Monthly Archives: March 2010

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.

Insights: Sir Kenneth Dover

Sir Kenneth Dover, the distinguished classical scholar and former Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, sadly passed away on 7th March 2010, aged 89.

Here is my interview with him, from my book In Conversation with Naim Attallah.

You suggest in your autobiography that your choice of Greek offered you an escape from the attentions and frustrations of life at home, and at school. What was it about classics – as opposed to any other discipline – which you felt could offer you this security?

There is an element of chance in it being classics. If one is unhappy at home, any kind of activity that fully engages one’s mind is a self-rewarding escape. I happened to be precocious in the sense of being able to read very early in life and having a strong appetite for learning. But my first line of escape was into the study of insects, and until the age of 12 I hoped to be an entomologist. Then I started Greek and got hooked on language, but even then my interest was much more what you might call scientific, essentially wissenschaftlich, rather than any kind of aesthetic response, which only came later. My school rather pushed me away from science and in the direction of classics, simply because my natural talents, such as they were, seemed to lie in language. By the time I went to university I would’ve hoped for a degree in linguistics, but this option was not open to me. Looking back on it now, I am very glad because I have had such immense enjoyment out of studying the ancient world. And if I were asked now what my field really is, I’d be tempted to say Greek behaviour – social, moral, sexual and political – and I would count language and literature as an area of human behaviour.

In an address to the Classical Association in 1976 you said: ‘Language engages me intellectually more than any other kind of human interaction. And this more than anything else is what stands between the classicist and the general public.’ Have you had any interest in engaging the attention of the general public, or is the study of classics too elitist an activity?

I’m never worried about elitism, or indeed about any word ending in -ism. It’s true that the general temper of the age is rather hostile to linguistic difficulty. There are all kinds of reasons for that and I suspect the main one is that by now there is such an enormous range of interesting and rewarding activities which depend not on natural language but on artificial language; by which I mean mathematical and scientific symbols and the operation of those symbols. And this tends to make people rather impatient with the study of natural language.

Your father was by your account a difficult man. Looking back now, do you understand him better than you did?

Yes, but of course understanding doesn’t necessarily make one like something better. One famous saying that I don’t actually believe to be true is tout comprendre, c ‘est tout pardonner, because it sometimes happens that when you understand something better you are less inclined to forgive it.

Do you feel either the need or the obligation to forgive him?

I’m not really worried about condemnation or forgiveness, because I never wanted revenge on my father or to hurt him; I just wanted him not to be there, because it made life so tense and uncomfortable. Besides, it wouldn’t actually mean anything now to say, yes I still condemn him, or, no I now forgive him. It wouldn’t make me remember the unpleasant things about my childhood any differently.

Since you could not change your parents or your circumstances, you embarked on the deliberate business of changing yourself, and indeed you claim some success in the matter. Are you convinced that this is a feasible exercise and available to most people?

I’ve no idea about its availability to other people, and my feeling for many years that I had deliberately changed myself was probably exaggerated, in the sense that one changes at that age quite a bit anyway. What I believed to be a large element of deliberate planning was possibly much more caused by external things. But people do rather tend to feel that whatever goes wrong with them is externally caused and that they can’t very well sit down and plan how they’re going to react to things; but to a certain extent they can.

You have been very frank about what you regarded as a physical deformity, your funnel chest, and how it distressed you as a youngster. Was it something that continued to weigh on your mind? And did it affect the course of your life do you think?

Yes, because I’ve never lost the sense of inferiority. Of course, I’m talking about a feeling, rather than a rational thought, and if I were looking back on a process of rational thinking, then of course it might be possible for me to say, yes, I was mistaken. But if I’m looking back on the feelings caused by this awareness of deformity, I’m not at all surprised that I felt as I did. For I have never shed that sense of basic inferiority in shape to other people, and to this day I don’t take off my shirt in public. I don’t go swimming in the sea unless it’s a deserted beach.

Your autobiography seems remarkable for the degree of reliance you place on intellect and intellection. Do you think there is any place for human feeling, for tradition, for instinct?

Well, there’s any amount of room for feeling. One reaction to my book which rather surprised me was that of one of my former colleagues in Corpus. He described me as an evil man, because I was cold and calculating. I can laugh that one off easily enough because calculation is an ingredient of all purposeful action, and without calculation one gets things wrong, except by remarkable good luck. After all, what is the alternative to calculation? Impulsiveness, thoughtlessness, what should one call it? A lot of the time, I would certainly regard calculation as equivalent to rational thinking, but then to say that I don’t have feelings, I don’t have emotions, seems to me quite absurd. I have strong feelings, strong emotions, and I think about what the consequences would be in acting upon them; that’s a different activity. Calculation, reasoning, intellect – these things are to do with means, not ends; the choice of ends, this does seem to me an emotional matter.

You say that you prefer ‘nasty truths to silly lies’, and to that end you have aimed at complete candour in your book. Have you had any cause since publication to doubt this approach?

No. Undoubtedly I have upset some people, but not many compared to the much larger number who have expressed very strong approval of my inclination to tell nasty truths. There are only two people whom I like and respect and whom I would have liked to please, who disapproved of the book. I’m sorry to find myself on the other side from them, but overwhelmingly the line I’ve taken seems to be approved of by the people whose approval I would have wanted.

The problem with candour is surely that it affects and sometimes distresses other people. Are you not persuaded that there is a place for reticence in an autobiography?

I have been very careful not to say things which would have an adverse effect on anyone who is still alive. And there are a very great number of things, amusing sometimes, interesting sometimes, which I could have said about living people, but which I have refrained from saying. When it comes to people who are dead, it may be distressing for those who liked them or perhaps loved them, to learn things they’d rather not have known. But there the harsh duty of the historian comes in; and I do feel a strong compulsion to tell the truth about the dead, who will not after all themselves be hurt or disadvantaged by what I say. There are a couple of cases in the book where I have refrained from saying things I could have said about people who are now dead out of consideration for their surviving family, but only two. On the whole, in cases of doubt, I have preferred to tell the truth.

Do you ever feel that others might be tempted to regard it less as truth-telling than revenge?

God, no. Oddly enough, there are remarkably few people I’ve ever disliked. I’ve had some enemies, but they have decided to make themselves my enemies; I have not made enemies of them, and I’ve never wanted revenge. I don’t think anybody has ever hurt me badly enough for me to want to hurt them in return, or to feel that I would enjoy hurting them in return, but perhaps I’ve just been very lucky. This doesn’t apply to things one hears or reads of, where some totally innocent person has been grotesquely harmed. On their behalf, naturally, I would very much like to harm the harmer; but I haven’t been in the position of victim myself.

But what about those people who are no longer in a position to dispute your version of events?

This is true of all historical characters. Alexander the Great or Cromwell or Queen Victoria are not in a position to dispute anything we say about them. Once somebody’s dead, whether it is yesterday or a thousand years ago, it makes no difference. If one were to refrain from writing about a person because he’s not in a position to defend himself, this would rule out history entirely. Of course, when one is writing about one’s feelings or intentions or thoughts, the reader can have no control at all over whether one is telling the truth or not. There’s simply no way of knowing, but this is true of all autobiographies, and something one has to accept from the start.

Your TV series on the Creeks seems to have been a great personal disappointment, and fell far short of what you had hoped for. Was it principally because you failed to spread the word of the Greeks to a popular audience, or was it more complex than that?

It was a lot more complex, and looking back now it is arguable that the whole conception was a mistake, because I’m not an art historian, I’m not an archaeologist, and it was a hell of a problem right from the start to get across the kind of thing I wanted to get across via popular use of the visual media. I also disagreed with the producer’s approach as to how it should be done, and it certainly was a considerable disappointment to me when it appeared. It was also a shattering disappointment to Alasdair Milne, and the book I wrote to go with it didn’t sell at all well. I had rather hoped that the programmes would serve the purpose of interesting a wide public in the Greek world, and create a favourable climate of opinion so that people wouldn’t say to their children who were wondering what to do at university: ‘Oh, don’t bother about that, classics is dull.’ But there it is…

Both your parents were irreconcilably hostile to religion – your father called Christianity ‘God-slobber’. You say that your own position on religion was arrived at separately, but it is difficult to imagine that your parents had no influence in this . . .

They were very different sorts of influence. My mother had a poor opinion of any kind of ritual ceremonial, and she took a pretty distant attitude to church services, and never went to church for that reason. But I myself came very much under the influence of evangelical friends at school and that lasted about seven years, and then I switched to being irreligious, or even anti-religious. Then I had a bit of a tacking back towards religion in my late thirties, until I had what I called a mystical experience in reverse, a sort of voice from the sky saying, ‘You don’t need a god’ – which is just the same as happened to A. J. P. Taylor at a much earlier age. Since then I’ve never been tempted to be religious. I’m enormously interested in religion, and I look upon it as a way in which a lot of people express things that matter to them very much. I also find the history of religion absorbing, but I just don’t actually believe it’s true; which is a different matter.

But do you think, for example, that if you had been born into a Roman Catholic household and steeped in the creed and dogma of the church, you would still have arrived at an anti-clerical position?

Well, to judge by many of my friends who have had exactly that life, yes. I know many ex-Catholics, people brought up from birth as Catholics, who have now become very anti-religious. So it could perfectly well have happened to me.

But what exactly is the nature of your objection? After all, even if believers are wrong, most of them will mean well. So what is the problem . . . is it an intellectual objection or a moral one?

Mainly intellectual, in the sense that belief is something that happens to me when the evidence or the reasons for belief reach a certain critical point, so to speak. In the case of religious propositions, there aren’t any in my experience which have pushed me into belief; I simply do not think that I have adequate reasons for believing. I’m not an atheist; I don’t consider that it is reasonable to say there is no God, but I don’t think it is reasonable to say that there is a God either. I am a genuine agnostic. And if I can have recourse to the Greeks at this point, there’s a peculiarly interesting work by Protagoras, a contemporary of Socrates, of which – alas – only the first sentence survives. The work is entitled On the Gods, and he started off by saying, ‘I don’t know whether there are gods or not, or if there are, what they are like; the problem is too difficult and life is too short.’ How he went on, we don’t know, but that is a fifth-century-BC statement of the position with which I have some sympathy.

Is there nothing whatsoever to be said for what are called the comforts of religion? What alternative is there other than a brutal stoicism?

I have no doubt whatever that religion brings enormous comfort to a great many people, but to compare the consequences of a belief with the truth of a belief does seem to me a major confusion. You can derive any degree of assurance, confidence, comfort, call it what you like, from holding a totally untrue belief. What causes the confidence or the comfort you feel is the nature of the belief and how firmly you hold it; whether it’s true or not doesn’t come into it. I don’t go around trying to stop people being comforted by their religion. I merely say, if they ask me, that I don’t share the belief, and therefore I don’t derive comfort.

This mystical experience you had in which you described the heavens opening and a voice declaring you had no need of a god . . . I understand the difficulty in communicating such an experience to others, but what gives it precedence over those experiences of others which point, as it were, in a different direction, i.e. to the existence of God?

There is an important difference between Alan Taylor’s experience of a voice saying, there is no God, and my own saying, I had no need of a god. It is possible to have a theology without being religious. Epicurus was a case in point. He did not deny the existence of gods, indeed he believed they existed. But he argued there was nothing we could conceivably do or say or think which would affect or influence them, and they had no part whatever in intervening in human life. So there you have a belief in the existence of gods coupled with a very strong assertion that they don’t need us and we don’t need them. I did not, however, have Epicurus in mind when I had that experience.

But do you have any attitudes or principles which are in some sense a philosophical alternative to religion? I mean something sustaining and convincing which would seem to you an adequate background to life’s vicissitudes?

I have a very strong sense of being an individual in a social species. We are in an interesting predicament since every one of us is simultaneously a competing individual and a social unit with a need for love and acceptance and so on, but of course no two of us are quite alike in our needs. If you take a graph of a human population and at one end you put the most selfish, aggressive, hostile, psychopathic people, and at the other end the most compassionate, generous, affectionate, caring people, it will be a normal graph, since most of us are somewhere round about the middle.

The important point in morality is to start off by recognising our need for acceptance and love, and if this is going to be meaningless to a few people, then too bad. It’s going to be constantly overwhelmingly meaningful to a few others, and that’s the way it is. I have no difficulty whatever in imagining, and indeed in making a minute contribution towards creating, the kind of human society that I want to exist, the kind of society where we can rely on one another.

You are obviously a man who is much moved by nature and the beauty of the countryside. And yet in your response to beautiful places, such as Wester Ross, there is nothing which remotely approaches pantheism, nothing of the Wordsworth idea of ‘a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused’. Why is that, do you think?

I think it’s almost hopeless to try to explain why one likes what one likes. This is true not only in terms of the natural world, but also in the arts. I mean, how can one explain preferences for particular works of art or particular poems? One just has to start off by recognizing what it is that one responds to and accepting that.

You describe an occasion in 1944 when you were so struck by the beauty on the top of a hill south ofMignano, that you sat down on a log and masturbated, something which you described as ‘the appropriate response’. Would you say it was principally an aesthetic response, or was it more biological, or what?

Goodness knows, goodness knows. All I know now is that it wasn’t unique, because since my book appeared I’ve heard of other people having similar experiences. It seemed to strike one reviewer as something very odd indeed, but it is not as odd as all that.

You are remarkably frank in your discussion of sex, which has obviously played an extremely important and happy part in your married life. You describe the orgasm as ‘the purest and the most powerful of all the good emotional experiences available to mankind’. In another context, in the context of religious experiences, you say that feelings of conviction tell us much about the person who experiences them but nothing about their truth-value. Would you agree it is as difficult to assess the truth-value of your statement on the orgasm?

Oh yes, quite impossible. What I’ve said there about the orgasm was meant to be slightly jocular, and I was talking more about adolescence. It’s not a considered opinion on a scale of values in 1995.

Is there anything about sex that might shock you?

Yes. False promises. Or deception. I mean, a man claiming he is wearing a condom when he’s not – things like that. Perhaps I should have said rape before I said deception, but I was rather taking rape for granted. One must distinguish between aesthetic distaste and moral repugnance; they’re not the same thing at all. There are quite a number of possible sexual goings-on which I find aesthetically surprising, and sometimes repugnant. I recall a novel by William Boyd in which a couple use honey as a genital lubricant, which sounds just incredibly messy; things like that are aesthetically repugnant but not necessarily morally so. To have moral significance they have to come into a category of actions which would also be morally objectionable even if they were not sexual; and that’s why I include force, violence, deception, false promises, because those are ways of behaving which cover the non-sexual as well as the sexual; but it’s in the sexual sphere that they are particularly brutal.

During a brief spell of impotence your thoughts turned to suicide. Looking back, does this not seem to have been an overreaction?

Well, perhaps it was. But so what? I mean, that’s how I felt, and I told the truth about how I felt. It was of course the product of ignorance because I thought once one started being impotent, that was it.

But supposing that it had been permanent. I mean, is impotence such a terrible thing as to warrant suicide?

How does one decide whether something is such a terrible thing or not? I described the feeling I had, and I felt it made life not worth living. There’s nothing to be said for old age, absolutely nothing. One becomes weaker, one’s eyesight deteriorates, one’s hearing deteriorates, one can’t walk as far as one did, one becomes impotent and so on. What is there to be said for old age?

A kind of serenity, some might say . . .

No, no, I don’t think so. I’m serene only as long as I’m physically in good shape. I’m still waiting to be told by somebody of my age or older in what way it is better to be old than to be young.

Going back to suicide, it is something you have contemplated more than once, as did your father before you. Is it possible to make up a sound intellectual case for taking one’s life, or is one always emotionally driven?

So far as I know, one is emotionally driven. Plainly there are cases where one could take an intellectual decision; suppose, for example, that I knew for sure that I was starting to get Alzheimer’s disease, or that I was at the start of some kind of condition which would impose nothing but distress on my family, I think that would be a good sound reason, a product of thinking. Otherwise contemplating suicide is perhaps almost invariably an overemotional reaction.

What was the principal constraint on a suicide attempt? Was it lack of courage or the thought of your wife or children, or what?

All those things enter into it, but I suppose it was not so much lack of courage as lack of conviction, by which I mean just not feeling strongly enough that there was no other way out. After all, it’s the one decision you can’t reverse, and although I was telling the truth when I said there had been occasions when I had seriously thought about it, quite obviously the conviction that it was the only escape had not been anything like strong enough.

You say in your book that you have never experienced what could properly be called grief at anybody’s death. This might be regarded as almost an emotional failing or impairment. Do you see it like that, or do you regard it as a strength?

I don’t know if it’s either really. One thing I should say is that I do regret making the remark in 1994 because it hadn’t been true for some years. The first time I felt something like grief on the death of a friend was in 1984. But it is generally true that although I react very strongly to other people’s suffering, for some reason or other I don’t react in the same way to death. I can’t be sorry for somebody who’s dead, because they’re not there any longer and they’re not suffering. I can be tortured by people suffering, but not in any comparable degree grieved by their death.

Were you disappointed that your autobiography was rejected for publication by Oxford University Press, especially in view of your long association with Oxford?

I had never taken it for granted that they would necessarily want to publish it. The reason I submitted it to them is that years ago I had promised them first refusal, and I was just keeping a promise.

Why do you think they rejected it?

That’s for them to say, but I think one thing that must have entered into it was the feeling that I was quite wrong in my chapter about Oxford and my chapter about Trevor Aston, and also wrong to reveal what were generally regarded as confidential matters from inside college. I gathered third or fourth hand that there was a feeling that it gave an unfavourable picture of Oxford. I don’t agree. In fact I don’t think I’ve been uncomplimentary about Oxford in any unreasonable way in the book at all. And I’m not altogether in sympathy with OUP’s attitude to confidentiality which, after all, is not something which is laid down by God or by nature. A thing is confidential if somebody has decided to make it so, and I think excessive confidentiality and secrecy do far more harm than good. The one principle I observed, both in the chapter on the university and in the chapter on Trevor Aston, was not to reveal anything derogatory that could be attributed to a living individual.

You seemed rather surprised by the fact that response to your book concentrated on what you called ‘the Aston affair’, and your confession to having had murderous thoughts towards your colleague at Corpus Christi College. Do you think you were perhaps naive in not anticipating this response?

Even if I was I couldn’t have acted any differently. The Aston business mattered so much to me in the ten years I was at Corpus, and any historian has to pick on the things which in his view really made the difference. The reason I was surprised by the fuss was that a number of people had read the typescript and had written to me about various points of interest in it. Not one of them had picked on the Aston chapter as objectionable, and it was only after the fuss was started in the Guardian that it all blew up. The one place where I may have made a mistake, though I’m not totally convinced of it, was the actual wording I used when I said something like ‘the practical problem was how to kill him without getting into trouble’. Brian Harrison in Corpus, who was very helpful in reading part of the typescript, thought it was expressed in too brutal a way. My daughter also rather took against it, not because she was shocked at my wanting Aston to die, but because she thought the way I put it was self-indulgent. She knows that I’m fairly guarded in my expression of emotion, and she thought this went over the top. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that whatever one contemplates doing, one should translate into real terms and face the consequences. If I was saying to myself in effect, as indeed I was, can I possibly create a situation in which there is no more Trevor Aston, then I ought to say it outright. How could I bring about a situation in which he was dead is a very long-winded way of saying, how could I kill him? That was why I kept the words.

Yes, but those words will have shocked and appalled a great many people…

I also know a number of people who were not shocked or appalled, particularly people who were, or had been, responsible for colleges, universities, departments, institutions and the like.

In defending your position vis-a-vis Aston you rather appealed to the Greek: who would always have been more concerned about the harm or benefit to the community in general than about the individual. Would you allow that there are dangers in applying Socratic law in the late twentieth century, even if it is confined to the cloisters of an Oxford college?

I’m in a difficult position here because if I’m going to defend myself against some of the criticisms to which I’ve been subjected, it becomes terribly long-winded and I don’t want to get into the position of saying, ah, but you see … What I’ve said in the chapter about my dealings with Aston is only a sample. The real catalogue would be a great deal longer. One of my critics wrote to The Times saying that if Aston had been given the support he needed by his colleagues, this tragic outcome could have been avoided. I pointed out in reply that Aston had had any amount of support from his colleagues for over twenty years and for eight of those years he’d had a great deal of support and help from me, and indeed he told me that he always felt better after talking with me. But there came a point eventually when it obviously wasn’t doing any good, and that was when I felt my responsibilities for the wellbeing of the college were looming rather large.

Dr. Thomas Charles-Edwards, tutor in modern history at Corpus, disputed your account of Aston and said: ‘Dover was the sort of person to derive intellectual interest from analysing Aston’s predicament. It doesn’t surprise me that he consulted a lawyer to judge the consequences of any action. Dover seemed to have no need for emotions and little time for those who did.’ How do you react to that kind of criticism?

I don’t understand how he can say that I had no room for emotion when I had an overriding emotional need to serve the interests of the college.

James Howard-Johnston, another fellow at Corpus, wrote: ‘I found the moral stance of the author quite abhorrent. The welfare of the institution should not be prized above a life.’ Did this sort of reaction not give you pause?

No, because I went on being patient and tolerant and supportive for eight years, but there comes a point when you have to write somebody off. That’s my feeling, and to say that you can’t prize the wellbeing of an institution above an individual life is just not true as far as I’m concerned. Certainly, one has to go on trying for years to reconcile the two interests, but when it becomes clear that it’s not going to work, at that point I will sacrifice the individual. The extraordinary thing is that it was my emotional commitment to the wellbeing of the college which made me act as I did. If I had been all that calculating I wouldn’t have bothered about it, because I knew I was retiring in ten months’ time. The fact was, I wanted to hand over a good college to my successor.

But your behaviour was surely open to misunderstanding. I mean, there seems to be an almost clinical detachment in your account of the Aston affair and particularly your reaction to Aston’s suicide. You write, ‘I got up from a long sound sleep, I can’t say for sure if the sun was shining, but I certainly felt it was.’ That degree of disengagement is quite chilling . . .

The Times leader used the word gloating. Now that seemed to me an extraordinary word to use of the feeling one has when one is relieved of a heavy burden. It was the lifting of a weight that had been there for years; that’s what I felt, and I can’t believe that I was wrong to feel that. If it had been a matter of revenge or vindictiveness, then gloating would have been an appropriate word; but that’s precisely what it wasn’t. The other thing is that people like Thomas Charles-Edwards and James Howard-Johnston honestly believed they knew Trevor better than I knew him, and I think they were wrong. Not only was I a friend of Trevor’s for eight years but I was also in many respects his confidant. He told me a lot about himself that I don’t think they knew, and for them to talk as if they really knew his virtues and I didn’t was not accurate. I think I knew him better.

Although you conceded afterwards that you were not claiming the right to execute Aston, you said that you do not have a reverence for human life per se. What exactly is the force o/per se in this instance?

At all costs. I was contrasting my own feelings as a non-pacifist with the belief of pacifists that it is always wrong deliberately to cause somebody’s death in any circumstances. I don’t have this feeling of reverence for life as such – perhaps I should have said ‘as such’ rather than per se. I don’t have a feeling it is always necessarily the worst thing one can do to cause somebody to die. I plainly didn’t have a ‘right’ to cause his death – and I wouldn’t for a moment claim that – partly because I don’t actually think one has rights other than those which one is specially given. I have rights under the law, but the law does not give me the right to cause the death of a colleague, I’m absolutely sure about that. But then there are occasions when one does things without having the right to do them because one decides it is a good thing to do.

You were president of the British Academy when Anthony Blunt’s treachery was revealed. Would it be fair to say that your writing to Blunt was instrumental in bringing about his resignation?

It was instrumental in the sense that it must have had some cause and effect, but I didn’t exactly demand his resignation. There were people – the late E. H. Carr was one of them – who thought I had pushed Blunt into resigning, and Carr wanted me to circulate to fellows of the Academy a copy of our correspondence. I couldn’t in fact do that because I had written to Blunt in longhand and I hadn’t kept a copy, but I told Carr if he wanted to see it, he could ask Blunt and I had no objection whatever. What mattered more was that after I had written to Blunt and asked him if he would consider the possibility of healing the wound in the Academy by resigning, we had a telephone conversation in which I emphasized to him that there was no way that I could put pressure on him, that a president of the Academy cannot tell somebody to resign; his danger had passed, he’d not been expelled, so he was absolutely free to decide whether to resign or not. We discussed this in a perfectly amicable way, but there was no transcript of that telephone conversation which I could send to Carr or to anyone else; yet to me it was that which mattered much more than the letter.

A. J. P. Taylor resigned in protest at what he called a ‘witch hunt’. He felt that the BA should not concern itself with matters other than academic. Did you have any sympathy with this view?

As a matter of fact I did. Although my first reaction to news of Blunt’s treachery was very hostile, the more I looked at the legal side of it in terms of the charter of the British Academy, the more difficult it seemed to be to justify expelling Blunt. And if we had simply reacted with horror and said we won’t have this man around, we’ll expel him, that would have been lynching and not law. By the time it came to the discussion at the AGM, if I had been put in the awful predicament of giving a casting vote, I would have cast against expulsion simply on legal grounds. But there was of course another line that could be taken, which was that Blunt had damaged the whole international community by serving the interests of a totalitarian government under which historical and scientific work was not free. The extraordinary thing was that at the two meetings of the council of the Academy at which the Blunt case was exhaustively discussed, that point was not raised. I agonized over whether I should raise it from the chair, but I was very anxious not to lean on anyone as chairman. Indeed this crucial point was not made until after Blunt had resigned and the whole fuss had subsided, when a piece in Encounter put the issue of Blunt having served the interests of a totalitarian government hostile to the study of history. But until then even Blunt’s most ferocious enemies had not raised the matter.

What sort of a man was he? Did you like him?

He wasn’t a terribly easy man to get to know, I must say. There was something guarded about him, which I think was probably accounted for by his homosexuality and the fact that he’d belonged to a generation which had treated the homosexual as an enemy. But I got on with him well. I never had any reason to dislike him.

At around the same time there were various stresses and strains in your life, notably the dilemma of whether or not to embark on adulterous affairs. Have you ever regretted not allowing yourself that indulgence?

No, no. Oh no, I was right to pass it over.

Once again, when talking about the possibility of infidelity, the case for and against is argued in the cold light of reason. I would have thought that this was precisely an area in which reason played very little part, and that to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous.

But one has to take a decision. I mean, is one going to go ahead or not? How does one make the choice? If it’s not reason, what is it?

If there had been no risk of being found out, would you perhaps have gone ahead?

That’s getting into an unreal world, to imagine that one can embark on any course of action which one can conceal for ever. I wouldn’t even contemplate that because I don’t believe it’s particularly sensible to do anything that one wouldn’t want revealed. Supposing it had been certain that nobody would ever find out about it… that to me is an imaginary world, and I tend to stick to the real world. It’s also a moral issue, not in the sense that I believe fornication is necessarily wrong, but I wasn’t willing to hurt my wife, and that makes it a moral issue.

Do you think that your own moral sense has been shaped in any measure by the Greeks and the study of classics?

It may have been shaped in certain ways, possibly more than I know, but more probably it is the other way around; that I’m particularly attracted to Greek culture and civilization because they echo inclinations of my own. For example, this business of not having a reverence for human life – that’s certainly true of the Greeks because they were tremendous users of capital punishment and they executed people for all kinds of things. If you served on a jury and took a bribe, then you were for the chop, because they regarded the integrity of the jury system as vitally important to the life of the community.

Your book on Greek homosexualiy was published in 1978 to general acclaim. Do you think it is possible to have a perfect understanding of homosexuality, Creek or otherwise, without being a homosexual oneself?

Possibly not. Greek homosexuality fascinated me because it was such an immensely important ingredient of Greek culture. I also thought that virtually everything that had been said about it or written on the subject was nonsense. There was a complete failure to understand how in the Greek culture the attitude towards the active and the passive partner can be radically contradictory, even irreconcilable. It was common to find people writing about Greeks as perverts, using nouns for which there was no Greek equivalent, when in point of fact the essential division in Greek society was between the adult male penetrator and the female or immature male who are grouped together as the object of penetration. This is really what got me interested in it. Curiously enough I’m not wildly in sympathy with homosexuals on a purely emotional level. Aesthetically I feel a certain revulsion at the idea of kissing a man, but I don’t think that marred my historical investigation of the phenomenon.

During your time as professor of Greek at St Andrews, you were a great defender of academic standards and there was a suggestion that after you left in 1976 those standards rather declined. What view do you take now? Is the battle lost?

You’re probably thinking of courses in classical civilisation and culture, of which I was a very strong advocate at first-year level. What worries me really is the continuation of that way of studying things beyond the first year, even perhaps up to honours level which does happen in some universities. Although it undoubtedly brings good people in, whose primary interest perhaps is medieval history, art history, English literature and so on, my own feeling is that if you are studying another culture at A level which is called honours in a university, it doesn’t deserve the name honours unless it includes a knowledge of the language of that culture. It’s as simple as that.

You have been chancellor at St. Andrews since 1981. And you are the first chancellor of St. Andrews who is not a duke, a peer or an archbishop. Is that a source of pride?

Yes, it is, but I’m not the first in Scotland of course, because Aleic Cairncross at Glasgow is a former professor, as I am, and Kenneth Alexander at Aberdeen is another one since me. So it’s become comparatively fashionable now.

At the age of fifteen you coined the dictum: ‘Instinct is the force that makes us repeat our mistakes.’ Have you tried to resist your instincts throughout you, life?

I’ve never trusted them, but I’ve been interested to observe them. I accept my instincts as a fact, but I don’t attach value to something because it is an instinct. I’m sceptical of instincts in the same way that I’m sceptical of the benificence of nature. Civilisation consists in combating nature, and I take the view that what we inherit in the way of instinctive or genetically determined responses is not to be worshipped just because it’s natural; it needs to be scrutinised rather carefully.

You say that in recent years you have been repeatedly struck by the wisdom of some of Plato’s observations on society, notably that devotion to justice can be truly assessed only by one’s behaviour towards those who are weaker than oneself and in one’s power. You suggest that this is equally applicable to politics and sex. Looking round modern society, do you think there is any evidence that this principle is alive and well?

I’m not sure that any good principles are alive and well at any stage in human history, but fortunately they do survive from one generation to another.

You say that you have searched for aspects of old age which might compensate for its ills but have found none. Is there no sense of a job well done or a life well lived?

I have a great deal to be pleased about, but I think that at any given stage in life I have had adequate reason to feel that. I don’t necessarily feel it more now looking back over a longer period than I would have felt it, let us say, at forty-five or fifty looking back over a shorter period.

Your doctor once assured you that one can never with any degree of confidence say, ‘That was my last fuck: Has this at least given you continuing and abiding grounds /or optimism and happiness?

One can’t of course be wildly optimistic. I remember seeing a very amusing graph which showed there are a number of men who are still sexually active at eighty-five, but it’s a very small number indeed.

You have compared death to the returning of a book to the stack. Are you completely unsentimental in contemplation of your own death?

I think so, yes. I regret it in the sense that I’m always writing something and I want to finish it, and I feel aggrieved at the idea that it is going to be cut short by my dying at some point. But I don’t fear death. Hell may be real; I’d be very surprised if it were, but all the same, one doesn’t know. But then one’s not knowing, indeed the impossibility of knowing, I feel to be so complete, that it’s not worth worrying about.

Thought for the Day…

Interviewing can be perilous.

I was once shown the door by feminist icon Betty Friedan and bawled out by Patricia Highsmith, mistress of the psychological murder.

Yet Auberon Waugh said that my strength as an interviewer lay in my unshockability. It is true that I seldom feel shocked, but there have been occasions when I raised an eyebrow.

Sir Kenneth Dover, the distinguished classical scholar who sadly died three days ago, aged 89, told me how he was so struck by the beauty of the view from the top of a hill south of Mignano that he sat down on a log and masturbated.

But why not, when you think about it?

When I asked Lord Soper, the eminent Methodist, whether he was totally against masturbation, he replied, ‘No.  I think masturbation is an inadequate way of fulfilling a genuine impulse, and I’m not going to stand in judgement.’

Thought for the Day…

Labour will never learn, especially when they let ideology affect their better judgement.

The 50% tax may benefit the treasury in the short-term, but is likely to harm the economy in the long-run.

London, which has enjoyed a unique financial status for so long, is now being labelled the most taxed financial capital in the world. This will have an undesirable effect of the mass desertion of those brain boxes whose expertise over the years brought wealth and prosperity to our shores, in stiff competition with centres like New York, Frankfurt and Hong Kong.

Labour are their own worst enemy. The pretence to help the poor is only a cover up when you look at they way they behave behind closed doors. None of the luxuries that they condemn in others they abstain from themselves. Look at the way they cheat on expenses and demand first class travel on the railways, when we mere mortals have to contend with economy fares.

Cut out the pretence and come clean, before it is too late. If Labour carry on this way they will certainly be dumped by the electorate and consigned to obscurity for decades to come.

And good riddance!


Kit Fraser’s entry into the world of politics is getting hotter by the day.

Those who hanker after intelligent and humorous talk cannot afford to not inform themselves about the basic structure of this new party and its aims. And, for that matter, nor can they miss the opportunity to read his forthcoming book, The Joy of Talk.


‘The party’s aims and objectives are to remind the electorate of Plato’s observation that the point of politics is to create an environment which maximises the opportunity for people to find happiness. Loneliness is now a greater obstacle than poverty. The Joy of Talk is a book, a political party, an attitude, a way of life and a philosophy that puts the pursuit of love and friendship through conversation before the getting and spending of money. Its plan of action is to create a chain of restaurants called The Sack of Salt, in which each member of staff works just one shift a week for nothing but a pint of cold beer, a plate of delicious food and plenty of metaphorical hugs. Part time heaven.’

And the party emblem?

‘An open pair of lips.’

Kit Fraser is a jolly fellow. He will make an excellent MP, for he is innovative, has a rollicking sense of humour and is determined to bring some merriment to the House.

The present lot of MPs are so conditioned by the current torrent of lies and mis-representation that they have become immune to the realities of life. The old adage that if you live in such an environment you become part of it is now more true than ever.

What is needed urgently is for the likes of Kit Fraser to illuminate an otherwise bleak and dark warren of political corridors, and inspire a new spirit of hope and joie de vivre.

Watch out for the book’s publication before the General Election.