As Richard Ingrams quits the editorship of the Oldie magazine, which I financed for a number of years – mostly as a labour of love given that it involved the active participation of a few distinguished friends of mine, namely my hero at the time, the indomitable Auberon Waugh – I thought it opportune to acquaint the public with the complexity of Richard’s character, now that he’s contemplating his next move.
His beloved daughter Jubby was just out of school in 1989 and working for Quartet Books. She convinced her father over an extended lunch to open his heart to me in a discourse, which I found unlikely from the combative editor of Private Eye.
My relationship with Richard has fluctuated over the years, but that is the nature of the beast. As he once wrote to me, ‘You should know by now that I always bite the hand that feeds me.’
Despite this, I have remained devoted to him as experience has taught me that friendship has sometimes a peculiar way of manifesting itself.
Here is the complete text from our memorable encounter.
I was born in 1939 and brought up in Scotland during the war, until 1945 when I went to boarding school. My recollection of my parents is that they weren’t together much of the time. My father was a merchant banker who went abroad a lot and then, during the war, was working in the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London with all kinds of secret operations that I still know nothing about. Not even my mother knows what he was really up to. I was therefore brought up largely by my mother before I went to school – my mother and grandmother, actually. We lived in my grandmother’s house.
My mother, who is now eighty-one, takes her religion seriously. She was a Catholic convert whereas my father was very anti-Catholic. He wouldn’t, for instance, allow any priest in the house, except for Ronald Knox, who had taught him at school when he was little. His attitude to religion was negative. That was why he insisted that two of us boys must be Protestant, though the rest could be Roman Catholic. As far as my religion is concerned, my mother has been a major influence in that direction and I do regard myself as religious. What I didn’t know until recently is that I am a baptized Catholic, my mother having secretly baptized her two non-Catholic children, feeling she had a duty.
I considered converting at Oxford and I still feel inclined towards Catholicism, partly because, where the Church of England is concerned nowadays, it’s become extremely difficult for someone like me to feel any loyalty, though I have felt it in the past. Now, with the kind of things under discussion in the Church of England – women priests, gay priests and the whole secularization of the Church, all developments towards which I feel unsympathetic – it’s become impossible to hold it in the kind of romantic affection that someone like John Betjeman stood for. It doesn’t exist any longer, though it was once a powerful pull. Very possibly I might convert to Roman Catholicism in old age.
I can truly say that I hardly knew my father, who died when I was about fifteen. I wasn’t close to him, but I regarded him with a certain awe, partly because he was never around. If you were sent to boarding school it meant that after a certain age you barely knew your parents. You started to live a separate life from early on and never spoke to your parents about what you did at school or about your parents to the boys at school. You were almost ashamed and didn’t own up to having parents, or sisters either – not that I had sisters.
A story in the press that I had a Nazi father arose, funnily enough, when a book on Philby was published. Kim Philby at one time belonged to an organization called the Anglo-German Fellowship – a group of British who were sympathetic towards Hitler and Germany before the big war. One of the illustrations in the book showed Philby sitting at a big dinner in London, and there were my parents in the foreground. My father was quite possibly sympathetic towards Germany, even to Hitler at that stage, but since he was also working for British Intelligence I do not know how far he became involved for Intelligence reasons. Certainly if you look at Hitler’s blacklist of key people whom he considered dangerous and who were to be bumped off, you will find my father’s name.
If my father was secretive, it must have been partly because of his job. Recently I read in the diaries of Bruce Lockhart, the political head of operations during the war, that he sent my father before the Nuremburg trials to speak to Göring and all the big Nazi war criminals on behalf of the Foreign Office. Well, I had no knowledge whatever of that. When I was a little boy, I would have been highly impressed by the idea of my father meeting all those evil men, but I never remember him mentioning it.
As to whether I was myself a good father, you would need to ask my children. I would say that I was keen my children shouldn’t have the same relationship with me as I had with my own parents. When they went to boarding school, we therefore chose schools close to home so I wouldn’t lose touch, and it made a tremendous difference. My relationship with them is far more intimate than my relationship ever was with my parents. I was also working at Private Eye, so was at home more than most fathers, and I liked being a father, I particularly liked reading to my children – partly for my own pleasure, of course.
When my son Arthur died, he was seven, and his death was a time of great stress, especially for my wife. As far as I was concerned, it was far worse than the deaths of my two brothers since I and they were never particularly close – again, partly because of the public school attitude. They were a different age from me and you could only have friends who were the same generation. My brother Rupert was in any case killed at about the same time as my son Fred was born, so I was involved in the birth of my own child while the death of my brother was something – well, I don’t say that it passed me by, but it didn’t have a tremendous effect.
But the whole business of having a brain-damaged son imposed a great strain, more so on my wife because – and this is often difficult to grasp – a mother can love her child regardless of its physical condition while a father probably doesn’t quite share that attitude. I felt affectionate towards Arthur, but because he couldn’t speak or do anything apart from smiling like a baby, I couldn’t feel towards him as Mary did. When Arthur died I think I inevitably felt a sense of relief, partly because of his own distress and pain. He was medicated much of the time, so I felt a great sense of relief – release, I should perhaps say.
Shrewsbury when I was there was still very, very old-fashioned. I recently read the memoirs of Maurice Bowra, in which he describes his school as it was before the First World War, though I thought it could have been a description of Shrewsbury as it was in the early 1950s. He describes particularly well the emphasis on classics, and even in the sixth form in my day we were still taught classics to the exclusion of almost everything else. The only concession was divinity, and that consisted of reading the New Testament in Greek.
My recollection of the people who gave speeches on prize-giving day is of how they would tell us we were to be the leaders of the future. ‘You are very privileged to have had this education,’ they said. ‘You have a duty to your own country to be a leader.’ It actually made a great impression on me, and when I went into the army and failed to become an officer I was most upset. Why did I fail? I think they saw a Bolshevik.
The propaganda of being told, ‘You are leaders,’ led you to assume automatically if you went into the army you’d be an officer, that you wouldn’t have to mix for too long with all those other people. That was how I assumed it would be, and I was very shocked when it wasn’t. The point about the terrible public school system is that it’s very strict in that way: either you conform or you become rebellious. I became a rebel, not in a courageous but in a cowardly way, but rebellious nevertheless. I found in the army the same kind of class structure, only more so, with three orders, offices, non-commissioned officers and other ranks, all clearly marked out, and realized that the officers weren’t really fit to be in charge and that it was the non-commissioned officers who knew how to run things. The discovery made me even more of a Bolshevik.
At Oxford I read Greats because I hadn’t learned anything apart from classics. I still know virtually nothing about history, and my knowledge of literature hasn’t been gained from school. I know a little French, but no other language, and I know nothing about science. I am therefore very ignorant and have meanwhile completely forgotten all the classics. So if you gave me Greek to read today I wouldn’t be able to follow a word. The one thing I did benefit from was having to do philosophy, though I couldn’t understand it or see what Ayer and all those people were on about, or that it mattered, though it was somehow of benefit. Wasn’t it MacNeice who said that if you read philosophy at Oxford then you never believe anything that anyone says to you ever again? If it’s done well, it trains you to think about the meaning of what people say and analyse what they’re really saying – something people don’t do normally. Since most people talk balls all the time, it is a useful training.
I remember Ayer being on television with Muggeridge when they were all talking about God. As Ayer’s turn came to speak, he said, ‘Well, I think we ought to define what we mean by God.’ Malcolm said, ‘Oh, Freddie, don’t be silly. What a stupid thing to say. How could you be a professor of logic?’ and he stamped on him. Ayer was so offended that he never spoke to Malcolm again, but of course Ayer was right: they should first have decided what they meant when they used certain expressions.
As a student I enjoyed being involved in plays and reviews, though I never did great acting. I remember in particular putting on shows at the Edinburg Festival, and I enjoyed it all, but wasn’t much good at it. I would have liked the company we started at Oxford to succeed, but it was something you could only do with a grant, and when we tried to get grants from various sources, we failed because we were just two or three young people whom nobody knew.
My only other experience of the stage has been acting in Keith Waterhouse’s play Mrs Wilson’s Diary with Joan Littlewood directing. Again I enjoyed being involved, because of Joan, she was such a brilliant person, and it was great fun to do. Now I don’t hanker after the stage at all; I don’t even go to the theatre. I’m not interested in it and I don’t even find actors interesting. They’re boring, terribly boring. I listened to Charles Dance when he did Desert Island Discs, and he’d nothing to say, and the music he chose was hopeless. Actors shouldn’t be allowed to speak, not even when they’re Olivier. Olivier did what he did and, like a lot of people, didn’t really understand how, so when he talked about it he was almost incoherent.
Lasting friendships? John Wells was someone I met at university, and then there were Andrew Osmond and various others. Peter Jay was a great friend in those days, though I’ve fallen out with him since. He worked for Robert Maxwell at one time and I find that hard to stomach. I feel we haven’t much in common any more.
But I did enjoy my time at Oxford and remember thinking, when I left, that I would never be able to bear to go back because, having been so happy there, I would be overwhelmed with nostalgia. Of course I did go back and never felt a thing – partly because all the people there whom I had known had also left. But I remember clearly that original feeling of happiness. It was the first place you went to after all the silly time in school and in the army where you were free to do whatever you liked. Also there were lots of girls, and I’d never had the company of girls, what with boarding school and the army.
I do enjoy the company of women, and now I’m very old and grey I like the company of young girls – my daughter and her friends, for instance. I love being with them and I suppose they make me feel younger. But I’m not one of those who can’t live without women. I’m quite happy living on my own and wouldn’t mind being a hermit. There are very few people I like to be with, and if you don’t drink, as I don’t, you’ve no wish to be with anyone you don’t know; you don’t want to be among bores.
Is there something inside me that wants to break out? If you mean by that having affairs with lots of women, I wouldn’t want to. Men who behave promiscuously get into all kinds of difficulties that are better avoided. The idea that it’s pleasurable to live that kind of life is quite mistaken, and anyway, if you genuinely like women, you don’t want to make them unhappy. Did I ever err in that regard? My lips are sealed.
Where journalism is concerned, I don’t take it seriously. I agree with Ron Orr when he said that once a journalist thinks he’s something more important to do than fill up tomorrow’s newspaper, he should pack it in and do something else. I always firmly believed that journalists who take themselves seriously or believe they have influence are bad journalists. The person who has exemplified that for me is Harold Evans. He started off as probably quite a good journalist, but developed into someone who thought he was highly influential. Look at him now: editor of some travel magazine in New York which nobody reads. He’s completely forgotten, whereas someone like Bron is still there. It’s very important for a journalist not to have high-flown ideas about what he or she is doing, and not to think it’s important.
One of the curious things about Private Eye is that people seem, on the whole, to have stayed on indefinitely, perhaps for too long. Even when they leave they seem to be drawn back. You ask if I was being trivial when I said Christopher Booker was removed from the editorship because of the length of his holiday. The fact was that he somehow seized control of Private Eye and both Willie Rushton and I thought that Booker was no good at being editor. He was so indecisive: he could never finish an article or anything and we would all sit around till late at night trying to get the magazine to press. I felt that Private Eye could only survive if he ceased to be editor and I became editor, but it was perfectly true that he went away on a long holiday. Naturally he was upset at the time as he hadn’t expected anything of the kind to happen, and there was then an estrangement for a couple of years when he had nothing to do with me. But he came back and has been there ever since, and now we are good friends.
When Bron left I was still editor and his departure upset me. It wasn’t that alone, though, which prompted me to give up, since he didn’t come in all that often and would keep himself very much apart from the rest. On the other hand, perhaps I felt that him and Dempster leaving represented the departure of two key figures who were very much a part of the 1970s Private Eye. Maybe I thought, well, it’s time to go, since journalism is always changing and it’s no use thinking you can go on doing the same thing week after week. Coming up with something different can be quite a strain – constantly providing novelty.
As an editor, you need to be a despot to a certain extent, and where Private Eye is concerned it is essential to have a fairly clear idea of what you want. There isn’t time for too much democracy in meetings, and in the end a lot comes down to personal decisions. Since I am rather obstinate I find it hard to change my mind and admit I’ve been wrong. I was criticized a lot, for instance, over Goldsmith, and was accused of getting an obsession about him. Perhaps I did.
The Goldsmith period brought us all very close because Private Eye was under threat and there was the camaraderie of wartime. Dempster and Gilliard and Patrick Marnham and Paul Foot and I used to meet and plot how we were going to deal with the enemy. Nigel Dempster I shall always associate with those times, but he’s very temperamental and the trouble with journalists is that they become torn between being journalists, which means being critical, attacking and making nuisances of themselves, and being nice to people – writing flattering things about them, having lunch with them, going on their yachts. Even in my own column in the Observer I sometime feel a temptation to get involved with influential people, to be able to ring up cabinet ministers and say, ‘Could we not have lunch?’ They’d certainly agree, and before you knew where you were you’d be caught up in the PR side and your edge would be gone.
The most upsetting aspect of what has happened to Dempster has been to see what he has written in his column about Goldsmith and Aspinall, the people who were once our enemies, and to read about how Sir James has bought a new house and so forth. It certainly is not the Dempster of old. I sense he would like to come back, but I don’t think Ian Hislop would have him, though it’s not for me to say. In any case, Hislop is not so interested in the Dempster type of journalism as I was, and Nigel is not so interested in that style of journalism as he used to be. He seems to have lost that scurrilous edge.
I think Bron was, from his own point of view, right to leave when he did as he probably had shot his bolt. And after that, of course, I left myself, feeling I’d had enough. Once I’d done it too I felt more sympathetic towards Bron and realized how he must have felt. For a long time I had been concerned that there were no young people on Private Eye, that it seemed we would all go on till we dropped dead. When Ian Hislop turned up, it was absolutely wonderful as I had been hoping someone might come along who could take over. Nevertheless it was a difficult thing to expect of anyone because the job involves two quite distinctive halves: the jokes written by particular people and the story side. That makes for two camps, and the editor has to have a foot in each. The people who come into Private Eye are on the whole interested in one or the other, the joke people tending to look down on the journalists and the journalists tending to look down on the joke people. Ian never had that attitude, but liked both sides, and in fact had done some very good stories as well as jokes for the Eye before taking over.
I’m most impressed by Ian, seeing how young he is. He understands the point of Private Eye very well and knows how it works. The Sutcliffe libel action has been the most serious thing ever to happen to us because it threatened to involve such a huge sum of money, while the danger remains that something like it could happen again. To begin with I thought it was maybe the end of the magazine, but the fact that it’s kept going has been very much to Ian Hislop’s credit. I’ve been through these libel actions, and the fund-raising, before, and couldn’t do it all over again.
Do I continue to exert a tremendous influence? If that’s in any way true, it’s partly because Ian Hislop and I get on well and tend to see eye to eye, though I do try not to interfere and I wasn’t, for example, involved in the Sutcliffe business. I didn’t even attend the court hearings. I used to feel, partly because there was a lot of difficulty when I gave up the editorship, that I should continue to stick around and see things were all right. Now I feel I could slip away tomorrow and Private Eye would carry on and I wouldn’t be missed. I might miss Private Eye a bit, but if it came to the point where I felt I was bored, that it didn’t mean anything much to me any more, I would give it up and try something else.
I have always been impressed by something Chesterton said, which was that it is easy to be solemn, hard to be frivolous; that if, as a journalist, you have the choice between writing a leader in The Times and a whole page of jokes for Punch, then you pick writing the leader because it will be much easier to do. That is very true, and Chesterton is an example of a man who was brilliant and serious but who regarded it as his duty to be amusing, to make people laugh. It sounds as though I’m comparing myself with him, which I wouldn’t wish to do, but as a journalist I do think one should try to be funny and tell a few jokes. I also think that being serious carries a great danger of coming out with terrible clichés and points that are perfectly obvious. Most people grow serious when they are drunk at about half-past eleven at night and start to tell you things which they think are highly important, though they never are.
The written word has very little effect on the way people behave. People read something – I’m guilty of this myself – and the next day can’t remember what it was. I often say to someone, I really enjoyed your article, what was it about? I can’t remember. It’s hard to say what influence any of these things really has. If you take Mrs Thatcher, who has been ridiculed ad nauseam, not just in Private Eye and the press but on television as in Spitting Image and so on, does it have any influence? I would say not much, not much.
I certainly don’t believe in the power of the pen. You should engage in journalism for personal reasons. Wasn’t it Larkin who said that he wrote in order to have something to read? I always felt that about Private Eye: that I was bored with reading those other newspapers so wrote Private Eye for something to read. Does that make sense? I still get this impulse to snatch up and read the latest Private Eye, even though I know what’s in it. A lot of it is to do with boredom with journalism, and Private Eye has been a way of amusing myself.
Yet if journalism as a whole never changes things, I’ve often thought that publishing a good cartoon is probably more effective than, say, a leader in The Times. If you want to influence how people think about Mrs Thatcher, a good cartoon is more effective than a long piece because it is, first of all, a picture and no one has to make an effort. People don’t often remember things, but they may remember a particular cover of Private Eye more than an article they’ve read inside. If people like satire, perhaps it does some good.
I agree that satire is bound to trivialize in a way. It’s like the cartoon again: a simplifying of the issue. One of the cartoons I’ve felt very proud of in Private Eye was done by John Kent and appeared during the Falklands War. It showed a war memorial with a bust of Mrs Thatcher on top and underneath the names of those who had died, the inscription reading: ‘They Died to Save Her Face’. I was much criticized for it, but was proud of it because it seemed to me to be what the Falklands War was all about. It was a simplification and there was more to it than that, but then I also thought the description by Borges of the Falklands War being about two bald men fighting over a comb was brilliant. When you say such a thing, it says it all, and there’s no need for a history of the Falklands War. Two bald men fighting over a comb is, of course, simplifying the issue, but it also the truth and the truth is always simple.
Bron once said that politicians are social and emotional cripples. I thought that was good. It’s important for people not to hold a high opinion of politicians, and one of the strengths of the British is that they don’t on the whole. Even Mrs Thatcher, the most successful politician of our time, who has done more than anyone, is not liked very much in her own country, and that’s a good attitude. The danger begins when people start admiring politicians. Then you have Hitler, Mussolini and the Ayatollah; all these people who are thought to be wonderful. The right attitude to have is Bron’s: quite untrue but the right way to think: to assume that such people are somehow sick and have something the matter with them. So long as people think like that, then the country will be all right.
But if satirists are ever only venting private spleen, then it’s wrong. You should never get a kick out of being indignant. Malcolm Muggeridge, who influenced me greatly, is someone with a satirical outlook, and maybe Bron is too to some extent. With both of them I have the feeling of their being apart from society and viewing it from a distance. In Malcolm’s case, there is a sense of great disgust at all the things he sees going on, a sense that the society we live in is corrupt and heading for some form of totalitarianism. I don’t have such feeling myself, but in a way wish I could. Journalists like Bron or Malcolm have a much clearer version of what is happening than more conventional commentators, even when, as in Bron’s case, there is a view of people which appears to be farcical – the Swiftian kind of idea about people eating their children. Take television personalities. I’m sure it is very rare for them to have what I would call a satirical attitude, a vivid feeling of disgust. I don’t have it because I’m too normal, and you need to be slightly abnormal to think like a true satirist.
Malcolm was to me a kind of father figure who greatly influenced the way I see politics and other matters. I first met him in about 1963 with Claud Cockburn, who was another old man who influenced me. I have come to believe that we have many old people who are ignored because the whole of society tends to focus on the young. There are still a lot of old buffers who are pretty active, and people have forgotten about them just because they are old. To some extent I am interested in old people because I have been involved in biography, where you naturally tend to be writing about people older than yourself. But now I’m getting to be one of the old men too, so feel my father figures are all gone.
The secret of life, as Dr Johnson said, is that you must always try to do better than you did in the past. I would like to write more books, but don’t have any good ideas. I’m always dining with publishers who invite me to write, but I’ve only ever written if I’ve felt a great compulsion. It’s never been something that some publisher has suggested over lunch. What I ought to do is write the life of Muggeridge, and since I’ve done most of the work already, I think I could finish it quite quickly. I’ve done most of the work already, I think I could finish it quite quickly.
There have been politicians I liked and admired. Jo Grimond is one, but he didn’t get on. On the whole, the people one admires in politics lack the ruthless ambition that makes more successful politicians unpleasant. I often think there are plenty of nice people on the back benches of the House of Commons who are simply ordinary MPs you never hear about. The same is true in the Church: there are admirable men but they’re not bishops. It is always thought that you should admire those who reach the top, but the good people usually don’t. Apart from politics, those I admire are some of the old men I’ve mentioned, like Muggeridge; and Betjeman, whom I knew quite well and was very fond of. I never knew Larkin, but I admire his writing; and then there is Graham Greene. In the musical field, a great hero of mine was Casals, the cellist, a wonderful, a great man. I sometimes feel there aren’t any great men any more.
As for those I positively don’t admire, when I was a television critic I tended to get highly irritated by certain people, more so than nowadays. There was something about television personalities. I felt animosity towards, for instance, Esther Rantzen, even Michael Parkinson. I recently saw again the film where Rod Hull’s Emu attacks Parkinson, and it was such a wonderful moment, something you’d longed to happen – the best think ever on TV.
Television aside, people like goldsmith and Robert Maxwell appear to me to be in the roles of almost Dickensian villains since both are devoted to the making of money and are total materialists, though perhaps that is being unkind to Maxwell as he does do work for charity. On the other hand, I cannot help suspecting that Goldsmith would on occasion find it hard to write out a cheque unless he was getting something back. You and others tell me that I have an obsession with him, but I don’t like the idea of him exerting influence. He is politically ambitious and has a dictatorial streak which reminds me of Oswald Mosley. I met Mosley a few times and found him a difficult man to like: he was obsessed with power and talked about what needed doing in the country, when what he really meant was that he wanted to do these various things himself and there was no question of anyone else being consulted. He had a real thirst for power.
Mary and I had dinner with Mosley once and I was most impressed. His political charisma was clearly defined. At a certain point the conversation stopped and he began to speak about what was going on in the country and what ought to be done. Then he started to wave his arms and it all became slightly hypnotic and quite frightening.
A lot of those who saw Goldsmith when he was interviewed on television thought he came over well, which was an indication of how he could sway people. I found it awful because he knew that, since it was going out live, it couldn’t be edited, and so he did not seem to me to answer the questions directly. I’ve seen him do the same thing in court, but people were still impressed.
The Sutcliffe damages have been more immediately worrying than any government secrecy measures. Ways will always be found around official secrecy since, in the end, these things come out and no attempt by government can suppress them, as Peter Wright has shown. The greatest threat to Private Eye is suddenly to have huge damages awarded against it which, unless something is done, could mean the end. The problem is much more of a threat to those with least resources, because if Rupert Murdoch has to pay a million pounds to Elton John, he can write a cheque and it won’t have too much effect on his bank balance.
The English libel laws are far less liberal than those in the United States. The whole idea of the United States was founded on the idea of the people being able to get away from repressive laws and being free to speak out. By contrast, the law in England is weighted against the defendant in a libel action and the advantage all with the plaintiff. Then these juries give arbitrary awards, as for some reason the judge can’t tell them what they should do; he can’t even give an indication. It’s a simple point which everyone has been making for years, but they’ve never got round to changing it, and on top of that you have the horrendous costs of litigation, including barristers’ and solicitors’ fees. Moreover, it was always my experience in a libel action that the one thing you thought needed saying was never admissible. I remember trying to say that Robert Maxwell was a man whom the Board of Trade had alleged, in 1971, was unfit to run a public company, and they said, oh no, we know what you’re trying to say, Mr Ingrams, but you can’t refer to it. It seemed to me that it was an important point, but I wasn’t allowed to make it in the witness box.
How do you resolve the problem of printing what is known to be true but for which no evidence can be produced? That has always been a problem for Private Eye and is partly why we have our record of libel actions. I don’t see any way round it. If you never printed anything you couldn’t prove in court, you’d never print anything at all. We are never deliberately inaccurate over a big issue, though we might print people’s names wrong to annoy or tease them, or embroider a gossip story – that I wouldn’t deny. But we never set out to be deliberately inaccurate. I got into trouble in the Maxwell case when I tried to impress on the jury that, so far as I knew, I had never put anything in Private Eye which I knew to be false, apart from the apologies, which I knew to be insincere. The judge was most annoyed. He couldn’t understand how I could say such a thing.
It would be very hard to discuss in the abstract the question of whether we’ve ever gone too far or caused hurt to someone’s life. If you tell me I have caused the ruin of a particular individual, then I can talk about that and maybe be made to feel remorseful, but looking back I can’t think of a case where Private Eye ruined people undeservedly, though the circumstances vary so much. Obviously many crooks have been exposed by Private Eye, and while some of them haven’t been affected at all, others clearly did suffer. If I look through back numbers, as I sometimes do, I feel on the whole that our targets were justified. Even Dempster had a good instinct for going after the right people and knowing who the baddies were, and that’s what’s required.
There is one regret I have from a long way back. After the Conservative MP Commander Courtney was photographed in bed with a woman in Moscow, the KGB circulated the pictures to various newspapers like the News of the World. The fact that this happened was mentioned in Private Eye and as a result he was dropped by his constituency and his political career brought to an end. That was a clear case where we were wrong to do as we did since we were really playing the KGB game.
I certainly wouldn’t feel that any love of punishing people came into the Parkinson case, and I don’t feel an urge to punish people for their sexual misdemeanours. At least I hope not. You have to remember that a good journalist with a piece of information has an irresistible urge to get it into print, no matter where. In that respect Private Eye sometimes benefits as a last resort, for the people who work on it are not gentlemen – not all of them. One of the world’s gripes against journalists is that they behave in an ungentlemanly manner, but that’s the way it is. If I am in conversation with anyone, I naturally think in terms of whether they are telling me a good story, and whenever people say, you mustn’t use this in your magazine, I always think they mean they want it to go in, and so take no notice.
Am I hurt by disloyalty? My staff is grotesquely disloyal and I’m watched carefully in all that I do. I don’t really mind because this is how I expect journalists to behave. If ever there is a crisis, then people are always loyal.
On the question of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, I read a well documented article by Christopher Hitchins that brought home to me clearly how the Zionist movement is basically anti-Semitic. People such as Balfour, who were responsible for the State of Israel coming into being, were quite anti-Semitic and believed that creating a Jewish state would be a good way to get the Jews out of their own countries. It’s always seemed to me that the Gentiles most keen on Israel are anti-Semitic.
I wouldn’t agree that Private Eye was ever anti-Semitic, but I don’t consider that the State of Israel has been a success. People won’t face it, and now it’s growing worse. Israel is only kept going with American money, yet the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, keep up the pretence that the country is something good that deserves our support. Personally I can’t feel any great involvement in what is going on in the Middle East. People in this country seem too much concerned with the question of Israel and the Palestinians, which after all has nothing really much to do with us, and I don’t see what the British government can be expected to do about it.
Naturally I feel sympathy with the Palestinians when I see what is going on on the West Bank, and that is why I was particularly interested in the Hitchins article, because what is happening there is a sort of racism. The Jews are saying to the Palestinians, we don’t want you people; this is our country; we must keep our race pure. But because there are so many powerful Jewish lobbies, particularly in the United States, you’re made to feel guilty, or you’re attacked for anti-Semitism, if you mention the fact of racism in Israel.
I used to admire Mrs Thatcher quite a lot and I think she has done many good things. As a journalist, one is aware of how the printing unions have been crushed by her, and they undoubtedly were a restriction on the press. For example, you could never have started a paper like the Independent in the old days. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that she has been in power too long and has grown to be power mad. It happens to all those people. In my experience, women (this is a sexist remark) are unable to cope with power, not only in politics, but also in publishing, journalism, or whatever. Women in positions of authority can’t do it as a rule, or else they manage for a time, but after a while they crack up.
People say there should be more women in politics, but one of the good things about women is that on the whole they don’t want to go into that world. They are not in general ambitious, they don’t want power; or if they do want it they want to exercise it over individual men, not over men and women generally. The reason why there aren’t more women MPs is not because men are prejudice against them but because there are so few women who actually want to do it. Men and women have totally different urges, most men being ruled by women within marriages, for instance. Dr Johnson was absolutely correct in saying that law has wisely given women little power because Nature has given them so much.
I wouldn’t wish to attack individual feminists, but I do feel it’s dangerous for women to think they are better off without men or vice versa. It seems to me that we both need each other, yet the whole women’s movement is geared to the idea that women should dispense with these dirty, nasty men. It’s the same the other way round: men can’t get by without women. It’s natural for women to want to have children, and encouraging them to think that somehow they’re better off pursuing a career seems to me a wicked thing to do. It asks women to turn their backs on their natural instincts and produces much unhappiness.
I feel sure that feminism is in part responsible for our huge number of divorces, because women are encouraged to think that, if they are unhappy in their marriages, they have no reason to stay enslaved to a man; that if they don’t like it they should just give up. That’s wrong, and it is just as wrong for a man to make the same assumption. Women have a natural urge to kick over the traces, as I’ve constantly found with those I’ve employed on Private Eye. Every so often they think, sod this, I’m off to do something else. If you apply that urge to a marriage, then it can’t be a good thing.
My own view is that once you’re married, you’re married come what may. The whole thing may go wrong, and obviously does from time to time, but to go to the extent of divorcing I find a very objectionable idea. Obviously I can’t make predictions for myself. Maybe in ten years’ time I shall be divorced, but I hope not. You’ve been told I once didn’t speak to my wife for six or eight months? Well, I thought it was the other way around, but I managed to survive the silence because I can get by on these things. Like my mother, I’m very self-sufficient and don’t mind being on my own; and if I’m not getting on with my wife, then I’ve always my children to talk to. I also feel that whatever difficulties one may get into, whatever rows there are, if you have been married to someone for a long time then the relationship is very difficult to destroy. It contains something that defies any kind of disagreement. Inevitably a relationship will impose strains, because I suppose one likes a quiet life, but you never do get a quiet life, particularly if you want one.
Is there a wide puritan streak in me? Some people use puritanical in the sense of being against promiscuous sex and divorce, abortion and so on. If that is the meaning of being puritanical, then I am, but if it means being against people enjoying themselves, then I’m not. I’m all for people having a good time, and all for them drinking and smoking, though I don’t do either myself. There are a great many puritans around who conduct campaigns against things like smoking, even against dogs, and there are strong puritanical influences in society which I’m much against. People tend to think I disapprove of drinking, but I don’t. If I seem to it’s only because I have a weakness. If I could drink one glass of wine with my lunch it would be all right, but only one glass of wine is no good to me. I’d rather have no wine than just a single glass.
I’ve never dared to engage in drug-taking because I’m scared I could easily become addicted. The same applies to the occult – séances, spiritualism or anything of that sort. I deliberately kept away from it all because, I suppose, it has an attraction. Addiction to women? That’s quite different. Where sex is concerned, you can only become addicted to perversion, which raises a point that people don’t usually realize about homosexuals: they are like addicts. This is why so many people have been infected with Aids, because homosexuals are in the grip of an addiction they cannot stop. You could never become addicted to women in that sense, though you could grow addicted to beating women or strapping them up or whatever.
My antipathy to homosexuals is directed against homosexual campaigners rather than individual homosexuals. If I’m sitting side by side with a homosexual at lunch, I’m not going to get up and spit in his face since I don’t feel that individual repugnance. I don’t feel repelled by homosexuals if I meet them. I do object, on the other hand, to the politicizing of homosexuality and the propaganda and promotion of the idea, because I don’t believe in the notion being peddled that people are born that way and there is nothing to be done about it. It may well be true of some homosexuals, but the vast majority of those I know seem to me to be quite capable of heterosexual activity and to have a choice. Promoting the idea that they ought to make a choice in favour of the homosexual way of life therefore seems to me a great mistake.
I was impressed to hear Rabbi Blue say on the radio that, although he is a homosexual, he never uses the word ‘gay’ since there is nothing gay about being a homosexual: it is all very difficult and complicated and not particularly nice. I think that is true of the homosexuals one knows, whose lives on the whole are neither happy nor gay. So to encourage anyone to be like that rather than married and have children – which is, after all, the main thing in life for most people – is to impose a terrible penalty.
I’ve never had any ambition for either of my children. Neither Mary nor I ever pushed them academically, and neither of them did very well at school. I could never get worked up about A-levels or O-levels because I never thought these things mattered. Consequently I never bullied them into working hard. I’m disappointed about their schools, not from their point of view but because I think the schools themselves were bad. I don’t know of a good school. I’m very fond of my children, get on well with them and am very proud of them. We’re a close family.
I should think my children would have a healthier attitude towards society as a result of Private Eye, that they would be automatically suspicious of all kinds of public figures or television personalities and much better able to asses people than I was at their age. Both my children have good judgement and would not be taken in by charlatans, of whom there are so many around.
As you say, my daughter Jubby has earned a reputation for being something of a free spirit, but I couldn’t claim I felt indignant about that incident when she was discovered in the gents at the Reform Club. I’m sorry it resulted in a ban on the Literary Review, but it caused me no great hardship or agony. A moment of annoyance maybe, but that doesn’t really mean a thing. On the other hand, I was pleased to see that Naked London, the book showing her and Fred in the nude, sank without a trace, because I was slightly annoyed about that one. Fortunately no one paid it the slightest attention.
My great hero is William Cobbett, author of Rural Rides, who was the sort of character who spent his life attacking politicians. He was forever being put into prison for libel and other offences, yet even so went on and on. He wasn’t a revolutionary like Paine, who, though I admire him, was head-in-the-clouds. Cobbett was different: a sensible man who felt a strong antipathy to the Establishment and consensus thinking. I am very much aware of there being a consensus view on certain subjects. If you take someone like Mrs Whitehouse, the consensus view is that here is a lunatic Mrs Grundy waving her umbrella, a ridiculous figure to be laughed at and ridiculed. I therefore tend to identify with Mrs Whitehouse, my instinct being that where you have a consensus it must be wrong.
The moment everybody agrees how terrible everything is in South Africa, then I feel there must be something good about the place. Kierkegaard said something along these lines: that 5,000 people shouting the same thing can be wrong, even if what they say is true. The same principle applies to much of modern-day journalism. Child abuse, for example, has become a major issue on television, and a kind of hysteria has been worked up because it is something on which everyone can agree. No one, except possibly Bron, will get up and speak for the child abuser, but all will agree he is terrible. In the same way, it is very easy for a vicar to make awful statements about South Africa in a sermon since no one will contradict him. All the time people try to get on these bandwagons of consensus issues.
All my instincts are radical, a radical instinct being one that automatically sides with the underdog, the dispossessed, or the poor – the Palestinians, the Catholics in Northern Ireland, those who are in a minority. It is a basic instinct I hold, coupled with a mistrust of the rich and powerful, and I have to come to the conclusion that it is quite rare. Most people are fundamentally obsequious, including journalists. I think it is very sad. I think and hope my own instincts are too powerful to be seduced, for it is always right to be suspicious of the powerful and wealthy. My other great hero, Dr Johnson, said that the insolence of wealth will creep out, and I like that very much. It distressed me to see how someone like my friend Peter Jay seemed before my eyes to relish the power and wealth that his association with Maxwell brought him.
Since I am suspicious of, and distrustful of, the powerful, and these tend to be right-wing, conservative, fascist people, that makes me, as their enemy, left wing. On the other hand, I don’t particularly identify with the Labour Party because there are many aspects of it I don’t like, such as militant feminism. I would be more comfortable in the old-fashioned Labour Party. The whole idea of Marxism is abhorrent to me, the great mystery of our time being how many clever people have managed to give their allegiance to Russia, a terrible society in which there is not even enough bread to eat. They can shut their eyes to that and all the outrageous things done in the name of Marx. I used to like to think a lot about who would be in the Resistance if Britain were occupied by a foreign power, and I often assess people in that way.
Left-wing intellectuals also tend to be atheists, so I have an antipathy to them on those grounds. Malcolm Lowry, who wrote that marvellous novel Under the Volcano, said he was a conservative Christian anarchist, and I always thought that was what I have been and what Muggeridge has been. I consider people like Germaine Greer and Bron to be conservative Christian anarchists too. I would call us a little party of our own.