Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Woman of the Year…

There is no stopping Miley Cyrus, the new vagabond of the entertainment world who has become the most outrageous young celebrity to hit the headlines.

Her talent is phenomenal in as much as it appeals to the new liberal, or libertine, generation of young men and women who find her charisma hard to resit.

She has turned herself into a sex icon with no holds barred – embracing vulgarity as a means to get a vampish recognition, leaving little to the imagination.

Her natural confidence has propelled her to spheres where few dare to tread, and yet she has managed to create a spell-binding image of herself which might be off-putting to some but mesmerising to her fans.

She is big news wherever she goes, singing, stripping, sticking out her tongue and twerking. Although one can feel at times rather appalled by her antics, she is nevertheless difficult to ignore.

A great force to be reckoned with, she has amassed a fortune while still at the tender age of twenty-one. People in the entertainment industry believe that it won’t be long now before her earning capabilities make her a billionairess.

She certainly knows where she’s going. No one should underestimate her frolicking and rude gestures and write her off as a spoilt brat whose time of glory is rather limited. Her bag of tricks seems to be endless.

For that reason, I choose her as my disgraceful woman of the year – and still hope to be stunned by her behaviour in 2014.

See you on 6th January!

What do Lord Byron and Brian Sewell Have in Common?

Lady Caroline Lamb, the mistress of Lord Byron, once described him as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.

One must presume it was due to his numerous affairs, and even rumours of incest, that led her to formulate such harsh words to depict him. Yet according to a new book, the great poet’s true passion was animals and, in particular, dogs. Geoffrey Bond, the author of Lord Byron’s Best Friends, and one of the original experts on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow programme, concludes that despite his hedonistic style and his harem of women, animals were Byron’s best friends.

On one occasion, writes Bond, Byron was so infuriated by the rules at Trinity College, Cambridge that prevented him from keeping one of his dogs there, he instead kept a bear in his room. ‘Bryon found relationships with animals easier than with humans,’ said Bond, who lives in Burgage Manor, Nottinghamshire, one of Byron’s childhood homes. ‘Dogs, in particular, were always of great comfort.’

When his favourite dog, Boatswain, a Newfoundland, died, Byron had a large tomb built in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire. On it was written Epitaph to a Dog, one of his better-known poems, which begins: ‘Near this spot are deposited the Remains of one who possessed Beauty without Vanity…’ Bond’s book, published by Nick McCann Associates, also prints, for the first time, The Wonderful History of Lord Bryon and his Dog, an illustrated poem by Elizabeth Pigot, a neighbour and friend of Byron’s.

The poet, who before his death in Greece in 1884 aged thirty-six, wrote narrative poems including Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage also owned mastiffs, bulldogs and Mutz, a smaller dog which he bought in 1816. In one letter he wrote: ‘Bought a dog – a very ugly dog, but trés méchant. He hath no tail and is called Mutz.’

Well, Brian Sewell’s brilliant book, Sleeping with Dogs, which Quartet has just published, will sit comfortably with Geoffrey Bond’s.

What a Christmas bonanza for book lovers who feel passionately about their dogs, to treat themselves to these titles and celebrate the festive season with two gems to remind them of their most loyal and loving companions!

The Purveyor of Sexual Gratification

The controversial Danish film director Lars von Trier has made a full-frontal, four-hour art house porn movie starring his favourite actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and a host of well-known actors and actresses including Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Stellan Skarsgård and Jamie Bell.

The film will premiere – rather inappropriately – on Christmas Day in Copenhagen. Nymphomaniac, the title of the film, is shot in English and stars Gainsbourg as Joe, a sex addict, who is found badly beaten in an alley and later tells her long and graphic story to an older man, Seligman (played by Skarsgård). The young Joe is played by twenty-two-year-old British actress Stacy Martin, and the drama leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination – although actual penetration and other sexual variations were completed by body doubles from the porn industry.

There has been much media foreplay in the form of softcore pornographic trailers, one of which was banned, and a highly amusing poster campaign which showed the faces of fourteen actors in mid orgasm. But those who have seen a rough cut of the film say it is surprisingly unerotic and that the first half is easier to stomach than the sadomasochism and violence of the second.

Uma Thurman is said to turn in a fine, if short, performance during which she says to the young Joe: ‘Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?’

Starting with Nymphomaniac Part 1 the film will be shown in British cinemas in two parts from 7th March, and continues von Trier’s trajectory as an enfant terrible. His last two films with Gainsbourg have been trouble weary. Audiences were horrified, including myself, when she took scissors to her genitals in Antichrist – and during the press conference for Melancholia, Von Trier was banned from the Cannes Film Festival after he made ‘pro-Nazi remarks’ in response to questions from The Times. Since then, the director has refused to talk to the press.

The four-hour double bill is ‘the abridged and censored version’, and von Trier will release the director’s uncut five-and-a-half-hour version next year.

I’m sure the film will receive massive attention because of its subject matter and the notoriety of its director, who is certainly a great talent. However, what I find unacceptable in his films is the extreme violence which he is keen to portray for perhaps no other reason than to ingratiate himself and others of a similar ilk. It’s a great pity, for he remains a formidable film director – though his twisted mind has sometimes the habit of demeaning his artistry and the eventual product.

Will I see the film? Certainly…as an observer of human frailties and a film-buff, I can ill afford to stay away.

No Longer In Our Midst: Sir Kenneth Dover

Sir Kenneth Dover was one of the foremost classical scholars of his generation.

He was born in 1920 and educated at St Paul’s School and Balliol College, Oxford. From 1948-55 he was a fellow and tutor there, becoming professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews, where he stayed until 1976, when he became president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His many publications include Greek Homosexuality and The Greeks, which led to the BBC TV series of the same name. From 1978-81, he was president of the British Academy and was chancellor of the University of St Andrews from 1981 until his retirement in 2005. He died in March 2010, survived by a son and a daughter.

His controversial autobiography, Marginal Comment, published in 1994, was the subject of many a heated outcry among his critics – especially with regard to the chapter on Trevor Aston, a colleague who had committed suicide.

My interview with him, in 1997, was a great eye-opener as to what makes a man of his calibre and talent show such a perilous disregard for transparency when it comes to his own sexuality and deep inner feelings.

Here is the text of my interview in full:

You suggest in your autobiography that your choice of Greek offered you an escape from the tensions and frustrations of life at home and at school. What was it about classics – as opposed to any other discipline – which you felt could offer you this security? 

There is an element of chance in it being classics. If one is unhappy at home, any kind of activity that fully engages one’s mind is a self-rewarding escape. I happened to be precocious in the sense of being able to read very early in life and having a strong appetite in for learning, but my first line of escape was into the study of insects, and until the age of twelve I hoped to be an entomologist. Then I started Greek and got hooked on language, but even then my interest was much more what you might call scientific, essentially wissenschaftlich, rather than any kind of aesthetic response, which came only later. My school rather pushed me away from science and in the direction of classics, simply because my natural talents, such as they were, seemed to lie in language. By the time I went to university, I would have hoped to have a degree in linguistics, but this option was not open to me. Looking back on it now I am very glad because I’ve had such immense enjoyment out of studying the ancient world. And if I were asked now what my field really is, I’d be tempted to say Greek behaviour – social, moral, sexual and political – and I would count language and literature as an area of human behaviour.

Most people fail to recognize the relevance of classics to the modern world. Do you feel absolutely confident about defending its abiding significance? 

I’d hate to defend it with some of the arguments which are used in its defence. For example, it is sometimes put out that learning Latin and Greek makes one think logically; in fact what one acquires through the study of language is not logic, but sensitive antennae – a very different matter. And if one is looking for the sort of advantages to be obtained from solving the problem of translating from one language to another, then I suspect that more might be gained from studying Chinese or Japanese than by studying Latin and Greek. My own attraction is to the culture of the Greeks, because I so enormously admire their literary skill. And I’ve no doubt whatever about the utility of studying another culture; it shakes one’s own presuppositions, and this is immensely valuable.

In an address to the Classical Association in 1976 you said: ‘Language engages me intellectually more than any other kind of human interaction. And this more than anything else is what stands between the classicist and the general public.’ Have you had any interest in engaging the attention of the general public, or is the study of classics too elitist an activity? 

I’m never worried about elitism, or indeed any word ending in –ism. It’s true that the general temper of the age is rather hostile to linguistic difficulty. There are all kinds of reasons for that and I suspect the main one is that by now there is such an enormous range of interesting and rewarding activities which depend not on natural language but on artificial language; by which I mean mathematical and scientific symbols and the operation of those symbols. And this tends to make people rather impatient with the study of natural language.

Your father was by your account a difficult man. Looking back now, do you understand him better than you did? 

Yes, but of course understanding doesn’t necessarily make one like something better. One famous saying that I don’t actually believe to be true is tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, because it sometimes happens that when you understand something better you are less inclined to forgive it.

Do you feel either the need or obligation to forgive him? 

I’m not really worried about commendation or forgiveness, because I never wanted revenge on my father or to hurt him; I just wanted him not to be there, because it made life so tense and uncomfortable. Besides, it wouldn’t actually mean anything now to say, yes I still condemn him, or, no I now forgive him. It wouldn’t make me remember the unpleasant things about my childhood any differently.

Since you could not change your parents or your circumstances, you embarked on the deliberate business of changing yourself, and indeed you claim some success in the matter. Are you convinced that this is a feasible exercise and available to most people? 

I’ve no idea about its availability to the other people, and my feeling for many years that I had deliberately changed myself was probably exaggerated, in the sense that one changes at that age quite a bit anyway. What I believed to be a large element of deliberate planning was possibly much more caused by external things. But people do rather tend to feel that whatever goes wrong with them is externally caused and that they can’t very well sit down and plan how they’re going to reacts to things; but to a certain extent they can.

You have been very frank about what you regarded as a physical deformity, your funnel chest, and how it distressed you as a youngster. Was it something that continued to weigh on your mind? And did it affect the course of your life, do you think? 

Yes, because I’ve never lost the sense of inferiority. Of course, I’m talking about a feeling, rather than a rational thought, and if I were looking back on a process of rational thinking, then of course it might be possible for me to say, yes, I was mistaken. But if I’m looking back on the feeling caused by this awareness of deformity, I’m not at all surprised that I felt as I did. For I have never shed that sense of basic inferiority in shape to other people, and to this day I don’t take off my shirt in public. I don’t go swimming in the sea unless it’s a deserted beach.

Your autobiography seems remarkable for the degree of reliance you place on intellect and intellection. Do you think there is any place for human feeling, for tradition, for instinct? 

Well, there’s any amount of room for feeling. One reaction to my book which rather surprised me was that of one of my former colleagues in Corpus. He described me as an evil man, because I was cold and calculating. I can laugh that one off easily enough because calculation is an ingredient of all purposeful action, and without calculation one gets things wrong, except by remarkable good luck. After all, what is the alternative to calculation? Impulsiveness, thoughtlessness what should one call it? A lot of time, I would certainly regard calculation as equivalent to rational thinking, but then to say that I don’t have feelings, I don’t have emotions, seems to me quite absurd. I have strong feelings, strong emotions, and I think about what the consequences would be in acting upon them; that’s a different activity. Calculation, reasoning, intellect – these things are to do with means, not ends; the choice of ends, this does seem to me an emotional matter.

You say that you prefer ‘nasty truths to silly lies’, and to that end you have aimed at complete candour in your book. Have you had any cause since publication to doubt this approach?

No. Undoubtedly I have upset some people, but not many compared to the much larger number who have expressed very strong approval of my inclination to tell nasty truths. There are only two people whom I like and respect and whom I would have liked to please, who disapproved of the book, I’m sorry to find myself on the other side from them, but overwhelmingly  the line I’ve taken seems to be approved of by the people whose approval I would have wanted.

The problem with candour is surely that it affects and sometimes distresses other people. Are you not persuaded that there is a place for reticence in an autobiography? 

I have been very careful not to say things which would have an adverse effect on anyone who is still alive. And there are a very great number of things, amusing sometimes, interesting sometimes, which I could have said about living people, but which I have refrained from saying. When it comes to people who are dead, it may be distressing for those who liked them or perhaps loved them, to learn things they’d rather not have known. But there the harsh duty of the historians comes in; and I so feel a strong compulsion to tell the truth about the dead, who will not after all themselves be hurt or disadvantaged by what I say. There are a couple of cases in the book where I have refrained from saying things about people who are now dead out of consideration for their surviving family, but only two. On the whole, in cases of doubt, I have preferred to tell the truth.

Do you ever feel that others might be tempted to regard it less as truth-telling than revenge? 

God, no. Oddly enough. There are remarkably few people I’ve ever disliked. I’ve had some enemies, but they decided to make themselves my enemies; I have not made enemies of them, and I’ve never wanted revenge. I don’t think anybody has hurt me badly enough for me to want to hurt them in return, or to feel that I would enjoy hurting them in return, but perhaps I’ve just been very lucky. This doesn’t apply to things one hears or reads of, where some totally innocent person has been grotesquely harmed. On their behalf, naturally, I would very much like to harm the harmer; but I haven’t been in the position of victim myself.

But what about those people who are no longer in a position to dispute your version of events? 

This is true of all historical characters. Alexander the Great or Cromwell or Queen Victoria are not in a position to dispute anything we say about them. Once somebody’s dead, whether it is yesterday or a thousand years ago, it makes no difference. If one were to refrain from writing about a person because he’s not in a position to defend himself, this would rule out history entirely. Of course, when one is writing about one’s feelings or intentions or thoughts, the reader can have no control at all over whether one is telling the truth or not. There’s simply no way of knowing, but this is true of all autobiographies, and something one has to accept from the start.

Your TV series on the Greeks seems to have been a great personal disappointment, and fell far short of what you had hoped for. Was it principally because you failed to spread the word of the Greeks to a popular audience, or was it more complex than that? 

It was a lot more complex, and looking back now it is arguable that the whole concept was a mistake, because I’m not an art historian, I’m not an archaeologist, and it was a hell of a problem right from the start to get across the kind of thing I wanted to get across via popular use of the visual media. I also disagreed with the producer’s approach as to how it should be done, and it certainly was a considerable disappointment to me when it appeared. It was also a shattering disappointment to me when it appeared. It was also a shattering disappointment to Alasdair Milne, and the book I wrote to go with it didn’t sell at all well. I had rather hoped that the programmes would serve the purpose of interesting a wide public in the Greek world, and create a favourable climate of opinion so that people wouldn’t say to their children who were wondering what to do at university: ‘Oh, don’t bother about that, classics is dull.’ But there it is…

Both your parents were irreconcilably hostile to your religion – your father called Christianity ‘God-slobber’. You say that your own position on religion was arrived at separately, but it is difficult to imagine that your parents had no influence in this… 

They were different sorts of influence. My mother had a poor opinion of any kind of ritual ceremonial, and she took a pretty distant attitude to church services, and never went to church for that reason. But I myself came very much under the influence of evangelical friends at school and that lasted about seven years, and then I switched to being irreligious, or even anti-religious. Then I had a bit of a tacking back towards religion in my late thirties, until I had what I called a mystical experience in reverse, a sort of voice from the sky saying, ‘You don’t need a god’ – which is just the same as happened to A. J. P. Taylor at a much earlier age. Since then I’ve never been tempted to be religious. I’m enormously interested in religion, and I look upon it as a way in which a lot of people express things that matter to them very much. I also find the history of religion absorbing, but I just don’t actually believe it’s true; which is a different matter.

But do you think, for example, that if you had been born into a Roman Catholic household and steeped in the creed and dogma of the church, you would still have arrived at an anti-clerical position? 

Well, to judge by many of my friends who have had exactly that life, yes. I know many ex-Catholics, people brought up from birth as Catholics, who have now become very anti-religious. So it could perfectly well have happened to me.

But what exactly is the nature of your objection? After all, even if believers are wrong, most of them will mean well. So what is the problem … is it an intellectual objection or a moral one? 

Mainly intellectual, in the sense that belief is something that happens to me when the evidence or the reasons for belief reach a certain critical point, so to speak. In the case of religious propositions, there aren’t any in my experience which have pushed me into belief; I simply do not think that I have adequate reasons for believing. I’m not an atheist; I don’t consider that it is reasonable to say there is no God, but I don’t think it is reasonable to say that there is a God either. I am a genuine agnostic. And if I can have recourse to the Greeks at this point, there’s a peculiarly interesting work by Protagoras, a contemporary of Socrates, of which – alas – only the first sentence survives. The work is entitled On the Gods, and he started off by saying, ‘I don’t know whether there are gods or not, or if there are, what they are like; the problem is too difficult and life is too short.’ How he went on, we don’t know, but that is a fifth-century-BC statement of the position with which I have some sympathy.

Is there nothing whatsoever to be said for what are called the comforts of religion? What alternative is there other than a brutal stoicism? 

I have no doubt whatever that religion brings enormous comfort to a great many people, but to compare the consequences of a belief with the truth of a belief does seem to me a major confusion. You can derive any degree of assurance, confidence, comfort, call it what you like, from holding a totally untrue belief and how firmly you hold it; whether it’s true or not doesn’t come into it. I don’t go around trying to stop people being comforted by their religion. I merely say, if they ask me, that I don’t share the belief, and therefore I don’t derive comfort.

This mystical experience you had in which you described the heavens opening and a voice declaring you had no need of a god … I understand the difficulty in communicating such an experience to others, but what gives it precedence over those experiences of others which point, as it were, in a different direction, i.e. to the existence of God? 

There is an important difference between Alan Taylor’s experience of a voice saying, there is no God, and my own saying, I had no need of a god. It is possible to have theology without being religious. Epicurus was a case in point. He did not deny the existence of gods, indeed he believed they existed. But he argued there was nothing we could conceivably do or say or think which would affect or influence them, and they had no part whatever in intervening in human life. So there you have a belief in the existence of gods coupled with a strong assertion that they don’t need us and we don’t need them. I did not, however, have Epicurus in mind when I had that experience.

But do you have any attitudes or principles which are in some sense a philosophical alternative to religion? I mean something sustaining and convincing which would seem to you an adequate background to life’s vicissitudes? 

I have a very strong sense of being an individual in a social species. We are in an interesting predicament since every one of us is simultaneously a competing individual and a social unit with a need for love and acceptance and so on, but of course no two of us are quite alike in our needs. If you take a graph of a human population and at one end you put the most selfish, aggressive, hostile, psychopathic people, and at the other end the most compassionate, generous, affectionate and caring people, it will be a normal graph, since most of us are somewhere round the middle. The important point in morality is to start off by recognizing our need for acceptance and love, and if this is going to be meaningless to a few people, then too bad. It’s going to be constantly overwhelmingly meaningful to a few others, and that’s the way it is. I have no difficulty whatever in imagining, and indeed in making a minute contribution towards creating, the kind of human society that I want to exist, the kind of society where we can rely on one another.

You are obviously a man who is much moved by nature and beauty of the countryside. And yet in your response to beautiful places, such as Wester Ross, there is nothing which remotely approaches pantheism, nothing of the Wordsworth idea of ‘a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused’. Why is that, do you think? 

I think it’s almost hopeless to try to explain why one likes. This is true not only in terms of the natural world, but also in the arts. I mean, how can one explain preferences for particular works of art or particular poems? One just has to start off by recognizing what it is that one responds to and accepting that.

You describe an occasion in 1944 when you were so struck by the beauty on the top of a hill south of Mignano, that you sat down on a log and masturbated, something which you described as ‘the appropriate response’. Would you say it was principally an aesthetic response, or was it more biological, or what? 

Goodness knows, goodness knows. All I know now is that it wasn’t unique, because since my book appeared I’ve heard of other people having very similar experiences. It seemed to strike one reviewer as something very odd indeed, but it is not as odd as all that.

You are remarkably frank in your discussion of sex, which has obviously played an extremely important and happy part in your married life. You describe the orgasm as ‘the purest and the most powerful of all the good emotional experiences available to mankind’. In another context, the context of religious experiences, you say that feelings of conviction tell us much about the person who experiences them but nothing about their truth-value. Would you agree it is difficult to assess the truth-value of your statement on the orgasm? 

Oh yes, quite impossible. What I’ve said there about the orgasm was meant to be slightly jocular, and I was talking more about adolescence. It’s not a considered opinion on a scale of values in 1995.

Is there anything about sex that might shock you? 

Yes. False promises. Or deception. I mean, a man claiming he is wearing a condom when he’s not – things like that. Perhaps I should have said rape before I said deception, but I was rather taking rape for granted. One must distinguish between aesthetic distaste and moral repugnance; they’re not the same thing at all. There are quite a number of possible sexual goings-on which I find aesthetically surprising, and sometimes repugnant. I recall a novel by William Boyd in which a couple use honey as a genital lubricant, which sounds just incredibly messy; things like that are aesthetically repugnant but not necessarily morally so. To have moral significance they have to come into a category of actions which would also be morally objectionable even if they were not sexual; and that’s why I include force, violence, deception, false promises, because those are ways of behaving which cover the non-sexual as well as the sexual; but it’s in the sexual sphere that they are particularly brutal.

During a brief spell of impotence your thoughts turned to suicide. Looking back, does this not seem to have been an overreaction? 

Well, perhaps it was. But so what? I mean, that’s how I felt, and I told the truth about how I felt. It was of course the product of ignorance because I thought once one started being impotent, that was it.

But supposing that it had been permanent. I mean, is impotence such a terrible thing as to warrant suicide? 

How does one decide whether something is such a terrible thing or not? I described the feeling I had, and I felt it made life not worth living. There’s nothing to be said for old age, absolutely nothing. One becomes weaker, one’s eyesight deteriorates, one’s hearing deteriorates, one can’t walk as far as one did, one becomes impotent and so on. What is there to be said for old age?

A kind of serenity, some might say… 

No, no, I don’t think so. I’m serene only as long as I’m physically in good shape. I’m still waiting to be told by somebody of my age or older in what way it is better to be old than to be young.

Going back to suicide, it is something you have contemplated more than once, as did your father before you. Is it possible to make up a sound intellectual case for taking one’s life, or is one always emotionally driven? 

So far as I know, one is emotionally driven. Plainly there are cases where one could take an intellectual decision; suppose, for example, that I knew for sure that I was getting Alzheimer’s disease, or that I was at the start of some kind of condition which would impose nothing but distress on my family, I think that would be a good sound reason, a product of thinking. Otherwise contemplating suicide is perhaps almost invariably an overemotional reaction.

What was the principal constraint on a suicide attempt? Was it lack of courage, or the thought of your wife or children, or what? 

All those things enter into it, but I suppose it was not so much lack of courage as lack of conviction, by which I mean just not feeling strongly enough that there was no other way out. After all, it’s the one decision you can’t reverse, and although I was telling the truth when I said there had been occasions when I had seriously thought about it, quite obviously the conviction that it was the only escape had not been anything like strong enough.

You say in your book that you have never experienced what could properly be called grief at anybody’s death. This might be regarded as almost an emotional failing or impairment. Do you see it like that, or do you regard it as a strength? 

I don’t know if it’s either really. One thing I should say is that I do regret making the remark in 1994 because it hadn’t been true for some years. The first time I felt something like grief on the death of a friend was in 1984. But it is generally true that although I react very strongly to other people’s suffering, for some reason or other I don’t react in the same way to death. I can’t be sorry for somebody who’s dead, because they’re not there any longer and they’re not suffering. I can be tortured by people suffering, but not in any comparable degree grieved by their death.

Were you disappointed that your autobiography was rejected for publication by Oxford University Press, especially in view of your long association with Oxford? 

I had never taken it for granted that they would necessarily want to publish it. The reason I submitted it to them is that years ago I had promised them first refusal, and I was just keeping a promise.

Why do you think they rejected it? 

That’s for them to say, but I think one thing that must have entered into it was the feeling that I was quite wrong in my chapter about Oxford and my chapter about Trevor Aston, and also wrong to reveal what were generally regarded as confidential matters from inside college. I gathered third or fourth hand that there was a feeling that it gave an unfavourable picture of Oxford. I don’t agree. In fact I don’t think I’ve been uncomplimentary about Oxford in any unreasonable way in the book at all. And I’m not altogether in sympathy with OUP’s attitude to confidentiality which, after all, is not something which is laid down by God or by nature. A thing is confidential if somebody has decided to make it so, and I think excessive confidentiality, and secrecy do far more harm than good. The one principle I observed, both in the chapter on the university and in the chapter on Trevor Aston, was not to reveal anything derogatory that could be attributed to a living individual.

You seem rather surprised by the fact that response to your book concentrated on what you called ‘the Aston affair’, and your confession to having had murderous thoughts towards your colleague at Corpus Christi College. Do you think you were perhaps naive in not anticipating this response? 

Even if I was I couldn’t have acted differently. The Aston business mattered so much to me in the ten years I was at Corpus, and any historian has to pick on the things which in his view really made the difference. The reason I was surprised by the fuss was that a number of people had read the typescript and had written to me about various points of interest in it. Not one of them had picked on the Aston chapter as objectionable, and it was only after the fuss was started in the Guardian that it all blew up. The one place where I may have made a mistake, though I’m not totally convinced of it, was the actual wording I used when I said something like ‘the practical problem was how to kill him without getting into trouble’. Brian Harrison in Corpus, who was very helpful in reading part of the typescript, thought it was expressed in too brutal a way. My daughter also rather took against it, not because she was shocked at my wanting Aston to die, but because she thought the way I put it was self-indulgent. She knows that I’m fairly guarded in my expression of emotion, and she thought this went over the top. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned, but on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that whatever one contemplates doing, one should translate into real terms and face the consequences. If I was saying to myself in effect, as indeed I was, can I possibly create a situation in which there is no more Trevor Aston, then I ought to say it outright. How could I bring about a situation in which he was dead is a very long-winded way of saying, how could I kill him? That was why I kept the words.

Yes, but those words will have shocked and appalled a great many people… 

I also know a number of people who were not shocked or appalled, particularly people who were, or had been, responsible for colleges, universities, departments, institutions and the like.

In defending your position vis-à-vis Aston you rather appealed to the Greeks who would always have been more concerned about the harm or benefit to the community in general than the individual. Would you allow that there are dangers in applying Socratic law in the twentieth century, even if it is confined to the cloisters of an Oxford college? 

I’m in a difficult position here because if I’m going to defend myself against some of the criticisms to which I’ve been subjected, it becomes terribly long-winded and I don’t want to get into the position of saying, ah, but you see… What I’ve said in the chapter about my dealings with Aston is only a sample. The real catalogue would be a great deal longer. One of my critics wrote to The Times saying that if Aston had been given the support he needed by his colleagues, this tragic outcome could have been avoided. I pointed out in reply that Aston had had any amount of support from his colleagues for over twenty years and for eight of those years he’s had a great deal of help and support from me, and indeed he told me that he always felt better after talking with me. But there came a point eventually when it obviously wasn’t doing any good, and that was when I felt my responsibilities for the well-being of the college were looming rather large.

Dr Thomas Charles-Edwards, tutor in modern history at Corpus, disputed your account of Aston and said: ‘Dover was the sort of person to derive intellectual interest from analysing Aston’s predicament. It doesn’t surprise me that he consulted a lawyer to judge the consequences of any action. Dover seemed to have no need for emotions and little time for those who did.’ How do you react to that kind of criticism? 

I don’t understand how he can say that I had no room for emotion when I had an overriding emotional need to serve the interests of the college.

James Howard-Johnston, another fellow at Corpus, wrote: ‘I found the moral stance of the author quite abhorrent. The welfare of the institution should not be prized above life.’ Did this sort of reaction give you pause? 

No, because I went on being patient and tolerant and supportive for eight years, but there comes a point when you have to write somebody off. That’s my feeling, and to say that you can’t prize the well-being of an institution above an individual life is just not true as far as I’m concerned. Certainly, one has to go on trying for years to reconcile the two interests, but when it becomes clear that it’s not going to work, at that point I will sacrifice the individual. The extraordinary thing is that it was my emotional commitment to the well-being of the college which made me act as I did. If I had been all that calculating I wouldn’t have bothered about it, because I knew I was retiring in ten months’ time. The fact was, I wanted to hand over a good college to my successor.

But your behaviour was surely open to misunderstanding. I mean, there seems to be an almost clinical detachment in your account of the Aston affair and particularly your reaction to Aston’s suicide. You write, ‘I got up from a long sound sleep, I can’t say for sure if the sun was shining, but I certainly felt it was.’ That degree of disengagement is quite chilling… 

The Times leader used the word gloating. Now that seemed to me an extraordinary word to use of the feeling one has when one is relieved of a heavy burden. It was the lifting of a weight that had been there for years; that’s what I felt, and I can’t believe that I was wrong to feel that. If it had been a matter of revenge or vindictiveness, then gloating would have been an appropriate word; but that’s precisely what it wasn’t. The other thing is that people like Thomas Charles-Edwards and James Howard-Johnston honestly believed they knew Trevor better than I knew him, and I think they were wrong. Not only was I a friend of Trevor’s for eight years but I was also in many respects his confidant. He told me a lot about himself that I don’t think they knew, and for them to talk as if they really knew, and for them to talk as if they really knew his virtues and I didn’t was not accurate. I think I knew him better.

Although you conceded afterwards that you were not claiming the right to execute Aston, you said that you do not have reverence for human life per se in this instance. What is the force of per se in this instance? 

At all costs. I was contrasting my own feelings as a non-pacifist with the belief of pacifists that it is always wrong deliberately to cause somebody’s death in any circumstances. I don’t have this feeling of reverence for life as such – perhaps I should have said ‘as such’ rather than per se. I don’t have a feeling it is always necessarily the worst thing one can do to cause somebody to die. I plainly didn’t have a ‘right’ to cause his death – and I wouldn’t for a moment claim that – partly because I don’t actually think one has rights other than those which one is specifically given. I have rights under the law, but the law does not give me the right to cause the death of a colleague, I’m absolutely sure about that. But then there are occasions when one does things without having the right to do them because one decides it is a good thing to do.

You were president of the British Academy when Anthony Blunt’s treachery was revealed. Would it be fair to say that your writing to Blunt was instrumental in bringing about his resignation? 

It was instrumental in the sense that it must have had some cause and effect, but I didn’t exactly demand his resignation. There were people – the late E. H. Carr was one of them – who thought I had pushed Blunt into resigning, and Carr wanted me to circulate to fellows of the Academy a copy of our correspondence. I couldn’t in fact do that because I had written to Blunt in longhand and I hadn’t kept a copy, but I told Carr if he wanted to see it, he could ask Blunt and I had no objection whatever. What mattered more was that I have after I had written to Blunt and asked him if he would consider the possibility of healing the wound in the Academy by resigning, we had a telephone conversation in which I emphasized to him that there was no way I could put pressure on him, that a president of the Academy cannot tell someone to resign; his danger had passed, he’d not been expelled, so he was absolutely free to decide whether to resign or not. We discussed this in a perfectly amicable way, but there was no transcript of that telephone conversation which I could send to Carr or to anyone else; yet to me it was that which mattered much more than the letter.

A. J. P. Taylor resigned in protest at what he called a ‘witch hunt’. He felt that the BA should not concern itself with matters other than academic. Did you have any sympathy with this view? 

As a matter of fact I did. Although my first reaction to the news of Blunt’s treachery was very hostile, the more I looked at the legal side of it in terms of the charter of the British Academy, the more difficult it seemed to be to justify expelling Blunt. And if we had simply reacted with horror and said we won’t have this man around, we’ll expel him, that would have been lynching and not law. By the time it came to the discussion at the AGM, if I had been put in the awful predicament of giving a casting vote, I would have cast against expulsion simply on legal grounds. But there was of course another line that could be taken, which was that Blunt had damaged the whole international community by serving the interests of a totalitarian government under which historical and scientific work was not free. The extraordinary thing was that at the two meetings of the council of the Academy at which the Blunt case was exhaustively discussed, that point was not raised. I agonized over whether I should raise it from the chair, but I was very anxious not to lean on anyone as chairman. Indeed this crucial point was not made until after Blunt had resigned and the whole fuss had subsided, where a piece in Encounter put the issue of Blunt having served the interests of a totalitarian government hostile to the study of history. But until then even Blunt’s most ferocious enemies had not raised the matter.

What sort of man was he? Did you like him? 

He wasn’t a terribly easy man to know, I must say. There was something guarded about him, which I think was probably accounted for by his homosexuality and the fact that he’d belonged to a generation which had treated homosexuality as an enemy. But I got on with him well. I never had any reason to dislike him.

At around the same time there were various stresses and strains in your life, notably the dilemma of whether or not to embark on adulterous affairs. Have you ever regretted not allowing yourself that indulgence? 

No, no. Oh no, I was right to pass it over.

Once again, when talking about the possibility of infidelity, the case for and against it is argued in the cold light of reason. I would have thought that this was precisely an area in which reason played very little part, and that to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous. 

But one has to make a decision. I mean, is one going to go ahead or not? How does one make the choice? If it’s not reason, what is it?

If there had been no risk of being found out, would you perhaps have gone ahead? 

That’s getting into an unreal world, to imagine that one can embark on any course of action which one can conceal forever. I wouldn’t even contemplate that because I don’t believe it’s particularly sensible to do anything that one wouldn’t want revealed. Supposing it had been certain that nobody would ever find out about it … that to me is an imaginary world, and I tend to stick to the real world. It’s also a moral issue, not in the sense that I believe fornication is necessarily wrong, but I wasn’t willing to hurt my wife, and that makes it a moral issue.

Do you think that your own moral sense has been shaped in any measure by the Greeks and the study of classics? 

It may have been shaped in certain ways, possibly more than I know, but more probably it is the other way around; that I’m particularly attracted to Greek culture and civilization because the echo inclinations of my own. For example, this business of not having a reverence for human life – that’s certainly true of the Greeks because they were tremendous users of capital punishment and they executed people for all kinds of things. If you served on a jury and took a bribe, then you were for the chop, because they regarded the integrity of the jury system as vitally important to the life of the community.

Your book on Greek homosexuality was punished in 1978 to general acclaim. Do you think it is possible to have a perfect understanding of homosexuality, Greek or otherwise, without being a homosexual oneself? 

Possibly not, Greek homosexuality fascinated me because it was such an immensely important ingredient of Greek culture. I also thought that virtually everything that had been said about it or written on the subject was nonsense. There was a complete failure to understand how in the Greek culture the attitude towards the active and the passive partner can be radically contradictory, even irreconcilable. It was common to find people writing about Greeks as perverts, using nouns for which there was no Greek equivalent, when in point of fact the essential division in Greek society was between the adult male penetrator and the female or immature male who are grouped together as the object of penetration. This is really what got me interested in it. Curiously enough I’m not wildly in sympathy with homosexuals on a purely emotional level. Aesthetically I feel a certain revulsion at the idea of kissing a man, but I don’t think that marred my historical investigation of the phenomenon.

During your time as professor of Greek at St Andrews, you were a great defender of academic standards and there was a suggestion that after you left in 1976 those standards rather declined. What view do you take now? Is the battle lost? 

You’re probably thinking of courses in classical civilization and culture, of which I was a very strong advocate at first-year level. What worries me really is the continuation of that way of studying things beyond the first year, even perhaps up to honours level which does happen in some universities. Although it undoubtedly brings good people in, whose primary interest perhaps is medieval history, art history, English literature and so on, my own feeling is that if you are studying another culture at a level which is called honours in a university, it doesn’t deserve the name honours unless it includes a knowledge of the language of that culture. It’s as simple as that.

You have been chancellor at St Andrews since 1981. And you are the first chancellor of St Andrews who is not a duke, a peer or an archbishop. Is that a source of pride? 

Yes, it is, but I’m not the first in Scotland of course, because Alec Cairncross at Glasgow is a former professor, as I am, and Kenneth Alexander at Aberdeen is another one since me. So it’s become comparatively fashionable now.

At the age of fifteen you coined the dictum: ‘Instinct is the force that makes us repeat our mistakes.’ Have you tried to resist your instincts throughout your life?

I’ve never trusted them, but I’ve been interested to observe them. I accept my instincts as a fact, but I don’t attach value to something because it is an instinct. I’m sceptical of instincts in the same way I’m sceptical of the beneficence of nature. Civilization consists in combating nature, and I take the view that what we inherit in the way of instinctive or genetically determined responses is not to be worshipped just because it’s natural; it needs to be scrutinized rather carefully.

You say that in recent years you have been repeatedly struck by the wisdom of some of Plato’s observations on society, notably that devotion to justice can be truly assessed only by one’s behaviour towards those who are weaker than oneself and in one’s power. You suggest that this is equally applicable to politics and sex. Looking round modern society, do you think there is any evidence that this principle is alive and well? 

I’m not sure that any good principles are alive and well at any stage in human history, but fortunately they do survive from one generation to another.

You say that you have searched for aspects of old age which might compensate for its ills but have found none. Is there no sense of a job well done or a life well lived? 

I have a great deal to be pleased about, but I think that at any given stage in life I have adequate reason to feel that. I don’t necessarily feel it more now looking back over a longer period than I would have felt it, let us say, at forty-five or fifty looking back over a shorter period.

Your doctor once assured you that one can never with any degree of confidence say, ‘That was my last fuck.’ Has this at least given you continuing and abiding grounds for optimism and happiness? 

One can’t of course be wildly optimistic. I remember seeing a very amusing graph which showed there are a number of men who are still sexually active at eighty-five, but it’s a very small number indeed.

You have compared death to the returning of a book to the stack. Are you completely unsentimental in contemplation of your own death? 

 I think so, yes. I regret it in the sense that I’m always writing something and I want to finish it, and I feel aggrieved at the idea that it is going to be cut short by my dying at some point. But I don’t fear death. Hell may be real; I’d be very surprised if it were, but all the same, one doesn’t know. But then one’s not knowing, indeed the impossibility of knowing, I feel to be so complete, that it’s not worth worrying about.

The Chinese on the March

I have always been intrigued by China and the Chinese, their history, their customs and, above all, their ability to withstand the pains and discomforts of penury.

They work hard under unimaginable conditions and seem to survive, despite the harsh odds stacked against them – and yet maintain their dream of better days.

The China of today is becoming a world power and likely to compete with the West on a scale which was not envisaged a few decades ago. They are now everywhere throughout the globe searching for opportunities, emulating the boldness and skills of a colonising power and investing heavily in infrastructure in Africa, Europe and the Americas. At home, cities like Beijing and Shanghai have risen to equal and, in some cases, surpass anything the West can conjure up. The speed in which this was accomplished defies comprehension.

And now they are aiming to colonise the moon. China has become the first country to land on the moon for thirty-seven years when its unmanned rover touched down last weekend. The Chang’e-3, which has been travelling since 2nd December, landed on a lava plain known as the Bay of Rainbows.

Probes and missiles have been fired at the moon to take readings and throw dust into the atmosphere, but no space programme has attempted to land since the Russians sent a rover to collect soil samples in 1976.

The Chinese claim they are looking for national resources such as rare metals. Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said their scientists were exploring whether solar panels could be installed on the moon to harness the power of the sun through the thinner atmosphere: ‘The moon is full of resources – mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the earth is really short of and these resources can be used without limitation,’ he said.

Chinese officials have already stated that they are keen to send humans to the moon in what would be the first manned lunar missions since the US Apollo programme in the 1960s and 70s. Upon landing, the craft has released Jade Rabbit, a six-wheel lunar rover with four cameras and mechanical digger arms, to collect samples at a depth of almost one hundred feet. The robot’s name comes from a Chinese myth about the pet white rabbit of a goddess, Shang’e, who is said to live on the moon.

Well, you never know. Perhaps the Chinese will find her.

In the meantime, those cynics who underestimate the might of China take heed. The Chinese are coming in force and will make their presence felt in every corner of the globe. Their ancient civilisation bears witness to what they can achieve and, by golly, they will surprise us all over again. Their turn is long overdue!

Born in Siberia: A True Epic

Born in Siberia is the story of a remarkable Russian woman and her family in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution until today.

Told in her own words, Tamara Astafieva’s story, which reads in places like one of the traditional fables from the beautiful but fearsome land in which she was born, is also the story of millions of other ordinary Russians and their families during a most troubled century in that country’s long and turbulent history.

Editors Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater, along with translator Luba Ioffe, have helped to bring a more cohesive edge to Tamara’s story – with some explanatory notes and occasional commentary.

The book sheds light on her life and many other families in similar circumstances who had to endure the harshness of both climate and conditions to survive from one day to the next, against interminable odds to keep body and soul – without the loss of both.

It’s a moving story that touches the heart and in many ways glorifies faith and the human capacity to continue with the struggle, and fight back the traumas that come with hunger and the absence of essential needs. It clearly demonstrates Russian pride, resilience and the love of their country, giving them that extra strength with which to combat the vagaries of time.

Tamara’s story is a monument to Russia’s great people who have fought with courage against more hardship than anyone can ever imagine, and triumphed.

Born in Siberia is an inspirational book to read, cherish and pass on to the next generation.

Once he was a Rich Man

The Chinese are coming!

Not only are they invading Britain for their shopping sprees but better still have become the richest landowners, usurping the number one spot from the Duke of Westminster as the London property market booms.

The Duke, who has topped each of the ten previous rich lists for UK property, compiled by Estates Gazette, fell to fourth behind investors from China, Hong Kong and the Swiss-based Ruben brothers.

As a whole, the UK saw a sixty per cent rise to £162.5 billion in the total wealth of its richest two hundred and fifty top property investors – the biggest annual rise so far. The list also confirms London’s position as ‘the real estate capital of the world’, with the number of ‘super prime’ homes – accepted as those worth £10 million or more – under construction in Westminster more than doubling in the past two years.

Damian Wild, editor of Estates Gazette, said that the Duke may never again gain first place in the property rich list. ‘London is the real estate capital of the world,’ he said. ‘It is an established hub for global businesses of all shapes and sizes, and it is a market that can make shrewd investors fabulously wealthy. Given how the global economy is shifting, the Duke may never top the property rich list again.’

Even though the Duke’s estate increased in value by £500 million over the past year to £8 billion, he was beaten by China-based Wang Jianlin, with property holdings of £10.4 billion, Hong Kong-based Henry Cheng Kar-Shun, with £10.3 billion, and David & Simon Ruben, with £8.3 billion.

Philip Beresford, who compiled the list, said that despite London prices appearing ‘insane’ growth in the coming year is ‘sustainable’.

With Asia as a whole not being hampered as much as Europe by the economic recession, and the divide between rich and poor now more pronounced globally as never before, the super rich are getting bolder, richer and their horizons more reachable than one would have anticipated during the last few decades.

For the economic reality is plain to see. Money does not vanish in a global recession; it simply changes hands. And those with greedy hands become the masters of the universe. And so the story goes on and the nouveau pauvres, who technically make up the middle classes, strive for survival in order to keep pace with their changing circumstances. Although money is considered by many to be the root of all evil, all clamour to have it – even if it ultimately brings them damnation.

Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane HowardElizabeth Jane Howard is a novelist I took an immediate liking to when I had the privilege of interviewing her in the autumn of 1993.

The nonogenarian author is still going strong, as her fans await publication of the fifth volume of her ‘Cazalet Chronicles’.

In view of many of her admirers, of which I rate myself as one, she deserves more acknowledgement from the literary establishment than she has had so far. Great novelists are sometimes given their due when they are no longer with us to appreciate it. However, I hope in her case a reversal of this oddity – although late in the day – will send her off on a glorious journey to the world beyond for us to reap the benefits of her work on earth.

For those who are not familiar with the text of my interview, from Asking Questions, here it is in full. I hope you enjoy it.

The one thing I know about your childhood is that you had a terribly difficult relationship with your mother. Looking back, is that the feature which stands out most in your mind? 

I’m interested that you know that. It has taken me nearly all my life to get over it. I feel I am over it now but it was a long business. She just didn’t like me very much. I always wanted her to of course, and that makes a difference to how you approach other relationships.

Did you ever discover why she disliked you? 

A year before me she had a daughter who died, and I suspect that she simply didn’t want to have another baby so quickly. She also preferred boys. She adored my brothers, both younger than me, and it was very clear to me that she did. I just came at a bad time and I was the wrong sex. Later on she became very jealous of my combining marriage with a career. She had been a very gifted dancer and she had given up on her career when she married, partly because my father’s family insisted on it, and partly because she recognized in those days that’s what you had to do. She was a very intelligent, gifted lady who just didn’t have enough to do. Women of her generation were allowed to do charity work, or they could tell their servants what to do, but they really didn’t have enough to occupy their minds. She was bored and frustrated and although she felt it was all right for the boys to do anything, it was not all right for girls. She resented the fact that I was apparently able to do things which she couldn’t.

Do you believe that such a crushing early experience sets the pattern for adult life? 

It did for a long time. I have had to do an awful lot of therapeutic work on myself to come out on the other side of it, it made an enormous difference to my early life and gave me a very bad role model for my own parenting. It was also the case that for a long time in all my novels the mothers behaved very badly – that was my way of getting my own back a bit.

Your mother had also been her own parent’s least favourite child, which would suggest that we perpetrate unhappy experiences and visit them on our own children. Do you think that this process is one which can be reversed, or is the genetic imprinting too deep? 

I don’t think that it’s genetic; it’s psychological, and those chains of misfortune can always be reversed provided the last link of the chain, as it were, wants it enough. For example, my daughter is a very good parent even though I wasn’t, so she’s broken that link. I also think I managed not to perpetrate on to her the feelings that my mother made me have, but that’s taken an enormous amount of work. And it is not the norm. Nearly all abusers have been abused; cruelty is what they know. It is also a kind of attention, sometimes it is the only kind of attention a child has had, so it will be cruel in its turn as a form of attention-seeking. Often when children are victims, they become persecutor, or they may become addicted to being victims, in which case they’ll find somebody who’ll beat them up. It is quite usual for women whose fathers beat them up to find husbands who do the same. There is something similar going on when fathers talk about their public-school experience and say how frightful it was, and then send their sons to the same school. They’ve had an awful time, so their sons must have an awful time. They see nothing wrong with that.

Your parents did not have a very happy marriage…how aware of this were you at the time, and what effect did it have? 

I was aware of it from the age of eleven or twelve. My brothers were away at school, but I lived at home, so I was acutely aware of the tensions between my parents. I spent such a lot of time observing grown-up behaviour, and although I didn’t always understand precisely what was going on, the feeling underneath was very clear. I knew my father was discontented, that he was unfaithful to my mother for years before it came out, and it was sometimes very uncomfortable. But I just thought that was how grown-up people behave.

Eventually your father left and married someone else … can you remember the effect it had on your mother, or perhaps you? 

Yes, absolutely. By that time I was married myself. My mother was more angry than unhappy. She didn’t like being left alone of course, but I doubt if she was in love with him; she wanted him more because he was handsome and attractive and a good catch for her. I could never believe that her feelings for my father were sincere – I didn’t trust them at all. I came to believe that in some curious way she had not ever had an emotional life. I looked after her for the last six years of her life, and during that time she simply didn’t have any real feelings about anything. The sexual life between my parents was probably disastrous. Although my mother was not unfaithful to him she didn’t enjoy sex at all, and my father did, so she wasn’t a very satisfactory partner.

You have sometimes said that couples should not stay together for the sake of children. Did you have a different opinion when your own parents separated? 

No, I didn’t. My younger brother did suffer badly, but that was because my father more or less abandoned him. The only children I know who seem to be really secure are those whose parents really are fond of each other, really do care about each other. I have known so many parents who didn’t get on and whose children knew that all their lives. Children always pick up on the atmosphere between their parents. As a child you never see the resolution; you see the quarrels starting, the tensions mounting, but the reconciliation, if there is one, takes place in the bedroom or another place, so to the child it’s all very mysterious and quite frightening.

As a child you described yourself as being ‘neurotically inclined to homesickness’. Where did this feeling spring from, do you think? 

It must have come from some kind of insecurity. It absolutely blighted me childhood. By the time I was fourteen I could just about manage to stay with my best friend and her parents for a weekend; I dreaded it but I steeled myself to do it. I suppose I felt I didn’t know what would happen if I wasn’t in my own place. And I didn’t have enough friends.

When did you finally get free of you mother? 

Oh I think about two years ago probably, long after she died. I had an awful lot of therapy. I had to find out how it was possible to have been so disliked by her so that it affected everything else about my life. This meant also trying to see it from her point of view, seeing that she had a rotten life. But essentially I had to disinfect the rest of my life from not having been liked by her, and I think I have managed to do that now.

You were educated by a governess. Did you ever feel the lack of a more formal education? 

Yes, I still do. It’s resulted in me knowing certain things that people who have been to school don’t know, but not knowing a very great deal that people who have been to school and university know. I would have liked to have gone to university, but my parents, that generation, simply didn’t consider the possibility. Educating a girl was not considered a very serious matter. My mind is very armature and erratic.  I probably had quite a good mind which could have been sharpened by a better education. As a child I read an awful lot, of which I understood only about a third. I would have liked to develop the discipline for work which I now have, but instead I found all kinds of excuses, like falling in love.

But you’ve done very well without it… 

I haven’t done very well. I’m very uneducated. My governess was a remarkable lady; she wrote books on philosophy and mathematics and taught me Greek and Latin, but I didn’t learn enough from her. Later in my life, whenever any man fell in love with me he always made me a list of books to read. I never caught up with the lists.

Did you envy your brothers being sent away to school? 

Both my brothers are younger but when the older of the two went to prep school I was absolutely distraught. When we came back from taking him, I was desperate. I spent about a year hoping I’d turn into a boy so I could join him. I couldn’t bear to sleep in the room we’d shared. We are friends now, and we know each other well because we’re old, but prep school marked the end of our relationship as children.

But before he went away, were you close? 

We were very close, yes and I was extremely fond of him. We did everything together, and so it was awful when he went. When he came back in the holidays it wasn’t the same because by then he didn’t want to play with girls. That’s what happens when boys go away to school. Medieval England was much better organized: a boy was sent as a page to another castle, and educated in how to behave with women, and how to behave generally. He was taught many things by the men of the household as well, and that in many ways was a far better education. Incarcerating a whole lot of boys with no women, except possibly a matron, is madness because they don’t know how to behave, and they suffer all their lives. They feel that women are a bit of a threat, or very stupid, and they don’t know how to be friends with them.

Yours was a very middle-class upbringing, complete with chauffeur and nanny and parlour-maid and so on. Where you aware at the time of the deep class divisions in the country, or did that come only later? 

I was very much aware of them, but I don’t think I understood a great deal about what they entailed – poverty, for example. The prevailing attitude was very much that servants were servants. People were not necessarily nasty to them, it was thought that they led different lives. It didn’t occur to me that nanny could be the same as my mother. Every country, it seems to me, has class distinctions, and that includes America where they go on saying they don’t have them; the distinctions are very much money oriented, but they are all the same. People are more dishonest about class distinctions now. In my day they were very straight about them. I don’t say it was a good thing, but they were, I also think a lot of working-class people’s lives are nastier now than they were when I was a child. I think they have a worse time, worse living conditions and more impoverished lives, despite the welfare state. If I had to choose between living in a high-rise flat or living in a semi-detached back-to-back with a privy at the end of the garden, give me the semi every time. At least in those days you had a street life with your friends, and you knew who your neighbours were. In the modern blocks you don’t know, you’re just frightened of them.

You were only sixteen when war broke out. One imagines that people were less politically aware then than now. To what extend did you understand the reasons for war? 

 Very little, I would say. I was terrified of war, partly because I had read all my father’s war books, and knew that he himself had gone to France when he was seventeen and had been quite badly gassed, but would never talk about it. He had a photograph on his dressing table of whole rows of men in baggy uniforms, and one day I asked him who they were. ‘They’re my friends,’ he said. And when I asked him where they were, he said, ‘They’re all dead except me.’ That gave me the most tremendous shock. I thought if we had another war it would be simply terrifying. When Mr Chamberlain came back from Munich with the ‘peace and honour’ stuff, I really believed it was going to be alright, and then it wasn’t at all, I imagined the whole of London would be bombed in the night, everybody would be dead, and that would be the end. People were politically naive partly because at that time this country had an innate sense of superiority, which it has quite properly lost now. There was a sort of Kipling view that Britain was always right about things, so we were bound to win. But I myself felt very frightened.

You married for the first time at the age of nineteen. Was the war a contributory factor to that young marriage, in the sense that life was very uncertain and to marry was to make some statement about the future? 

Yes. If there had not been a war we almost certainly would not have married. A lot of men had an instinct to marry, to have a child, because they thought they might be killed. That was certainly the case with my husband. He was fourteen years older than I was, and his mother terribly wanted him to marry, but we didn’t have enough time together beforehand to get to know each other very well. I thought I was in love, of course, and I imagine he did too, but it’s very hard to tell now. I spent the first two years of marriage agonizing every time he went off; that was what life was like then. Every time I thought I might not see him again, and that was extremely difficult to deal with.

Your only child was born during your marriage to Peter Scott. Did you also think of yourself as being too young to be fully prepared for the experience of motherhood? 

Yes, I did. I would have preferred to have become used to the idea of being married before I had a child, but he and his family were very pressing about it. I felt terribly inadequate that I didn’t know how to cope. I was extremely homesick; the first year I was married I really wanted to go home, because I wasn’t living a life that was remotely normal. I’d never stayed in a hotel in my life, and then suddenly after I was married I had to live in them all the time. They were entirely filled with men; there were no women at all, and there was nothing to do. Of course, I read an enormous amount, but I was very lonely, and if I went out everybody whistled at me, which embarrassed me terribly. There was a shortage of women in the places I stayed – at one port on the Isle of Wight there were half a million men, and not even any Wrens, so it was difficult to go out without attracting attention.

Were you never flattered by that kind of attention? 

I always found it very difficult. A lot of people were attracted to me because of what I looked like, without having the slightest interest in finding out what I was like as a person. In fact I think the reason I married a second time was because I had become exhausted by people wanting to go to bed with me after just half an hour. I just couldn’t deal with it all, and I longed for ‘the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue’.

Were you very careful with your own daughter, to approve and love unconditionally because of your own experience? 

I don’t think I was a good mother. She would say I was a very bad one, but I was vaguely frightened of her and felt I wasn’t old enough to deal with her. We get on very well now, but I think that’s very much due to her than me. She had a difficult childhood, not just because of me but because her father took very little interest. He was profoundly interested in all other forms of natural life, but people no. It was difficult to be closely associated with him, because he was absolutely indifferent to people, and that included his children.

Your first marriage lasted five years, and then you were on your own for twelve years. That is a long time for a young woman not to love or be loved. How did you cope? 

Well, I had lovers in that time, and people asked me to marry them, but I didn’t think any of them was the right person. I regard that period of my life as a very wasted time, although when I think of the people I didn’t marry I’m always grateful that I didn’t. I did fall in love with people, but for a long time after my first marriage I didn’t ever want to get married again. Then I suddenly felt I did want to, and I wanted children. I married a man who was not right at all, and who didn’t want to have children. That lasted five years, but it was a disaster; we were hardly ever together.

Can you recall why you married him in the first place? 

I married him because – and this is all to do with being very insecure – he was charming, he was clever, and he was a con man. People always asked me why I didn’t see through him, but you don’t see through con men until it’s too late. I realized he didn’t love me very shortly after we got married, and that was a terrible shock, because I still had the romantic notion that people didn’t tell lies about love (or writing – the two things I minded about). He had married me because he thought I had some money – I had a bestseller that year – and also because he thought I had connections which would get him a job. But I don’t think it was just me. I doubt if he was capable of loving anyone properly.

The marriage was a loveless liaison…you have said that your husband did not even make love to you. What effect did that have – did it lower your self-esteem, or did it simply make you determined to get out, or both? 

It lowered my self-esteem; lowering my self-esteem was one of the things he was good at. I’m not sure how much I want you to write about him because I try absolutely not to mention him. He still goes about saying he used to be married to me. He enjoys all that, and I feel all I can do is keep reference to him to the barest minimum. I prefer to draw a veil over it all. It was a great mistake on my part not to have seen through him, but if you have lowered self-esteem you’re not very good at that; you’re rather grateful for attention.

You were undoubtedly very happy for a while with Kingsley Amis …presumably it was very important and reassuring that happiness was indeed attainable after your early experiences… 

Yes. One of the things about Kingsley that I found most deeply attractive was that he could make me laugh so much. It’s one of the most turning-on things that there is, and he was immensely funny.

When the marriage ended, was it also very important to know that there had been happy years? Was that something you tried not to lose sight of? 

I do remember the happy times, and with gratitude. We had very bad luck really. One lives in the slipstream of one’s own experience, and I would know now much more how to deal with a middle-aged marriage than I did then. We needed privacy, but we didn’t have it. We had the stepchildren living with us, and they were very hostile. We managed very well to begin with because we had long holidays abroad together. We used to go to Greece a great deal, and we our grown-up time alone, but then he stopped wanting to go abroad because he was a very anxious person and didn’t like travelling. Then we were not alone, and I don’t think any serious relationship survives without time alone; you absolutely have to have it. Even friendship requires it – you can’t develop friendships with people if you never see them alone.

Some people who knew Kingsley well suggest that deep inside he doesn’t like women. 

No, that why I had to leave. You can live with somebody who doesn’t love you, but you can’t possibly live with somebody who actually doesn’t like you. That became palpable. He simply doesn’t like women. He turns them into his mother, and he’s frightened of them.

That third marriage was hailed as the perfect literary partnership. Was the pressure of this perfection one of the factors which contributed to the failure? 

We were both used to a certain amount of publicity, so I don’t really think that made a difference. I doubt if Kingsley knew any more than I did about the pitfalls of middle-aged marriage.

Would you say you understood him? 

I understood a lot about him, but he is a very complicated person. It’s difficult to say that one understands somebody completely. I was always aware that he had a very high level of anxiety, something which poets often have. In fact, I’ve never known a poet without it. It takes different forms, but generally they are afraid of death, afraid of accidents, of terrible things happening to them, of losing people they love. They seem to be menaced more by possibilities than actualities. Kingsley had these areas of uncertainty, and he needed bolstering up too, and we simply didn’t do it for each other.

Although you haven’t seen Kingsley Amis since you left, you have said you would like to be friends. Do you see that as a possibility one day? 

No, I don’t now, and I’m not even sure I feel that any longer. I think it would be hopeless.

In 1978 you published a collection of fragments about love entitled The Pleasures, Joys and Anguish of Loving. Do you think these emotions are distributed fairly evenly in the business of loving, or is there generally a surfeit of anguish? 

People probably do have more anguish and suffering than ecstasy or contentment. You have to be rather an artist to get the good things out of loving, because the traps and pitfalls and the miseries are there for everybody. I am no exception. I’ve loved people and I’ve been happy with them, but I’ve also been very miserable about them.

Do you ever feel lonely? 

Oh yes, often. If you live alone, it happens. I don’t particularly like living on my own, but I’m getting much better at it. I have friends of all ages, and people come to stay here a lot, but I do spend days and days on my own. The times when one is happy are when one lives in the present, and that’s something I’m trying to learn to do more. There are whole patches of my life I can’t remember at all, because I was either thirsting after the past or anxious about the future. I would have liked very much to have ended my life married to somebody whom I’d known a very long time. That would have been marvellous, but I’ve made a mess of it, so that’s what I don’t get. You always pay for everything.

You were widely thought to be one of the most articulate analysts of family relationships in contemporary fiction. Do you think you have paid dearly in personal terms to arrive at that position? 

I don’t think I’ve paid unduly, but you do always pay. You may not pay at once, and you may not pay all at once, but you always pay. I paid very heavily for marrying a con man, for marrying so you and having a child when I didn’t feel old enough. That’s something between me and my own actions; it’s nothing to do with somebody being horrible to me, or being against me. I very much don’t agree with or believe in people like Cyril Connolly and his passion for guilt, which became a great fashion after the war and which somehow absolved you from any kind of future behaviour. You’re never going to wipe out what you’ve done wrong , but you can at least not continue it. I do believe in change.

Do you think you have changed? 

I’ve changed an enormous amount. A lot of people do change; the people who don’t are the people who don’t really want to, those of the fly-in-amber syndrome. While you’re alive you’re moving, and relationships move and they change, and if you’re not prepared to move with them, there can be awful trouble. I think people who set themselves against change are fairly unhappy people.

How important do you regard sex in the scheme of things? 

Like friendship or amusement or pleasure, sex is a facet of relationships. It is one of the most important elements, but of course it has been deeply misused. People who are absolutely ruled by their sexual interests and requirements do tend to repeat themselves. You have the choice between doing the same thing with a lot of different people or different things with the same person. And I would rather do different things with the same person, because you find out the other factors of intimacy, and intimacy is a very important and valuable life force. I remember meeting a man three years ago who told me he’d been to bed with eight hundred women that year. I don’t know whether that was a boast or whether he was just being silly, but he couldn’t possibly have known any of them, and that seems to me rather depressing. He had no concept of intimacy at all. I can honestly say I’ve had very little unalloyed happy sex in my life, although there was one incident that really was like that for me, and it’s been very warming, very lasting, and I remember it with great pleasure and gratitude.

Family-saga books have generally been received with some contempt on the review pages of the serious press, but your Cazalet chronicles have demanded that we re-examine our prejudices. Has that given you particular satisfaction? 

It’s given me great pleasure to be taken seriously on my own. It’s always satisfying if your peers like your books, particularly those writers whom you admire. I don’t think the subject matter matters a damn; it’s how you do it. There are no new ideas in the world after all, and if a painter chooses to paint frying pans from morning till night, and he does it very well, he’s probably just as interesting as somebody who is painting the Resurrection all the time. One can write about a family saga in a hundred different ways.

I have the impression you are rather contemptuous of the literary world, the world of Booker Prizes and incestuous reviewing, am I right? 

I’m not contemptuous of it. I just feel, particularly with novel reviewing, that it is rather male-dominated and that there is a certain amount of back-scratching. I’m not against literary prizes or anything which draws attention to literature in this country. Writers are underrated here, unlike in France, for example. Englishmen are the only people in the world who boast that they never read novels – they actually boast about it! You’d never get a Frenchman saying that. The cab drivers in Paris all know who Camus was.

I read somewhere that you wanted very much to have children with Kingsley Amis. Was it a terrible disappointment that the marriage was childless? 

It certainly was a disappointment, yes.

You worked very hard in your role as a stepmother. Were there rewards for doing that? 

Well Martin goes on saying that I helped him; he’s very gracious about that in public and usually says that if it hadn’t been for me he wouldn’t have got to Oxford. That is true, but it’s very nice that he says so, and that’s a reward. I don’t think there were any rewards apart from that.

Are you still close to your stepchildren? 

I don’t see any of them…at all…

Not even Martin? 

I haven’t seen Martin for three years. I used to ring him up, make an effort to see him, in the end I said, ‘Look, you know I really love seeing you and I would love to see you regularly, but this time I’m going to leave it to you to ring me.’ He never has.

Women traditionally hang on to marriages, even dead marriages, trying to shore them up. Women are also traditionally the ones who are rejected, abandoned by their husbands. You have walked out of three marriages, which is a striking role reversal. What gave you the courage to do this? 

I don’t believe in staying with people if you really don’t feel good about it. I haven’t taken money from any of my husbands; I want to make that clear. I just went each time and started afresh on my own. With Kingsley it was a case of not feeling able to stay with someone who disliked me. With Peter I was much younger and I knew he wanted a kind of life that I simply wouldn’t be able to fit into. We remained friends over the rest of our lives – he died about two years ago – and we were quite amiable always. There was never great acrimony, never anything bad. It took a lot of courage to leave Kingsley because of my age in a way, and because of starting again. I went and stayed with an incredibly kind friend, and in the first six months I think I earned only a hundred pounds.

You have never filed for huge divorce settlements. Has this been a point of honour with you? 

It’s a point of principle, I think. I don’t approve of women living on men. If you are healthy and able, it’s up to you to cope with your life. I must make it clear that when I left Kingsley, although I didn’t take any alimony, I did eventually get half the price of the house in which we lived together, but we bought our houses with my money to start with. On the first occasion I didn’t take any of the house because Peter had bought it all. I didn’t have any money when I married, so I had to start again from scratch. When I left my second husband he didn’t have any money anyway, so I just stopped having to pay for things, which was very nice. If the circumstances had been different, if for example Kingsley had left me at the age of fifty-six or whatever, and I had had five of his children, and I’d brought them all up and I hadn’t been able to do another job as a result, then I think it would have been fair to take alimony. I don’t want to judge other people, but in my case it hasn’t happened to be right to do it.

How do you stand on feminism? 

I think it has a very long way to go. One of the things we are constantly being told by men is that things have become fair for women, but I don’t think they have yet. Some things have changed, of course. For example when I left Peter I could not get a mortgage on any house because I was a woman, quite simply, and nobody would have considered it. Politics probably suffers from a tremendous lack of women. No provision is made for a woman to be a wife and mother as well as a cabinet minister. Men don’t have to choose between being Prime Minister or being fathers and husbands; it doesn’t come into it for a moment.

Mrs Thatcher was the exception to the rule, I suppose… 

Mrs Thatcher didn’t really get into a very powerful position until her children were practically grown up, and she was married to quite a rich man, so she didn’t have the pressures which an awful lot of women have.

But did you admire her as a woman? 

Not as a woman. I admired her as a leader because although I didn’t agree with her she did seem to me to stick to her guns, and people who keep sidestepping the whole time are very depressing. I don’t think she cared very much about whether people liked her or not, and one of the great dangers of leaders today is that they mind far too much about that. It makes them unable to stick to things or have a clear line about what they regard as right or wrong. I didn’t find Mrs Thatcher at all easy as a person; she’s a woman who doesn’t like women, and they are the only women I find hard to get on with.

Do you feel now that you have more in common with women than with men? 

Yes, but that is maybe because I spend more time with them. It’s true that I do have far more women friends, but partly that is because when you get to my age you know a lot of widows, inevitably.

Do you still aspire to having a great love affair? 

I don’t aspire to it, but I certainly would not spurn it. If it came along, I would say, how wonderful, and I would recognize it now. I think it extremely unlikely, but I am not against it in principle.

I have the impression that principles are very important to you. Have these principles been worked out according to your life experience, or did you inherit them? 

I regard principles as very expensive things to have, so I think one has to be rather selective about how many one can support. I do believe in everybody having a moral structure or belief system, and that it is important to think about what that is, because if you’re not very clear about it you haven’t a hope of living it. I’m not a religious person at all, but I do believe that people are able to change things and themselves and we learn from the good examples of other people. In my life the things which have most impressed me and which have lasted for me have been other people’s behaviour in certain circumstances. That is tremendously important, and once you recognize that, you don’t want to be a bad example for others.

Isn’t it true to say that the more principled one is the more one is likely to suffer? 

That’s always a hazard. One can’t possibly live one’s life on the basis of trying to avoid suffering, like avoiding being run over, but one can take reasonable precautions not to be run over. The thing about suffering is it depends whether you allow it to overwhelm you and dominate your life, or whether you allow anything else in. You might have to die for your principles, so you have to be very clear about what they are and whether you think they are worth that.

I read somewhere that your memory is now very selective and there are whole areas of unhappiness which you have simply erased. Have you found it easier to try to bury the pain rather than to try to conquer it by confronting it? 

I don’t think I planned to forget anything – that’s just what has happened sometimes. It’s not so much violent happenings I’ve buried; I always remember them. It’s the long periods of depression or unhappiness which become a kind of fog. But on the whole I think confronting things is always better. If you hear a sound in the house at night and you’re frightened, it’s much better to go down and see what it is or isn’t than to stay upstairs imagining all the things it might be.

How important has psychotherapy been to you? What has it enabled you to do or understand which you couldn’t have done by yourself? 

It’s made me understand the importance of listening to people, which I don’t think I understood before. People very seldom listen to each other, and as a result people don’t tell each other things in a serious enough way. I’ve learned to tell people things, and it’s cleared up a lot of unfinished business. It’s not a self-indulgence; some of it is very painful.

You said you were not religious, but do you find a similarity between that kind of thing and confession for the Catholic? 

No, because it’s for quite a different purpose. When you go to confession, which I did briefly when I was an Anglican, what you’re doing is unloading a whole lot of behaviour that you’re not particularly proud of, and getting somebody to say, ‘Well that’s all right, you’ve told me now’, and it’s all washed away. That doesn’t stop you from doing it again and again and again. The point of talking about your behaviour is to sort out the bits of it that you really don’t want to go on being loaded with, and finding out why you behave like that and then, very often, when you do know, it’s easy just to stop if you want to.

With advancing years, are you likely to seek solace in religion? 

I don’t think so. Faith is like love; they’re both gifts, and you can’t reason yourself into either of them. You can’t acquire them by being wise or rich or thoughtful; they are things which come to you. I don’t have faith in that sense.

Are you anxious about death? 

No. Dying is the last great adventure. There are times when I feel this is the most amazing world and I can’t bear to leave it, but there are also times when I can see that I will have had a lot life and I will be prepared to let it go. I don’t know whether things happen to you after you’re dead or not; it may well be that we do have other lives, but I find it very hard to believe in the Catholic conception of heaven and hell. Our lifespan in that case has been organized by a particularly wicked fairy godmother: it’s long enough for you to learn things, and then not long enough for you to practise them. It doesn’t make sense that you should suffer unspeakable purgatory forever because you haven’t done very well in your allotted timespan.

When you look back on your life, is there anything you really regret? 

I really regret not having had more children. I would have liked more children, very much, and when I reached the point of being mature, I feel I would have been good at it.

You once said: ‘Pain, like arsenic, accumulates in the body; but while it is difficult to get rid of arsenic, it is possible to get rid of pain.’ How have you got rid of your pain? 

By talking about it. I think pain flourishes in solitude and silence. It was an Indian who said to me once that most people’s response to physical pain is to flinch and try to get away from it, but if you actually try to explore where it’s coming from and what exactly it feels like, you can diminish it very considerably. I have found that to be true.

What, if any, are the compensations of growing older? 

That’s a very difficult one. People talk a lot of sentimental nonsense about growing old. What I think happens is that you become more of whatever it was you were. Irascible people become more sentimental. I want to be more aware of other people and what they need. I should like to be of some use in that way. At my age you haven’t got the immediate investment which you have when you are young, and quite properly selfish, when you are trying to carve out your own life. Most of my life is over and there is no longer a need for me to do that; so I might now do something for others. We all decay, and we can either be submerged in self-pity because we can’t do the things we did when we were thirty, or we can find other things to do. I have found other things to do.

Thought for the Day: My Christmas Nightmare

As we approach the Christmas season the notion of having a long break from work sends me into a state of panic.

The daily routine suddenly disappears, the town is empty once the shopping madness is over, and people either go to the country to eat and drink themselves silly, or stay in London, bored and glued to their television set out of sheer desperation.

Families congregate and exchange presents but it isn’t long after the initial calm that they begin to argue and quarrel and make the atmosphere charged with animosity. The dream of compatibility becomes a myth and past disagreements surface to ruin the great family reunions that most of us dread.

We eat and drink to excess, feel bloated most of the time and break wind to the embarrassment and shock of others who invariably pretend to have exquisite manners to put us to shame. We finally stagger to bed at a late hour with our stomachs bursting to capacity. We toss and turn, snore in a pig-like manner and God knows what else; I dread to think.

I count the days when the so-called festivities come to an end and pick myself up from a somnific bodily delirium and try to get in top gear again, and enjoy the stress of a proper working day.

Then I thank the Lord for having survived the Christmas ordeal unscathed, and still raring to go.

Nelson Mandela: An Alternative View

A torrent of tributes have been written about Nelson Mandela.

There is little one can add except to say that his death has left the world a much poorer place. His most abiding quality was that he never claimed to be a saint; but his actions after spending twenty-seven years in jail in appalling conditions, at the hands of a white regime determined to see the back of him by whatever means, elevated him to a unique place in history.

It was a winter’s day in 1986 when South Africa’s beleaguered white government declared a nation-wide state of emergency. At that moment riots were sweeping the black townships, convincing millions of South Africans, and the world at large, that a surging race-war was impending and unlikely to be avoided.

But miraculously the predicted bloodbath never happened. This was due to the wisdom, affability and forgiveness of a regal man who went on to heal the wounds of decades of black repression and taught the majority of South Africans the benefits of cooperation.

His inspiration has, so far, turned South Africa into a democratic nation – which he described as a period passing from ‘skunk of the world’ to ‘rainbow nation’.

Even some white intellectuals of South African stock were not convinced of his sincerity to afford him any leeway in proving his good intentions. A prime example was Prince Charles’s guru, Sir Laurence van der Post, who I must admit I never liked. In an interview I did with him in the autumn of 1993, I asked, ‘You have surprised many people by being very critical of Nelson Mandela, saying that when he emerged from prison he was “more myth than man”, and still spouting “the moth-eaten clichés of the spirit”. Most people would regard that as harsh criticism of someone they see as essentially dignified, unsubdued by imprisonment…not unlike yourself in many ways.’

His answer: ‘Did you see what I wrote about Nelson Mandela?’

I said, ‘I heard, and I am quoting.’

‘Well’, he said, ‘you heard wrong. I said that Nelson Mandela, when he came out of prison, had become more of a myth in the minds of people than a man, which I think is true. When he emerged from captivity it was an immense opportunity for him to speak. I had been in prison myself, and I knew it was a terrible thing to do to a human being. But I think that prison is one of the finest schools for the making of the human spirit that can ever be. I myself did only a crash course, so to speak, but he went to university, having been in prison for twenty-seven years. You can imagine my disappointment when I heard him talk all those clichés, thanking the communists and so on. I had to ask myself: has he actually been in prison? And I thought of the great examples of people who have come out of prison the right way, people like Solzhenitsyn who showed from the words he used that he had learned lessons in that prison school. What I bitterly regret is that Nelson Mandela didn’t come out as Martin Luther King saying that he had a dream for Africa, instead of giving us a lot of moth-eaten political platitudes. I was bitterly disappointed. Nelson Mandela is a miserable figure who speaks with a double tongue. You should hear the Dalai Lama on the subject of Nelson Mandela, how after Tiananmen Square he cuddled up with the Chinese government when he was there. He’s a very brave man, but he’s a great disappointment to me personally. He had twenty-seven years to think about life, and yet he still belongs to a party which hasn’t renounced power and war.’

Sir Laurence van der Post would say that. I found him capable of mixing fact and fiction to suit his point of view. He was a man who was prone to embellish his exploits in order to produce the maximum impact.

To me, Mandela will always be remembered as the man who saved his nation – not by brutal means as his predecessors, but by spreading forgiveness, goodwill and a great measure of racial tolerance and understanding which few leaders before him had ever done. His memory, as a result, will never fade away for he had been undoubtedly a giant to be admired and revered throughout the ages.