It has been a constant fascination to me how many people turn out to be completely different to their public image.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-Orthodox Catholic society priest who resided till his death in 1998 at the Travellers’ Club, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge.
When I interviewed him he emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were male preserves.
He considered his view ‘wholly compatible’ with the god-given idea that women are not the equal of men.
We must hope, for Gilbey’s sake, that God is not a woman.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, who had a reputation for benevolent liberalism, revealed himself as an old reactionary.
And the saintly, pacific Sir Laurens van der Post turned out to be quite jingoistic. He was also ungracious about Nelson Mandela, could not bear to be criticised and had an unedifying tantrum during the interview.
The great and the good, just like the rest of us, can be perfectly ridiculous.
My favourite eye-opener was Lord Goodman, a giant among men. After vetting me over breakfast – a sumptuous affair – he agreed to appear in my book, Singular Encounters, which was to include several other ennobled celebrities.
But about a month after the interview he withdrew permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams was to appear in the same volume.
‘It is inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to withhold the fact that Mr Ingrams was to be included in the book,’ he wrote.
A staggering example of pomposity.
Auberon Waugh said that my strength as an interviewer lay in my unshockability. It is true that I seldom feel shocked, but I do occasionally raise an eyebrow.
Sir Kenneth Dover, distinguished Greek scholar and chancellor of St Andrews University, told me how he was so struck by the beauty on top of a hill south of Mignano, that he sat down on a log and masturbated.
Who would have thought that a scenic view would have the same effect as a naked woman, dripping with sexuality? Man has to live long to find out.
Fortunately, I am blessed with a highly developed sense of the absurd – a condition sometimes found in those who are not, nor can ever be, establishment figures.
Albert Camus, himself an outsider, battled his whole life with cosmic meaninglessness, eventually finding refuge in the absurd, which he saw as the fundamental idea and the first truth.
I have learned to be wary of the business of truth, but the absurd seems to have as much claim on my psyche as anything else.
Hence, that’s where my impassivity comes into play.