Monthly Archives: July 2010

No Longer With Us: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., born in 1917, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian and critic. He was special assistant and ‘court historian’ to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963, and wrote an account of the Kennedy Administration, A Thousand Days. In 1968, he supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination, and later wrote Robert Kennedy and His Times. He died in February 2007.

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

At Harvard you were once reported to have said, ‘I love teaching but I hate students.’

I don’t recall ever saying anything like that, nor is it what I feel. On the whole I like students more than I like teaching. I don’t mind teaching and I work hard at it and believe I have done it reasonably well, but there are some people for whom teaching is an organic part of life and for whom deprivation would be equivalent to amputation. I regard teaching as better than ditch digging as a way to support oneself, and I find students quite agreeable, but I’m essentially a writer, and if I could have figured out a way of life that would have removed the necessity for teaching, I would have done it. At present I can’t retire, because if I were to bring home the books that I have in my office to a house already overflowing with books, my wife would throw me or the books or both into the street.

As a celebrated American historian, you have been special adviser to a president of the United States. How did you reconcile the two disciplines: that of distinguished politician and that of political aide?

It’s only in recent times that the two professions have become distinct. For a long time the two were fused in the same person without any sense of incompatibility. After all, Thucydides was an Athenian general and Julius Caesar was a far from dispassionate observer. Gibbon wrote in his memoirs, about his military experience, that the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire. I think the opportunity to see how worldly decisions are made is as likely to enrich the historian as much as to corrupt him.

In my own case, in the United States, my mother was collaterally descended from George Bancroft, the first great American historian, who wrote a history of the United States in many volumes. George Bancroft was also Jackson’s and Van Buren’s political man in Massachusetts. He was Folk’s secretary of the navy, minister to England and to Germany, and was also a very productive historian.

You have to avoid turning history into political partisanship. Another historian once said of Bancroft that all his volumes voted for Andrew Jackson. One must guard against that. But even in libraries historians are not devoid of prejudice. The problem is that the historian can never escape the egocentric predicament, but he must continue to seek an objectivity he can never attain. At least he should take care to declare his interests.

Advisers to presidents are not elected representatives and some might not consider such appointments to be proper in a democracy. Does that not bring special problems and difficulties to the job?

It need not. A president can’t do everything himself. From the beginning of the republic, presidents have had people to help them. Andrew Jackson formed what was called his ‘kitchen cabinet’ – advisers who were not members of the regular Cabinet but with whom he would discuss politics and choices – and that aroused a certain amount of newspaper and partisan protest, but, as Jackson recognised, criticism was really aimed at him, not at them.

The present White House staff was established in 1939 when FDR secured the passage of the Government Reorganisation Act. That created the position of special assistant to the president, and he was given half a dozen of them. Up to that time, presidents had de facto special assistants, but they were mostly on payrolls of other agencies and were co-opted. The new special assistants were supposed by Roosevelt to be endowed, in the phrase he borrowed from Tom Jones, the friend of Lloyd George, with a passion for anonymity. That passion for anonymity has waned in recent years.

In Britain we recently witnessed the resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the issue of Mrs Thatcher’s personal economic adviser. What was your reading of the situation?

I guess Nigel Lawson had reached the point where he couldn’t take Mrs Thatcher any more. Mrs Thatcher was getting economic advice both from the Chancellor and from her personal economic adviser, Alan Walters, and Lawson found the situation intolerable. I suppose he would have found it tolerable if his advice had been taken more often. I assume it was the culmination of various frustrations. Working with Mrs Thatcher, I would judge, is not always the easiest thing in the world.

We have a similar situation structurally in the United States. The president has a department of the Treasury, but he also has a Council of Economic Advisers, both established by statute. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the Secretary of the Treasury often bring in conflicting advice. There is a third figure, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which is an independent agency. Appointments to the Federal Reserve are made by the president with the consent of the Senate, but the agency itself is not accountable to the president. So you have a triad arguing over the economy.

Since economics is far from an exact science, I don’t think it does any harm for the president to hear two or three positions. In the end the president makes the decisions. The American cabinet does not enjoy the authority that, theoretically, a British cabinet enjoys. The president has the monopoly over decision, whereas theoretically, if not always practically, decisions in British government are collegial; all members of the cabinet are implicated. A quarter of a century or more ago, Dick Crossman pointed out that cabinet government was giving way to prime ministerial government; in effect to presidential government. Mrs Thatcher has certainly illustrated the point.

In the present administration under Bush, or the previous administration under Reagan, did the advisers have autonomy, or was the president involved in everything?

In Reagan’s case, he was indifferent to most of the business of government and he let people move off on their own, so long as they conformed to his set of laissez-faire principles. Bush is very much interested in foreign policy and probably follows that quite closely. Roosevelt had great intellectual curiosity; so did Kennedy. But Reagan was quite passive. He had no intellectual curiosity.

Who among all the presidents of recent years was the most autocratic?

All presidents are ultimately the boss in the executive branch. The most autocratic by temperament clearly was Nixon, but that was because he was insecure. He feared Congress, hated political opposition. Nixon would like to have been an elective dictator. He did not understand that debate and opposition are the essence of democracy; so he regarded opponents of the administration as disloyal to the country and put them on his enemies list. I am proud to say I was on it. Nixon was certainly the most autocratic by disposition. Roosevelt tended to give people a loose leash, but then to rein them in rather abruptly, and cut them off if he felt they did not justify his confidence. Eisenhower was interested in what he was interested in and indifferent to what he was indifferent to. He was actually a rather tense man within, but there were a lot of things he just didn’t care about.

There’s been a historical revisionism about Eisenhower, and now counter-revisionism is setting in. For a time there was a theory that Eisenhower, underneath his grin and his apparent indifference and his fractured syntax, was really a very strong president. And it is evident that he played much more of a role in foreign affairs than we understood at the time. Eisenhower was a crafty man, a good politician, a selfish man. He used Dulles in what we call a good cop/bad cop routine. Dulles would do the unpleasant things and Eisenhower would be the man of peace. On the other hand, Elsenhower’s instincts were good. For example, he was very sceptical about the missile gap. Having been a general, he didn’t take the Pentagon very seriously. He was constantly saying – in private – that we were building too many nuclear weapons. In his farewell address, he talked about the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

Yet he did very little about these things. He complained about over-targetting by the Pentagon, but would not stop it. The military-industrial complex was really created during his presidency. One of the worst things he did was to use the CIA as the president’s private army. He was sceptical about the regular army, so he never used it, and instead started the bad presidental habit of using covert action and clandestine means to achieve ends which, in a democracy, ought to be approved by the legislature, by public opinion.

Kennedy tended to get more involved in the processes of decision making than most presidents. He did not hesitate to call the man at the desk in the State Department or the Agriculture Department and so on if he wanted to find out what the situation really was. He would bypass the Cabinet minister in charge, which irritated cabinet ministers but exhilarated the people at the desk who received the presidential calls. Kennedy was very accessible. We could get him quite quickly by telephone, and late in the afternoon, if the door between his office and the office of his secretary was open, it meant that his special assistants could stick their heads in. He’d be reading or talking on the phone and would say, ‘Come on in.’ Sometimes he would just like to chat.

I find it hard to recognise the swollen White House staffs of the present time. During the Depression, Roosevelt had a smaller staff than the wife of the president has today, and he fought the Second World War with a smaller staff than the vice-president has today. Our White House staffs now are bloated. Many presidential assistants rarely see the president and have to make appointments days or weeks in advance. The great inflation of the White House staff came with Nixon, and every president since has carried it on. They all begin by saying they are going to reduce the size of the White House staff, but they never do.

As special assistant to Kennedy, your responsibilities ranged from speech writing so general advice on major issues. To what extent was it a position of real power and influence?

It was not a position of real power at all. But for an historian it was a fascinating experience to be around when decisions were made. I don’t think my presence made any difference to anything, except to me, but it was very enjoyable. Working with Kennedy was exhilarating. I learned a great deal, and perhaps I was able to play a marginal role on some matters.

Did he take your advice?

I was opposed to the Bay of Pigs. I was part of the group involved in planning it, and I thought it a bad idea. I talked to Kennedy about it, and he wasn’t very enthusiastic himself, but it was an expedition he had inherited from the previous administration. He was trapped because, here he was, a naval lieutenant from the Second World War, and if he were to disband a project that the great General Eisenhower had approved, people would have been critical of him, and the word would have gone around that Eisenhower had been prepared to overthrow Castro and that Kennedy refused to follow through. Then there was what Alan Dulles of the CIA called the disposal problem: what to do with 1,200 Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala. Kennedy couldn’t quite see how to disband them without disturbing political consequences; so rather reluctantly he let the expedition go ahead.

He was a man of great intellectual curiosity and high intelligence. He liked to hear varying viewpoints. I suppose I was one base he liked to touch, probably just to see what a professional liberal, so to speak, would think about this or that issue. One thing on which I may have helped was the question of the centre left in Italy. The Eisenhower administration had said that the United States would not countenance the entry of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) into an Italian government. The US veto struck all of us as outrageous, and at a very early point I talked to Kennedy about it. I went to Italy and, when I came back, strongly recommended that he indicate we would have no objection to the socialists entering the government, which he did when Fanfani made his visit in 1961. The State Department continued to try to preserve the Eisenhower veto, but the PSI had long since abandoned its fellow-travelling inclinations of a decade earlier. Still it wasn’t really until Averell Harriman became under-secretary for political affairs that we were able to turn the State Department around. Eventually the socialists entered the government, and nothing much changed one way or t’other.

You have often been called an American liberal. Is that with a capital ‘L’?

‘Liberal’ means something very different in Europe. In Italy the Liberal party is a rather conservative party, and through most of the Continent liberal is understood to mean Manchester laissez-faire nineteenth-century liberalism with an admixture of anticlericalism. In Britain the Liberal party has come to mean the party of good-hearted, somewhat eccentric people. American liberalism is really the liberalism which Lloyd George and Churchill embraced before the First World War and it could, I suppose, be called social liberalism rather than classic liberalism.

What it means essentially is the intervention of the government to enlarge opportunity for those who are poor or handicapped one way or another in life. It means the interventionist state, provision of basic levels of welfare and so on. It does not mean the command economy, or centralised planning. It’s Keynesian liberalism, the market working according to rules of the game with sufficient regulation in the public interest to prevent greed from undermining and subverting the system.

Reagan represented the reaction against all that, and greed took over in the United States in the 1980s. Greed brings out the worst impulses of capitalism. The solution in my view is to do what Roosevelt did: to rescue capitalism from the capitalists. If you’re going to have individual freedom, you have to have mixed ownership. Private property is essential for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of political opposition and the like. But capitalists don’t understand the virtues of their own system. If they have the money, they don’t have to have political power too. I believe those capitalist states are best that are run by people who are not over-impressed by the wisdom of the business community.

In 1959, you said that the biggest issue between Democrats and Republicans was the allocation of resources between the public and private sectors. What do you see as the biggest issue today?

The biggest issue is the role of government. The view of the Reagan administration was that government is not the solution; government is the problem; if only we could get government ‘off our backs’, then our problems would solve themselves; or the processes of the market would solve them.

I would say that is manifestly not the case. Getting government off our backs means putting business on our backs. Deregulation has largely been a disaster. One reason I was a little late for our interview is that I’ve been calling the telephone company to get the phone fixed. We used to have a regulated monopoly. If the phone didn’t work, they would send someone to fix it. Now the monopoly is broken up in the interests of deregulation, so you call one place and they say, ‘Well, we’re not responsible for that,’ and you have to call another place, a separate company, and so it goes on. The idea of deregulation was to bring competition into, say, the airlines. But competition did not last long. Where is Freddie Laker now? Where is People’s Airline in the United States now? Competition has resulted in much more consolidation than existed under regulation.

Deregulation produced the leveraged buy-out scandals, the savings and loans scandals, the housing scandals. Regulation in the public interest is a requirement in any advanced industrial society. So is a measure of government intervention to help the poor and the disadvantaged. Democrats stand for affirmative government as against the Republican faith in negative government.

It sometimes seems that the politician who is able to give the best performance on television wins the day. Is that a cynical view, or has the stature of presidents and politicians diminished?

Television has had considerable impact on politics, but more on the party structure than on the character of politicians. In the United States the theory was that, once television became dominant, all successful politicians would have to meet standards of histrionic skill and personal pulchritude. Ronald Reagan came along in apparent vindication of this view. But actually Ronald Reagan succeeded because the country was entering a conservative phase in the political cycle. He would have been as effective in the age of radio, as was Roosevelt, or in the age of newsreels, as was Warren G. Harding, or in the age of the penny press, as was Franklin Pierce. I don’t think he was a unique creation of television.

Indeed, he’s almost alone in meeting those anticipated standards. If you look at the rest of the people who have run for president in the television age since Kennedy, none has been any good on television. Lyndon Johnson was a disaster. So was Barry Goldwater in 1964. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were both disasters. George McGovern and Nixon; Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford; Carter again against Reagan; Mondale, Dukakis and Bush – none has been any good, except for Kennedy and Reagan. The television age, in short, has produced few politicians conspicuously good at television. I think that effect has been much overrated. Indeed, consider two people who were very effective on television, handsome, telegenic, well-spoken, and possessed in addition of substantial political records. One was John Lindsay, who used to be mayor of New York, the other was John Connolly of Texas. Both tried for the presidency, and in spite of the fact that they were much better on television than their opponents, they did very badly.

Where television has had a potent effect, however, is in weakening, enfeebling and perhaps eventually destroying the political parties. Television and the public opinion polls have deprived the political party of two of its most vital functions. In the old days, politics was a three-tiered operation. You had the politician, and you had the voter, and in between you had the party. The party would interpret the voters to the politician and the politician to the voter. The party was the great mediatorial agency. When the politician wanted to find out what public opinion was like in his constituency, he would ask the head of the local party organisation. When the voter wanted to know how to vote, he’d listen to the head of the party organisation.

The electronic era has ended all that. When the politician wants to know what public opinion is, he no longer calls up the political leader; he takes a poll. When the voter wants to find out who to vote for, he doesn’t listen to the local political leader; he watches the tiny screen and makes his own judgement on what he sees. The parties are left to wither on the vine. During elections there used to be bumper stickers, buttons, torchlight processions, parades, volunteers. None of that any more. It’s all done on television. I think the weakening of the party structure is a much more potent effect of television than any change in the character of candidates.

Many have the impression that people of great talent tend not to enter politics and that consequently our lives are ruled and shaped by, some would say, the best of the mediocre.

That assumption would certainly seem verified by the experience of the United States in the last eight or ten years, but it’s a chronic, not a permanent, condition. It’s a condition we’ve been through before, and I think that people who are turned off politics by the fact that it’s too rough or too inquisitive or too political probably wouldn’t be much good in government anyway. In a democracy, to be effective in governing you have to be effective in persuading. Democracy is government by consent, and I’m always sceptical when people say so-and-so would make a great president, but he won’t submit himself to the rough and tumble. Unless he submits himself to the rough and tumble, he’s not going to make a great president.

It’s not a new complaint. You can find it in Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, which was written a century ago. Bryce said that he kept hearing in America how a reckless and abusive press kept ‘the best people’ out of parties, but, ‘I could not learn the name of any able and high-minded man of whom it could be truly said that through this cause his gifts and virtues had been reserved for private life.’ It’s a recurrent theme, and perhaps it’s more an alibi than the real cause of abstention.

I’ve argued elsewhere that there’s cyclical rhythm in our politics. We alternate between periods of liberalism and periods of conservatism. The conservative periods generally tend to attract rather mediocre people. In this century, for example, the Reagan years, the 1980s, were a re-enactment of the Eisenhower 1950s, which were a re-enactment of the Harding/Coolidge/Hoover 1920s. In conservative periods personal gain is the dominant impulse. Similarly, at thirty-year intervals, you get periods when public purpose dominated: Theodore Roosevelt, ushering in the Progressive Era of 1901; thirty years after that, Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal; thirty years after that, Kennedy and the New Frontier. If the rhythm holds, the 1990s should be much more like the Progressive Era and the New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson years.

There’s nothing mystical about the thirty-year periodicity. Thirty years is the span of a generation. People tend to be formed politically by the ideals that prevail when they come of age politically. Those who grew up during the Progressive Era – young people like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman – carried forward thirty years later the ideas they absorbed when young. Similarly, young people who grew up when Roosevelt was setting the nation’s course – people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy – carried forward those ideals when this generation’s turn came thirty years later. In the same way, Kennedy touched and formed a generation. If the rhythm holds, the Kennedy generation’s time will come in the 1990s. Government is attractive when it’s innovative, when it tries to meet problems, when it’s idealistic. Then good people rush to join. When it’s run by a Warren G. Harding or a Reagan, you get crooks and hustlers.

Talking of Truman, was he a strong president?

Yes, he was a strong president, a man of good instincts – emphatic, more decisive probably in appearance than he was internally. He was a very attractive man, a lower-case democrat in the strongest sense. He had absolutely no front, no pretence, no pomposity. He could work with a large variety of people. He came out of the Middle West, had a limited education and so on, but from the start he was an avid reader, and he knew quite a lot of American history. He made some mistakes but he was a good man and a good president.

Was he right to remove General MacArthur when he did?

He was absolutely right. He should have done it some weeks earlier. I believe he was right, too, in the decision to drop the atomic bomb, terrible as that decision was. I believe he was wrong, however, to enter the Korean War without the Congressional authorisation he could have gotten.

But as a liberal would you, in his shoes, have dropped the atomic bomb?

Yes. I was in the army at that period. I was in Europe, facing redeployment to the Far East. Naturally I was grateful for the end of the war. But there are deeper reasons to accept Truman’s decision as a tragic necessity. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped, opposition to Japan’s leaving the war was so intense that there was an attempted coup against the emperor. A group of Japanese historians wrote a book a few years ago called The Longest Day describing the events of the day after the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. The emperor managed to get on radio and succeeded in quietening things down. There was always the prospect of fanatical resistance that would have resulted in the deaths of many Americans and many Japanese. God knows what would have happened to the poor British prisoners of war. I was in England once when the decision to drop the bomb was under attack, and the letter columns of the Times and Telegraph were filled with letters from men who had been in POW camps. They said that if the war hadn’t come to an end, they would have certainly died. It was a tragic decision to drop the bomb, but the Japanese should have thought more carefully before they bombed Pearl Harbour.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that America should speak quietly and carry a big stick. Did Kennedy subscribe to the idea of America as global policeman?

I wouldn’t say that Theodore Roosevelt implied that America should be a global policeman. He just said that in foreign policy you should be prepared for any contingency but shouldn’t go around provoking trouble. Roosevelt did occasionally employ the big stick, as when, fee example, he fomented a revolt in Panama in order to build the canal. But although he played an active role in the taking of the Philippines, he later regretted it and felt that in that case the United States was getting involved beyond its own vital interests. He wasn’t a globalist. But he was perfectly willing to use American power where he thought American vital interests were concerned.

Kennedy was definitely not a globalist. He had a very acute sense of the limitations of American power. In 1961 he said, ‘We-must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only 6 per cent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 per cent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.’ Wilson said we must make the world safe for democracy, and in a deliberate modification of that line, Kennedy in his American University speech in 1963 said we must make the world safe for diversity. That was his abiding view. He had no illusions about a pax Americana.

Kennedy’s great triumph was surely the Cuban Missile Crisis and there must have been tremendous pressure on him at the time. Was he surrounded by advisers, or did he really have to think it out for himself?

He listened carefully to conflicting advice. It was essentially an argument  between those, on the one side, like Dean Atcheson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who believed that the missile bases should be taken out by surprise attack, and those on the other, like his brother Robert Kennedy, McNamara, the secretary of defence, and George Ball in the State Department, who felt that the missiles should be negotiated out. There’s no question in my mind where Kennedy stood from the beginning, and that was that they should be negotiated out. In effect, that was what we did. We traded. It was not known at the time, but a deal was made by which we removed the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba.

To those on the outside it looked as if we were close to a third world war. How close were we?

Well, we all thought we were close at the time. In retrospect, I wouldn’t say we were. The United States had a vast superiority in nuclear striking power, and also vast local superiority in the Caribbean. Khrushchev, I dunk, was a gambler, but he wasn’t bent on suicide, and he had no intention of pushing the issue to the point of military conflict. The great danger, as Kennedy felt most keenly, was not that Khrushchev would go to war through deliberate decision, but that something would go badly wrong down the line – something, somebody, somewhere, some crazy general on one side or the other, an accident which the other side would misinterpret. That’s why he was so insistent throughout the crisis on maintaining very tight control of every ship in the blockade of Cuba and of every plane near the Soviet Union. One of the crises came when an American U-2 suddenly strayed over Soviet soil. That was completely wrong, and Kennedy was every much concerned that the Russians might misinterpret it. The fear of war was not a fear of a deliberate decision but a fear of an accident spinning events out of control.

Might Kennedy have actually ordered troops into Cuba if the Russians hadn’t backed down?

In the end he might have done. There were two messages that arrived from Khrushchev, one rather reasonable, the other much tougher. The first was far more personal, and it was Robert Kennedy’s suggestion that they ignore the second and respond to the first, which was what they did. Following that, Robert Kennedy was sent to see Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, and it was then that the question of the Turkish missiles was raised. Robert Kennedy said in effect, they will be out in six months, you have my private assurance, but this is a totally separate issue. If you ever publicly say a deal was made, we will repudiate it. The reason for that was that Turkey was in NATO, and certain people, including Harold Macmillan, were very concerned that a decision involving the security of a NATO country might be taken without consultation. The deal was not known for fifteen years. I found out about it in Robert Kennedy’s papers and wrote the first account in my book on him.

We now know further that Kennedy called in Dean Rusk and asked him, if this didn’t work, to prepare an appeal to U Thant asking the UN to take a more active role, which U Thant was prepared to do. Dean Rusk produced the document last year. Kennedy wanted to avoid military action except as a last resort. Had there been no other way to get rid of the missiles, Kennedy would have sent the troops in, but he was prepared to exhaust every other avenue.

Was Kennedy in any significant way different from presidents before him? Others had faced crises, but Kennedy had literally the prospect of Armageddon if he made too grave a mistake. Did he grow into that sort of authority or was it native to him?

He certainly grew in the presidency. On the other hand, I would say that among my contemporaries he was already the best qualified, the best equipped of those I knew, to be president. He had a combination of natural authority and natural detachment. He saw issues and saw himself with considerable objectivity, which is quite rare in politics. He felt very strongly the weight of responsibility created by the inventions of nuclear weapons. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both Kennedy and Khrushchev had looked down into the nuclear abyss, Kennedy cam? out absolutely determined to move as fast as he could toward some restraint in the nuclear arms race. His first objective was a test-ban treaty, and in this he was enormously encouraged by David Harleca. David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador in Washington, and by Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was very good on the dangers of a nuclear arms race, and Ormsby-Gore had been UK representative at the UN on disarmament commissions. He was very hot on that subject with Macmillan he fortified Kennedy’s determination to do something about it. Had Kennedy lived, I think he and Khrushchev would proceeded beyond the test-ban treaty much further down the road to détente.

How do you think the world would have been different had Kennedy not been assassinated?

Kennedy and Khrushchev would have pursued detente, and I think, too, that Khrushchev might have lasted longer. Castro thinks Kennedy helped to save Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly if Khrushchev had been able to show some results in the international realm, then it might have helped him a bit. However, Kennedy’s intention in his second term was to concentrate much more on domestic affairs. He felt he had to spend too much time on international matters where, as he said, there was a new crisis every week. I think he felt he hadn’t paid enough attention at home. He was much concerned about racial justice, about the war on poverty, about economic growth without inflation. The Great Society programme that Kennedy prepared and Johnson brought to enactment would have been the centrepiece of his second term.

Would you agree that President Kennedy was more popular abroad than he was in the United States?

No, he was popular in the United States, but I think probably there was less opposition to him abroad. A lot of people in the United States disliked him, as they had disliked Franklin Roosevelt. Conservatives, people in the business community, felt he was not their friend. Then his strong stance on civil rights and racial justice in 1963 turned a lot of people against him, especially in the South. But even at the nadir of his popularity, after the civil rights fight in the summer of 1963, he was only down to something like 60 per cent in the polls, which wasn’t bad.

After his death, it became fairly common knowledge that Kennedy had been something of a womanizer. Would it have affected his political status had it been known at the time?

I don’t know. I may say that, working in the White House, I was not aware of anything undue going on. If you went to the Kennedys’ for dinner, there were always pretty girls, but I’m all in favour of that. So, I understand, are you. But it wasn’t a conspicuous feature of the Kennedy administration. I think it is much exaggerated. No doubt things happened, but in that Kennedy was like Lloyd George, Martin Luther King, and other eminent political leaders. It seems to me we’ve got the whole thing out of proportion. Martin Luther King was indeed an incurable womanizer and notoriously unfaithful to his wife, yet he was also a fine man who did great things for his race, and great things for his nation. Pol Pot of Cambodia, on the other hand, was splendidly faithful to his wife, never looked at another woman, and all he did was to murder a million of his countrymen. I’m not sure that the adultery test is particularly relevant to statesmanship.

In Kennedy’s case, you say it was all common knowledge, but I don’t know how common common knowledge was. There had always been a lot of gossip about Kennedy, before the presidency, but during the presidency I don’t think there was so much. As for those around him

shielding him, I didn’t see much to shield. He worked very hard at the presidency.

There must surely have been a lot of nervousness about Jackie Kennedy. What would she have done had she known?

I’ve absolutely no idea.

In contrast with his brother, Robert Kennedy inspired perhaps as much hate as love. Why did lie produce those extreme reactions?

John Kennedy was a man of reason, Robert Kennedy a man of passion. John Kennedy looked at something, such as the treatment of the black minority, and he thought it was irrational for a society to act that way. Robert Kennedy thought it intolerable. They couldn’t have been closer, but they were quite different in this regard. John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a romantic, Robert Kennedy a romantic disguised as a realist. Robert Kennedy did the tough, the unpleasant things. During political campaigns, he would be his brother’s son of a bitch, tell people off, fire them and that sort of stuff, but he was in a way a far more vulnerable figure than his brother. John Kennedy gave a sense of invulnerability. He was a reserved man, always in control, always poised, always filled with imperturbable self-possession. You felt he was equal to any circumstance. John Kennedy liked his friends, but Robert Kennedy needed his friends. This vulnerability was one reason that so many people – in the press, for example – found him so attractive; that and his humour. He was very influential with his brother, but not infallibly so. Sometimes John would listen to Robert, and disagree and not do what Robert Kennedy thought he should.

At least one reviewer of your biography of Robert Kennedy – I think it was Anthony Howard in the Observer – talked of your transparent romanticism in your view of your subject.

It’s impossible to write with complete objectivity about anything. That’s why I made clear in the Foreword how I felt about Robert Kennedy, but subjectivity need not disqualify a biographer. You don’t have to hate the subject of your biography to write it.

Robert Kennedy became attorney general of the United States without ever having appeared in a state or federal court. Shouldn’t an attorney general have had more experience?

Many people felt that. The New York Times wrote a leader strongly criticizing the appointment, as did many other newspapers. Alexander Bickel, who was a distinguished professor of law at Yale, attacked the appointment. It was a risky appointment to have made. In fact it turned out very well, and by 1968 Bickel was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy for president. Robert Kennedy knew the problems. He surrounded himself with first-class people in the Department of Justice and is generally agreed to have been the best attorney general we’ve had since Francis Biddle in the Roosevelt administration. But there was great criticism at the start, and understandably so.

It is said that, had Robert Kennedy ever become president, he would have been a disaster because he was to tough, using very strong tactics and so on. Would you agree?

No. I think he would have been a very successful president. He combined the qualities of an idealist with those of a realist. In other words, he had that capacity which his brother had, which Roosevelt had, which Wilson had: to tap the latent idealism of the American people; and he did it very successfully. At the same time, he was an astute and practical politician, so that he could mobilize the means to attain his objectives. The liberal tide of the 1960s was still running strong and in 1968 Nixon was elected president almost accidentally. He got barely 40 per cent of the vote. Had Robert Kennedy lived, he would have been the Democratic candidate and I think he would have been elected. There was a third candidate in George Wallace, who got about 12 per cent of the vote. Many of those who voted for Wallace were white working-class people who probably would have voted for Robert Kennedy. As I say, the liberal tide was still running strong, so that many things such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and so on were produced by Congress even in the Nixon years. That tide would have enabled Robert Kennedy to move much farther along the path of reform. And by 1968, though a lot of people hated him, he was predominantly a very popular man. I think he would have become a very effective president.

You were a bitter critic of America’s policy of escalation in Vietnam and what you saw as America’s obsession with political victory. Do you believe the lessons have been adequately learned?

No, I do not think so. I cite the American enthusiasm for our glorious victories in Grenada and Panama as examples. Panama would seem to me to raise three issues. I do not believe that the United States should undertake unilateral military intervention in Latin America except in cases of extreme emergency. I do not believe that an American president should go to war without congressional consent, except in cases of extreme emergency. And I do not believe that super-powers should launch sneak attacks on small countries, except in cases of extreme emergency. Noriega was a thug and a squalid, vicious fellow, but he was not a threat to the national security of the United States and his regime did not create an extreme emergency. I regret that kind of intervention, even as I felt that the invasion of Grenada was unjustified. I believe that the long-term interests of the United States lie in the world of law – movement toward a world of law – and not m the United States imitating the old Soviet Union by becoming a law unto itself. What we did in Panama violates everything from the Rio Treaty to the Montevideo Convention and the UN Charter.

In one sense, though, we may have learned a lesson from Vietnam. We are no longer attacking people our own size. We attack countries like Grenada with no army, navy or air force. When Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour, FDR called it a date that will live in infamy. Why? Because it was a sneak attack. But at least the Japanese were picking on someone their own size. We launch sneak attacks against Grenada and Panama and Libya, and most Americans seem to

be proud of it. I would say there’s been something of a decline in American moral sensibility in recent years. Robert Kennedy opposed the sneak attack on Cuba during the missile crisis on the ground that it would be a Pearl Harbour in reverse. For 175 years, he said, we have not been that kind of nation. We seem to have become one in recent years, and I regret it.

Is America still trying to punish Vietnam?

No. I think it would be quite popular in the United States if we restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam. American Vietnam veterans have gone to Vietnam and had amiable meetings with their Vietnamese counterparts. Just as it turned out to be popular to restore relations with China, so it would turn out to be mildly popular to restore relations with Vietnam. I don’t understand – well, I do understand – why we’re not doing so. The reason is that the Chinese wouldn’t like it, and George Bush feels it very important not to alienate the Chinese. That is why he and previous administrations, beginning with Carter, have continued to give the Pol Pot government, the most vicious government of modern times, the Cambodian seat in the United Nations; why, to this day, we are seeming to support the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in the new Cambodian government, whereas the sensible thing would be to make a deal with prime minister Hun Sen and promote a government around aim. But the Chinese are opposed to that because of their traditional hatred of Vietnam. That, I believe, is why we have not restored relations with Vietnam, rather than any desire to punish.

One of the things that puzzles and depresses Europeans about American foreign policy is the treatment of Central and South America. No degree of violence or repression seems enough to cut off American aid. Priests are killed, nuns are raped and still money pours in. Or so it seems to the outside world.

Well, it puzzles many Americans too, I can say. At no point, according to the polls, did a majority of Americans favour aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. The majority has always been opposed to such aid. Nicaragua became a personal obsession for Reagan, and an inherited concern for Bush.

Why, if most Americans did not demand aggressive policies in Central America, were presidents able to pursue such policies? Bush’s obsession was Noriega of Panama. Presidents have power with Congress when they request something they claim as essential to the security of the United States. Congressmen, even though they may disagree with the request, often feel under pressure to vote affirmatively, on the ground that otherwise their opponents at the next election will call them soft on Communism, soft on the Sandinistas. Legislators permit themselves to be intimidated into going along with something of which they really disapprove.

The case of Noriega was more complicated because Noriega was a thug and involved in the drug trade. Even people like Senator Dodd of Connecticut, who has been very restrained on Central America and was himself in the Peace Corps there, knows the area and speaks excellent Spanish, supported the invasion of Panama. But why this obsession with tinhorn dictators like Noriega and Ortega? The population of Nicaragua is under three million, less than the population of Brooklyn. The notion that this country is a threat to the security of the United States is ridiculous. The Noriega intervention was very popular in Panama, but not elsewhere in Latin America, and I think Bush is going to have mend fences. Bush is a moderate man, and I hope he will take it easy in Latin America for a while.

Will it ever be possible to control the import of drugs into the United States, bearing in mind the trouble over quite a small-scale gangster like Noriega?

Getting rid of Noriega will have no effect on the drug problem in the United States. The drug problem is essentially a demand rather than a supply problem. As long as the demand exists, it will be supplied one way or another. If we were to cut off all the import of drugs, thee laboratories would spring up all over the United States to manufacture the drugs to meet demand.

Is the ‘special relationship’ that has been said to exist between Britain and the United States a fact or a myth today?

It’s a cultural fact, and it’s become a political myth, but the cultural reality remains. The common heritage means that Americans are going to feel closer to Britain than they are to anyone else. The Bush administration appears more inclined to regard Germany as its ally, and I take it that the Bush relationship with Mrs Thatcher isn’t as chummy as the-Reagan-Thatcher relationship. Actually the European statesman whom Bush seems to get” along best with personally is Mitterrand.

As for myself, my ties with Britain are long and strong. I first went: to England in 1934 when my father was giving a series of lectures at the University of London and I was sixteen years old. Then, in 1938-9 I spent a year at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where I met many people who remained close through the years, like Charles Wintour and Noel Annan, Eric Hobsbawm and Aubrey Eban. Then I was in London in the spring of ’44 and was there until November when I went on EC France. There I got to know Nye Bevan well. He was an enchanting man. After the war I met a lot of people among the young socialists in that period, so my political associations were mostly on the left. I gee

to know Hugh Gaitskell, and in the 1950s, of course, we became firm friends. Roy Jenkins, Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland – I knew all that generation of Labour people. In the 1960s my dear friend Pamela Berry exposed me to many Tories.

What about Macmillan? Historians now tend to say he was devious, a great actor who did nothing for Britain but who ruined the economy and so on.

I would have thought that Alistair Home’s two fine volumes would have done something to restore Macmillan’s reputation. I liked Macmillan very much. He was a great performer. The last time I saw him was when he came to New York, I think in 1981, shortly after Reagan became president. Jacqueline Onassis gave a small dinner for him and I said to him, making conversation before dinner, ‘Very odd, isn’t it, to have an actor, Ronald Reagan, as president of the United States?’ I was trying to think whether there had been many others in high politico office who were once actors. I said, ‘After all, Madame Mao Tse-tung was an actress, but I can’t think of any other actors.’ Macmillan looked at me and said: ‘Actors? Actors? Politicians are all actors. We’re all of us actors and Roosevelt and Churchill were the best actors of the lot.’ I liked him, I thought he was great fun. His instincts on several things were very good – on nuclear weapons, on colonial matters, on monetary questions. He was a monetary heretic. He believed in evolving some kind of international monetary system. And he was a Wet. I mean, he was no Thatcherite.

Mrs Thatcher has dominated the political scene in Britain for more than a decade now. How would you evaluate her?

I suppose she did do something to shake up the British economy, though it’s now in trouble again. I suppose her approach may have improved British competitiveness in world markets. She liberated the newspapers from the printers’ unions, which was a good thing. She appreciated Gorbachev quickly and she deserves credit for that, as does Reagan. A lot of the alleged Soviet experts and wiseacres were warning against Gorbachev, saying he was just trying to get the West to relax its guard.  Mrs Thatcher said early on that he was somebody the West could do business with, and she was right. I consider that she’s made Britain a colder, crueller nation and that it’s time for someone to come in and sand, to use George Bush’s phrase, for a kinder, gentler Britain. But die worst things she has done have been in the realm of freedom of information. The rewriting of the Official Secrets Act was a travesty.

Take one single example. It now appears that a group within MIS tried to drive Harold Wilson and his government, duly elected by the British people, out of power. David Leigh has written a book about the Wilson affair that makes the most serious charges you can make in a democracy: that a group of people in the Intelligence services tried to defeat and subvert the democratic process. If something like that had happened in the United States – if charges were made that a group within the FBI or the CIA had tried to overthrow an elected president – all hell would have broken loose. There would have been congressional investigations to see whether the charges were valid or not and so on. Roy Jenkins did try to get a parliamentary inquiry, but Mrs Thatcher quashed any hope of such an inquiry. Since you don’t enjoy the benefits of separation of power in Britain, Parliament could do nothing. Worse than that, the press showed little curiosity.

It seemed to me that you’d want to know in Britain whether an MI5 group had in fact done these things. Are these charges fantasy, or did they really do what David Leigh and the Spycatcher man – Peter Wright – said they did? I would think people would be interested in establishing the facts and, if those were the facts, to make sure nothing like it could ever happen again. But the British Parliament and press seemed to regard it all with total indifference. Mrs Thatcher succeeded in hushing the whole thing up, as she would have hushed up Watergate.

Under your system, you can hush up any kind of political scandal. She has fortified the British tendency to sweep everything under the rug and to make information hard to get. Obviously some things have to be kept secret, but, on the whole, most official secrets could be made public with no harm to anybody. You have to fight against a tendency to classify everything as secret, and if Mrs Thatcher has her way, no one, including Parliament, will know what the hell is going on in British government. That seems the most troubling aspect of her stewardship.

Not only from Mrs Thatcher but from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic we have heard a good deal about the need to restore the ideal of family unity as something essential to preserving the social fabric. Can such a movement succeed in modern times?

First, as an historian, I wonder whether the family was always as great an institution as it’s cracked up to be. People look back to the golden age of the unitary family of the nineteenth century when divorce was very difficult. But then you read about those families and the suffocating effects on the children, the paternal tyranny, the child abuse, even in a family as noted as that of Leslie Stephen. My impression is that the family has always been an ambiguous thing. It can be a source of strength; it can also be very crippling. Moreover, the family is bound to change in a society in which divorce is easy, birth control is easy. Abortion is easy. Bonds are not going to be maintained as long, and in some cases that’s bad. Other times maintaining bonds may artificially prolong a marriage that is dead, maybe crippling everyone involved. So it’s important not to sentimentalize or romanticize the historical family.

Still, the total collapse of the family is obviously a source of great trouble for society. We have it in the underclass in this country: families where there is no father and no stability. But, on the whole, restoring the ideal of family unity seems to me partly an exercise in fantasy because I don’t think the family ever played that marvellous stabilizing role which some think it once did.

From our side of the Atlantic, if often seems that American governments are excessively vulnerable to pressure groups like the gun lobby or the pro-Israel faction. Do pressures change with presidents or are they simply pressured relentlessly?

They’re pressured relentlessly, but they may or may not bend to the pressure. The National Rifle Association has had no effect on Democratic presidents, but it’s very powerful with Republican presidents. It has some effect on Democratic legislators, particularly in districts where a lot of hunting goes on. The Zionist lobby has impact on both parties, and it’s only recently that people have become willing even to describe die operations and pressures brought by the Zionist lobby. Pressure groups can distort our policies, as in the case of Israel. Support by the United States for Likud policies was disastrous for Israel and a disaster all around. Jewish Americans have, of course, been very generous contributors to political campaigns. It should be added that, as far as I can

see, the Jewish community in this country is not monolithic, and many Jewish Americans are very much opposed to blank-cheque support of right-wing governments in Israel.

There is nothing new about foreign pressure groups. The Irish lobby had great impact before the establishment of the Irish Free State, and resolutions for Irish independence were constantly being introduced and so on. We’re a polyglot nation – a nation of nations, as Walt Whitman said. That means that the Poles, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians and so on all constitute pressure groups of one sort or another. Black Americans, having long ignored Africa, have suddenly constituted themselves a pressure group for black Africa.

Pressure groups are a pain in the neck for a lot of presidents. But they have to deal with them one way or another.

If you were an adviser now in the Bush administration, what advice would you give the president with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

I’m not an expert on the Middle East. We don’t have much influence with either side, as far as I can see, and I’m not a great believer in meddling in the affairs of other countries. I don’t think we do it very well, I don’t think we have enough knowledge. We tend to become prisoners of our clients, as we did in Vietnam, and they manipulate us more than we manipulate them. Where our vital interests are involved, I’m all in favour of action to defend them, by force if necessary; but where our vital interests are not involved, I’d say let other countries solve their own problems.

America has had quite an unexpected and overwhelming triumph in the way Eastern Europe has begun to embrace democracy. What should happen next?

Once the exhilaration is over, these new governments in East Europe are going to face a lot of tough problems. It’s up to the Western governments to do everything they can to help them meet them. Mitterrand’s proposal of a development bank for Eastern Europe will take a couple of years before it can get started, and meantime the World Bank should be playing a more active role. I might add that policies should come just as much from Europe as from the United States. While I think that the United States is poverty-stricken in ideas, I’m somewhat dismayed that, except for the Mitterrand proposal, more good ideas haven’t come out of West European governments as to how to help Eastern Europe. The model of the Marshall Plan might well be used, and that, as you will recall, called upon the governments of Western Europe to get together and make their own proposals for economic development and the allocation of funds. Just as the governments of Western Europe met in Paris in the spring of 1948 to respond to the Marshall offer, so the governments of Eastern Europe might get together and present joint proposals for their own economic reconstruction.

By and large, I’m hopeful about Eastern Europe but troubled about the Soviet Union. It’s very important that Gorbachev survive. I suppose his strength lies in the fact that the people to his right are afraid that, if he goes, the whole thing will swing farther to the left, while the people on his left are afraid that it will swing farther to the right. Therefore neither has a strong interest in overthrowing him at this point. But events may overthrow him. I’m not sure that the changes he’s made are totally irreversible. Look what happened in China. I can see the army feeling it has to restore order, and then people coming to power who feel that Russia needs a heavy hand. A lot of the freedom of the press, the freedom of the theatre, the freedom of the movies, could easily be


With the prospect of German unification, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of Japan as an economic super-power, do you see American influence in the world as waning?

One certainly begins to wonder who won the last war. Japan is well on its way to attaining its Second World War objective of a Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere. A united Germany is poised to dominate Europe. All these things are troubling. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the year 2000, a united Germany were demanding revision of its eastern frontiers, an Anschluss with Austria, concessions to German-speaking minorities in neighbouring countries. The Allies may retain the legal capacity to impose a treaty, but I doubt that a united Germany, the most dynamic economy and most populous state west of Russia in Europe, is going to respect any limitations we try to impose regarding the inviolability of frontiers or rearmament or nuclear weapons.

I don’t suppose Germany or Japan will ever again become a military threat, because in the age of missiles they’re simply too vulnerable. But they do have dynamic economies, and they have extremely ominous, portentous, mystical, humourless, chauvinistic, nationalistic traditions. Both countries have new generations coming to power that feel no sense of responsibility for or guilt about the Second World War, and may well nurse a desire for vindication, even perhaps for revenge. Germany at least has had forty years of democratic experience and has produced democratic statesmen like Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt and Richard von Weizsacker and even, in his own way, Adenauer. Japan hasn’t produced anyone comparable. It’s been a one-party state, and a crooked and authoritarian one-party state at that.

German historians are beginning to say Hitler wasn’t so bad, that he was only imitating Stalin. Japanese historians are even worse. School text books so gloss over Japanese aggression and atrocity in the Second World War that they’ve provoked official protest from China. Japanese historians who try to write the truth are subject to official persecution. Both countries are filled with a kind of hyper-nationalism and the prospects are troubling.

Is the United States in decline? Not irrevocably. After all, remember that both Japan and Germany suffered from what Paul Kennedy called imperial over-stretch – that is to say, from taking on burdens beyond the capacity of the economy to discharge – and in addition suffered devastating military defeat. Yet they’ve come back. If the United States can pull itself together, it can come back too.

Might the trend towards disarmament in the Soviet Union mean that America would be perceived by some cynics as much the greater threat to world peace in the near future?

I doubt it. I mean, some people may like to say it, but I don’t think the United States will be seriously regarded as a threat to world peace.

You once said that there is no such thing as a correct perspective in history. What then do you see as the historical biographer’s primary function?

Tell the truth as best you can, as best you see it. The historian is constrained by facts, he has to respect facts, and then he arranges the acts. The mere act of selection involves interpretation, so you can’t escape interpretation, and interpretation cannot escape subjectivity. You try to do the best you can and make discounts for your own predilections. For the historian, the important thing is to reconstruct the past as much as possible in its own terms rather than in terms of the present. But you can’t escape the present, and that’s why every generation finds new issues in the past. American historians, for example, discover new pasts as a result of new concerns about racial justice or sexual equality. That’s why Benedetto Croce said all history is contemporary history, why Oscar Wilde said the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.

In your successful and varied career, which period do you feel you enjoyed most?

My career may be varied, but I don’t think of it as particularly successful. I regard it as a study in frustration. I always envied Malcolm Muggeridge’s title for his memoirs, Chronicles of Wasted Time. The part I enjoyed particularly, I suppose, was working with Kennedy, but I’m an historian and a writer, and my great frustration is that I’ve spent so little time doing that which I do best, and there’s been so much time wasted is various virtuous or entertaining projects. Sometimes I feel that my life

has been nibbled away by good causes. What I want to do is finish The Age of Roosevelt. I’d also like to write a novel. I suppose I’d best like to be remembered for my historical writing. I’ve enjoyed politics, politics is a great sport, but essentially I’m an historian.

Paul McGeough

Great news! Quartet’s Kill Khalid, by Paul McGeough, has been awarded the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2010.

When we published the book last year, it was hardly reviewed by the press on the mistaken assumption that to afford it any airing or credit was tantamount to giving Hamas undue publicity.

Apart from its important historical perspective, the book is factual and a fantastic read.

It is not too late to get your hands on a copy, as the book is still available from Quartet and remains topical to this day.

Derek Hill

Quartet Books published Derek Hill: An Appreciation, Grey Gowrie’s introductory essay on the artist, in 1987.

This summer, more than twenty years on, sees the publication of Derek Hill, Bruce Arnold’s definitive biography of, as Gowrie described, the best painter of Irish landscapes since Jack B. Yeats. The book is a fine portrait of a fine artist, and it is to be hoped that publication of this beautifully illustrated book will help gain Derek Hill the respect his oeuvre deserves.

Accordingly, I have reproduced Derek Hill’s appearance in my book, Singular Encounters. Derek died in 2000.

My father was quite well off. I don’t mean that he was a rich man, but my great-grandfather was the first person to have a steamship which cook coal from Newcastle to Southampton. The first time I remember painting – drawing, I should say – was at Sunday school. We were asked to draw the wheel of life with virtue at the top and vice at the bottom. Instead I drew a picture of the clergyman. I was smacked and sent home, but never had to go to Sunday school again.

I did, of course, paint at Marlborough. We had an art class run by a likeable old man called Colonel Hughes, who executed charming etchings and engravings. From the very beginning I wanted to be an artist and in this I was helped greatly by my elder brother John. He had been made to go into a cloth works at Lille in France, because my father owned Laverton & Tucker’s at Trowbridge, Somerset, where they made marvellous West of England cloth, and wanted him to follow in his footsteps. John was most unhappy and finally persuaded my father to let him leave, and after that my father took whatever he said seriously. So when John said, ‘Derek wants to paint,’ my father said, ‘Then for God’s sake let him.’ I must say my father was wonderful about that.

He and I were absolutely the antithesis of each other. He adored fishing, adored shooting. As a child, whenever there was a pheasant shoot, I used to have to carry off those poor wretched birds, still kicking and shaking. Having to do that was something I loathed, and is the reason why I have always hated shooting. My father was also a cricketer who used to play with W. G. Grace, was a great friend of Ranjitsinhji, the Indian cricketer, and captained Hampshire for fifteen years. He wanted me to love cricket as he did, but the game bored me to tears through being made to go out and practice it every evening of my life. In the end my father let me get away with it.

My time at Marlborough wasn’t bad at all. I was reasonably well treated. I was regarded as an aesthete because of my interest in the arts and writing, but I also happened to have an extremely nice housemaster of whom I was fond and whom I appreciated. It is true that there was appalling bullying at Marlborough in those days, but I managed to escape the worst. On the Sunday of the ‘new boys’ concert’, I happened to be taken out by my parents, which was a piece of luck since the ritual was to make you crawl along a very hot radiator on your knees while singing some such song as ‘Clementine’, When you reached the end you were tipped into a wastepaper basket with your behind up in the air and beaten by all the prefects. It was known as the ‘new boys’ initiation’.

Once my father understood that I wanted to paint, he said, ‘Well, if you are going to be a painter you must be a painter that makes money.’ I thought theatre design would be the option which most interested me and became, at first, a sort of apprentice to Oliver Messel, who did the sets for Helen and The Miracle and all those great Cochrane productions of my youth. Then some friends of the family suggested that Munich would be a good place to learn theatre design, and so it was, and I went there when I was just seventeen. We learned a great deal about contrasts – hot and cold, rough and smooth, high and low – and spent hours making contrasts on bits of paper. We’d have a bit of cotton wool, a bit of sacking, a bit of cotton, and then a bit of velvet, perhaps. It was part of the Bauhaus, of course.

I arrived in Germany in the same year that the Nazis came to power, but unlike young people today, we were still children at seventeen. We didn’t realise what Hitler signified any more than a lot of other people back in England. I never liked it because I hated the noise in the streets, the marching. I hated army things and was always a pacifist. What made me so was seeing the film of All Quiet on the Western Front when I was a boy. It so appalled me that I talked a lot about it with my uncle, who was a general, and later on, when I had my tribunal as a conscientious objector, he attended and vouched for me, and said that I had always had those feelings, that they weren’t just brought out because of the war.

I did once see Hitler in a teashop. It was May 1934 and my mother and an old aunt from Scotland were visiting me. They were less political than anyone you ever met, less even than I was then, but they both said how they’d like to see this famous man they’d heard so much about. Every Monday afternoon Hitler was known to stop for tea at the Carlton Teeraum in Munich on his way from Berchtesgaden to Berlin, and so I took them there. At about a quarter past five he duly appeared. I said, ‘I must telephone Unity Mitford and tell her.’ I’d known Unity before she went to Germany; her sister Pam lived near Marlborough, and I used to go out to see her when I was at school. Along came Unity in a taxi and said rather pathetically, ‘Derek, I shall never forget you after this. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.’ Until then she had only seen him in the distance, never close to. But apart from bringing Unity closer to Hitler, the most extraordinary thing about the occasion was my mother and aunt walking out of the teashop, giving the Nazi salute as they went. I was horrified. I never particularly liked moustaches on people and I merely thought Hitler a dull-looking little man. Yet almost until the war my mother still believed in him as a bulwark against communism, against vice in Europe and everything undesirable.

After Munich I went to Paris to learn stage design with Paul Colin, then the great affiche painter in France. He had a school to which Louis Jouvet used to come every week and talk to us about the theatre. I did drawings and in the mornings went occasionally to a school where Marie Laurencin taught. She was an adorable old creature, charming. I don’t think she taught me much, but I loved her and her personality.

Since I did want to draw really well, I went next to the Kunstgewerbe in Vienna. There we were trained by a wonderful method. You were given sheets of blank newsprint, brush and ink, and a model posed for five minutes only. You then had to do your drawing of the figure within the five minutes. The first hundred you just tore up as useless, but gradually your eye became trained because, as soon as you put ink on newsprint, it sinks in and you can never alter it. The method really did teach me how to draw and I’ve been grateful to it the whole of my life,

My professor in Vienna was the great Joseph Gregor, who wrote a book on Russian theatre and was famous in those days. He was one of the last librettists for Richard Strauss. Gregor was asked through the Burg Theatre for someone to design a production of the Agamemnon, and under his aegis I took on the commission. He oversaw everything I did, since I was still only eighteen or nineteen, but then the Nazis marched into Austria and the whole project collapsed. I never could understand why they objected to it. I did all the designs and still have a few of them.

When I was in Vienna I never thought of becoming a painter. After Vienna, when I went across Siberia, I drew and sketched, and later, when I was in Ball, I painted quite a lot of the dancers. But again, that was all concerned with theatre and dancing, and it was not until just before the war that I took to actual painting and went back to art school. The business of becoming an artist is the business of looking and seeing – seeing what one thinks is beautiful, whether it’s a personal reaction to a landscape or whatever.

It does now seem rather extraordinary how, at the age of nineteen, after experiencing Hitler’s Germany, I went on to live in Stalin’s Russia. I found the Soviet Union incredibly restricted, of course. Gregor sent me, saying, ‘I’ve nothing more to teach you. Go to Russia and I’ll give you a letter of introduction to Tairov,’ Tairov then being, with Meyerhold, one of the great men of Russian theatre. I stayed in what was called a hard-class hotel and for about six months attended rehearsals and performances. Tairov got me into anything I wanted to see in the theatre and I think I went to sixty productions. But, outside the theatre world, you never met anyone. George F. Kennan, later a leading authority in the West on Russia, was a secretary at the American Embassy, and he and his wife once gave a dinner for me to which they invited theatre people. Out of about twenty who were invited, ten answered, five accepted and one came. The one who came was Bulgakov, whose great play. The Days of the Turbins, was originally written in 1926 and later banned, but then had its ban lifted on Stalin’s intervention when Bulgakov wanted to emigrate. If you read the Shostakovich autobiography you’ll see that he and Bulgakov were almost the only people who could do no wrong, though they maybe had their knuckles rapped from time to time. It was astonishing how Bulgakov remained in favour, because within a year of my being in Moscow, nearly all those I had met there were banished, sent to the Gulags or murdered.

Again, I can’t say that I felt the tension of the dictatorship. Obviously people were not goingto talk about their secrets to a young English student who hardly spoke a word of Russian, but today, of course, we know that what went on was dreadful. Meyerhold’s wife was murdered in the most horrible way, and he was then sent to Siberia and disappeared. He had been the greatest producer of them all.

In Russia I just caught the last scene of what was really the most fantastic array of theatre – the gipsy theatre, the children’s theatre, the Vakhtangov theatre, the realist theatre, the Kamerny Jewish theatre, the Tairov theatre, the Stanislavsky theatre, and so on – the whole thing collapsing within a year. There were endless theatres with performances every night. You couldn’t say that every production was a success, but each one had a startlingly good idea behind its staging. Ballet and opera, on the other hand, were done in a very traditional way indeed. I saw Ulanova dance in her prime. She had been away ill for over a year, and this was the night of her come-back. It was unforgettable. She took about twenty curtain calls with Stalin sitting there in his box.

Travel was extremely difficult. I ran into formidable opposition when

I insisted on going to Novgorod. First they said there was no train, and when I discovered that there was one, they told me I couldn’t get on it unless I had a certain ticket. When I said, ‘All right, I’ll go by car,’ they said I couldn’t because it was too expensive. In the end I went to the station and bought my own ticket, and they said at once that they were delighted for me to go so long as I took a guide with me. Naturally I said yes. Being very interested in Byzantine architecture, I saw all the churches and the wonderful mosaics, the marvellous frescoes. I became fascinated by early Russian art and the icons of artists like Rublev. It was all very formal, very unbaroque, very unsensational in a way. Someone like Rublev transcended the formality and got such a marvel- Sous sense of feeling into even those Russian icon faces. Nobody’s ever done it as -well since. But it also appealed to me because you must remember, it was the period of Art Deco in Europe and Art Deco is a very formal style.

When I went on to Peking, the journeys to the country, to the Ming tombs, were wonderful. I rode out on a pony across a plain with nothing, not even a path, and there was the marvellous avenue of animals and stone gods that you went through. Now it’s just a highway. I would never want to go back. Peking was perfection then, an old Asian city. Now, I’m told, the walls have been pulled down and there are high-rise buildings.

Everything has changed so much. When I was first in Bali, I stayed in a little single-storey hotel – practically the only hotel in Bali. Now chore’s a Hilton and an Intercontinental. The beach I used to bathe on had one bungalow in which an American painter and his wife lived. Now there’s a row of high-rise hotels. I also went to live with a Balinese family in the mountains, a wonderful experience, but you couldn’t do it today. Similarly, I worked on a boat from Shanghai to Saigon as asteward, but that would be impossible now because of the unions. I never want to see those places again. Why should I?

I have often thought of writing a memoir of those times when I travelled across the whole of Russia and on to Burma, China, Japan, just before that entire world ended. The late Hamish Hamilton was constantly asking to do an autobiography. I sent him a few chapters, and he wrote back saying yes, it was getting on, but what they wanted was scandal. I said, ‘If that’s what you want, may I use your letter as an Introduction?’ That rather ended it.

I was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, though if you ask me what I would have done if we had got the same sort of totalitarian regime in Britain as I had seen in Germany in the 1930s, I would have to tell you that I don’t know. That was the question at my tribunal: if you saw your mother being attacked, would you be willing to defend her? My answer, of course, was yes, certainly, but I didn’t dunk it correct for a government to tell me to take the life of someone I’d never met or who might have been one of my Munich friends, or an Austrian friend from Vienna. I felt very strongly about it. To be sent out willy-nilly by a government was something I just could not agree EO, though I was determined to do something to help. Three or four nights a week I sat up on anti-aircraft watch in an old millhouse, but I felt that farming was much more my thing because of my love of the country. When I had my tribunal they said, ‘You must continue farming,’ so I farmed in Wiltshire, literally for the duration from the war’s first week. I loathed the idea of war. Was I right? Look at the outcome. Who are the richest countries in the world today? The vanquished.

I love the theatre, and still do, but I’m not a theatrical person. I’m very bad at coping with temperament on first nights. There was a lot of temperament on the first night of the Trovatore I did at Covent Garden, though that was not until after the war, in about 1949. My father had begged me not to do it. ‘Derek,’ he said, ‘you’re still too young for such an enormous proposition.’ There were three hundred or so costumes and six or seven sets and it all had to be finished within about four weeks. ‘Don’t,’ my father said, ‘you’ll be given another chance,’ but I didn’t take his advice and went ahead. It was a failure, as I realised.

Before the war, in 1937, I had designed the sets and costumes for a ballet for Freddie Ashton at Sadler’s Wells. That was charming and quite a success. It was called The Lord of Burleigh and was done in a sort of Pre-Raphaelite way with music by Mendelssohn. Ashton was one of the wittiest, most human, lively and endearing of characters. His imitations, which he did even in the theatre, were marvellous, though I could never claim to have known him extremely well because I wasn’t all that involved with the ballet world.

I also designed a play that had been an enormous success in Vienna. It was called The Melody That Got Lost, and in England it was certainly lost before it began. I never did anything else for the theatre. The seeds of my turning to painting and away from stage design were sown at an extraordinary meeting when I was in Paris. At an art school in London there had been a black model whom I once painted with a white towel over his shoulders. Lady Scarsdale happened to buy this painting, and it was seen by Edward Molyneux, who liked it so much that he asked whose work it was. Lady Scarsdale said, ‘Oh, it’s by a young English painter living in Paris.’ One day in Paris my studio doorbell rang and a man stood there who said, ‘You must wonder who I am. I’m Edward Molyneux, and I think you can paint. You must give up stage designing and take to painting. There are very few people who can do it, but you can. Every day my car takes me to the rue Royale to my business. Once it’s taken me, it will take you wherever you like in Paris and you can go there to paint for the day. Whenever a picture’s finished you can bring it to me, and I won’t criticise it, but you can compare it with mycollection.’ I knew Molyneux’s name because it was a name in Paris, like Schiaparelli or Chanel, and I’d worked for Schiaparelli; I even made masks for her in her shop.

Molyneux’s collection included Renoirs, Cézannes, Corots, Manets. It was one of the most beautifully chosen collections of Impressionist paintings ever. Much later he sold it to Paul Mellon’s sister, and now there’s an entire room in the National Gallery in Washington devoted to her collection. When I went to see it I nearly cried, because every picture was one that had taught me how to paint.

Both my mother and father died at the time when I was staying with Bernard Berenson at the Villa Tatti, and Berenson and Nicky Mariano became almost my substitute parents. I loved them both. Nicky was one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve ever met, one of the three great women in my life. Berenson himself I always found compassionate and generous. After all, I lived there more or less for five years, simply because he admired my painting and for no other reason. I stayed at his villa in the garden, for which I paid no rent. Naturally I paid the old couple who looked after me, and I paid my electricity and so on, but I was virtually his guest, and then Yehudi Menuhin followed after me. I only knew BB when, I suppose, he was eighty-four, and he died about ten years later at ninety-four. So he was at the end of his life and I can’t speak of him in his earlier years.

I certainly never detected any untruthfulness in him, even if he wasn’t always correct in his judgements. I’m absolutely convinced, though, that he would never have made an attribution falsely for the sake of gain. The whole story of his row with Duveen was because he refused to recognise the Allendale ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ as a Giorgioni. If he had done, Duveen could have clinched a deal with Mellon, who was anxious to possess a Giorgioni. The deal fell through, much to Duveen’s chagrin. Berenson had integrity, and while he did make a good bit out of attributions and opinions, hardly anyone before him had given such opinions on paintings. He created the list of pictures for a whole important period, and some attributions were right and some were wrong. If he sold a great picture to Mrs Gardner in Boston, say, then maybe she did slip him something privately for getting it for her. Maybe Duveen or whoever the dealer was did slip him something for putting business their way so that he made two commissions. But when all is said and done, look at how he used his gains. He formed one of the greatest art libraries in the world, used his money to buy great works of art and left Tatti and all it contained to Harvard University.

At the end of his life it became very touching because the thing he really loved was gazing at the Roman pines or the cypresses against the sunset. When we walked in his little garden, he would build a miniature dam across the stream before all at once letting out the water and saying, ‘Think how Leonardo would love to have been with us now.’ It wasn’t done as an affectation; it was quite genuine. His bitter complaint about other art historians was that of course they wished to date the birth of someone like Giovanni di Rimini or some other obscure painter, but none of them would ever want to pick up a piece of wood or stone simply because they enjoyed the feel of it or liked its shape.

The reason why I went to live in Ireland thirty years ago was that it simply happened that I saw the house in County Wexford and said, ‘That’s the house I’d like to live in.’ I like remote places, especially islands. Every year I still go to my little hut, ten feet by nine on the top of a cliff on Tory Island off the coast of Donegal – no electricity, no water, only a small gas ring. I have to carry every drop of water about half a mile in buckets every two days from the lighthouse.

I love solitude, and when I’m on Tory Island I can get up and paint when the sun gets up at about half-past five or even earlier. In the middle of the day I read, write, rest or go back to sleep for a bit, then paint again in the evenings. I’m totally happy there. I try to make it a rule to be alone several hours every day wherever I am. Certainly there are periods in the year when I want to be alone, as when I go to Tory Island or do one of my pilgrimages to Mount Athos. Essentially I am a loner, which is why I’m so seldom in London, but I am also gregarious in the sense that when I do come to London I like meeting my many friends to whom I’m devoted.

I see no end to the difficulties in Ireland at the moment. The whole agony is based on a myth that Southern Ireland wants Northern Ireland. If any politician in the Republic was given the North tomorrow, he’d put his head in a gas oven, because they haven’t the resources to govern it, pay for the National Health and all those things. The idea of Ireland for the Irish is perfectly understandable, especially if you’re a young man in the South with no job. You can be paid to be in the Provisional IRA and it provides a moment of glory and adventure. I understand it, but it has no practicality. I’ve never suffered personally. The Irish have been incredibly nice to me, and touch wood, I’ve never met any nastiness at all.

I knew Mountbatten in Ireland, but my links with him went right back to my childhood when I was about eight and my parents bought the Dower House at Romsey. Above it stood Broadlands, built by the first Lord Palmerston, and we could see its towers – very early Gothic revival – from our house in the valley. We lived there all the time I was growing up, and Mountbatten was always kind and friendly to me. Later on he helped with and came to my exhibitions. Once he decided he was going to help you, then the whole of that fantastic Mountbatten machinery would be turned on on your behalf.

I painted him later in Ireland, and it’s a picture I’m devoted to. I told him, ‘I’m not going to depict you as the great leader, I’m going to show you in a fisherman’s jersey, which is how I see you now in Donegal. If you want medals, you can get them and pin them on the picture yourself, because I won’t paint them. I’m going to paint you as a human being.’

Mountbatten was a very moving person, I found. He told me once that he had only had two great friends in his life, that they were both dead and there was only his family left. I think that was true. He was a lonely figure in a way, but proud of being part of the royal family, and that seemed to cover up a sort of inner anxiety he always felt which had started with his father, in the First World War, being attacked as a German. That affected him terribly. It was a motivating force behind his personality – to overcome that feeling of inferiority at the beginning of his life. Perhaps it was what made him the opposite later on, but I always found him human. He wasn’t someone who was interested in small talk, but he was in personalities. If he inspired hate as well as love, that was because he was such a success. I’m afraid it’s rather an English thing that when people get on top there’s a great wish to pull them down again.

Prince Charles I’ve painted twice, and he sometimes asks advice about his own paintings. I’ve painted with him twice as well, I think. He does watercolours while I do oils. I can’t do watercolours and I don’t think he would be so good at oils, but he is very good at watercolours. He gets the feeling of the place, and it gives him enormous pleasure, which is the chief thing. Obviously I don’t like every building that he likes or dislike everything he dislikes, but the great thing about him is that he cares about what he says and thinks. He minds terribly, and if one day he’s king, then he won’t be able to say these things any more.

When I first painted him he was nineteen. He came in one morning looking very cross and I asked, ‘Sir, what is it?’ He said, ‘I’ve just learned this morning that the people who make damask linen have destroyed the wooden blocks used to make it with. For a boy of nineteen in his world really to mind about such a thing was, I thought, extraordinary. I’ve never forgotten it. He doesn’t seem to fit into the normal pattern of royalty, and at the same time he has this extramural sense of caring and minding. He really does mind about forests in Brazil being burned, and you can often see his worried look and concern. That’s what I admire. Some may call it eccentric, but it wouldn’t be eccentric in anyone else. He just happens to be royal. He has also enjoyed himself in lots of ways, and now has become interested in the opinions of elderly people, like Laurens van der Post, whose portrait I painted for him.

A lot of people say I’m a society portrait painter, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I could never be that because I could never flatter. I’m sometimes asked why I do more men than women, and the main reason is because they’re heads of colleges, heads of businesses, clergymen or whatever. I’ve painted three prime ministers, a lot of bishops and maybe nine or ten OMs, all of them men. A portrait of a beautiful woman is much more likely to be intended to go over the fireplace in the drawing room, and that is something I’m less attuned to than painting men from the business world.

I’ve no idea how to flatter. I can paint charm in a woman, but there is almost always one problem in particular with women aged between forty and sixty. They don’t like having wrinkles, they want to be made to look absolutely their best as if they were ten or twenty years younger, and I don’t know how to do it. In America I was once asked to paint a lady of about sixty who was a much-loved grandmother. She had blue hair and was very good looking, but naturally she had wrinkles. I thought, I must put her against the light, then we won’t get so many wrinkles. Therefore I placed her in her conservatory with a green back- ground and the light behind her. After about two days I asked her if she would like to look and see how it was beginning. She said, ‘Derek, I think it’s just the saddest thing I ever saw.’ So I asked her, ‘What would you like it to look like?’ and she showed me a photograph of a friend sitting on some sort of sofa and got up like the Queen of Sheba waiting for Solomon in a pink-satin evening dress, covered in diamonds, bracelets and necklaces. I said, ‘If you gave me two million dollars I couldn’t do that. Let’s call it a day. I’ve done this sketch of you and there we are.’ I took it away and the cousin of the lady, with whom I was staying, kept it. Now it’s above the fireplace in the son’s house, and they absolutely adore it.

Freddie Ashton didn’t like the portrait he asked me to do of him, but later in life he said, ‘Oh, Derek, if only I’d bought that picture.’ Portraits can, of course, be so disliked that they get destroyed, but such acts seem to be motivated more often by vanity than spite. The Sutherland Churchill portrait was disapproved of, I thought, only by Lady Churchill, but apparently he didn’t like it either and that was why she had it done away with.

One portrait I did of a famous person, thought to have been destroyed because the sitter didn’t like it, was given to an art student so the frame shouldn’t be wasted. Obviously one does mind when something like that happens. On another occasion. Nancy Mitford helped in the process when she suggested that a head I did of an old lady in Paris ought to be burned, it was so unflattering. And burned it was. It was put into the fire one Christmas Day. I minded that very much because it was one of the strongest oil sketches of a figure – like a Goya – that I’d ever achieved. Nancy herself didn’t do the burning, but she treated the incident as a joke and couldn’t see I’d be hurt. She sent me a Christmas card with a match inside and ‘Love from Savonarola’ written in it.

There was, by contrast, the young Italian labourer whose mother cui up my portrait of him to patch his trousers because I’d used such good linen. I was riveted and fascinated by that story, completely bowled over by the total openness and honesty behind it. When I told old Berenson, he was flabbergasted and said, ‘Derek, it’s incredible to think, after what you’ve told me, that any pictures ever survived from the past.’

Properly helpful criticism can happen in the most unexpected ways. Someone who you think knows nothing about painting may look at a picture and say, ‘Yes, but shouldn’t the shadow go across that road? It would join up the two sides of the picture.’ It may be a thing you’d never notice yourself, but then you see it as absolutely right and alter it. Every picture worth its salt has an abstract base, the abstract quality being like the bones of a human body. On the bones you put the flesh; on the flesh you put the clothes; over the clothes you put the make-up. The fundamental bones at the bottom of a picture are what make it a success. I’ve recently done a big landscape from drawings of Mount Athos, and I still go on painting it because there are little things that I come to realise. The process can go on for ages. Very often I want to alter portraits years after I finished them.

I think of myself as equally a landscapist and a portraitist. I am interested in people, but as a bit of a loner I also love landscape and being in the country, though again, I do love the contrast between town and country. It’s like my Bauhaus education in Munich. What I mean is that if I went to a place like Deauville, which probably I wouldn’t, I’d like to stay in a very good hotel, but if I go to somewhere in the middle of Turkey to look at a mosque, I don’t mind if the sheets haven’t been changed since last season.

I see my work as a portrait painter as quick and immediate, hoping to catch the fleeting moment, though a reciprocal feeling with the sitter is just as important. With the fleeting moment, though, you have in a way to take in the norm as well. It’s like painting a cloud in a landscape. By the time you’ve painted the cloud, it’s no longer there. It’s the same with a mouth. The mouth gives expression to the face. Seamus Heaney, whom I painted recently, was very amused when I told him, ‘Your mouth isn’t a physical feature, it’s an expression.’ He wrote a little poem about it, which was charming of him. But the mouth is the thing that moves. You may protest, ‘But the eyes move too.’ Not to the same extent. The eyes, the nose, the chin are all more or less physical features, but the mouth is an expression. Therefore whenever someone says there’s something not quite right about the mouth, it’s because that person may never before have seen that particular fleeting second of an expression.

Every now and then you do get a block when you come to paint a particular individual and find you can’t, but I’ve sometimes managed to get over it. When I painted Christopher Hill, the Oxford historian and Master of Balliol, I went through torments for about three or four days. I felt I hadn’t got him, or into him, or anything. Suddenly it worked one day, and he said to me, smiling, ‘Oh, Derek, I’m so sorry because I loved the look of agony on your face.’

I never make a sitter talk. It’s the sitters who usually want to talk to me. I don’t instigate what they say, but I like them to talk and prefer them not to sit like dumb images. For that reason, I don’t approve of painting portraits from photographs. It’s too easy. I might take a photograph to get the way of their shoulders if they’re leaning against a certain piece of furniture, but I would never do a face or head from a photograph because, in my view, it takes two to make a portrait. When I painted you, I felt there was a fundamental attachment between us, as people and as human beings. That is something I have to feel with my sitters, the talking being a part of it.

Talking never diverts my concentration in the slightest. In Ireland I quite often give, not paid lessons in portrait painting, but lectures in Londonderry, that unhappy city; I feel I owe them something for the horrors they’ve been through. I speak to fifty or sixty people and paint a portrait of one of them, talking away the entire time as I demonstrate what I’m doing and why.

I’ve only once painted the portrait of an entirely silent figure: a character who was a sad young boy, a grandson of friends. He later, alas, committed suicide, and I won’t say who he was because it is still a torture for his family. But he was told to sit, he sat, and there was absolutely no reflection between us of any description. I thought the picture showed it, yet it is a portrait the family love and see as a part of him.

As for the distinction between painted portraits and photographs, it always seems to me that some of today’s photographers are great artists and I never know why people always want paintings rather than photographs. Photographs are, as such, often just as good. Even so – perhaps I’m very lucky – I feel that I do get closer to the subject in a painted portrait than most photographs would. I also think that the earliest photographs have perhaps never been bettered: those of Octavius Hill and others of his period. In the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh there are folios of Octavius Hill portrait photographs, and they are like the most marvellous monotypes, etchings or drawings – exquisitely beautiful works of art.

Of course, one of the problems for a portrait painter today is that people have less time to give to sit. For a member of the royal family, for instance, you are allowed about four sittings, and then the rest does have to be done from photographs. William Coldstream, a painter I much admire, sometimes used to hold sixty sittings before a sitter was even permitted to look at the portrait.

How indeed do you price a painting, with all these variables coming into play? You’ve hit on something very difficult. Normally I hardly ever sell my paintings. I even buy back my landscapes when they come up at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. When I do pictures of business people or heads of colleges, I charge what I think is a correct price, though if they’re great friends, I charge very little. I don’t think of it as a commercial proposition in any sense. I make enough, certainly, but I never accept a commission until a portrait’s finished. Afterwards, if it’s liked, it can be bought like any other picture. I never feel it’s fair that someone should commission a painting and then, if they don’t like it, have to pay the full price for it. That is wrong. If you go into a shop and don’t like something, you can change it. It wouldn’t please me to know that someone who had a portrait by me had put it in the loo, saying, ‘We can’t bear it but we had to buy it, it’s by Derek Hill.’

I would say that every picture by another artist that I’ve collected tells me something as a painter. I’ve collected things from Landseer oils to Picasso etchings – Picasso paintings, of course, I couldn’t afford. But for the first Landseer I bought I paid £20 or £25. One of my Landseer’s was a picture of a dead pheasant that I have since given to Ireland. There’s nothing I hate more than a dead pheasant in life, for reasons I have told you, but the quality of this Landseer was so extraordinary that it gave me something as quality of paint.

I’ve never collected anything because I thought it was fashionable. Nothing was less fashionable than Landseer when I bought mine. I also bought a little Henry Moore statue for £25 in the early 1940s, when he was hardly known. I happened to like it; it said something to me. Every picture I’ve bought has had to say something to me as a painter. There has to be something in the quality of the painting which perhaps touches my own work and is the reason I like it.

Brushwork is to me, as a painter, of the utmost importance – the actual quality of the paint. As in Frans Hals. The ‘handwriting’ of his brushwork on a piece of material, whether it’s a ruff, a sleeve or a shawl, is miraculous, as is the quality of his hands. Even the great Velazquez, whom I admire enormously, was inclined to hide hands with a fan or a piece of material, perhaps because he didn’t much relish painting them. But the hands of some painters – Signorelli’s certainly, and those of Frans Hals – are triumphs one never forgets.

The painters whose work I’ve most admired have been Piero della Francesca and Masaccio from the early years of painting, Rembrandt, and then, more recently, Corot, Cezanne and Manet. Seurat I admire enormously for the underlying abstract qualities in his work, and today I admire a lot of Picasso. In every period he produced one or more masterpieces. Perhaps a lot of water flowed in between, but he was a very great painter. Even old Berenson used to say Picasso was probably the greatest draughtsman since Raphael.

There can also be a certain -clumsiness in painting which is often extremely attractive. For instance, Roger Hilton, a painter whom Gray Gowrie so much admires, has a mass of clumsiness in his painting, yet Gray thinks he’s one of the greatest painters in England this century. I am not so sure, but I see what he means. When painters are too correct in everything, they can lose a lot of their mysterious technical quality.

I think of myself as a classical more than a romantic painter. I admired Cubist painting enormously, and that is very classical painting. The severity of the classical in art is something very important to me as a painter, whereas Claude – and this is not to decry Claude – means less to me. Among modem Italians I particularly admired Morandi, who had a sense of static beauty in his pictures. You may protest that he was a bore, that all he painted was bottles, but just look at those bottles. When I used to go and see him he would say, ‘Derek, these bottles are like a ballet. I make them dance and suddenly I say stop and then I paint them.’

I first heard about him because someone I knew during the war occasionally used to take out paints to him in Italy. Then, when I went to Berenson’s, I visited him in Bologna and we became friends. He was an enchanting man, like a monk, with a row of frightfully bad teeth. He had a charming smile and grin, and he led one of the most unworldly lives I’ve ever met with in a human being. His studio lay through his two sisters’ bedroom, and he hardly ever moved away from Bologna.

I’m not sure that he ever had been abroad, and he couldn’t have cared less about money. He let his dealer have his pictures for almost nothing, knowing full well that the dealer would make millions out of them eventually.

You ask me how I assess Francis Bacon. I think that Bacon does, sadly, epitomise what we go through in the world today. No other painter shows the underlying horror and haunted feeling of what goes on with drugs and crime. His early paintings were marvellous technically – the actual paint quality, the construction. I feel, though, that he has brilliant ideas for a picture, puts it on canvas rapidly – slashes it on – I don’t mean in a bad sense – but then very often doesn’t compose the rest of the picture so well.

Lucian Freud is another painter who is very able indeed, a great painter really. I especially like his early ones, done in a very Germanic, very precise style. Some of his more recent pictures are also frightfully good and have a truth to them. Truth in painting means a sort of fleeting moment of poetry, if that doesn’t sound pretentious. ‘Versuchen die Wahrheit,’ as they say in Germany, Truth is always being looked for in a way. No, unfortunately I wouldn’t consider that the truth you see in a Francis Bacon painting is any sort of exaggeration. Anything you see in a Bacon happens every day in every capital of the world.

Love can inspire an artist, yes, but if you are an artist you find beauty in anything – in any human being, male or female, in an animal, what- ever. So far as lust as a driving force goes, Caravaggio, for instance, was notorious for his loose behaviour. I don’t terribly like the man or his period, but he was one of the truly great artists of his day. I don’t myself fit into the carousing category. I’ve never liked drinking, I don’t enjoy debauchery, and now I’m too old for it anyway. When I was in Munich I used to enjoy going out occasionally, and I suppose I have enjoyed sowing a certain amount of wild oats, but it never impinged on my painting, which is the chief thing in my life. Perhaps it impinged too little and I don’t get nearly enough passion into my pictures. Perhaps they are too static. I’ve probably missed out on something. Perhaps I’m a frigid character and that’s why I like this abstraction at the base of my paintings.

The reason why men in general so often prefer to be with other men is probably an extension of the public school thing. It’s not necessarily in the slightest bit sexual. The public schools are in a way forerunners of men’s clubs. I use a man’s club – the club I belong to in Ireland – simply to get away. It’s like a sort of banishment for a bit, but personally I love the company of women. I find them extremely attractive – I’m not talking here of pretty scatter-brained blondes – and I’m fond of them and feel that I’m very often stimulated by them. Many of my greatest friends have been women. The three great women in my lift- have been Nicky Mariano, who was like a second mother to me, Kathleen Ferrier, the singer, and above all Evie Hone, the stained-glass artist. I was also devoted to the writers Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann and others.

The fact that I never married was not a conscious decision at all. It simply never happened. When my much-loved old aunt was dying and I went to see her, she said, ‘Derek, will you promise me one thing?’ I said, ‘Yes. What?’ She said, ‘That you’ll never marry.’ When I asked her, ‘Why, why?’ she replied, ‘Because you’d be such hell to live with.’

There were three people I would love to have married, two of whom are still alive. One I wanted to marry, but I don’t think she wanted to marry me. She married one of my best friends, who wrote and asked would I mind if he married her. Naturally I couldn’t say, ‘Yes, I would mind,’ because that would have been horrid. Another was a great friend, but she would have been impossible to marry because she loathed anything to do with the house or housework. She was an artist and a very remarkable one. The third, I’m afraid, I simply missed.

It’s probably true to say that, if I had really ever been down and out and had needed to earn my living as an artist purely, then I might have been a much better painter. On the other hand, perhaps it’s selfish of me, but I do think that a painter must paint for himself before he paints for anyone else, for the public or whoever. It has been a privilege for me to be able to do that, but privilege is for me a very interesting subject.

When I was seventeen or eighteen I attended one of the great operatic productions in the whole of this century: Toscanini’s Falstaff, in Salzburg. I realised then that it was a privilege to be there, and that privilege isn’t to do with class, grandeur or snobbishness. Privilege is something like hearing Backhaus play a Beethoven concerto or Callas sing in Traviata, or being allowed to spend the night, as I once was, in the Taj Mahal, and to see that incredible building at sunset, during the night

with the moon, and at sunrise in the morning. I have had a very privileged life from that point of view. Not in a worldly sense at all but just having the incredible luck to have seen and heard so many extraordinary moments, like Pavlova dancing or Melba singing, as I did when I was a child. That is what I call privilege.

As I get older I feel that I get less religious in the sense that the external things of religion matter less to me, whereas the internal things which have nothing to do with such forms of outward show as going to church, matter more. Emily Dickinson once wrote a very beautiful thing: a letter to a friend who had lost both her sons. Never forget, she said, that we below can never be alone again with the thronged heaven above us. I always thought that such a beautiful remark and it has something in it. I feel that the people I’ve lost whom I loved in life are there, looking after me in an odd sort of way. I can’t explain it. How can one explain these things?

If I were ever to be banished to Siberia, and they said I could take just one of the world’s great paintings with me, I think it would probably be Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. It shows a figure of great majesty rising out of a tomb into another world – a vision of ethereal sensitivity.

To buy Derek Hill: An Appreciation and Derek Hill, click here and here.

An Angelic Voice from the Mountains of Lebanon

Music can speak to us more deeply than words, and at its purist the human voice can be touched with the divine.

These thoughts came to me recently when I unexpectedly stumbled on a melodic talent that comes straight from the mountains of Lebanon. It takes the form of a beautiful lady who has stunning long hair, but whose voice, as shown in her repertoire of song, possesses a rare resonance and a devastating effect in its evocation of love and sensuality in the refined area of the poetic dimension.

Her name is Lydia Canaan. Her mountainous provenance has nurtured her talent in unique ways, giving her a natural quality that captivates and enthrals in equal measure. She sings proficiently in English, as well as in Arabic, her native tongue.

This diversity of language and culture leaves her musical dexterity beyond all doubt. She is a talent to follow and cherish in a world where individual creativity is so often ignored, crushed and lost in the mêlée of the media obsession with the celebrity cult. Lydia Canaan has too much to give for her gifts to be stifled by these banal forces.

Consequently, let lovers of musical art everywhere take heed and, as I have done, seek out Lydia and hear her voice in its subtle beauty. Then they, too, can spread the word that there is an angel with a heavenly voice waiting in the wings to give inner meaning to their lives, capable of transporting them into those exalted regions where love expressed in music reigns supreme.

Take it from me. I  should know. I have been there.

John Kenneth Galbraith

With the recession now in full swing, and the prospects for the next few years looking rather glum, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, being the much-discussed international economist in his time, is worth an insight.

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

As a child, who influenced you most in your life?

I suppose I was most influenced by my father, who was a public figure of strong local importance in Ontario, and very much concerned with local well-being – an official of the township, official of the county, ran a co-operative insurance company, and considered himself responsible for everything that happened in the neighbourhood.

Did you ever consciously feel that you were going to make a great success of your life?

I took it one step at a time.

But you were always ambitious?

Many people think unfortunately so.

You are always referred to as a liberal. What does the term imply in American politics?

The word ‘liberal’ has a different meaning in the United States from that which it has in Britain or indeed Europe. There it has the connotation of the liberal preoccupation with free markets, freedom of speech and, to some extent, the limited role of the state. In the United States, the word ‘liberal’ recognises the need for a large, compassionate and stabilising role by government, protection of the individual from the hazards of life, including those of the work place, support to trade unions and a more generally supportive attitude towards those who suffer from personal misfortune. I suppose that the nearest counterpart in European terminology is ‘social democratic’, with a very large emphasis on the liberty of the citizen.

American political attitudes are often puzzling to Europeans, especially in relation to socialism. Does the word have very different connotations for Americans?

I think this is true. The word ‘socialism’ in Europe refers to the mixed economy, in which there is a substantial but by no means total rule by the state, and where the implication is benign. But out of long-established practice in the United States, socialism has been given a much more adverse connotation, so that some of my fellow liberals unquestionably back off from the risk of being called socialists.

I have the impression that you see yourself and your career as primarily one of economist and writer rather than of diplomat.

I regarded the diplomatic part of my life very much as a departure from the norm, and in some measure as an enjoyment. I had become interested, I think I can say fascinated, by India, as did so many others in the 1950s, and when John F. Kennedy asked me to go to India as his ambassador, I was greatly attracted by the idea of learning more of the culture and civilisation, and of contributing something to better relations between the United States and India – taking that issue away from the professional Cold War warriors for a while. But I certainly never regarded diplomacy as more than a temporary career, or perhaps, as some people would prefer to have me say, a temporary aberration. Basically I consider myself a professional writer, yes.

When you were ambassador to India it was said of you by Krishna Menon that you behaved rather like a British resident during the Raj, guiding and influencing.

I think it fair to say that Krishna Menon’s views on this, as on so many matters, are to be taken with a grain of salt. I certainly didn’t see myself in the tradition of a British mandarin. There was nothing I tried more to avoid, but I did have sharp differences with Krishna Menon over his repeated attacks on the United States, and we came to a serious parting of the ways at the time of that quite useless war in the Himalayas when Krishna was defence minister. It was impossible for me to rally support in Washington as long as Krishna was defence minister, and I think he attributed his departure from that post in some measure to me, rightly or wrongly. So perhaps he had some reason to be a little prejudiced. I made it clear to the Indian government that his presence as defence minister was a formidable problem in our coming to India’s assistance.

Since you ask, it was not part of my policy to have a high profile in India, but I think it fair to say that I have only a limited talent for anonymity and that at that time the United States was a source of very large assistance to India. I was instructed by President Kennedy, to my delight, to spend a good deal of time out of New Delhi, making the acquaintance of Indian leaders and the Indian scene. I was a close political and personal friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, which served to keep me in the public eye. That was something, I have to tell you, I didn’t entirely avoid. John F. Kennedy considered the relationship with India very important, and one must remember that India and Nehru were the voice of the so-called unaligned world; and I shared with Kennedy a desire to have the friendship and respect of those countries.

As for any influence that I may have had with Kennedy, I think everyone should avoid exaggerating such influence. President Truman once said of the great financier, Bernard Baruch, ‘I don’t see why he describes himself as an adviser to presidents. Doesn’t he know that all presidents have more advice than they can use?’ On the other hand, Kennedy made it clear that he enjoyed my letters and my telegrams and was pleased at the annoyance they caused some of the drearier and more orthodox members of his administration.

You advised Kennedy not to become involved militarily in Vietnam – advice he did not act on.

Well, I have to go back a bit. I have always thought that Kennedy had grave doubts about Vietnam, but he was under severe pressure at that time from the conservative establishment, the military and, I regret to say, some of my liberal friends, to show he was a man of muscle and vigour in the defence of what were conceived to be American interests. I talked to him about the problems we were going to face there – that we were replacing the French as another colonial power, that we were associated with remarkably unpopular and incompetent politicians – and right up until the time of his death I found him sympathetic and, on more than one occasion, anxious to have my views and also to urge my recommendations.

In asking whether the world might have been different had Kennedy not been assassinated, you are framing a question that invites speculation. On domestic matters, including civil rights and the war on poverty, which I greatly supported, I don’t think Kennedy would have done more than, and perhaps not as much as, Lyndon Johnson. We should not for a moment minimise the important steps that Lyndon Johnson took to make the United States, and especially its race relations, more compassionate and civilised. So the question turns on what Kennedy would have done in Indo-China.

It is my feeling that, at the time of his death – and this is based on many conversations – Kennedy was resistant to the idea of any full military involvement there, although, needless to say, a great many advisers had been sent. But one has to add that, if you had pressed Lyndon Johnson at the same time, he would have expressed the same reluctance. So the question is really one that cannot be answered: could Kennedy have stood against the forces that were pressing the domino theory and the notion we had to stand firm?

Why wouldn’t Kennedy have fared as well as Johnson on the domestic front?

The difference was that Johnson, in his relations with Congress, always used slightly more power than he had, and while Kennedy’s intentions were the same, he always used slightly less power than he had. It was partly the produce of personality, but also of Johnson’s greater experience and authority on Capitol Hill.

But wasn’t Johnson much more ruthless?

That’s perhaps another way of putting it.

You have never suffered fools gladly, and seem to have taken a consistently abrasive line with the State Department. Did you feel this was how bureaucracies needed to be treated?

I did not believe that in pressing the case against the conventional Cold War warriors, and those who were oriented to military solutions, a conciliatory voice would have been very useful, and I think I would have to add that, on the whole, I enjoyed the power – the effect of what I saw as the harsh truth. People in a bureaucracy do not get annoyed by error. They get annoyed by what they don’t want to hear. And one should never minimise the pleasure in causing that annoyance. I never thought it necessary to avoid controversy. On the whole I enjoyed it, especially if it was with people who needed to be corrected, and at that time I was in conflict with the leadership of the State Department over matters about which, I’m happy to say, history has been rather kinder to me than it has to them.

You once said: ‘Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.’

That’s what I really believe. If a public question is between what is obviously right and popular and what is obviously wrong and unpopular, no political problem is involved. A political problem only arises when you have a choice between a wrong course of action and a right course of action that is difficult and which provokes adverse comment and action.

In 1971 you said that only an intolerable level of unemployment could arrest the inflationary process. Twenty years on, do you still hold to that view?

No, I think not. I think we have now learned that we can have a substantially lower level of unemployment than was once imagined without inflation. I then felt that only a very high level of unemployment would arrest the interaction of wages and prices: trade union pressure pushing up wages with a compensating increase in prices and a self-generating cycle of that sort. The pressure of that cycle is much diminished for two reasons: the movement of some of our heavy manufacturing, where unions were strongest and where employee power was greatest, from the United States to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and other countries sad the general weakening of the trade union movement. In these last Tears, trade unions, more often than pressing for increased wages, have had to make concessions in order to keep their employers in business. This is a very great difference.

I still believe that one can come closer to full employment and a good and healthy rate of growth by having a prices and incomes policy in the central core of the economy, but I don’t regard it now as being as absolutely essential as I once thought, for the reasons I mentioned. Prices are now much more restrained by international competition, and wage claims are much more restrained by the weakness of the employees in the traditionally highly organised industries. To be specific, the United Automobile workers recognise that in making wage claims there are limits to the pressure they can bring to bear on automobile manufacturers if the automobile manufacturers are not to suffer a loss of production to the Japanese.

I wouldn’t describe the trade union movement as becoming more responsible but as becoming weaker, because of circumstances. A strong trade union movement requires strong corporations and strong employers. Employers have been weakened by the rise of external competition.

But we do now seem willing to live with levels of unemployment which, a decade ago, would have seemed impossible and scandalous. Have we become accustomed to indifference?

No. The question itself has to be revised. We have not had, these last years, high levels of unemployment in the United States. Our problem has rather been the movement of people from high-wage to low-wage employment. It is true that, in Britain and Western Europe, where there’s greater rigidity in the employment structures, unemployment is more of a problem. But I still continue to think that it’s a mark of a civilised society that anyone who wants a job with a good income should have it.

In the early 1970s, you were not among those who were anxious to see Britain incorporated into the Common Market, but now, on the brink of 1992, full integration with Europe surely becomes impossible to oppose.

It’s true that I never made a career out of advocating British membership of the Common Market, although, on balance, I would be in favour of it. But now, with the changes in Western and Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany, I think there is an urgent need for European unity and the quieting of old nationalist attitudes. Having said that, I don’t believe that 1992 is going to be quite as dramatic in the changes it brings as some of the talk makes out it will be. There will still be different budgets, different fiscal policies, different tax systems, all of that making European monetary unity questionable. National governments will still be stronger than the non-government in Brussels, so that people will look back after 1992 and think there was more talk and less change than might have been imagined.

Yet most leading Europeans, with the exception of Mrs Thatcher, want a strong federation.

That is right, but the emphasis will be on the federal character rather than on complete unity. It’s possible in the long term, but I think that 1992 is only a step in that direction. One must always remember that economics and politics regularly substitute words for deeds, and this may well be true of 1992, especially in foreign trade matters. We are always talking about great changes in prospect, and when we look back we always find it very much less of a change than we expected. I have often noted that, while great importance is attached to the EEC, and rightly so, three countries that remained outside, namely Austria, Switzerland and Sweden, have been perhaps the most successful of the post-war economies. The reason for that is that we may exaggerate the rewards of reunification and minimise the rewards of wise and sensible administration by the individual country.

It is true that Spain is bubbling, but I wouldn’t attribute all of that to Spain’s membership of the EEC. Perhaps Spain was awaiting a renaissance.

A great many people in Europe look upon German unity as a mixed blessing, believing they have good reason to feel nervous about a newly powerful German state.

When one looks back over the history of German politics and economics in the past forty-five years, it has been very civilised, very successful, and a good manifestation of intelligent social democracy. I see no reason for recreating the fears of a half century ago. The steps toward the unification of Europe, in which I hope Eastern Europe will come to play a part, make for certainty in this regard. Having said that, I hope that the Germans will treat with proper contempt, even alarm, those who talk, for example, about adjusting the eastern boundary with Poland.

Yet seven years after the Berlin Wall was built, you said that the Wall was a very good thing, and that at least it had preserved the peace.

l don’t recall saying that. I will not take responsibility for casual comments of an earlier time. I was very glad to see the Wall go. It was, as are all such things, an insult to civilised manners.

Wouldn’t a powerful economy from Britain to the Urals have serious repercussions for the United States?

That is a long-run prospect where speculation serves no useful purpose. I would like to see a strong federated economy going from Ireland to die Urals and beyond. I think that would be an assurance of peace and tranquillity and I can’t think it would be bad for the United States.

But the United States has economic problems.

Oh, no question. There has been a strong tendency in Washington, and in the American economy and American economic practice generally, to substitute short-run comfort for long-run solutions. We have run a large deficit in our domestic budget when we could have had lower interest rates and more productive investment. After the war, our corporations developed a certain self-satisfaction and a bureaucratic sclerosis, and they have been further damaged by the merger and takeover mania which has substituted heavy burdens of debt for equity; and this EOO has been damaging to investments and new processes. All of these problems have been coupled with large and, in many respects, unnecessary military expenditure which has kept a very large part of our stock of capital and a very large proportion of our needed civilian talent in sterile war production. One of the great advantages that the Germans and the Japanese have had since the Second World War was in using their resources for the improvement of their civilian industry. We have learned that those who lose a war can win the peace.

I wouldn’t blame the Japanese for a moment for their market dominance. We should blame ourselves. We have handicapped our industry by unwise fiscal policy, unwise interest policy, the damaging effects of financial manipulation, and the undue commitment of our resources to the Pentagon. Those are the matters which have given the Japanese their advantage. Admittedly, for cultural, linguistic and other reasons, the Japanese market is not easy to penetrate, but I would attribute less to Japanese protection than I would to the lack of initiative of our own enterprises.

If you were suddenly given the reins of the US economy, how would you cure its ills?

The likelihood of my being given a free hand I think is distinctly questionable, but I would move strongly to reduce our military expenditure. I would use the proceeds from that to strengthen our internal educational system, improve our roads and, particularly, improve life in the central cities; and also to provide loans to ease the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. And I wouldn’t hesitate, if the proceeds from the reduction in military expenditure were insufficient for the purpose, to raise taxes. We live in a world of affluent and even frivolous private expenditure, but as regards public expenditure, there is a very great need.

The fear of raising taxes is a matter of political error. Power has passed to the people who are conservative and comfortable and who are able to do without the public services which are so important to those in our central dries and to the poor. This is one of the great misfortunes of our time. Maybe we’re passing out of that stage, but it’s slow progress. Meantime, when an urgent problem arises, our president, nor wanting to spend money, makes another speech.

The populations of emergent nations and those of the former Eastern block naturally want the things that America and Western Europe already have, but is it actually possible to spread the same standard of living everywhere?

I would like to see greatly improved food, clothing and the basic pleasures of life in the Third World countries, and I think much can be done to that end. Some thirty years ago, I started the first teaching in economic development here at Harvard, which could have been among the first in the United States. There has been great disappointment for me as I’ve watched this problem since that time, the greatest disappointments being in Africa. But in some other parts of the world there has been great progress. So we mustn’t be entirely without hope. I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic about the future, because I feel very depressed about Africa, but, on the other hand, there is no question that India, Pakistan and also China, while so much remains to be done, are a more hopeful prospect than they were when I first knew those countries.

I wrote some thirty years ago in The Affluent Society that we must balance the consequences of consumption against its effects on the environment. And this is something that I still believe. On the other hand, I would like to see the rewards of higher consumption extended to the masses of people in the world who still don’t have enough to eat and wear and lack even the minimal enjoyments which we so appreciate. That is a very difficult problem. One only has to have experience in India sad elsewhere in the Third World to realise what a difficult problem it is. But again some progress has been made. When I went to India, only large imports of grain from the United States kept that country from starvation. Since I left India, the population has doubled, yet India has more than the capacity to feed itself. So we mustn’t be without hope.

Do you believe that we should be more dependent on government than on private enterprise?

Absolutely. One of the things that has weakened our standard of living in the United States in recent times has been the assumption that private enterprise is somehow the answer to all that can be done. This has been a way of evading responsibility and protecting the income of the affluent from taxes.

I remember you arguing that, if the market was really market led, there would be more houses and fewer television sets. I can see that up to a point, but is there not a sort of human inevitability about wanting, if you can’t afford a house, a television set you can afford?

Oh, this is a very subjective matter. What I said was that capitalism provides television sets more easily than it provides houses, and that a homeless person in our time would find society much more compassionate and companionable if he had a house rather than a television set. The market economy does not meet the needs of people in that regard.

You once spoke of the way you thought Britain was ‘living out the concern for some more leisurely relationship with industrial life’. Can that ever be possible for any nation in the future?

I would like to see an industrial, economic life where there was a more rational choice between work and leisure. We’ve moved some distance in that direction over the last fifty or seventy-five years, but I still think that universities, where leisure and academic freedom are considered to be interchangeable, are a model for economic life in general. Somebody that has to work on an assembly line should have a choice between the money he or she earns and the leisure he or she would like to have. Maybe we should have more opportunity for paid vacations, and paid sabbatical leave for people who have to do heavy manual labour. We consider both of those very desirable things for college professors.

What view do you take of Mrs Thatcher and the Britain she has created during the last ten years?

I am not a supporter of Mrs Thatcher. She has allied herself with the privileged community other country, as did her friend, Ronald Reagan, in the United States, to the distinct disadvantage of the less fortunate and with damage to the social contract which had previously given the impression, at least, that everybody had an equal chance.

But in the United States she is considered to be the Iron Lady.

Not by me. I think Mrs Thatcher might now have even more difficulty’ in getting elected in the United States than at home. I cannot imagine that her poll-tax system would be peacefully accepted here in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Do you think Britain will come out of its economic problems?

We have built into the capitalist system a resilience that is greater than we sometimes imagine, so that while performance is not perfect, I have hopes, and indeed some conviction, that we will avoid the kind of disaster that we experienced in the 1930s or that Britain experienced in the 1920s.

You have long drawn the contrast between ‘private affluence’ and ‘public squalor’. Do you see any evidence of the gulf narrowing?

No. I would say, for example in American cities, it’s grown worse. We have a worsening disparity between the quality of our private existence and the quality and the needs of our public life. It’s been related both in Britain and the United States to public policies that favour the affluent (including, in our case, the very rich) and penalise the services to the poor. If you’re very rich, you can send your children to a private school, have your own library, and maybe your own policeman on the door. If you’re middle class or poor, you need those services to be provided for you. We have had, in these last years in the United States, a preferential treatment for the very rich, including those who do not need the public services.

Liberal attitudes so often look like luxuries. Doesn’t it become too easy to take the liberal view about racialism in, say, South Africa, provided one lives in Massachusetts?

No, I don’t think so for a moment. I quite agree that it’s easier to lecture people about their behaviour if they are at some distance, but any good liberal, and I think this is true of most of my liberal friends, is most concerned with problems that are close to home. And I would like to think that is so in my own case.

You have been an advocate of civilised politics, but what hope of civilised cities is there between, say, the Palestinians and the Israelis, or the Iranians sad the Iraqis?

There’s no question that religious and ethnic passion are the enemies of civilised coexistence, but I certainly don’t think we should give up hope. Somebody coming to the United States fifty years ago would have been equally pessimistic about race relations here, and now, fifty years later, would agree that they have greatly improved. I’m certainly not going EO give up hope of improved relations between the old cultures of the Middle East. I very much hope that we will have a new period when people of Sadat’s stature will take the lead. If one predicts permanent conflict then one gives up hope of a solution.

You were writing about the problems of women’s liberation and black emancipation in the 1970s. Do you feel satisfied with the progress that has been made in those areas since then?

No, certainly not. There has been progress, I don’t doubt. Perhaps Acre’s been more progress than I would have expected at that time, but we still have serious discrimination against women in industry, the academic community, many other places. We still have a sad difference between the economic prospects of a child who is white and one who is black. And there’s no question that we must keep pressure, public and private, strong on both of those issues.

I have been much more fortunate than most people in regard to the support I receive in my work; I would not have been able to do the things I have done without a corps of assistants, most of whom have been women. But I still do not think that women have a chance for independence as long as they’re confined to a household and family work. I make the same obeisance to the family as everyone else, but I do not doubt that the family can also be a disguise, an amiable disguise, for male dominance.

Some of your views sound old-fashioned, as, for example, when you said that fortunately there were all sorts of boarding schools ‘so that children can be kept separate from their parents for a great part of the time’. Do you really think that is such a good idea?

I’ve always felt that children take the good qualities of their parents for granted and the bad qualities as a licence for their own misbehaviour. There’s much to be said, at a certain age, for children going off to school and seeing less of their parents. Old-fashioned or otherwise, I don’t consider everything that’s old-fashioned to be wrong.

You said at the same time that it was a huge loss when intelligent women stayed at home. What exactly do you think is lost when intelligent women devote themselves to their families?

I should think that a great deal is lost in the field of literature, music, economic achievement, much else. And I think that, so long as we confine women to the home and house and family in what I have called a crypto-servant role, we lose half of the intelligence and cultural resource of the community. I don’t want to see any intellectually or artistically expressive woman confine her talents to her husband.

Unlike many people in public life, you have had a stable, fifty-year marriage.

I haven’t any secret as far as the marriage is concerned. I simply picked out a highly intelligent, very beautiful woman. She accepted me and we lived happily ever after.

Will there ever be a time when the theories of economics are implemented fully?

Looking over some of the theories of economists of my time I have every hope that they will not be implemented. I regard economic police as something to be governed by practical good sense and not by commitment to any corps of theoretical principles. I’m persuaded that both in the communist world and the capitalist world we have a great deal to fear from those who surrender thought to ideology.

You have made enemies as well as friends. Has that been a major source of regret?

I’ve taken it for granted but I’ve always had some impression that my friends outnumbered my enemies.

You once said that modesty is a vastly overrated virtue, but may it not help in the art of diplomacy to prevent unproductive confrontations between strong-willed people equally convinced they are right?

I think this is true. I wouldn’t doubt it. But I also think there are occasions when one should have confidence in one’s views and express them with considerable firmness.

Some of your critics have detected a certain arrogance in your attitudes, even to the extent of power mania. Do you plead guilty?

Unquestionably, yes. I wouldn’t, of course, call it arrogance. I would call it commendable self-assurance.

The power side, though, has been a humbling thing in my life. In 1941 I was put in charge of all prices in the United States. You could lower prices without my permission, but you couldn’t raise them. That was an exercise of power which would satisfy almost any power-hungry individual, and I’ve often said that, in terms of the exercise of power, my life has been downhill ever since.

How conscious have you been of your own charm, and to what extent have you used it as a, weapon?

That’s a question I am forced to leave entirely to somebody else. I’ve contented myself with trying to write persuasively, and I’ve given a good deal of attention to that, but as to charm, that is something which is entirely for the judgement of others, and I advise them to be just a little bit suspicious.

Apparently the Baptist Church of your childhood provided you with what you called ‘a thoroughgoing inoculation against churchgoing’. Was this ever a draw- back in your public life?

Not particularly. I never made a point of it. I was fortunate to live in a community and in a country which is very tolerant in such matters. On the matter of making peace with God, I haven’t yet given the matter serious attention. I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken said when he was in his last years. He was told, as he grew older and when he was threatened with a stroke, that he should make preparations for the future. He thought about this for some time and said, ‘Well, I tell you, if I have been wrong in my agnosticism, when I die I’ll walk up to God in a manly way and say, Sir, I made an honest mistake.’ I always thought that Mencken had a point.

Is there anything which you feel you still have to achieve?

I’m going to continue to do some writing and I would like, now that time has caught up with some of the books I’ve written, to do some correcting of my past errors.

Oh, yes, I have many regrets. No person who is at all thoughtful can look back on life and not see a great many lost opportunities. But I’m not going to list them. As for living my life differently if I had the chance, I’m not sure. I’ve had a reasonably adequate life. Life has been very good to me. Better perhaps than I deserve.

Diana Athill

Diana Athill, recently interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC’s Imagine series, is a British literary editor and novelist.

Born in 1917, Diana was a founding member of André Deutsch Ltd. and remained a director until she was seventy.

She is the author of several books including After a Funeral and Make Believe, but is perhaps best known for her essay in autobiography, Instead of a Letter.

Here is an interview with Diana from my book, Speaking for the Oldie, first published by Quartet Books in 1994.

You had a comfortable, privileged family background with which you have been uneasy for most of your life. When did you first start to question the notion of privilege and what you call your family’s ‘smug assumption of superiority’?

At school, where I had a splendid old headmistress of the liberal tradition. She was determined to make her girls think and she used to leave newspapers of every kind on the table in the hall, and we were very much encouraged to read them. I was a child at a time when it was very difficult not to question what was going on. It was a time of the most awful depression and unemployment, and if you had any intelligence at all you began to ask questions. I never really felt uneasy at home because I always loved my parents dearly but I knew that I didn’t think the same way they did. I rather wish that I had rebelled, but in those days it was somehow unthinkable, so I just quietly slipped underground.

Your childhood memories are very rich and happy, and I have the impression from reading your autobiography that this derived at least in part from the comfort and security in which you grew up. Would you agree?

Yes, but I think that there were certain elements of insecurity. For example, my parents quarrelled a lot. Of course it would have been much worse if we had been living on top of each other in a very small house in some miserable place, but as it was we lived in the country with space round us, with nannies who were loving and comforting. When my brother and I were stressed a bit by my father and mother, I remember my governess telling us that our parents were both very nice people but they probably shouldn’t have married each other. And we accepted that as a kind of formula which steered us into a calm way of thinking about the situation. Things improved between them towards the end of their marriage. My mother – who had fallen in love with someone else but had been unable to leave because of the children – gradually came to recognise that my father was an extraordinarily nice person, an honourable and good man who hadn’t punished her for trying to bolt.

Your family displayed disdain and distrust of anyone who was not of their class, and you say how strange it was to be bound by ties of habit and love to people who were like that. Do you think it is ever possible to untie the bonds, to remove the early influences entirely?

I’m not sure that I do. It would have been interesting if I had been more openly rebellious, if I had simply taken friends home in spite of my parents’ disapproval on grounds of their colour, for example. But I used to think, what would be the point, because it would be horrible for everybody. It might have broken relations completely, but on the other hand it might have educated them into being less prejudiced than they were. I shall never know, but at the time I chose not to put too much strain on our relationship, because of my affection for them all.

You say that their attitude was at best comic, at worst repulsive. What effect did it all have on you in later life?

I suppose it gave me a prejudice in the opposite direction. As I grew up I automatically veered towards people who were of a quite different class and nationality. I have always got on better with people who are not Norfolk county.

Although you say you liked your father, it seems to have fallen short of love. Do you understand the reasons for this?

He was not a man who easily expressed emotion. He rarely hugged or kissed his children, and I think I picked up from my mother, without realising it, her reservations about him. I remember once when he was getting quite old, and he was beginning to suspect that he had a bad heart, he spoke to me about my grandmother who was very ill at the time. He mentioned death, and I imagined we were going to talk intelligently and without restraint, so I answered him in a way that showed I was interested in the subject; and he just froze. He suddenly realised he was much too frightened to talk about death. In the same way he was too shy to talk about love.

Your parents seem to have been physically incompatible… your mother hated sleeping with him. You sided with your mother in this unhappy situation. Why did you not feel sorry for your father? After all it must have been difficult for him…

Because if one goes back to one’s childhood one simply was at that time more instinctively on her side. I did come to feel very sorry for him, and after my mother’s death, when I was reading some of his letters to her, I could have cried for him. He was so unquestioning, and he apologised to her for being unattractive to her, which was dreadful because he wasn’t an unattractive man at all.

As you got older, you came to see your father as an intelligent and an agreeable man, and yet you never felt closely bound to him…why not, I wonder, and what effect did this have in your own adult relationships?

I honestly don’t know why we weren’t close, except that his work took him away a lot and we were more with our mother in our infancy. She was the physical presence, and in that sense easier to love. The obvious consequence was that if ever I fell in love it was always with someone as unlike him as possible; I never fell in love with anyone who had blue eyes, fair skin, fair hair, because I saw these features as unattractive. It was an instinctive thing, and it was a long time before I noticed it.

Sex was a distasteful subject in your family, and yet you seemed to have a strong interest in it. Do you think the two factors were related?

I don’t think so. My parents were too reserved about sex to be repressive about it, so one was free to read and so on. Largely because they were so reserved they left the whole subject alone; one wasn’t told it was revolting or anything like that, it was just something not talked about.

You seem not to have agonised much about giving up God and the Church. Why were they so easily dismissed, do you think?

Again because of the mildness of the background. It was the custom to go to church, and darling granny read us lovely bible stories which we enjoyed, but there was no great morality surrounding it. The chief thing one was told was that God loved everybody and understood everything, and whatever one thought, whatever one did. Go understood it. I remember thinking, well if God understands. He can understand that I don’t believe in Him. This nice kind English Christian God was not difficult to go against. Later on when I looked at the world and all the different stories people have told to try and explain themselves and life, each one struck me as more absurd than the last. Why should we, little grains of dust, know what is the truth? Why do we feel that we ought to know? How can we possibly believe that we are capable of knowing the meaning, whatever the meaning is, if indeed there is a meaning? It’s extraordinary how religious people say to me, ‘I don’t understand how you can live without a faith, because then there’s no meaning in life.’ What meaning are they talking about? To me it seems that one simply cannot hope to know how this thing we belong to works, but I don’t see why one should be depressed about that.

You went up to Oxford in 1936 and lived, in Stephen Spender’s phrase, ‘in the shadow of war’. How much did that occupy your mind?

You couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t going to happen. You could see it coming and we all went to meetings about it and thought about it. On the other hand university life carried on and we managed to have a lot of fun. My feeling was, get in as much good time as possible before it happens.

There is very little in your biography about what you thought about the war, how it affected you. Was that an accidental or deliberate omission?

For me the war was a period of great blankness; there wasn’t really much to say about it except in a flat and miserable way. If one wasn’t directly involved, one felt very dead about it. It would have been different if I’d been in the forces, but I was leading a quiet little civilian life in the BBC, knowing what was going on because I worked for the newsroom, but not influenced except by the dreariness.

You say that you owe to Oxford the fact that you were able to live through twenty years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life. What did Oxford give you to make that possible?

It gave me wonderful friends, it gave me an esteem and an understanding of achievement and intelligence. It gave me lots and lots of books, a good deal of self-confidence, but chiefly it gave me a comfortable sense that beauty existed in spite of everything.

In those days you were preoccupied by the thought of losing your virginity. Do you think that applied to most young women at Oxford in those days?

It certainly applied to most of my friends. The twenties had been the first sort of breaking loose period, and by the thirties we were able to have a love affair if we felt like it, instead of having to think about it.

But when the moment came it was a profound disappointment. Do you think that was inevitable in a sense?

It was not a profound disappointment, it was just not as good as I thought it would be; but I still knew it was going to be all right quite soon. ‘Profound’ makes it sound traumatic, but it was more a question of, oh yes, well never mind, we’ll soon get this going all right. Much more practical.

Would you say that the greatest satisfaction and joy of sex come from experience of life and love rather than the vigour and energy of youth?

Yes, I think I would, though I’m not sure whether many men would agree. I think that tenderness becomes a very important element as one gets older, but it may well be that we comfort ourselves by thinking this is the case. When I was younger I had affairs because they provided good sex, and I enjoyed them for that reason, and they certainly weren’t horrid because of that. But the times that I remember as important in my life are those when love was involved as well.

The person to whom you promised your love and your life was killed in the war, but before that he had broken of f your engagement – something from which perhaps you never fully recovered. Do you still think of that time now?

The fact that I wrote about Paul tidied up that time as far as I was concerned. I still regard it as the most important thing that happened to me, because it did dreadful damage to my self-confidence for a very long time, and to that extent it changed me quite fundamentally. But it doesn’t occupy my mind any more…the writing was very therapeutic.

You described your unhappiness as a ‘taint’ as well as a misfortune – you were somehow ‘diseased’ in other people’s eyes. That must have made things even harder to bear…

It was a horrible feeling – how much of it was subjective I don’t know – but it was dreadful. I felt I had been written off by everyone as a failure, utterly useless.

Do you think you indulged your state of unhappiness, that you were prey to self-pity?

No, I don’t. I think I did as much as I possibly could to pull myself out of it.

Do you think in cases of this kind the impact on women is much harder than it is on men?

I can’t say, because I haven’t known any man who has suffered a loss like that. Certainly in those days, marriage for a woman was equivalent to a job; it wasn’t just a love affair, it settled your future, you were to be so and so’s wife for the rest of your days. So when that fell away you had your future cut right off, as well as losing your man. No man would have been in that position.

Looking back, would you have preferred simply to have bounced back, or has the experience been, however painful, enriching in some ways?

Just bouncing back would have made it such a different experience. The fact was I had it, I survived it, and I feel lucky that not much harm was done to me in the long run.

How long was it before you stopped equating love with pain?

In the sense that I avoided falling in love, it was a very long time indeed. The next time that I was happy in a love affair was when I was in my early forties. I’d had affairs, but I had avoided commitments, and it wiped out marriage as far as I was concerned.

You say that for years and years the most intense emotion you experienced was pain. What would you say is the most intense emotion you experience now?

I have rather got out of the way of having emotions. There are lots of very agreeable things, like learning to draw and going to life classes, and other activities which are tremendously interesting, but I wouldn’t say I have intense emotions now. I’m contented in a quiet way rather than happy, but I did have about ten years of positive happiness, which is a long time in anybody’s life.

After the break-up there followed a period of promiscuity when as a comfort you slept with just about any man who asked you to … how do you think it was possible to go against your background and upbringing so fundamentally?

I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that I did, and I think a lot of people have done. Once you decide you don’t believe in what has been preached at home, then you’re free to do what you want to do. I don’t think it’s mystifying really. The world does seem to be divided into people who grow up following the patterns they are given, and people who grow up questioning them; and I was one of the latter.

Did the one night stand never lead to guilt, to feelings that one had behaved badly perhaps?

I suppose just occasionally, particularly if it was someone with whom it had been a great mistake. It’s difficult to remember, but occasionally one got into a silly situation simply out of being polite, not wanting to say no, and then one would feel bad. But I never really had much time for guilt.

You describe these brief affairs as ‘threadbare rags against a cold wind’. Were they really better than no rags at all?

Oh yes, no question about it. When you’re younger you need it. Now that I’m 76 the sexual impulse is no longer there – in fact several things have gone which before I couldn’t have imagined doing without in my life. For example, I can’t drink coffee any more, or wine or whiskey. Now that they disagree with me I have not the slightest wish to drink, not even if I am offered a beautiful malt whisky which was once my favourite tipple. And sex is rather the same. Once you stop wanting something you don’t mind not having it, and life becomes very much simpler and easier. There was an intervening time when I could see things falling away, and that was sad because all this had meant so much to me and had been so lovely, but once I was over the hump I felt free. If someone came along to make love to me now, I’d say, please go away, it’s not anything to do with me anymore. It is very peaceful.

But is it because the desire is no longer there?

Yes, and so you don’t want it. I know one woman who was much older than me and she used to say, oh what nonsense, one goes on having desire forever. Well, perhaps she did, but I think that she imagined that she ought to, whereas if you actually listen to your body, you just let it go…

When did your body tell you to stop?

It was a slowish process, but by the time I was at the end of my 60s I was clear of it. I had an Indian summer during my 50s and early 60s, but once it went, it went. I had a very attractive friend whom I loved dearly and hardly ever saw, and whenever he came to England it was always a delight to go to bed with him. And one time I thought, well, I don’t actually want to do this, that’s it over. That was in my mid or late 60s.

When you were 26 you met André Deutsch, a man who was to shape the rest of your life. You left your job at the BBC to join him in publishing… have you ever had cause to regret that decision?

Never. It was easily the most interesting and agreeable career I could imagine, although when I finally left it I was thankful to get out. Our kind of publishing was having such a terribly hard time. It was being battered from all sides. André had got out smartly before I did, and I remember his saying, ‘You know, it’s not any fun anymore.’ I had to go on because I hadn’t got any money, but in the years after André sold the firm it became worse and worse.

You were both very different in character, and yet you were strangely drawn to one another. Was this on the basis that opposites attract do you think?

I suppose it was. We worked well together because we both had quite different aptitudes. And it became one of those curious relationships, rather like in a family, when we were both very aware of each other’s shortcomings, but just accepted them.

You describe your intimacy as being more fraternal than anything else. Why do you think it did not develop in the normal way?

I really don’t know. André was very romantic as a young man, and I was very down to earth and realistic; I was annoyed by his romanticism and he was annoyed with me being practical. We didn’t fit in that way. Sexually we didn’t gel at all.

In due course you won the Observer short story competition, which seemed to give you a much needed boost…or do you think it would have happened in any case with the passage of time?

I don’t think it would have happened to quite the same extent. Winning that prize was a wonderful bonus. It really did give me such a push up.

As you recount it, as soon as you stopped actively searching for love, or expecting to be loved, you immediately fell in love and were loved in return. Was it really as simple as that?

It almost was. It wasn’t like a love affair to begin with, it was just great affection and great interest, and a feeling of how nice it was to have found someone to be with and go to bed with. It was much happier than any of my earlier experiences, because I never ever believed it would end.

Your work in publishing allowed you to meet all kinds of people whom otherwise you would not have encountered. Were you always aware of the dangers of vicarious living?

Although my sexual self-confidence had been damaged, I think that at bottom the security that came from childhood was always there, so that I never really felt that anybody else’s world was better than mine.

You became involved with an Egyptian writer who came to live with you and ended up some five years later committing suicide in your flat. Had your early painful experience with Paul equipped you in some measure to deal with the horror of that situation?

No, this was utterly different; it belonged to a separate part of my nature. During the time I knew Paul I would never have become involved with neurotic people – I would have been too frightened – whereas at a later stage I was definitely attracted to dangerous and damaged people. Twice I formed relationships with men who were a bit mad, and I found them extremely interesting. My own explanation of it is that some sort of frustrated maternal impulse was at work, and that made me want to take these people on and help them in some way.

You are known to believe that sex and the maternal impulse are very closely woven in childless women of middle age. Did you regard that as a weakness or did you feel that it opened up opportunities?

It opened up opportunities, but it certainly trapped me in some curious situations, though I don’t think I minded much.

Your relationship with Hakim, the black American friend of Malcolm X, is described in terms of a kind of madness. Would you say that falling in love is always a kind of madness to some degree?

I was really half joking when I said that about Hakim – I wasn’t enough in love with him for it to be a good example of madness. But I do think that falling in love tends to be neurotic, because it has very little to do with the person you’re drawn to; it has more to do with your own needs, your own hang ups. I’m very disrespectful of the idea of falling in love. People get into terrible messes because they get married to a person they’ve invented and then they are furious when the man or woman turns out to be different.

Have you ever been able to pinpoint what has attracted you to a man?

No, I think it’s entirely mysterious, and I’m very glad that there is still some mystery left in life. Apart from the fact that they’ve always been dark-eyed, dark-haired, sometimes dark-skinned, they’ve been very different people. When it clicks, one recognises it at once.

You speak of the alarming power of beauty in relation to Hakim. In what sense was it alarming?

I meant that if one had felt it strongly and had fallen in love with this person because of his appearance, one would have been lost, so to speak, because he wasn’t the person he looked. His looks would have led you into being obsessed with somebody who was not worth loving.

You were on the face of it an unlikely person to become involved in the turbulence and violence of other people’s lives. Was it partly the attraction of the world outside the safety of the publishing house?

Yes, it was seeing another kind of world, rather like reading some fascinating book. I was experiencing vicariously a completely different way of living, which expanded my own sense of life. I thought it was rather a good thing.

You have resisted the temptation to dress up the narrative in your books, even when it means you are placed in a less than flattering light. Why this break with convention?

If you’re going to write about an actual experience, there’s only one reason to do it, and that is to understand it as far as possible. If you’re going to be honest about other people, the least you can do is to try to be equally honest about yourself. If I had whitewashed myself I would have produced a very peculiar artefact which would have been of no use to anybody. I was never tempted to censor anything because at the time of writing I did not imagine that either book would be published – indeed they both went into drawers for about twenty years. They were written as exercises to deal with a sadness; in the end they were terrible things to have seen, these tragedies, and they were haunting and worrying. They were written as therapy, and I have felt slightly embarrassed about both of them ever since because they were not intended for publication.

Did the therapy work?

It has worked for me, and I think this is why I’m not writing now, because I have nothing I want to cure myself of.

In Instead of a Letter you describe the business of writing as ‘hardly more than a private satisfaction’. That makes it sound like a self-indulgence. Is it, do you think?

It is more something that I’ve been driven to. Self-indulgence sounds too much like fun, but it’s not particularly fun. It’s fascinating and totally absorbing, but I did it because I felt the need.

When one reads your books there is a element of shockingness about them. . . are you pleased with this effect?

I’m rather surprised by it…and yes, perhaps a little bit pleased.

Somehow your middle-class respectability, your quintessential Englishness makes the candour and detail of the writing all the more outrageous. Was this something you were consciously aiming at?

No, I was aiming at writing accurately. The important thing always was to try and get it the way it really was.

Did you ever come to feel embarrassed by anything you’ve written?

Not nearly as much as you would expect. My dear relations and friends think I’ve written shockingly embarrassing books, which sometimes makes me feel a bit shy, but then I think, well to hell with it, what can I do about it? Whenever I’ve had a temptation to feel embarrassed I’ve said to myself, look, you wrote the damned thing, you’d better stick with it.

You are prompted to write by the desire to make sense of something which has happened to you. Do you believe that your writing is in any sense instructive, that others can learn from your experience?

I would not have thought so, but the fact remains that I still get letters about Instead of a Letter from people who nearly always say that what I describe is so like what happened to them. They then go on to describe situations which sound to me completely alien. Indeed the most extraordinary people have claimed that their experiences are the same. Years and years ago I had a letter from a lovely lesbian dentist who had hundreds of miserable affairs, and I remember thinking, what makes her believe her life is similar to mine? But the fact is she did.

What are your views on marriage? Do you regret not having married?

No, not at all now. I’m perfectly content and have been for many a long year. I know in my own family some very happy marriages, and I think that if you have the luck to get into that kind of relationship, it must be the best there is. But very few people do.

Writing in 1963 you said: ‘It’s unlikely that I shall ever have a child.’ That sounded like an anguished thought at the time. Has it been a major source of regret?

It was at one time quite a serious source of regret, yes. But that’s died away. It’s eased over the years, and I waste no time thinking about it now.

Later in life you seemed to suggest that the people you fell in love with were rather helpless and vulnerable and in that sense were perhaps the children you never had. Is that still a theory?

Yes, it was a black period in my life, and it was certainly true of that time. But it was of shortish duration, and only a part of life.

You had abortions at an early stage. As time has passed have you ever wondered about the children they might have become?

The only one that I have wondered about is the one I intended to have, and that was miscarried. There was a time in my life when I decided I was going to have a child, regardless. This is one of the reasons why André remains such a dear friend. I remember telling him that I was going to have a child and that I probably would have to give up work. He asked me how I thought I would support a child without a job, but I told him I was worried that if I stayed on I might perhaps embarrass people. He said, ‘Anyone who is embarrassed can get out.’ And for that I will always feel very affectionate towards André. Sadly, when I had made up my mind to have a child, I was prevented by nature, not by me doing anything about it. And I have certainly thought about that child. From time to time, I wonder how old he or she would be by now, and all that sort of thing…but not with any great intensity of pain, I have to say…

Most women are distressed in some measure by the experience of abortion. Why do you think you escaped the trauma?

I really don’t know. The ones I did deliberately affected me not a bit; I was saddened only by the miscarriage. I think perhaps I’m a person without very strong maternal passions.

You looked back on your life at the end of Instead of a Letter and wrote, ‘I have not been beautiful or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic.’ Does that not strike you as extreme self-deprecation? Would you put things rather differently now?

Certainly I’ve not been beautiful, or brave or energetic, but I probably have been more intelligent than I suggested there. What I was trying to get at was that there was nothing in my life that one would say gave the world anything important. It was just an ordinary life, and yet one wasn’t disappointed in it. I was trying to get at what one likes about living, just living, as opposed to achievement. Usually we say, if one has achieved this, that and the other, life has been worth living. But I think life is worth living even when one hasn’t achieved. I still find it a bit mysterious that I think so, but I do.

When your grandmother was dying she asked what life had been for…how would you answer her question in relation to your own life?

I would answer it very much as I answered it to her really: it has been for just what it was, worth something in itself, part of the process of being. I shan’t ever think it was worth nothing.

No Longer With Us: André Deutsch

The great publisher Andre Deutsch was born in Hungary in 1917. His career began during World War II at the publishing firm Nicholson & Watson. After the War he started his first company, Allan Wingate, before forming Andre Deutsch Limited in 1952. His small but influential house ran until the 1980s, employing Diana Athill as an editor and publishing books by Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth and John Updike. He died in April 2000, aged 82.

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

You’re often referred to as a refugee, but aren’t I correct in saying you came to England of your own free will and had already decided to do so before things became difficult politically in Hungary?

You’re quite right. I came to England because of an uncle. My mother came from a large family, and one other brothers, the most interesting, was an Anglophile. He was a businessman but also a translator who translated H. G. Wells into Hungarian. He had a daughter, and was frustrated in not having a son, so, with my parents’ approval, took care of me in a way. When I was thirteen or fourteen he hammered it home that there was only one country where a gentleman with artistic, intellectual or literary leanings could live, and that was the United Kingdom. I remember having awful rows with my father, because he was a great admirer of Mussolini and thought it was really not necessary for me to leave. I left Hungary in March 1939, when things were still normal at home, and came out of my own free will without my parents’ knowledge.

They stayed on in Hungary. My father was miraculously rescued by Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, when, as a dentist, he was working in a camp outside Budapest, his own place having been closed because he was Jewish. The news came one day that the following afternoon at three o’clock he would be on a train to somewhere in Germany or Poland. My mother rushed to Wallenberg, and they took him off the tram at the last minute. Both my parents survived and came out in 1946, but hated doing so because by that time pre-communist Hungary was a reasonably comfortable place. When I visited my father, I was amazed at what you could buy. But when they arrived in England, there was rationing. My father said that England smelt of mutton. In Hungary people didn’t eat mutton unless they were very poor.

The next year my parents went back and I nearly had a nervous breakdown at feeling so guilty at not having looked after them properly. My father restarted his practice and then came out again when things got really bad in 1950. That second departure was immensely complicated, but more important was the fact that this time they fell in love with England and England seemed to love them in return. They never looked back.

At one point you were interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. Did you feel resentful or just resigned?

Neither. Hungary came into the war the day after Pearl Harbour, which was 7 December 1941. Horthy, under enormous pressure from Hitler, declared war and joined the Axis. It was then that I was interned. We were shipped first to Manchester, where the zoo had been evacuated – they were afraid of bombs falling and the lions getting out and eating people – and the Hungarians were lodged in what had been the Parrot House. We were there two or three days and I met some very interesting people. Then we were shipped to the Isle of Man, where we spent six or seven weeks. I had good friends who went to the Home Office, and I was later released.

It is because of that internment that I became a publisher. I met a Hungarian called Francis Aldor in the camp. He was an impossible character who was a cousin of Arthur Koestler’s and ran a publishing company. When my release papers came he asked me to work for him for £8 a week, which was a lot of money in those days. I didn’t want to take the job, but the other Hungarians said, ‘Look, for God’s sake, Aldor is impossible, but it’s an occupation.’ So I accepted and worked for him for about three months. I knew nothing about publishing. I’d read many books and I was relatively literate, but I didn’t know how a book was made. I learned quickly and left to take up a new job, working for John Roberts at Nicolson & Watson. Roberts is a nice man, a Welshman, still alive and about ninety.

Has being an exile been a significant factor in your life?

I never considered myself an exile. I thought that, as I lived here and spoke quite a bit of English, I actually was English, so I never had any complex about being a foreigner. And my friends, with very few exceptions, such as George Mikes, were all English.

You came to England out of a conviction that your liberal beliefs would be met with greater sympathy in London than in Budapest. Have you ever been disillusioned?

By and large, no, but there has to be give and take. Of course there are lots of things about England that have disappointed me, but mostly I was glad I came here. In 1937 or thereabouts my father wanted me to go to America, which was the Hungarian dream. I even had a letter from the US Embassy in London to say that my application had gone through. But I didn’t go, because by that time I already thought of myself as an Englishman somehow disguised as a Hungarian. When my parents finally met up with me after the war and heard the story, my father nearly fainted. He said, ‘How could you have missed the land of golden opportunity? Think what you’d be now if you’d gone to America instead of staying here.’

At what point was your fierce resolve for independence as a publisher born?

I started Allan Wingate as an independent company virtually on my own, having been with Nicolson & Watson and learned a great deal about the surface of publishing. There was no depth, but I knew printing, invoicing, selling to W. H. Smith and reading manuscripts. My first great triumph at Nicolson & Watson happened when Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps came in and John Roberts, my boss, said, ‘Laddie, you read this.’ I read it and said, ‘This is a great book,’ and they published it. But afterwards there was a disagreement between Nicolson & Watson and myself. Through George Mikes I had come to know George Orwell, who was then very poor. He was the literary editor of Tribune and he asked me to write short reviews. If a review was not that short I got a guinea (£1.05); if it was really short I got 10s. 6d. (52.5p), and was allowed to keep the book to flog.

One day Orwell showed me a new manuscript of his that his regular publisher, Victor Gollancz, had turned down. It was Animal Farm. He gave it to me just before Whitsun, when I was going off with a girlfriend to a farm in Wales to get away from the bombs. I read the manuscript four times, ignored the girl, came back to London stomping with excitement, rushed into John Roberts and said, ‘Mr Roberts, this is a masterpiece.’ He said, ‘All right, laddie, leave it here.’ Weeks went by, and finally I went to Roberts, who said Orwell didn’t know what he was talking about and had no idea of what went on in Russia. After I’d persuaded him to meet Orwell, Roberts and his wife and Orwell and I went out to the Players’ Theatre. It was an unbelievably embarrassing session in which they were rude to Orwell, put him down and turned down his book. Orwell never told me that he had then offered it to Faber & Faber, where T. S. Eliot turned it down. I had suggested Jonathan Cape because they had just published Darkness at Noon. Having signed a contract with them and received an advance of, I think, £100, Orwell was surprised some six months later by their decision not to publish the book after all. I continued to see Orwell off and on, who all his life was a timid, withdrawn and modest man with no intellectual arrogance whatsoever. I told him I hoped to start on my own one day, when I had the money, the courage and the experience. He said, ‘Start now with my book. I don’t want an advance.’ But I wasn’t mentally or financially ready. I wasn’t experienced. And since Orwell had more integrity than anyone I’d ever known, I couldn’t play the Hungarian rogue and pull a fast one on him. In the end Animal Farm was published by that marvellous publisher Fred Warburg.

Soon I became pregnant with the thought of publishing on my own, and I went to John Roberts who said, ‘Laddie, you’re young, you can work hard. You start a little publishing company with a few hundred pounds, and work there at night and stay with us and earn good money.’ I was earning £4,000 a year, a small fortune, at the time. So I got a few friends to join me and I named it Allan Wingate.

Why Wingate?

I cannot pretend now and say this was a tribute to the great General Wingate. It was just a good English name. Diana Athill was working for the BBC at the time, and as Wingate was beginning to grow, I offered her a job, so that was the start of a long partnership.

Financial problems arose when we published The Naked and the Dead. A company can be in great financial difficulty if it has a big success on its hands, and cannot afford a substantial reprint. This was what happened with The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. Seven publishers before me turned it down on the grounds it was dirty. You know what he used for the word ‘fuck’? Fug – F-U-G. I was eighth on the list of the agent, Graham Watson at Curtis Brown. My first printing was 10,000 copies, and it was very difficult at that time to find a printer who had enough paper. A week before the book was published, the Sunday Times, then owned by Lord Kemsley, put a little box on the front page saying it shouldn’t be published. Lady Kemsley was outraged and said, ‘This is a book I wouldn’t like my housekeeper to read, let alone children.’ A great brouhaha started up. I had an inspector from Scotland Yard in my office three days running – a nice chap who took snuff, I remember. I was planning to go to America the next month, and so I asked him, ‘Do you want my passport so I can’t flee the country?’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said. The attorney-general, Sir Hartfey Shawcross, then pronounced it a very boring and harmless book that wouldn’t corrupt the youth of England. So publication went ahead, and instead of 10,000 copies we needed 80,000. And I didn’t have the money.

I was frantically looking round for partners, and the first to come forward was a man called Anthony Gibbs, dead long ago. He and others came in and Wingate began to do well, but by the summer of 1950 there was a major falling out between Gibbs and his friends and me. I had to go. Diana Athill, with whom I had become great friends, left too, and went into hiding so to speak. I was determined to start publishing all over again, and that is how André Deutsch Ltd. came into being. Diana is still working there. She’s my age, seventy-two, no longer a director but still doing brilliant editorial work.

We published her book, Instead of a Letter, and I thought her charming.

It’s a little masterpiece. She’s a wonderful person.

What was your last big book at Wingate?

It was a book called Operation Cicero.

They made a film.

They did. Five Fingers, with James Mason. The book was written by an Austrian, Ludwig Moyzisch, who during the war was the so-called commercial attaché at the German Embassy in Ankara in Turkey where the ambassador was Franz von Papen. Moyzisch was there because, as happened throughout the whole history of the Nazis, the hierarchy was divided, and Kaltenbrunner and the SD did not trust von Papen who was an old-fashioned Junker who knew how to ride a horse but did not behave like a good Nazi. The British ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatch- bull-Hugessen, was an ass of a man and a keen amateur pianist, and he had an Albanian valet. The embassy piano in Ankara was out of tune, so Ankara radio station said, ‘Sir Hughe, come and play your Chopin here,’ and he went and played. Meanwhile Bosner, the valet, who hated the British because his father was accidentally shot in Albania by an English hunter, had made an impression of the key of the safe and bought a second-hand Leica camera. So while Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen was playing Chopin at the radio station, Bosner opened the safe, took out all the papers and started photographing them. Ankara in those days was a very important crossroads. The Allies wanted to keep Turkey out of the war whilst the Nazis were keen on the strategic advantage of a Turkish ally. The consequent political intrigue meant that the British ambassador was in possession of many secret documents. Bosner next rang the German Embassy and somehow got through to von Papen and, in whatever broken German he used, offered his services. It wasn’t von Papen’s style to deal with a spy, and he handed him over to Moyzisch, saying, ‘You deal with this man.’ That was my last big Wingate book.

What was your first big Andre Deutsch book?

The von Papen Memoirs. I’m coming to that. I was still suspicious of the Operation Cicero story and decided to go and see Moyzisch. He was living in the French zone. I had a friend who was then the New Statesman chess expert, a German Jew called Heinz Frankel. I asked Heinz to come with me and we travelled to Austria and sat with Moyzisch for about a week cross-questioning him. At the end I remember Moyzisch saying, ‘Look, I’ve been at the Nuremburg trials, and what you fellows, particularly Mr Frankel, have done to me was a much tougher cross-question- ing than anything I witnessed at Nuremberg. If you still don’t believe me, go and talk to my late boss.’

Moving from one Allied zone to another could be done only with great difficulty, but Frankel and I got to a little place outside Hanover where von Papen, his wife and son were staying with his daughter and son-in-law. When we sat down and explained what it was all about, von Papen was absolutely marvellous. He was charming and confirmed everything. There was nothing we had to cross out as being untrue. It impressed me to such an extent that, as we were having our last session, I said, ‘Herr von Papen, you ought to write your memoirs.’ I was still Wingate then, remember, because this was before Operation Cicero was published. We started negotiating, and then came the break with Gibbs and company. There was a meeting with Anthony Gibbs and Charles Fry, who had come to Wingate from Batsford, and it was agreed that, for the next fourteen days, nobody would approach von Papen.

But before the week was out I had a telephone call and heard the anxious tearful voice of Franz von Papen saying, ‘Andre, my dear boy, but you left Wingate and you are my friend.’ He had been sent a letter by Sir Philip Gibbs, who was then still a great man in the land – a distinguished very right-wing Daily Telegraph leader writer – saying that his son wanted to publish his book and they had arranged to publish it jointly with Eyre & Spottiswoode. I rushed to Stanley Rubinstein, who said, ‘Fly to Diisseldorf tomorrow and present your case to von Papen.’ So I arrived, sat down with him and his son, Franz von Papen Jr, a lawyer, and explained everything, produced the contract, and von Papen signed it. The book was published late in 1952, and I sold serial rights to the People – a different paper then from what it is now – for £30,000. What would that be today?

Three hundred thousand?

Maybe. Deutsch was certainly under-capitalised because we were short on the investment target of £14,400, having reached only £6,700. Diana Athill and Nicolas Bentley, who had joined me by that stage, both supported me and said, ‘We must go ahead, even if we go bust.’ And now I had this treasure.

You always resisted being swallowed up by a conglomerate. Was that because you wanted to go on running your own show, or didn’t you think the conglomerate appropriate to publishing?

There were no conglomerates in those days.

What I mean is that you were successful. You could easily have sold out to a conglomerate at some point.

Let me tell you what happened eventually. There was a lovely man in London called Raimund von Hofmannstahl, whose father was Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the greatest Austrian poet who wrote a lot of the librettos for Richard Strauss’s operas. Raimund worked for Time-Life here as their ‘Metternich’, and Henry Luce had dreamt up a scheme suggesting that Time-Life, which was making so much money they didn’t know what to do with it, should invest minority shares in distinguished European publishing houses and build up a family of publishers. Their first investment was Laffont in Paris, and the second was Rowohit in Germany.

Raimund came to my office, introduced himself, and put forward the idea of investing in a minority holding, maximum 40 per cent, on condition that I, André Deutsch , retain the majority. I said I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like the notion. However, I discussed it with Arnold Goodman fully, and he pointed out that the company didn’t need the money, and that a deal would only be successful if their dollars went to the shareholders. Anyway, to and fro it went, and Time-Life accepted his suggestion. Arnold asked me to breakfast and said, ‘This is their final offer, and if you don’t accept I’ll have you certified.’ I accepted, and they came in with 40 per cent, while I retained 56 per cent.

But later you bought their share back, didn’t you?

I bought it back. Not long after the deal they called a meeting of the family in New York. At this meeting I met for the first time the then chairman of Time-Life, Andrew Heiskell, a splendid man. It was suggested that we meet at least twice a year at some nice place and talk about books, the first location to be Salzburg. I said, no, this was not the way; John Updike was not going to write a new novel quickly because he heard that all of us were sitting around a table in Austria. But next spring we met somewhere in southern Spain. We were not Time-Life guests, but paid our own expenses.

You had to pay for them yourself?

We had a few free dinners.

But you had to pay for the hotel?

Absolutely, everything. And we met in this ghastly clip joint in Spain. After that meeting I received all kinds of questionnaires from Time-Life asking me to give an account of my editorial policy for the next five years in relation not only to the list but in relation to our main competetors – the Collinses, the Weidenfelds, the Capes. I rang Arnold, who said, ‘Andre, you don’t have to answer. They have a minority share. There is nothing they can do. You don’t have board meetings and you know where you stand. Next time you get a letter, don’t open it, put it in the waste-paper basket.’ I did that for weeks but one day curiosity got the better of me and I fished one out and read it. Its contents made me livid so I called Arnold and said, ‘Look, you were a very good matchmaker, you got wonderful terms. Turn yourself into a divorce lawyer.’

That’s when you parted company with Time-Life?

Yes. And because the money was not invested in the publishing company, there was no problem about paying it back.

Did you make any money out of the whole thing?

None of us did.

Would you call it a bad experience in a way?

It wasn’t a bad experience. For two years I earned interest on whatever investments I made.

Your policy has been to publish only books you like, and you haven’t touched anything that didn’t appeal to you, even if financial success was guaranteed. Can such a policy survive in the increasingly commercial world of publishing?

The way you put it is very flattering, and by and large it’s true. We once made a go for a commercial novel. Diana and I said it’s rubbish, but my God, it will sell. And we fell on our faces; we just didn’t know how to do it.

One of the big changes in publishing is that an author and his work are increasingly managed by computers rather than by readers and editors. In some ways it seems the fun has gone out of the game. Are you in any way attuned to this clinical progress?

I’m totally unattuned. If I were twenty years younger and a big conglomerate offered me a job because they heard I was successful and smart and Deutsch has been sold, I would be dead as a dodo. I wouldn’t know what to do. The extraordinary thing is how lucky we were, and I must emphasise how important luck is. In that period from 1951 to 1984 we carried out an old-fashioned sort of quality publishing and made some money.

Are you confident about the future of publishing? In the face of stiff competition from TV and films, will the reading public go on growing?

I think in the long run it will. In spite of the conglomerates and the new trends, if you take the reviews – look at your own Literary Review – quality books are published in vast numbers. How long that will continue, how long Mr Murdoch and his people at Collins will be tolerant of publishing good books, as they still do, I do not know. It was the Americans who hijacked publishing finance into the Hollywood bracket, but it’s also happened in Germany. Backlist publishing has virtually disappeared.

Publishing nowadays is in my view virtually controlled by literary agents, who dictate prices and product. Is this state of affairs helpful or harmful?

Very harmful. The literary agents are ruling the day. Under strong American influence, they have kidnapped the publishing industry into a sort of crazy financial world. If I were running Andre Deutsch Ltd. today I would have problems, just like Tom Rosenthal. Even Tom is now conceding defeat and is selling the company.

Tell me what happened with Tom Rosenthal after he went into partnership with you, because I was surprised when I heard about it. You’ve always been your own boss: he has ambitions. Weren’t you bound to clash?

I wished you’d phoned me and told me not to go ahead. I had the notion when I was sixty-six, sixty-seven, when things were very different from what they are today, that André Deutsch Ltd., which Diana Athill, Nick Bentley and I built up, which had a reputation and made money, should continue as an independent quality publishing company. My first thought was that I would like to do what W. W. Norton did about fifty years ago when they created a system in which only employees had shares. When I was in New York I talked to a man called George Brockaway, who was the head of Norton, and asked him how this scheme worked. Then I talked to Lord Goodman and a few others, and they said, ‘Admirable, but, dear boy, if you do that you will starve by the time you become seventy-five because you will have given it away.’ Prior to Tom joining me my salary was @15,000. What can you save on £15,000 for your old age?


I had left the company pension scheme after the auditors had said, ‘You are throwing money away because the business is by and large yours at 84 per cent. One day you’ll sell and be comfortably rich for the rest of your life.’ I was still anxious to secure the future independence of the firm and so discussed things with Paul Hamlyn, a very old friend. I first met Paul in, I think, 1945 at a booksellers’ conference in Norfolk. At that time Paul was a small remainder merchant. We became good friends. The dialogue with Paul became quite serious, and our lawyers and accountants got together and a proposition emerged that was fair and reasonable. Then madness overtook me. I thought, my God, Paul spends more time on an aeroplane than I spend in bed. What if something happens to him? At that point I heard that Tom Rosenthal was retiring and went after him. The Paul Hamlyn negotiations came to an end, which Paul accepted elegantly.

But Andre, did you honestly believe that, at the end of the day, you could sit at the table with somebody who had equal power and think it was going to last?

I was besotted with the idea that I would be able to work with a man of Tom Rosenthal’s reputation and experience. I thought that I’d be wise enough to accept that at the age of seventy-two I would hand over all the shares.

That was the agreement?

That was the agreement and we stuck to it, and that was my downfall, that was the mistake I made.

There was a honeymoon for a year or two?

Less than that.

Was it a personality clash?

Largely a personality clash. Also, Tom is a very expensive fellow. Entertainment, travelling. It’s incredible. By the time I realised it was too late, there was nothing I could do about it. Last August, when I was approaching my seventy-second birthday, Tom said, ‘I want to have a serious talk with you. Let’s have dinner.’ He took me out to the Jardin des Gourmets. Tom then said, ‘Andre, according to our original agreement, on your seventy-second birthday you will cease to be joint chairman and joint managing director. You will have no shares in the business any more, you won’t have any executive power, and we don’t need you, but we do need your room. Could you by 15 November clear your room and go? You will become president.’ I was shell-shocked. On the next day I asked Lord Goodman whether Tom had the right to do that to me. He said he did. There were discussions to try and give me a limited amount of freedom to join another publisher, but I had to agree to give Tom £100,000. I thought it an obscene suggestion, and turned it down.

But where did Tom get all the money to buy you out?

There are all kinds of rumours. Tom – having been very successful at Thames & Hudson, and at Seeker & Warburg – had a large sum of money at his disposal. I presume he borrowed the rest.

Was what he paid you adequate in terms of what the company’s worth today?

Tom and I negotiated a deal similar to the one originally discussed between Paul Hamlyn and myself. In 1984 the financial world at large had not yet decided that publishing was a glamour industry, and what he paid then was a fair price.

Has what he paid you secured your future?

Yes. I can live in comfort.

When you signed the agreement with Tom Rosenthal, were you under the illusion that, come the day when you had to leave, he would be magnanimous and say, ‘Stay and have the office?’

I believed that. Tom would say, ‘Look how generous I was with David Farrar.’

So you had the impression that once you retired you would still participate.

Absolutely. He told me, whether he thought it or not, that my presence was going to be important to them, and I fell for it.

But why do you think he acted as he did? Were you so difficult that you made his life a misery?

You’ll have to have an interview with Tom and listen to what he has to say. The original deal included a provision that the purchase price from Tom to Deutsch be reduced by £150,000, and for that £150,000 Andre Deutsch Ltd. would buy a pension scheme for me, which meant that I would pay £75,000 and he would pay £75,000. I was told by all the experts that it would work with the tax authorities and we did it. The only difference was that I wanted to pass some of the £150,000 to Diana Athill, without whom we would never have succeeded the way we did. So we agreed that £35,000 be shifted to Diana. She was, of course, due to receive a pension under the company scheme.

I always looked on that as my thank-you to Diana Athill for her friendship and partnership all those years. It was a present from me, not from André Deutsch Ltd. Something that then made me very angry was when Tom, at a meeting in the office, said, ‘This company has a heart. When Andre, Diana and Nick started the business in 1951, they were all young. Nick Bentley’s dead, and because this company has a heart, we have to create something for the future of the people who work here, but we are paying an enormous amount of money in the process for this pension scheme.’ He then mentioned as a part of all this Diana Athill’s pension scheme. But that scheme was my homage, gift, debt, love – call it what you will – to Diana Athill, and nothing to do with the company. And this, in our second year of partnership, made me realise it was never ever going to work. Another thing Tom said to me fairly early on was, ‘It’s fun to work with you, but there are three problems about you, Andre. One, you were not born in this country. Two, you were not educated in this country. Three you were not in Her Majesty’s Service.’ Tom, you know, had served in Malta as a second-lieutenant, a gallant soldier.

What bearing does that have on anything?

I do not know. I was absolutely staggered. Tom’s father, a distinguished, now very aged, scholar from Germany, was clever enough to leave Nazi Germany fairly early on. I think he came to this country in 1934, and Tom was born here.

Would you share the view that there is no love lost between individual publishing houses, and that gentlemanly behaviour, if it ever existed, is a thing of the past?

I think it existed to some extent in the past, but it doesn’t any more. Absolutely not. And I wrongly thought that all the spiel I had had from Tom was true. There’s another interesting thing which will prove to you again what a fool I am. At one point at the start of it all Lord Goodman said, ‘Well, fellows, obviously this is going to be a marriage. What are you going to pay each other?’ Before I could open my mouth, Tom said, ‘I used to earn over £60,000, and I suggest I take £40,000, because I have a wife and two children.’ I swallowed that without even thinking it through – Anne Rosenthal was a successful agent and the two sons were grown up. ‘And you, Andre,’ he continued, ‘increase your salary from £15,000 to £20,000, because you have a very wealthy girlfriend.’ I didn’t see the insult in that sentence, that I was some sort of a kept fellow, and like a fool I accepted it. So a lot of what has happened that took the joy out of my life is my own bloody fault.

I’m lucky enough to be independent enough not to care especially, but I do find publishing the most disloyal of professions at the moment.

Perhaps you exaggerate. There are still decent people in the publishing world.

But it is no longer gentlemanly.

It’s not a gentleman’s profession. It is not. Mainly because big international finance has moved in.

I read somewhere that the highest advance you ever paid for a book was £40,000.

The biggest advance I ever paid was $25,000 in the 1960s, when it was a monstrous sum of money, and that was for Norman Mailer’s An American Dream.

Did you recover your money?

We made money on the book, but the advance was never earned. But as you know, you can over-advance a book and make a profit, and you can get a book with no advance and lose your shirt.

Although large advances are not unusual in the United States, they are rarely given for works of non-fiction.

Yes, they are. I’m sure Arthur Schlesinger had a large advance.

But for Arthur Schlesinger you’re talking about A Thousand Days, the big popular book about Kennedy. Would you get a £600,000 advance on Bernard Shaw in America?

I doubt it.

But increasingly in Britain huge advances are being given for non-fiction, despite the fact that the money cannot possibly be recovered by the publisher. Should we be subsidising the rich and powerful in this way, or wouldn’t the money be better employed backing struggling young new authors? Carmen Callil seems to have come up with a £600,000 advance for Michael Holroyd for the Bernard Shaw biography. Where is the industry going?

She wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without being owned by the Newhouses. It’s certainly not commendable, but it’s a harsh capitalist world and there are a lot of crazy people who make these mistakes. You don’t have to pay £600,000 for a brilliant first novel. If you pay £60,000, you’re crazy enough, but this is the malaise of contemporary Anglo-American publishing.

Any fool can pay a huge sum provided his backers make the money available, but where is the flair, the expertise?

Doesn’t exist. I’m with you absolutely. It’s not true publishing at all. That’s one reason why I wouldn’t fit in to these organisations, because I’m too mean to recommend an advance of £600,000. It’s totally unnecessary.

How does it help the arts?

It doesn’t.

And where you have the same authors in the main commanding the big advances and getting all the publicity and reviews, where does that leave the Graham Greenes of the future?

I think the Graham Greenes of the future will surface, somehow, because ultimately the talent – and there we’re talking of a very exceptional author – will survive.

You once said that publishers have been their own worst enemies by overproducing. Can you elaborate on that?

When I started Deutsch, I think this country produced around 12,000 books a year. Today we are publishing 58,000 titles a year. Everybody is chasing the goose that will lay the golden egg, and it is very difficult. One of the things that caused a falling out between Tom and myself was forcing the programme. When I was in charge I don’t think we ever published more than about 90 titles a year.

What view do you take on the current issue of Salmon Rushdie and The Satanic Verses? It seems a very central problem for publishers, and, of course, for distributors. Do the protests really have substance?

I can’t answer that, because I can’t put myself in the position of some militant Muslim. I think the protest itself is deplorable – the Ayatollah saying this man should be killed. I must tell you, though, that I have not been able to get into The Satanic Verses. I have a copy, but I haven’t read it yet.

But even had you known of the offensive element, would you still have published it if you had wanted it?

I presume not, though I might have had the misguided philosophy to say, ‘Here is a very fine writer’s new book. I’ll take it on.’ But basically I am on the side of Penguin and Rushdie, and against those who sentenced him to death, burned the book and so forth. There are books that one does publish even though you know it’s going to upset people.

But shouldn’t we have the self-discipline to censor ourselves?

You remember Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer? We had his book offered to us and made the mistake of turning it down. But very important people advised me, ‘You can’t touch it,’ and so somebody else published it in the end. Nicolas Bentley and Diana Athill were against it.

Have you ever been sued over something you published?

We had two libel cases, though one was a minor one about oil in the Sahara. That was a simple case. The big one was over the play by Rolf Hochhuth, Soldiers, about the death of Sikorski, the head of the Free Poles – possibly not my hero, but a brave man. It was known that Sikorski was a big problem to the British and American governments concerning Soviet Russia and the Poles, because Sikorski said it was the Russians who killed all those Polish officers in Khatyn forest, which turns out to be true. Sikorski was in the Middle East visiting his troops. On the way back to London he spent a night in Gibraltar. In the morning, when his plane, piloted by a Czech, was taking off, it crashed. The plot Hochhuth worked out was that Churchill and Roosevelt knowingly agreed to remove Sikorski. Young Winston Churchill discovered that the Czech pilot was alive in California. He shipped him over and helped him to start proceedings.

Ken Tynan had wanted Laurence Olivier to put the play on at the National Theatre, but Olivier was rightly advised that he shouldn’t do it, because of Churchill’s involvement. Tynan did manage to produce the play in the West End, but the libel action killed it. In the end we had to pay damages, and had to destroy all copies of the book.

What do you think of the libel laws as they stand at this moment in this country?

They have improved, but they’re still not perfect. It’s been said that British libel laws are really against the truth; that the more truthful a book is, the more danger there is of libel. I’m not sure I wear that, but they are very tricky. What great libel cases have we had in the last year or two?

Lord Aldington and Count Tolstoy?

Of course, terrible. And also the divorced wife of that mass-murderer. That was Private Eye.

Like myself, you’re often criticised and parodied in Private Eye. Do you mind much?

André Deutsch  and Private Eye became soul partners through Nicolas Bentley, because Nick illustrated Bron’s diary in the early days. One day Nick said that Private Eye and us should sit down and see whether we could distribute their books, and they asked to use our imprint because they thought it would make the entree into bookshops easier. The arrangement is now coming to an end. Then Private Eye started its series called ‘Great Publishers of the World’ or something of the kind. By that time I was friendly with Richard Ingrams and John Wells, his co-author on the ‘Dear Bill’ series. They did a piece that dealt with Deutsch.

It hurt me deeply. By that time Nick was dead, but I remember having a Saturday morning meeting in Diana Athill’s flat with two other colleagues to discuss it. I also met Lord Goodman, and we were on the verge of suing when I withdrew. I am told that Richard Ingrams was surprised if not irritated that we did not respond and take up a fighting stance. Since then my relationship with the Eye and my personal relationship with Richard have improved immensely. They have been going for Tom Rosenthal, and Tom thinks I’m planting those stories, which is nonsense. I don’t believe Private Eye is anti-Semitic. A lot of people say it is. I don’t think they’re philo-Semitic. But so what?

Does a satirical magazine like Private Eye serve an important purpose as watchdog of political and social life, or is it just too scurrilous and irresponsible?

It’s been both. It’s certainly been irresponsible, but you can’t have it both ways. If Private Eye didn’t go in the direction of exaggerating and getting out of step, it would be a different thing altogether. In fact I would say that Private Eye today is occasionally very mealy-mouthed.

Because of the large damages they’ve had to pay out?

Partly that. Partly change of editorship and age.

So has the sting gone out of it?

I don’t think the sting’s gone out of it, but it’s milder and less offensive. They went for you time and again, and you employ Richard’s lovely daughter.

I don’t mind about that. You have had a rather ferocious reputation as an employer. I recall lan Nome writing that he would not have lasted with you and that few do. Have you asked too much from people who have worked for you?

In a way that is not untrue. But the records show that a lot of people have been with us for years and years. Of course there were rows, misunderstandings and quarrels, but by and large nobody of quality or importance has left. When I was a lot younger I was much more difficult.

But tell me more about how you got along with Diana Athill. Did you and she ever clash seriously?



We would argue about a book if she wanted to publish it and I didn’t or vice versa. Diana is a very close friend. No, I never quarrelled with her, I never quarrelled with Nicolas Bentley. Lots of people enjoyed being my colleague, though some others couldn’t stand me.

You mustn’t mind me asking you these questions, but you have been called very mean. There is the legend about you switching off unnecessary lights and reusing old envelopes. Others say the salaries you paid were unrealistic and there was a joke that Diana Athill’s salary was rumoured to be so low that she banked it once a year.

That was Private Eye.

What is the true position?

I would hate to admit that I am mean.

Careful then?

I was careful. I was parsimonious. And we paid ourselves very little. At the start of Wingate, Diana was paid £500 at the time. The question of reusing old envelopes – a routine long gone – was part of the pattern. Switching off lights was part of the pattern. Over all I think I am generous, but I admit there have been episodes when I exercised knowingly or unknowingly a degree of meanness, as I came to realize afterwards. Even now that I am financially comfortable, I hate wasting money.

Is it something ingrained?

I presume so, though my childhood wasn’t based on any such pattern.

But you don’t grudge yourself anything.

No, I don’t.

Leaving Norman Mailer, your first bestseller, on one side, who are you most pleased to have published?

Now that I am practically out of publishing, I would say that the greatest pleasure in my life was the discovery of authors like Norman Mailer and John Updike.

What are your views on Mrs Thatcher?

Confused. Undoubtedly she has done some good work and shaken up this country, but she’s gone too far. I don’t like her manner and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the next election, she’s out. After the war, I was a staunch member of the Labour party in Chelsea. When the SDP started I joined the party, largely because 6f Roy Jenkins. I sent him a telegram saying in effect, ‘If you’re serious about it, I will do anything, and I will join.’ I have also known David Owen and his wife Debbie, who is a literary agent. I voted for Roy as leader, but Roy was soon out and then David became leader.

Why was Roy Jenkins pushed aside? It’s never been clear to me.

I think he didn’t give a strong enough single leadership. He’s too much of an academic and an intellectual. I was sorry that Roy went, but then, at the beginning, David was very good, vigorous and young, and I remained a member and supported him to the end.

I know you are not one-hundred-per-cent Jewish and were not brought up to be orthodox, but do you feel part of the Jewish community?

In every important respect I consider myself a full Jew but I do not belong to a Jewish community, I am not religious. I don’t go to the synagogue, for instance.

What do you feel about the over-sensitivity of the Jewish community? If for some reason I were to attack somebody who happened to be Jewish, you can bet your bottom dollar a lot of people would send up a cry of anti-Semitism. Why is it?

Well, look what happened to the Jews.

Yes, but lots of nationalities have suffered at the hands of others. The Armenians were butchered by the Turks, thrown into the Bosphorus in lime and so on.

I’m not saying I approve of the over-sensitiveness, but I do understand it.

So is it going to go on forever?

If the Jews and the Arabs sort themselves out, I think eventually that it will disappear in two or three generations, or be much reduced. Isn’t the over-sensitivity there partly because anti-Semitism is still present practically everywhere?

To what extent? I rarely see a sign of it.

I’m certain and I know that anti-Semitism does exist, though I don’t think personally I’ve come across it face to face.

But what prompts it?

Maybe a lot of people envy the success of the Jews. In Hungary today, which is trying to be more liberal and democratic than Britain, there is a great deal of anti-Semitism, and it will only be eradicated with time.

But isn’t that the case everywhere: anti-Arab, anti-black, anti-German, anti-Jew? You’re never going to eradicate those attitudes completely.

I doubt it. But I think if we have a liberal world ahead of us, it will be much reduced. Do you have Jews working for you?

In Quartet I had a salesman who, when he was working for me, went to New York and married a Jewish girl, and I was best man.

But if somebody applies to you for a job, you’re not going to ask what his religion is?

Of course not.

Do you have Jewish friends?

A lot, certainly.

The one thing about Mrs Thatcher and the present government is that anti-Semitism is totally absent from their minds, as far as I can judge.

Recently there seems to have been an upsurge of anti-Semitism in Russia. It used to be said that it had religious origins, but the Russians have been promoting atheism for seventy years.

Anti-Semitism in Russia, going back to tsarist days, was so cruel, with the pogroms and so on, that it will take a long time to disappear. I’m quite sure that the present Russian leadership is not anti-Semitic. I can’t imagine that Gorbachev is. I think there is still a very large Jewish population in Russia, and as you know, the Israelis are in a way worried about the number of Russians coming in, the Arabs are objecting, and there’s been a lot of publicity. But give it another 200 years. Provided we don’t have any more major wars, this will eventually disappear, as the situation between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland will disappear in time.

Are you optimistic about the prospects of peace in the Middle East?

It’s bound to happen. Were you not surprised and pleased when the Egyptians and the Jews decided they had to live alongside each other?

I was disappointed that the Israelis and the Egyptians signed a separate peace treaty without involving the Palestinians.

I totally agree but isn’t it largely between all the Arabs and the Jews?

No, it is between the Palestinians and the Jews. But look what’s happened in Eastern Europe. We were saying not so long ago that we wouldn’t see it in our lifetime.

But neither with the Arabs and the Jews, nor with the Northern Irish Catholics and the Protestants, has there been the same subjugation of people as came about in Eastern Europe. Therefore the explosion in Eastern Europe cannot be repeated in the same manner in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The pattern will be different, but I still firmly believe that we live in a better world today than the one we lived in only three years ago.

But it can equally be claimed that the Palestinians of the West Bank are heavily subjugated by the Israelis at this point in time.

I’m sure they are. The party in power in Israel and the prime minister are awful. I sympathise with the Israeli Labour party. I think they genuinely want a settlement, a proper, fair and lasting settlement. Have you been back at all?

When my father was still alive, just before I became a publisher. I took my wife and my little boy. It was a very emotional journey.

Your family were from Haifa?

Yes, and my grandmother from Nazareth. But let’s get back to the questions I have for you. It’s said that the second most important satisfaction in your life, after founding your own publishing house, has been membership of the Garrick Club. Why was it so long denied you?

It’s important, but not that important. The truth is that I’m not a good clubman. I don’t go in and lunch alone, or mingle in the bar and chatter, but I do love the club. I don’t know why it was denied me so long, but as has happened with a good many other people, when I was first put up for membership my backers were advised to withdraw my name, so it wasn’t that I was blackballed. Then, years later, an author of ours, Lord Bethell, said to me innocently, ‘I never see you at the Garrick. Why don’t you come in more often?’ I said, ‘For a very good reason. I can only go if I’m invited.’ He said, ‘This is outrageous,’ put me up, and I was in.

Why was it important? Because you felt it gave you the status you wanted?

No, no. It’s just a marvellous club, full of interesting people, and I wanted to be part of it. Good heavens, I had no complex. I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, my God, here I am, a reasonably successful publisher and I’m not a member of the Garrick. That never occurred to me.

Rumour has it that you don’t enjoy the best relations with Lord Weidenfeld.

It’s not true. My relationship with George has had its sunny periods and its dark periods. I’ve known him longer than anybody in the publishing world. I first met him when he was working at the BBC, and we became close friends. He was marvellous company, we were young, and we saw a great deal of each other. George was initially backed by the people who owned Nicolson & Watson. They gave him printing facilities and the money and paper. He had a magazine called Contact, and that was how he started. He then began in publishing, starting Weidenfeld & Nicolson proper about two or three years before I started Andre Deutsch Ltd., so in that sense his company is my senior.

George at that point was flirting with the idea of working for Israel and living there, and after a while he approached me with the suggestion that we merge. This must have been in 1952. We arranged to have a talk and I took Diana and Nick along, who were much in favour and thought George a brilliant man with excellent connections. But at the last minute I said to them and George, ‘Right, let’s merge, though we must have 51 per cent.’ This wasn’t because of any mistrust of George, but was based on my bitter experience of what had happened to me at Allan Wingate. Nevertheless George was deeply offended and the whole thing faded away, but George kept coming back to the idea of merging.

Years later George said, ‘Look, I’ve tried to persuade you to merge, but you won’t, and I accept it now. How about if I buy you?’ I was amazed and put two questions to George: what with and what for? George said, ‘What with is no problem because of the City and banks and my financial connections. As for what for, you have that building in Great Russell Street. We sell that, and we have space in Clapham, so we merge and the office moves down there.’ But nothing came of it.

But you admire him?

I have enormous admiration, also some criticism.

You once said that women had been the greatest influence on your life.

I am more relaxed in women’s company than in men’s, though that is changing a bit as I get older, and I don’t mean in any sexual sense. Diana Athill was a great influence in my life and involved in my career. I’m absolutely certain that, without the support of Diana and lots of other people in the office, Andre Deutsch could not have become what it turned out to be.

You’re particularly fond of India. What attracted you?

Oh, the beauty of the country and the people. I discovered India rather late in life. However, my first exotic foreign involvement was the West Indies. Quite by chance, on a trip, I met lots of people and published many West Indian authors, including Eric Williams, a distinguished historian who happened to be prime minister of Trinidad. I also published Michael Manley, and there was a period from the late 1950s until the mid 1970s when we had a distinguished West Indian list. My next involvement was in Africa, where I started two publishing companies, one of which still exists. It’s a political story, of course.

I was going down to South Africa, either on my first or second visit, and Billy Collins said, ‘Don’t just fly over Africa. Get out. Have a look at it.’ So on the way down I stopped off in Nairobi, said hello to the press, the booksellers and so forth, and on the way back did the same in Lagos. Suddenly I got the idea that it would be nice to start a publishing company; not the old-fashioned colonial sort but something genuinely indigenous. With the help of the British High Commissioner, I met some very interesting people and started a firm called African Universities Press (AUP). It had 50 per cent Nigerian money and 50 per cent Andre Deutsch  money, and was by and large educational publishing, of which I had no experience though I took on some excellent people to work there.

Did you lose money?

If you add everything in, yes, but at about the same time, I’d got to know Tom Mboya, and he became interested in what we were trying to do in Nigeria. At a Commonwealth conference in London he took me to meet Kenyatta, and they said, ‘Once we have independence, why don’t you do the same thing in Nairobi?’ Eighteen months later I flew out to start the second genuine African publishing company, the East African Publishing House (EAPH). I was very unpopular in London. Few people supported me or approved of what I was doing. One of the few who did was Mark Longman, another was Alan Hill.

Now you are semi-retired, what next?

I don’t know.

But how do you spend your days?

If we were having this interview three years ago, I would be very different. More aggressive in my answers, more forthcoming. I’m not as sharp as I used to be.

Because of the circumstances?

Entirely. There has been a decline. Whether it’s reversible, time will tell. I just made a major mistake when I decided to sell the firm.

If you could live your life again, what, if anything, would you do differently, apart from not selling the business.

By and large I presume the same pattern would develop, because I don’t regret anything I’ve done, intellectually, morally or politically. I made lots of mistakes. I’m no genius.

Sometimes I say to my wife, there is only one thing I regret in life. I feel I should have started earlier when I see young men today achieving a great deal by an early age. The very wise answer she always gives me is, ‘You were not ready.’

I think it’s the other way round with me, because I achieved a lot when I was young. It was when I got older that I made the catastrophic mistake of selling the company.

But doesn’t that tell you that money is not the source of happiness?

Of course it tells me. Not making a lot of money never bothered me. I now have more money than I need, but it’s an ill-gotten gain. I got it because I sold the business. But I never attached much importance to money, otherwise I would have led a different sort of life.

Boris Yeltsin Remembered

Boris Yeltsin was a man of many parts.

Astute, courageous, unpredictable and outrageous, he shunned conformity and turned Russia from what was once a staunch and rigid communist state into a capitalist haven. The birth of the oligarchs was largely his creation, and a lasting testimony to his enterprising spirit.

He was a man of excesses, and his legacy lives on with the new breed of Russian billionaires who flaunt their wealth in a world stricken by severe recession, the likes of which we have not seen for three generations.

I first told these tales about him in August 1997 when I had a weekly column in the Daily Express, edited then by my good friend Richard Addis.

Yeltsin died ten years later, in April 2007.

Boris Yeltsin always denied being superstitious, but when his wife was due to be delivered of their second child (they already had one daughter) he put an axe and a peaked hat under her pillow to make sure she gave birth to a boy. The charm failed, however, and another daughter was born.

This was Tanya, who worked hard to make her father proud of her and compensate him for not having a son. She scored top marks at school and went on to the prestigious Moscow State University to study maths and cybernetics. Her speciality was the trajectories of spacecraft in orbit. No son could have done more to match her achievements.

When she was thirty-seven, her daughterly devotion was rewarded with an official appointment to be chief cultivator of her father’s public image. While she kept an eye on the cut of his suits and the sweep of his hair, she was also a power behind the throne, capable of real political influence. Her appointment provoked fierce opposition, with accusations of nepotism and constitutional violation, but Boris stood firm, seemingly inspired by the example of Jacques Chirac in France, whose daughter Claude had taken charge of his campaign.

Tanya’s real challenge came during the presidential elections of 1996. In her efforts to counteract what might have been called her father’s public relations problem, Tanya had taken on a daunting task, unhelped by bursts of erratic behaviour that usually arose from his liking for strong drink. Among his escapades had been the time of his visit to Washington, when he was discovered wandering in the street in his underwear outside the official guest house, saying he was looking for a pizza. The following night he was apprehended in the cellar by a guard who mistook him for a drunken intruder and had to be rescued by the Russian and American secret services.

Tanya needed to market an ailing president who had succumbed to the temptations of absolute power, selling him to an electorate which had become so jaded and cynical that it seemed only a miracle would persuade them to accept him. But the miracle duly occurred and Yeltsin was elected to serve a second term. The spin daughter had managed to transform her father into someone recognisably human, less remote from the people. She had even got him to shimmy on the dance floor. Being a bon viveur, he was always game for anything. When, before long, he was absent from office for a while, undergoing critical heart surgery, she took charge at centre stage. She was the only person he trusted.

The fact that Tanya and Boris had a preternaturally close relationship could perhaps be attributed to an early bonding experience. Once, when she was still a baby and her mother was ill, Boris took her on a long train journey to be looked after by her grandmother. He forgot to bring any milk with him, so after a while the baby started to scream and was not to be comforted. He searched the train for a nursing mother, but without success. Known for his ability to improvise, he finally opened his shirt and put the baby to his own unlactating breast, where she eventually relaxed and fell asleep. It is hard to say what lessons might be drawn from this, but it would be nice to think that any daughter who has been suckled by her father is destined for great things.

What might have been the dawn of a new political dynasty, however, was eclipsed by the melting pot of Russian history and the Putin hard line. But Tanya still has a voice and we may not have heard the last of her.

Meanwhile Boris will always be remembered for his heroic stance in 1991, when he mounted a tank to oppose the attempted coup when the Communist old guard sought to put the clock back on the era of glasnost and perestroika ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev. He showed political acumen, which created the new oligarchy of the day in Russia, and defended the progression of his country towards a modern society.