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?


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?


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.