Monthly Archives: November 2013

Remembering Robert Mapplethorpe

I thought, in acknowledgement of it being World AIDS Day on 1st December and with the recent success of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, it might be interesting for readers of my blog to have the chance to revisit my memories of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 1984, Quartet’s New York office was more and more on the watch for likely books emanating from local contributors. Their recent discovery was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was attracting attention not only for his outstanding talent but also because of some of the subjects he chose to photograph. He was already revered and loathed in equal measure. Everyone agreed, however, that with his unique but disturbing style he ranked among the best photographers of his generation. He pushed degeneracy to extremes and stretched the boundaries of homoerotic imagery to a level of debauchery that was wilful, shocking and unashamedly revolting.

I met Mapplethorpe in his studio-cum-apartment in the Bowery. With Quartet having become internationally known for publishing plush photographic books, I had it in mind that he could be a natural addition to the list. He was oddly dressed in leather gear, with such fetishistic sex-aids as dildos, chains and whips strewn around his living area. The walls were covered with amazing photographs of young men and women in bizarre but powerful poses. The atmosphere was disturbing and I felt slightly uncomfortable until he led me into an adjoining room to show me some of his exquisite photographs of flowers. By these I was totally enchanted, affected by their beauty and the magic they seemed to generate. There was no doubting that they were masterworks and their creator a genius. I began to warm to him and to feel a growing optimism about the chances of landing him as a Quartet author. He said that he had photographed Rebecca Fraser – who he knew worked at Quartet – when she was in New York, and offered me a signed print. Thus the meeting ended on a positive note as we agreed to think about the most suitable terms for a future collaboration.

After this first encounter I was feeling quite excited about having his name on the list of famous photographers we published. On my next trip to New York, a couple of months later, I went to see him in the Bowery again. His place was still as cluttered as before with sexual contraptions of every imaginable kind, some of them with sado-masochistic connotations. This time I felt distinctly uncomfortable and had to struggle to maintain an appearance of relaxed unconcern. Robert was as outrageously dressed as usual, all in black leather, and although he lacked a whip he seemed as threatening as if he had one.

We exchanged pleasantries and then went straight to the heart of the matter. He would love to be published by Quartet, he said, but he would have to insist on a large advance against royalties and total editorial control over what appeared in the book. The size of the advance he specified would have been difficult for Quartet to raise, but not impossible; his second demand was another matter. Total control would have been unacceptable under any conditions. My instincts told me that his choice of some of his photographs was likely to be so reprehensible as to make any collaboration between us untenable.

When he had to leave the room to take an urgent phone call, I wandered into another room that he used to exhibit some of his latest work. There I was brought to a standstill by a series of photographs of fist-fucking so shocking that I experienced a surge of physical nausea. I darted back to where I had been sitting when he went to answer the phone and tried to regain my composure. When he came back I said I would consider the terms he suggested and made my exit without further ado.

I never saw him again, nor did Quartet ever publish any book of his. Robert Mapplethorpe died of the ravages of AIDS a few years later, hailed as one of the most accomplished photographers of his time. His fist-fucking photographs were later exhibited in New York amid a barrage of controversy. Today there are collectors worldwide of his photographs, which sell at auction for great sums of money.

I remember those more innocent times in New York with great affection, before the horrific onslaught of AIDS destroyed so many talented and creative men. I still covet my signed Robert Mapplethorpe print as a souvenir of my two meetings with him. He was indeed a photographer’s photographer.

Sophia Waugh

Last night we celebrated the launch of Cooking People, by Sophia Waugh, at Daunt on Marylebone High Street. Here is my speech in full.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sophia Waugh, the author of the book we are celebrating this evening, is very close to my heart.

It was thanks to her father, whom I had met casually on a number of occasions without ever really getting to know him and who subsequently wrote me an unexpected letter in 1984. It was a request for me to consider interviewing his eldest daughter Sophia – described by him as beautiful and fresh out of university – for a possible job at Quartet Books, an outfit he always referred to in the press as ‘Naim Attallah’s seraglio’.

I duly obliged and asked Sophia to come and see me at Namara House, where I had my headquarters. She arrived, simply dressed, and seemed totally confident and relaxed. She sat opposite me with her legs neatly tucked under her bottom and prattled away with no hint of inhibition or any special concession to formality.

I was won over by the sheer warmth of Sophia’s personality and had no hesitation about offering her a job.

Her response was spontaneously joyful as she accepted it on the spot and said she was prepared to start as soon as possible. Instead of shaking her hand as she left the office, I bent forward and kissed her.

Unbeknown to me she had already attended another interview with Alexander Chancellor, the then-editor of the Spectator and a close friend of her father. He too had offered her a post and according to his account she had said she would take it.

When the news broke that Sophia would be joining Quartet, Alexander complained to her father of his disappointment that she was choosing Quartet over the Spectator. Auberon was forthright with his response: ‘You should have kissed her, as Naim did.’

Well, this heralded the beginning of my warm and loving association with the Waugh family – especially with Bron, whose memory will remain with me until the day I too depart from this earth to the unknown beyond.

But we are here today to launch Sophia’s excellent book, Cooking People. With modern cookery books always at the top of the bestseller lists, Sophia looks at the differences – and the similarities – between cooking then and now. Looking not at the grand dishes of the courts, but at the domestic cookery at the heart of our culture, Sophia traces the food writers who have changed the way we eat.

Her contribution is an ideal Christmas gift since the Festive Season invariably entails indulging in culinary delights. So it is an opportunity to show Sophia the generous side to your character by purchasing more than one copy of her book to make her evening a memorable event.

I will now conclude this longer address than usual by quoting her own words, which encapsulates the thrust of her subject: ‘We eat, we think about eating, and we write, and read, about eating. Fashions may change, but there are some things that never can. On the walls of the oldest known tomb of an Egyptian woman are painted pictures of bread-making so detailed that they amount to a recipe…’

I hope after all this endeavour you will come up trumps by dipping deep in your pockets and flashing fifty-pound notes, and requesting little change.

Beware the Little Woman’s Wrath

There are two old sayings: ‘He that has a wife has strife’; and, ‘He that has a wife has a master.’

The husband with his new girlfriend

A tycoon who claims to be bankrupt was ordered to pay his estranged wife £20 million last week after a judge ruled he has hidden his wealth from the High Court. Mr Justice Moor said he believed Scot Young, fifty-one, was worth £45 million with ‘wads of cash in his possession’, and gave him twenty-eight days to pay Michelle Young the lump sum, plus £5 million in costs.

Instead of being relieved with the ruling Mrs Young, forty-nine, who wanted at least £300 million, called the decision a ‘disgrace’ and asserted that the saga was far from over. The ruling, which marks the climax of a bitterly acrimonious seven-year divorce battle, has enraged his wife who has accused her husband of fraud and manipulation in claiming that he was now bankrupt and had debts to the tune of £28 million.

Mrs Young has apparently spent already £6.4 million in legal fees  and expert costs in an all-consuming fight to the financial death with her husband, whom she claims is worth ‘a few billion’ and has robbed her and their two daughters by concealing his assets offshore (see picture below).

It is hard to believe that in a time of world-wide austerity a sum of £20 million awarded, regardless of how much her husband may or may not be worth, is sniffed at by a wife whose greed is unlikely to gain her any sympathy from the public. It simply goes to prove that a woman either loves or hates in extremes.

And Mrs Young is a prime example of the dangers that await a married couple when their bond is ruptured and the woman’s revenge takes over her life, often to a calamitous end. A sad story of a failed marriage fought in a public arena with no holds barred, as in this case, will reflect badly on the institution of marriage that a lot of us consider as sacrosanct. The young generation will feel threatened by such a display of damnable behaviour, which will give them pause to ponder before taking the challenge of any matrimonial immersion that should last a lifetime.

I hope Mrs Young will reflect deeply and sensibly and put an end to this unpleasant saga that has run its course by now.

I can only pray that a divine intervention will follow to heal the wounds of this senseless battle by two people who must have once loved each other and brought up two lovely daughters to bless their union.

Is the Female Deadlier than the Male?

Rivalry among women is more predominant than society is willing to admit.

Even the best of friends compete to outshine one another. I remember Marlene Dietrich, when she was living on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, always made sure that any companion or friend who accompanied her to an event was less attractive than herself so that she would remain the focus of attention. It is part of the capriciousness of the female species, embedded in their genes.

The latest incident which has gripped the headlines last week was the case of Rebecca Adlington, the Olympic gold medal winner, getting all weepy and losing her self-confidence at the sight of bikini-clad beauty queen Amy Willerton in the Australian jungle.

Adlington, twenty-four, has two gold medals to her credit as well as seventeen other major awards and is Britain’s most successful swimmer ever. Now retired, she has great stamina and oodles of talent and an athlete’s tireless work ethic. She is popular, a good conversationalist and is fortunate to be engaged to a debonair fellow swimmer, Harry Needs.

Her body has a healthy look and a perfect swimmer’s form that many a woman would love to have. However, it didn’t take her long to lose her normal poise in the rough and uncomfortable surroundings in the jungle pit of I’m a Celebrity – and knuckle-under in wallflower anguish.

Experts believe that Rebecca could suffer psychological damage as they accuse the ITV show’s makers of ‘deliberately manipulating’ Ms Adlington to increase viewer ratings. The athlete covered herself in a one-piece swimsuit last Friday, a day after she broke down confessing she has struggled with abusive comments about her looks for years.

The outburst was triggered by the sight of Amy Willerton wearing revealing bikinis to soap herself under a waterfall built into the programme’s set. Ms Adlington became tearful during an interview as she discussed her own body hang-ups which came to the fore in the shadow of Amy’s curvaceous body.

Willerton, twenty-one, is a very pretty girl who happened to grace my office when she accompanied a good friend of mine when he came to visit about six or seven weeks ago. I found her a bubbly sort of person, nicely spoken, intelligent and no doubt good at other essential things. She has a sexual kind of magnetism which overwhelms naturally without being contrived. I liked her a lot.

As for tearful Rebecca, may I suggest she ignores the comparison the media is highlighting and be proud and grateful for her own achievements which are pretty remarkable; not in the field of modelling, but in other venues that made her an iconic athlete. She of all people must know that rivalry in all things boosts the level of excellence.

Lord Lambton Remembered

In the mid 1980s I and my wife stayed at Tony Lambton’s home at Villa Citenale near Siena.

We were given a guest bedroom that he claimed was haunted. It was typical of Tony to try to unnerve his guests while playing the perfect host. The ghosts must have been hibernating when we were there as they never made their presence felt. Any discomfort we experienced was of a less ethereal kind, for the old-fashioned bed had a sinking mattress that made sleep virtually impossible. During the night we were forced to lift it off its base and deposit it on the floor to give it a flat, stable surface on which we tried to get a night’s repose. Tony’s response was to be rather amused when he realized his guests had spent the night on the floor in preference to making the most of an imposing bed that had no doubt been witness to many an indiscretion, perhaps even of an ecclesiastical nature. The villa had been the family home of Fabio Chigi, who became Pope Alexander VII in 1655 and rebuilt the house for his nephew, Cardinal Flavio Chigi.

Tony’s life could have been described as having much the same flavour as that of a dissolute monarch of a bygone age, but in his case his wicked sense of humour redeemed his less orthodox indulgences. There was also a counter-balance in his notorious frugality. Once, when there were several people expected for lunch at Villa Citenale, he suggested we should have as a starter a tomato salad. He then led the way into the gardens where there was a vegetable patch he tended, of which he was very proud. Dozens of tomatoes were flourishing in the Italian sun, but I had only picked a few before he commanded. ‘Don’t pick any more.’ I tried to say there wouldn’t be enough for everyone, but he was adamant: ‘I can’t stand wasting food!’ Another time I took my wife and Lambton’s live-in companion Clair Ward into Florence for a stupendous meal. When we got back. Tony was furious at what he called our wasteful pursuit of gluttony. He had his eccentricities, but was a great friend and, to some, a much feared enemy. His death in December 2006 made our world a duller place.

It is such a pity that his children are now in litigation regarding his estate, which he left to his son in its entirety. Who says that inheritance is a blessing, when it often divides families and sows the seeds of bitter conflict.

A Book for Christmas: The Year of Miracle and Grief

First published in 1984, this gem of a book is hauntingly enchanting, and has a serenade quality like a piece of music that never dates.

A twelve-year-old boy finds magic, mystery, romance and sadness at the beautiful Lake Baikal, deep in Siberia, considered the oldest lake on earth. As his astonishment yields to inquisitiveness, he begins to explore the fairy tale of the area… 

miracle and griefTranslated from the Russian by Jennifer Bradshaw, it never loses its poetic flow and its impact transports the reader to a world where innocence and charm transcend the cruel world we live in.

It’s a book for Christmas, written with flair and an imaginative perception by Leonid Borodin, a Christian writer and Soviet dissident who was arrested more than once and imprisoned for his beliefs.

The New York Times called the book ‘a work of art so seamless and so natural one can only imagine it took ages and ages of hard dreaming to construct’. Having spent so many years in jail, the author had ample enforced time to dream – which helped him to survive and in so doing create a mythical world of his own for our enjoyment and benefit.

Order your copy now. You will not regret it.

A Woman a Week: Nicole in a Commando Mood

Nicole Scherzinger is an American singer, songwriter, television personality and occasional dancer.

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, she made an appearance on the television series Pop Stars in her adulthood, earning herself a spot in the band Eden’s Crush and then achieved widespread recognition as the lead vocalist for pop group the Pussycat Dolls, one of the world’s best-selling girl groups of all time, before commencing her career as a solo recording artist in 2007.

As the primary voice for the Pussycat Dolls, both in the studio and onstage, she has sold fifty million records worldwide and a further sixteen million as a solo artist. She has earned numerous awards and accolades.

In 2013 she was ranked eighth sexiest artist of all time by VH1.

Julien MacDonald, the famous Welsh fashion designer, has done it again within the short space of one week. First, his stunning creation for Abbey Clancy, and now with one sensational, thigh-revealing catsuit for Nicole – which will certainly raise even the most static of eyebrows.

I am not in the least surprised, having followed Nicole avidly as a judge on The X-Factor. She exudes the kind of sexuality and warmth seldom seen on the screen, and has a natural tendency to shed all inhibitions when it comes to expressing her inner feelings, tearful at times, when moved by a song – and is not afraid to show it.

In brief, a multi-talented freak of nature, Nicole is deliciously edible, a banquet of delights. For this reason alone, I rate her very highly and have pleasure in nominating her as my woman of the week.

May her beauty and grace continue to entertain and enthral us at the same time.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing, who died last weekend at the age of ninety-four, was a literary giant who lived long enough to turn against practically all the strongly held convictions of her youth.

Born of British parents in Persia in 1919, she was taken to southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was five. She first came to England in 1949, and the following year saw the publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing. In 1954 she received the Somerset Maugham Award for her collection of short stories, Five. Her celebrated novels include The Golden Notebook, The Summer Before the Dark and Memoir of a Survivor. In 1985 she won the WH Smith Literary Award and also the Mondello Prize in Italy for her novel The Good Terrorist.

In 1994 Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, was published – followed by the second volume, Walking in the Shade, in 1997. She derided literary prizes but scooped most of them, including the Nobel Prize in 2007. At eighty-eight she was the oldest woman ever to win it, and only the eleventh woman to receive the award.

I first met Doris in 1986 when I interviewed her briefly for my book, Women, published in 1987. I recall going to her house in Hampstead, North London, where I was greeted with open arms. I found her easy to get on with, and thoroughly enjoyed her company.

In 1997 I went to see her again – this time, to interview her at length, to include in a book I subsequently published titled In Conversation with Naim Attallah.

My impression of her was of a woman larger than life, whose background and exploits were not easily definable as she herself was in many ways a tortured soul bereft of any real measure of happiness. Her honesty and humility could not have been more transparent, and her ability to be self-critical was at the very core of her inner strength.

Our interview in 1997 will give the reader the essence of what made this complex and awe-inspiring novelist a literary colossus. Here it is in full.

During your life you have never allowed yourself to settle too long or too comfortably in any particular creed, even though you have never lacked conviction. Would you say, looking back, that you have constantly invented and reinvented yourself? 

I don’t agree I am a person of conviction. The only time in my life when I had real conviction was the time when I was a Communist, but that didn’t last very long. I am without fixed opinions generally, because I always find it very difficult to make up my mind about anything. When I was young I was very aggressive and antagonistic and abrasive, but then I was fighting on all fronts against a society which at that time couldn’t see any reason why the tiny white minority shouldn’t hold down an enormous black majority. It could be said that those were strong beliefs which I defended, but for a long time now I’ve been a wishy-washy liberal.

Even though you have been in London for most of your life, do you think you have always had the perspective of an exile, and this has perhaps allowed you to look at the familiar in a different way? 

Yes, I have a double view all the time. My parents were so archetypally British, and yet I am absolutely outside this culture. This is very valuable for a writer.

You found the colonialism in Rhodesia suffocating and provincial and terribly unjust – and this has informed several of your novels. Was it purely an adult recognition of the iniquity of white superiority, or were you aware of it as a child and simply gave your childish reaction adult expression? 

That’s a very good question. You see, I was a natural rebel so it could be said that in rebelling against my parents and what they stood for it was natural of me to use the inequalities of white supremacy against them. But I don’t think it was really as simple as that. I remember being socked very early at what I was seeing around me, genuinely shocked. But of course if you are standing out against your parents you pick up any stick to hand to beat them with, and it’s true they supported the British Empire as if it were a religion. No one understands this now, it’s gone so completely.

Have you been aware of racist attitudes since you came to London? 

Oh yes, a great deal, all the time. It’s very subtle. In the circles I move among the people are probably not even aware that they have them. But I have a very privileged life, I don’t live in the parts of the country where racism is violent.

You are known to be uneasy about the genre of autobiography. Indeed you once said, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Can you explain what you mean by that? 

Not easily. It is the simple case that a scene in which perhaps only half of the characters are real and the other half invented can be more truthful than the absolute facts; and I don’t understand it at all. When I was writing my autobiography I was actually comparing it with scenes in A Golden Notebook. The strange thing was that the one was absolutely full of life and yet it was only half the truth, whereas when I was writing the truth it lacked life and vividness in comparison.

Your autobiography was written as a kind of defence against the biographies and profiles written about you. What is it you fear principally? 

Inaccuracy. They always get their facts wrong, they just don’t care. But I always meant to write my autobiography at some point, and since I’m now seventy-six I can’t keep putting it off.

Do you believe that what can perhaps be explained and resolved in fiction often remains inexplicable and unresolvable in life, in oneself? 

Yes, but all the time you see your life differently. They way I see my life now is completely different from ten or twenty years ago. Maybe by the time I come to die it will all be clear to me, who knows. It’s also a completely different creative process if you’re writing imaginatively. Your whole self goes into it in a way it can’t when you’re writing an autobiography.

Under My Skin was published last year and covers the first thirty years of life. What difference did it make that it was written by a woman in her seventies with all the knowledge and uncertainty which old age brings? 

The interesting thing is that if I am spared, as they say, and if God wishes me to be alive in ten years’ time, I’m prepared to bet I would see everything differently. I used to think that if I took an autobiography down off a shelf I would know what the writer thinks about life. Now I know that it is only what he or she think about life at the time of writing, like an interim report.

In your childhood the absence of love from your mother was a bitter deprivation. Do you believe that we ever really get over wounds inflicted in our early years? 

No, I don’t think we really do. You can compensate for them and understand them but you never really get over them. In me there’s a certain bleakness of view I will never lose, a kind of wariness, a lack of trust.

How did you know there was a lack of love? 

It’s something as simple as how you are held by someone. I remember how my father would hold me on his knee, and the way my mother would handle me, as if I were something she had to manage. And when I met my brother in old age I saw the effect of it all. He was the much loved boy and consequently had an amazing emotional response to everything. And I thought how strange it was that I understood more about him than he did about himself, because I could see in him an immediate physical affection which I’ve had to learn later in life. I would say I’m naturally a very affectionate person, but I had a blight on me when I was young, and I had to lose that.

 The legacy of the First World War brutalized a whole generation and cast a shadow over your childhood. Do you think that the First World War was uniquely horrible in this respect, or do all wars exact a similar price? 

I think the First World War was the worst. It wounded Europe deeply, and we haven’t got over it. It was such a holocaust, such a murderous war, unnecessarily so, such a contempt for life. I don’t think we’ve recovered from it.

There was a sense of betrayal felt by people like your father – who lost a leg and was shell-shocked – and contempt for the British government. To what extent did this shape your own attitude to Britain and the British? 

A great deal. I was brought up breathing contempt for authority, which came directly from my father. It applied not only to the British, because the Germans and French had it too – you’ve only got to read the books of that time. The First World War left a legacy of contempt for authority all over Europe, and it’s a terrible legacy.

You tried very hard not to be like your parents, not to be held together and trapped in the way they were, almost – as you say yourself – as if you were trying to stand outside the human condition. Do you think you have succeeded in standing on the outside? 

No, certainly not. Who can? I don’t want to go into why, but I very much regard all that, the thoughts I had then, as the most romantic nonsense.

Do you actually believe this unhappiness in childhood, this struggle and the pain of it all, actually helped the writer in you? If you had a happy carefree childhood do you think things might have turned out differently? 

I don’t think it’s unhappiness so much. A child who’s had a very stressed childhood becomes an observer, and it’s very good preparation for being a writer.

You describe your mother as a tragic figure ‘living out her disappointing years with courage and dignity’. Did that insight include forgiveness? 

Forgiveness is a very funny word, you know. It seems to me that forgiveness is understanding. Since I understand exactly why she was the way she was, I forgive her. When I was a little girl I was full of pity for her, which isn’t at all the same, but it took me almost until the age of seventy to understand her, to see just how terrible her life was. And that’s forgiveness, I think.

Do you believe that we necessarily repeat the patterns of our parents, or can we simply decide to break the link in the chain? 

I think we can break it, yes, but often you find it’s almost as if a script is there and you have to repeat the words.

Do you think the fact that you left your own two small children had anything to do with the feeling that you in turn might inflict similar damage on them? 

You have no idea of what life was like, the life of the white minority in Southern Rhodesia. It was a nightmare of stupidity and intolerance and narrow-mindedness. I wouldn’t have survived it, I just couldn’t have lived it. When I left my children I was thinking, at least I’m not going to inflict this terrible legacy on them, a legacy which causes women to turn into disappointed, trapped people. These women have ceased to exist in this culture, thank God – those who have talent and energy but nothing to use it on, so they take it out on their children. I would have done it to mine if I hadn’t left.

But did you ever regret that decision? 

 No, I didn’t, because I did the right thing. I’m amazed that I had the clear-mindedness to see what I should do, because it was awful of course in one way.

That part of your story is very scantily told. Even adding together your political crusade, your urge to improve the world, your need to get away, to have a different life, they scarcely explain the enormity of what you did. Can it be explained, do you think? 

It can be explained, but I don’t know if people can see. I knew I would not survive that life, which is why I left. Don’t forget I had my mother on my back day and night, and I was obsessed with not being like her. I was not the only woman to feel that way; all the women I knew of my age group had mothers who drove them round the bend by all the time trying to live their lives for them. When I left those children it was not the children I was leaving, it was the way of life. Of course I should have done it; if I had not done it I would have been finished.

Did you experience the ravages of guilt? 

Of course I did, it’s very clear. What a lot of people miss in the autobiography is several pages of, ‘Oh my God, how could I have done such a dreadful thing!’ Surely it must be taken for granted that I was likely to have found it a painful experience without my spelling it out.

There are other parts of your life which might also have fascinated the reader, which you have glossed over, almost defiantly avoiding explanation or elucidation. Your marriages, for example, are presented as incidental. Is this because they are too private, or now too remote perhaps? 

I think I said quite a lot about the first marriage. I walked into a role in that society where there were certain things I had to do, and I did them. I have to say I did them all rather well – I was a good wife while I was a wife. It was a classical and conventional and not very emotional marriage. What more is there to be said about this kind of marriage? The second was also a very common marriage at the time. People married refugees to give them a nationality and a status, and it was a normal thing to do. It was a political act. – Lessing would have been put back in an internment camp if I hadn’t married him.

Was there any room for love? 

When I first married I hadn’t really grown up emotionally; I was just a girl with an undeveloped heart – a competent, cheerful, affectionate woman who had never really loved anyone. There was nothing wrong with this – a lot of people got married in just this way. And he was not desperately in love with me. Everyone was getting married because of the war. The second one was completely different, in that we knew we wouldn’t stay married. There was never any point any suggestion of that. It was completely political. From my point of view I was marrying an anti-fascist, an anti-Nazi, a hero from Europe, but as far as my parents were concerned, I was marrying a bloody German in the middle of a war against Germany. It was terrible for them.

When you touch on your marriages, there is no sense of happiness or romance conveyed. Is that because there was no happiness, or is it because the happiness has been erased from your memory? 

There was nothing romantic about my first marriage; it was more comradely and friendly.

But was it happy? 

Apart from the fact that I hated every minute of my life, yes.

Do you think you were just unsuited to marriage itself? 

Well, later on it was a different matter all together. I don’t think I grew up emotionally until my thirties. I think I was suited to marriage then, but by that time it was quite difficult for any man to marry a woman like me.

Were your political affiliations principally a way of dealing with the injustice and the unsatisfactoriness of life, or was it more that they offered an escape? 

Neither. What people forget is that everybody became a Communist then. I find this the most astonishing thing, that a whole epoch has disappeared and no one understands. My editor at HarperCollins asked how it was possible for me to become a Communist a few pages after I wrote that I was socially concerned. I do not have to explain to anyone of my generation in the West why I became a Communist. Everybody did. Indeed there was a time when I never met anyone who wasn’t a communist.

But was it a kind of a fashion, or was it because you felt deeply about the injustices in the world? 

Of course I felt deeply about the injustices of the world, but the reason why everybody became Communist then was because they saw Communism as a cure for everything.

In your autobiography you write of your Communist period saying, ‘We were young and foolish then…’ But you were so sucked in, so much part of the high-minded idealism … was the pain of disillusionment not completely overwhelming? 

No, but it took quite a long time to recover. Don’t forget I wasn’t one of those who were a thousand percent Communist. For them it was terrible when Communism turned out badly; it ruined their lives, they committed suicide, God knows what they didn’t do. But for me when it proved not to be what we thought it was, it was not a major blow.

You have said that you are no longer political. What do you think it would take to sustain belief in a political movement? 

I take the view that we kid ourselves when we think we’re in charge of our affairs; we just adapt and trot along like little dogs. It’s different when there is a war or something terrible like that, but most of the time nothing happens in the way it was planned; everyone simply adjusts to events after they happen. I care very much that we make such a mess of things, but it doesn’t matter a damn who I vote for. We always think that somebody is going to get in and change everything; well they can’t, they’re netted, they’re surrounded by events they have to submit to. We’re not at all masters of our destiny; we just make small adjustments here and there as we go along.

I was fascinated by your description of burgeoning sexuality in a young girl, the power of desire and so on, and also by your suggestion that a fourteen-year-old girl could benefit from initiation by an older man. Did you perhaps have this experience yourself? 

No, but I wish I had had it. I should have been taken on by a man of about twenty-five, and I personally think it would have been very good for me, and probably for him, but of course our society is not set up for that. What happens is that all this raging sexuality of teenagers goes into ridiculous behaviour. We make a joke of it and say that adolescents are sex crazed; well, they are sex crazed, nearly all of them, but it’s the most terrible suffering and waste of energy. And they do ridiculous things like getting pregnant or getting married too young, all this kind of thing.

You are very much aware of the way women are in the grip of powerful forces, the various natural cycles, as well as the need to have babies, the biological imperative … are you pleased to be free of all that? 

I’m very glad I don’t have to menstruate any more, for example, or that I don’t have to think about whether or not I should have another baby. I take the view that women, from the time they have their first period until they are middle-aged, are powerfully in the grip of nature’s desire that they should have babies. I don’t think young women are taught enough about this. The best you can do is to be aware of it, and most women are, of course, but it’s such a powerful thing. Young people are taught they are free, they can have choices, do what they like, and they’re in control; well, they’re not, particularly not if they are women.

Do you think that all can be explained in terms of biological imperative? 

Not quite all. My latest novel looks for an explanation for falling in love when you’re old, when it can have no possible biological use. I addressed the question, but I just don’t know the answer. When you’re young you think that you fall in love because it’s time you got married or had another baby, but I’m wondering if we don’t fall in love because of a terrible lack in ourselves, a yearning for something else completely. And the yearning for another human being isn’t necessarily to do with that person; it could also be for another dimension in life.

You have made some very scathing remarks about feminism … is it doubly irritating that feminists often claim you as one of their own? 

I don’t mind that so much. It’s more that they could have achieved so much and they haven’t. That great burst of energy in the 1960s was so extraordinary, but most of it was completely wasted, frittered away, mostly in slanging each other. I find it extremely painful.

You have been quite preoccupied with the problem of evil which found expression in two of your most recent novels, The Fifth Child and The Good Terrorist. Do you believe that evil is innate in human nature? 

Other people saw The Fifth Child as evil, I didn’t. This creature was a genetic throwback and I was interested in him as someone who would be perfectly valid in the wrong context. About The Good Terrorist, I thought I was simply describing a certain kind of political animal of whom there are far too many, but it wasn’t evil, it was just a terrible waste of everything. I don’t like the word evil.

Your multiplicity of styles and genres has perplexed, sometimes enraged, your faithful readership. Is that something that you understand? For example, someone who is hooked on The Golden Notebook is going to be somewhat fazed by five volumes of space fiction… 

I’m glad to say that some of my readers like both. There are of course people who like only the science fiction, and some who only like realism, but both seem to me to be very narrow minded actually.

Where do you stand now on the question of religion? Do you subscribe to any particular faith? 

I don’t like the organized religions much. I try to study Sufism, but of course the Sufis are not bound to any particular religion.

Do you believe in God? 

That’s a very interesting question … what god? The word god is loaded. I was listening to someone on the radio this morning saying that God is a very wicked person. Well, I think we could helpfully leave this word out for a while because it is so debased.

Reading your autobiography there are many important events, such as marriage, which are attributed to the Fates or Mother Nature or to some uncontrollable power. This is difficult to reconcile with the young girl who chanted, ‘I will not, I will not’, against her parents … the girl who left school, left home, went to Salisbury to become a secretary and so on. How are they reconciled in your own mind? 

That seems to me to be the great irony of the book. The young girl was always saying, ‘I will not do this, I will not do that,’ when in actual fact she was continually doing things that she didn’t want to do. When I was a girl I said to myself I would not get married until I was much older. In fact I married when I was not quite nineteen. Why? Because war was coming, and everyone was getting married. I was a little fish in a pond with a wave.

Much of your writing has been to do with different perspectives on insanity and mental breakdown. Is writing itself, the creative process, a form of madness. 

It can trip over into madness, but mostly I don’t think it’s any more mad than anything else we do. I take the view that we are a pretty mad race, at least not very sane. Writing is a kind of way we have evolved to examine ourselves. I always say we never pay enough respect to literature for what it is, which is an extraordinary way of describing our lives. Without it we would know so much less about ourselves.

Many writers consider their art to be a way of dealing with the mad bad world, a way of imposing order on the chaos of living … does the same go for you, and have you been successful in your own terms? 

I agree it is a way of trying to impose order, but whether I’ve been successful is another question. I’m always aware of how little I’ve done of what I wanted to do. But all writers are like that. They always say, oh my God, I could have done so much better. I am no different.

My Friend James Palumbo

In this Saturday’s Times James Palumbo, the owner of the iconic nightclub Ministry of Sound, who recently joined his father in the House of Lords, believes it may be time to end a family feud that has lasted over thirty years.

I first met James nearly two decades ago, when I was CEO of the Asprey group of companies and he an aspiring merchant banker in the City. My personal cook at Asprey was a great friend of one of his sisters and that’s how the introduction took place, and he subsequently came to lunch. We got on quite well, and he left me with the impression that he would no doubt scale heights of excellence in whatever business career he embraced. I was not wrong. He forged ahead with speed and determination and earned himself an enviable lifestyle and a sizeable fortune to boot.

From our first encounter, his amiable personality struck a chord with me and I could easily envisage that beneath the surface lurked a soaring ambition, signalling a devastating litany of achievements to come.

TOMAS_frontI hadn’t seen him since we first met until three years ago when Quartet published his acclaimed debut novel Tomas, but my memories of him were still as sharp and resplendent, as if a bonding between us had been there all along without my being cognisant of its presence. It was then that a friendship grew and gained momentum as time passed.

James is a man of many parts: an astute and dynamic entrepreneur who never shies away from a challenge or a fight that threatens his interests or the well-being of his two sisters or, for that matter, his close friends. His ambition to make his mark is impregnable and his horizons remain undefinable.

On a more sensitive matter, Lord Palumbo senior would certainly win the admiration of all those who wish him well if he were to bury the hatchet, and end his painful estrangement from his son that I believe has surely run its course by now.

Entretemps switching to another mode, I always look forward to having lunch with James at his club in Hertford Street where we banter and gossip and rekindle past follies, to remind ourselves that our young spirits remain as vibrant as they have ever been. For such an exercise relaxes the mind, at least for a flicker of time, before it actuality hones in to bring us back to the real world which is often bereft of such frivolities.

James and I have much in common despite our age difference. Our lexicon of proximities include a power house of energy, an insatiable search for knowledge, hard work to achieve a designated objective and to live on the premise that infinity is negotiable…and finally, our most cherished and basic inclinations hover around the beauty of the female form in all its splendour and sensuality, without which our raison d’être would expire in a sombre mood.

The above is at least my own vision of our similarities. If fantasy has got the better of me then the enterprising young Palumbo will soon put me right.

French Liberalism for Good or Bad

Nicholas Sarkozy’s name keeps cropping up these days in a variety of ways.

His first wife, to the astonishment of many people, has come to his defence lately and seems to bear him no grudge about the failure of their marriage. In fact, she appears well disposed towards Carla Bruni and has visited her on many an occasion.

On the other hand, as if to keep his name in print, two of his glamorous political protégées are having an open cat fight.

Both were propelled by the former French president into powerful ministerial posts. However, a bitter rivalry has long festered between the ‘Sarkozettes’: Rachida Dati and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, according to a new biography of Ms Dati.

The daughter of North African immigrants, Ms Dati, forty-six, grew up on a rough housing estate in Burgundy with ten brothers and sisters that her father, a bricklayer, struggled to support. Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, forty, comes from a family with a long and illustrious political pedigree. Her father was a mayor, her grandfather served as an ambassador in Washington and she traces her ancestry back to Lucretia Borgia, the femme fatale of Italian Renaissance politics.

According to the book by Elizabeth Chavelet, a senior editor of Paris Match, the two elegant but sharp-tongued political stars ‘detest each other’.

‘Rachida can’t stand  that daughter of a rich family… with her speeches devoid of ideas, who’s never worked, not even to buy herself a cup of coffee,’ a close associate of Ms Dati is quoted as saying of Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, who elbowed Ms Dati aside to become the Paris mayoral candidate of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Ms Dati, who is now mayor of the prosperous 7th arrondissement of Paris, is a member of the European Parliament and a deputy leader of the UMP, and is petite but pugnacious. She loves boxing and her sparring partner, Constance Benqué, the head of Lagardére Global Advertising, is quoted as saying: ‘When I’m worn out and ready to call an ambulance, Rachida’s ready for more.’

The author describes the ‘Dati method’ as ‘a blend of seduction and violence’, which explains why the book is titled Rachida never Dies.

It relates her long-running feud with Geoffroy Didier, a fellow EMP member and Sarkozy supporter who she once threatened outside the Elysée Palace, saying: ‘Do you want me to break your chins?’ While the book offers some explanation of why Mr Sarkozy and Ms Dati became close, the former French president in 2010 said that appointing her as Justice Minister too soon was ‘the greatest human resources error I made’. Ms Dati was hated by the judiciary who believed that she did not have a grasp of legal issues and was also seen as an intellectual lightweight.

However, Ms Chavelet writes that Mr Sarkozy and Ms Dati have plenty in common. ‘They both love bling and money. They resemble each other a lot. To some extent she is the diamond of the Sarkozy generation. She’s his creature.’

French politics have always intrigued me. Every president of France that I can recall, with the exception of General de Gaulle, has been a magnet for women irrespective of age, size, looks or, for that matter, intellect. The charisma has always been the Office. Even President Hollande has women fighting for him and that’s hard to imagine.

I once asked Édith Cresson, an ex-prime minister of France who at one time was rumoured to be President Mitterrand’s mistress, what it was that made the French public tolerant to the sexual peccadilloes of their presidents. It didn’t take her long to retort, without raising an eyelid, that everybody understands canoodling with women is a perk that goes with the job.

That’s what I would call a liberal society gone crackers, to the ultimate delight of those men in power – particularly in France.