Monthly Archives: June 2010

No Longer With Us: Monsignor Gilbey

Born in 1901 of an English father and a Spanish mother, Alfred Newman Gilbey was educated at Beaumont and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied at the Beda College in Rome before being ordained a priest in 1929. He was chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates of Cambridge from 1932 to 1965 and in 1950 he was made a Monsignor. In 1964 he became a Pronotary Apostolic and in 1981 he was made an honorary canon of Brentwood Cathedral. He is the author of We Believe (1983), in which he expounds the moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church. He died in 1998.

Here is my interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.

First, about your vocation. How did you know God wanted you to be a priest?

A very difficult question to answer shortly. Plainly a vocation develops Like any other living thing. I had a flying start through coming from a good Catholic home. My mother was a real Spanish Catholic, of the faith to the marrow of her bones. My father, on the other hand, came from a completely Protestant English background, but he was God’s good Englishman and also a wine merchant like the rest of my family. He and two of his brothers went out to Spain and they all fell for Spanish brides; they were all – how should I say – converted at pistol point. I don’t mean that literally, but there was really no alternative in those days. My Spanish grandfather, whom, alas, I never knew, was reputed to have said to my father, ‘You are an entirely acceptable suitor, physically, financially, socially, but my daughter’ – she was the eldest daughter and the apple of his eye – ‘does not marry a man who is not a Catholic.’ There was nothing to discuss, no argie-bargie. It was like the sun rising tomorrow. He undertook instruction for two years.

The fashion today is to dismiss people who become Catholic to marry a Catholic, but that is to undervalue that sort of conversion. Yet this is the beginning of an answer to your question: having a wonderful, very happy Catholic home. My parents started their married life in London, then moved to what was to be my beloved home in Essex, called Mark Hall – now entirely destroyed. It was in the English countryside, eight miles from the nearest church, and this was in the days of carriages nearly a hundred years ago in 1894. My father went to see Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, and asked if we might have a private chapel in the house. Cardinal Vaughan said, ‘You can certainly bare a chapel but I can’t give you a priest. You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you can.’ My mother then went to Farm Street to ask if they could spare a priest, and every Saturday a Jesuit would arrive and stay until Sunday evening, having given us Mass in the morning.

In this way our background could not have been more favourable. We were five brothers, but I was the only one who, from the very beginning, felt called to the priesthood. We were brought up in an entirely Catholic atmosphere, and then we were all sent to school, again with the Jesuits, at Beaumont. The school in those happy days was run entirely by Jesuits, something that applies to very few Catholic schools now – there simply aren’t enough Jesuits to go round.

Beaumont made a great impression on me, but however much I admired our teachers, I never felt at all attracted to the Jesuit way of life. It is one of their characteristics, a great source of their spirituality, to emphasise a detachment, but possibly because I was so wonderfully happy at home I felt drawn towards something slightly more rooted. It’s always a matter of interest and admiration to me to find how wonderfully the Catholic Church uses all sorts of natural dispositions and temperaments. The Benedictines put immense emphasis on the stability of a place and vow permanent residence at a particular monastery. The Jesuits emphasise detachment, almost depersonalisation, and that aspect didn’t appeal to me.

A book that had a great influence on me was Hugh, A. C. Benson’s memoir of his younger brother R. H. Benson. There were three brothers, the sons of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of the century, all of whom were prolific writers, though Hugh was the only one who became a Catholic and a priest. He was an immensely dynamic character, writing and preaching ceaselessly, a great convert maker, and it fell to me as a little boy at Beaumont to read what his brother had written about him. This presentation of a priest was so different from any I had known that I asked one of the Jesuits how it was that Hugh Benson was, as a priest, able to lead the life depicted. The Jesuit explained that he was a secular, and this was the first time I ever heard of the existence of the secular clergy. At about the same time one of the school’s old boys, who had been called to the secular priesthood, came back from Rome, where he had been ordained and celebrated Mass at Beaumont with great jubilees.

Returning to my dear parents, however, those two strains – the Spanish and the English – gave me an immense love for England aligned with the strong Catholic tradition we had at home, and gave me a desire to be able to communicate the one with the other. As a keen fox-hunting family we were devoted to the countryside, and our friends and neighbours were nearly all rooted in that world. One was aware of how indescribably remote they were from what we Catholics considered to be the world and I was conscious of there being these two aspects of the same civilisation. I think that was the source of inspiration for me to want to be a secular priest.

I didn’t wish to go straight in, as was customary in those days, but wanted, as it were, to appear in the world first. My first attempt, largely because of the Jesuit tradition and the geographical position of Beaumont on the Thames, was to try to get into Oxford in 1919. But the Jesuits sent so many priests to the war that Beaumont was at that time very short staffed. One of the great losses we suffered was having no Greek at all, and in those days Greek was an essential qualification for getting into Oxford. Therefore I turned to Trinity College, Cambridge. Looking back, it was one of the providential things in my life that I went there, and it has been the whole of my life since. I had four very idle but very enjoyable years there which, however idle, were immensely educative. I have no academic gifts; my academic history is abysmal. I scraped past a degree after three years’ idleness, then went to Rome to study for the priesthood.

Were your family enthusiastic about your entering the Church?

My mother certainly was. They all had great awe and reverence for the priesthood, but my father hoped I wasn’t becoming a priest out of bravado, meaning because I’d been saying it for so long. It would be wrong to call him enthusiastic, but he was certainly anxious that his sons should do what they felt to be their vocations, and when it became clear that mine was the priesthood, I think he took great pleasure in it.

Your family background was not a deprived one, so do you find any conflict of perspective between your vocation and your former life?

None at all. Our family situation was fortunate indeed; not rich as people think of riches today – we didn’t have racehorses or a yacht – but a large family living comfortably. The question comes from that widespread idea of Catholics who don’t understand the difference between the religious life and the life of the secular priest. So many people now talk as though a Christian ought to be a pacifist, ought to be a communist. I always refer them to that wonderful passage in the three synoptic gospels when a young man comes to our Blessed Lord and says, ‘Master, what must I do to attain eternal life?’ Ask nine people out of ten, including Catholics, and they concertina the conversation and in so doing miss the point by quoting Our Lord as saying, ‘Sell all thou hast and follow me.’ This was not at all what our Blessed Lord said. He said, ‘Keep the commandments,’ and the young man, expecting something much more dramatic, was disappointed and said, ‘This I have done all the days of my life.’ Then our Blessed Lord says, ‘If thou wishest to be perfect, go sell all thou hast and follow me.’

He is making there a big distinction, which the Church has always observed, between those called to make the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and those not so called. People are slow t0 appreciate this distinction and don’t understand that, to start with, a secular priest literally takes no vows. He takes no vow of poverty sad if he has means of his own, he can keep them. He mustn’t, of course, go into business – that would be incompatible with his priestly vocation – but if he has money, or money comes to him, then he may keep it. Celibacy, in the case of a secular priest, is not made by a vow but is imposed by law. It was only gradually imposed on the clergy over die years, and you find early on that many a bishop has a son who becomes a saint.

People always talk as though there were just two possibilities: that of the present practice of the Catholic Church, which has been imposed by law, and that which you find in all the Protestant denominations. This completely overlooks a great historic development which is neither. In all the Eastern Churches, in the Orthodox and also in the Uniates, a novitiate will, while still only a deacon, go and find a wife and then be ordained a priest. If he loses her, he is not allowed to remarry; which seems to us a rather arbitrary rule, but it is important to realise how wide and varied the practice is. I mention it as a necessary preface to poverty because if you are, for example, a married man with wife and children, then you are not free to give up all you have. You are bound, in justice as well as in charity, to do all you can to support them.

On the other hand, if you have once taken that vow of chastity, or accepted it as the secular clergy do, then you are free to ask whether Almighty God may not wish you to follow our Blessed Lord more closely by giving up all material things. For a married man to do that would be for him to commit a great sin of improvidence. Unless a vow of chastity is taken first, then you cannot ask yourself whether you’re called to a vow of evangelical poverty. Nor, for similar reasons, can you turn the other cheek to the smiter, as I always emphasised when instructing young men at Cambridge. If you, as a man with no dependants, are going home one night in the dark, and an assailant leaps out of a doorway with the obvious intention of taking your life, then you do have an alternative. You make up your mind in that split second that either you knock him down and kill him if necessary to preserve your own life, or you say, ‘I’ll turn the other cheek to the smiter. He’s a boor, a man not knowing what he is doing.’ But if, as a married man, you come home to find your wife being beaten up and the children killed, then you’re not justified in turning the other cheek to the smiter.

How has the ethos of the Church changed? Has there been in your time a palpable shift in the outlook and practices of the faithful?

Oh, yes, enormous, but always remember, it hasn’t been sudden. People who know no history are simplistic in thinking that these vast changes are from a static to a turbulent Church. It is never one or the other. Every living thing grows and develops all the time, sometimes more painfully, sometimes less so. I talk to many young people and they will speak as if the Catholic Church they know didn’t exist before the Second Vatican Council. The same applies equally in social and political matters, as though before the Welfare State was a period of terrible deprivation, injustice and tyranny. Both are long and complex issues with deep roots, and neither Church nor state remain the same for long. There are periods of greater and lesser change, and we have been advancing through an enormous one, yet there’s all the difference in the world between how a Catholic and a non-Catholic sees these changes. A Catholic always starts with the absolute assurance that the Church cannot fail in her central purposes. Under 1,001 external changes, her identity continues as completely as it does with a human being.

Each human being has throughout life an identity no one else can simulate or take away. The Church is just like that: she is that same body, born on the first Pentecost and set to continue till the Second Coming. I am very conscious of the fact that, although the whole turn of my mind is singularly consistent, my understanding develops and clarifies all the time. Does that mean I change? Not at all. It’s my self-understanding that changes: my expression of it increases in clarity, yet the identity runs through. So with the Church. She’s that same identical body, and if she changes the language of her liturgy, that is immaterial. I have my own strong views that the change there was very ill-advised, especially in the way it was done, but that doesn’t mean to say I think she has failed in any essential, central thing. She has not. She cannot.

The Catholic Church being radically hierarchical, will it be able to continue in a world that is increasingly liberal and democratic?

It can use, or try to adapt, the machinery of democratic thought and practice, but that will never be her natural way of thinking or doing.

What you’re talking about is egalitarianism. I think it is rather misleading to bring in the word ‘democratic’ since that is a form of government. Where does it come from? From a philosophy which is egalitarian, and egalitarianism is incompatible with two basic Christian concepts. It believes that men are born equal, but nothing could be less equal than the circumstances that attend the beginnings of all our lives. The egalitarian believes that if people are not born equal, then they must be made so. That is to fly completely in the face of Nature and the facts. Ultimately it can’t succeed because it isn’t true; it has no foundation; it is a figment of the imagination of the rationalists of the eighteenth century that has now impinged on the Catholic Church. Many Catholics believe in egalitarianism and are shocked when you tell them it’s nonsense. The idea eats into the belief that our relationship to Almighty God is an individual one. John Henry Newman says in the Apologia that he could never remember a time when there were not two, and only two, self- evident beings, his Creator and himself.

To say that everyone is equal in God’s sight is absolute nonsense. Everyone is unique in God’s sight, as every father of a family will understand. To say that a father loves all his children equally would not be according to human nature. He mustn’t express the difference or show favouritism, but each child has a unique relationship to his father. The same applies to the whole of creation, not only to man. Not only does star differ from star, but God calls them by name; every pebble on the beach is unlike any other; every leaf on a tree is a unique creation; and manifest at the heart of creation is man, not merely plainly but absolutely unique, as we all are unique in our material circumstances.

We and the parents from whom we sprang were chosen out of all eternity by Almighty God. It is this that conditions the language, the culture, the timing, the colour. Equality doesn’t exist. Each of us comes to the world with a box of tools containing advantages and disadvantages in our character, and that’s the equipment, not anyone else’s, with which we have to hammer out our sanctification. Mine is unique, yours is unique. No one has the same box of tools.

During your years at Cambridge, how did you come to see the function of the Catholic chaplain and did your views change over the course of time?

I’ll answer the last question first. No. My job is absolutely clear because it was made clear by the history of the terms of my appointment. There was a long-running division of opinion in the Catholic Church as to whether, first of all, we should try to have a university of our own; an idea much derided today, but we forget that in the nineteenth-century revival of Catholicism several flourishing universities were founded in Europe. In this country we made three rather pathetic attempts to found a university with no possibility of success. The first was at Prior Park in the early years of the last century; the second was Cardinal Newman’s attempt to found a university of Dublin; and the last was Cardinal Manning’s effort to found a university in Kensington. All collapsed but all were part of a consistent policy. It came to nothing and most of us are very relieved – they would have become poor Catholic ghettoes.

That controversy was finally resolved by the pressure of the laity at the end of the last century. We were allowed to return to the ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford, but under various safeguards, most of them rather unrealistic. One was that there should be at each of the ancient universities a chaplain whose job it was – and this was quite clear – to safeguard the faith of Catholics who went there. So it was very much a protective pastoral charge, and those were the terms of my own appointment. Many people now think it should involve a more positive, outgoing approach, but when the office started, it was certainly seen entirely in those terms.

Your early days as chaplain seemed marked by disputes with the Cambridge University Catholic Association. Did they find you difficult?

Very. It stemmed from the early days, lasted all my time and continues still. By a great political error, the wonderfully devoted collection of Catholic dons who founded the Cambridge University Catholic Association were allowed to own the premises of the chaplaincy they had been responsible for acquiring. Having done the wonderful work of acquiring the premises, they were also allowed to become the trustees, thereby producing a sort of Congregationalism unknown to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile the bishops, charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the faith of Catholic undergraduates, made no attempt to raise the funds necessary for the purpose. They were, of course, terribly handicapped by their own poverty and their difficulty in fulfilling or trying to fulfil the needs of Catholic education for the poorest classes. The whole of their efforts were, quite rightly, poured out to build Catholic schools, and they regarded going to Cambridge or Oxford as rather a rich man’s luxury. It wasn’t true then, and it’s manifestly untrue today when every student is supported by the state, but the idea they wrongly had seventy years ago was that if rich men wanted their boys to go, then it was up to them to produce the means to support a chaplain and provide the premises. That was, and is, the position as trustees of that wonderfully devoted band of Catholic dons.

When, in your early days at Cambridge, you spent a lot of your own money on the library and furnishing the chaplaincy, was it done out of generosity or impatience with the trustees?

Neither. It was wanting to have things as I thought they should be, trying to make the chaplaincy a civilised centre. Since the bishops regarded the ancient universities as an indulgence allowed to rich parents, there was consequently a feeling, certainly on the part of successive chaplains, that a chaplaincy should be a place where they would themselves feel at home. Today, of course, the need becomes to provide a welcoming atmosphere in the chaplaincy.

By the early 1960s you were still having to meet the shortfall in the chaplaincy’s budget out of your own pocket. How could that have been necessary?

The cry of poverty runs right through, doesn’t it? Chaplains were generally appointed with an eye to their having some means of their own. I was there longer than anyone, so saw more of it, but the shortfall, as you call it, was something that affected every chaplain. They were sent there with a ludicrous sum. I can’t remember what it was in my case, but it was grossly inadequate.

In the pre-war years you evidently took part in a number of evangelical events organised by undergraduates. Did you enjoy preaching in the streets of Saffron Walden or the fields of Wisbech?

Not in the least. I don’t enjoy those things at all, but my policy was a simple one. I never tried to sell these ideas to the undergraduates as I felt strongly that a man should be able to come to Fisher House without having anything asked of him; that he ought not to be badgered to join this, that or the other activity. In those days, the Jesuit schools took up what used to be called the Catholic Evidence Guild rather strongly. It was a way of trying to get the boys to take an interest in our religion. They were encouraged to join the guild, to go in for quite stiff examinations to fit them for the purpose, and to stand on soap boxes in Egham or wherever, preaching to a rather unresponsive multitude. When some young men, mostly from my own school, Beaumont, came and said it would be a good thing if we, too, belonged to the guild, I said by all means, and I’ll help you, but no one is going to be asked to do it by me.

As Catholic chaplain, did you feel under an obligation to aid in the conversion of non-Catholics who came into contact with you? Was there a conflict there between duty and social propriety?

First, it wasn’t an obligation, it wasn’t a part of my job. That was always, I emphasise, a preservative one. A fair number of undergraduates would certainly come to me, though, and say, ‘I think I ought to become a Catholic.’ I would always tell them, ‘You must let your parents know what you are doing, and you must tell your tutor or the dean of your college. You are to come to instruction and-you won’t be able to become a Catholic for at least a year.’ That was my practice. As a contrast, the most distinguished of all chaplains at Oxford was Monsignor Knox, a prominent convert who refused altogether to instruct people, and so he took a different line from me. At Oxford there were Jesuit and Dominican houses to whom he could send inquirers. I had nothing like that at Cambridge.

Is there anyone in particular you are especially proud to have converted?

No. It is always a wonderful privilege to believe one can bring anyone to a knowledge of the truth, but I would say I’ve never converted anybody. I’ve never set out to, I haven’t the gift. I don’t know how the Apostles did it. All those I’ve instructed have come on their own initiative and they’ve been a source of immense consolation and happiness. I absolutely love instructing people in belief. A number have found their own vocations to the priesthood, some to religious orders. I don’t think many have made their mark in the world or the Church so that you would know their names. I can think of nothing more satisfying a priest can do than being able to tell people interested in the faith what is involved.

By the 1960s there seems to have been some resistance among Catholic undergraduates to traditional practices at the chaplaincy. Did that distress you?

Any move away from Catholic practices upsets me, but I don’t allow myself to be distressed. I’m so profoundly confident, and when you have the gift of the faith, then you know that the Church can’t fail in Her purpose. The Church teaches us the truth and gives us the sacraments, and we ought to offer thanks for what God has given, not for the folly of men’s thoughts.

It was said of you by Peter Gregory Jones, author of The History of the Cambridge Chaplaincy, that as a great preserver of inherited values you were a historian by temperament. What were the values you wished to preserve?

That’s an enormous question which takes us right back to the structure of society. Does one, or does one not, believe in the family? The traditional sociology of the Catholic Church is that it is the duty of parents to house, feed, shelter and (using the word as widely as possible) educate those they beget. That, of course, is a very unacceptable concept in the socialist world of today, which regards it as the duty of the state to care for housing, education, sickness and old age. Thus we have egalitarianism, the French Revolution factor, catching up with the Catholic Church.

Jones speaks of the sense in which you found egalitarianism after the war incompatible with your idea of man’s relationship with God. Could you elaborate on this position?

The whole socialisation of the world has been immensely accelerated by two world wars, but this is not just a post-war phenomenon. I never found egalitarianism an attractive concept. I always instinctively believed in a hierarchical society. Looking back over my life, I’ve been extraordinarily consistent in what I believe, though I now formulate it much more fully. The family – the basis of society – is of its nature hierarchical. We come into families that are not of our own choosing and are not run by children. The first enormous impetus was the French Revolution. I always try to eschew the word ‘democracy’ because everyone uses it now as a term of undefined praise. They make their appeal to the democracy of the Greeks, of course, though there never was a more elitist society. The educated had a whole slave population to make their civilisation possible. It was nothing to do with egalitarianism and that’s why I would wish to use the word ‘democracy’ accurately.

It seems an odd distinction to refer, as you have done, to women as ‘students’ and to men as ‘undergraduates’.

To begin with, women were not members of Cambridge University. Because the university did not admit women, Girton and Newnham started as women’s colleges outside the university, and by stages, in one of those gradual processes of which I have seen so many, became incorporated. The first thing was to found women’s colleges, then to allow them to come to lectures. First they didn’t take examinations, then they could take examinations but couldn’t be given degrees, only what was called the ‘titles of degrees’. So there was a real distinction, not just one of my vocabulary. Women were not undergraduates, they were not members of the university.

You once explained your resignation from the chaplaincy as being over the principle of authority and its limits, but was that principle not focused on the opening of Fisher House to women?

If you like to say so, yes. As long as women were not members of the university, then there was a very strong case against allowing them in, and afterwards, because the position was constantly changing, the pressure increased. If the board, which was my authority, had ordered me to take in the women, I would have resigned anyway. They did not ask for my resignation, but passed a resolution that the chaplaincy should become mixed after I had gone. The real question became, should the nature of the chaplaincy be determined by the chaplain or by demand from below? At that point, I stood down on that principle.

If you ask why I opposed letting in women, it brings us back to fundamentals. Equality is a meaningless word and sex equality means absolutely nothing. The egalitarian believes that all people are the same. Men and women are not the same, they are complementary. A great friend of mine, Outram Evans, who was president of the Cambridge University Catholic Association for a long time, and my best ally, pointed out how immensely disparate the numbers were. There were 200 men and 20 women. You can’t combine the sexes, other than on a complementary basis, without destroying the whole harmony of their relationship. I am totally opposed to the equality of the sexes.

In retrospect I have not modified my view at all. If it now seems eccentric, as you put it, then that is because of this wave of egalitarianism. What is so funny is how short people’s memories are. I went up to Cambridge in 1920 when there were still these two women’s colleges that were not part of the university and the women didn’t enter the life one little bit. They used to come to our lectures and sit at a separate table, but I don’t think I ever spoke to a woman student the four years I was there, neither did any of my friends. It was an entirely male society, a very close and happy one. That idea, I suppose, is much more common in northern rather than southern Europe. I know that some Latins seem unable to form the sorts of societies we have here, and clubs are the perfect example. I would move heaven and earth to make my club, where we are now, an entirely masculine one again. That would doubtless be considered eccentric, but from the moment of its foundation till twenty years ago, it was the law. It isn’t my eccentricity at all; people just have no sense of history.  Everything, even the Houses of Parliament, used to be entirely male.

My view is wholly compatible with the God-given design of women as complementary to men. They’re different, yet people won’t recognise the fact. The egalitarians have this absolute idée fixe that they’re the same. They’re not. Women don’t like each other’s company, don’t form clubs. They don’t like that to be said, of course, but the fact is plain to see. It’s a wonder how nuns can live together, but they do. Whether we’re talking about political life, the law, the Church of England, women are doing something they’ve never done before, and the fact is that it isn’t working out equally – they’re completely ignored. It’s now fifty years since women have been in the House of Commons, and with the one staggering exception of Mrs Thatcher, have any of them come to anything? No. Women are different. I wonder why people can’t see what is as clear as a pikestaff.

Would you discriminate against women?

There we have to define what we mean by discrimination. It’s like all this talk of the underprivileged. Who has a right to a privilege? They talk of the children of poor parents being underprivileged, presupposing that someone has taken something from them. Words are used quite indiscriminately and the vocabulary is so meaningless that when you start trying to define what they are saying it becomes very difficult.

Once you’re an egalitarian, you have to believe that everyone has the same rights, so called. But who has and who has not, for example, the right to vote? It’s not man’s right except by a convention in a particular civilization or country.

Through nineteen Christian centuries women have never enjoyed the same political standing as men, except accidentally; there was no idea of there being some universal right. Now everyone talks as if there were some self-evident reason whereby any country that doesn’t have universal suffrage is out of court. It’s arguable whether it’s a good or a bad thing to have universal suffrage, but there is no intrinsic or fundamental reason why it should be so. We, particularly in the West, have been racing through two world wars to a universal principle, something unknown through all preceding centuries till a hundred years ago. All of that is a staggering assumption, and there is no foundation for it in history and none in reason.

It’s quite another matter to discuss whether it’s a good thing or not. I haven’t a closed mind there. These things can be discussed, and you must discuss them and realise that what you are talking about is a relative not an absolute. It’s the same with equal opportunity. Who has equal opportunity? How can I give someone in completely other circumstances than my own the opportunities I have and have had? Only one other force can even attempt it, and that is the state, and we are back to whose duty it is to educate. Is it a matter for the state or for the parents?

What is the real theological objection to the ordination of women? Is there scriptural warrant for it or is it primarily the authority of tradition?

It is a matter of the authority of the Church, which is one single thing supported by scripture and tradition and I don’t like that separation of the two. The Protestant approach to Christian revelation is to confine it effectively to scripture, whereas I always regard the Church as teaching on Her own authority, which indeed arises from scripture and tradition. She is the authority. She’s not getting it from anywhere else. Catholics always see the Church as being the authority in Herself. Of the Annunciation, for example, it was not only Mary, it was I who heard the angel voice.

I am against the ordination of women because it is not the Church’s practice. I was dining some time ago in Trinity, my old college, and had next to me a very distinguished Anglican theologian who turned to me and said, ‘Monsignor Gilbey, what would be your reaction if the Catholic Church started ordaining women?’ I said, ‘If the Catholic Church said it was all right, it would be all right by me. I follow what the Church says and does.’

For nineteen centuries the Church has not ordained women and I see no likelihood of Her doing so. Why? Because it’s something basic to Christian life and I cannot think She’s got it wrong for nineteen centuries and will begin to put it right. It would be unprecedented against the whole background of the Church’s history to think She might suddenly do a sort of volte face. The development of doctrine is a gradual unfolding of one thing. Catholics don’t believe, for instance, that Our Blessed Lady became Immaculate in 1856 or that the Pope became infallible in 1870. It’s a gradual developing of one truth and the ordination of women would be something quite otherwise.

Why is the Church ‘She’, not ‘He’?

She is the Bride of Christ. She is always ‘She’, in all scripture and tradition. Forgive me for saying so, but I think you are always trying to get me back into what I call the Protestant position of having a view of my own about revelation.

With certain Protestant Churches already ordaining women, will any movement of an ecumenical sort be possible without some shift in the Catholic position?

I’ve never had any enthusiasm for ecumenism as the word is used and understood. When you talk of equality, it’s a concept I don’t understand, a concept that I think has no correspondence with reality and which denies two Christian concepts: first, the uniqueness of every single created being, made uniquely by Almighty God; and secondly, the fact that equality takes away the whole incentive of excellence, which, if properly understood, aspires to sanctity. Each of us should be trying to reach that height of holiness. Each man’s vocation is unique. Look at the lives of the saints. They are not made to a common pattern. They include a lot of people in the world who are considered to be eccentrics.

We have remarked how the priests of the early Church married and Orthodox priests still do. Can you foresee a time when the Church will again permit marriage for priests?

That could happen, celibacy not having been imposed uniformly on Christian priests from the beginning. There has been a constant tendency that way, but as we know from the scriptures, Peter had a mother-in-law and presumably a wife, though she’s never mentioned. In the early centuries, bishops and priests did marry, so there’s nothing inherently improbable about married priests. Celibacy was a gradually, increasingly widely imposed discipline that could be altered without inconsistency. For many centuries, though, over more than a millennium now, it has been thought to be the ideal for the clergy.

Outsiders would say that for priests not to marry must inevitably cut them of from a great deal of human experience. Would not a married clergy be better placed to understand and sympathise with its flock’s daily problems?

I wonder. I’m not saying yes or no to it, but I do wonder whether you’d say the same about them earning their livings in work or business. Would you claim it as far better for priests not to be dedicated solely to their ministry or that they’d be better able to understand the cares and responsibilities of people living in the world if they shared them? It’s perfectly arguable, but I view it all with great indifference. Of course, it was vigorously advocated in France between the wars – the idea of worker priests – but I think the authorities have now abandoned the concept altogether.

Would you have married if the Church had allowed it when you were ordained?

I don’t think so, because tradition was still so very strong. I certainly wouldn’t marry now, even if celibacy was lifted. I can’t imagine it at any period of my life because celibacy in my day has been a requirement of priests and the position hasn’t changed. If it ever should change, I would not oppose it if the Church said it was all right.

But would you be in favour of priests marrying?

I always dodge that question. It seems irrelevant, whether I would or not.

But you are an important member of the Church.

Not a bit. I couldn’t be less important. I am wholly unimportant in the administrative world of the Catholic Church.

Yet if there were to be a referendum within the Church?

I’m not a democrat, you know. I would not reply. I would not return the ballot paper.

Are you saying you believe in autocracy?

That suggests there can only be autocracy or democracy. Heaven knows how many grades there are in a hierarchical society. If you ask me whether I believe in a hierarchical society, the answer is yes, with every fibre of my being, but that isn’t necessarily autocracy. Hierarchical societies, of which there are many, starting with the family, all have a series of pyramids going up. Every army, every regiment, every corporation, every club, all have their power structures. I’m not, you see, remotely egalitarian.

You have loyally stated that if it’s all right with Rome then it’s all right with you.

It’s not a question of loyalty, but a question of what I know because of what I believe about the Church. Loyalty is something you can give or withdraw.

Is it going to be possible for the Church to hold together in the future in the same way as it did in the past? In South America priests have defied the Pope’s authority in the matter of holding political office; in the United States there has long been clear opposition to the Pope’s stand on birth control: any number of Catholics are clearly using methods of contraception in direct conflict with the Pope’s ruling.

The Church will hold together. Catholics of my generation – those who reached maturity before the Second Vatican Council – took it for granted that the tidiness of the Church at that period was the norm. People who have no historical sense find it hard to appreciate that what was taken for granted – the tidiness in theology, in administration, in running the Church – represented an exceptional period in contrast with the previous fifteen centuries. In the early Church, that of the Fathers, you find a much greater diversity of opinion and practice. The process of tidying has been a gradual one, dependent on all sorts of administrative reasons, communication and literacy.

The fact that people claim to be Catholics and part of the Catholic Church, and yet are out of step, is no new thing at all. You find it in the early centuries, the difference earlier on being that much more immediate and drastic action was. taken against them. They may now have become too numerous; I don’t know. I know nothing of what goes on in the directed mind of the Vatican, and very little of what is happening outside this country, so I can’t say how far people in positions of authority in the Church have gone out of step. You tell me there are bishops in the United States who reject the Church’s teaching. I should doubt it very much.

Have you ever disagreed with a pronouncement of the Church or felt at odds with any item in its teaching?

Not ever. I’d have to leave, walk out of the Church, if I didn’t agree. As a Catholic, you simply have to believe what the Church teaches. It is a condition of membership. A Catholic cannot reject the doctrine of the Church yet remain a Catholic. What She teaches as right or wrong – those things are a sine qua non for a believing Catholic. That does not mean to say that a believing, practising Catholic has to accept the Church’s policy on matters of administration and the like. It is possible to be entirely out of sympathy with many of the things the Church is doing, as I regret the liturgical changes, for example. You can be critical of such things, out of sympathy with them, and even oppose them, but you can’t withstand them. It might be better to drive on the right rather than on the left. You can advocate it all you like, but you can’t just start doing it. So it is with things like liturgical changes. You may think it far better to be able to have one uniform language for the whole Western Church, and you may advocate it, but you can’t in practice ignore, stand outside or oppose the existing legislation. We are committed not to policy but absolutely to dogma and morals.

Many present-day Christians would see the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as standing in the way of any sort of liberalisation of the Church. Is the Church bound to adhere for ever to doctrines defined at a particular point in history?

The Church is committed to whatever She has defined. If you are suggesting that some past pronouncement imposing acceptance as grounds for becoming a Catholic might be changed in retrospect, then the answer’s no. We must distinguish strongly between those things that can be altered and those that cannot. Policy can be altered; that can be done tomorrow. Definitions of doctrine, acceptance of which is necessary to being a Catholic, cannot be altered.

I would wish, however, to deplore as strongly as I can this approach to Papal Infallibility. What we believe in is the infallibility of the Church. First, the Church is a visible body here on earth, teaching infallibly what Christ has revealed to us in all sorts of ways. Secondly, that body cannot impose upon me error as a condition of belonging. Whenever She defines something, it must be accepted by every member and therefore must be true, otherwise She would be imposing acceptance of error. People talk about Papal Infallibility as if it were something never before heard of, but the infallibility of the Church is inherent from the very beginning.

When you say ‘Church’, do you differentiate between ‘Pope’ and ‘Church’?

No. Quite the contrary. He is a part of it. Papal Infallibility is just one stated example of conditions for being a Catholic.

If faith is a gift of God, is it the duty of a Catholic to maintains pious silence when it comes to a particular dogma in which he cannot compel himself to believe, even though he may wish to?

You can compel yourself to believe. If you have made the act of faith in Jesus Christ, and believe He is God, you will have to accept what He tells you. He came to open to us a whole cycle of knowledge otherwise unattainable. A Catholic must believe the teaching of the Church in all aspects of faith and morals.

What would you say to those who find it impossible to subscribe to the dogmas of religion, who cannot, for example, understand how a good God can permit the innocent to suffer?

That’s not dogma, it’s a fact. We see suffering all about us and know in ourselves that we all suffer to various degrees. But we also know that God is infinitely good, infinitely kind, infinitely just, infinitely merciful, infinitely loving. It takes us back, of course, to something that is a dogma: the Fall of Man. There are two plains of knowledge concerning matters of religion. The first is the plain of natural reason. We can reach, and the majority of mankind have reached, a knowledge of the existence of the Supreme Being from which there follows man’s free will, his consequent responsibility and his survival of death. That is what we call natural theology, and from there we go on to consider whether there has been a revelation, whether God has opened a whole cycle of knowledge to us that our native reason will bring us to accept only on faith. These are two completely different cycles of knowledge, the first requiring an act of reason, the second an act of faith. There was at the beginning of human history a complete dislocation of human nature that we call the Fall, made not by Almighty God but by the wickedness and sins of man.

Is the Church’s stand against contraception to be defined as a dogma?

Yes, since it rises out of the whole concept of the purpose of sex. Sex is an inducement to continue the human race. People are so imprecise, the pleasure of sex cannot be put first. Unlike Protestants, there are many things we Catholics believe which are not found in the scripture. The Church has been left to continue Christ’s Revelation.

It may seem to the outsider that the Catholic Church grudges man sexual pleasure.

We believe that the gift of sex is given to man primarily for the continuance of the human race. It provides the greatest physical pleasure known to man, precisely to give him the inducement to beget children. Who in their senses would go through the responsibilities of bringing children into this world, undertake the enormous expense of housing, feeding, educating them, bringing them up – all the annoyances and worries that lie in that – if there were not added to it the greatest of human pleasures? Many other consequences of exercising the sexual act exist – cementing affection between husband and wife, comfort, sustenance and so on – but you can’t rule out the purpose for which it is given in order to isolate the secondary consequences. A parallel is the pleasure of eating and drinking.

It’s the puritan not the Catholic who thinks that the pleasure sex gives is wrong. Likewise it’s the puritan who decries the pleasure of eating and drinking. That is very great too, though infinitely less so than the pleasure of sexual activity because the object is less important. The object of attaching pleasure to eating and drinking is really so that we may have an inducement to rebuild our bodily strength. You can’t go for the secondary consequences and exclude the first, as the Romans did, when they had a vomitorium and, having eaten and drunk as much as they could, went out and made themselves sick so as to come bad: and eat and drink some more. That is to reject the purpose for which it is given to gain the lesser consequences. The use of sex for any reason excluding the main purpose is to do exactly the same.

Plainly, every sexual aberration or sin more or less excludes the main purpose. Solitary vice rules out the possibility of conception, as does unnatural sin between two people of the same sex. Fornications and adultery rule out the possibility of bringing up the children, and you cannot, always remember, separate procreation and education: bringing children into this world and bringing them up in the love and knowledge of Almighty God is a combined operation. In fornication you are plainly ruling out the very possibility of any children born to those parents being brought up within the framework of the family. Yet that is the first duty you owe them. Likewise, with adultery, you are side-stepping the whole function of the family by begetting children outside it.

So the Church itself does not discourage the pleasure of the flesh in general?

Of course not. To exclude it would be to negate God’s purpose. God gave that gift, a most wonderful thing. It’s impossible to exaggerate the sacredness of sex because, if you go back to the foundation of all we believe, God is the sole Creator yet man is empowered to co-operate with Almighty God in the specifically divine work of creation. We rightly say that God created you, created me. How did he choose to do it? Through the sexual activities of your parents and mine. He was the Creator, but men and women take part in that creative act, a supremely god-like thing. As soon as sex is used for lesser purposes, it’s belittling the whole staggering gift, reducing it to an animal level.

Some clergy are homosexual, yet they remain clergy.

It depends on what you mean by homosexual. No one, whatever their status, is justified in committing the act of sodomy. It’s as simple as that. But if by homosexual you mean people who find their own sex more attractive and yet control their feelings, there’s nothing wrong at all. It’s no different from having a temptation to pride, or avarice, or anything. People always talk as though we can use sex as we like because it is a gift of Almighty God. Since the heterosexual can do as he likes, it’s thought to be rather rough on homosexuals that they shouldn’t commit sodomy. We are surrounded by a nine-tenths non-Christian population, and they all have the idea that any sort of sex is a perfectly normal thing. There’s no need to marry, you can sleep with anyone you like, so it’s thought to be unfair if homosexuals can’t do the same.

But if a priest is a homosexual in the sense of committing homosexual acts, should he remain in the Church, should be  expelled?

I don’t know whether he should or should not. That is a question of discipline. If you are practising sodomy then you are certainly in no fit state to celebrate the Eucharist each morning. But I must again emphasise the distinction between having a temptation and giving up the struggle. You’re not a Christian at all if you give up the struggle.

Do you feel an intolerance of homosexuals or do you sympathise with their plight?

I sympathise with anyone who has committed sin, be what it may. As with a man who can’t keep his hand out of the till, I have to go on telling him that he mustn’t do it. We all commit sins, we must all try to avoid the sins to which we are most prone. If your sin happens to be to want to commit sodomy, then you must struggle against it very hard indeed. It can be done. People do get over their evil tendencies, by God’s grace. The fatal thing is to say I’m very strongly tempted and I’m not going to resist it.

If reconciliation with the Eastern Churches is a foreseeable possibility, would the Papacy ever agree to the idea of the Pope as primus inter pares?

No, he can’t step down from his position. I hope and pray that such a reconciliation will come about, and it seems to me a far less unlikely prospect than in the Protestant case. Protestantism is founded on a quite different belief, and every form of Protestantism, from extremist evangelical to extremist Anglo-Catholic, always comes back to private judgement. The concept of the East is quite distinct. It’s an authoritative concept and this explains how it is that a bishop in the East could, in coming over, bring all his people with him. It couldn’t happen in the West. If the Archbishop of Canterbury became Catholic tomorrow, he couldn’t bring a single soul with him, not even his wife.

In the East, they are what are called autocephalus churches – that is to say, the head of the Church is the head of the Church. Whatever he says goes. It’s much closer to the Catholic concept. All the Protestant sects in the West, on the other hand, take a stand on private judgement and democracy is applied to religion. In the same way that democracy is the application of equality in politics, so is private judgement the application of equality to religious truth.

Can the Church respond effectively to the intransigence of Islamic fundamentalism without itself becoming intransigent?

The Church is intransigent. She can’t change. The idea of the Church changing is as foreign to me as equality or democracy. The only thing we are interested in is the sanctity of an individual human soul. The only progress is the progress towards sanctity for the individual. It matters for all eternity what you or I do between our births and our deaths. Any progress outside that is a will-o’-the-wisp, an illusion. The great landslide was the Fall. From then on human beings have been struggling between birth and death to escape its consequence. The only moral improvement of any value is between conception and death.

The Catholic Church has placed an emphasis on private confession, but since God knows our minds and hearts, is there any theological reason why communal confession should not be equally effective in seeking forgiveness of sins?

It’s necessary to distinguish between what Christ gave us through His redemption of us and the means He chose to communicate it. He has redeemed us by suffering and death and has chosen to communicate His gift through the sacraments, which we believe to operate infallibly. In the sacrament of penance, God’s grace is given to us, brought into our souls, and so we have the covenanted means of our forgiveness. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive our Blessed Lord, the Fount of Grace Himself, into our hearts. Almighty God is not tied to the sacraments, except, of course, that He’s tied to honour them. His own omnipotence cannot, however, be tied by the gift He’s made, though if you are asking whether God Almighty can work outside the sacraments, the answer is yes, of course He can. There is no limit to His power. If you are asking whether that exempts us from using the covenanted means He has given us, the answer is no, it does not. We would be very foolish to ignore them. Can He work outside them? Most certainly He can. Does He work outside them? We hope and pray that He does. But it’s not our business. There’s the short answer to your question.

There have been scandals in the Church over the centuries and the recent Banco Ambrosiano affair suggests that its administrative and financial arms have become very secular. Are these things inevitable?

Yes – because of fallen human nature. You can’t peg things. You may have the most wonderful and altruistic machinery for running the Church’s affairs, but there’s no guarantee it’ll continue. We can make it a great deal better than it is, but we can also make it a great deal worse. The answer to all the events we deplore is fallen human nature. Only individuals can make any moral advance and therefore there are bound to be scandals. If you shall hear of wars, or rumours of wars, see that you be not troubled. And, perhaps, scandals, and rumours of scandals – see that you be not troubled. There are always scandals. None of us, God knows, fulfils his obligations perfectly. The degree of failure may vary enormously with the individual.

There was the book by John Cornwell on the death of John Paul I that suggested he was murdered.

Well, as I say, human nature is fallen. You find fallen human beings everywhere. I have no idea of the particular case, but there is nothing inherently improbable in a Pope being murdered, any more than with anyone else. There’s no end to human villainy. The fact that a man is a priest, a bishop or a Pope doesn’t exempt him, or those surrounding him, from the consequences of the Fall. If you are asking whether it is possible for a Pope to be murdered by his own entourage, then the answer is yes, it is possible – though I think it wildly improbable.

You are said to be a hunting enthusiast, but killing animals for entertainment, especially fox-hunting, has come to be regarded in a poor light by very many people. Is such enthusiasm really sustainable these days?

I don’t like that notion of entertainment at all. It sounds like sadism. We must start at the very beginning. God gave man complete dominion over the whole of creation. Man is the apex of creation, and his use of it is conditioned by the good or bad it does to him, not by creation itself. People often talk as if animals had rights. Only rational beings can have rights, just as only rational beings can have duties. There are no rights involved in this at all. Consequently man has hunted from the beginning and deprived animals of their freedom – we call it domesticating them. He has made them breed and lead lives not natural to them. How can they possibly have freedom in the proper sense of the term? Freedom is the free exercise of will, and animals have no wills.

We take them into captivity, domesticate them, cause them to breed, prevent their breeding, castrate them, kill them for food, for clothing, and they have no rights to prevent it. The only question for man in his dealings with animals is what moral harm may those dealings do to him? That is why I demur at the word ‘entertainment’. It does man terrible moral harm to be a sadist. To enjoy and indulge in cruelty, to torture a cat, is sinful. To torture anything for the pleasure the act gives you is sinful.

So when you allow hounds to tear up a fox, isn’t that sinful?

No. Of all the forms of sport, hunting arouses the most animosity, the strong, popular feeling against it being largely fuelled by social considerations. It’s thought to be inegalitarian, aristocratic, but when you come to analyse it, it’s the nearest to nature of all the forms of field sport. No one raises a voice against fishing, yet in terms of cruelty or pain inflicted, fishing may be the most callous sport of all. You can play a salmon for two or three hours with a hook in its mouth. I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m just pointing out how disproportionate the feeling is against hunting.

Hunting is the nearest to nature because you are perfecting what nature is doing all the time. At this very moment rabbits are being savaged by stoats, hens are having their heads bitten off by foxes. The whole of nature is, as Tennyson had it, red in tooth and claw. Whatever a hunter does is quite right for him to do, unless he is getting sadistic pleasure, and then he is certainly harming himself rather than the animals he kills. He is then making a beast of himself, doing himself moral harm. All Catholics will tell you the same. You can shoot birds, hunt foxes, fish completely freely, so long as you are not doing yourself moral harm.

Is it ever a worry to you that your lifestyle – living in a London club, giving dinner parties – might be misinterpreted by some members of the Church?

First of all, I think that worry is a sin. Worry means you don’t really believe in divine providence. My favourite text in the Old Testament is, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Worry is unprofitable thinking about disagreeable things. With regard to my lifestyle, I’m not an egalitarian and I don’t believe in a universally acceptable lifestyle. To return to the secular and the regular clergy, there are a lot of things that would be sinful in a member of an order who has abandoned the world and all personal money. He’s housed, fed and clothed, and money is not his concern, so for him to throw a party might be considered a subject of criticism. But as I have said, a secular priest keeps what money he has, what money he comes by honestly. If he chooses to entertain friends, then he is doing absolutely nothing wrong. There’s not any uniform lifestyle which it is wrong to step outside. To think there is egalitarianism is my bête noire.

Have you any regrets?

One has to distinguish between regrets and contrition. I suppose we all have regrets. Precious few in my case, I’ve been so lucky. But if you mean sorrow for sin – yes, that’s a very good thing to have. I’ve committed many sins in my life and I am sorry for them at the present moment. One has to live in the present moment; it’s all we have. One can’t touch the past. It’s the work of this moment to be sorry for the sins of one’s whole life.

Are you looking forward to the next life?

I’m not, because I’m properly concerned for the private judgement. I hope I shall not have offended God Almighty gravely. I can’t say I am certain of going to heaven. I keep hoping and praying that I shall die in the love and mercy of Almighty God and be forgiven all my sins, but that’s His business. Mine is to do the best I can. My two great temptations are idleness and vanity. I’m very tempted to do nothing, and by vanity I mean liking to give and receive human affection. Thank God I have received a great deal and given a great deal, but that tempts one to think one is important, and one isn’t, of course. So that’s a general confession I will make at my last moment. If a priest comes when I am dying I shall say these have been the besetting sins of my eighty years of life and I shall ask for absolution for them and for many others.

How would you like to be remembered?

I don’t expect to be remembered, frankly. I have made no mark on the world at all.

David Wynne

The Quartet stable descended on Sotheran’s bookshop in Mayfair on Wednesday, for the launch of David Elliott’s long-awaited book on the life and art of David Wynne, Boy with a Dolphin.

Here are some photos from the party – a tremendous success, which saw the shop sell out of copies.

Fear not, however, as there are still some available through our website.

Hurry while stocks last!

(From left to right: the musician Donovan, the artist and sculptor David Wynne, and the author David Elliott)

(From left to right: Donovan, David Wynne, David Elliott, and the publisher David Inman)

Come On England!

England are playing at 3pm today. They have to deliver the goods. If not, the whole nation will not forgive them.

So far, not only did they play badly but they also displayed a certain arrogance unbecoming of their stature as ambassadors of a great country, which prides itself on sportsmanship of the highest order.

For their own sakes I pray they redeem themselves this afternoon by exercising their recognised skills in a spirit of unison and great craftsmanship.

Otherwise, they’ll be damned.

Boy with a Dolphin

Tomorrow sees the launch of David Elliott’s long-awaited book on the life and art of David Wynne, Boy with a Dolphin.

David is a distinguished member of the Quartet family, and has been my most consistent partner in crime for more than three decades. Even when he left us for a short period of time to flutter his own wings, he remained nevertheless a staunch and loyal supporter of Quartet and kept in touch throughout his sabbatical misadventure.

(A young David Elliott, in his heyday as a bookseller, with John Lennon.)

Returning to the fold three years ago, his enthusiasm for Quartet has not withered; in fact, it gained momentum.

Let us therefore wish him all the success for this latest endeavour and urge our friends as well as our enemies to support him by buying a copy of his book, in recognition of his great contribution to publishing.

Ibn Saud

Tomorrow Quartet are celebrating the publication of Ibn Saud, the definitive book on Saudi Arabia.

Given the current global recession, the importance of the kingdom cannot be ignored since, financially, Saudi Arabia is one of the strongest economies in the region, if not the world. Its huge oil reserves make it a target for instability and, at the same time, a force to be reckoned with. It is the cradle of Islam because of its religious significance, and some claim that it is also a source of finance for radicals among the faith.

The book chronicles in great detail the formation of the kingdom by Ibn Saud, and the aftermath of his death. His legacy is the subject of intense debate and this book will give the reader an insight into the way the kingdom is run. A tribal society is never fully understood by the West, and I hope Ibn Saud will go some way in helping the reader to comprehend a different culture, which has its merits as well as its shortcomings.

No Longer With Us: Ernst Gombrich

Sir Ernst Gombrich was an Austrian-born art historian. He is the author of many works of art criticism and history, including The Story of Art. He died in November 2001.

Here is an interview with him from my book, Speaking for the Oldie.

You were born in Vienna in 1909. How important were the place of your birth and the culture of your upbringing in determining the pattern of your life?

Immensely important. I’m still an Austrian, of course, I am a product of the Viennese middle class and culture, and I have never tried to conceal this.    

Vienna has entered the public perception as the cultural and intellectual centre at the turn of the century, but you have always rather rejected this view . . . why is that exactly?

Because I think it is an exaggeration. Vienna was an important centre, but so was Paris, so was Berlin, and other places too. Intellectual fashions play a certain part in putting some things into the limelight and neglecting other very important influences, and I think this happened with Vienna. One cannot say that Europe owed everything to Vienna at that time.

Although you are of Jewish extraction you were not educated in the Jewish tradition. Have you ever had reason to regret this?

No, which doesn’t mean that I have no appreciation or esteem for certain aspects of Jewish education. But I have been quite happy with my own formation, which after all was the choice of my parents – and why should I criticise my parents?

You say it can only be of interest to racists that the Viennese contribution to the modern world was in large measure Jewish. Why do you think this is a racist issue and not just a matter of fact?

There is an element of fact of course, but always to ask whether an artist or a writer was Jewish or not Jewish seems to me very much beside the point. In my youth, nobody asked whether they were Jewish or not; it was only after Hitler invented the term Aryan that one began to wonder where they came from.

You belonged to the middle classes, but you knew hardship and poverty from time to time. Do you think this is the kind of experience which remains with one always, no matter how one’s fortunes change?

I’m sure it does remain up to a point. For example, I was surprised that I managed to live quite comfortably on a job in which I never expected to be able to make any money at all. I’m grateful, but I never expected it …

At one stage you were evacuated to Sweden, suffering from malnutrition. How much do you remember of that time . . . do you remember feeling hungry?

No, not actually hungry, but the fare was very drab – lots of turnips and potatoes – and certainly not what one would expect a middle class child to have. I still remember my Swedish years with very much pleasure. I learned the language, I read children’s books and certain things – the full text of the national anthem of Sweden, for example – remain with me.

Your childhood was steeped in music in the classical tradition. Was this the first sort of aesthetic response you were aware of making?

Probably, though my father also took us to the great museums of Vienna, in particular to the Art Historical Museum which was only ten minutes’ walk from our house, and we also had a great many books on painting. My older sister began to look at these books and then to draw, and that also played a part in my response. But certainly classical music was and remains my central aesthetic experience, even now.

You have sometimes said that the time you spent in Austria was not a happy time, and yet your childhood and adolescence seem to have been secure and enriched by caring and intelligent and cultured parents. What was it that made you unhappy?

The general atmosphere was one of depression, the political tension was enormous, there was a lot of unemployment and terrible inflation. Vienna was largely socialist – its working population came from Bohemia and Hungary, and elsewhere – while the countryside was still very much dominated by the Catholic Church. Therefore the tension between the partly atheist Marxist Vienna and the peasant farming communities became very acute, so that one could say there was a latent civil war even before real civil war broke out. There was certainly mutual contempt and hatred. The conservative farmers and their representatives accused the socialists of being entirely Jewish led, which was not completely true, though there was an element of truth. So the general atmosphere and the expectations were far from happy, and one was also very much aware of the impossibility of ever leading a normal life in the future.

When did you first become aware of anti-semitism?

When I first read anti-semitic posters on the hoardings. They were probably put there not by the Nazi party, which did not yet exist in that form, but by radical nationalist groups who agitated against the Polish Jewish immigrants. I remember the headlines referring to the Jews with their sidelocks and their kaftans, and the question: where are they now? The answer was given below: they are now the bankers and the rulers of finance and they swindle us.

Was the university in those days open to everyone who qualified, or was it a question of fees and who could afford to go?

They were open to everyone who did the matura, which was the final exam at school. There were fees but they were minimal. The number of students was therefore very large, too large, but they crowded into fields where they hoped that they would at least find teaching jobs. By the time I went to university, which was in 1928, anti-semitism was highly organised – this of course was long before the Anschluss. There was a Roman Catholic league and there was a nationalist league and gradually they saw their main job, particularly the nationalists, as hunting Jews and beating them up. Because of an old medieval privilege, universities were extra-territorial, which meant that the police were not allowed to enter, and these thugs abused this privilege by gradually introducing a reign of terror against Jews within the university. The atmosphere was very tense, and as we all know, the professors, while not exactly approving, closed more than one eye; they were cowards and they themselves had certain nationalist leanings, so they minimised the criminality of these groups.

Were you ever assaulted?

I looked sufficiently Jewish to have been in some danger, and yes, I was assaulted, but I was not beaten up. However, one of my best friends was badly wounded in an attack with a steel rod while he was working in the university library.

To embark on a career in art history strikes me as a brave thing to have done at that time . . . was there no parental opposition?

My father was very dubious. He would very much have liked me to follow him and become a solicitor, and he was certainly not happy when I told him I was very interested in the history of art, but he was much too humane and kind to oppose it. He only wondered whether I would ever be able to make a living that way, and he was quite right to wonder. No, there was no opposition, and in fact my sister studied law and she eventually took over the office.

You said that you were never very interested in mainstream art history – connoisseurship and attribution – you preferred explanation. What sort of explanation is relevant to a work of art? Is it possible or desirable to reach towards the artist’s psychological state?

There is no bar on hypothesis, on anything one might try to find to explain a work of art. I don’t think that we know enough about the artists of the past to make an elaborate psychological hypothesis about them. What we do know is what one might call the social context of the work of art, who commissioned it, who bought it, who the artist’s teachers were and what he was trying to do.

You said once that you were dissatisfied with traditional explanations of style, those which emphasised ‘the spirit of the age’, and you mentioned in opposition to that the importance of ‘formulae’. . . could you tell me something of that?

At the time when I studied there were some very eminent art historians who treated art as an expression of the spirit of the age. So you heard about the ‘spirituality’ of the middle ages, and the ‘sensuality’ of the rococo. Now I don’t want to say that all this is wrong, I only say that on the whole it is pretty vacuous and empty. It has always been true that people were occasionally sensual and occasionally spiritual – even at the time of the rococo – and the idea that medieval man as he is sometimes called was a kind of different species from us seems to me slightly ridiculous. People were always people, they had their own impulses and their own ideas. Naturally there are intellectual and religious movements which one must take into account, but one shouldn’t exaggerate the differences between ages and periods. The main reason why I have opposed these stereotypes and clichés is that they are insufficient – they really tell us very little.

You have always had an urge towards the scientific, but how does that mesh with an aesthetic response to art? What part can science play in judgements of this type?

Science cannot explain, and I don’t think science will ever be able to tell us why a work of art or a piece of music is so great, but science may be able to explain why a tradition is necessary in art. Every artist has to start from something, the formula you mentioned before, and this science can explain. But the aesthetic experience remains outside the region of science; in other words, if somebody hears a beautiful tune by Mozart and asks me why this is so beautiful, I can have no scientific answer.

You arrived in London in January 1936. Did you think you were leaving your country for good then?

No, but I was aware of the possibility. One never thinks of the worst and the worst would have been, as indeed happened, that Hitler would invade Austria. At that time it did not seem so likely because Austria, that little state with very bad diplomacy, was vaguely protected by Mussolini who didn’t want the Germans at his frontiers. There was a very precarious balance of power, and one just hoped against hope that this might hold.

You must have felt very isolated when you first came to England, and quite soon England was at war with your native country. What did you feel in those early years?

I wasn’t as isolated as perhaps others may have been because my mother, who was a piano teacher, had a number of English students, and when I went to England some of them became family friends. But it is true that the lack of knowledge of the language, and of ordinary habits and customs, isolated the little enclave of scholars who had arrived at the Warburg Institute. These were very tense years because of the constant awareness that war might break out. Hitler was making one demand after another, and one was very conscious of the possibility either of appeasement or of war, and neither was a pleasant alternative.

Did you think you had come to a safer place when you came to England?

Yes, originally when I arrived, but very soon people started talking about what would happen if London was bombed and so on. People exaggerated the power of incendiary bombs, some of which could be stamped out with the foot; they talked about them almost as they now talk about nuclear bombs.

Were you conscious of any psychological change in yourself because of the war?

Yes. During that time I was really interested in the war and had very little time or inclination to think about the history of art. I was working at the BBC, very hard, long hours, terribly intense. We probably overrated the importance of our work which was to listen to foreign broadcasts, particularly German Nazi broadcasts, and the tricks of propaganda they used. Of course one listened with a certain detachment, one didn’t believe a word of what they said, though sometimes, if one didn’t believe it, it happened unfortunately to be true, as in the case of Khatyn, for instance, though even then I had my doubts. On the whole one was completely absorbed in this work and in the problems of translation. It was almost like being on a ship – there were people from all parts of the world who were members of the team because they knew Greek, or Turkish, or Albanian, or Estonian and we all just sat there listening to the wireless. After a time I became a supervisor and my job was to check the translations before they were passed on to a unit for publication. So my interests in thattime certainly changed. The psychology of propaganda fascinated me. For instance, I listened very often to Goebbels’ speeches. There was something definitely diabolic in him, in the way he talked, in the way he insinuated himself, in the way he could apparently control his emotions. He was able to manipulate argument, and he was certainly an educated man. In that respect he was very different from Hitler who was much more vulgar and exploited his vulgarity as a demagogue.

Your parents decided to join you in London in 1938 . . . was that an agonising decision for them?

Absolutely. It would not have happened if my father hadn’t come to believe that he was in personal danger. They had both believed they were safe, but one day my mother was summoned to the Gestapo in connection with a letter she had given to a student of hers. The letter had been intercepted at the frontier so she was called upon to explain what she had written. Nothing happened to her, but it was a real warning signal. Also my father’s passport was taken away for a time because he had been a freemason, so gradually they saw that really it was necessary to leave.

It must have been very depressing to be classified as enemy aliens. How did you cope with that?

Well, one had a certain detachment, and it was after all true up to a point. I don’t think it was particularly depressing. It even had its funny side. As an enemy alien a curfew was imposed and I wasn’t allowed to go out after sunset. On every normal day of the week, however, I went on my bike to engage in secret work at my listening post, but on my days off I wasn’t allowed to go out. Obviously ridiculous.

Did you have ambivalent feelings towards Austria at that time?

I still have. Of course I was perfectly aware of the situation, not that I knew all the horrors, but sufficiently aware to know something of what was happening. My feelings were torn, and still are, just as when it came to the destruction of beautiful cities by British bombers. For all of us who valued the European heritage, the destruction of Dresden or the blowing up of the bridges of the Arno in Florence were very painful events.

It must have been a strange experience to find yourself monitoring broadcasts and contributing to an effort to overcome the people you had just left. Did you find it disturbing?

Not at all, but then – though there is an element of fiction in this – Austria regarded itself as an occupied country, occupied by Hitler and the forces of expansionist Germany. Traditionally Austrians never liked the Germans very much – this was based on a slightly silly jealousy – but the Austrians like all nations considered themselves superior. For example, a German tourist was always slightly looked down upon in Austria.

Have you ever had strong political leanings?

No, never. I have a horror of mass demonstrations, and whenever I see people marching through the streets and shouting I see them as parrots who cannot think for themselves. I find all that very depressing, and therefore I’ve never been at all inclined to join a party. Many of my friends in Vienna leaned strongly towards the socialists, but I always stayed aloof.

After the war you returned to the Warburg Institute and wrote The Story of Art, which was to change your life, and yet you had mixed feelings about writing it, and despaired of completing it. Had you any idea of how successful it would be?

Not the slightest idea, no. I had written a world history in German before the war, also a surprising success, and then the publisher wanted me to do a history of art. I started tentatively, and then the war came, and I didn’t do anything for a while. Then I accepted a contract, and so I wrote it, but a little centre coeur.

Now, some 40 years later, you seem to have mixed feelings about the success because you are always, perhaps too narrowly, associated with it. Is that a sore point with you?

It’s not a sore point at all. I mean, I’m quite happy if people tell me that they’ve read it at school, or at polytechnic or whatever, and sometimes I get very nice fan letters. I think my mixed feelings may have been exaggerated. After all a good many people do know that I am also a historian who has done genuine research.

But you became Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, you were invited to America and became extremely famous, all because of that book. Is it that you feel m a sense it sold too many copies, it appealed too much to the masses?

No, I don’t think that at all. I am very happy about that – after all I wrote it for that purpose. What I feel sometimes a little dubious about is when it is used as a textbook. I prefer it to be read at leisure as a book to be enjoyed, rather than as a book to be swotted up and learned for facts.

At one point in the preface to The Story of Art you distinguished between what you call real works of art and examples of fashionable pieces. How is that distinction made?

That is a subjective distinction, I entirely agree, though most of us would know examples of works which are sort of nine day wonders and suddenly disappear again as fast as they appeared. They are examples of fashion rather than any real intellectual or emotional effort. But I don’t think anybody can absolutely draw the line … I mean, Picasso became very fashionable, but he was also a real artist, and the same is true of many others. In the case of Dali, I feel that he is more a case of fashion, although he was very skilful; certainly he was not contemptible, he could really paint.

I should like to touch on what I suppose is a central difficulty for art historians, and indeed anyone interested in art: the matter of taste. Unless you allow that all artifice is art and do not distinguish the good from the not so good, are you not obliged to offer your own taste as a reliable yardstick, and to explain that what you like, everyone ought to?

No, I don’t think that is true, though I think it is a very understandable attitude. Most of us who are interested in art can say this work is not to my taste but I recognise it is a very respectable work of art. Taste is something which fluctuates enormously . . . even in my time taste has changed radically; for instance certain artists like the Bolognese of the 17th century were considered much too theatrical, much too cheap in a way, and I had friends who helped in rehabilitating these painters and now we all see that they are really masters in their own right, even if they don’t appeal to our present day taste. But one has to have a basic interest in the art for taste to be able to develop. For instance, I have no taste for ballet, so I wouldn’t set myself up as a judge of ballet or be able to distinguish between various ballets. When your taste is not involved you have no discrimination, no involvement in any way. Music is another good case in point: for various reasons I have no taste for Richard Wagner, but one would be a fool not to acknowledge him as a master in his own right.

You often speak of ‘great’ works of art, but can that mean anything other than that they have become canonical – admired in the end just because they have been admired before?

That is certainly an important element, that we learn to admire them because we learn from our parents, and from tradition, and from books. That Michelangelo is a great master I have not the slightest doubt, but it’s true that we do not always sufficiently test a reputation, simply because we are conditioned to admire, and therefore we may not be sufficiently critical. In fact I recently attended a lecture on the new restoration of The Last Judgement, where we saw many details which they have now cleaned, and I actually think that some of it is pretty repulsive. But of course Michelangelo was a towering master and nobody can deny this.

I have heard it said that the Chinese apparently do not distinguish between an original art work and a copy which cannot be distinguished from it… is there any virtue in an original if the only way you can tell it is original is by testing the chemical composition of the paint?

You are right … it is a genuine problem. I don’t think that what you say about the Chinese is completely true, but certainly they have much more respect for a masterly copy than people have here. Equally if it bears the signature of a famous artist of the past and it is really authentic, they would have a great respect for it. There is, however, an element of the attitude one has towards a sacred relic, the idea that Rembrandt’s hand really rested on this paper and he drew it. But even though a totally faithful copy of a large painting is very hard to get, I agree with you that a perfect reproduction on the same scale can give the same effect. A Rembrandt etching is a Rembrandt etching, and whether it turns out that it is actually a photo-electric repeat of the copperplate and it is reprinted from another edition, it hardly matters.

You have spoken of connoisseurship and attribution as the mainstream of art history, but is it not precisely that professionalism which feeds the art market and distorts value as it enhances prices?

We couldn’t have a history of art if we didn’t know the dates of the masters. If you go to a museum you don’t want to read on every frame: ‘might come from any period’. In other words, when we go to a museum we get a kind of prospectus of the history of art, we want to know who painted the works exhibited there, and any collector has the right to information about a painting. I think the connoisseur has a very real function – he is really at the foundation of what one calls the history of art. We must first have the knowledge of what actually happened, and the hypothesis of who painted what is extremely valuable – except when it becomes authoritarian.

You speak at one point of ‘the artist’s probable intention’ as a starting point, but what would or indeed could count as evidence for that?

Only the context and what one knows about the time and judgement. We would know for instance that in a religious painting the artist’s intention would have been to evoke a feeling of devotion, and that he would have wanted his Holy Virgin and Child to be a moving experience. We would know that because that was part of the period in which he lived, and the same is true of many other decorations … the wish perhaps to shock, or to entertain, or to paint an erotic picture are all pretty clear in the context of their time.

Something that interests me particularly, because I suppose I have never understood it, is the idea of ‘artistic aim’. You used a phrase once, ‘a master’s artistic aim’. . . is that a definite thing? It suggests a target, some definite end-point, but I would not have supposed an artist works like that. Can he really know beforehand what he will produce?

Not always. Certainly there is an element of what in engineering is called feedback, what he produces suggests to him other possibilities of which he may not have thought before. There are enormous differences in the various media. If you carve, for example, you have to have a good idea of what you want to get out of a block, while if you model you can at any moment respond to the clay and change it. In watercolour, accidents can very easily happen if the paint runs, though Turner told his students never to use an accident. The medieval master who built up his paintings very carefully to the last moment of varnishing certainly had a much stricter idea of what he was doing than the impressionists had. Similarly, in ancient Egypt an artist probably intended his statue or relief to be very much like that of his predecessor, and the icon painter in the East also had a very clear aim of what he was doing; the 20th century artist often much less, if at all, so there is an interesting spectrum between these various media. But I think one can still speak of an artistic aim because every artist is also free to say, ‘No, this isn’t what I wanted’, and to throw his work into the wastepaper basket.

You emphasise two possibilities for the individual artist, to continue a tradition or to oppose it, and you say that we must understand something of his sense of newness. But how can we do such a thing except in our own time? We can’t feel as someone felt in 1550 or 1720, can we?

Up to a point I hope we can. That is to say, if you are reasonably well versed in the history of painting and Quattrocento in Florence, for example, you can understand that when people saw the paintings of Perugino, they thought nothing better could ever be done. Of course they were proved wrong when they saw the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, but I think one can appreciate that there are quite a number of such utterances in the past which show how the novelty struck. There is a very nice remark by a contemporary of Rembrandt who said that when The Night Watch was hung alongside other portraits, the others began to look like flat playing cards compared to the vividness and depth of The Night Watch. One can up to a point recapture that feeling of novelty, the thrill of innovation, what Giotto must have meant to people who only knew the earlier manner. But I agree with you that this is slightly the preserve of a historian.

It is an old question, but one fashionable at present: why have there been so few women artists? After all, some women became novelists precisely because they had leisure . . .

Yes, but to paint, you needed a workshop, you needed apprentices, and it would not have been very easy for a woman to set up a workshop and to hire apprentices, nor indeed to become a painter of murals – it was hardly within the role expected of women, it was outside the range of possibility. It is therefore all the more impressive that a few managed to overcome this barrier, but on the whole, just as women didn’t become soldiers, they didn’t become painters, or architects. I don’t say that women have less talent for painting; perhaps Michelangelo had a sister who was as gifted as he was, but we shall never know.

Speaking of Durer’s drawing of his mother, you propose sincerity as the mark of a great work of art. But what can sincerity be? After all, any number of artists have been commissioned to paint portraits, some have even worked from photographs. What sort of sincerity can be involved in such cases?

I entirely agree with you that sincerity is a very elusive term because we shall never actually know. There are many things we shall never know, but that doesn’t stop us having the feeling that Durer in this case was sincere. Why otherwise should he have done it? Equally it is possible that a work could impress us very much, and not be sincere. For example, there is a beautiful portrait of an art dealer by Titian, but in a letter Titian makes fun of the man and expresses contempt for him, though that didn’t prevent him from painting a very good portrait. So I agree with you that sincerity, though it is often used in criticism and perhaps I shouldn’t have used it, is not something we can ever demonstrate.

How does it help to understand a picture like Memling’s Angel, to be told that it is infinitely lovable, and then invited to agree . . .?

It doesn’t. But we are all suggestible and therefore if somebody tells me, ‘I am very fond of this picture – isn’t it very lovable?’, unless I am very distrustful I will make an effort to see it that way.

You once used an analogy with language when you explained that learning an artist’s method of drawing would help us to understand his feelings, but I do not altogether see the analogy. Language depends on system, so the choice a writer makes of vocabulary will suggest his feelings, but in what sense can drawing be thought of as a system with alternatives?

Drawing is actually a system of alternatives, because various artists of the same period use different strokes and different formulae. But I agree with you that language is very special because it has a fixed range of repertoire, while in the language of painting and music – though there certainly are alternatives – they are always metaphors. They may be revealing metaphors, but they are metaphors nevertheless.

In Topics of our Time you publish a fine photograph by Henri Cartier- Bresson, ‘Le Palais Royal’, but its very quality does seem to suggest that the time may have come for representational art to be handed over to photography. I can see the great practicality of painting before the early 19th century, but must painters now look towards something else?

You are absolutely right. I agree with you totally that the perfection of photography was a trauma for the artist; some would like to minimise it, but I’m not one of them. The trauma was decisive in creating 20th century art, the looking for alternatives and things the photograph could not do. It remains a real challenge.

You have employed an analogy with tea drinkers to suggest something about taste in the arts, but does it follow that our greatest enjoyment derives from the finest blends? Is enjoyment not rather dependent on occasion and context?

It is also dependent on occasion and context, I have not the slightest doubt, in that you may enjoy tea when you are very thirsty, or offered tea by a nice person. But there is still discrimination in tea drinking, and the Same is true of works of art.

You have deplored the notion of cultural relativism, but is not that the future, the inevitable outcome of the world as global village? Why do you think it a bad thing?

It all depends what you call cultural relativism. I think it is a very bad thing if it leads to a levelling of human achievement, or the appreciation of human achievement. There is a tendency in teaching, particularly in the United States, to say that Michelangelo is no better than any folk art which you find in the Ukraine or anywhere else. I deplore this kind of cheap relativism. Of course it doesn’t mean that we should despise the simple madonna painted by a Ukrainian peasant, but there is still a difference in achievement. It is the same in music. It is an objective fact that Bach could write incredible fugues . . . there is nothing one can relativise in this.

In an essay called ‘The Embattled Humanities’ you speak of ‘the Moloch of society’ on whose altar academic research is to be sacrificed. Your plea is eloquent but why should research in the humanities not be subject to the same sort of restrictions as other public spending?

They can restrict it and they do restrict it, but they may regret it very soon, because the quality and the stature of British universities will suddenly suffer and gradually they will become just glorified schools instead of having there people who through their research and discoveries show the young how to advance. Research like everything else is also partly a question of attitude and tradition. A young man who enters, let us say, the Warburg Institute, or any other research institution, does not know how to proceed; his future will depend very much on the example of his elders. It is vitally important that research is supported, and if it is not inertia will set in.

You quote one public institution saying that it is not enough that we be a rich society, we must also be a civilised one. Everyone would agree with that, but it is not really self-evident that those who attend art galleries or the opera are more civilised than those who don’t. In Yugoslavia poets and artists are waging a brutal civil war. What part do the arts play in civilising us?

Very little. I entirely agree with you that there might be a person with very fine tastes who is also a brute. Goebbels may have been appreciative of poetry, just as Goering may have been. There is no reason to think that the arts in that sense are good for you, that they civilise you. They may divert certain impulses into better channels, but I’m not sure. Some optimists make too much of the link between art and civilisation. The Chinese have a marvellous civilisation but they were also terribly cruel.

Don’t you think it likely that the scholar will also be confronted with the suspicion that behind the talk of cultural values is the urge to private satisfaction, the wish to be well supported by public money while he does what he likes?

Yes, if people want to suspect that, you cannot prevent them from doing it, but it’s very rarely true. The life of the scholar, or the vision of the artist on the whole do not depend on material rewards. They are most interested in what they feel they have to do, the book they have to write, the picture they have to paint. Very few are rewarded in any comparable way to businessmen, although I don’t object to that.

This is perhaps a bit provocative. . . but if cultural values are what is at stake, might it not be more sensible to spend public money on artists rather than historians of art?

It is not provocative, you are quite right, but who is to say who the artists are? I am afraid that the record of the last few years – think of the Turner Prize – is not very encouraging. Anybody can say, ‘I am an artist’, because there are fewer tangible standards, but in contemporary art it is sometimes very hard to tell whether he is actually a poseur or not.

You have a very clear idea of what sort of education a university should provide in the humanities, but it does seem based on your own experience in Vienna before the war – the mastery of foreign languages, the destruction of any barrier between undergraduate and postgraduate, a high failure rate, and a very advantageous staff/student ratio. It seems a very elitist system and would no doubt make for high standards, but is it right to tax people to support a system from which their own children would be excluded? The alternative would seem to be private finance and another (and surely worse) sort of elitism.

You are right. I am of course partly influenced by my own experience in Vienna, though I wouldn’t say that the universities I attended corresponded exactly to the model I sketched in the particular lecture you refer to. But the question of whether children are excluded is the wrong question, for it depends on the children: if they are gifted they should certainly not be excluded. There was an exchange in parliament not long ago when the question was asked why should a bus driver support anybody who becomes a lawyer? The correct answer is of course because his son might become a lawyer. There are no longer the same barriers. In questions of excellence, there must be elitism in the sense that some are better and some are less so, but not everybody is an Einstein, and that stands to reason.

I understand your distaste for what you call ‘cultural relativism’, but if the business of the scholar is ‘truth’, what counts as evidence? Is not every judgement an interpretation, every conclusion one way of seeing?

Absolutely. Every interpretation is a dominant factor in what we call truth, but if somebody finds the terracotta army it is not a question of interpretation. If you find a document which happens to fit a certain picture, there may be a leeway of doubt, but there may not be, and you cannot disregard proper evidence. I’m certainly on the side of Popper who always claims, and rightly so, that our theories are interpretations, but Popper wouldn’t have wanted this to count against individual facts.

I remember your saying that it was a commonplace observation that the principal subject of art in the 20th century was art itself. Do you think that sort of introspection is healthy, the endless concern with methodology?

I think your answer implies quite rightly that it may not be healthy, and I agree with you. If you look at the end of my Story of Art, or at the last chapter before the postscript, you will find that I have postulated that what would be important for artists is to get commissions so that they really would have to prove their mettle, rather than contemplating their own navels, as it were. And the same is true of methodology. I am not a believer in discussions of method: go out and do it, and then we will see what you can do.

You have had an immensely distinguished and successful career. How much has that success owed to the happiness and stability of your private life?

Very little, I think. On the contrary it can sometimes be a nuisance.

You have always rather avoided talking about yourself. Does that come from a basic shyness, or is there some other reason?

The reason why I don’t really want to talk about myself is that I don’t think I m very interesting, there’s very little to say. What I try to do is in my books, so my private life is not of great interest to others, not even to me.

I read somewhere that you have had a prolonged battle against anxiety for most of your life. Does this have its origin in the political turbulence of your childhood?

I don’t think that’s quite true. I’m perhaps a slightly anxious person, I’m not a hero, I’m not courageous, but I’m not aware of any battle against anxiety as such.

What part, if any, has religion played in your life?

That’s an interesting question, but I cannot answer it simply I have a certain respect for religion because of the way it inspired great art The same is true of music – Haydn’s Masses, Bach’s Passions. If one has absolutely no sense of religious awe, one may find it very hard to enter into the feelings which great music and art inspire. At the same time I must confess that I have very little patience for religion as it is practised today because of the intolerance it preaches; it is a great misfortune that religion so often instils m people the conviction that they are right and that all others must be wrong.

Do you believe in the existence of God?

I don’t believe in the existence of God in any traditional sense, and I do not belong to any established religion. I can look at the universe and the workings of nature, and experience a sense of awe and have a feeling for the mystery in everything, but that does not make me believe that there is a man with a white beard who regulates our lives.

Are you afraid of death?

No. If you tell me I will be shot in an hour’s time, I should not be very pleased, but I’m not afraid of what will happen to me after I’m dead, because I’m convinced nothing will happen. Death is simply when life is over, and in a way it will be a good thing since there are too many people anyhow and if we all went on living life would be intolerable. It may be a bad thing for one’s friends and relations, but it is in itself something to be desired. One doesn’t want to live forever.

Obama and BP

Obama’s reaction to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is understandable, but not measured.

His election as President of the United States was not only welcomed by a large majority of Americans, but also throughout the world. People of goodwill and liberal views found in him qualities that transcended the abyss that American politics in general have sunk to during the Bush administration. Although Obama was a relatively unknown quantity, his enthusiasm and charisma adequately made up for his lack of experience on the world stage.

His presidency began well enough, but as time passed he seemed to be indecisive and betrayed a weakness that is not in keeping with the prestige of his office.

A glaring example was the defiant stance taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Obama’s efforts to bring a peaceful and just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel took no notice, despite the long standing relationship between the two nations. I am sure Bush would not have tolerated this present state of affairs, had he asked Israel to comply with his wishes and been snubbed as a result.

Knowing American politics, I can fully appreciate Obama’s dilemma, but he promised to rise above the power of the Israeli lobby – as well as all other lobbyists – in the US. But the facts tell an altogether different story, which is very disappointing.

On the question of BP, however, Obama seems to have found his balls. Indeed, his rhetoric against BP demeaned the Presidency, while his anti-British invective can never be justified and will for a long time haunt him.

The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is by no means minor, but it was an accident and BP is trying its best to put it right. These things happen, but are best resolved by keeping a good head and not playing the game of politics in order to pass the buck when one’s popularity is on the wane.

No good will come of it if he maintains the present strategy.

Football Mania

It is football mania.

Football fans are glued to television screens for a whole month, watching the World Cup with great anticipation and a measure of concern for the team they support. Streets are almost empty and social life virtually comes to a standstill. Nationalistic ardour manifests itself in all forms; with flag-bearing, excessive cheering that often overshadows the game itself, unreasonable behaviour and jingoistic fervour sometimes turning ugly.

I, for one, love football as long as it is an art form and displays skills that make the game entertaining. Today more than ever to be a successful footballer you need an enhanced physical stamina as well as speed, and a special gift for controlling the ball with flair and precision.

Most of the England players are endowed with these skills but, alas, their game lacks the flow and enterprise that the young Germans displayed in their game against Australia. England seem unable to gel as a team and their strategy is clumsy, bereft of any real inventive edge to it. Their game against the USA was boring and a real disaster in terms of formation and forward thinking, and left their fans wondering as to their chances of winning the World Cup.

So far, and it is only their first game, they showed little promise and, on present form, they might as well pack up and go home.

Even Wayne Rooney seemed dazed and out of it, and was hardly in the game at all. Perhaps the England players are too pampered and much too individualistic to win a major trophy, given that the competition is far too great and each of the participating teams represents a danger to be reckoned with.

I sincerely hope that the England players buck up their ideas, and prove to the nation that they are worthy of the adulation that has almost become too intense for comfort.

No Longer With Us: Quentin Crewe

Following on from my interview with the famous writer and explorer Wilfred Thesiger, which I posted on Friday, here is my interview with the great Quentin Crewe.

Quentin Crewe was a writer, journalist, restaurateur and inveterate traveller. He was born in 1926 and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He joined the Evening Standard in 1953 and subsequently worked for Queen, Vogue, the Daily Mail and the Sunday Mirror before going freelance. His muscular dystrophy was diagnosed when he was six and he was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life. Despite his disability he became the fourth westerner to cross the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. He also toured South America and made a 25,000-mile journey throughout the Sahara. He married three times: to Martha Sharp in 1956; to Angela Huth in 1961; and to Susan Cavendish in 1970. There are five children from the marriages. His books include In Search of the Sahara, The Last Maharaja, In the Realms of Gold and Touch the Happy Isles. He died in November 1998.

The following is taken from my book, Singular Encounters.

You had a conventional aristocratic upbringing, yet seem to have always wanted to break out of the mould: sacked from Eton, later sent down from Cambridge, What went wrong; why didn’t you conform?

I don’t know that things went wrong so much as that I just didn’t get on with or fit in with my parents. They were very much older than usual in that my mother was forty-five when I was born, my father forty-six. By the time one is growing up, that makes a terrible, gap. There isn’t any memory left for the parents of what it’s like to be a child. My upbringing wasn’t altogether conventional in that my father was in the Consular Service, though in one sense it was a Victorian upbringing: one was brought down from the nursery at six o’clock and sent up again at seven. My mother was a very distant woman in a way hard to describe. My father was much more conventional. I grew up for the first five years in Sicily, until my father was moved to the South of France as consul-general for the Riviera. Then I went to live with my sister, and was brought up by her from the age of five. She was a much older half-sister, and had children older than me.

Again, funnily enough, I didn’t fit in. It was a very hearty sort of background. My sister was married to a brewer who was keen on sports – shooting and hunting. But children are amazingly accepting of circumstances, whatever they may be. I accepted mine and I didn’t necessarily feel unhappy. This is true of all human beings. If you go to Calcutta and you see how people live, you think they must be the most wretched and miserable’ people on earth. Not at all. They’re laughing and joking, because that’s what human beings do. Unhappiness is something you think of afterwards. I don’t think I was unhappy in any day-to-day sense; it was more an overall feeling of not fitting in.

That was very easy really, though one isn’t ever reconciled in a sense. I was taken to a doctor when I was six at the insistence of my sister who could see that I didn’t walk or run properly, though my mother hadn’t particularly noticed. The doctor said to my mother that I had muscular dystrophy and would die before I was sixteen, but to me he said I would be all right when I reached the age of sixteen. That was the last time the subject was mentioned with my parents until I was eighteen. I never went to another doctor in my childhood, and I was treated absolutely as if I were normal. I was expected to get on with it. No question of, oh, what shall we do about Quentin? Will he be able to manage? I was sent off to perfectly ordinary boarding schools, that was fine, because it made me not think about it. My mother was generally unsympathetic, and annoyed by a suggestion that it had possibly come hereditarily from her. She wasn’t having that, and said it must be my father. What they didn’t realize in those days was that things tend to happen more when the parents are so much older than usual. The imperfections in children from mothers over forty are well known, and in fact my brother, just older than myself, had a cleft palate.

Quite early on I decided that I was not going to be sorry for myself I remember overhearing an old cousin saying, he’s so brave, and then he gave me a fiver, so in a way I’m grateful to my mother for her ruthlessness. My father used to make me walk across ploughed fields with a gun to shoot partridges. I used to fall down, and it was awful, but he made no concessions. I think an awful lot of my resourcefulness was, fortunately, born in me. I’m not subject to depressions, and I’m very bad at dealing with people who do have them.

I was, however, very lazy as a child, and always most dissatisfied with rules and conventions. I thought my prep school perfectly dreadful. I couldn’t understand why the people there behaved as they did. The schoolmasters were bullying, the boys were bullying. All of this was foreign to me. Eton was much much better, but I was unlucky in being there during the war, when the younger masters had all gone off to fight. Our masters had all been hauled out of retirement and were a very eccentric lot. The absurdity of the rules was intolerable. If you wore an overcoat, you must never put the collar down. You had to carry your umbrella unrolled, so you carried the thing beside you, flapping like a dead bird. And so on. The sacking from Eton was for going up to London one day. I had a copy of the fire-door key made and although I got back late, nobody knew I had been absent. But, of course, it was found out afterwards, and that was that.

I wanted to get into normal life, or what I thought was normal as early as possible. Although I found Cambridge very stimulating, it somehow didn’t make me do any work. I studied law, but unfortunately Roman law was what you had to start on, and that seemed to me both boring and idiotic. I” didn’t see why one needed to know about the manumission of slaves two thousand years ago. That aside, Cambridge was pure indolence. It was absolutely wonderful from the point of view of liberty and freedom, and suddenly I was into a whole new world and way of thinking. I was there at the end of the war, with great changes on the way, including a Labour government coming in, and that was all a great shock to my family, and so therefore to me; because one does in a way accept what one’s parents tell one. Even so, Cambridge was an extraordinary release. There were so many things to unlearn in my life: all the things that had been dinned into me as a child. Anti-Semitism, for example, was a perfectly normal topic of everyday conversation; people would say, ‘Oh, she’s Jewish,’ and that meant somehow that she was a little bit foreign. One had to unlearn all that.

How did the war years affect you?

Two of my three half-brothers were killed and the third was wounded, while my full brother was taken prisoner. In that sense it did impinge on me, and I was very aware of it. In another sense, some of it was fun. The bombs were nice and frightening, and there was something exciting about being frightened. I remember being in a swimming pool and watching a V-l come over while I was swimming. It stopped in the way that they did, and I wondered where it was going to land, not minding because it was so exciting. But that sort of exhilaration had to be set against the distress of members of one’s family being killed.

Did you go into journalism straight away after Cambridge?

No. I did lots of small jobs. My first was working in a bookshop called Sutherland’s in Sackville Street. I loved it. It was very Dickensian and I well remember the comedy of getting one’s £4 a week. The accountant was downstairs in the basement, and when it came to the Friday morning, you didn’t go down and say, ‘Where are my wages?’ You went down and hovered about near the accountant’s office until suddenly he’d look up and say, ‘Oh, Mr Crewe, there you are. Would you step this way a minute?’ In you would go, and he’d give you an envelope, beautifully inscribed, your name in copperplate on the outside. It would have been very indelicate to open it there and then to see what was inside it, so you took it off to the loo, and there was your £4.

After that I went to work for something called the Art Exhibitions Bureau, an office that acted as secretary to various societies, such as the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. We used to hang exhibitions in various galleries; and it was interesting because it meant I met a lot of artists. But, again, it paid very badly, and I didn’t really get on with the owner, the organization was so fuddy-duddy. Then I worked a short time in a factory, then in a shipping line. The latter came about because I had a girlfriend who said she would leave me unless I got a job. I went out to an agency and picked up the first job going, which was as a ticket clerk in the French Line.

I was still able to walk a certain amount at that time, but was almost at the end of it, and was having a lot of trouble with falling over. In the end the doctors said I had better not keep struggling to work, and I was perfectly delighted to be told this, being, as I say, lazy by nature. So I stopped working and went to live in Italy, reading to a blind man – the scholar and historian, Percy Lubbock. I spent a year reading aloud to him for anything up to ten hours a day. It was good for my education and a pleasant place to live, and I also got to know Bernard Berenson and Harold Acton and all the people who lived in Florence in those days. Then I came home for a holiday, intending to go back and continue reading to Percy Lubbock, but a lunch with Lord Boothby intervened. John Junor was also present, having then, in 1953, just been made deputy editor of the Evening Standard. He offered me what then seemed the princely sum of £15 a week, and I couldn’t resist it.

By all accounts, you got on well with Beaverbrook, though he was a notoriously difficult character.

Beaverbrook was able to enthuse people. You felt he was a man of action. At the time Burgess and Maclean disappeared, I said I would like to go to search for them. I had an idea of how to get into Czechoslovakia, which was where some people thought they’d run to. My editor refused me permission, but I went to Beaverbrook, who overruled the editor. It was his enthusiasm that was the attractive thing about him and he had some very winning ways.

At a later stage I was doing some hard writing about art for the Evening Standard at the time when there was some unhappiness over how the Tate Gallery was being run by Sir John Robbins. Sir John did a great deal for the Tate, but he was also doing some rather funny things with funds that had been left to buy British pictures. He would actually buy something different and cook the labels on the pictures. I wrote rather a lot about this, and the deputy director of the Tate at that time, a South African called Larue Smith Larue, was sacked. Beaverbrook asked me if he ought to take him on as an adviser to help him buy pictures, and I said he should. Some nine months later, Beaverbrook called me to see him and said, ‘You advised me to take on Larue Smith Larue. Now look at this picture. What sort of a picture do you think that is?’ I told him it looked like a very nice Constable. ‘That’s what your friend Lame Smith Lame told me,’ he said, ‘and I paid £30,000 for that picture, which is worth only £30.’ But what was rather touching was that he continued to regard the fake Constable as his favourite picture. In that way he could be very winning.’

But he did do one thing to me which was inexcusable, and led to one of the acts I’m most ashamed of in my life. I was working at the Evening Standard late one evening when the telephone rang and Beaverbrook said, ‘I’ve got a great story for you.’ The story was that a man called Albert Crowther, who had been in gaol for receiving a stolen mantelpiece, had died there. The funeral had been that afternoon, and Beaverbrook wanted me to go and see Mrs Crowther and write a warm human story. I told him I couldn’t possibly interview her the same day as she’d buried her husband. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I thought you had a great future in journalism’ – implying he was going to sack me, in that case. I’m ashamed to say that, instead of saying, ‘All right, but I’m still not going to do the story,’ I went to see Mrs Crowther, and it was awful. I waited for her until eleven o’clock that night when she came home with her family. I went up to one of the men escorting her and said, ‘Look, I’m terribly sorry. I come from the Evening Standard and Lord Beaverbrook is particularly anxious that I should do a story. Could I just talk to Mrs Crowther for a minute or two?’ He said he would ask her. Eventually he came out and said, ‘Yes, she says she’ll see you, but I think you’re shit.’

I remember Harold Macmillan telling me how he was able once or twice to contradict Beaverbrook when he was minister of aircraft production at the beginning of the war. He did it by saying to Beaverbrook, ‘If you do this, you will fry in hell.’ Beaverbrook was terrified of hellfire. He was a son of the manse, his father a Presbyterian minister, so he was brought up in true Calvinist terror of God and could never really throw it off.

Weren’t you romantically involved with Macmillan’s daughter Sarah at one point? What did you make of Macmillan?

He was such a complex character. He was an extremely generous man, but had such a miserable family life that this coloured much of his nature and he spent a lot of time covering up his unhappiness. He was horrified by the betrayal of the people after the First World War; he genuinely minded it and wanted to fight for a better world. Perhaps he was a bit too world weary by the time he became prime minister, but I’m absol- utely certain he would never have been party to brutality. If he could have avoided sending back the Cossacks, he would have avoided it. I’m certain it was not in any way a cynical act, and that he was not as deeply implicated as Tolstoy maintains; it simply wasn’t in his character. He was extremely kind, and Sarah, incidentally, was not his daughter but Boothby’s daughter, and what he did for her was amazing. I remember when she was ill, and indeed had become an alcoholic, that he flew out quite anonymously to Switzerland where she was in a clinic. People recognized him at the airport and asked why he was there, and he replied that he was going to visit a friend. He took the trouble to go and see her, although she might have been regarded as an embarrassment to him. He was a good man in that sense.

Did Boothby care about her?

Boothby was more inclined to care about himself. He enjoyed the situation, enjoyed patronizing Sarah and giving her presents and so on, but he wasn’t a proper father to her. He was a very shallow man, Boothby – clever but shallow. Macmillan occasionally gave an impression of shallowness, but that was part of his act.

During your time as ‘Charles Greville’ on the Daily Mail gossip column, you proscribed stories about royalty, divorces and adultery. As a lover of gossip why did you do that?

The gossip columns had become so squalid at that point. One of worst examples occurred when Selwyn Lloyd was getting divorced and a journalist pretended to be the godfather of Selwyn Lloyd’s child. He went with a present to Carlton House and followed the nanny to find out where Mrs Selwyn Lloyd was. I considered that sort of behaviour intolerable. So far as royalty went, I didn’t want a lot of royal family tittle-tattle in my column, and I certainly didn’t want to have anybody divorce or even anything about whether they were having babies.Oof course, almost anything is legitimate gossip in ordinary conversations unless somebody’s told you something in strict privacy, but in the context of a newspaper, I don’t think it necessarily is legitimate gossip. If the foreign secretary’s getting divorced, then of course you write that the foreign secretary’s getting divorced, but you don’t hound his family.

As for the right to privacy and whether it’s in the public interest to reveal indiscretions, I wouldn’t say it matters if it’s just somebody having an affair with someone else and it isn’t going to affect anything. I know plenty of MPs who have affairs, and although journalists know about these affairs, they don’t write about them. But I rather wonder when it comes to someone in Kennedy’s position, for instance. It might be different if a man’s judgement were affected by, shall we say, libertine behaviour or excessive womanizing. Kennedy was an example of a man who really did want to sleep with every woman he met. Whether this is a sign of immaturity, I’m not sure, but it might be relevant to whether or not a man should be running a country, particularly when it’s the United States – rather a big country. On the other hand, this is such a difficult area. You might also say there is something odd about a man who never sleeps with a woman.

You resigned from Queen magazine because of a proposed supplement on South Africa. What are the liberal political causes you feel most strongly about?

South Africa has always been top of the list, but about any tyranny, I think – and poverty. But how cynical we are in choosing places. For example, what is going on in Burma seems to ‘me far worse than anything that is happening to Lithuania. What are we doing about Burma; what do we care about it? The Burmese are just left to rot. Nobody’s standing up, shouting, screaming and saying the sort of things they’re saying about the situation in Lithuania. We’re terribly selective.

I do applaud the courage of people like Mary Benson who made the decision that what was going on in South Africa was wrong. Those people could lead perfectly comfortable lives in their own country, but chose to stand up for what they believed was right. It raises one of the big questions. Would one have joined the Hitler Youth Movement if one had been born a German child? Of course one would. Or supposing fascism had come to Britain, would one have stood up against it or would one have been as feeble as people were in Italy and in Germany? That’s the kind of courage I most admire, and I just hope to God I would have had it, though I don’t know if I would. To know that something is right is one thing. Whether you can live up to it is another.

The liberalism of your views on sexual codes is widely shared nowadays, but where would you draw the line about sex now?

Interfering with children. Anyone under sixteen. Otherwise I don’t mind. Gross perversions are just very unhappy for the people who feel them necessary, but in general people make too much fuss about ordinary sex.

Don’t you feel that the fundamental cement of society – the formalized partnership of man and woman – ought to be one of society’s greatest priorities, even today?

When I was in Sri Lanka, I visited a man and his wife. His mother lived with them, and this was absolutely natural, a normal course of events. He expected to have his mother living there. And this is a terrible loss in our lives: the fact that we’ve cut down to these nuclear families of a husband, wife, children and maybe a granny flat. The whole thing is lost. I don’t see that we’re ever going to get it back. I don’t see how we can or how we could make it a priority. You can’t dictate to people how to live. You can’t abolish the idea that women’s lives have changed. Yet I also think this is good in a way. I’ve always been a feminist in the sense that I can’t bear it when women are just sat on and used.

You have a legendary reputation for seducing women in general and beautiful young women in particular. Most men who know you well are envious. What is your secret?

I’ve often wondered. I may tell you, it gets less easy, but I think they’re intrigued by something different – that is to say, somebody in a wheelchair. The only explanation I can think of is that those women who have seduced me wanted to discover what it was like to go to bed with somebody disabled. Or there is always the other possibility, that one is less frightening to them, that one isn’t a great beast who’s going to leap on top of them and beat them. Whatever it is, I’ve been very lucky.

Extremely lucky.

Well, I don’t think I’m able to shed any light on it.

Could it be because you are such a great raconteur?

I think, really, that what I said to you once about Lord Weidenfield is the answer: if you take a real interest in women, they respond amazingly Concentrating on them at a dinner party, you talk just to one woman, exclusively to her, and brush everybody else aside. They find that very attractive.

So you don’t have to work hard at it.

I don’t work very hard at it.

It comes naturally

I don’t know, Naim. What difficult questions you ask. I think it’s fading.

Your disability means that you need a male companion to help you, and some have been young, good looking and intelligent. Does the physical dependence ever develop into a physical attachment in the sense that you get a crush someone?

Not necessarily. Young men can be attractive physically, but I don’t think I get a crush. They’ve mostly been good healthy normal lads. I don’t like ugly people. Of course, one has some ugly friends, but I find it much easier to like good-looking people.

You are also said to be a Professor Higgins type in that you become a mentor to your women or wives and thus able to exercise a power over them.

I don’t think I’ve exercised power over them. I may have taught Angela a certain amount about writing, and I certainly introduced the others to various ideas that influenced their lives, but to call it power is going too far.

Is it a source of regret that your marital history has been so tempestuous?

Regrets are not very much a part of my life. Naturally I could wish that my marriages had turned out better, but on the other hand, for years they were a success. They were all good for a period.

What of the rumours that your first wife tried to kill you, your second left yet was willing to remarry you, and the third became so exasperated that she used to hit you? How did you come to generate such stormy emotional responses?

I really don’t know. I’m nomadic, so that’s perhaps one difficulty. Secondly, it’s not at all easy to live with someone who’s disabled. That’s a particularly important point, and I certainly wouldn’t ever reproach any of my wives for having found it difficult. It’s better that a marriage came to an end than that they struggled on out of guilt, so maybe that had a lot to do with it. I always think I’m very calm, so perhaps I just picked tempestuous ladies.

One of your former wives said it was a great privilege to have been married to you. What is it about you that makes a former wife pay such a loyal tribute?

It must be partly her sweetness of character. Once she gives her devotion to somebody, it’s for good. The fact that she didn’t feel able to go on being married didn’t interfere with the relationship, if you see what I mean. I don’t think we ever at any point had any feelings of dislike for each other -just an inability to live together. I don’t know whether the other two would say anything similar, but she is very nice.

Have you regretted any of your marriages?

This is too difficult an area to cover. The answer must be no. There was so much that was agreeable about all of them that they can’t be considered disasters, and I have five wonderful children as a result. I don’t think I would ever marry again. The point of getting married is if you’re going to have children, and I’m not going to have any more.

How would you advise your own children about marriage and relationships?

It’s something you can only learn by experience. I’d never advise any- body about marriage. The only time I’ve ever done it was with somebody who then married the person I was advising them very strongly not to marry and who has had a perfectly happy married life ever since, so you can’t predict. Look at the funny people who are married to one another and who get on, and then look at the seemingly compatible people who get married and don’t stay together longer than ten minutes. It’s all most peculiar. I don’t think anybody can understand marriage at all till they’ve been married. It’s very hard for young people nowadays because girls have changed and have become as independent as the used to be, and then they find it hard to give up that freedom.

Your daughter Candida called you great as a friend but hopeless as a father. How did you feel about that judgement?

It’s probably true as far as my children are concerned. There’s evidently something that I don’t do that my children think I ought to do, because I don’t seem able to get over to them my feelings for them. If one fails to convince them that one is a good father, one obviously isn’t a good father.

You wrote in the Sunday Times that you never felt responsible for your children. Many people might be shocked by such an idea.

Of course I’m responsible for them in the sense that, if they’re in trouble, I must get them out of it. But I don’t feel responsible for their achievement and I don’t think that, if one of them became a murderer I would feel responsible for that either.

You also spoke with some derision about people who ‘moulder on about what their parents have done to destroy or make them’, but what greater influence can there be on a child than its parents?

It’s own innate character. If you take twin babies in a cot, a few days old, their mother will tell you that there is something different about this one from that one. It’s precisely that which I think is the interesting thing about human beings. Of course there are influences: school and environment, whether you’re brought up in Yorkshire or Zimbabwe. But ultimately a child is itself, to my mind.

Do you think the fact that you have unavoidably spent so much time separated from your children may have coloured your view of parental influence?

No, I don’t think so. I spent a great deal of time shaking off the parental influence that I had on me. Of course, bits go deep, but we can get rid of a lot of it.

Do you believe that children must fend for themselves to some extent?

Looking at my very rich friends who had given their children a lot of money early, it’s nearly always been a disaster. Everybody in life needs to forge their way a bit. When things are too easy for them, it’s corrupting. Strawberries from Kenya don’t taste like good strawberries from the harsher climates. It’s the same with wine. It’s the northern wine that’s best – Bordeaux and Champagne. The southern French wine is nothing like so good. The same thing applies to people. They’ve got to have some sort of struggle.

When explaining your unwillingness to instil any sort of sexual moral code, you said that doubtless you would have something to say if a daughter of yours became a ‘courtesan’. Why choose that rather romantic word instead of ‘prostitute’?

Well, to become a prostitute is unthinkable. I mean, none of them would become prostitutes. A courtesan is a possibility, I suppose. One could entertain the idea. But I would have something to say, merely because I think it would not make them very happy. There is a difference between the two words. A prostitute is somebody who’s doing it straightforwardly for money, and a courtesan is probably sticking to one person at a time for a way of life rather than for straight cash. She might have a nice flat or house and a cash allowance, but not £200 for a night or whatever. But I’d never disown my children whatever they did. If they did something absolutely dreadful, I would feel very upset, but I would still think it was my duty to help them. It seems to me that love for somebody is complete, that it must encompass whatever their faults may be. You may get angry with them, you may get fed up with the child who’s done something tiresome or annoying, but you can’t ever abandon them. Love is constant, to my mind, and permanent. I don’t feel for my daughters that they ought not to go to bed with somebody. That idea doesn’t worry me.

People who were or still are close to you have mentioned the down side to your character, saying you can be hurtful, cruel and selfish, and can publicly humiliate those you love.

It’s true except for the last bit. I suspect my children are putting forward this view. I am much too sharp-tongued, which comes from impatience with what I see as stupidity. As for being selfish, I don’t know whether I’m more selfish than others. And I don’t think I humiliate anyone. There’s no malice in me.

Angela Huth told me that your daughter Candida has all your best qualities.

Obviously there has to be something i n genetic influence. I’m not sure whether I’d set more store by environmental influence. In my own case I was lucky to be brought up from the age of thirteen in a house full of books. There were 20,000 volumes at least, and marvellous paintings and beautiful furniture. All this had its influence too, but then there are lots of people who are brought up in circumstances of that sort who don’t even notice there is a book or a painting there. We don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t think even psychiatrists do. As far as Candida is concerned, I would reverse the comment and say she has Angela’s best qualities.

What did you mean exactly when you described your daughter Candida’s books as done in good taste?

Her first romantic novel was done in an unvulgar way, but the second one wasn’t quite so good. I regard a lot of romantic novels as being straightforwardly vulgar, and her first was not. But I felt the publishers then leant on her to put more sex into the second. She was hopelessly bad at writing about it, and it was obviously against her instincts. Daresay she could write about sex extremely well, but what she was trying to do was something somebody else was imposing on her, and it was hopeless.

You always give the impression of treating your disability lightly and inviting others to do the same, but beneath the composure must lie years of anguish, frustration and pain.

I didn’t used to suffer much pain. Latterly I have, but if I started giving in to the idea of being unfortunate and allowed myself to think ‘how unlucky’, I would feel very depressed. It sounds trite, but one just has to count one’s blessings. I sometimes ask myself if I would like to swop places with some very stupid athletic man, and the answer is that I wouldn’t. I’d rather be me and I’d always rather be me.

Has your view of life changed with your disability?

Not really. I suppose I suppress the fact of it to some extent. In a way I don’t think of myself as disabled. It may sound stupid, but it’s true: I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t ski and who can’t run, but then I look at someone else in a wheelchair and think, oh, poor thing they’re in a wheelchair. It’s bizarre, perhaps, but perhaps the only way of dealing with it.

Might you never have become such an intrepid traveller without the challenge of being confined to a wheelchair?

I often wonder that myself. Was I driven by some urge? I don’t think so. I am by nature a nomad. I really want to wander, I’m never so happy as when I’m on the move. Bruce Chatwin was a friend of mine, and this was something we had in common.

What do you consider to be most important in your life?

Oh, my family, obviously. I think that is the thing everybody must consider of prime importance in life. I feel very strongly about my children, that I owe everything to them but they owe nothing to me. I don’t think it’s right to be proud of one’s children. You can be pleased for them, but I don’t consider that something my son does goes down to my credit. I mind passionately that my children should be thought of as being themselves. My daughter Candida writes extremely well, works unbelievably hard, but that’s her, and it’s nothing to do with me. Very little else matters to me desperately, except I think unkindness. I like good manners very much, though God knows I don’t always write all the thank-you letters I should, but I do feel manners make the world so much easier to live in.

Looking back on a career embracing journalism, the restaurant business, travelling and writing, which has been most difficult and which has given you most satisfaction?

You missed out farming. Farming – which gave me enormous satisfaction, but was a total disaster. It’s really writing that gives me more and more satisfaction as I find what I want to write, or, rather, how I want to write. I’ve enjoyed journalism, but my visit to South Africa was the only thing I would ever claim as something worthwhile, something that actually mattered. Writing has something else to it than journalism. I hate writing so far as the physical act of sitting there and trying to achieve something is concerned. That’s absolute hell. But it does give one much more satisfaction in the end.

Have you ever been tempted to seek comfort in religion, or have your circumstances had, the opposite effect?

They haven’t had any effect on that at all. I certainly don’t sit about swearing and asking why God inflicted this upon me, because I don’t think He did. Religion does become more interesting to people as they get older, because they’re nearing the end, but I’m not very frightened of death. I can’t help but be impressed by the Eastern religions in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand and so on, and of course in the Arab countries. I find the everyday quality of Islam very impressive. When you’re travelling in the desert, you see people praying five times a day and it’s absolutely natural to them. Religion ought to be an everyday affair. The Christian religion is much too shut away in its churches. It gives far too much power to bishops and priests. They are too dictatorial, whereas in Islam it’s easily accessible, and in Buddhism there is the feeling that God is within you. I find that very attractive and possibly something which I will continue to read more and more about.

My research reveals your philosophy of life to be that nothing matters very much and very little matters at all. Is this anything more than a self-preserving maxim?

Of course not, and it’s a joke to some extent. People make too much fuss about too many things, like all the food fads, for example. One of my complaints about the younger generation is that they’re so absorbed; they think all the time about what’s good for you and what’s not. And all this health kick is really because they haven’t got anything else to think about. I see no evidence that they are healthier as a result. People take themselves too seriously. We’re all rather absurd in that way.

No Longer With Us: Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. At the age of twenty-three he made his first expedition in the Danakil country of Abyssinia and two years later he joined the Sudan Political service where he explored the mountains of Tibesti in the Libyan Desert. During the war he served in the Ethiopian, Syrian and Western Desert campaigns with the rank of major. His widely acclaimed travel books Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs tell of his two famous sojourns in the Empty Quarter and the Marshes of southern Iraq. In 1994 he published My Kenya Days, which describes the country in which he lived for the previous thirty years with the pastoral Samburu tribe.

He died in August 2003.

Later this month Quartet will publish Ibn Saud: The Desert Warrior and his Legacy. Written by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, Ibn Saud is the definitive book on the founder of Saudi Arabia. The cover image was taken by Wilfred Thesiger, and forms part of the Thesiger Collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

With that in mind, here is an interview with him from my book, Speaking for the Oldie.

Your life has been defined in terms of travelling…where do you now regard as home?

I suppose Maralal, in Kenya. I’ve been in Kenya on and off for over 30 years, and now that I’m older and have stopped travelling seriously, I’ve based myself there.

Presumably you still feel English. How important is your Englishness to you?

All important. I wouldn’t want for a moment to be anything but English and I have a profound admiration for the English. I will also never entertain any running down of the British Empire. When people – whether they be English, or Americans or foreigners – criticise the Empire, they are quite unable to give one instance of brutality or oppression, apart from Amritsar which was General Dyer’s personal error of judgement. That aside, there were no other examples of real oppression, which is an extraordinary tribute to the British.

Probably you feel as at home in Kenya as it is possible for a non-Kenyan to feel. Do you think this dimension of ‘otherness’, so to speak, of the outsider looking in, has made it possible for you to value their way of life in a quite unique way?

I am less involved in Kenya than I was with the Bedu from the Rashid in Southern Arabia, for example, or indeed with the Marsh Arabs. I’m happy in Kenya, I like being with the people, but I have not studied them or done any anthropological work among them. I just live with them.

Your autobiography is called The Life of My Choice. Do you consider it to have been a very privileged life?

I haven’t thought of it in those terms. It’s been exactly what I wanted to do all my life, and if something went wrong at any time, it invariably led on to something better. I don’t think it’s been privileged, because when I travelled with the Bedu in Southern Arabia, in and around the Empty Quarter, it was probably as hard a life as any human beings lived, including even the bushmen. I was determined when I went there that I wanted no concessions; I wanted to live on equal terms with them, face the challenge of the desert as they did. If ever they tried to ease things for me, I tended to react rather badly, and this earned me their respect and their loyalty.

But are you very conscious of the fact that if you hadn’t had private resources this way of life would not have been possible for you?

I never had anything in the way of private resources. My uncle paid for me at Oxford and we were a poorish family until my grandmother died. Then my four brothers and I got about £300 a year. When I joined the Sudan Defence Force they paid me another £400, and since there was nothing to spend it on it accumulated. But it’s never been wealth.

You were born in Abyssinia and your early experiences in Addis Ababa seem to hold the key to your adventures in later life. In your ambition to travel and explore, were you never deflected by the years of traditional public schooling at Eton and then at Oxford?

No. From the start, it was what I was determined to do. The event which had the most profound influence on me was when the Shoan army came back after the big battle of Segale. I still remember in detail the triumphal re-entry of the army into the town: the embroidered hats of the drummers; a man falling off his horse as he charged by; a small boy lifted high on shoulders – he had killed two men, but seemed little older than myself. At that time there was nothing Western or European about Africa; it was at its most barbaric and most colourful, and that made a great impression. In 1917 we spent my father’s leave in India where my uncle, Lord Chelmsford, was viceroy. On our way we stopped off in Aden where the British were fighting the Turks not very far away. We stayed with General Stewart for two or three days, and he took my father and myself – I was perhaps seven at the time – right down to where the fighting was, and I remember we stood watching the shells bursting over the Turkish lines. That was another memorable experience for a young boy.

Then in India there was all the pomp and ceremony of the viceregal court. We stayed with maharajahs, we were taken on a tiger shoot, and so when I came to school in England I rather longed to get back to the adventurous life. Later, in the summer of 1924, Haile Selassie, at that time the Regent Ras Tafari, visited England. He’d been very close to my father who’d helped him a lot during the revolution, and he asked my mother and myself to meet him. We had tea and spoke in French, and he expressed sorrow at my father’s death. As I left the room, I turned to him and told him how I longed to return to his country. He gave me that very sweet, gentle smile of his and said, ‘You will always be very welcome. One day you shall come as my guest.’

Four years later at Oxford, I received a personal invitation from Haile Selassie to attend his coronation. I was to be attached to the royal party, the Duke of Gloucester’s, and that had a profound effect on me. I was the only person who got a private invitation. Haile Selassie had remembered the 14 year old boy and that touched me greatly.

It was always important for you to be more than a spectator in your travels, something which set you apart from other explorers. Was this because you wanted to live the life of the natives as much as possible rather than simply record and observe?

Yes, indeed. When I travelled with the Rashid they had never met a European, they’d never seen a car. For five years I journeyed barefooted because I wanted to be exactly like them. Again, when I was with the Marsh Arabs I wanted to get as near as I could to living as they did. Even in Kenya today, although I don’t take it quite to the same extent, I do live a very primitive life.

How did you manage to bridge the divide, to avoid the master and servant relationship?

There was never any question of that with the Rashid; they would never have accepted it. It was I who was trying to live up to their standards, not only their physical standards, but their pattern of behaviour, something I found much more difficult. Their patience, their endurance, their courage, all these things were extremely hard to aspire to.

Did you come across the colonial attitude in your compatriots, or anything which smacked of superiority?

I was extremely lucky because when I was in the Sudan I was under a very remarkable district commissioner who had travelled and lived with the Arabs there. His overriding consideration, and that of his men, was the welfare of the people they were ruling. There were no British businesses, there were no settlers, just the governing administration. It would have been different in Kenya where the colonists had settled.

Between 1930 and 1940 you did a great deal of hunting big game before there was any threat of extinction. You believed then that men have an inborn desire to hunt and kill – do you still believe that?

Yes, I do. I think it goes even to the extent of killing other men. It’s well submerged in our civilisation but if there is a war then it emerges at once. During the time I was in the Sudan, I suppose I shot far more lion than almost anybody has ever shot – 70 in four years. I never shot a lion with a bait, or out of a car; they were all on foot or ridden down on a horse. I was charged 16 times and knocked down once, and all the time I wondered whether I’d get away with it again. I believed they would kill me in the end, but I had the same sort of urge as those people who ride in the Grand National – they feel they’ll break their necks sooner or later but they can’t stop doing it.

But why did you kill these poor lions?

Poor lions! You wait till you’ve been charged by a lion as I was! Also lion were very numerous and were regarded as vermin by the Sudan government. You were allowed to shoot as many as you liked – there were no restrictions. Besides, if a lion came and raided the encampment and killed one of your cows, it was a matter of honour that you collected the men and together you went out in the morning on horses and rode the lion down. The lion was brought to bay in a patch of thick bush and after making sure it was going to stay, the men went in shoulder to shoulder. They had no shields, just their spears, and inevitably they were charged. Generally while the lion was killing one of them, they killed the lion, but I remember one time when they went out on their own they had seven casualties, four of them fatal.

Do you ever have any moral doubts about your hunting days now?

No, not in that setting. I don’t regret the fact that I hunted. I enjoyed it enormously and I felt it was completely justified. Thank God when I started my hunting there was no question of having a white hunter looking after me with chairs and tents and tables and all that sort of thing. Of course I’m a complete conservationist today, since so many animals are endangered, but that wasn’t the case when I hunted. The last time I ever wanted to kill anything was in the marshes in Iraq where there were a lot of wild pig. I shot a lot of them because they ruined crops and attacked people who were cutting reeds to feed their buffalo. I was always stitching them up.

Your travels in the Empty Quarter with a handful of Bedu companions were amongst the most dangerous you undertook, and yet you regard this period as the supreme years of your life. What made them so wonderful?

Being with the Bedu, observing their qualities. The Bedu were the only society to which I could apply the term ‘noble’. They had a nobility which was almost universal among them. Of course you can say that some of the British were noble – Auchinleck for instance – but you wouldn’t call the British a noble race, at least I certainly wouldn’t. The ordinary man you meet in the street has no nobility about him at all. But the Bedu were different; they were always anxious to excel, to be known as more generous, braver than anybody else.

You say you would have remained with the Bedu indefinitely had political circumstances allowed, and that you came to adopt their attitudes as your own. One such attitude was the absence of veneration for human life. How on earth was someone of your background and breeding able to assimilate?

I can’t say I have this veneration for human life. If somebody had killed the two lads who were with me, and to whom I was particularly attached since they gave me everything they had to give in the way of loyalty and endurance, I would have joined at once in the hunt to find the killer. And I should have been hoping that it was I who killed him.

In your autobiography you write: ‘I have no belief in the sanctity of human life.’ But isn’t that at the basis of what we might call civilised values?

It probably is. But then I don’t think that I have what one might call civilised values.

You have always held Haile Selassie in very great regard, and indeed you helped restore him to power after the Italian occupation of Abyssinia. Was your admiration based largely on your personal knowledge of him?

Yes. He was a man for whom I had an enormous respect. Ever since he was a boy his one aim in life was to assist his country, to look after his countrymen, to improve their lot. On top of that he was a man who had no interest in money – I never heard anybody accuse him of avarice.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, highly regarded as an investigative reporter on social conditions in Africa, portrays Haile Selassie in his book The Emperor as an autocrat who ruled by terror and insisted on absolute loyalty…

That’s absolute balls. This is something I would challenge very strongly. Back in 1932, for instance, there had been an attempted coup by Ras Hailu, the hereditary ruler of Gojjam, who was jealous of Haile Selassie and wanted to reinstate his son-in-law Lij Yasu as Emperor. The plot tailed and Ras Hailu was arrested. Any other ruler would have confirmed the sentence of death passed on him for treason by the high court, but Haile Selassie merely fined him and imprisoned him. Later when Italy invaded Abyssinia Ras Hailu collaborated with the Italians and plotted time and again against Haile Selassie. In every other country in Europe collaborators were imprisoned or executed by their countrymen, many for offences less grave than Ras Hailu’s. But Haile Selassie proclaimed that past offences must be forgiven, and merely sentenced him to house arrest. This is just one example of his humanity. He would do anything to avoid signing a death warrant, and in my opinion there was no question of his wielding power by threats.

Kapuscinski also suggests that the result of his corrupt policies was intolerable privation and misery for his people. Was there any truth in that, do you think?

Let’s get this straight. His government and the people who were working with him were undoubtedly corrupt, as all Africans are, but there’s never been any suggestion of corruption on Haile Selassie’s part. You can check this with the Foreign Office. His dominant passion was the welfare of his country.

I was struck by the extreme dislike you expressed towards Evelyn Waugh who wrote about Haile Selassie’s coronation. Why did he arouse such intense feelings in you?

I’m not quite sure. It was to do with his holding a court of his own and trying to make himself out to be very important. He got very angry with Sir Sidney Barton, the British minister, who hadn’t invited him to lunch. Well, he was only a journalist for the Graphic, why should he have been asked to lunch? I disliked him on sight – the grey suede shoes, the floppy bow tie, the excessive width of trousers.

The situation in Ethiopia must now be a source of great sadness to you, and the reign of Haile Selassie must seem like a Golden Age to many of the inhabitants, perhaps even some of those who plotted against him…

Yes, I’m sure that’s true. After what they had to put up with under Mengistu, with his utter disregard for human suffering, many must now remember their Emperor with the appreciation he deserved.

Do you think most of the current difficulties there are man-made, as opposed to natural disasters like drought?

I believe the droughts themselves are man-made. In the past there were no droughts on the scale that they’ve come now. We hadn’t had them in Kenya, they didn’t have them in the Sudan, and I think they are the result of the mass numbers of cars and factories and modern technology which are causing changes in the climate.

Looking round the parts of the world you explored, it must seem as if you made your travels just in time before the countries were changed out of all recognition, whether it was by revolution or the discovery of oil. Looking back, is your feeling principally one of privilege and pleasure at having been able to do what you did, or is it blighted by regret at the disappearance of various cultures?

Looking back I feel nothing but happiness, but I am distressed by the disappearance of cultures. One of the biggest misfortunes in human history was the invention of the combustion engine, which has led to aeroplanes and tourism on a massive scale. I’ve always hated cars and aeroplanes, and even as a boy I felt that they were going to diminish our world and rob it of all diversity. It was much better when the fastest you could go was on a galloping horse.

How would you advise any young man nowadays with the same ambition and aspirations as you had all those years ago?

I’m constantly meeting people who say they would give anything to be able to do what I did. There are so few places left, but I think that in north-western China there is still some exploring to be done.

You are known to dislike America’s interference in the affairs of other countries. Is interference ever justified, do you think?

Very rarely, and I believe that this is what has caused all the troubles in Africa today. If you take Kenya, for example, independence from British rule was achieved peacefully in 1963 under Jomo Kenyatta. Even when he died the transfer of power was peaceful. Why did the Americans and British not leave well alone? Despite the advice they were getting from two high commissioners who were dead against it, they wanted to impose multi- party government, which could only mean one thing: a return to the worst forms of tribalism. Up to that moment there had hardly been any trouble at all in Kenya; we’d had 30 years of uninterrupted peace, rare in Africa.

How does American influence differ from, say, former British imperialism?

The British interference was well informed. They had a profound knowledge and understanding of Africa, as did the governors in Kenya and elsewhere. I don’t say it wasn’t imperial; it was to some extent, but it varied. Generally speaking, however, if you don’t know what you’re talking about it is better to stay out.

A propos the UN’s censure of human rights in the Middle East, you are reported to have said: ‘Who the hell are they to judge how other countries should behave? Why should America be able to impose its values on the rest of the world?’ Setting aside the obvious fact that different countries have different cultures, shouldn’t there be basic standards of humanity in all societies?

I don’t think you can impose them. For instance, it seems to me that the people the Chinese arrested after Tiananmen Square were threatening the country, and any government would have done the same. The fact that they were detained seems to me perfectly justifiable, provided they weren’t brutally treated or tortured. What would the Americans have said 60 years ago if the British had threatened to break off relations unless the blacks were given the vote? The Americans would have answered – as Moy in Kenya answered – that is an internal affair, and it has nothing to do with you.

But if something is morally wrong, shouldn’t it be morally wrong for all people in all places?

I don’t think you can apply it like that. If other people in other countries do not have our moral standards, I don’t see that you can impose them. Just as it is no good trying to force Christian ethics on a lot of pagans.

You have said you are ‘reconciled’ to the modern world. Is it not more resignation you feel in the face of something unstoppable?

I suppose it is. I deplore all the material manifestations of our civilisation. Radio and television are extremely pernicious. I remember the moment when I heard the Americans were walking about on the moon, I had a feeling of desecration and despair; despair at the deadly technical ingenuity of man.

But as an explorer, wouldn’t you like to know what is beyond our planet?

No. It’s right out of my world. One of the things I liked to think when I went to live with Rashid and others was that nothing in their lives would be altered by my coming. Even though they benefited from maps which I made, I did not want to change these people. When I travelled among the Danokil, they were killing each other and castrating each other, but as far as I was concerned they were perfectly entitled to do so. I shot lion, they killed other human beings, and I didn’t feel, by God, it’s about time somebody took these people over and civilised them. I don’t want to civilise people.

Isn’t it a fact, however regrettable, that many of the African tribes do not want to remain immune to western civilisation?

I think that’s true. The most disruptive thing in the way of destruction of their culture is modern education. In Kenya, for example, a boy is supposed to go to prep school for eight years and then for another four years if he can make it to the secondary school. But even if he spends only three or four years in the school, the last thing he wants to do after that is to go off and herd animals. When I first went to northern Darfur, it was a closed area and nobody was allowed in without a special permit. There were virtually no cars and very few roads. The DC had a car and there were one or two others, but you could travel for two or three months and never see a vehicle. Consequently the world was restricted to the area in which people could walk. Then along came mass education and the facility of getting anywhere you liked in motor cars. In Maralal where I live we have what we call the ‘plastic boys’, who have been to school and don’t want to go back and live with their families. They cluster round the town, trying to sell things to tourists, and their one aim is ultimately to get off to Nairobi. When the British were in Kenya – I admit the population was very much smaller – but there was no unemployment and there were no slums in the towns. With the mass influx to the towns, there are slums everywhere.

When you talk about the disappearance of the nomadic tribes of Africa and the loss of their culture and way of life, how are we to raise our response to a level above and beyond that of nostalgia? Is it available to us on any other level?

No, I don’t think so. Change is inevitable, and although it’s for the worse there’s nothing we can do about it.

Tell me about the family you live with in Kenya.

I first met Lawi when he was about seven years old, during my early days in Kenya. I used to visit a small town called Baragoi where there was a school. The boys used to cluster round the car and talk to me, and there was one in particular I noticed and thought quite remarkable. This was Lawi, and when he was 10 he said that he’d had enough of school and that he wanted to leave and stay with me. That was over 20 years ago and he is as dear to me as my own son. Later we were joined by another two boys and I have built them all houses.

And they regard you as their father?

Yes, in Africa it’s much easier to become part of the family and to feel you belong. In England, however close you are to a family you’ll never be regarded as part of it unless you really are part of it. I might be called ‘Uncle Wilfred’ or something, but I would still be separate. But here I do belong. And if somebody killed Lawi, for instance, my blood feud feelings would return, and I would certainly feel an urge to kill the man who’d killed him.

At the end of your autobiography you say that you have felt the need for human company all your life, and wherever possible have avoided solitude. Why do you think you have found the deepest friendships in races other than your own?

Possibly as a result of my childhood. A psychiatrist would say it’s because I was rejected by my contemporaries when I was a boy. When I went to my prep school I was pitchforked into an alien environment with an extraordinary life already behind me. I had no idea of the conventions that are so rigorously observed by small boys in England, and when they asked me about myself I started telling them about tiger shoots or travelling with camels, I found myself ostracised as the most appalling little liar. I was driven in on myself, and I longed to get back to Abyssinia.

Even now you live a very simple life, rejecting many of the comforts which most people desire or expect. Do you think most people would be happier if they were less materialistic?

Yes, I think possessions are a burden. When I left Kenya the other day I put everything I own into a kitbag and brought it back here. I’ve had no urge for possessions. All the time I was in the desert with the Bedu, I had none at all. The single thing I valued was my camera.

Have you ever regretted not marrying?

No. I’ve had some very close women friends, but I have had very little sexual interest.

Even when you were a young man?

Even then. I did meet a girl when I was about 19 or 20 and I felt that I really could have become very attached to that girl, but then I thought, if I do it will wreck my life. My whole life has been with men and boys – of course I’m not talking sexually now. When I was travelling I didn’t often see a woman. Perhaps if we arrived at a camp there would be some women there, but then we’d be off again into the desert leading an entirely masculine life. Marriage would have crippled me. If I had been married there would have been children whom I would have had to educate at Eton or wherever, and there would have been no money left for me. Also, I spend only three months a year in this country – no wife would have tolerated it.

Do you prefer the company of men?

Yes, because my mind works in their terms. I do have some close women friends. Lady Pamela Egremont for instance, but when it comes to the point, I don’t want to go on safari with them.

I’m sorry to labour the point, but can you imagine yourself being seduced by a woman?

No, I can’t. I would resist it.

You haven’t had much time for orthodox religion. Has there been a religious dimension to your life?

No. I find it very difficult to believe in a God or in an afterlife. I can’t see why we’re any more important than ants. I think man has created God in his own image.

When you die you say you want Lawi to pop you into a hole in the garden without any nonsense. Do you hate the idea of grieving and bereavement?

It isn’t that. I just don’t want a priest mumbling a lot of stuff which I don’t believe over my body. Once I’m dead I’m dead, and I have no regard at all as to what happens to my body. They can put me in the garden and plant a bougainvillaea over me.

I couldn’t  help noticing that in your autobiography of 450 pages the death of your father is accorded only three lines and your brother’s death in the war gets only one line. Is this the Englishman’s stiff upper lip, or is there more to it?

When my father died I was just nine years old, and although I was devoted to him, a nine-year-old doesn’t really feel grief in the way one does at a later age. But of course I was desperately upset.

You have been variously described as ‘the greatest of all explorers’, ‘the last of the great explorers’, and so on. Does this recognition give you a great deal of satisfaction and sense of achievement, or is it unimportant in the larger scheme of things?

I think it’s balls. I’ve done what I wanted to do: I’ve lived with the Bedu; I’ve lived with the Marsh Arabs; I’ve travelled in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Karakorams; in Afghanistan in the uplands west of Kabul I have seen Pathans in their black tents and Hazaras in their villages, a people whose Mongol ancestors had probably been established there by Genghis Khan. I feel very lucky to have done all that, and especially lucky that in the course of these journeys the people who went with me didn’t suffer.

But all this business about ‘the greatest of all explorers’ is not justified. It’s absolute nonsense.