great many Jews, helped many out of Germany, and himself had to escape towards the end of the war. He happened to conduct the orchestra when some of the German leaders were there, but we can’t expect everyone to behave in the same way. Sometimes it takes more courage to remain in your country than to leave it. Those who stayed suffered a pretty bad fate, and those who came out, after all, escaped.

Yet there was this feeling of superiority among those who escaped, thinking that they showed great determination in leaving it behind. I would say Jew or Gentile, you can’t blame those who stayed, and you can’t blame those who escaped. It’s just the way things went. But Furtwängler himself was a man of integrity.

The anti-Semitism I have seen in my lifetime has had a psychological impact on me only to the extent that I know it is important to maintain the dignity of the Jew and to avoid a kind of behaviour that might prompt a response. The caricature of the Jew is the businessman with the big cigar, who does exist sometimes. They can be charming and interesting people. What bothers me sometimes is that they are a little like desert flowers. When they have only a drop of water they blossom. They make the most of the opportunity, as they did in Germany before the Nazi days, when they occupied extremely powerful positions. That must have created a certain amount of resentment. Of course, it gives no excuse for anti-Semitism, but you can understand it. The Jew does not stand out in Italy or Greece, nor would he in China, since the Chinese are far cleverer at business than the Jews. There are so many different types of Jew, but traditionally people have fastened on the Jew who is obviously different from them. But there are so many that are in no way different. It’s like the problem of the black in the United States. There are almost a majority of blacks that are nearly white, and no one bothers about them.

It is true that the Jews are far too sensitive, though they have perhaps been sensitized by history. They are too ready to imagine an insult; they are not prepared to give enough leeway, even to allow for a certain misbehaviour; and it is part of the psychology. One can understand that too, and one must understand it. They have to compensate for certain established assumptions. If it’s not one thing it’s another. If it’s not religion, it’s jealousy or it’s race. Yet it’s none of these things actually. It’s simply that people are nasty and want to condemn anything if they can find a little difference; can say that hair is frizzed instead of straight or there’s a detectable accent. Then they pounce on it.

Unfortunately the Jews have come to Israel with the narrow aim of making themselves an independent nation, to a large extent disregarding the environment and the rest of the world. They didn’t come to establish a nation with the Palestinians and a wonderful federation (though now they realize that perhaps they should have done). They came instead with the pure desire to establish a Jewish state to the exclusion of everything else. They did it very successfully, but they did it ruthlessly, and probably the sense of fear is equal on both sides. I feel that the only solution lies in a federation, totally equal, as in Switzerland. If both have an equal title to the land, what else can you do? Meanwhile there is something cruel about all of us. We are capable of the most horrid things, especially if we have suffered them ourselves.

Yehudi left an indelible impression on me: a shining example of goodness and humility. He would never have thanked you to feel humbled in his presence, but that was the effect.

In December 1992, three years after my interview with Yehudi, Richard Ingrams, a friend of the Menuhins, asked me to interview Lady Menuhin for the Oldie magazine. The interview never appeared for two reasons: first, because of its length there were difficulties over successfully abridging it to fit three pages of the magazine without losing the natural flow; secondly, Lady Menuhin had concerns, as she expressed them to Richard, that some aspects of the interview might cause her embarrassment or even trigger off the kind of controversy that would be extremely harmful to her husband. Richard, not always known for his understanding in such matters, surprisingly refrained from running the interview in any form. I believe Richard took the right decision at the time, but now that the Menuhins are dead it will be enlightening to read some of Lady Menuhin’s thoughts on life with Yehudi and the dangers he had faced because of his support for Furtwängler.

As she told it in her own autobiography, Diana Menuhin came from a rigorous background, having had an Edwardian Christian Scientist mother, and a chequered career as a ballet dancer in which you could never afford to be ill, along with a love life that had gained no permanence at its centre. The disciplines she had been through made her, she felt, ‘very serviceable for life with darling Yehudi, who prefers to live on cloud nine, which he seems to have rented for most of his life’. She had met him after being in the Middle East during the war and enduring a deeply unhappy end to a love affair.

‘When I met Yehudi, my metaphysical attitude to life made me realize that he was my destiny. He fell in love with me, and I was in love with him, but as he was married with two small children I never told him. It took two and a half really terrible years for him to get his divorce, because he was so angelic he couldn’t hurt anybody, even if he knew he was not to blame for his first mistake. I may have been his second mistake, but he hasn’t found out yet.’

In her book she described her life with Yehudi as ‘service in its highest sense’.

I’m an incurable, incorrigible worker. I think that’s what Yehudi liked so much, and he recognized with great relief that we had a tremendous amount in common, that we’d both had aspirations since we were born, that I had enormous experience because I hadn’t been protected by wonderful parents who had given up everything for me. He remains to this day the most incredibly modest man, and I think that’s what the audience feels. Yehudi’s a medium – the music comes through him; he feels responsible to the composer, dead or alive. He was very sad and very lonely when I met him, because his marriage had really broken up, and Yehudi wouldn’t admit it; and if he had admitted it, he would have blamed himself. Yehudi never blames anyone else, ever, for anything. He told me that when he first saw me at my mother’s house he went away to sit on a pouffe at the end of the drawing-room, and thought, ‘I’m going to have her.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it was your daughter’s fifth birthday,’ for I didn’t know then that the marriage was no good, but Yehudi has a way of knowing what he wants, and he gets it.

Before they could marry in 1947, there were two and half ‘dark years’ while Yehudi was separating from his first wife, but Diana never doubted she was herself doing the right thing.

I never raised a finger to help him get rid of his first wife. I never told him I was in love with him, because I didn’t want him to feel any obligation towards me. Of course he knew, but I never said it, and when he told his wife about me and mentioned the word marriage, she just said no, although she had God knows how many lovers herself. And Yehudi, who is utterly good and sweet, but can also lack a certain will, blamed himself for everything . . .But I was in love with him, the way I’d hoped to be in love ever since I can remember. I hadn’t met his wife, though I had heard rumours of her behaviour and of course I’d seen the results in him. He was completely broken by it and had even decided he would give up playing the violin. I remember saying to him – we spoke mostly in French in those days – ‘Yehudi, j’ai peur.’ Finally his wife told him that he had to stay with her and the children. It trailed on and on with her promising divorce and then breaking her promise over and over again. Then, thank God, she realized that from a practical point of view it would be better for her to marry whichever lover she had at that time, and so after two years she let Yehudi go.

Attacks on Yehudi in the Jewish press for marrying outside the faith had bothered her not at all.

In any case, the whole of that was not because he’d married a Gentile, but because he had insisted on going to Germany. He has incredible courage, Yehudi, immense courage. He went to Germany and played night and day for every cause, Jewish and German. When we were there we heard that Furtwängler had had to run away in the middle of the night because the Gestapo had come for him. He had done nothing except get on with his job and stay in the country. I knew Furtwängler because my mother had a musical salon to which every musician in the world came, and Furtwängler had lunch with mummy when he was over to conduct the opera; but Yehudi had never even met him. Furtwängler was decent and had helped Jewish members of the orchestra to get to America. He also wrote very dangerous letters from Denmark to my sister – he adored blondes and was mad about her. He wrote: ‘When I think I am writing from this country, occupied by my people, it makes me ill.’ One night his friends came to him and said, ‘Run, because the Gestapo is coming for you,’ and he escaped at night with his second wife, the lovely Lizavet. Yehudi was told that the Americans wouldn’t give Furtwängler his purification trial, so Yehudi sent off a two-page telegram to America – Yehudi’s telegrams are full of notwithstandings and neverthelesses – saying it was a disgrace to the Americans that they hadn’t at least given him the chance to clear his name. Furtwängler got his purification trial, he passed a hundred per cent clean, but of course you can imagine what the cabal in New York did about it: the ones who were jealous of Yehudi were heard to say, ‘At last we’ve got Menuhin.’

So the press reports were not really because he had married a Gentile but because he had defended a German . . .Before Hitler one didn’t analyse Jewishness or non-Jewishness. For example, I realized only afterwards that many of the musicians who came to my mother’s house were Jews, but to me they were Russian, or Hungarian, or German, or Austrian. Until the time of the Hitler incitement, one wasn’t Jewish-conscious – I had a very broad spectrum, but it was different for Yehudi. His father had sensibly taken him away from Europe when Hitler came to power, but his American experience was very limited because his parents simply didn’t go out anywhere. . .

When I first married Yehudi, he was more or less estranged from his family because they very foolishly condemned his first wife, the last thing to do to a man who refuses to condemn anybody. So when I first went to California I told Yehudi that no Jew was ever separated or estranged from his family, above all from his mother, and I persuaded him that he should go and visit them. Abba loved America because he felt he could trust people; everywhere else in the world he thought everyone was cheating him. Mamina was a completely emancipated Jewess, totally and absolutely Russian, though she spoke six languages beautifully. When Yehudi made his incredible début at the age of nine or ten, all the Jewish community in New York naturally wanted to claim him as their star. She held them off, which led to a feeling among the Jewish community that she didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

Abba was an inspector of Hebrew schools, but they didn’t often go to synagogues, and Yehudi was brought up with no sense of what is kosher; there was nothing kosher at home at all. So there was no question of their being ritual Jews. Mamina would never touch Yiddish, and in fact spoke good German, which laid the foundation for Yehudi’s assertion that his entire culture came from Germany and Austria. After that the Jews saw their opportunity to murder him. Yehudi’s father was only anti-Israel because he had divided loyalties. He was very proud to be American, yet he was of course a Jew, the grandson of a rabbi. When he and Mamina first went to look for rooms in New Jersey when their baby was about to be born, they found a very nice landlady who must have found them an attractive pair – Abba was extremely handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, and Mamina was quite incredibly beautiful, with golden hair she could sit on and Tartar-blue eyes. As they left, the landlady said, ‘Well, I’m very glad to have you two young things, because I simply hate Jews, and I won’t have them here.’

Whereupon Mamina turned and said, ‘Well, you won’t be having us because we are both Jews.’ And as they walked away, she tapped her tummy where Yehudi was prenatally stored, and said, ‘This child is going to be called Yehudi, the Jew.’ And yet that was the last Jewish gesture she made.

For Abba, the greatest thing on earth was his American passport; it made him feel that he was somebody, because Mamina certainly didn’t make him feel that. Zionism threatened to break apart the feeling of being American; it was going to demand a dual loyalty, so he joined the Philadelphia lot, a group of very distinguished Jews. It was called the American Council of Judaism, and it was made up of all those first- and second-generation Americans who felt that it was terrible to be asked to be less than a hundred per cent loyal to their American naturalization; and this was the basis of his anti-Zionism. Secondly, the Menuhins were Jews who had never suffered. Abba didn’t know how important it was for the Jews to have a homeland. I talked to them and explained what it must have been like to have been a Jew in Europe . . . The Menuhins didn’t know how necessary it was for the Jews to try to escape the pogroms; they had never been through a pogrom.Yehudi was not really pro-Israel. He hated militant Zionism, yet he realized the necessity for a land for the Jews, while at the same time refusing to talk about it. Yehudi was not one of your pro-Isrealis at all, and that is why they tried to kill us when we first went to Israel.

With a certain amount of counselling from me, he realized that something had to be done about the Jews, what was left of them, but he never wanted to be a militant Zionist. He played at concerts to raise money for the Jewish fund, of course – that was the least he could do. But because we had already been to Germany, there followed a period [in America] of Jews being told to boycott his concerts. His concerts were always sold out, but only Gentiles were sitting in Carnegie Hall.

The Jews were told by all the Jewish newspapers to send their tickets back too late to have them resold, and that Menuhin was anti-Israel. It wasn’t true. He was only anti the militancy which was being shouted from the rooftops.He went everywhere where the Jews had really suffered, where they had been taken out and burned. He even gave a concert in Berlin for the displaced-persons camp. Unless you’ve seen what had befallen those wretched Jews who had survived what was done to them by the Germans, you wouldn’t believe it. And they came crowding round the car in a wave of hate such as you’ve never seen. The military police accompanied us into the hall where people were literally hanging on to the players, and the howl of rage was really quite terrifying. But Yehudi has a radiance that makes people suddenly understand what he is trying to be. He got up on the platform, with a huge policeman each side. There was an agent provocateur with a club foot, and he was trying to incite the crowd even more. Yehudi said, ‘Let me speak. Let me speak.’ And he spoke to them in excellent German, telling them that Jews did not go begging to others because they had been maltreated – ‘We are a great race and nothing can extinguish us.’ Then they clapped, they applauded, they said, ‘Yehudi, Yehudi, you are wonderful . . . ‘ He changed the whole mood of the crowd, and when the agent provocateur got up, he was booed. When we left people were crowding round the car, saying, ‘Yehudi, please come and play to us again, please.’

It was the most moving thing you can imagine. Yehudi hates talking about this and he may be angry if this comes out, but it was a wonderful moment in his life.