Antony Lambton, the former Conservative Member of Parliament known widely as ‘Lord Lambton’, died in December 2006. Here is my interview with him, from my book Singular Encounters.
You come from a family with ancient roots. Did the legend of the Lambton Worm figure prominently in your childhood?
No. It was always a sort o fairy story and I don’t think anyone took it very seriously. Two books on it have been published and there was an opera which played in Oxfordshire. But it is a classic story about how the first Lambton broke his word. The witch who told him how to kill the worm insisted that afterwards he must kill the first living thing he saw, so he told his father to let the dog go the moment the Worm was dead. His father was so excited however, that he forgot to let go of the dog and instead came running up himself. Lambton failed to kill his father, and although he killed the dog afterwards, the family was still cursed. No Lambton was to die in his bed for nine generations.
The last one had the worst time of it. For eight generations the heads of the family did die in their beds, but when the ninth was ill and his servants thought he was going to depart, they kept trying to throw him onto the floor so he wouldn’t die in his bed. Then one day he got better, went for a drive in the park and died on the bridge. So it turned out to be true in a way, but before that he was so nervous he used to keep pistols by the bed to stop his servants throwing him onto the floor whenever they thought he was dying. It was always a rather comic story.
The family history is certainly interesting. There was a major setback in the seventeenth century when one of the Lambtons was a cavalier. In reprisal for him being on the King’s side all the coal mines, which we always depended on for money, were flooded. But worse than that – or more expensive – was the fact that he had two wives and by the time he died at the age of fifty-six there were twenty-seven children, and that was ruinous. He had needed to extend the house and educate all twenty seven, a considerable undertaking even in those days.
What really changed the family was marrying into the Villiers family- a very remarkable one which had a great impact on English history. The Villiers connection produced my family’s greatest member, a governor-general of Canada and the man who created the Reform Bill. He was much more a Villiers than a Lambton. Most Lambtons were rather staid and uninteresting I should think from their portraits.
Does being born into the aristocracy give a special viewpoint on the rest of society and the contemporary world?
People who are well born and brought up, go to public schools and are surrounded by people who look after them, do have a sense of security. That’s partly due to the fact that you mix with all classes from an early age. The keepers, the groom, people like that. One always got to know them, so there was never any feeling of class antagonism, which is what makes for uncertainty. One realized they were just as good as oneself if not better, so there was no sense of superiority, which is the sort of bogus thing a lot of nouveaux riches try and achieve. When you are fortunate enough to be born and brought up with members of all classes, you don’t have that sense, and you think and know everyone is the same as you are and treat them accordingly.
Being born into the aristocracy certainly gives one confidence. I was brought up to think that you always said what you thought. My family always did that, I suppose the classic example of that came about when my first cousin, Alec Douglas-Home, was made prime minister. When his mother was asked what she thought of it, she said well, quite frankly, she’d have preferred Mr Butler – which was straight speaking. For the most part people were delighted, but she was really rather disappointed, and his brothers only said he was a good shot or something of the kind.
As an aristocrat you have a certain position in society which is not shaken much by what you do, and that is the great strength. So many people are terrified they will be dropped by society if they open their mouths and tell the truth. In my political life I always tried to be quite straightforward. I couldn’t stand Harold Macmillan when he was prime minister and was always speaking out against him. I was criticized a lot for it at the time, but now the wheel has come full circle and I think a lot of the things I said would happen have happened. Macmillan didn’t know the meaning of truth. He was an actor, moved by emotion, and that is a bad thing for a prime minister to be.
Was Macmillan an eccentric? I think he was a conscious eccentric. At the end of his life he tried to accentuate his eccentricity and started telling stories about himself which others had told but which had never occurred. For instance, the book about him by Alistair Horne has a farcical bit where Macmillan was talking to Kennedy who supposedly said, ‘I don’t know about you, Harold, but I get a headache if I don’t go to bed with a woman for three days.’ It was just a story, but
Macmillan began to believe it, as he did with a number of others told about him. He started retelling them himself as though they were the gospel truth.
As for eccentrics generally, there are certainly nothing like the ones about that there used to be – in the countryside, anyway. When I was a boy, parsons were often eccentric because the countryside was so cut off from towns that people there were able to develop their own little kingdoms, in the Church, in the law, or as landlords. They became little kings on their own and did and said what they wanted, and so they became noted figures, almost caricatures of themselves.
There have recently been disadvantages attached to being an aristocrat because, after the war, the upper classes were rather looked down on. They were blamed for the war and were thought to have been behind the pre-war governments, and many of them were in those governments. I think the return of the gossip column has given them a new lease of life as glamorous figures. The man more responsible than anyone for that is, I suppose, Nigel Dempster – a remarkable columnist in his way, though he’s said some very unpleasant things about me. He’s a remarkably readable writer and he’s made the whole class much more interesting than they were before he started on it.
The often rather bad publicity in the past has sometimes made it hard for people from an aristocratic background to get into the House of Commons. Before the war, if you had a name, you could get into the House of Commons, and a lot of very unsuitable people got in just because of their title. That doesn’t happen now. Those who do succeed in being elected do extraordinarily well, and today we have the example of William Waldegrave, who is an aristocrat, and I think young people like him are surmounting the prejudice. One of Mrs Thatcher’s chief assets is that she regards merit as the criterion, and if you have merit, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you don’t have merit, it doesn’t matter who you are either. She looks for merit in any level of society she can find it.
Speaking of the charm of the aristocracy, don’t make any mistake about it, a great number of the British aristocracy are not charming. Some of them are absolutely minus charm. Charm is quite distinct from breeding. The Irish peasant has enormous charm, but you wouldn’t call him an aristocrat. There is hardly an Irishman who can’t charm the birds off a tree, the old blarney, as they call it. In fact, the Irish lower classes are probably more charming than the upper. Charm is found in every stratum of society, and it can be quite a dangerous thing because it influences people and makes them like whoever has it. Even villains can be charming.
Yes, I did know Sir Oswald Mosley, and he had charm without any doubt. He also had a gift of mesmerism, which was the strength of his political standing. I liked him very much, actually. He was fascinating to talk to, had an extraordinarily clear mind and knew exactly what he wanted. He proposed a scheme in the early 1930s which, had the Labour or Conservative party accepted it, would probably have done away with unemployment years before it happened. But he was turned down. He had left the Conservative party because he found them so old-fashioned,and tried the Labour party but found they were in their way just as conservative. So he was driven out by his own talents.
It was a pity. He was a most remarkable speaker. I went to hear him after the war, and you could see people listening to him, really drinking in what he said. Of course, what he was saying by then sounded so old-fashioned that he was out of tune with the generation of Gaitskell and Butlerism. It was a hopeless uphill battle, though he did foresee the survival of Germany, the revival of Germany, and the reunification which is likely to come now as well as the necessity for a strong Europe to balance it. In fact, he foresaw many of the situations which now exist.
People are inclined to dismiss Mosley as a fascist. He wasn’t a fascist in many senses of the word. He was basically a radical, though of course he did go too far towards Hitler. I think he would have made a radical leader of the country, but he was too gifted not to be in a hurry. Had he waited his time, he would probably have been prime minister in the 1930s, but one of the troubles with people who are given to a belief in their own leadership is that they are seldom prepared to wait. Therefore they make mistakes.
The classic example of a man born with all the gifts of leadership in his generation is Sir James Goldsmith. He is a man who can talk to people and mesmerize them into believing what he believes, because he believes it so strongly. He is the most Napoleonic figure of this generation. Goldsmith has built up a stupendous fortune out of bravado and a belief in himself, and has the power of leadership, but whether that power is dangerous is another matter. It’s a great pity that he wasn’t made a member of the House of Lords, and although he might have been in too much of a hurry to achieve a great deal himself, the very fact of him being in the House would have meant there was a constant flow of ideas and impressions. He is the most iconoclastic person I have ever met. He makes one understand great men in the past who overcame extraordinary obstacles by sheer force of personality.
How in a democratic state can we justify having an unelected house of peers as part of the governmental system?
I think the House of Lords really works rather well now, because when you say unelected house of peers, that is true in some sense, but in another, now that the government can make life peers, you are getting a good number of people brought in from outside. I wouldn’t say the hereditary peers were showing up very well at the moment. A large number of the efficient ones are the life peers, especially in the Labour and Liberal parties. The hereditary House of Lords is a fairly harmless anachronism, but the more life peers of the right sort you get into it – and by that I don’t mean the sort Wilson elected – the better it will be.
You always have to reward your supporters, but I think Mrs Thatcher has made one or two bad appointments to the House of Lords. On the other hand, the most extreme, the most violent of her supporters, who chanted a song about Heath after he had been defeated, was never rewarded at all. So she hasn’t rewarded all of her followers, not the most extreme ones, and she’s always had a lot of so-called ‘Wets’ in her government. She still has. Whitelaw was for years one other stand-bys, and he was certainly not as right wing as she was, but he always supported her in the long run. To return to Wilson’s honours list, I think it was very strange and rather regrettable because they kept going to prison. A very funny lot.
Was your own entry into politics the fulfilment of an early ambition?
I always wanted to be in politics and I fought the 1945 election when I was twenty-two. I think I was the youngest candidate in England. Of course, I was overwhelmingly beaten. Then I fought the 1950 election from bed – I had pneumonia. But I got in for Berwick in 1951 when I was just twenty-nine. I have to say that although I did regard political life as a ruling passion, when it came to it I minded being out of it much less than I had expected. To begin with, I don’t think I really ever had good enough health to be a politician. One of the great requisites, certainly for the modern politician, is health. I had incipient jaundice for years which made me feel very ill nearly all the time I was in politics. I really don’t miss anything about politics very much, though I’m still quite interested. I always read the political articles in the papers and make up my own mind about a subject.
You ask, concerning my own experience, whether there should be restrictions on the private lives of public figures. Well, I don’t see how you can have them, but there are dangers attached to the rather quaint state of affairs that exists at the moment. Before the war, politicians knew exactly what private life they wanted, and everybody knew about it. Dozens of members of parliament of all parties went to bed with their secretaries, had love affairs and indulged what are called sexual foibles, but it was never in the papers. Everybody knew, but it was always considered a joke. Suddenly every little thing is in the papers and these things become public property because the American system of reporting, which didn’t exist here before the war, now does exist and goes after exposing people. In the United States, before the war, a large number of very decent people would not go into politics for fear of being exposed as this or that. The same thing is happening here today.
The reason comes out of both public hypocrisy and the press emphasis on circulation figures. The papers do it because they know it sells copies, but they also do it because they know people like it. Morality always has been a red rag to a bull. I remember Macaulay’s famous statement that nothing was so ridiculous as the British public in one of its fits of morality. There always was a terrific degree of hypocrisy about it all.
It is rather a curious contradiction that just when the greater part of the people of this country are far more immoral than ever before, these same people want to impose morality on others. Sexual drive very often goes with political drive. If you look at Lloyd George, he was almost manic in his pursuit of women. I once had a secretary who was said to be Lloyd George’s illegitimate daughter. She told me how her father would advertise in the papers for so-called assistants, women who used to come from abroad. He would try to seduce them, and very often succeed. This daughter told me how his wife became so desperate at his peccadilloes that she eventually hired from Ireland a one-armed woman with a squint, and even then Lloyd George seduced her after a week. None of it ever came out in the papers. I think you do constrict talent if you suddenly constrict morals.
I’m not sure it’s really in any way that the British public want theirpoliticians to behave like saints. They do enjoy the scandals enormously, they love reading about them, but I don’t think it matters to them. I don’t want to talk about myself here, but I recall that when Profumo resigned in 1960, there was a poll taken in his constituency and an overwhelming number of his constituents said they would vote for him again. If Profumo had not resigned, he could have been re-elected with a very large majority in Stratford-upon-Avon and have stayed on in Parliament. He could have said, ‘I told a lie. That was the mistake I made, though I don’t think it is a resigning matter.’ His resignation arose out of trying to contain the thing so that other people would not be dragged into the imbroglio. The great majority of my constituents said they would support me, too, but I had also resigned by then. There was really no alternative the way things are. I received a great number of letters of sympathy and one of the papers had a poll of three or four hundred people, and they said what had happened had nothing to do with my politics.
As for the socalled security aspects, when Profumo left I made a speech int eh House of Commons saying it would have been much more dangerous if he had not been to bed with Miss Keeler. By going to bed with her it was made perfectly plain what he was doing with her, and nobody should have minded because he was probably only doing what 80 per cent of the members of the House of Commons had done. If he had not gone to bed with her, he would have been talking about God knows what and it would have been very suspicious. But everything was turned upside down, and the fact he had been to bed with her was made the reason for his resignation.
Morally speaking, I haven’t changed my view that most men would expect their wives to be tolerant about what are essentially unimportant episodes. If every wife left her husband because he had been unfaithful to her, there would be very few marriages going. When I said at my resignation that there’s a world of difference between doing something and being found out, I think it was just the truth. It always has been the truth. A lot of leading Conservatives were having wild love affairs, had long-standing mistresses, so long as it didn’t become too public.
Look at Kennedy. Everybody knew roughly what he was up to and nothing about it ever came out. The American press was so much quieter then than it is now, and he was a hero to the press as well as to the public, especially to the rather left-wing press, so everything was covered up.
Interviewed by Robin Day in 1975, you said you had sometimes, when abroad, taken such drugs as hashish and opium on the basis of autres pays, autres moeurs. Where should legislation stand in combating the serious drug problem today?
I think it’s a terrible problem now. There’s all the difference between things like opium- and cannabis and the hard drugs. Heroin really is a killer, as is cocaine, but the terrifying fact we have to remember is that alcohol was also a huge killer in the 1930s in the United States after Prohibition. I don’t know what the answer is. Nobody seems to have any difficulty getting drugs. People who want to have them have them, and if they don’t get them they seem to murder or steal to get them.
It would certainly be quite interesting if some country did try the legalization of drugs to see what the effect would be, but here you come up against practical politics. The fact is that if any party in Britain tried to legalize drugs, all the inborn hypocrisy of the English character would cry out against it, and legitimately in some ways, because the risk might be considerable. I don’t think it’s a risk that any politician will ever be able to take because the opposition party would climb on a moral bandwagon.
We once had a generation of giants in politics – giants in rhetoric and personality. Now the species seems quite extinct, the level of debate reduced to slanging and point scoring.
One of the reasons is that the right people aren’t going into politics, it is now a hell of a life. I don’t know quite what the divorce rate for politicians is today, but it is enormously high. You have this terrifically intense constituency life these days, where you have to go every weekend and make speeches and think not about the state of the country but about the state of your constituents. When constituents demand more and more attention, it’s not good for politicians. Constituents ought to elect a man and then leave him alone, not insist on his coming to tea once a week or once a month.
Rhetoric aside, I think Mrs Thatcher will be remembered as a very remarkable prime minister who achieved more than Churchill did in his peacetime days, though she certainly wouldn’t have been as good a war prime minister as he was. Churchill was too old once the war was over. After he had a stroke the country was ruled in reality, though nobody knew it by three men. Sir Jock Colville, Sir Burke Trend and Christopher Soames. They really kept the front up. For many months Churchill wasn’t fit to be prime minister. I don’t think the men of that generation were always quite the giants they were made out to be. Butler may have been a giant, but he had clay feet. And Macmillan’s achievement in this country was to leave it in the most appalling state for Wilson or anyone who succeeded him.
I certainly would have been a Thatcherite today. I find the present demeaning of Mrs Thatcher rather low-spirited because she has achieved really extraordinary things for this country. The fact is that when she came in the trade unions had defeated Callaghan and were ready to take over. Her battle with Scargill was a historic battle and very few people would have been able to go into it with the strength she showed or to have succeeded as she did. That was really crossing the Rubicon for this country. If we hadn’t been led across, I don’t know how we would have managed, because the country was getting into a worse and worse economic mess and she has created a sort of economic miracle We’re having a bad hiccup at the moment, but fundamentally our economic position is still strong despite the so-called crisis.
Wilson is said to be discredited now, but I think it’s a little hard OB him because he’s not very well. The trouble with Wilson was that he was too good-natured and he found it very difficult to sack anybody Then, of course, he thought the way to placate the unions was to feed them, get them to Downing Street, give them drinks, lay on parties for them, and in that way he bribed them to follow him. And of course they just took more and more and ratted on the Labour Party It was Wilson who created the third estate: the trade unionists who were really directing the government. Once they had defeated Callaghan in 1978, they then tried to defeat Mrs Thatcher. Callaghan was a much more considerable man than he’s made out to be, but he never had a chance as prime minister and it was actually Mrs Thatcher who took the bull by the horns and pulled the country out of a sort of bog where restrictive practices were bringing everything to a standstill.
In The Times of 20 January 1975, you said that. not only were Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher discredited as contenders for the party leadership, they were also discredited as leading Conservatives . . .
What I meant then was that those who were called the ‘Wets’ regarded Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph as dangerous lunatics, and when it looked as though she was putting herself forward as a candidate, there was a tremendous movement to discredit her. It didn’t succeed because of the strength of her personality and the very shrewd campaign carried out by Airey Neave on her behalf in the House of Commons. She beat Heath to the amazement of everybody. The Tory Party couldn t believe what had happened; it seemed impossible. I did not know her very well and had no idea she had all these qualities underneath her slightly genteel surface.
I understand Heath’s lasting bitterness. He is a remarkable man with great talents, but he does find it difficult to communicate and he has been his own worst enemy. He is a shy man, a very shy man, who has lived for himself and for politics, putting politics before private hie most markedly. He is basically a kind man, who has good instincts, but he doesn’t quite understand how to deal with people. One of the jobs of the prime minister is to see the chairman of the 1922 Committee every week to get the feeling of the back benches, and I remember, shortly after Heath became prime minister, that Vere Harvey, the then chairman, went to see him. Now, Vere Harvey had been in the RAF and was a man who liked a drink, one who would settle down with a whisky and soda and talk twice as well if he had one Heath didn’t understand this at all, and Harvey wasn’t offered a drink of any kind. The next time Harvey went in to see Heath, he asked for a drink, and Heath rang the bell and said, ‘Bring a cup of tea for Air Commodore Harvey.’
The incident showed a misunderstanding caused by Heath’s total concentration on the mechanics of politics to the exclusion of the human beings who ran them. That was his fault: he lived for politics, and when he became prime minister it was his dream come true. He thought he would transform Britain, but then he was hit by two very unfortunate things The first was the price of oil suddenly going up from $3 to 5.1-5 a barrel, which totally upset the whole British economy and made everything he had planned impossible. The second was the miners’ strike, which led to him being very badly advised, in my view, about the date for the election. Who was responsible, I do not know, but I do know Lord Carrington was against the date for which the election was called. It should either have been for two weeks earlier or two weeks later, and to have called it just after giving in to the trade unions was a disaster.
Heath minded what happened terribly, and I think he considered it was fortune and not his own mistakes that was responsible for him no longer being prime minister. He saw, as he thought, success being dashed from his lips just when he had the answer, for he passionately believed in himself as a conciliator, someone who could draw all Britain together. He was always a member of the one-nation group, as I had been years before, and that made him mind dreadfully about his failure. But he minded especially because it was a woman who unseated him; he felt that made him look stupid. I wouldn’t say it did at all, but it was all a great pity because the country needed Heath and, had he held his ground and been able to overcome his bitterness, he could certainly have served Mrs Thatcher and built up a power base in the party which might have made her style of government much more difficult.
Whether it was all for good or ill, I don’t know, but Heath minded beyond how a prime minister should mind, the reason being that he was so totally engrossed with politics that he didn’t have anything except his music – which is a minor consolation – to fall back on. He wasn’t married, he didn’t have children, he didn’t have a family life at all. It was a tragedy – really very sad. One only wishes he could take a new lease of life because he is still a man of remarkable quality.
In 1976 you said you were afraid that if the Conservatives lost the election there would he few conservative beliefs left to conserve after another five years of socialism. After ten years of Thatcherism, many would claim we see the yuppies reigning supreme and rutlilessness and single-mindedness dominant at the expense of compassion. What is your view?
You have to be brash to make money, and so there is bound to be a lot of attention concentrated on the yuppies, but I don’t think they’re any worse than people who made money in the Victorian age, who talked about brass, who built hideous houses and churches. The monev we’re spending on the National Health Service has never been greater, and it’s never been a more inefficient service. Meanwhile nobody knows exactly how to tackle the problem. You could say that Mrs Thatcher has tackled it in quite the wrong way. It should be tackled by concentrating the public’s attention on the number of people in the NHS who are actually nurses or doctors, or assistants to doctors or contributors to medicine. These numbers should then be published alongside what I would call the number of fellow travellers who hang about hospitals filling in forms, wasting time, red tapers and so on.
What I don’t think you can say is that someone who spends the money she spends on the NHS can be without compassion. It seems to me that she cares passionately about things. She wants to get a country which is self-supporting as far as possible, where people can work hard and make money if they can. The NHS should be efficiently run with nurses doing the job and not this enormous wastage of money on those who are not actually employed in nursing. I cannot understand why the arguments have been so badly presented, and I think there is still time before the next general election to look at the whole matter of presentation and the refiguring of the structures of those engaged directly in medicine and those who are red-tape hangers-on.
Another question on which Mrs Thatcher has played it all wrong concerns the sort of federation we are to have in a United Europe. The majority of countries want, as much as she does, not a tight but a loose federation. They want to be able to continue making their laws in their own way. Mrs Thatcher, by leading with her chin, has made it possible for other countries to hide behind her and not come out with their opinions, and therefore she has miscalculated her tactics. Had she played it more skilfully and kept more in the background, others would have done what she has done and she need never have been labelled a bad European.
Whether Mrs Thatcher would win an election tomorrow is almost impossible to tell. When an election comes, it’s like Dr Johnson said: When a man is going to be hung tomorrow it concentrates his mind wonderfully. When you’re going to elect a government tomorrow, it concentrates your mind in the same way. I don’t consider Kinnock is a very impressive personality, and I’m sure the Labour party would be a house of Babel if it were in power again, because there are left-wingers and right-wingers and there are ambitionists. I don’t think they quite know what they would do.
Are they really going to renationalize? If so, where’s the money coming from? Who’s going to pay for it? Whether Mrs Thatcher can be unseated would depend on whether the economy was right by the time the election was fought. People vote for their own pockets as much as for anything. And if things are good, they’re not going to risk it by having the Labour party back again and a lot of meaningless policies and unknown expenditure.
Do I find Mrs Thatcher colourful or attractive? No, I don’t find her colourful and I don’t find her a very attractive woman. I don’t think she has many womanly graces, but I do think she has courage and convictions. Basically what she wants is to create a prosperous country which can pay for itself, pay for its health and social services of all kinds, and not go bankrupt in the process. She has made great steps in that direction despite this momentary hiccup.
A lot of young journalists claim to find her sexually attractive.
Is that so? Well, some years ago there was an association of prostitutes in Italy who were known as the Grandmothers of Milan, and I think the youngest was seventy and the eldest bedridden and eighty-seven, and they did roaring trade with very young people. So perhaps she does have this peculiar fascination for the young.
Journalists have sometimes commented to me – especially if they come from the Daily Telegraph – that they take exception to having to address you as Lord Lambton when you have in fact relinquished your peerage. Can you clarify this?
I don’t think there has really been any confusion. What I had was a courtesy title which is borne by the eldest son of a peer. It is not a lawful title but a courtesy title. I sat in the House of Commons when my father was still alive as Antony Claud Frederick Lambton, Esquire, commonly called Lord Lambton, and that is really all there is to it. In the Peerage Bill it is absolutely stressed that courtesy titles do not exist in law. I continued to sit in the House of Commons after my father died. No change was made in the register of the House of Commons because it wasn’t a legal name.
What is your attitude to the monarchy as it exists today?
I see it as a very sensible institution. Franco brought back the monarchy in Spain, and when he was asked why, he said for the simple reason that it saved so much time. If you haven’t got a king you have to spend a terrible lot of time at receptions and such-like events. You either have to have a president or you have to have a king., The Queen is immensely popular and she has really done a rather wonderful job. She’s been queen for thirty-eight years and she has never made a really serious mistake in all that time. Now that is a remarkable thing. You don’t want a very brilliant, dynamic queen, or a queen who interferes in affairs of state. She hasn’t interfered and the whole royal family continues to be a source of enormous interest to people.
The only danger I see about Prince Charles is that he might start interfering in politics and it’s something a king can’t do. Neither Edward VII nor George V nor George VI nor the Queen have done so. But I think that when Prince Charles does become king he will find that he has so much to do, such varied responsibilities, that he will probably not branch out into opinions too much. It really wouldn’t be his function.
I know he has said some things that made people think him eccentric, about talking to flowers and bushes, for instance, but for hundreds of years people have been talking to flowers, to bees and trees; all countrymen do it. And Prince Charles is much more of a countryman than people realise. There is no reason why she shouldn’t make a good king so long as he doesn’t mix himself up with the politics of the country. He’s obviously got charm, ability and a love of art, which no member of the Hanoverian family has had since the Prince regent. And he can express himself quite well. But it’s an impossible position, being Prince of Wales. It must be immensely frustrating. I think one has to forgive anyone who is Prince of Wales a great deal. He must be bursting all the time to express his own real opinion.
When you wrote your recent controver5sial book about Mountbatten, was it simply to put the record straight or were there other factors?
I wrote a novel some years ago, published by you, called Elizabeth and Alexandria, about the last tsarina and her sister. They were Mountbatten’s aunts and I had to go through a lot of the Mountbatten papers to research the book. To my extreme annoyance I found that practically everything he said was lies. He was a myth maker – lived in the land of myth. I don’t know what the things were that I brought out that anyone is said to have objected to, because the most damaging thing had already come out in Zeigler’s book; the business of his trying to get the name of the royal family changed to Mountbatten-Windsor. It does seem rather ridiculous that Mountbatten, who was pure German, was trying to foist a German name on to the British royal family. He didn’t succeed, of course.
No doubt my book wasn’t welcomed in royal circles, but a lot of the royal family aren’t great readers, and if they had been they would have found all the same undesirable things coming to light in Zeigler or Mountbatten’s own books. He said the most extraordinary things, and when I quoted them I was said to be wrong, though when Mountbatten himself said them, they were supposedly all right. He could not tell the truth; he simply couldn’t. He didn’t know how to.
Mountbatten, you seem had a an agonising youth a s German boy among four or five hundred English boys. He was mercilessly bullied an in my view retreated into mythland for ever afterwards. But my book, you know, hardly dealt with Mountbatten himself; it really dealt with his family. He was as untruthful about that as he was about himself. For example, he always claimed to be royal. He wasn’t royal in any way. His father was known to be the illegitimate son of a German Baron, his mother the daughter of an impecunious Pole whose father had a very strange career which I could have brought but didn’t. In fact, I wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I might have been about the Mountbattens.
His books about his family are absolutely packed with imagination. He had this curious love of grandeur that he couldn’t get away from. and in his memoirs one is shown how he was never wrong, never made a mistake in his life, and so on and so forth. I don’t know how one would feel about him if one had been one of the people sent by him on the disaster of the Dieppe raid, but he was a very interesting man because of his remarkable personality. He was a remarkable leader of men, with the charisma to make those who served under him adore him and minimize his faults. If you met him, and he wanted you to like him, you would, but although he had the great qualities of leadership, he wasn’t a considerable man otherwise. He wasn’t a clever man, he was almost illiterate, and the books he advised his daughters to read you might suggest to a ten-year-old boy. But although I wrote political journalism for about thirty years, I never once attacked him. What finally really annoyed me was discovering a man gradually creating a whole school of history which was an absolute myth, all to glorify his own family.
I didn’t really go into the rumours about his sexuality, though a lot of people sent me some of the most grotesque things relating to him. One was a picture of a man with a fox and hounds tattooed on his back, the fox going up his behind. I asked two of his friends who had known him very well and often seen him bathing, and they said such a tattoo simply didn’t exist. But I wasn’t looking for any evidence of that sort because, to begin with, his children are still alive, and secondly, it is quite wrong to go into a person’s sexual habits unless they have had a profound influence on his life. Whatever habits Mountbatten may have had, they didn’t change his character one iota. He was a man entirely devoted to ambition and to righting the wrong he thought had been done to his father by becoming First Sea Lord. His sexual life wasn’t really sex. It was just exercise, that was all. Going to bed with a woman was no more important to him than going for a mile run.
I know nothing whatever about the Queen’s feelings over any influence he may have had on Prince Charles, but he was probably very kind and Prince Charles is known to have been very fond of him. He was kind because he was in love with royalty, longed to be royal himself, always used the royal door at Knights of the Garter meetings when he had no real right to. He adored royalty, and his diaries after 1920 reveal how incredibly ingratiating and obsequious he was to the then Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, as a young man. Prince Edward had been best man at Mountbatten’s wedding and afterwards stuck by him. Mountbatten always did everything he could with him, would travel to India with him, use him in every sense he possibly could, and then, after the abdication had happened, he didn’t even go to his wedding but gave the excuse that he hadn’t been asked.
Well, he usually went to everything without being asked, anyhow, and the former Prince of Wales was very upset indeed. Afterwards Mountbatten did try to go and see the Windsors and get things out of them, but there was such antagonism that the butler or footman was eventually asked to stay in any room where he was in case he put something in his pocket. He behaved in a very odd way to the Windsors, though when one says he liked Prince Charles, I’m sure he did. Whether he would have gone on liking Prince Charles if Prince Charles had stepped down as heir to the throne is hard to say. He certainly didn’t like the Duke of Windsor after he abdicated – until he died, when he was his best friend again.
About your literary career: what are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing six short stories about the Holocaust. I wanted to write fiction again because it seems to me that one of the troubles with making people realize about the evil of the German reaction is that so many books about the Holocaust are presented as statistics. It is quite impossible to comprehend a book that says 350 were taken and gassed in Auschwitz, next day 400 went to Belsen and had nothing to eat. What I’m trying to do is to fictionalize and put flesh on some of the things that actually happened and make them happen to real people, and to show that those who carried out many of the atrocities were not necessarily extreme Nazis but quite ordinary people who were sucked into the Nazi machine. I think the Germans have a habit, a national habit, of needing orders, wanting to obey orders. I don’t know what the position is today, but as long ago as about 1800 Goethe said the trouble with Germany was that Germans prefer order to justice. I think that is quite true, and it is alarming what is happening now with the deaths of so many millions being reduced to statistics.
One of the tragic things in the world today is that Israel has begun to behave in a manner in some ways not dissimilar to how the Germans behaved in the war. You have virtually a state of war in Israel, and they are treating the Arabs like enemies. Remember the pictures on television of Israeli soldiers breaking bones. Power degenerates into cruelty. I’ve always sympathized with the retention of Israel as a state, but I very much doubt the Israelis will be able to hold world opinion if they go on as they are at the moment, I think they will have to withdraw-from the territories, certainly from a large portion of the territories, because they can’t continue to rule people who don’t want to be ruled without using methods reminiscent of what happened in the war.
But to get back to fiction, what I’m interested in is telling a story, because the whole of life is a story. I was rather annoyed when I wrote a book called Snow and Other Stories and a critic said it was a fault that the stories were open-ended. An open-ended story is much better. All Chekhov’s stories were open-ended, such stories being just glimpses of someone’s life in which the author tries to portray what they were like. Story-telling is the same sort of art as painting. Berenson, the noted art critic, used the word ‘tactility’, which he said was one of the great virtues of painting. You had to feel that the person in a portrait was so real you could touch him. Well, I think fiction wants to be the same, wants to create real people whom you feel you know and could touch.
I remember that the late Duff Cooper – the First Lord of the Admiralty during the war, probably forgotten by the younger generation – once told me how, when he was at school, one of the masters read them a Sherlock Holmes story and said, ‘Now I’ve read you this story I want you to remember one thing – Sherlock Holmes is a far more living personality than I am or any of you, or probably than anyone you’ll ever meet.’ And I believe that is the aim of all short-story and fiction writers. If you look at the Russians, again and again there are so many people you feel you know, who might come into the room. Anna Karenina and Natasha in War and Peace are two of the greatest characters I suppose anyone has ever known. What I am trying to do in this Holocaust series is bring to reality events which have been lost in detail. Make something real.
Certainly fiction does have an effect on the way people think and behave. You only need to look back at Goethe’s Young Werther. The book completely transformed a whole generation of upper and middle class young Germans. Literally hundreds of them killed themselves as a result of trying to be this tragic German figure. You see, the Germans haven’t much sensibility, and as soon as they were suddenly told they did have sensibility, they persuaded themselves they could love, and when they found they couldn’t they simply killed themselves, which was an extraordinary syndrome. Salinger was someone else who affected a whole generation. With The Catcher in the Rye he made a whole generation of American boyhood comprehensible.
Do I approve of censorship? Not really. I don’t think it does any good. However, in a way censorship very often helps an author. The Victorian novelists, for example, were greatly helped by not being able to write about sex. It’s always said that Thackeray in Vanity Fair could not portray Becky Sharp as the little prostitute she was, and that that caused a novel to be written which describes her absolutely perfectly. It means you have to dwell on the details which bring the person to life. Curiously enough, the sexiest book I’ve ever read is probably The Mill on the Floss. Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss are books of the sort of intense female frustration that could never possibly have been conveyed when there weren’t morals to be kept, laws to be kept, and restraint on authors. It did pose an author great problems, but when these were overcome the result has been masterly. People’s thoughts are far more interesting than the physical jerking which pervades modern literature.
Yes, I was quite waspish in my review of John Mortimer’s book on Tuscany. John Mortimer’s a very good writer, but I think rather a contemptible man. He believes it’s absolutely fine for him to be a left-wing socialist and to drink champagne at night. When a writer descends to the level of his book about Tuscany, full of the most embarrassing things and written at the lowest common denominator tourist level, I think one wants to be as waspish as possible. I wish I had been hornettish.
Baroness Falkender made a comment to me about your great charisma.
I don’t think I’ve got very much charisma.
Do you hold any religious convictions?
Not very strong ones. I have a vague sort of hope that there may be an after-life, but I see no logic to prove it and every sort of logic to disprove it. There lingers something in me, however, from beliefs imbued in my subconscious in the past, the idea of there being some world beyond to which people one loved have gone and where one can meet them, though where it can be and how it can be set up is something quite beyond me. I only wish I had the faith of a good Catholic.
I find it very difficult to believe in God. It’s quite easy to believe in the Devil. If there is a God, what has He been doing in the world? Why has He created one and a half billion Chinese mostly living in starvation? There are millions of people being born and dying in India. Every day the dead are pitchforked into carts by men going round the streets and throwing them in like bundles of hay. Why is God doing all this? Is he punishing mankind as he did in the Old Testament?
You have to have the grace of belief, yes, but you have to believe a lot of damn silly things as well, especially if you’re an old-fashioned Roman Catholic. Then, of course, one of the main reasons why religion is dying is nobody believes in Hell any more. Hell was a very salutary weapon in the hands of governments and priests. It kept a lot of people under control. In Italy, where I spend much of my time, the priests used to rule with a rod of iron and the wretched people believed that, if they sinned, they would go to Hell and it would be everlasting. Practically every church had a picture of Hell, flames, devils pulling people away from Heaven by the legs and sticking things inside them, killing them.
I can’t understand what God is doing. I mean, if you look at the world now, what has Aids to do with the Africans – with poor people? Then you get that old arse Runcie whom I can’t understand at all. He seems one of the most inadequate Archbishops of Canterbury there ever has been, a rather pathetic old man who doesn’t want to upset anybody, but only wants to please everybody, yet doesn’t know how to. He seems a disaster for the Church of England because he appoints people who deny a number of its tenets, like the Bishop of Durham.
I don’t know what’s happened to Christianity. People no longer believe in God, really, but in some sort of instinct. I myself have never been able to understand what form He takes. As for the Trinity, what’s the point of the Trinity when One will do? Why should God want to shelve off his responsibilities on to the Holy Ghost and the Son, and why put his wretched Son on the Cross? Why portray it for the rest of the world to gloat at in every church in Christendom? The Christian religion is the only one I know which portrays cruelty as its symbol. The Moslems are nothing like so cruel.
But everyone has an inherent cowardliness, and as you grow older you either consciously or unconsciously try to persuade yourself there is an after-life, because the idea of leaving everybody you know and all your family behind is not appealing. You just have to face the fact that that’s it, really. I feel so sorry for old people who live thinking that the reward of life is going to be in Heaven. When you’re nearly dead it gives you a compensation to think that there’s someone who’s going to look after you just beyond the nursing-home bed, that there’s a beneficent man who’s going to take you up to Heaven. It gives you a certain satisfaction as you lie there, whereas if you think you’re going to be stubbed out like a cigarette end thrown out of a window, then it depresses you. So naturally you try and see pleasant alternatives. One does it all through life.
Looking back, do you ever wonder how you might have fared if you had stayed in politics?
I always thought after I left politics that the most important thing was to make another life. The most pointless thing in life is regret. It’s the biggest waste of time in the world. One’s life is a train on a one-way journey, and once you’ve passed a particular point, there’s no way you’re going to get back. The only thing is to go on and enjoy the other places where the train arrives. I wouldn’t say I’m a very happy person, but I don’t think I’m very unhappy either. I’m not bitter and I’m very interested in people. There’s no such thing as a happy life. I always rather despise those who complain of an unhappy childhood, especially once they have reached the age of twenty-five. Everybody has difficulties as a child at one stage or another. In fact, children who are too happy often lead disastrous lives because they’re not prepared for the buffets and blows of fate.
As to my marriage, I have been married for over forty years and my wife and I live apart for most of the time. It is an arrangement that of course has its difficulties, though it is probably the best compromise there is. The whole of life is a compromise. Nothing is black, nothing is white. No, I don’t really believe in divorce, though that, I should think, is probably a result of convention. As a child I never knew anyone who had been divorced. Childish impressions have an unpleasant way of fixing themselves in your mind.
For friendship, my greatest friends have nearly all been women. I find women more sympathetic than men. I also find them more logical. Men are so illogical because ambition is always distorting their logic. They’re channelled and much more selfish. Women are watchers of life, observers in life, manipulators behind the scenes in life. I find their views much more interesting than those of men, who are always walking down their own road, not looking this way or that, just talking about the things they meet on the road – usually very boring.
Have you an unfulfilled ambition?
No. At my age – I’m sixty-seven – you can’t really hope to do anything immense. One of the consolations of age is that you see the pettiness of material success, how it doesn’t very often bring happiness. Also, when you’re young, you mind whether people like you, you mind if you’ve said something stupid, you mind if you’re not asked to some occasion or other, but when you get older you look on these matters with slightly detached eyes. You mind much less and things are much simpler. I don’t think I could bear to be young again.