Monthly Archives: May 2010

No Longer With Us: Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921. After attending Columbia University in New York she worked as a freelance journalist until the publication of her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Her numerous psychological thrillers include The Blunderer (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960, filmed 1979), Those Who Walk Away (1976), A Dog’s Ransom (1972) and People Who Knock on the Door (1983). The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of the Ripley series, was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll. The world she creates was described by Graham Greene as claustrophobic and irrational, ‘one we enter each time with a sense of personal danger’. Patricia Highsmith died in February 1995.

Here is my interview with her from my book, More of A Certain Age.

Your parents separated before you were born, at a time when separation and divorce were not as common as they are now. Did you feel different from other children?

Frankly, no. I was born in my grandmother’s house in Texas. It was a very warm, friendly atmosphere, and I was very happy until I was six years old when I was taken up to New York, but even there it wasn’t bad. It was suddenly different to be amidst all those people, but I remember getting along very well with the blacks in my school because they seemed to have the same accent. And New York is always interesting.

You seem to have had a highly unusual childhood…do you remember it as an unhappy time, or did you just accept your circumstances?

I had to accept them. My mother remarried when I was three or four, and she was rather a neurotic type to say the least, always picking quarrels with my stepfather, so life was a little bit difficult.

Do you believe that childhood influences and environment shape and mould the pattern of our adult lives?

I believe very much what the Roman Catholics say about a child up to the age of seven. Moral training has taken place by then, and my grandmother was rather strict on those things. She was not severe, but she knew what was right and wrong, and nobody ever tried to cross her. I’m quite sure that left its mark on me.

Did you ever regret being an only child?

No. I never missed having brothers and sisters. Even now, although I very much like people, I am happy to live alone. The main point is that I can’t work with anybody else in the house, so if I lived with somebody I’d have to give up my work, or else somehow create a small house on the lawn and just take myself off there.

You didn’t meet your real father until you were twelve years old. Can you recall your feelings at that time?

I was shy and also curious. It was in my grandmother’s house and I saw him for only five or ten minutes – we didn’t even sit down. He took a look at my hand, as if to say, yes, you’re my child, but he was almost a stranger, rather brusque and formal.

Did you see him later on in life?

Yes. After the first encounter, he walked me to school and back a couple of times. Later between high school and college I went to Texas again to visit my grandmother, and I saw a great deal of him then. We went out to dinner and I met a lot of his friends.

And did you begin to like him?

In my opinion, there was nothing to dislike about him.

Your novels are often concerned with anxiety, confused relationships and loss of identity, which would seem to be the outstanding features of your own childhood…would you agree?

I don’t see the loss of identity. I took the name Highsmith which was my stepfather’s name, but that is not a loss of identity. In any case, fiction writers tend to write about problems, not about happy families. I write about murders, but I never wanted to murder anybody.

How would you describe your relationship with your stepfather? Was he to all intents and purposes your father, or were there barriers?

He was not what you would call a strong father figure, or indeed a strong anything. He was a man of very good character, a mild man whom my mother bossed around. I was about sixteen when I began to realise that it was my mother who was causing the difficulties. But I don’t feel his influence. I had to make my own character.

It seems that your mother explained family circumstances to you when you were ten years old, but that you had worked things out for yourself before then. Did you feel betrayed by that, or angry that she hadn’t told you before?

No. I did not feel angry at all. She had simply been evading the issue, putting it off.

I read somewhere about your mother losing one of your manuscripts which you interpreted as an act of terrible indifference. You must have felt very hurt and disappointed.

Not really. By then I was already thirty-four years old – I know because it was the time of my grandmother’s death. My mother did not take care of things and she lost the manuscript along with a lot of other papers, my letters to my grandmother, my college exam results, and so on. But I did not think it malicious. She was simply disorganised.

Do you think that your experience, or perhaps lack of experience of men during your formative years – absent father, stepfather, etc. – led to a mistrust of men in later life?

No, because I had boyfriends from the age of sixteen. And, as a matter of fact, I regarded my stepfather as being very trustworthy.

The heroes of your books are invariably men. The women are less interesting – they are often sluttish or have disagreeable habits. Do you have a kind of contempt for your own gender?

No. Edith’s Diary, for instance, is entirely about a woman and her struggles, a woman who tried to do her best. She failed in the end, but I think I wrote about her with considerable respect.

Your Little Tales of Misogyny, in the words of the blurb, shows ‘the generic awfulness of the female sex’. Were they written tongue-in-cheek, or with an underlying conviction?

With a conviction about certain aspects of women, such as a kind of phoniness and trying to be oh-so-correct, but one could do the same kind of book about men, a similar exaggeration of masculine traits.

Do you feel a sense of solidarity with your fellow women?

No. I’ve never been in that position. I can be in favour of women’s causes, but I don’t join them. If it’s a matter of donating a little money, or signing something, I might, but not extra work.

You have been independent all your life, you are successful, your own woman, all of which would seem to make you a shining example of the feminist movement. Have you ever felt strongly about women’s liberation?

Not strongly, no, but I’m not in a job that discriminates against women. I might have become angry if I’d been working in an office all my life.

Your book Carol, published under a pseudonym, describes the love which develops between two women. Why did the subject interest you?

Because society was more against love between women in those days, and I thought it was a good story, especially with the ex-husband in pursuit, making things as difficult as possible. I wasn’t consciously trying to convey a particular message, but I wanted to give it a happy ending.

Why did you write it under a pseudonym?

I was already labelled as a mystery writer, even though Strangers on a Train was not a mystery, and I didn’t want to be labelled as a gay writer. My publishers wanted another book like Strangers on a Train, but as usual I wrote what I wanted to.

It was unusual in those days to give a positive portrayal of homosexuality. Were you trying, to shock, or make people examine their prejudices, or what?

Neither. I was trying to tell a story which I thought was interesting.

Your heroine Carol has to face the choice of losing her daughter or losing her lover, but there is no attempt to portray the situation from the child’s point of view, or to engage the reader’s sympathy with the child. I wonder if you perhaps lack a natural sympathy with children…

The child is only ten and I don’t think a ten-year-old would have been able to understand the situation then, or the feelings of society towards lesbianism. Besides, I don’t know much about children because I haven’t been around children since I was a child myself. Frankly I’m not particularly interested in children.

Have you ever wanted to have children?

No. Absolutely not. I think it’s very difficult to raise children properly, and I cannot live with people round me.

You live quite a reclusive existence. Is that how you planned it, or did it just happen that way?

To say I am a recluse is journalistic nonsense, as though I made an effort to stay alone, which is not the case. I like talking to people on the phone, I like people to drop by for a coffee. I do not consider myself a recluse.

You have always avoided literary circles or discussions with other writers. Do you think they might be too incestuous or is it perhaps a fear of boredom?

I’m not inclined to talk about my work before it is finished – I think it is very dangerous to do so – and then when a book is finished, why talk about it? To me another writer it not enough of a change mentally. I very much prefer painters and sculptors and photographers; they have a different way of seeing life.

In your books violence seems to take place almost as much in the head as in any overt way. Do you think this is a true reflection of the way it is, that most violence is cerebral, and seldom actually manifests itself?

I’m not interested in brute force, which is what prevails in the world today. The kind of people I write about debate with themselves beforehand – should they do it or not? This makes for more thinking about violence in my books than doing it.

You have said that you find the public passion for justice boring and artificial because ‘neither life nor nature cares if justice is done or not’. What exactly do you mean by that?

It’s a rather extreme remark, but even justice frequently goes wrong. There are cases of men and women falsely accused of murder. Also, only eleven per cent of murders are discovered now. Some people don’t count for very much so the police don’t try very hard to find out who killed them. In the majority of cases nobody cares enough to catch the murderer, especially in America where the jails are full and the police are very busy.

The world you portray is a very cynical one, full of emotional cripples. Is this for you a totally imaginary world, or does it reflect your experience of life?

The world is certainly full of very strange people. It’s a matter of degree. Sometimes people are just quirky which makes them interesting and funny, but sometimes their quirks are terribly serious.

In 1965 you said that you were sick of violence and butchery and psychopaths…yet psychopaths have followed you into the 90s.

Well, I made a mistake in 1965 then.

Graham Greene once described you as ‘the poet of apprehension rather than fear’. Is that a description you’re pleased with?

Yes, I regard it as a compliment. Apprehension implies that my books leave something to the imagination. The reader is made curious about what is going to happen.

He also said that your world is one ‘without moral endings’, in other words justice is often not done and the villains are free to carry on their evil doings. Do you see yourself as seriously challenging the normal moral scheme of things, or is it purely a game, an entertainment.

It’s more of a game. I’m principally interested in telling a good story.

But your novels often invite discussions of morality, fuelled by characters like Ripley who murder without conscience and get away with it. What message are you aiming to give to people?

None. I’m simply trying to create an interesting story. Some people might say Ripley’s attitude is impossible but I think his lack of conscience is entirely believable. My books are written to entertain. I don’t consider myself a deep thinker; I’m much more an intuitive kind of person.

Your book People Who Knock on the Door was dedicated to ‘the courage of the Palestinian people and their leaders in the struggle to regain a part of their homeland’. Why did you make that political gesture?

Because I thought it was right that I should. I blame my own country to some extent for what is going on now. I know people blame England for the mandate which led to all this, but America finances it now to a great degree. They also have the press under control and people are more or less told to shut up. Well, I don’t feel like shutting up. I think statements about injustice should be made. It’s shocking the way people sit in Long Island saying that the Palestinians should get their act together. When Hitler used the gun and the boots on the Jews nobody told them to get their act together. Nobody is able to face up to the gun. The Palestinians can’t even form small collectives to grow vegetables in poor soil on their own West Bank and Gaza without the Israelis breaking them up.

But what first brought the Palestinian cause to your attention?

The atrocity of it, the absolute injustice of the situation.

I understand you won’t allow your books to be published in Israel. Do you think gestures like that have any effect?

No, only in a very small way. I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening. That is what the Israelis want, and that’s frankly what they get round the New York area. From a humane point of view America turns too much of a blind eye to what Israel is doing there.

Do you feel as you grow older that your writing gets better and better?

That’s very tough. Unfortunately, I feel a tremendous slowing up; everybody does at my age, I think. Also life becomes more complicated as one grows older. There’s more paperwork, income-tax returns for two countries – all this has become burdensome somehow.

You have described the criminal as a free spirit. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

It’s not very flattering to the criminal because he just does anything he wants. It’s not something that I admire, but he’s definitely free in that respect. The rest of us have certain constraints, which is normal. For example, there are one or two people in my life whom I absolutely detest, but to murder them is out of the question.

Your heroes are usually unscrupulous, amoral and sometimes schizoid. Is it simply that they are more dramatically interesting figures to write about, or does your attraction to them run deeper than that?

It’s not so much attraction. I find them interesting, puzzling. Nobody questions why somebody is good, but most people are curious about a murderer – they want to know why. Also there is entertainment value in somebody getting away with something. One may disapprove, but it’s still fascinating;

Ripley differs from your other heroes in that he appears to have no conscience. Other characters are much more concerned with their own guilt. Is Ripley the exception…in art as in life?

Ripley is abnormal in the sense that he doesn’t feel the same amount of guilt as other people. He feels guilty for the first murder and then is reconciled to the others. I have to say that he’s exceptional.

It has sometimes been said that you are in love with Ripley, the rather likeable psychopath. Does this strike you as an absurd suggestion?

It’s just an exaggeration. I like to write about him, yes, but that’s all. It’s a silly phrase, ‘in love’.

Have you ever been love with a man?

In a way, yes. When I was around twenty-one…

What happened?

Nothing happened. It turned into friendship, and we were friends until he died.

Have you ever regretted not marrying?

No.

Lucretia Stewart who interviewed you for the Telegraph wrote as follows: ‘Her manner, which is at once diffident and disdainful, precludes intrusive questioning. It is not a secret that she is or has been a lesbian, but it would have been impossible to ask her about her private life.’ How do you react to that?

It’s better than some things I’ve read. If she wants to put that, it’s OK by me.

What about the suggestion that you are a lesbian?

OK. Fine. But I don’t talk about it.

Have you been a lesbian?

Yes.

One concludes from reading your books that happiness is a frail commodity, touched by anxiety and often guilt. Has that been your own experience perhaps?

Very often with regard to people, yes, but it does not apply to happiness in general. Many people of course want to say that I’m unhappy, that I’m reclusive, but I’m not going to be unhappy just because somebody tells me I am.

In all the attention given to death in your books, do you ever contemplate your own?

No, although I would really like to be sure about my will. I have made a will, actually written it in holograph which is what the Swiss want, but I have a feeling it isn’t finalised yet. The most important thing is to have everything well organised before one’s death; that is more important than the phenomenon of dying.

Do you see the world as a friendly place?

In principle, yes. I have an optimistic attitude. When I get up in the morning, I first of all make the coffee and then I say to my cat, we’re going to have a great day…

Thought for the Day

I’m glad to hear that Robin Birley, the son of Annabel’s founder Mark Birley, has decided to withdraw from his legal embroilment with Richard Caring, who strongly objected to the use of the Birley name for Robin’s proposed nightclub in Shepherd Market.

The club will now be known as Rupert’s, in memory of Robin’s elder brother, whose loss weighed heavily on every member of the Birley family.

Rupert was a great favourite of mine and here is what I wrote about him in my book, Fulfilment & Betrayal.

I first met Rupert Birley in 1982 at the home of our mutual friend Emma Sergeant. We used to meet regularly at Emma’s for coffee in the early mornings.

These were gatherings that I sorely missed after Rupert’s tragic disappearance on a beach off West Africa.

He was undoubtedly the embodiment of that cliché ‘the heart-throb of his generation’, whose good looks, poise, charm and outstanding intellect combined to set him apart from his peers.

All those who knew him well and grew to love him – among whom I count myself – were shattered by his loss, which happened when he was at the zenith of his youth with a life full of promise ahead of him.

No Longer With Us: John Murray

I interviewed publishing magnate John ‘Jock’ Murray, of the Murray dynasty, for my book Of A Certain Age. He died in 1993.

When I was doing the research for this interview, there was very little in the press cuttings which was revealing about John Murray the man as opposed to John Murray the publisher. Have you deliberately tried to keep out of the public eye?

Yes, for two reasons. First because any importance that I have is because of the authors I have published. Secondly, my personal life is so traditional as to be hardly believable. My main claim to fame is that I am the only publisher who has typeset in the nude, something I did when I was with Robert Gibbings who ran the Golden Cockerel Press. As a young man I would go and help him and unfortunately I hit the short period when he was in his nudist phase and as I was only about fifteen or sixteen years old I found this very embarrassing. It was all right for him because his nudity seemed like a fur coat.

But my own life is essentially dull, except perhaps in two regards: it is a good example of family nepotism – that’s the first; and the second is that during my schooldays I had a bad spell of stammering which impeded my education. But I did get over it and this is encouraging to anyone who has a stammer. It was a most terrible handicap but I went to see a man called Lionel Logue who subsequently helped King George VI with his speeches. He put me through a very interesting training and taught me something which I often now tell young stammerers; that is, with your hand in your pocket beat time with one finger in rhythm with what you are saying and this will help you get over the blockages.

Other than that my life has been routine. I mean, it’s boring to say that one’s first memory is of sucking gooseberries; one can do without that.

How would you do a thumbnail sketch of your own character?

Ask me what I think about the characters of my authors, and I could tell you very easily, but until one gets older one doesn’t really examine one’s own character. Nevertheless, I have given this some thought and I would say that I have no greed, no wish to have yachts or a second home. I do have incorrigible curiosity, and I also have a terrible vice – envy, envy of other people’s literary skill, for example. I try to pretend it’s something else, such as admiration, but it is actually envy.

On the positive side I have flexibility, which I consider a strength. Of course as a publisher one learns to be flexible within the yardstick of truth and to give way wherever one can. This is the sort of quality which would make me a good ADC. It stems from the fact that my great childhood friend here in Albemarle Street was the butler. I so admired his handing round at table, decanting the port, serving the drinks. Barnes in his waistcoat looked like the backside of a wasp. He had a little bit of paper which was the blacklist of authors for whom there was never any spare chair at luncheon. I admired his style much, the way he helped gentlemen on with their coats, and so on, that I  asked him to teach me everything in return for being allowed to play my train in the nursery. To my amazement he agreed. He did show me everything, and I now feel equipped to be a very good ADC. Indeed, I am afraid I embarrass American publishers when I help them on with overcoats since I always put my hand under the coat to pull the jacket down. They look round at me with the gravest suspicion.

You were at Oxford in the 1930s and contemporary with John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster. To an outsider it always seems as if they must have been exciting days. Is that how you remember them?

Oh yes. And they remained my greatest, most exciting friends until their deaths. That was why I published Betjeman – a fascinating occupation. You would be amused to see the typescript of Summoned by Bells with comments by Tom Driberg, John Sparrow (warden of All Souls) and me. Betjeman was certainly one of the most inspiring people in my life. No journey with John was ever dull…

There’s a charming episode I remember. He was rather extravagant and he used to take people to his club and have oysters and champagne. I remember one day his accountant, called Masterson, came in and asked if we had any more royalties for John Betjeman – ‘He is terribly in the red’ – and I find myself going down on my knees and saying, “Oh Lord, please prevent John Betjeman from going into the Garrick Club.”

I also met Osbert at Oxford, and he too was a life enhancer. He used to come in, either before or after doing the cartoons in the Express, for what he called a snifter, usually a gin and vermouth, and of course the amount of gossip one got from him was absolutely fascinating. Both John and Osbert were much more knowledgeable and scholarly than I was, Osbert on arts, John on poetry and architecture, and I learned a lot from them. But we had a sense of humour in common, and I can think of no people with whom I’ve shared more laughter.

When you were at Oxford, did you sow your wild oats? Were you a womaniser at all?

Not at Oxford. I found no woman to womanise with at Oxford. Magdalen was still celibate. I did a little after Oxford, but I did it in moderation.

Although I thought of women all the time, and was fascinated by them, I was frightened to get too deeply involved because I thought there might be no escape or that damage might be done. I usually found something I thought I couldn’t live with permanently, so I was a very cautious lover, if that word is appropriate. I then met a girl, knew her on and off for about ten years, and married her. I’m still married to her fifty years on. We laugh sometimes to remember that we first met at a rat hunt in Buckinghamshire. We never caught a rat, but I caught a wife.

How did marriage and family responsibilities alter your life? Was that an area of great fulfilment for you?

Yes, and it increased the possibilities of my career. I’d been an active publisher for about ten years before I married, which of course confirms my view that the male should have settled what he wants to do before he gets married. My wife was very intelligent, read books, liked people, and that was a wonderful bit of luck because it enabled one to entertain authors rather more happily than it is possible to do by oneself.

As you get older, are you more sure or less sure about your ideas and opinions?

Less sure. Goethe writes somewhere, ‘To be uncertain is uncomfortable, to be certain is ridiculous’; and that applies to me with one exception, which is the Net Book Agreement. I’m rather bigoted about that and I only wish that the greedy boys would look more carefully at the reasons for it being started in about 1900.

I don’t know whether you’re religious or not, but how do you feel about that area as you grow older?

I think if anything I’ve become a little less religious. I certainly go to church now less often than I did. Of course, the chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they’re too strong to be broken, and though I read the lesson in the Anglican church up in Hampstead when I’m asked to do so, I feel a little ashamed that I attend church less often. I try to analyse this and I can’t, but there may be something of old Voltaire on his deathbed when he was asked by a friend to confess his sins and denounce the devil, and Voltaire said: ‘Oh my dear fellow, this is no time to make enemies.’

But I firmly believe that churchgoing is important for unifying a community.

Was there tremendous family pressure on you to become John Murray the sixth?

There was pressure, but not tremendous pressure. I don’t think that excessive pressure was needed because I’d been brought up with authors around me. I’ve certainly never regretted my time in publishing or wished I had broken away from family tradition.

Your own son is set to be John Murray the seventh. Did that come about easily or was it a source of family tension?

I put no pressure on him. As in my case it seemed a natural progression of events.

Looking back on family history, the great oddity to my mind is that every Murray but one had one son, and none of them revolted. One of the Murrays had two sons, my grandfather and my great uncle. They didn’t agree with each other because my great uncle was artistically inclined and he wanted books to be produced with lovely gilt bindings. He was far too extravagant, whereas John Murray was a very careful man. So my Uncle Hal retired and became a wonderful watercolour artist.

To return to your question, one of the things I always did when I knew my children were getting home was to hide the typescripts and relax back in the chair, hoping to give the impression that a publisher’s life was one of lovely laziness. Whether I succeeded or not I don’t know.

How well do you get on with your son? Is there a generation gap in thinking?

Our views are different on some subjects, but he has sense at the back of him. I have not come across a subject in which, even though it upset me, I didn’t think he was right. I can say that perfectly truthfully, but then he’s a remarkable fellow.

The publishing world which your son now inhabits is very different from the one you started out in. Are you confident about the future of publishing?

I’m not confident about the future of general publishing but this is a widely held view. Fortunately, in the last century we started educational publishing which now accounts for sixty to seventy per cent of our turnover. This is the future, a difficult future, because the government doesn’t keep pace with new curriculums by providing money for teams of authors to produce new series of books.

General publishing is difficult. I think I’m almost the longest serving publisher on the Publishers’ Association Council, and many years ago I did a private survey. I cross-examined about fourteen of the larger publishers in order to discover how many of their books paid, and the figures were not uninteresting. More than half of all the books they published made a loss, another twenty-five per cent just covered the costs, and the number that made a profit was absolutely minimal – under ten per cent. Nowadays the reasons are of course perfectly clear: auction of rights, squeezing by powerful retailers, inadequate funds for public libraries and so on. But I needn’t tell you all that, you must know it all.

One of the changes in publishing is that what used to be called flair has given way to market predictions, trends and committees. Do you regret the passing of the good old days, so to speak, or are you resigned to the changes?

Oh no, you can’t be resigned to them. I believe that if the man who has flair has the persistence and energy to publish a book and has the stamina to follow his enthusiasm right the way down, he’ll make a success of it.

I don’t want to be conceited myself but I remember well that my grandfather had not published any poetry for a long time, and since I knew Betjeman at Oxford I came back with a sheaf of his new poems. My grandfather said, ‘My dear young fellow, we can’t start publishing that sort of thing.’ I told him I thought they were so good and would catch on and that some of my friends had been very excited by them. I felt so strongly that I offered to guarantee them with a hundred shares of Bovril that he had given me for my eighteenth birthday. He agreed, and I never had to sell the Bovril shares.

Have you ever discovered the secret of successfully predicting a book’s sales?

That’s a difficult one. This immediately raises in my mind the failures and successes for which I have been responsible.

I have a perfect example of a book about which people were lukewarm turning out to be a great winner. There wasn’t much hope in the office for a book called The Story of San Michele. We only printed about a thousand copies, so little did we think it would succeed. Then H.G. Wells reviewed it in the Evening Standard and said it was the most extraordinary book with plots that would keep a short-story writer happy for the rest of his writing life. From that moment it shot off, has been published in eighty-two translated foreign editions and has sold something like eight million copies.

Do you still get unsolicited books which turn out to be winners or are they mostly commissioned now?

It’s increasingly rare that typescripts coming out of the blue are any good as all. If commissioned, they are mostly by authors we already know.

I remember a long time ago, however, commissioning a fascinating book, thanks to Bernard Shaw. He had just met the Benedictine nuns at Stanbrook who were writing a book about the abbess, and he advised me to go down and see Dame Felicity. The Benedictines at that time had a double grille through which one had to speak. I arrived at the abbey, rang the bell, and the lay sister opened the door and asked me to follow her. She then turned to me and asked if I were accustomed to talking through a double grille. I told her I was not and that I was petrified. She said, ‘Mr Murray, you needn’t worry, it’s not like them Carmelites what have spikes on their grilles.’ For about two years we worked on the book. The manuscript had to be put in a drawer in the double grille which she pushed to me and I then made comments and pushed it back; I never saw her face. If it was autumn when I came there was always a little basket of plums in the double drawer for me to take home and if it was spring there was a little basket of eggs. It was a marvellous book and a good financial success. It told the story of the abbess, and the correspondence between Bernard Shaw and the abbess and Sidney Cockerell in which they communicate about death and religion. It became the play The Best of Friends with John Gielgud as Cockerell.

How well did you know Bernard Shaw?

I knew him very well. I cured his wife of lumbago. I prescribed hot cabbage water with salt and pepper to drink, twice a day. It never fails.

I used to be a martyr before I was married. I lived upstairs in the flat and I sometimes couldn’t get out of bed, and had to wait till the staff from the advertisement department rolled me off and put on my clothes. Then somebody told me about hot cabbage water which I still drink now.

But Shaw, what sort of a man was he?

I was fond of him, but ye gods, he was unpredictable. He could be more rude than anyone but Evelyn Waugh. He used to come to parties here and he was heartlessly rude. I remember we had an author called Mrs Campbell who told me her long-felt wish was to meet Bernard Shaw. So I took her up to introduce her. He pierced her with a steely, terrifying look and said, ‘I only know one Mrs Campbell and you are not she,’ and turned away. But if you were on the right side of him he could be very kind.

Evelyn Waugh was rather similar. He had a terrible urge to shock people; he couldn’t stop himself. I was never at ease with Evelyn. I was always afraid he would do something unpleasant to somebody I was with. He was never nasty to me, because I probably wasn’t worth being nasty to, but funnily enough when he wasn’t like that I was fond of him and of course I had infinite admiration for him.

I know of no one except P.G. Wodehouse who had that marvellous literary skill of economy, who could describe a situation and a scene in the fewest words.

Which authors have you felt proudest to have published in your time?

Many come to mind. Apart from John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster, Kenneth Clark played an important part in my life. As a result of my interest in architecture, I’d read The Gothic Revival which was a very early book he had written while still at university. I asked if we could reprint it and, because of that, we then published most of Kenneth Clarke’s other books, including Civilisation with the BBC.

I’m keen on that example because, going back to before my time, there is a precedent with Charles Darwin. John Murray III had read his Voyage of the Beagle and was so impressed by it that when he heard that the publisher was remaindering copies, he wrote to Darwin to ask if he could buy up the rest of the edition. Darwin said he would be very pleased, though he thought it would be a hazardous undertaking since the book hadn’t sold very well. Murray bought the sheets, rebound them and, treating it as though it were a new book, relaunched it. The whole lot was sold in a fortnight. He reprinted it, and from then on Darwin sent Murray all his books. There’s a fascinating letter years later from Darwin saying: ‘You very kindly said you’d publish my next book. It’s not what I thought it was going to be, and I release you from your promise to publish.’ Murray replied that he didn’t want to be released – fortunately, as it happens, since the book was The Origin of Species.

The curious fact about this story is that Darwin wrote to Murray exacting a promise that he would not print more than a thousand copies. Of course it went like a bomb. Now the question is, what were Darwin’s motives in trying to restrict Murray? Did he honestly, kind man that he was, not want Murray to lose on it? Or was it that, although he wasn’t a churchgoer, he was very reluctant to shake the religious views of other people? I think that’s why he did it. Murray did finally persuade Darwin to let him reprint. And I wish I’d been there to hear the arguments that Murray gave.

I delighted in the Sherlock Holmes books, and in a way that was what first endeared me to authors. I was a schoolboy on my holidays and my grandfather was ill. He said, ‘I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is calling today; will you be kind to him? I hope he may be bringing another typescript.’ Conan Doyle brought the last volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was so staggered by this distinguished man’s courtesy to a young whippersnapper like me that I thought: if this is an author, let me spend my life with authors.

People often remark that there is something very thirtiesish about the way you dress, tweeds and bow tie, the high brow, the longish hair and your debonair manner…

Who says that? By God I’ll…I wish I could get hold of him…though it was probably a lady.

I don’t regard myself as being of any particular period because I am convinced that I’m not yet grown up. I don’t relate to any age, in fact I forget my age. My physiotherapist used to quote the following:

Man is not old when his teeth decay,

Man is not old when his hair turns grey,

But Man is approaching his last long sleep

When his mind makes appointments his body cannot keep.

I sometimes still feel like a child and I’m sure there are many who feel the same. As a consequence one is appalled by one’s ignorance of what’s going on in the wide world and, indeed, of all the literature of the past and all the things of the past. One feels an ignorant child.

But do you feel with age a kind of serenity you probably didn’t have twenty years ago?

No. I don’t…perhaps after the fifth glass of claret I might possibly feel it.

Do you still find yourself excited at the sight of a very pretty woman?

Oh, yes. I dream about them. At one stage I thought it would help me to go to sleep, but I have discovered that it doesn’t. One of the reasons I love going on the underground, the Northern Line to Hampstead, is because I’m fascinated by the different fashions. I’m particularly expert on the kind of bottoms that authors have. I’m amazed that Americans always have such big bottoms and I think bottoms can reveal almost more clearly the character of the person…well perhaps not more than the face, but the way people move their bottoms gives a strong indication. And of course the sexual impulse is still there. But, alas, no competence…

Do you have strong views about censorship?

I think censorship is right under certain circumstances, if you don’t want to be unnecessarily cruel to people or their beliefs. My view is very unpopular, but I’ve held it all along.

Have you ever regretted being a publisher rather than an author?

No, largely because I know too well that I am not equipped to be a good author. I have tried to write, and I can’t do it. I can rewrite other people, I can prune like anything, but I can’t write.

Authors come with a great variety of personalities. Is there a sense in which you have to judge the man or the woman as well as the work?

That’s a splendid subject. In our editorial meetings, if somebody suggests a book, I always ask if the proposer has met the author. If not, I always say, ‘Well, I would advise you not to put forward an agreement till you’ve seen him and you have talked with him, better still till you’ve eaten with him.’ I think this is frightfully important.

Tell me about Byron.

When Byron died Hobhouse (his executor) said, ‘Byron liked keeping his friends in hot water and it looks as though his remains will do much the same for his executors.’

Of course this is true, but he had such a magnetic quality that John Murray II bent over backwards to please him. His demands were excessive: when he was abroad he was always asking for Edinburgh powders, or racing dogs, indeed every kind of thing. In fact, if a new author came tomorrow and I had reason to believe that he would be as complicated as Byron, then unless his skill was very great, I think I’d rum him down.

But Byron was Byron.

You have edited Byron’s letters. What is it about him that attracts you above all?

His immediacy.

Let me illustrate it with an anecdote. You will know that we burned Byron’s memoirs in the fireplace where I used to warm myself as a child. Though I wasn’t present there was embedded in me a seed of guilt. Many years later I thought the only way to make amends for burning Byron’s memoirs was to publish, collect and edit his letters. So we started. We had a great many here because of course he wrote to Murray but also got a lot from Lady Dorchester. Peter Quennell and I would meet one night a fortnight here in this room to decide if they were autobiographical enough to qualify as being memoirs, and secondly whether they were unpublished. One night, Harold Nicholson was here, sitting in the armchair, and we were reading a long unpublished letter, a fascinating account of what Byron had been up to that day – a riveting letter – and at the end, it gave the date, a Friday in March 1813. Harold Nicholson sat up in his chair, slapped his knee, and said, ‘So that’s where he was on Friday night!’

You see, that curious immediacy, the effect of our wanting to know every detail of Byron’s life is very extraordinary. And it hits anybody who approaches him.

We still have Byron’s boots here. They came through Lady Dorchester who had a row with the Lovelace family and consequently left Byron’s letters and many of his things to my grandfather. When the dust settles on his boots I clean them now and again and laugh at myself.

How would you most like to be remembered in the publishing world?

I suppose that I have been of some help in encouraging authors to create. I can’t really think of anything else of lasting value.

If you were to live your life over again, what are the two things you would be unlikely to repeat?

I’m reasonably safe on that score. I’ve only done one thing that I feel any guilt about and I’m sorry I did it.

From the point of view of my work, I can’t think of anything that I would rather not have done; which is terribly dull. My main interest lies in the relationship between author and publisher. I was very pleased, for example, to discover a letter to Murray from an author who was a flop; he writes: ‘Dear Murray. You are the only publisher at whose table an unsuccessful author can sit at ease.’ Now isn’t that a claim to fame?

Are you a gregarious character? I mean, is it possible for you to be seduced?

Oh I think so. Given the right circumstances, I’m eminently seducable.

Looking back, which period would you single out as being the happiest, most fulfilling, or the saddest of your life?

I suppose the happiest, most exciting in a way, was from about 1930 up to the war, because that was when I was meeting new people, new authors. The saddest was when my mother, of whom I was very fond, became utterly helpless. Then there was the recent sadness of going to see Freya Stark; I published all her works and adored her, but when I went to see her last autumn in Italy, she hadn’t the foggiest idea who I was. That I found almost unbearable.

People regard John Murray’s almost as a dynasty. Indeed Albemarle Street is a kind of last outpost of ivory-tower imperialism. How has this affected your life? Do you feel yourself to be in charge of something sacred?

I like the word imperialism. For a firm that’s been famous but never very big the word imperialism is very curious. It is sacred to the extent that it contains so much that is personal to so many authors who provided literature in this country. I regard myself as a custodian of all these things. We have all the early manuscripts and authors’ letters dating from 1768. If American publishers are being really beastly to me I like mentioning to them that we were publishing books when they were still our colony.

Most people who count as oldies would claim to have learned some important lessons in life. What are the lessons you have learned?

I hardly dare give them to you, they’re so awfully dull.

Modesty, because it safeguards against disappointment. By modesty I mean keep your head down or it’ll be chopped off. In so far as anyone can, try to develop a sense of humour, try and see the funny side of whatever it may be. And patience is vital, because then you don’t waste whatever your endocrine glands provide. The one that infuriates my wife is thrift. She gets very upset and confuses it with meanness, which it is not. It’s not wasting what you don’t use, it’s sending newspapers to be recycled. You can train yourself to be thrifty, yet never be mean. I turn out lights that are not being used, I try not to throw away food if it can be used. But on occasions, delicious occasions, a really good blow out is marvellous.

Thought for the Day: Fergie the Loose Cannon

I have never been a great fan of the Royals, but today they have my sympathy.

Prince Andrew no doubt fell in love with Sarah Ferguson when he first met her. I reckon he must have been struck by a bolt of lightning to have married her. To me she always represented a vulgar barmaid in a cheap joint, who could never behave properly, let alone transform herself into a Royal. Her sexual antics in the public arena and her many indiscretions seem only to have become worse with the passage of time.

Her latest escapade shows her up as a pompous and greedy woman, who will stop at nothing to feed her insatiable obsession with money and fame. The Queen should have stripped her of her title long ago, and Prince Andrew should stop pandering to her whims.

Her two daughters indicated a while back that their role model in life happens to be their mother. If this is so, God save us from this new generation of spoilt Royals, all set to become a burden on the State as well as a socially useless lot, contributing nothing in return for the many privileges of their birth.

As the new government embarks on long overdue political reform, is it not high time that they extend their cleansing to these mini-Royals who bring shame to the very institution that sustains them?

In the meantime, Fergie should not be allowed to get away with this latest outrage. The repercussions of her actions will be far and wide, and will reflect badly on the environment in which we live.

Swift action is now needed to stop her in her tracks, before she inflicts further damage on the nation.

Thought for the Day: Big Brother Is At It Again

I hope this coalition government will rise above the pettiness and stupidity of the outgoing one.

Is it not daft to ban the 500 euro note in the UK on the grounds that it is used by money launderers? Those criminals will now use the two hundred euro note instead. Perhaps their parcel will be slightly bulkier – so what? That is not a deterrent.

Common sense seems alien to those intent on letting Big Brother control every aspect of our lives.

The sooner those in charge grow up, the better.

Thought for the Day

The coalition government seems to be very active. Let us hope the present impetus will be maintained throughout the difficult months ahead.

Both Cameron and Clegg are proving to be a team to be reckoned with. We must give them our full support, lest we dampen their enthusiasm for reform.

We need to move forward if Britain is to regain its major position on the world stage.

Anything short of that will spell disaster.

Thought for the Day

It was announced yesterday that Matthew Freud and Michael Foster have taken over PFD, which is probably a good move.

Caroline Michel, the celebrity literary figure, will certainly have more scope to operate, and this will give her the stability that in today’s climate is like manna from heaven.

I wish her all the success in this new challenge.

Thought for the Day: The Far Right and Left in Politics

Heaven save us from the far Right in politics, as well as their counterparts on the Left.

Last week under David Dimbleby’s chairmanship on Question Time, I watched the political editor of the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan, ranting about the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, accusing the Lib Dems of a gross act of betrayal, while Melanie Phillips, leading columnist on the Daily Mail, was equally vociferous in her condemnation of the new government, arguing that the Tories have sold out.

With commentators like this around, no wonder the world we live in has become such an ugly place.

The other members of the panel, senior Conservative Lord Heseltine and Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, were the spirit of reason by comparison.

No Longer With Us: Lady Mosley

Diana Mosley, who died in August 2003, was a dear friend.

I first met her through Tony Lambton, and over the years I grew extremely fond of her. Although her politics were totally irrational and defied the overwhelming historical evidence about Hitler’s crimes, she maintained to the end of her life that he was a misjudged figure and could not be held responsible for actions by his subordinates.

Her saving grace was her naivety coupled with a strong feminine allure that was irresistible into her old age. I really miss her.

Here is my interview with her, conducted in winter 1991, from my book Asking Questions.

Diana, when we spoke about this interview you rather suggested that there was nothing new to say. My own impression from doing the research is that you have given a very uneven picture of yourself. It seems to me that you are perhaps misjudged, certainly misunderstood. You say in your book, A Life of Contrasts, ‘Indifference to public opinion is an essential aristocratic virtue. It is rarer than one might imagine.’ Looking in from the outside, it is a quality, however rare, that you seem to have in abundance. Is it really so? Are you not tempted to open up?

I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘open up’. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously dodged answers to questions. By saying that indifference to public opinion is an aristocratic virtue, I did not mean to imply that I consider myself aristocratic; I certainly do not. Of course I mind very much about the opinion of people I love or esteem, but not of journalists or acquaintances who – quite rightly – look upon me as not ‘politically correct’ or whatever the fashionable phrase may be.

You have been known to say that you don’t understand all the fuss about the Mitford girls. By any standards family life was strange and eccentric and it has been well documented in Nancy and Jessica’s books. Was it the case that the oddness seemed perfectly normal to you, or were you conscious that yours was a very singular milieu, unlike that of others, even in your social circle?

I think there’s a misunderstanding here. Our life as children was exactly like that of hundreds of other children in the same walk of life. If you lived in the country in those days you probably didn’t go to school if you were a girl, you probably had a governess, you had animals, you went out hunting, you went to neighbours’ parties. I honestly don’t believe there was anything in our childhood which was unlike that of a great many other people. There was really nothing odd about it. Some fathers were stricter or more violent than others. Although our father was sometimes rather violent, we loved him and were amused by him. He’s been a bit exaggerated by Nancy, though not very much, since he is really more or less Uncle Matthew, but I think even in her novels she says we loved him. There was never a dull moment.

I realise that the memory of your brother Tom must still be painful for you, but can you tell me what it was about him that formed so strong a bond between you?

I suppose it was that we were very close in age, not even eighteen months between us. We were very fond of one another. He was a musical boy, and I loved music, so that was a bond. It’s hard to say really, but until he was killed we just were very close. I miss him even now, for many things. I can’t imagine him as an old man.

When one studies the Mitford girls it’s difficult not to be astonished by the sheer brilliance and individuality of all of them. It is not usual in large families for these qualities to be dealt out in such large measure across the board. Would you say that such things are decided, as it were, genetically, i.e. in advance of upbringing, or would you attribute it more to family life and parental influence?

I think it’s completely genetic. I don’t think that upbringing has a great deal to do with what one becomes later on. We’re products of our grandparents and great-grandparents much more. That’s been proved scientifically, I think. For example, if you take identical twins who are brought up in different ways, they turn out the same in the end. It’s just a curious fact.

In your early life at least, your father seems to figure much more prominently than your mother. Was he the decisive influence on you, do you think?

No, I really do not think so. We just took him for granted. In a way the person who meant most to me when I was a child was my nanny. I loved her far more than I did my parents and I very often felt guilty about that. One should love one’s mother more than one’s nurse, but in fact I loved nanny best. My mother was a great character; she had wonderful courage and was so honest that you couldn’t even imagine a dishonest thought or act coming from her. But again, she was somebody we took completely for granted; she was just our mother, always there.

If you had a problem, would you have confided in her?

I wouldn’t have dreamed of confiding anything in either of my parents. Possibly one of my sisters or my brother, but nobody else. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to any of us to confide in them, I’m sure.

You and your sisters seem in retrospect all to have been quite fixated on a particular man. In your own case it was Mosley, in Unity’s it was Hitler, in Debo’s it was her duke, and so on. In your own ways you all seemed to have been besotted by powerful men. This is not something you touch on in your autobiography. Is it not something that has occurred to you?

Yes, it has occurred to me. Strangely enough, even Nancy, who was devoted to her colonel, went over the top of the colonel, so to speak, in her tremendous feeling for de Gaulle. You see, she loved France, and she thought he was the ideal dictator. It was far more than the usual rather cool approval that one might feel about a president or a prime minister; it went much more deeply with her. You might say we all had that characteristic which must have come through our genes.

Your father does seem to have been a very eccentric man – he chased the children with a bloodhound, for example.

I don’t think he was nearly as eccentric as people imagine. You see, he had a bloodhound, and it was rather fun to hunt with him, and we children were there, available. Most men love hunting after all. He didn’t hunt us very often with his bloodhound, and in any case the bloodhound died. He didn’t have what you might call a kennelful of bloodhounds; there was just one dear old one and he thought, well, let’s give him a run.

But did there come a time when you realised that he was not like other men?

Well, he was actually very much like my uncles. It’s true he had great hates which were rather unusual. There were people he disliked intensely for no particular reason, even children. Most people usually dismiss children and say to themselves, ‘What a tiresome little girl or boy’, but he managed to work up quite a passion of hatred for some child he didn’t like. It didn’t evidence itself in any way; one just realised he could hardly bear the child. The same applied to grown-ups, of course. He wasn’t what you might call a very sociable man. He preferred walking with his dogs and chatting to the keeper.

I have heard it said that he was a bit of a philistine. Is this something you were aware of?

I suppose he was a philistine. He never went to an art gallery, he never cared in the least about sightseeing, and he liked only a very simple kind of music – Puccini’s arias, for example; apart from that I cannot say that he had any sort of artistic interest.

In a sense you seem to have had quite a spartan childhood, plenty of space, but not much warmth, no fires in the bedrooms, and really rather strict ‘rules’. I’m thinking of your Paris diary and its aftermath. Was that the usual pattern among the families you knew?

A good many girls of my age, who were friends of mine, had exactly the same experience, perhaps not quite so strict, but they were not allowed out except with a governess or a maid. That was by no means unique to us. When I got to Paris at the age of sixteen it seemed such a wonderful chance for freedom that I’m afraid I did one or two things which were strictly forbidden, like going to the cinema with a young man in the afternoon when I pretended to the old governess that I was going to a violin lesson. I put it all in my diary and then of course there was the most fearful row when it was discovered. It’s rather sad that my diary went west. Mother and father put it in the boiler.

You married Bryan Guinness when you were eighteen. And he was also very young, twenty-three, I think. Do you think in retrospect that to marry at such a tender age may have been a mistake?

Not really. I don’t think age makes much difference. I was nineteen when my eldest son was born and when I was twenty I had another son. About a year after that my husband and I parted. It was not because I married too young, but because I fell in love with Oswald Mosley and decided that I should prefer living on my own and being able to see him occasionally, to being married to Bryan Guinness. He wanted a wife who would always be there, and that’s what he got afterwards. He married a wonderful person and they were terribly happy, so I was absolutely right.

You paint a very different picture of the nightclubs of Berlin from that usually portrayed in novels and memoirs. Were they really as dull as all that? You called them ‘grim places’.

Yes, you imagined you were going to find Marlene Dietrich, and then you didn’t. Nightclubs are for people who are searching for something. My husband and I weren’t, and we just did think them very dull – awful noise, second-rate jazz, hideous people, and lights going on and off. One’s idea really was to get away to bed.

How did people you knew react to your divorce and your attachment to Mosley? I imagine not everyone was sympathetic.

Everyone was unsympathetic, without exception I should say. It seemed very unusual for somebody as young as I was to leave her husband, to live alone, particularly after having had such an amusing, entertaining and interesting life as I had had. To want to cut oneself off seemed very curious to most people. First they thought I was too young to be married, then they thought I was too young not to be married.

Were you looked upon as rebellious?

I didn’t feel the least bit rebellious. I just followed my instinct. It’s very difficult to look back sixty years, but I never regretted it for one instant, and by degrees everyone came round to my point of view. It seemed the normal thing for me and Mosley to be together.

The relationship between yourself and the Mosleys after your divorce is rather baffling. For example, you speak of the death of Mosley’s wife, Cimmie, as a ‘devastating blow’ for him. It was also, however, the turn of events that allowed you to be together and to marry. Did you have a strong sense of fate intervening? Did you know Mosley’s first wife?

I knew her, not very well, but she was charming and people were very fond of her. It was a devastating blow for me as well as for him. She was a young woman and the last thing either of us ever expected was what happened. It might easily have meant a complete break with Mosley because it was terribly tragic for him. It might easily have worked the opposite way, but in fact it was only three years later that we did get married.

But what were your expectations when you fell in love with Mosley?

That I would live on my own with my children and that I would see him from time to time. I was interested in his politics, and I hoped to be able to play some part perhaps. Otherwise it was to be a life alone.

When you met Mosley he seems to have had the support of a great many men who were later prominent in public affairs – John Strachey, Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Cooke – and much later Richard Crossman spoke of the way in which he was a generation ahead of Labour thinking. What went wrong? Was he unwilling to serve if he could not lead?

No. As you know he was first elected as a Conservative, and when he crossed the floor he became an Independent and then went the whole way and joined Labour. But he never felt that Labour would be an instrument of action; he always thought the Labour Party would break in your hand if you tried to do anything with it. It was dominated then (and I suppose up to a point it still is) by two such disparate elements – the trade unions and the intellectuals; and they did not want the same thing.

I don’t belong to the school of thought which makes out that one party is perfect and the other is devilish. By and large all politicians want the best for their country, but they go about it in different ways. England was at that time in a very poor way with enormous and growing unemployment, terrific suffering and hunger. That must never be forgotten, because to be unemployed then was far worse than it is now, awful though it must always be.

Mosley therefore thought that the only thing to do was to make a grass-roots movement of his own. Some of the men you mentioned came with him, but there was a tremendous crisis in England after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. In 1931 there was an election and rather predictably the Tories won a sweeping victory and the New Party, as his party was called, was wiped out at the polls; even he was not elected. It was then that he thought he had better call things by their name and so he called his new movement the British Union of Fascists, later modified to the British Union, as you know.

Why do you think he went to such an extreme?

It wasn’t considered an extreme then. In those days, for instance, a great many Tories were admirers of Mussolini. Hitler had not yet come to power. It was a different picture. The reason he called it fascism was because it was in a sense a world movement and he thought it was more honest. With the benefit of hindsight, I think perhaps it may have been a mistake, but on the other hand he didn’t in the least want people to imagine it was anything it was not.

Historically speaking, it is not difficult to have some understanding of Hitler’s charisma and the spell which he cast. Even your own brother, who was later killed fighting on the other side, seems to have found his politics attractive initially. How did it strike you at the time?

It struck me as perfectly normal and natural. Tom used to say that it would be either the Nazis or the Communists, and that if he were a German he would be a Nazi. It wasn’t only when he was a student in Berlin; he went on thinking that he would have been a Nazi – in fact, practically every decent German was. We must remember that nothing succeeds like success. Hitler not only had what people now call charisma, he was also – unheard of in the thirties – completely successful. He made promises at the polls and he kept them.

In England both Labour and Tories said they could cure unemployment, put the economy straight, make an earthly paradise; they each had a chance and neither of them was able to do it. Under Hitler, unemployment dwindled to nothing, and within two or three years a despairing country had been transformed into an extraordinarily prosperous one where people were happy and worked hard. Hitler always said he would give the people Arbeit und Brot, Work and Bread, but the interesting thing is that he put work before bread, whereas in England, they put bread first and then work a long way afterwards. Everyone was interested in Hitler. Churchill himself wrote at the time that Hitler was the person everybody would like to get to know, because he seemed to have a political secret which was hidden from others.

You speak in your book of your conviction that fascism in Britain would have been a different sort of thing from that which overtook the Continent. It is difficult for many people now, after the horrors of the camps and so on, to understand how it could have been different. What was your own vision?

That is such an impossibly large question; to answer it properly one would have to go into every fact of life. Briefly, the British parliament would have had a great deal of power which of course the Reichstag did not have. Another point which is very important is that my husband was always against imprisonment without trial. He said concentration camps were a horror which should never have been allowed anywhere. And as to cruelty, it just wasn’t in his nature.

What impression do you retain of that first Nuremberg rally? It must have been very different from the huge stage-managed affairs of later years.

Even so they managed to gather a million people for the first rally. The Germans are of course quite extraordinary when it comes to organisation, and perhaps no other country could have done it, or done it so smoothly. It was an amazing achievement, and of course very interesting for a foreigner to see.

Were you mesmerised by it?

I wouldn’t say one was mesmerised, but it was very striking and even very moving. You saw a country which had been reduced to despair pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.

With hindsight virtually everyone thinks of Hitler as a monster, but that is a public rather than a private judgement. He clearly commanded the allegiance of his fellow countrymen. You have never denounced him, and have continued to reiterate your admiration for him…were you ever able to see things from a different perspective?

No. I saw a man whom I got to know through a very strange chance because he was a friend of my sister Unity. Unity loved and adored him, thought him utter perfection. I never felt like that about him, but I did admire him very much for what he had done. I thought it quite amazing that of all the politicians in charge of big industrial nations at that time, whether France, the United States, England, he stood alone in having been able to solve the appalling problems of poverty and unemployment. That is never admitted now because it is said that no monster could possibly have done anything as clever as that. But in fact he did, and one day history will be written in a truthful way.

That was the man I knew, the public man. As for the private person, I didn’t know him all that well, but I was determined after the war that I would at least say what I’d seen, because by then he had become a monster, as you say. Of course the crimes in the war were utterly terrible and unforgivable, but I believe that the great crime was the war itself, which engendered all the horrors, and not only all on one side. I may say I have felt it not only a duty but almost a pleasure to describe the man I knew, because it’s so monstrously unfair when people deny something which they felt very strongly at the time.

Have you regretted anything?

No, absolutely not. Why should I? A woman writer published something the other day about my being impenitent. I’ve never really understood what I have to be penitent about. I just speak the truth as I remember it, as I know it, as I believe it.

But obviously you didn’t know then some of the things that had happened. Since the war there have been horrific revelations about Hitler…

Yes, horrific. But I can’t change my mind about the man I knew long before all that happened. Like everyone else, I deplore the crimes and the horrors and the miseries, but I still think the basic reason that made them possible was the fact that we had a war, and for the war I blame Hitler and I also blame Churchill.

In your autobiography you suggest that the Jewish question was one which Jews rather brought on themselves and that it could have been solved by emigration. This is surely a somewhat naive view, if only because there must have been millions of Jews, then as now, who thought of themselves as Germans. They were people who had fought as Germans in the First World War. Why should they have felt the need to leave?

I do see that very much, but at the same time, I’m quite sure that Jews who had fought for Germany in the First World War need never have left. Unfortunately there was this tremendous feeling of anti-Semitism not only in Germany, but all over Central Europe. I’ve always felt that it would have been far wiser, and also far more humane, to have had a round-table conference with, say, the League of Nations, and discuss how best to separate people who were not living happily together. I still feel that. That’s what was attempted in Ireland, but because there were many Republicans who remained in Ulster, the fighting just goes on and on. If you force people who dislike each other to live together, it doesn’t make for a very happy life for anyone.

But what was the cause of anti-Semitism?

After the First World War there was an enormous influx of Jews from Eastern Europe. As we know, one of their great strengths is that they always hang together, and, rightly or wrongly, they became more and more unpopular because people coming back from the front found their businesses had been taken over. This engendered an enormous amount of anti-Jewish feeling in Germany as a whole, not just in Hitler. I’ve always felt it could have been solved simply by separating them. Most of them would have loved to go to America, just as they do now. After all, most Jews coming out of Russia go to New York, not Israel.

In your book you recount that Professor Lindemann, a regular visitor to Chartwell, said to you of your friend Brian Howard, ‘Oh you can’t like him, he’s a Jew.’ Were you aware of much casual anti-Semitism in those days?

No, I wasn’t. He gave me quite a surprise by saying that. But there are double standards here. My father, for example, was very anti-German and was quite capable of saying the only good German is a dead German, but of course if anybody said that about Jews they’d be for the high jump, although it’s supposed to be quite alright to say it about other people. English people often say they hate the Scotch, but of course when they meet the Scotch they don’t hate them at all. It’s rather the same thing with the Jews. Collectively, so to speak, they may be deprecated by certain people but individually they’re considered brilliant, charming, clever.

How do you feel about the Jews yourself?

I feel they behaved very badly towards my husband who was not anti-Semitic. They attacked him not only in newspaper articles and newsreels at the cinema, but physically at his meetings, until in the end they practically made him into an anti-Semite. He never was one, it just wasn’t in his nature, but he did think they were a perfect pest. They used to disrupt his meetings, jump up and down and shout, very often without knowing English and therefore not even able to understand what he was saying. We now know they behaved in this way because they were having a really bad time in Germany, but having said that, it doesn’t alter the fact that they were anti-Mosley long before he was anti-them.

You were very friendly with Goebbels’ wife. In Leni Riefenstahl‘s autobiography she claimed that Magda only married Goebbels to be closer to Hitler with whom she was actually in love. Was there any evidence for that in your view?

No. She did adore Hitler, but I’m certain that she was in love with the Doctor, at least when I first knew her. I think she got very fed up with him later. As minister of propaganda he had so many starlets around, and that probably annoyed her quite a lot. Nevertheless she was very fond of him, and devoted to her children.

Leni Riefenstahl also describes a conversation she had with Hitler on the subject of Unity. According to Riefenstahl, Hitler said: ‘Unity is a very attractive girl, but I could never have an intimate relationship with a

foreigner, no matter how beautiful she might be.’ Does this accord with your own impression?

I don’t think Unity ever thought of him in that way. She adored him, of course, and the great attraction for him was that she made him laugh so much. She was so unlike German women; she just always said what she thought, did as she wished. I remember him telling me one day he had been driving in Munich when he saw somebody coming straight at him the wrong way down a one-way street. His driver had to brake and Hitler saw it was Unity. She merely laughed and said she had been trying to catch up with him. She had no idea of keeping any rules, and that in itself is very un-German. She was lawless, completely.

You have said many times that Hitler adored Unity and was devoted to her. I’m sure you are tired to death of being asked if Unity was in love with Hitler, but if she was not, why did she try to kill herself when war broke out? Was there a chance that they could have been lovers?

No. There was a much nobler reason behind her suicide attempt. She had always told me she would kill herself if England and Germany went to war. She was always an extremely patriotic Englishwoman as well as being so in love with Germany.

But she was in love with Hitler, wasn’t she?

Well, there are so many different ways of being in love. I don’t think she was sexually in love with Hitler, at least not in my opinion. She was devoted to him, admired him, but he represented for her something quite different from a lover or a husband. That’s my own view. She was appalled by the global tragedy of her two beloved countries going to war. When she heard Chamberlain say that war had been declared on Germany, she didn’t really wish to live and see any more happen.

Unity was the one who chose consciously to adopt a national-socialist creed. Did she ever change her mind when the consequences became apparent in the revelations after the war?

She wasn’t really with us after the war; her mind had gone away. The bullet went through her brain and Professor Cairns, the brain specialist, told my father that it was not possible to remove it safely. It was therefore a kind of freak that she lived at all. The Germans had been afraid that she might do something and were therefore watching her. They knew she had a gun and on 3rd September 1939 she went to Gauleiter Wagner in a great state and gave him a letter to send to my father, and also one for Hitler. She then went to the English Garden in Munich and shot herself. Wagner had had her followed because he had a feeling that she was going to do herself a mischief. No sooner had she fallen off the bench than two men ran up and took her to hospital straightaway. She was unconscious for several weeks and was looked after with extraordinarily devotion by nuns. Hitler had been informed, of course, and he was constantly telephoning to find out how she was. On 9th November he came to Munich for the anniversary of the 1923 Putsch and it was on that day she emerged from the coma. Naturally her brain had suffered terribly. Hitler offered her the choice between having a house in Germany where no one would pester her, or, if she preferred, safe passage to her family in England. She chose the latter. Hitler arranged the whole thing with a Hungarian friend of my brother Tom who was, in fact, a lover of Unity. He was perfect. He took her in a special train with nurses and doctors to the Swiss frontier and there handed her over to Swiss doctors. She was taken to a clinic in Zurich, and my mother travelled across France with my sister Debo and together they brought her back to England. This was in January 1940, long before France fell. Before that, my father had seen Oliver Stanley at the War Office and made him promise that Unity would not be arrested. Stanley gave his word and he kept it.

To begin with Unity was paralysed, but by degrees she got the use of her limbs again. But her mind was completely different; it was never again normal. To what extent she realised what had happened at the end of the war I don’t know, and I’m sure my mother kept newspapers away from her. She knew Hitler was dead, but whether she knew anything about the horrors of the camps, I doubt it. She never spoke of them to me and of course it was the sort of subject one never would have dreamed of raising with her. She was pathetic really.

In 1944 Adam van Trott was executed for his part in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life. Instead of being shot he was hanged from a butcher’s hook as Hitler looked on. His death was filmed for all to see, so there was no question of this being anti-Hitler propaganda. Was there anything about Hitler and the others that suggested this sort of potential ruthlessness?

First of all, I completely disbelieve that Hitler would have wished to see any person hanged in any way; that’s just a figment of some foul person’s imagination. You see, he was accused of these terrible atrocities and cruelties because he was in charge, but that’s a very different thing from doing it himself. I’m quite sure your story is untrue; nothing would ever make me believe it.

As for Adam von Trott, he was a traitor to his country. He tried to kill the person who was fighting the war and losing it – I don’t suppose there would have been very much sympathy in England for somebody who had tried to assassinate Churchill. His friend von Stauffenberg was one of the dirtiest fighters imaginable. He did what is always so much denounced when the IRA does it; he left a bomb so that it would go off and kill any number of people around, but not himself. If he had wished to rid the world of Hitler, all he had to do as a serving officer was to take his revolver, shoot him and take the consequences; that would have been the act of a man. What he did was the act of a perfect common or garden terrorist. There would have been no pity for such a man in England either…

Yes, but they wouldn’t have hanged him on a hook.

Well, I don’t suppose they did. But if it was done in a cruel way, Hitler would never have demeaned himself by going to watch, never. I simply don’t believe it.

Why are you so sure that Hitler wouldn’t have done it?

Because I knew Hitler well enough to be sure. I knew his character; he may have been cruel, but he wasn’t mean.

You speak of Churchill as someone who was really in love with war. In your book you write, ‘The difference between M. and Churchill was that M. wanted Britain to be strong in order to keep the peace unless any part of our possessions was threatened, while Churchill genuinely hoped for war.’ And you quote in support of this statement Lloyd George who said: ‘Winston likes war; I don’t.’ But if that really was the case, why did Churchill disarm after the First War and render the country quite unprepared for war?

He disarmed after the First War because quite rightly nobody thought there would be a war for ten years; this is what they call the ten-year rule. England became more and more poor (partly owing to Churchill’s muddling as chancellor of the exchequer) so the ten-year rule was forever being extended, or reimposed. But in the early thirties he did begin to want to rearm, and he never stopped speaking in parliament. Mosley thought it fatal to have the very tiny air force which we had, and he always maintained that a strong air force and navy together could have kept any invader out. That’s why he said that as long as England was not attacked we could make peace, a negotiated peace.

By the time France fell and Mosley was arrested, I don’t think it would have been possible to make peace, or at least it would have had to be such a pathetic peace that it would hardly have counted. All the same, several cabinet members were for it, but Churchill was against. I don’t myself go along with the idea of the finest hour; it seems to me that if you declare war on a very strong country and have as your ally a rather weak country and the weak country is overrun and your army has to escape through Dunkirk as best it can, throwing away all its armaments such as they were, there’s nothing very much you can do except have a finest hour. What was so utterly foolish was to declare war in the beginning, pretending it was going to help Poland; as Mosley said at the time, it was simply writing Poland a blank cheque which then bounced.

It must have puzzled you enormously, as it does me, why you were arrested and imprisoned. I suppose it’s arguable that your husband might have been thought potentially disruptive, but what were the authorities afraid you would do? What could you have done?

Nothing. I’ve absolutely no idea why they imprisoned me. I was told recently by a professor that the Japanese who were arrested and put in camps in the west of America brought a successful action against the government and won their case. I thought that was wonderful, and wondered about bringing one myself until he told me that they hadn’t got their compensation, so then the idea rather died on me.

To return to your question, I think it was an extraordinary thing to have done to my husband too, especially since our people were extremely patriotic. They all joined the army when they could, and long before he was arrested. Fortunately it’s in black and white in his little paper which came out nearly a fortnight before he was arrested. He said there would be no question of where members of the British Union would stand; they would die to the last man in order to drive the invader from our shores. You can’t say more than that. All he had argued beforehand was that until something happened, we should try to have a negotiated peace over Poland. But France fell so quickly,and then there was the terrible tragic farce of Norway, which was entirely Churchill’s idea. And after he had made such an absolute fool of himself there, the next thing they did was make him prime minister.

What did you feel about Churchill’s complicity in your imprisonment? After all, you knew him quite well, and he was your father’s cousin, yet he separated you from your husband and your children and imprisoned you for years without charge. Do you feel any bitterness towards him?

No, none at all for that. I feel bitterness towards him for the war itself. He was one of the people responsible for it, determined to have it. Sadly, I think the same of Hitler. I think that was their great crime, because it very nearly ruined Europe, and England was ruined completely. Not only have we lost our empire, which was supposed to be so strong but turned out to be so very weak, but also England itself changed very much as a result of the war, not all for the good.

Rumour has it that Churchill was prepared to allow you a bath and running water, but you refused it. Is there any truth in that?

Yes, it’s completely true. I was sent for by the governor and he said, ‘There’s a message from the cabinet. Lady Mosley’s to have a bath every day.’ Of course it wasn’t possible, so I just laughed and so did he. All we had was a horrible foul little bathroom with a very old-fashioned geyser which did only three baths twice a day. There were about sixty of us, so we had a rota, and I could no more have gone in front of the others than…well, they were all my dear friends.

What did prison life teach you?

Nothing, except to hate discomfort, which I always have hated.

Did it leave you feeling bitter?

No, I just despised the government so much really. If you don’t respect people, it doesn’t engender bitterness.

Were you ever offered any sort of explanation afterwards? Large numbers of those arrested with you were eventually freed, but you had to wait many years. Even after the war ended the authorities tried to prevent you travelling. Why do you think that was?

I just do wonder really. It is very extraordinary. One reason is that the Foreign Office, as Enoch Powell so truly said, was a nest of spies and traitors; it really was, right up to 1951 when Burgess and Maclean very sensibly went off to Russia, which was where they belonged. And if you have a Foreign Office which is a nest of spies and traitors they don’t want decent people travelling.

You say in your book, ‘The paramount crime was the war itself. None of the atrocities could have happened in time of peace.’ But we know now of course that both Dachau and Buchenwald were in operation by the end of 1933…

Not in the sense that you mean. There were several concentration camps which my husband greatly deplored, but they had floating populations, so to speak. People would be told they were going to Dachau for three months, and out they’d come again. I remember an edition of an illustrated Berlin weekly just before the war which had pictures of people in concentration camps; there were very few, a couple of dozen perhaps, and they were all mentally deficient, or people who might have annoyed the government. They were neither criminal nor were they our beloved liberals or anything of the sort; they were just ordinary common or garden misfits.

Did you ever meet Eva Braun?

Yes. She was very pretty. She was also extremely loyal and brave, as we know by what she did when she flew into Berlin. She was flying to her death and she knew it.

You once said, ‘Men who wage war give cruel orders which are executed with violence and provoke tragedy. This applies to them all. Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and even Churchill, in so far as he had the power.’ Many people regard it as breathtaking cynicism that you make no distinction between the first two, Hitler and Stalin, and the last two, not even a distinction of scale.

But I said ‘in so far as it was in their power’; I call that a distinction. If Churchill had had absolute power, which thank God he did not, then who knows what he might have done? When you think of the lies that have been told about Hitler since the war I should think Roosevelt and Churchill would have been capables de tout.

I realise how dreadful it must have been to be imprisoned for years without even the shadow of a charge, but in view of the fact that there were crowds protesting at your release even as late as 1943, do you think that perhaps you would not have been safe had you been released earlier?

That was the most terrific canard there has ever been. I know Clementine Churchill said to my mother that she thought we were probably much safer in prison, but my mother replied that she thought it was for us to judge. There was never a breath of any trouble after we got out. The Daily Worker even went round Shipton asking all the villagers to demonstrate against the Mosleys and not one of them would. We also discovered from an old man who lived in a villa about half a mile away that he had been approached by the Daily Mirror who told him that the Mosleys were going to be his new neighbours, and he said, ‘Oh, how interesting’, which wasn’t at all the reaction they’d hoped for. You see, English people are not like that really. You might get communists demonstrating outside the underground if they think enough people are watching, but they are not going to do the slightest harm. No, that aspect never bothered us. What we minded was not having passports. We had to buy a little yacht to get away from England.

Presumably you were not a political animal until you met Mosley. Did you actually share his vision intellectually or was it something you took on board as part of your profound love for him?

It’s not quite true to say that I wasn’t interested in politics; I was. The first time I had a vote was in the 1931 election and if in our constituency there had been a Lloyd George Liberal standing, I would have voted for him because Lloyd George had very clever ideas about unemployment and all sorts of things. I often thought afterwards that was why he and Hitler got on so very well. They liked each other enormously when they met, and Lloyd George wrote wonderful articles in the English papers praising him. There’s a beautiful story about when he was on the Berg with Hitler. He was in bed one morning and he rang for his secretary Sylvester and told him he wanted to lay a wreath on the war memorial. Sylvester brought him a wreath, and gave him a card to inscribe. Lloyd George wrote on the card: ‘To the brave men who died for the Fatherland’. Sylvester asked, ‘Don’t you think it might be better to put their Fatherland?’ and Lloyd George thought perhaps it would, so he added the two little letters. It’s terribly nice isn’t it?

It is often said that you were the driving force behind Mosley. Would you agree with that?

No. He had the driving force within himself. He didn’t need me for that. I suppose I must have influenced him a little bit, but not very much. He was much more of an influence on me. He was so clever, so brilliant.

It is also alleged that Mosley was something of a philanderer. Was this a problem which loomed large m your marriage or were you so devoted to him that you accepted and forgave his transgressions?

Well, I suppose one never completely accepts. Jealousy is a very real emotion which nearly everybody who has been in love must feel and know about, but he was an exceptional person, and therefore very attractive to women. He himself adored women, and that’s just a fact. I never blamed him for that.

But did you suffer?

Only marginally really, because it was so taken for granted. It’s very hard to say looking back; I’m sure there were moments when I was jealous, but not unduly, not enough to matter.

You were upset and angered by the publication of your stepson Nicholas Mosley’s book, Beyond the Pale. I was told that you were shown the book in draft form and decided to make no changes and that it was only afterwards that you had second thoughts about what he had written being made public.

It’s completely untrue to say that I was shown it in draft. He sent it when it was already too late to make any alterations, which is an old trick, as we know. I didn’t mind him saying that Mosley was a philanderer, because it was just the truth. What I minded was that he tried to make him such a trivial person, whereas in fact he had been a tremendous worker all his life and had had brilliant ideas. None of that is dealt with at all in the book.

You mean the balance was not right?

Not only was it not right, it was simply ridiculous. The other point is that as he was his son, he’d been told he could have die papers, and I didn’t bother to look through anything. There were very intimate things, such as letters between him and his first wife, which I didn’t think it was right for Nicholas to publish. I implored him to take them out and the answer was always that it was too late. He has a complete obsession about his father, which may not be entirely his fault, because the truth is that the most interesting thing about him is that he’s the son of an extraordinary man. Journalists know that too, so they always get off the subject of his probably not very interesting novels, and ask him instead about his father. The book about Mosley is fundamentally such a dishonest book, because nowhere is it suggested that he was a brilliant thinker or that he could have made a difference to the world had his ideas been accepted. Instead he is portrayed as some kind of playboy, which is too absurd when you think of what the man was. That’s why I object to it.

How did he get on with his father?

Very well. My husband was very fond of him and very good to him always. But of course it turns out that Nicholas must have been fearfully jealous; it can’t be explained in any other way. The dishonesty and the obsession must be the fruits of tremendous jealousy.

Is there any truth in his suggestion that during your marriage to Mosley you suffered from appalling migraines which disappeared after his death?

It’s quite true that I did suffer from appalling migraines, but what I had was a brain tumour. It was operated on and removed, and I’m alive to tell the tale. Mercifully, it turned out to be benign, but it had been pressing on the nerve for years. However wicked Mosley may be considered by his rather dreadful son, I don’t think he could have made me have a brain tumour.

With the imminent arrival of a united Europe, and apprehension about immigration and its troubles, you must feel that both your husband’s goal of an integrated Europe and his fears about widespread immigration have become part of mainstream politics. Do you feel that many of his views have been shown to be right?

I think his views were quite extraordinarily right. When you look back at what he wrote, you realise that he had amazing powers of seeing what might happen. It’s been the most wonderful joy for me to see what’s happened in the last two years, to see the utter and complete failure of socialism and the reuniting of Germany, which is something I’d always known would happen but imagined might be long after my death.

As to immigration, what happened in the 1950s was a great tragedy, and it still is. The proof is in the number of laws which had to be made to force it down the throats of the unfortunate English, who really should have been asked, either in an election or in a referendum, whether they wished to be the hosts of an enormous population with a completely different culture from their own. They might have said yes, but I doubt it. Luckily there was a referendum for Europe and there was a large majority in favour. And every time the English try and put a spoke in the wheel of Europe, as Mrs Thatcher tried to do, I mind less and less, because as time goes on, if you have twelve countries and one of them is always the one that is bloody minded, it doesn’t really matter very much; the other eleven have their way and the twelfth comes hobbling along afterwards. Of course I should love to see Europe with England at the very heart of it, as Mr Major promised, but if we’re not to have that, we still have Europe. I’m a complete European. I love England, but I could be as happy living in Spain or Germany or Portugal or Italy as I am in France. The reason I live in France is that the house I’ve been in for so many years has so many memories, I don’t want to leave it.

You yourself have always had a very bad press. You said in an interview in the Times five years ago, ‘People think I’m a sort of gorgon.’ Do you think there has been a deliberate campaign of vilification or is it just the usual tabloid thirst for copy?

It’s fashionable to attack me and people follow the fashion. I can’t say I’ve minded very much or that I’ve done anything to stop it. I don’t get hurt in the least. I’m very thick skinned. I also feel very fortunate in that I have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not to mention a great many friends. The people I write to and receive letters from don’t attack me, so I don’t very much mind whether the papers do or not.

Have you ever had the same sort of hostile reaction in France that you base suffered for so long in England?

No. They’re not a bit interested in attacking private people. In fact they have a very good law which forbids interference in people’s lives, which is an absolute boon. Nobody has ever bothered me in the forty years I’ve been here.

Even an apparently innocuous activity such as appearing on Desert Island Discs can provoke an outcry after nearly fifty years. Can you in any way understand the strength of the public feeling against you?

I don’t think it’s public feeling; it’s really rather a small number of people. Apparently what happened was the BBC decided to broadcast the programme when it was Yom Kippur. I’m not sure what Yom Kippur is, but it’s something very important for Jewish people who immediately made a tremendous fuss and said they couldn’t listen to Mozart and Beethoven and Wagner at Yom Kippur. The poor old BBC had to think of another date, but the next one turned out to be the Jewish New Year or something quite important. Again there was a tremendous outcry so they had to put it off again. In the end I wrote to them and said that if it was an embarrassment, then they should cancel. But of course they didn’t want to.

Your beauty is legendary in its own time. Your looks astonish still and yet you are said to feel indifferent on the matter. Can this really be true?

I suppose I was quite glad not to be a monster, but people exaggerated quite a lot by pretending one was so beautiful.

But didn’t men fall for you all the time?

I don’t think they did. Men don’t ever fall for someone who doesn’t fall for them; that’s my opinion. Women usually make the first move if there’s going to be anything. In any case, there’s something much more important than beauty, and that is charm, which is something you can’t describe adequately. But there’s no doubt it’s far more powerful than just having big eyes.

You were friends of the Windsors in Paris and you even wrote a biography of the duchess. It is a very sympathetic account of a royal love story which is at odds with the widespread opinion that she behaved appallingly towards the duke who was in turn masochistic, and so on. Why did you want to paint such a romantic picture to the world? Were you really not aware of the negative side?

I was well aware of it in the sense that it is always being written about. But I tried to write what I knew about, what I’d actually seen. I just don’t go along with the idea that he was masochistic or that she was beastly to him, or any of those things at all. Perhaps I did bring out the nice side, but one thing is for sure, he absolutely loved her. The reason I wrote the book was not at all because writing about royals is an amusing way of spending one’s life, but the Americans had gone really beyond everything in their unfairness. It seemed to me that somebody might perhaps try and put the record straight.

You have said that the one thing you regret is not having been able to do more to help Mosley to achieve his aims.

I regret most being unable to do anything towards his campaign for peace. From the beginning of the war until I was arrested I was either pregnant or nursing a tiny baby, so there was nothing I could do.

But, looking back now, do you regret anything else, or wish that things had been different?

Does it sound very smug to say no? When I have regrets in the stilly watches of the night, it’s always about having been unkind to somebody or not fair, but I suppose everyone has those sort of regrets. Otherwise in the big lines of my life I wouldn’t have changed anything. I would choose the same life again, and in fact it’s wonderful to be able to say that. It’s like Nietzsche’s idea of die ewige Wiederkehr.

Is there anything in life you’d still like to achieve?

Not for myself, but for the people I love. I long for everything to go right for them. Of course, everyone has to live life in his own way, and nobody knows that better than I do.

Postscript: The following is a letter I received from Diana, some years after this interview, continuing our conversation.

La Temple de la Gloire

91400 Orsay


19th January 1995


DEAR NAIM,


Thank you for your Christmas card. I’ve been meaning to write to you for months. When you asked me questions you said something like, Did it make a difference to you being beautiful? And I answered, No. Well, the answer

wasn’t quite true, although I never considered myself particularly beautiful.

I am now punished for my lie. I had a cancer in my nose, and in getting it well again the poor nose was not improved, and will never be the same again.

Don’t worry about me, I am quite well (though so deaf and old), and it was very lucky to get a marvellous surgeon. But of course it did make a great difference to my life being considered beautiful, even though I didn’t much agree myself about it.

Forgive this selfish letter. Just to say if ever you are in Paris do come down here, I should be so pleased.

With love,


DIANA

No Longer With Us: Enoch Powell

Of all the politicians I have interviewed, and there were many, Enoch Powell stands out as one of the intellectual giants of his day.

Casting aside his infamous and ill-judged speech on immigration, I was totally captivated by his charm and will always remember our encounter with great affection.

This is my interview with him, from my book Of a Certain Age. He died in February 1998.

You were a very precocious scholar, both at school and at university. Was there a price to pay for all that solitary dedication?

I think one has to examine the term ‘precocious’. I was not precocious inthe sense that I was enormously in advance of the year of birth to which Ibelonged. It is a handicap to be too far ahead of your contemporaries, and Idoubt if I actually was. I was probably put in a form of an average age ayear older than mine, but no more than that. Precocity is therefore an ideato be handled very gently in this context.

You said of your early days that what drove you was the urge to ‘rise’. What was it to rise in your sense?

My father used to say to me that if I were not a teacher that would becontrary to the laws of biology because both he and my mother wereteachers. My father always said that the great thing in life was to write andspeak good English. The nature of attainment as it presented itself to me inthe first two decades of my life was therefore academic.

But was it something you wanted or were you driven to it?

I was not driven. I have no sense of having been physically or mentally pushed, but the implication of the environment was that there was no point in education unless one was academically successful.

In retrospect, who do you think was more influential in your life? Your mother or your father?

I think it was my mother, whom I remember describing, in the preface to a book published in the 1940s, as my first teacher and certainly my first Greek teacher. But it was a household in which learning was respected and the prizes in life were prizes to be won mentally.

You have often been described as a puritan, which is a word sometimes used unkindly. Is it a label that offends, or do you think of it as a badge of honour?

I think of it as a severe inaccuracy. After all, I am a high churchman in the Church of England and how a high churchman can be a puritan I do not understand, because puritan and Anglican are incompatible terms. A puritan is distinct from and opposed to an Anglican. Which is why the attempt was made by William III in 1689 to find a via media between the Church of England and the puritans. All those characteristics which predispose a man to be comfortable and find his natural niche in the higher end of the Church of England are incompatible with puritanism.

You are using puritan in the intellectual sense. But it is a term also commonly used to mean someone who is offended by sex.

I think the word ‘squeamish’ is perhaps eluding us here. I’m certainly not that, and if puritan is used in the sense of squeamish I disavow the description. There is no subject to which the human mind cannot properly be applied.

People constantly use the word austere in reference to you. Would you accept their judgement as appropriate?

Here again the word is used in a narrowed sense. Presumably it’s intended to describe a person who does not find life primarily and self-evidently enjoyable. Well, I enjoy life; life without enjoyment would be intolerable. Indeed, sometimes when I’m asked what I have been doing for thirty-eight years in the House of Commons, I am disposed to reply that I have been enjoying myself. I don’t think that comes under the heading of austerity.

There seems to have been a marked reluctance on your part to take up the academic life. You said you felt a sense of enclosure when you passed in under Trinity Gate. Why did you persevere if that was the case?

I didn’t persevere. I tried to escape from Cambridge and eventually succeeded. From the time that I became a fellow of Trinity I sought appointment as a professor of classics or of Greek at any university which had a vacancy and when one occurred at Sydney and I was appointed to it I accepted it. But all through those years I was quite certain that this was a very brief temporary phase, which would be terminated by the coming of a war.  This notion was derived from my observation and knowledge of what was going on in Germany and Italy. I had close connections with contemporary scholars in both those countries, so that I was aware of the rising threat which I perceived as a threat to the independence and self-government of the United Kingdom, and which I believed would have terminated sooner in hostilities than it actually did.

If you’re interested in one of the reflections upon life from an older person’s standpoint, one of the things which has surprised me most is that events take longer to happen than one would have supposed. One can be sure that there will be war, but one thinks it will come sooner. The causes are there but the causes are not necessarily effective at the earliest possible time. I’ve always underestimated the speed with which things can happen and the promptitude with which the foreseeable can occur. I’ll enlarge on that if you like.

Please do.

It has been one of the experiences of recent years that after eighteen years of trying to make people understand what was being done to this country by European unity, what they were losing and what they were being asked to sacrifice, I’ve observed that at last they have woken up to its importance. I wouldn’t have thought it would have taken so long, but I was mistaken; my fellow countrymen had only one eye half open. They did know, and they show signs now of remembering that they were told.

So I think if I were advising my younger self I would say: you must not suppose that because saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur cause an explosion, they will cause an explosion now. There has to be a set of special circumstances arising before that explosion occurs, so do not imagine because you can trace the causes of events, because events are predictable, that they are imminent. From this I would engage in another reflection, which is that one of the great laws of life is patience. Do not imagine that because such and such a thing is ripe to happen it’s going to happen immediately. You may have to spend a long time waiting for it to happen, but if you are right the world will come to meet you. If you are wrong, then you don’t matter. That might almost be written up as the favourite adage of my declining years.

Your inaugural lecture in 1938 showed you conscious even then of the difficulties which attended maintaining Greek as a central part of higher education. Do you think that the battle is still capable of being won, and does it matter all that much anyway?

All battles are capable of being won, even the most apparently hopeless battles. In the mid 1920s it was the received wisdom that classical education was on its way out, and I remember the revival of classical studies which took place in the late 1920s and in the 1930s. There is a natural predisposition amongst people who belong to Western culture to be inquisitive about the Greeks and when you show them what Plato said, or what Jesus said, they say, let me get at it. People will not be indefinitely content to be held at arm’s length from that which is ultimately intelligible or appreciable only in Greek. So long as Greek thought is immortal, Greek studies will be immortal, because people will not submit to being estranged from the source of that thinking.

In your collected poems you recall, without being able fully to recover, what you called the ‘compulsions’ under which they were written. Did you ever think of yourself writing poetry in the consciously public classical manner or was it restricted to a more self-absorbed romanticism?

Self-absorbed romanticism is a rather cruel but not entirely inaccurate expression. I wrote poetry when I had to write it, in obedience to an emotional compulsion, as a form of self-expression. Of course I was aware that I was using form, that I was entering into a tradition. Nevertheless, the necessity to do so was internal; it was not an exercise, it was not a chosen activity. In fact I was liable to write a poem in the most adverse circumstances, on the back of an envelope in a train.

Were you at all sympathetic to the modernist tradition which was being established while you were growing up? Were you able to share Eliot and Pound’s sense of a need to break from an older tradition?

I’m afraid I was absorbed in what you describe as the older tradition, and Tennyson and Milton were the principal fountains from which I drank.

Have you written poems which remain unpublished?

I suppose all poets have. “Ev’n copious Dryden wanted, or forgot, ‘The last and greatest art, the art to blot.'” That’s somewhere in Pope, isn’t it? The art to blot is part of the art of writing poetry, and the knowledge that you must scrap a poem is a sign that you may be trusted at any rate.

I have heard that you have written poems to your wife which remain unpublished. Is that correct?

I write one poem a year on our marriage anniversary and I have been guilty of jocularly saying that this is a part of my wife’s pension. I give her a rose for each year we have been married and a poem, sometimes referring to the number of roses, sometimes not. And I can imagine a book being published one day with a reproduction of a print of a rose on one page and on the other side the serial poem for the year.

Philosophers and even historians, like Lola Martinez, now think of poetry as a valuable source of evidence. When you write poetry do you think of it as a way of exploring or as a way of persuading? Is it cognitive in some way, do you think?

It’s communicative, that is certain. A painter wishes to exhibit the landscape which he has painted because he has seen something which he thinks his fellows may not have seen. Similarly a poet says, here, listen, that’s what I felt. The perception brings with it an urge to communicate. We are after all a herd animal and communicating our perceptions is bred deeply into humanity. This has a political application. As a politician I sometimes used to be asked,How do you go about your business? And I used to say it was rather like Luther in his Reformation hymn: “I hear the nightingale in the dark hedge, the dawn is coming…” That is to say, I sing in the hedge to my fellow countrymen in case the song I want to sing is a song which they also want to hear. But there is a compulsion to sing it and see if somebody else will react to it; it’s part of the communication mechanism of homo sapiens. Homer knew that he would have an audience – perhaps he didn’t know how large it would be – but if no audience had been conceivable, he would not have sung.

Why do you find it so hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him? So far no one has been able to establish that he was not the author.

I find the whole chronology from the earliest quartos right through to the publication of the first folio in 1623 or 1624 highly suspicious. Here are works, some of the earliest of which are the most mature, which appear in unofficial editions in the 1590s, then suddenly in the 1600s this flow is interrupted, with one exception, which is ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in 1609. Then in 1623 we have a volume which contains some of the greatest plays, which have not only never been published before but of which there is no trace of a performance. How do we reconcile this with the biography of an individual who undoubtedly existed (because we must believe the parish records in Stratford upon Avon)? I find the whole chronology challenging and I have seen no convincing or satisfactory explanation of the appearance of those plays before the world.

In 1972, after the European Communities Bill had been forced through parliament, I thought I wouldn’t remain in public life much longer. I saw no point in seeking to return to a House of Commons, and when I thought of what I was to do, the answer seemed to lie in the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, and the Greek New Testament. The Greek New Testament beat William Shakespeare by a long head, but it’s a half-open door which always beckons me whenever I glance in that direction.

But do you think you will ever open it properly?

Probably not.

But if he didn’t write them, who did?

A committee. You may laugh, but we underestimate the extent to which great art can be produced by two or more hands, and undoubtedly the furnace of court drama under Elizabeth and in the early stages of James I was fed by a group of people, and that group was a necessarily changing group, though there is a voice and a mode of apprehension detectable in that joint product. I have not been convinced of any specific proposal to put a name to that voice, but do not underestimate the possibility of a joint creation of great works of art.

But has it happened before?

Yes, it happened in the Old Testament, the content of which is largely a joint creation. We tend to associate works of art with individuals, but in so doing we over-individualise. It’s a natural human fault to exaggerate the importance of the individual – there’s a Tory statement for you.

I wonder if your own poems form in the way you describe one of Shakespeare’s coming to him; that is, as a germinal phrase carried in the head until a suitable framework is gathered round it?

That was certainly my experience, and incidentally it is also the sort of experience which is described by Housman in his lecture on the name and nature of poetry. I would think it quite common among those who write poetry, that it comes in pieces, that an emotionally charged blob arises in the mind, and a framework for this must grow around it.

At Cambridge you were a fervent admirer of A.E. Housman and in some ways he became a role model for you. How far do you think his homosexuality was an integral, even an inseparable, part of his creativity? And did this matter to you or detract from his greatness in any way?

I probably was not conscious of it in the years that I attended his lectures, and I doubt the practicability of detaching one element from all the rest in an individual’s character, particularly an artist’s.

But a lot of great artists are homosexual…do you think that homosexuality and art complement each other?

If homosexuality is a common human characteristic then that would account for what you’ve drawn attention to. To say that artists have two eyes doesn’t prove that they are different from other men, because having two eyes is quite common, pretty well invariable. If this strain is common in humanity then we shall find it in all manifestations of humanity, amongst artists, amongst painters, amongst politicians. Only if we could produce a statistical survey of the incidence in mankind at large at a particular time and in a particular society, and then show that that incidence was greatly exceeded amongst artists, might we be justified in coming to any such conclusion.

How do you yourself look upon homosexuality? Are you tolerant of it?

Well, I voted for its decriminalisation, for it seemed to me grotesque that male homosexuality continued to be criminal from the reign of Henry VIII when female homosexuality was not. Nor did I regard it as a proper area for the criminal law to operate.

But why do you think homosexuality appears to be on the increase?

Ah, I notice the word ‘appears’, and I agree with that. That which is more discussed appears to be more common. It’s not a matter to which I’ve applied my mind. I daresay there are those who are in the position to form some rational answer to the question, but I do think we have to beware of the impression made upon our minds by publicity. Familiarity tends to multiply, so we must beware of amateur statistics.

You were keen to join up in 1939, even passing yourself off as an Australian to do so. What was the attraction of the army, was it a sense of achieved order, or a duty fulfilled, or some more basic urge to help defend Britain, the land itself, as Wilfred Owen wanted to do in the First War?

I can remember saying to my father that it was my intention to get into uniform on the first day if I could. It was a spontaneous resolve of mine, though I didn’t achieve it. It was the 20th October 1939 before I succeeded in getting enlisted. I wanted to defend my country, which is quite a natural impulse.

I was told a story that a man who had been one of your fellow privates at the beginning of the war met you years later when he had become a major and you a brigadier. When he greeted you in a familiar way you had him disciplined for not saluting a superior officer…is there any truth in that story?

No truth. That’s an easily invented type of story. Indeed, it’s a very interesting specimen of myth making. I did put fellow privates on disciplinary charges on the first day that I was a lance corporal, but that was for urinating in the barrack room.

You spent part of the war in India which was then part of the Empire. Did you have any feelings for the imperial idea or did you think the time had come for withdrawal?

Like most Indians, I didn’t think the time had come for that phase of India’s immense history to come to an end. It was as surprising to the Indians as it was to the British. And I only came to terms with it when back in this country in the late 1940s I began to apply myself to the constitutional history of my own country, and to understand that there was an insoluble contradiction in the government of a population on the authority of an assembly to which they could not be elected. The Empire of India was a huge repudiation of the lesson of the American colonies, and one with which England is still struggling; that is, that you cannot govern responsibly to parliament those who cannot be, or who choose not to be, represented in parliament. That’s the underlying axiom of what is meant in English by democracy, and it was curious that it was our earliest conquistadores in India who understood this better than it was understood at the end of the nineteenth century. In India that principle was apparently unavoidable, but persistently and tantalisingly breached.

Now this is not the me of 1943 speaking to you, who came back to politics in this country with the vague idea at the back of his head that it might somehow lead to the viceroyalty of India, and then had to work out his understanding of what happened to the United Kingdom when it ceased to be the mother country of a worldwide empire. The me of 1943 has arrived at New Delhi station at two in the morning on a posting from the Middle East. He realises that it is impracticable to report to General Headquarters India until a much later hour, so he undoes his valise and he goes to sleep on the platform, and when he wakes up, what he breathes he finds intoxicating. Eventually he becomes an interpreter in Urdu and one of his unrealised ambitions is to produce a critical and literary edition of ‘The Rise and Fall of Islam’ by the Urdu poet Hali, which is really the story of the Moslems in India.

I suppose in my eightieth year I am a real oldie, and one who has to be constantly aware that he carries a lot of previous beings around in himself and that they are liable to be still vocal. Just as one’s dreaming self is also one’s waking self, the past individuals are asleep there somehow, and occasionally their words are remembered and repeated.

What was it that attracted you so powerfully to India? As a country it can seem so hopeless, so overburdened with a huge population, so impossible to organise, its democracy so fragile, its savagery scarcely suppressed…

You used the word ‘organise’. I suppose one of the fascinations of India for the British was its organisability. Here are immense resources, human above all; if these are harnessed together, what a wonderful organisation could one not create, and in many ways the British did. The creation of a railway system, the drainage system of the Punjab – these must have given immense delight and satisfaction to those who organised them. But what we couldn’t organise was a solution to the inherent constitutional contradiction of the British Raj. Nor could Indians, for they were mainly using material which they had obtained from us, and British material is very dangerous when used by those who are not British.

In an article you wrote about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India you spoke very fairly about the difference between his India and yours. How far, or when, do you think it is right to ask for accuracy in novels? May a book not be a good novel even if it’s a bad social history?

The dramatisation of the novel The Jewel in the Crown always seemed to me grotesque, because life in India was not spent as life was spent by the protagonists in that novel; but that’s not to say it’s not a good novel or drama.

But if you present a drama to a person who has lived in a particular place and situation and say, ‘What do you make of it?’ – he will react with the contrast between his own memories, his own sensations, and the drama. I’m not apologising for my review, I’m explaining it. Although the political axiom is supposed to be, never apologise, never explain, I don’t mind explaining.

And you don’t mind apologising when you’re wrong?

As a politician I try to follow the rule I’ve just quoted. And I’ve probably explained too much in politics, more than I ought to have done.

You now adhere to the Church of England, though you were not religious as a young man, and religious faith is often thought, perhaps wrongly, to be unusual in modem intellectuals. Does your faith ever sit uneasily alongside your intellectual convictions?

No, because worship and intellectual activity are manifestations of different aspects of the person, and they serve different – God forgive me, I was going to say biological purposes – no, they correspond to different aspects of that extraordinary animal homo sapiens. Religion must have been very important for his survival, because he has it everywhere. One of the remarkable things which J.G. Fraser, the great anthropologist, found so alarming, was how frequently in places between which there could have been no interconnection or intercommunication, man hit upon the device of killing God and eating him. Now this is not a rational proceeding, but it may nevertheless be a proceeding which is beneficial or necessary to humanity. I hope I have not unduly alarmed you.

No. You have said that you are deeply aware of a dilemma and a contradiction between Christianity and human life. Some observers have suggested that despite your participation in holy communion and observance of religious practice it is as if you are somehow forcing yourself to believe, if you like; that you are really struggling with agnosticism.

Well, who is to look into the heart of man and declare what he sees there, and who is man to say what is in his heart? I can only observe that at no stage in the last forty years can a credible political motive be assigned to what I have done and said as a member of the Church of England. Self-interest is difficult to establish – a very modest disclaimer I realise – but then we’re often led by motives of which we are unaware.

It is said that those who believe have the grace of belief, and that is something that comes from God. Do you feel that you have the grace of belief or do you have a constant struggle to believe?

I feel everything comes from grace; I have everything by grace. My wife and I, for example, are celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary but our marriage was a grace; it was something I didn’t deserve, something I’ve been given beyond my desert. I find the concept of grace, that is to say an input of indeterminate origin, unavoidable in a whole range of experiences. To arrive at a logical conclusion from premises is in a way an act of grace. Perhaps this is to acknowledge what a wonderful thing it was that man originated.

Have you any doubt in your own mind about an after-life?

If you had substituted immortality for an after-life, I would not have hesitated to reply in the affirmative. The expression ‘after-life’ is timebound; immortality is not. The individual, encapsulated by time, unable to think or understand or have his being except as bounded by time, ceases to belong to that framework on death, and it’s therefore a misrepresentation to treat him as though he continued to exist on the same scale. Suppose time is a man-made illusion, which it probably is…in that case the meaning of immortality will be very different.

Presumably you have a view about the ordination of women, a matter which looks as if it might further fragment the Christian Church. Is it possible theologically in your view, and is it desirable politically?

We’re going through a bad dose of feminism, aren’t we? Certainly the chattering classes are. Under the influence of a worldwide cross-infection, we are calling in question specialisations which have been necessary to the survival of humanity. It may well be that the preservative and the destructive impulses of mankind have been specialised in the sexes and that we are playing with fire when we introduce confusion into that specialisation. The specialisation can, of course, be defined and debated, but the anxiety is whether we can radically interfere without unforeseeable but damaging consequences. I would place the proposal for the ordination of women and the enthusiasm for it in the context of that movement which leads all political parties at present in the United Kingdom to say that they want to see more women sitting in the House of Commons, even though those who do the work necessary for putting the members there don’t think so.

There is now and there has been for a long time a great deal of agitation about women’s rights. I suspect that you are not especially sympathetic to the women’s movement. Is it that you fear the consequences of a loss of natural complementarity, or what.

I am very happy to consider with an open mind proposals for a change in the law where the law differentiates between men and women, though I am not sure that to treat the female as an independent tax band will be something welcomed by all those whom it will affect. My wife was certainly alarmed when I told her that she will be making her own tax return in future and would surely not expect any help from me.

Since you are a member of the Church of England, I assume you believe in original sin. How is the outcome of that to be combated in a society without any restraints on gain?

Covetousness, greed, are not matters which can be the subject of legislation. They belong in the category of sin rather than crime, and from sin we are saved by grace.

You acknowledged once that you are intellectually arrogant. Does that degree of self-confidence not isolate you in the political world of horse trading?

I’m also a corporate man, a person at ease in society, fulfilling the laws and obeying the conventions, just as – constitutionally – the shared responsibility for the advice tendered to the sovereign extends right through political life. I accept that the unity of that advice implies give and take between those who are responsible for it being tendered. In other words, I am a naturally compliant member of a cabinet. The intellectual arrogance leads me to perceive that the whole structure of cabinet government and of party government depends on bargaining and compromise. But I’m a good colleague, one who goes to meet his other colleagues halfway, more than halfway if necessary.

Can you tell me what is it to be a Tory?

To me a Tory is a person who believes that authority is vested in institutions – that’s a carefully honed definition. We have made the law, not for extraneous reasons, not because it conforms with a priori specifications; it has been made by a particular institution in a particular way and can be changed by that institution in a particular way. A Tory therefore reposes the ultimate authority in institutions – he is an example of collective man.

Do you believe in the Thatcher philosophy which is sometimes characterised as advocating greed and free enterprise as a way of life, irrespective of community benefit.

It is alleged that the speeches I made on the working of the competitive market in the early 1960s influenced Mrs Thatcher, but I wouldn’t attribute to her the formulation which you’ve just provided. There is undoubtedly a role in the functioning of a human society for possessiveness, for competition, for envy, and for many urges which live in a kind of balance and coexistence with the other urges within. For instance, if we take the question of denationalisation: do we wish our railways to be run by politicians, or do we wish them to be run by those who will lose if they are ill run? The private enterprise corporation is founded upon the assumption that the resources which it puts to work are put to work most efficiently if it is managed by those who stand to lose if the customers’ demand is not anticipated and met. That seems to me a very happy and ancient device which most nations have grown up with.

You have described yourself as a man naturally sympathetic to authority and its institutions. What is to be done when authority ceases to be impressive or even trustworthy, when for example a minister insists that the economy is recovering in the face of the facts, or when unemployment statistics are patently ‘managed’?

No institution is immortal, any more than any other human thing is immortal, and there is no sovereign remedy against its deterioration. Institutions are not only created and strengthened, they also weaken and disappear. We cannot deny that.

You have been the subject of a great deal of abuse for stating your views about immigration. Have you modified them at all?

The aspects and consequences of immigration as perceived now in the 1990s are not the same as those which were perceived in the 1960s. In the 1960s the level of admissions was the critical subject; this resulted in a factor of almost equal importance being underestimated and largely overlooked – the age structure of the incoming population. Age structure is now asserting itself and will result in a progressive and on-going relative increase in what are called the ethnic minorities in proportion to the total population. What we don’t know and what nobody can know, is how long institutions based upon the working of majorities can continue to operate.

There is an on-going change in the population of this country, and one doesn’t know how far that will be compatible with the continued operation of our parliamentary institutions. If you cannot change your mind between one election and another in reaction to what has been your experience in the meantime you cannot operate a parliamentary system. If an election is a census it cannot form a basis of parliamentary self-government.

These are the questions which with the passage of time are now emerging, but I do find that, so far as I can judge it, public anxiety is as lively on this subject as it was thirty years ago.

Except our worst fears have not been justified…

My projections have been verified. What I said in 1968, I would say again if it were 1968.

In a discourse on Wagner’s Ring you say that Siegfried of course did not fully understand or intend the consequences of his actions. Did you fully understand or intend the consequences of your ‘River of Blood‘ speech?

Those words were never used. That phrase did not occur in the speech. I don’t think one ever foresees the consequences of one’s actions and certainly in politics one never knows which utterances are going to be heard and which are not.

The sting in Paul Foot’s book about you was that you had exploited the race issue as an act of political opportunism and not, as you claimed, as a matter of principle. What is your comment on that?

That’s what he thought when he started to write the book, but after he’d met me he thought better. In fact, I ruined his book for him. When I heard he was writing it, I sent him a letter inviting him to come and talk to me. This was fatal because one can see in the course of the book that he discovered his conception was not viable.

The story goes that when you went to Northern Ireland someone called you a Judas, to which you retorted: ‘I am sacrificing my political career. Judas was paid.’ Is there any truth in that story?

That interchange did in fact take place after I’d delivered the second of my Vote Labour speeches in the election campaign of February 1974, but it was nothing to do with Northern Ireland.

You once spoke of yourself as a ‘Lansdowne man’ in the sense that since by 1943 it was clear that the axis powers could not win, we ought to have had a negotiated peace. Does that view not place you in the strange company of Oswald Mosley who also advocated a negotiated peace?

It does not put me in the company of those who see war between civilised nations as ending with the destruction of one’s opponent. The object of war is to prove to one’s opponent that he cannot gain his aim by force. When that has been proved the justification for war is at an end, and that point should be sought. Unconditional surrender was the most barbaric and inhuman concept to bring into the Second World War. You do not have to destroy your opponent; you merely have to prove to him that he cannot win, and when he can be persuaded that he cannot win, then you must make peace. Otherwise you will have to rebuild him and there will be a lot of other fallout too.

Many people have drawn a comparison between you and Mosley: intellectually rigorous, patriotic, a natural leader, a powerful orator, uncompromising, destined for – but never quite achieving – high office. Is it a comparison which offends you?

It’s a comparison which is quite strange to me. I’ve never come across it. I am of course a failed politician, if one assumes that the object of politics is to gain and keep high office. Mosley was a failed politician too, so I may be included in the same category, but there is a large category of failed politicians.

Yes, but failed politicians because they were incapable…

Alright, I can be placed in the category of failed capable politicians; they’re still a sufficiently large company to contain me and Oswald Mosley and dozens and dozens of others.

You once wrote that ‘no time spent reading history is mis-spent for a politician’. But do not circumstances change beyond all recognition and invalidate the ‘lessons’ of history…may it not be an error to read the future out of the past?

It is an error in any case to read the future out of the past, because history is not repeatable. The lessons which we learn about the scientifically measurable and investigatable world are applicable because that world is a constant. But history is not a constant; it is an artistic presentation of change in progress, irreversible and unique change. I recently improved upon my dictum about time spent reading history, and I would now say time spent reading biography is not mis-spent, perhaps because the repeatable element in individual human life is more substantial than the repeatable element in social or national life.

Hailsham said of you: ‘He has the best mind in politics, until it is made up.’ Did you understand what he meant by this, and did you accept the implied criticism?

No to the first question, and therefore the second does not arise.

A lot of people have said in that context you are your own worst enemy.

Well, it depends what a man wants, what his standards are, what life means for him.

But if you were to live that period in your life again…

Don’t frighten me with such a horrible idea. Imagine putting all my prejudices as an octogenarian into the body of a forty-year-old man – it’s such a horrible notion that I decline to entertain it.

Maurice Cowling called you ‘a closet socialist’. What do you think he meant by that?

He meant what I was saying earlier about a Tory being an aspect of collective man. Society is in the end normative, and politics is about the management and governance of a society. Society is prior (in a logical sense) to the individual; the individual in the last resort is an abstraction. Nobody has ever met an individual, we didn’t start as individuals, we don’t live as individuals, we only know ourselves as members of a collectivity. I think it was that aspect of my Toryism that Cowling may have had in mind.

It is said that an unofficial approach was made to you with a view to your becoming a life peer, but that you made certain conditions.

That’s not a question I would ever answer.

Would you like to have been in the House of Lords? Conditions or no conditions?

You mean, would I have liked to have a different father? [Laughs.]

The House of Lords would have provided you with a forum in which to express your views…

I find no difficulty in getting my views on to paper, or getting what I put on to paper printed. Nor do I find any shortage of my fellow countrymen who are anxious to lend me their ears.

The House of Lords wouldn’t interest you in the least?

You’re putting words into my mouth.

Would it interest you?

I do not wish to say anything disrespectful about the upper chamber.

I am puzzled by your suggestion that the greatest act man is capable of is to choose death instead of life. I assume you are not writing in praise of suicide. Are you describing the capacity to sacrifice oneself for someone or something else?

Yes. It was the only way out for mankind that God could discover. It was the only way to save mankind, to allow someone to sacrifice his life for the remission of sins. It is an idea endorsed by the strongest authority.

Are there circumstances in which you would sacrifice your own life for that idea?

I suppose my decision to enlist is the only evidence that I have to offer. And I know now that I’m not the only person who put on uniform and took it off again who has a lurking feeling at the back of his mind that there must have been something wrong with him if he came back. When I was asked on a radio programme how I would like to be remembered, and I replied that I wished I’d been killed in the war, I received a large correspondence from people who wrote that they were glad I had said that, because until then they thought they were the only people to feel that way. A large number of people who voluntarily went into the forces in 1939 are dogged by the idea that they were left unscathed when others were taken. Those who survived concentration camps also have this feeling.

Now that you have reached a certain age, are you afraid of death?

The nearer Death comes actuarially, the more He tends to present himself in the guise of a potential friend, a hand laid upon the shoulder saying, ‘Never mind old chap, I’ll come along in due course and carry you away.’

There’s a wonderful line in Homer where the prophecy is made to Ulysses that Death will come to him from the sea, with the words (in Greek) ‘gentle, ever so gentle’. And one does come to regard death as a gentle presence.

Many people have commented on your seemingly cold exterior, yet in  private you are obviously a compassionate man. Are you aware of this tension between the public and the private personae?

The surprise that I sustain is how widespread and undifferentiated is the friendliness towards me, evidently entertained by large numbers of my fellow countrymen. It constantly comes as a happy but still remarkable thing to me. Perhaps that is an act of grace.

What in essence so attracted you to the music of Wagner?

Hearing it. There’s a line in Carducci: ‘When Wagner breathes into the sounding metals a thousand spirits, men’s hearts tremble.’

What is your view on the current debate in Israel about Wagner’s music? The Israeli Philharmonic wants to play Wagner but the public continues to reject him because of the association with Hitler and the Nazis.

That is their business, and I will thank them to mind their business in declining to express corresponding opinions about the affairs of the United Kingdom.

Siegfried proclaimed what you call the great moral discovery of humanity: that it is better to die than to live in fear. While it is an idea which greatly captures the imagination, is there not a case for saying that in practice it is all but worthless. Many people live in fear of life itself or in fear of God, but their life still has intrinsic value.

Well, that will turn upon the word ‘intrinsic’, won’t it? We live because we cannot help it, and we die because we cannot help it. You remember in front of Bolingbroke Richard II says: ‘Give Richard leave to live till Richard die.’

When you reflected on age you said that to your surprise it was ‘a constant opening of doors’. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m surprised by how much new there still is to think and to see, and the apparent immunity of one’s thinking mechanism from those ravages that are  making their advance in other parts of the organism. That one continues to think and enjoy thinking, to observe and to enjoy observing, is a constant marvel.