Monthly Archives: August 2014

Kathleen Raine

Born in 1908, British poet and scholar Kathleen Raine was educated at Girton College, Cambridge. A visionary poet whose work probed the intersection of science and mysticism, Raine bridged elements of Jungian psychology and neo-Platonism in her work.

Her poetry collections include Stone and Flower (1943), W.H. Smith Literary Award–winner The Lost Country (1972), The Oracle in the Heart (1979), and The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine (2001). Her works of scholarship include The Inner Journey of the Poet (1982) as well as books on W. B. Yeats and definitive studies of William Blake. She wrote four memoirs which were collectively published as Autobiographies (1991).

In 1981 she co-founded the literary journal Temenos and the Temenos Press. With the support of Prince Charles, she also founded the Temenos Academy which still promotes lectures and studies which endorse her firm belief what he Prince of Wales called ‘the arts of the imagination’.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Raine received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Literature, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Chapelbrook Award, the Cholmondeley Award, and the Smith Literary Award and a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. She was also granted honorary doctorates by Durham University, Leicester University, and Caen University. She died in London at the age of ninety-five.

Kathleen Raine was a joy to interview. A woman of tremendous bonhomie, one could not fail to be seduced by her poetic aura. Needless to say, I was enchanted.

In Farewell Happy Fields, you wrote: ‘I understand now that it is to my mother that I owe the happiness of my infancy as I remember or have since imagined it.’ That sounds as if it took most of your life to make that discovery… 

Yes, I was horrible to my mother when I was a little girl. I was very spoilt, rebellious and difficult, and now more and more I see I owe her everything.

You say that your mother belonged to the ‘golden race’. What do you mean by that? 

I’m thinking of Yeats’s words, ‘The golden race looks dim…’ My mother lived entirely by spiritual values, in a world of beauty and poetry and imagination. She would notice the birds, or a leaf falling from a tree; she wouldn’t notice anything about the money market – she would have been bored by that sort of thing. She had wonderful gifts and if she had been a poet she would have been a better poet than I; I am alloyed with the world, she was totally unalloyed.

Your father was a lay Methodist preacher… 

Yes, every Sunday and most Wednesdays he was off preaching for the Wesleyan Methodists. He was also a very enthusiastic member of the League of Nations, and a great pacifist; he adopted wholeheartedly every kind of available idealism. One good thing to come out of this was that because Gilbert Murray was a tremendous pacifist, my father somehow accepted his translations of Greek drama, which I’m sure he wouldn’t otherwise have done. He took my mother and me to all the productions of Gilbert Murray’s plays at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which was a joy to us both – Mother and I didn’t care much about pacifism or any other good cause, but we loved the drama and the poetry.

You wrote that your father was not free of the ‘sin of righteousness’ but that your mother, who never thought herself good or made any effort to be so, was indeed free. You could hardly I suppose have had two more different role models… 

That’s true. It’s been difficult, but I think in the course of my life I’ve satisfied their different desires for me. My mother would have wished nothing more than that I should be a poet, and now I seem to be deep in education which my father would have wished. He would have believed very much in what we’re doing with the Temenos Academy, which is seeking to sow the seed of a different kind of education. I won’t say a new kind, because it is perhaps a very old kind: education based in truth, beauty and goodness, not in profit and the latest trendy ‘ism’ from some American university. The basis of the Temenos Academy is to be as universities have been in the age-old past, schools of wisdom, because wisdom is more important than information. I’m sure the sciences are well taught in universities, but when it comes to the humanities, the value and meaning of life, it is miseducation rather than education. The first time I met Prince Charles I made him laugh because he asked how I had come to the ideas I held, and I told him what Ananda Coomaraswamy had said: ‘It takes four years to get a first-class university education but it takes forty to get over it.’ And the Prince replied, ‘I’ve been working on it for twenty.’ What the universities are teaching now would make Socrates or any great teacher of the past turn in his grave. It is not wisdom, it has nothing to do with the basic values of humanity, or what man is and what the universe is; that is the final validation of truth and wisdom because it’s written in us, it’s our nature. We’re a long way from that.

Even your mother, free spirit though she may have been, was not without a certain censoriousness, the Calvinism of John Knox’s Scotland. Children tend to absorb their parents’ attitudes and prejudices – was that something you found difficult to shake off? 

I don’t think so. John Knox really didn’t go deep in my mother. Once when we were talking about The Pilgrim’s Progress which my father loved, I remember her saying, ‘I think that is a book that has outlived its usefulness…’ To her the truth of the imagination was the most important thing. The Scots have a very schizophrenic imagination; on the one hand they accept all this gloomy stuff of John Knox, and on the other the fairy world somehow slips through all that, and in the balance the judgement of the imagination counts for more in Scotland. The ballads of Scotland don’t take the side of the righteous so much as the side of the beautiful; and imagination is kinder than morality.

From your beloved Cumbria you moved with your parents to Ilford which seemed to encapsulate for you everything which was drab and despicable about the modern world. Do you think that perhaps without Ilford you would not have been able to escape so completely into the world of dreams and poetry? 

Finally, at the end of my life, having selfishly tried to escape all these things, I seem to have been led full circle round to try the people who are imprisoned in Hades. That is what education is for; it’s not to follow one’s dreams, but finally to give what one can to other who are trapped, which I now feel to be my task. I found Ilford particularly false, but there are thousands of Ilfords, neither rich nor poor, absolute victims of all their falseness. The very poor are up against it since they have to confront just the sheer problem of survival, the tragedies of birth and death, and of all those things. On the whole the working class help one another as they do in villages, but in what I mean by Ilford, they keep themselves to themselves; there is no nourishment of mind or heart coming through those garden gates. Ilford is the world of people who watch television and never exchange friendship or love with their neighbours, and who absorb all the false values of the media. They are prisoners, spiritual prisoners.

You describe most movingly the pain associated with your experience of young love. Is that a feeling you can still recall, is it something you still carry around with you? 

It’s strange you should say that, because I recently went to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican with the architect Jane Drew, who is, like me, a great-grandmother. I was sure that it would be no good and that we were both too old, but we were both absolutely overwhelmed by the words of Romeo and of Juliet. It wasn’t a marvellous production, but both Jane and I were absolutely bouleversées by the beauty of that young love. Yes, one carries it in one’s heart, I think, forever.

How do you remember it? 

Through Romeo and Juliet’s words essentially. It’s not the person one was in love with or the person I was; it is just that some things have the quality of eternal beauty and truth in them, in the love as such. We all experience it, we forget the person, but we remember the love, because that is real. Though my first love died many years ago, one remembers him still. I’ve met his son and that was quite moving but it’s not a personal thing. Love is something more than personal; it’s a vision, a way of understanding the world. That purity if young love is absolute – you can’t imagine that you may ever feel this for anyone else.

You describe the time when you won your scholarship to Girton College as ‘the last moment after childhood when I was not at odds with the world’. Did you feel this as something you were powerless to control, or was there an element of wilful rebellion? 

As soon as I got to Girton I began discarding all my father’s values straightaway. I was very glad to escape from the trap and the cage of a rather puritan form of Christianity which contained elements that to this day I can’t accept, like the doctrine of the atonement. Feeling that my father had ruined my life, I became very rebellious at Cambridge. That idea was too extreme really, but at the time that’s what I felt. And Cambridge was there with all its trendy, atheistic, nihilistic types, and not to mention Huxley and the Bloomsbury world, and everyone was so clever, and I fell absolutely for all of it. I’m deeply ashamed now. I see now much better who my father was than I did then, and I think I would have been just as severe on my children if they’d behaved like me.

But in retrospect you came to regard Cambridge as being just as alien to your poetic vision as Ilford had been. Why was Cambridge such a disappointment? 

The values people at Cambridge stood for were purely cerebral. Their apparent cleverness embraced agnosticism, atheism, nihilism, but they denied the sacred springs of life, which are the imagination and the heart. The poetry was also hard and clever, and all the poets I’d loved up until then, like Keats and Shelley, and Shakespeare and Milton, they were absolutely out. At the Temenos Academy we are now trying to re-establish the idea that the arts must grow out of the vision of the sacred. The sacred is not the same as the religious, though all the great religions have been grounded in a vision of the sacred, and most of them have lost it since to a great extent. The sacred is the nature of things, it is the reality of the cosmos, it is the depths of the human soul. When Moses saw the burning bush and heard the words, ‘Put off thy shoes from they feet for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground’, this was an experience of the holy, but in our culture it has become more or less impossible for any well-educated person to encounter this burning thing. Certainly first love is an experience of the sacred, so is any love; this is something that is our birthright as human beings. I often think of a phrase by D. H. Lawrence, that knowledge is an experience and not a formula; yet at Cambridge, and I’m sure at Oxford too, and at every other university in the United States and indeed, heaven help us, in India even, this idea is killed. Education nowadays is all right for computers, but it doesn’t open the human being, it doesn’t expand the consciousness, it doesn’t nourish the soul or the spirit. There isn’t even the Communist Party to pin our faith on as there was when I was at Cambridge. That was where the better world was going to come from, a universe of peace, freedom and equality. Now the Communist empire has fallen, and something else is desperately needed to transform the world, and I’m afraid the politicians are not going to do it for us. A friend wrote to me the other day saying she loved the way I embrace all the lost causes. But I don’t think the cause of truth and reality ever can be lost; somehow it springs up again.

You married Hugh Sykes Davis on what you describe as ‘despicable grounds’ since there was a complete absence of love or even sexual attraction. Was it an act of defiance against your father, or did you feel that you were incapable of loving again as you had loved, or were you in some way not in control of your actions at the time? Or all three?

All three. He was also unconventional, and it was a way of joining the world of rebels and despairers. I certainly thought I would never love again. In a sense I never did. Years later, I did know a different kind of love. But sexual love had been completely killed off at the time by the axe descending on my first love. And yet, one sees Romeo and Juliet and one thinks, how marvellous. Shakespeare understood all that. But in Christianity there has always been a curse on sex, and it’s very wrong. When finally in my later years I reached India, where the erotic is scared, and there is the beauty and adornment of women, the sari and the jewels, and the linga for the Lord Shiva at every street corner, one begins to realize that this Christian ban on the erotic is terribly misguided. In the New Age, whatever that means, I think they’re not going to accept that any more, although one has to admit that our young get into trouble when they have premature sexual experience without love. Sex has somehow been separated from love, and people are rebelling against puritanical culture in this country but have no alternative to put in its place; so we seem to be living in the worst of all worlds at the moment. There is no culture as there is in Eastern religions, and somehow this country is in a state of negative rebellion against the good without having discovered an alternative which will humanize and consecrate something that has so long been under a ban.

You wrote in The Land Unknown: ‘If the sexual instinct was at that time my undoing, it was not through its strength, but through its weakness.’ What exactly did you mean by that? 

Blake said that those who suppress desire do so because their desires are weak enough to be suppressed. Shelley saw that this was nonsense, and wrote most wonderfully proclaiming what Keats called ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’. The erotic proem Epipsychidion was written to Amelia Vivian when she went into a convent, which Shelley saw as the most terrible denial and desecration of something very holy; she was sensual and sacred to Shelley’s vision of sex. The erotic is only one aspect of love but it’s a very important one for us human beings; without it women don’t love their children any more; they hate their men, hence the catastrophic state we’re in. I gave a lecture at the Nehru Centre the other week on Shelley and India, and I saw why he had placed Prometheus Unbound on the Indian borders of the Caucasus, even though there are no Indian borders on the Caucasus. His beloved is the feminine principle of India, the goddess. She is called Asia, and she is the excluded principle of beauty and the feminine and erotic. I’m not a feminist, quite the contrary, because it seems to me it’s not feminism we need, it’s the feminine, it’s the woman. All this business of women trying to get high positions as executives is all so irrelevant; it’s not that we need, it’s the restoration of love in its full sense.

You left Hugh Sykes Davis and eloped with Charles Madge who was in love with you and wrote you poems. Did you love him? 

Not really, not truly … it was more an escape into poetry. We should simply have been friends; of course we are friends and to this day I think he loves me, but I’m very thankful that I didn’t stay with him. It was a great wrong I did him.

You suffered from feelings of guilt and shame because of your elopement. Was that because of the spirit of the age or did the feelings go deeper than that? 

Oh, much deeper. I felt I was betraying everyone, including my father of course, and my mother, because these roots die hard. Looking back on my relationship with Charles, I should not have allowed him to rescue me, and I don’t know why I jumped into one marriage after another. It was partly cowardice – I hadn’t the courage to stand on my own feet. You are very searching in your questions … anyway, that is what happened, and I’m deeply sorry. It’s what we have done to harm others that embitters old age, it’s the pain we’ve caused which catches up with us.

Motherhood did not seem to alter your priorities in the usual way, it did not seem to deflect from your poetic destiny. Has that been a source of conflict or regret in your life? 

Indeed it has, bitter, bitter regret. I was not a good mother and my children and grandchildren suffer from it to this day. I don’t think it is in the nature of women to follow a compulsion, a vocation – I won’t say a career because that’s something quite different. Women should love first of all; we are the mothers of the human race, and we should love our children and bring them up. If women had had it in their nature nothing would have stopped them from writing the works of Plato or Dante or Shakespeare or Beethoven; women have been in the world as long as men, but this is not what women are. These things are sex-linked, they are characteristics like beards, and they belong to men. Who has ever seen any work by a feminist except another work about feminism? I know myself I’m as good as any woman poet who’s written in the English language, but I know my place. I’m not Yeats, I’m not Eliot, I’m not Shakespeare; it’s a very minor gift I have, and women and men are different. In doing what I have done as a writer, I suffer from a sense of guilt and betrayal of a much more profound nature than that of merely betraying my parents and my children; it’s a betrayal of women. I have not fulfilled the true tasks of woman, either as a daughter, a spouse or a mother, and that is the price of being Kathleen Raine. I didn’t see it like that, and I was not writing from ambition to get my poems on the BBC or anything like that; it was a deep compulsion, and partly it was implanted in me by my parents. Anyway, that’s how it’s worked out. I think the feminists know quite well that I don’t like them, and they don’t like me either.

When you left Charles Madge it was for an ‘unrequited, unrequitable’ passion. Yet you experienced with your lover, as you say all lovers do, ‘that almost unendurable intensity of passion’. Why was it then unrequited, unrequitable? 

For one thing he was in the war and taken prisoner. Thank God, thank God. It was all to do with my imagination. He came from Scotland and somehow touched a spring of memory in me of my mother’s country, and of all the poetry and the beauty of that lost world. This had nothing to do with the practicalities of human relationships, and when he came back I realized that the whole thing was just a dream, but anyway, I’d taken the precaution of becoming a Catholic which did save me from it.

Your experience of marriage led you to believe that it was irreconcilable with poetic vision. Was this a sad discovery for you? 

Yes, indeed. One wants to have one’s cake and eat it. Perfect, requited love is only possible in poetry; it’s irreconcilable with marriage. Everything is at the price of something else. But poetry was the driving force of my life, and now I don’t really even care whether I was right or wrong; when you consider the vastness of the cosmos and the mystery, it’s just another part of something much bigger than ourselves, and we don’t know what the whole is. People who can say, ‘God thinks this and thinks that’ are very naïve. One does not know. The modern world looks always for a fix, or an explanation. Science hasn’t proved it yet, they think, but next year it will. But we live in a profound insoluble mystery, and the things that emerge from it are unsurpassable. It’s amazing what is and has been and will be; it is an inexhaustible marvel of being.

Apropos poetic vision, you write: ‘All poets seek to remember and recreate what we all know at heart to be not a mere fleeting illusion but the norm we never cease to seek and create (however often it may be destroyed), because in that state alone lies felicity…’ Do you feel now that you have arrived in this felicitous state, as it were, or does the search go on? 

Of course it goes on. Sometimes one has a glimpse, and in writing a poem it’s a kind of prayer or meditation; one raises one’s consciousness as high as one can, hoping that some beam of light will come. While we are in this world we cannot experience a vision of paradise, for paradise is by definition what we have lost, but it is also by definition what we are, because our nature is such that we seek something. My William Blake used the word sleep, which in fact he got from Plotinus. Neither of them talked of sin and repentance, but of sleep and awakening. It’s a matter of opening of consciousness and, poor human beings that we are, we have a sense that there’s more to it than we’ve understood and we cannot but seek that which we feel to be our own. That is, I suppose, the religious impulse in its deepest sense, but easy answers and doctrines and creeds have nothing to do with it. It seems to me more and more that the older I grow the less I know.

You go on to say, ‘To be exiled from the Garden of Eden is our greatest sorrow, and some forget, or try to forget, because to remember is too painful, to recreate, too difficult.’ Have you sometimes found it too painful to remember? 

Yes, there were many years when I didn’t write any poems, because it was too painful. But then I gathered myself together again, because it’s the only thing that matters.

But why did you find it too painful? What happened? 

One’s life had become a mess and one felt so alienated from it, and to be recalled by that music reminds one of the mess one has got into. Judging by the number of painkillers and sleeping pills that are distributed, many people can’t face it and instead deaden themselves. We can just about go through the day with the help of some routine, but it can be just too painful to remember, especially when we feel we’ve lost it through our own fault: that’s perhaps the one thing of all, that it hasn’t so much been done to us as done by us.

Do you think poetic love is irreconcilable with physical love? 

I’m afraid this is so, at least in my experience, and who has ever heard of a poet for whom this was not so? Edwin and Willa Muir loved one another, and he was a wonderful poet, but I don’t think poets on the whole have a record of happy marriages. One doesn’t know with certainty, but I don’t think they do. Poetry is the land of the soul, it is the soul’s native country, but in this world you have to live according to the conditions of this world, and there are moments surely when two people who have loved one another deeply have briefly felt that this is forever; they have touched the boarders of paradise … but then life moves on. Sometimes it remains as a tranquil happy relationship, but think of Yeats, think of Eliot, think of Milton, of Shelley, of Keats … it doesn’t usually work.

But would you say that poetry and realism are alien to one another? 

To me poetry is the reality, the soul’s world is the reality, and if we lost the vision of that world we would very soon degenerate into apes; poetry is what makes us human, it is the human kingdom. We’ve seen what it’s like when people lose the paradisal vision in some form or another; they revert to the sort of awful behaviour we see on television and in the press every day. If man loses the vision of perfection which is written in our very nature, that is what makes us mad. The Darwinians always talk about man as if he were another species, but we are another kingdom – the human kingdom. We’re the working out of the spiritual destiny, and without the musicians, the painters and poets, the architects, the sculptors, without their vision we couldn’t progress; it is what brings us to our humanity. Those of us who are caught in this vision know it to be the most real, the most important thing, but we’re only poor imperfect human beings and we slip back. Most of us who are captured by this vision do not have easy lives, but we don’t question where our duty lies; it is our dedication, we have to do it. I sometimes wonder, ought I to have given myself more completely to poetry, been less of a coward about it? – and at other times I think the whole thing was a mistake anyway.

As I understand it, your poetry has been inspired by visions of a land you have glimpsed but never really known. Have you lived in the hope of knowing it? 

In a sense, yes. In moments of vision one is there, in the hope of really knowing it. I’m not much concerned with the salvation of my soul or with what happens to me now. I used to feel deep repentance and mourning for all those things, but now that my personal life is really behind me, it doesn’t matter at any more. If one has caught one gleam of that country and transmitted it, perhaps it is all worthwhile.

Would you say that the measure of a poem’s success is its ability to enable others to glimpse what you have seen yourself? 

Yes, others see it because it’s in them. It’s like the old image used in the seventeenth century; stroke the string of one lute and on another lute that string resonates. It resonates in people because it is in them; it isn’t because it’s in me.

You say that it’s only in moments when we transcend ourselves that we can know anything of value. Is this ability to transcend ourselves given to all of us, or is it the prerogative of poets? 

It’s given to all of us and it’s not the prerogative of anybody. That’s why we’re human, that is our human destiny and task. People do it in different ways, and the most important way of all is in human relations. That is the final test, and the great sages – I don’t care for saints who are horrible people on the whole – but the really holy people, though they don’t write poetry, have it in their lives; their very presence in the world communicates this feeling.

When you received the W. H. Smith Award for The Lost Country, you said that the standard of English poetry was so abysmal that you doubted whether an award should be made to any poet at all. Have you revised your opinion since then? 

I’ve redoubled it. It was bad enough then, but there were still a few poets alive. Heavens, if you saw my postbag for Temenos, you would see the rubbish that people write while calling it poetry. And the rubbish that gets published and put on the radio! None of this has anything to do with poetry. There are not half a dozen poets in this country, nor in any other country, so far as I can see. One or two in France perhaps, but not many. Given the values of this country, the total nihilistic, empty values of Western civilization, how can it produce poetry? Even the New Age people have rebelled so much against knowledge that they haven’t produced any poetry either. There’s perhaps more poetry in their lives but on the whole the go and grow vegetables and live a greener and better life. Besides, the English language has been so vandalized that words have lost their meaning; people are no longer taught the language, they don’t know what words mean, and it’s quite appalling. The situation is ten times worse now than when I expressed that view. When the Poet Laureate wrote to me and asked if I would accept the Queen’s medal for Poetry, I wrote back saying that it was a poor show if I was the best poet to be found. I accepted it anyway, for I would not wish to at this moment to dishonour the queen’s award in any way because, poor lady, she’s having a bad time too.

You obviously think that the arts are not in a healthy state at the moment. What is the reason for that, do you think? 

I have at least tried to keep faith with the world that poetry comes from, but the soul of the age is very sick. That’s why we get Francis Bacon. The arts themselves are projecting the sickness of the soul of the age; they’re not healing it. Perhaps in a sense projecting it is healing it, I don’t know, but generally they are reflecting a terrible spiritual ill or else they are dried up. I feel France is particularly arid at the moment. There’s very little greatness in the world, it seems to have gone. Even biographies seem to denigrate and dishonour rather than to see what is noble and honourable in a man or woman. I reviewed one about my old friend Herbert Read not long ago. I didn’t find in it the man I knew who did so much for us and for so many people. He was so generous, and he was a seeker after truth, but this book was simply in the kindest possible way minimizing him. It appears you have to minimize or you won’t sell the book. If you can prove that someone was a homosexual, then you’re fine, you get a public; you have to find something that demeans or dishonours, such as incest or promiscuity … well, promiscuity is respectable now … but all the noble virtues, the truly human virtues, are discredited.

You were bitter that you did not get the Oxford chair of poetry in 1986.Was this because you regarded yourself as the best candidate, or was it because you lost out to Roy Fuller? 

Roy Fuller? He’s no poet. Of course I was the best candidate, but I’m glad I didn’t get it; it would have taken a lot of time, and I had better things to do in my life. When did the Oxford chair of poetry go to a real poet? I suppose Seamus Heaney is – he’s written a few good poems – but I don’t really give him much thought, nor Ted Hughes who, although very gifted, portrayed man in books like Crow and Woodwo in a way that I felt was not a true and valid image of man. But of course there is never an Eliot or a Yeats to give it to.

You said in 1972 that you thought that your scholasticism was being was being ‘censored out of existence’. What did you mean by that? 

They didn’t like my unearthing all these buried roots. My scholarship was on Blake. I didn’t understand a word of his longer poems so I decided to find out, and I began a process of reading the books he’d read, a study which opened out a whole body of what I’ve called excluded knowledge. In the humanist revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, the tradition of neo-Platonism was just not in, and all this new scientific stuff led to an entirely different point of view about the universe. My work on Blake uncovered the sources of his awareness of the whole excluded tradition of this knowledge. Christianity was totally without anything to contribute by that time in this country. The Hebrew tradition, the Islamic tradition, the Platonic tradition, the Vedic tradition – these are the great mainstreams of human wisdom and it can’t be otherwise. To try to make a complete description of the cosmos in material terms may produce extremely interesting discoveries, and indeed has, but modern physics itself has come to the frontiers of the explicable in those terms. We have to return to the mainstreams of wisdom, and Blake has been a sort of sacred book for the New Age people. I don’t think they understand very much of him, but they get something. They feel that this man understood something, and indeed he did. I did a great deal of work on him and made very sure that I let no knots remain tied because I knew it would be attacked. There were two lines of attack; one was to ignore me, and the other was to say, ‘Oh well, she’s a poet,’ in other words ‘She’s a fool.’ But I’m not ashamed of it and I wouldn’t go back on it, although I think I would write some of it a little more clearly now.

You have always rather shunned literary circles. Do you think you would be bored by them? 

Very bored, although I’ve known some wonderful poets and writers. I knew Edwin Muir very well, and David Gascoigne was a lifelong friend, but on the whole they’re a boring lot. Literary circles are more concerned with getting their works published than with literature and that is why I refused this ridiculous honour because when I looked at the list of people who had received it, they were really writers of entertainment for readers of the Sunday papers; it’s not anything to do with what poets will die for, as Keats did, as Shelley did, with what I have suffered for, as David Gascoigne suffered. Poets are not in the service of literary reputations, of getting their books published, and that sort of Booker Prize mentality, no, no, that’s not what it’s about at all.

Have you refused literary honours? 

I never refused any honours until I refused the Companion of Literature. Until then I was never offered an honour to refuse. But I have the love and friendship of Prince Charles, what St Jean Perce called, l’amitié du Prince, and that he writes to me ‘with love’ means far more to me than any honour in the world; and he probably won’t even be king, poor man.

You have never had any time for materialism, preferring spiritual riches to the material kind. Is it not some kind of torture for you to live in London surrounded by signs of material wealth? 

Yes. It’s dreadful. I look in at the windows of Portland Square and can see nothing in that house that makes one feel, ah, I’d love to be in that room, what a wonderful room! David Jones’ room had all sorts of things: a photograph of the little dog the Russians sent up in the first sputnik, a spoon that had belonged to his mother, a general muddle of pencils and boxes, and a lovely chalice that he put flowers in. it was a room that scintillated with life. Edwin and Willa’s room was an untidy muddle, and the cats walked in and out, but theirs was the sort of creative room I like. When my house was burgled the only things they took were my cameo broach, a very small chain of pearls and my carriage clock – they didn’t see anything else they wanted. They didn’t know the value of my pictures. I’ve kept Temenos going by selling paintings which various friends either sold or gave to me when they weren’t famous. I’m sure they would understand and appreciate that it was right to sell them and let them go in order to bring up Temenos. The one thing I’ve got left is David Jones’ inscription.

You describe yourself as an anti-socialist in the sense that you believe in the rule of the wise, not the mob. Are wisdom and socialism mutually exclusive? Is there no such thing as the wisdom of the mob? 

Not of the mob. The mob is unfortunately led; it doesn’t think for itself Rupert Murdoch and the gutter press control the mob. Ghandi-ji had a vision of socialism that came from below upwards, where the wisdom would be vested in the village communities, where socialism would not be imposed from above, as was the case in Russia, or indeed as it was imposed by Nehru. If it were possible, and I think it would have been possible but no longer is it in India, this would have been a wonderful kind of socialism, because there is wisdom in people, but not in mobs. And if the mob is swayed by the media, there is a betrayal of the deep innate wisdom there is in ordinary people. How’s that going to be overcome, I do not know. Someone recently said to me that what Prince Charles should do is speak to the common man, as the king always did; the king used to take the side of the people against the barons – we see that in Shakespeare. But how can you reach beyond the Daily Mirror and all the other tabloids which serve out poison every morning? My father was the son of a coalminer, and he went to Durham University, took an M.Litt. and became a very scholarly and well-educated man, but when he was educated there was no such thing as a bad education; you either had it or you didn’t. There were cheap books in the Everyman and World’s Classic series, all sorts of literature of certain excellence published in cheap editions so that the poor could buy it as well as the rich. The idea of bad education and miseducation has been the horrible invention of people who thought there was money in it, and now we have not an uneducated public – would to God we had – but we have a miseducated public, and that is a very terrible thing. I don’t see how we are going to recover from it, except of course that there are reactions and who knows … For the moment we have every kind of exploitation, not the innocence there used to be in country places like the Western Highlands. One knows people exist in remote parts of the world who still have a kind of dignity and innocence, but that’s all being obliterated. In the cottages when I first went to the Hebrides, people used to tell stories and sing songs; now you have the same kitchen and the same dog under the table, but now you have the television set. Even if you go to the remotest village in India what do you get? … Dallas and all that rubbish pouring in. I don’t see how the tide can be turned.

You were converted to Roman Catholicism in 1941. Was that a sort of road-to-Damascus conversion, or was it a long and winding path to discovery? 

Neither of these. It was just I thought I must do something about my life which was in such a mess. Half my friends were Catholics and I think instinctively I wanted to make it impossible to marry the man I was so much in love with. When he came back from the war, I wanted to say, ‘I can’t marry you because I’m Catholic.’ And it was also a sort of argument with myself, an assertion that religion was a good thing, the idea that I was born into Christendom, therefore I ought to be able to use the Christian religion, and not go hunting after Buddhism or Sufism or some other religion to which I was not born. I argued myself into it, but it didn’t take at all, because it didn’t engage my heart.

You now dismiss your conversion as an aberration. Did this feeling come about because of uneasy relations with the Church? 

Yes. I just wasn’t like them at all, I felt I’d got into the wrong party. Oh, some were lovely people … Father Pius, for example, an Irish Carmelite, was a wonderful man … and my dear friends later in life, Hubert Howard and Leila, they were deeply involved in the Church. But they were born into the culture. For me it was when I breathed the air of India that I felt at home.

Would you say you were Wordsworthian in you religious outlook? Have you felt ‘the presence which disturbs with elevated thoughts’? 

Absolutely, absolutely. My father wrote his M.Litt. on Wordsworth, I was brought up on Wordsworth, I feel all of that very deeply. Or rather I did, for that was nature; since then I think I have progressed towards the human kingdom and understood that it is in mind and not in nature. Blake said the divine presence is in us. Christians are so set on original sin that it clouds the deeper vision which is that there is a spark of the divine in every human being, every creature. In India this is stoically taken for granted.

Do you believe, along with Jung, that at least part of our Psyche is not subject to the laws of space and time, and that this part might survive after we die? 

I don’t believe anything. I simply don’t know. I was talking to an Indian friend not long ago about the Sanskrit poem Bhagavad-Gita in which the Lord Krishna says: ‘Don’t mind about killing these people, they’ll all live again.’ I asked my friend if this was to be taken in the sense that individually they’ll live again, or simply that the spirit always renews itself. And he told me that of course they would live again, for it was the only thing which made sense of life. And I can see that. When you think of young lives ended, and soldiers killed in a war when they’ve hardly lived, those lives are so inconclusive … it would be nice to think that one could have another go with the knowledge one’s perhaps gathered, that  one could try again to do a little better. But it may not mean that; it may mean simply that the universal spirit continually renews itself. I have no idea. And I don’t think it matters.

You have always insisted that the arts have a higher purpose than entertainment. How would you elucidate this higher purpose? 

To kindle light in the darkness, as Jung described the sole purpose of human existence. The arts must serve as mediation, the channel by which a vision of – call it what one will – is given substance. Shakespeare said: ‘The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;/And, as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.’ The arts give form and sometimes form so wonderful, especially when one thinks of Beethoven or Schubert or the other great composers. Music always seems to me the greatest miracle of all because it contains meaning without the intervention of words; it is almost pure meaning, it creates the thing it is about. It lifts one, takes one to paradise, it is an enchantment.

If you postulate a higher purpose, isn’t there a danger that the arts will be put beyond the reach of ordinary people whose lives might otherwise be enriched by them? 

Of course not. Beauty is very simple. Difficult art usually has something badly wrong with it. Anyone can understand beauty, though not perhaps at once. In Scotland, for example, poetry is for everybody, it’s not for a cultured élite. I think you still have in Ireland the traces of unity of culture, although when Yeats write his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore, he said, ‘I envy him because he has what I have always longed for, a culture in which rich and poor participate equally.’ 

Iris Murdoch is regarded by many as a supremely good and serious writer, combining the bite of the philosopher with the vision of the mystic, and so it comes as rather a shock when you dismiss her as ‘a mere journalist’. Doesn’t this suggest a kind of intellectual elitism? 

No. She is the elitist, she follows all the trendy things. For God’s sake, how much does she read the real philosophers? How much does she read the Bible, the Gita, the Sufis? What she calls philosophy is a sort of rock-pool phenomenon in Oxford, people like Isaiah Berlin and I don’t know who; one has never heard of them outside Oxford. She absolutely embodies all the sort of phoney values of our culture. I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that Iris Murdoch is an important thinker. She has no sense of wisdom.

When you were sixty-four you thought you only had a year or two to live because you heard a voice telling you so, and you believed it to be true. Have you grown to mistrust the voice which speaks to you? 

It hasn’t said anything recently. I take each day as it comes and wake up with some surprise, thinking here I still am, so I’d better get up and on with it and not waste time. And when one is old time is one thing that becomes very precious.

About ten years ago you embarked on a crusade to restore the arts to what you consider to be their proper place in society. How did come about that this place was lost, do you think? 

The secular values which have gradually overtaken the West have virtually destroyed the civilizations which once seemed so highly successful. In the industrial revolution, we produced such wonderful things and we had an empire, and we thought we were absolutely top of the world, and now we see that it’s come full circle and is self-destructive in the end. It’s destroying the very humanity which it should nourish. Man’s intellectual vainglory has resulted in a loss of the divine vision. I don’t want to dismiss science and there are plenty of brilliant scientists now, particularly in physics, but they are only describing certain phenomena within the realm of nature. Although the exploration, the mapping of the natural world by the scientists is not a thing to be scorned at all, I do think that the attempt to explain world in materialist terms results in the loss of the knowledge of the mental world, which has been the source of human wisdom in all other human civilizations. It has been the world of the human mind and the cosmos that the tinkers have explored; it’s been the mystery of human consciousness that has exercised the minds of the wise. Nature has to be explored too, but as a part within the whole, and the world that has built itself up in a supposition that the material universe is the whole of reality is fatally flawed.

I understand Prince Charles regards you as something of a soul mate. Some people may feel a certain ambivalence about that designation. Do you? 

When I saw him, I thought, that poor young man, anything I can do for him I will do because he is very lonely. He himself has a vision; he uses words like sacred and hope and vision and he believes in these things, and I think he’s determined to stick it out in the awful situation to which he’s been born – most unenviable, you must admit. He’s trying to do something, and if I can help I will. I really came to know him through Laurens van der Post who has always supported the prince. A soul mate? Well, I’m an old woman and he’s a young man, and I just feel … what shall I say … protective.

You described the time after the war as ‘sad shelterless years’. What did you mean by that, and from what were you seeking shelter? 

I had no man in my life, I was alone, trying to struggle to make ends meet and quite incapable of bringing myself to so an ordinary job. What madness to think one can live by writing poetry and doing scholarship! I wasn’t even at university doing scholarship, because I was in rebellion against that too, so I was on my own trying to bring up two children. It was all very difficult.

When you met Gavin Maxwell in the 1950s, did you feel that at last you had found someone to share your vision of life? 

What we shared was a vision of nature, where we were born, the country we loved. It wasn’t the vision I’m speaking of now, it wasn’t the human vision we shared.

Despite his homosexuality, you fell in love with him. Did you really believe that you could transcend the physical and have a truly Platonic love? 

Yes, I truly did, and how wrong I was. But I truly did believe that.

Did you in your heart disapprove of his homosexuality? 

Oh yes. In my heart of hearts?

You describe how you spent a night together only once, and that although there was no sexual encounter, you felt bound to him as if in marriage. You write: ‘Every night of my life since then I have spent alone.’ Was this something you resolved upon or was it the way things turned out? 

Oh, it was the way things turned out. Curiously enough, one day someone sent me a letter I’d written to Gavin, in which I had said, ‘I don’t think a sexual relationship was at all what it was about … I felt that you were more than a brother, something closer than that.’ He didn’t particularly attract me sexually, it was somehow deeper than that. I don’t know why one loves certain people. Maybe the fact that he was homosexual made it possible for me to love him, because it left one free; in a normal relationship with a man, the man wants to be close and possess one, but with this distance it was … oh … what a mystery it all is! But it didn’t work out, because to a woman a homosexual man is an angelic figure with no sex; but in fact the homosexual man has his own dark sexual world, which I refused to see, or in so far as I did see it I disapproved of it in my heart.

Eventually in your despair you uttered your curse over the rowan tree: ‘Let Gavin suffer as I am suffering’. It was a curse that was to take terrible effect. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you were responsible for the tragedies in Gavin’s life? 

Perhaps I was … I don’t know … but then, one human being cannot take responsibility for another’s destiny. I was the stronger character, I felt that he was a little brother, not a big brother, and that was a terrible thing to do to one’s brother. But I didn’t mean it as a curse. I wanted him to suffer but I didn’t mean it to harm him. I meant … of, for heaven’s sake, can’t you see?

You couldn’t accept forgiveness for what you had done? 

No. It seems to me forgiveness can’t undo what one has done. Remorse, yes, but how can one forgive? What is done is done.

You still carry that burden to this day? 

Probably. But that’s not the worst thing I’ve done. I carry worse burdens than that … my parents and my children. Yes, I have gathered some terrible burdens of guilt, but I have to do what I have to do in spite of them, and never mind the guilt.

I have the impression from your book that the discovery that Gavin had after all not loved you was the hardest thing of all to bear. Am I right? 

Yes. It just didn’t seem credible. Yes, that was absolutely shattering. But I wonder if it was true; deep down I still don’t believe it, because not loving is a negation and at heart all human beings love. Love is the deepest thing in any relationship really; it is the holy spirit that runs through our whole race, and therefore there is only finally love.

Gavin was later accused of destroying all those who had been close to you, your parents, your children, your husbands and himself, all the people you had loved. It was a judgement which you did not question. How was it possible to bear such a burden and come to terms with it? 

It wasn’t. It wasn’t possible.

When Gavin died, you laid on his grave a bunch of rowan berries from the tree. Was that an act of atonement? Or of love? Or grief? 

I suppose it was grief.

Edwin Muir said that no one knows the whole fable, only parts of it. Do you feel you know more than most? 

Given my own part in the epic. I feel I’ve played it out, and I wouldn’t say I understood it, for its been a very strange one, but it has been increasingly significant. Curiously enough, it’s only since what one might call the end of my story that life has begun to make sense. I’m completely fearless, because when one has nothing to gain or lose, one can be truthful and one can be fearless. Also it can be very enjoyable to sit back and watch the lovely comedy. It really is a marvellous soap opera. A lot of people love me … I can’t think why … not my children, but that’s understandable. I have played some part in the epic, it may not be a major part, but it’s quite a significant one, and I don’t just mean Prince Charles. The High Commissioner for India, for example, said recently that I am also loved in his country because I have done more than most people in making a bridge between Indian and English culture.

Jung wrote near the end of his life: ‘A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.’ Has that been your own experience? 

Yes. I’m afraid so. But now I feel free both from daimons and from my own life and everything else. In a curious way I know what to do. I don’t think it’s to do with old age, because some people never grow up. It’s more to do with having lived out one’s life, and having been shattered in a thousand splinters. Suffering teaches us a great deal about life, but I am bound to say, and this is the bitterest wisdom of all, so do one’s own shortcomings. You wouldn’t learn much by doing everything right, and keeping all the rules and never putting a foot wrong. I was so driven by my own daimon that I failed to give my love to those to whom it should have been given … parents, children, husbands … everybody … I simply ruthlessly swept through life looking neither to right nor left; I just did what I felt had to be done, and it was usually disastrous.

Do you ever reflect on death? 

I find it very hard to concentrate on death. In theory of course I’m perfectly aware that the length of my days cannot be very great now, but one is so used to being here and waking up in the morning that it’s very difficult to fix one’s mind on death. And I don’t want to fool myself with all kinds of theories about death because belief is neither here nor there, it’s only what we know that counts, and I do not know.

How would you like people to remember you? 

I’d much rather they didn’t, much rather. But if they do, I should like Blake’s words to be said of me, that in time of trouble I kept the divine vision.


‘Stop the War,’ Israeli ex-spy urges Hamas Leader

In an article in the Sunday Telegraph (25th August), it recalls that seventeen years ago the Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal, lay dying as poison in his veins began to shut down his vital organs one by one.

At the last moment a shadowy figure emerged handing over a secret antidote that brought him back from near death.

Now, as the war between Israel and Gaza continues to wage (a new ceasefire has since been agreed), that same figure – the former Mossad agent Mishka Ben David – has appealed to Mr Mishal to return the favour: stop taking ‘the most extreme side’ in Hamas and accept a compromise to end the war with Israel, the spy is telling him.

The floor-to-ceiling windows of Mr Ben-David’s living room on a hilltop just outside Jerusalem give a panoramic view all the way to the south of Israel and beyond, where bloody fighting wages on.

‘You can see Gaza from here,’ says the former spy, pointing to a tiny blur in the distance beyond the city of Ashkelon. ‘I can hear the bombardment at night.’

Several weeks ago a more immediate message from Gaza arrived in the form of a rocket that exploded just fifty yards from Mr Ben-David’s dining room table.

‘It was a huge blast,’ he said. ‘All the houses around here shook. All the glass in the windows broke. There was shrapnel everywhere.’

Although Mr Ben-David was with his daughter and his three grandchildren at the time, no one was hurt. But their close shave with death or injury prompted him to appeal to Mr Mishal via a letter published in a newspaper, reminding him of the failed Mossad operation in whose aftermath he had been involved.

‘I thought that it was time to address the rational side of Khalid Mishal,’ he said. ‘And I thought that I had a hand in reviving him.’

In September 1997 a Mossad squad stood in position ready to ambush Mr Mishal in his office in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

‘Khalid Mishal got out of his car and went upstairs through a certain sidewalk from which he entered his office,’ said Mr Ben-David.

Inside the office, the two operatives were waiting for him ready to spray him with the substance that was supposed to cause his death. But at the same moment Mr Mishal heard his young daughter calling for him.

‘So Mishal turned around and instead of getting the poison in his neck he got it in his ear.’

Seeing the two Mossad operatives, Mr Mishal called for help – and very quickly the Mossad agents were incapacitated, then arrested.

But the poison had already begun spreading throughout Mr Mishal’s system, slowly inducing partial paralysis on the way. The Hamas leader was rushed to a Jordanian hospital and hooked up to a life-support machine but, despite the best medical services available, was given only a few days to live.

At this point King Hussein of Jordan unleashed his fury upon Israel, a country with which only two years previously he had signed a peace agreement. With the support of Bill Clinton, the then US president, the king issued an ultimatum: Israel must provide the antidote to the poison or the Mossad agents would face trial and likely execution. Waiting in a nearby hotel Mr Ben-David was called on to hand over the antidote.

It is ironic that while Hamas missiles narrowly missed Mr Ben-David’s daughter and her children it had been Mr Mishal’s little girl who unwittingly played a key role in saving her father’s life all those years ago.


The entire story of this failed mission to kill Khalid Mishal was published in 2009 by Quartet, entitled Kill Khalid.

It reads like an extraordinary thriller, stranger than fiction as the hours tick by in search of the antidote to save the Hamas leader.

A page-turner that is unputdownable!

The Oldie and I

It’s not very often that I take the decision to put the record straight when the subject matter concerns an investment of mine where for many years I was the majority shareholder.

In an article in the Sunday Times of two weeks ago on the saga of his resignation from the Oldie, which he edited since its inception, Richard Ingrams wrote that he could not remember the extent of my financial contribution to the magazine, but recalls it wasn’t enough to keep it afloat.

Well, this statement, I’m afraid to say, is misleading and far from being accurate.

In 1994 the Oldie’s capital stood at £720,000. My own contribution was £540,000, of which £300,000 I had borrowed personally from Barclays at a time when interest rates were cripplingly high. When Paul Getty became proprietor for a short period my losses were in excess of £800,000, an amount which quite frankly I could not sustain.

In retrospect, however, I’m still delighted I backed the Oldie from the very beginning, notwithstanding the fact that the media, as a whole, thought I was bonkers to involve myself in such a mad enterprise which they claimed was destined to failure.

I fervently believed then that the older generation needed a magazine they could associate with and in a medium likely to give them a voice and no end of entertainment. The eventual success of the venture proved the cynics wrong.

During his long tenure as editor, Richard Ingrams moulded the magazine in his own idiosyncratic image to suit its readership and, as such, he will always be remembered as its benevolent creator.

In the present circumstances, I hope that the Oldie, under its new editor Alexander Chancellor, will continue to prosper and remain a viable force, catering for people of a certain age, as opposed to the current trend of discarding the old in favour of the young.

Oldies, contrary to public perception, have still a lot to offer. It would be unwise to write them off.

Ignore them at your peril; they’re capable of biting you, even if their teeth are sometimes not their own.

Red Spells Danger

Susanna Reid is a fast learner.

After her rather raunchy display of raw sexuality in Strictly Come Dancing,which has catapulted her to new heights salary-wise, she has found that giving a glimpse of her gorgeous thighs on ITV’s beleaguered Good Morning Britain has increased its viewing figures by seventy thousand.

ITV might now be tempted to encourage her to reveal more of her hidden bits in order to compete with the rival BBC programme.

Pictured in a red sexy dress, Susanna seems determined to become a sex siren so as not to disappoint her adoring fans – mostly men of a certain age who crave the sight of a mature woman stirring their libido with such gusto.

A new research, and there are a surfeit of them at present on every damn topic, has discovered that a lady in red is seen as an easy sexual target for men by other women. Previous studies have found that men see women wearing red as a sign of ‘sexual receptivity’. The research suggested that scarlet women are also looked down upon by their female counterparts.

Women judged others dressed in red as more sexually available and were most likely to cast aspersions on their fidelity and say such women would put them on guard with their men.

Previous studies have shown that women are keen to wear red when they expect to meet an attractive man, presumably with the intention of seducing him.

In other words, it all makes a good deal of sense. If you consider a red rag to a bull drives the animal almost insane, a red dress to a man must have a similar effect – although it is a matter of a lesser degree since we cannot claim to have the same stamina as a ferocious bull!

Although I love a variety of colours, red is my favourite. It is sexually vibrant; it hides no punches and, if anything, reveals our obsession with carnal desires.

Susanna Reid knows where she is going and I wish her luck on her hazardous journey.

Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker, FRSL, Hon. Litt.D., was born in London in 1932 and is the author of forty-two plays mainly for the stage, four books of short stories, two collections of essays, a book for young people, three more of non-fiction, and an autobiography.

His plays include The Kitchen (1957), The Wesker Trilogy (1958/60, comprising Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m Talking about Jerusalem), Chips with Everything (1962), The Four Seasons (1965), Love Letters on Blue Paper (1976), Shylock (1976), Annie Wobbler (1982), When God Wanted a Son (1986), Caritas (1988), Circles of Perception (1996), Denial (1997), Groupie (2001), and Longitude (2002).

His work, which includes scripts for TV, radio and film, is continually performed worldwide, and translated/published in eighteen languages. He has won prizes here and abroad and has directed his plays in Havana, Stockholm, Munich, Aarhus, London, Oslo, Madison & Denison universities (US), and Rome.

In 1989, Wesker received his first Honorary Degree (D.Litt.) from the University of East Anglia. His second, from Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, was awarded in March 1995. A third – Doctor of Humane Letters – was awarded from Denison, Ohio, in May 1997.

He lives in the Black Mountains of Wales and was knighted in 2006.

His book, The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel (1997), is an account of the unhappy production of his play Shylock on Broadway in 1977, when Zero Mostel died after the first performance. It was published in the UK by Quartet Books.

I interviewed Arnold in 1997 and found him rather easy to get on with, despite his reputation to the contrary. Inevitably, some aspects of our interview were concerned with the explosive issue of Israel and the Palestinians – which I’m glad to say remained in good humour throughout.

Nowadays, intransigence has taken over from sensible discourse and the world is experiencing a shameful period where the gun seems to dictate the outcome of a dispute but only for the short-term – a real debacle for the prospect of peace.

Here is the text of my interview in full:

You have often felt disappointed or angry with journalists who have interviewed you or written articles about you. The impression which I have after reading your autobiography is of a character so immensely complex as to be almost impossible to be contained in an interview. Would you perhaps agree with that and sympathize with the difficulties? 

The simple answer is yes. Journalism is a profession, people want to read about other people, and there is no way you can bypass it unless you become a recluse like Salinger or Garbo and you hit the headlines by virtue of not being there. I’m not that kind of person, and I also feel that I don’t quite have a right to refuse to be interviewed, though perhaps I might have been more discriminating in the past. The big problem is that all interviews attempt to encapsulate a life within a few thousand words and that’s an impossible task; and what is distressing for most of those interviewed is that there is no acknowledgement of this limitation. Each profile assumes it has captured the complexity of a lifetime. This is the crux of the matter. Many interviews are of course sympathetic, but even when they’re sympathetic they get it wrong. No one who has been interviewed ever believes the journalist has got it right.

You say in your autobiography that the ‘angry young man’ label was just a journalistic misnomer and that in fact you were a happy young man. But happiness doesn’t make such good copy perhaps, and in any case you did quite well out of the anger – international fame, success, money and so on… 

No, I don’t agree. I think it was a limitation, an anchor round my neck. The moment you have a label you can be easily dismissed. The fact that the plays happened and still happen are because they’re good plays, not because of anger and all that. Inevitably one is caught up in a movement, and again there is nothing one can do about it. One is helpless about a lot of life. If I had somehow lived and died within the space of ten years, then it might have been permissible to say that my existence depended upon having emerged under the label of angry young man. But the evidence is to the contrary; the plays are still being done. For example, the last play in my cycle of one-woman plays, called Letter to a Daughter, had its world premiere in South Korea. It then went to Portugal, Norway, Sweden, had a fantastic success in Italy, and is now scheduled for productions in Denmark, Greece and Spain, and this is without a production in London or New York. So there’s something about the quality of the plays that makes them travel and makes them last in my lifetime. Whether I will be forgotten when I’m dead, that another question.

You are still stuck with certain labels, no matter how inaccurate they are now: ‘working class hero’, ‘social activist’, ‘angry leftie’, and so on. You have felt badly served by these images over the years. Why do they matter so much? 

They matter because they get in the way of understanding the plays. I think they also get in the way of people thinking about putting them on. There is no doubt that if you tell someone what it is they are going to see or read, that’s what they will see and read. So if Tom Stoppard gave me a play and I put it on under my name, everyone would see it as a play that was ‘oh, so obviously a play by Arnold Wesker’, simply because that is what they have been told. So these labels announce what the play is going to be about, and yet it’s never about that, never. The plays are much too complex for labels.

Some people say that one of the reasons that the angry-young-man image has endured is that you have remained angry … would you say that is true? 

Anybody who feels strongly about something can communicate a sense of outrage or high emotion, but it isn’t necessarily anger. I much prefer a play that bubbles with gaiety, though I also like intellectual stimulation. Anger just doesn’t mean anything, it just doesn’t mean anything.

you say you don’t believe that creativity comes from misery, and that you need to feel joyful to write – in which case your output over the years would seem to point to a great deal of joy, but there are presumably many other emotions in the mix. Is it not rather the tension between the different emotions which makes you creative? 

I happen to be of what’s generally called a happy disposition. My instinct is to forgive, to forget, to look for the best in people, and that provides a kind of peace. When there is hostility, I seize up. If I’m directing a play and actors behave in a vicious way, I cease to function. I don’t have to be in a permanent state of gaiety but I do need to be at peace and feel surrounded by positive vibes. There’s no such thing as optimistic or pessimistic art, what finally counts is that which is honest and of a very high level. What’s distressing and really makes one feel pessimistic is mediocrity. For example, I wrote about the death of my mother, which was very distressing to me because I adored her, but there was something about discovering a way of communicating death that was in itself invigorating.

Your childhood in the East End of London was fertile ground for a writer and provided you with your first success Chicken Soup with Barley. You distinguish between being romantic about the past and being sentimental, which you describe as essentially dishonest. Isn’t it true however that the very process of remembering will distort – you will remember differently from your sister, for example? 

Yes, there is nothing you can do about that – that’s the trick of memory. My sister will remember things differently, not only because of the way memory works, but because she was eight years older than me and really took the brunt of my parent’s quarrelling at its height. She was constantly protecting me from it. But my memory of those days is of a happy childhood, lots of love and the things that relatives did for one another. I didn’t write out of misery, I’m not saying that there wasn’t any bad. I’m conscious of the quarrelling and of the poverty, but on balance my sense of the past is that it was happy, it was a good family.

How much do you think this sense of the past came from the feeling of belonging to an extended family? 

That was very important. It was a family full of my mother’s brothers and my father’s sisters and I was embraced by everyone – my sister and my brother-in-law, my parents and all the aunts and uncles.

How important was it that you grew up in the Jewish community and all that that entailed? 

I’m not sure how to answer that, because that was my milieu and everybody’s milieu is important to them, whether positively or negatively. I happen to have been able to draw from my background. Although I quarrelled with my mother and I got angry with my father, I have a memory of not reacting against them because they were parents. There are two processes that can happen with young people: one is to rebel against the family, the other is to respond to what is ahead. I was able to do the latter. There were lots of Jewish kids who found their background overpowering and were really shattered by it; I found mine very rich. My aunts and uncles read books and they were full of opinions and ideas. They handed down this appetite for learning and literature, so what I am left with is on balance a sense of things positive.

You say now that you have a profound sense of Jewishness without a need to promote the Jewish culture or indeed to live the Jewish faith. How would you describe this sense of Jewishness – does it necessarily amount to much more than, say, being English?

It’s complex. It’s something Jewish writers constantly get together and talk about. Many of us are very conscious of being absolutely Jewish, without necessarily having a belief in God or pursuing and rituals or being steeped in Jewish culture. Perhaps you remember that part of my autobiography where I talk about what I regard as the two routes to Judaism. One is the belief that human beings, because they were created by God, are very important; the other believes that because human beings were created by God, God is therefore more important. Those who believe that God is more important are the religious ones, and those who believe that human beings are more important are the doctors and the writers and the composers and so on. Of course I belong to that category which has a great reverence for the importance of life and what human beings can produce. Naturally one is depressed and distressed by the awful things that human beings do, but we do seem to have a capacity to do the kind of things which make human beings extraordinary. It would be absurd to claim this is exclusively Jewish, but it is very essentially Jewish.

But why essentially did you reject the orthodox beliefs – was it chiefly a question of reason prevailing, or what? 

There was no tradition of it in my family. My parents simply weren’t religious, so it wasn’t there for me to reject or otherwise. They were both members of the Communist party.

Is the Age of Reason one of your guiding principles when you write? 

No, I consider myself to belong to the rational humanists, but I don’t sit down with the intention of writing accordingly. I am a mixture – an emotional, thinking, feeling person, with varying degrees of honesty and dishonesty, and varying levels of perceptiveness or stupidity.

What would you say your main weakness is? 

You mean apart from women?

Yes, we’ll come to that… 

It’s not so much a weakness as something that’s missing. I feel very much the lack of an in-depth education. I didn’t go to university, and though I read widely, there are huge gaps in my knowledge which I feel very acutely. I’ve always turned down invitations to debate at Oxford or Cambridge because I know I can’t think on my feet and I don’t have the capacity to marshal facts. Another weakness is that I’m not always as honest as I would like to be, but I think I’m sufficiently honest with myself. There are always scraps of paper where I write down what I understand to be the truth of what’s happened.

Your mother was an extremely important figure in your life and in your writing – indeed most of your characters are women. Are women just more interesting, do you think? Do they offer more creative possibilities? 

I seem to find women more interesting than men, for all sorts of obvious reasons and also in terms of writing. I know the flaws and the weakness and the setbacks that one has with women in relationships, so I don’t see them through rosy glasses, but on the other hand they seem to me more courageous, more perceptive, more vivacious than men. Men are incredibly dull – in fact, I never understand what women see in men. I’m sometimes told that I understand women extremely well, but it’s not that so much as the fact that I listen to them and they’re so vivid about themselves. Women talk, men don’t. I love to hear women talking about themselves, and that’s how I recreate them.

I read somewhere that you think women are in fact superior to men, and that male aggression is a recognition of this fact and an attempt to compensate. Is that a serious theory? 

I think at a certain level it’s serious. A woman has an innate understanding of most situations, especially those involving relationships. They understand what’s happening, whereas men seem not to understand. The other observation – not original to me – is that women have the power to give and withdraw happiness. I think men know this, and it unnerves them. Women need happiness and they need a sexual life, but they seem able to hold back until it’s right for them, and men sense this, and feel very helpless in front of it. So the brutal men use their fists, and the verbal men insult.

In the 1960s you were artistic director of Centre 42, a cultural movement for popularizing the arts. This has been something of an albatross round your neck since it had the effect of identifying your own plays with social causes. Has this been a terrible frustration for you? 

Yes, in much the same way as the labels ‘angry young man’ and ‘kitchen sink’ have been frustrating, because they have prevented people from seeing the full spectrum of what I’ve done. I don’t regret Centre 42; it was a project which had a short life but a very large impact on the cultural life of the country. It seems to have given courage and released imaginations so that people went on to do other things. In the end I failed to make it work, essentially by failing to raise the kind of money that I believed the project needed. There had been a tendency among other such artists and intellectuals to believe that if you try and take the arts to a popular audience then they don’t have to be of such a high standard – if your heart’s in the right place, that somehow will be enough. I had seen that attitude operate and fail, and I was determined that with Centre 42 we should aim for the highest standards possible. We found the Round House at Chalk Farm, and I tried unsuccessfully, to raise £650,000. Very simply that is what happened.

You’ve consistently denied that you yourself were working class which you insist is a state of mind. By calling it a state of mind don’t you perhaps detract from the experience of a great many people who lived the lives of the working class, not at a psychological level but at the level of actuality? 

I would modify what I said then by suggesting that it is a collection of states of mind. There are certainly different kinds of working class. Just at a very simple level, sections of the Welsh mining working class had a passion for literature and music and had libraries in their homes. That’s one kind of working-class tradition that’s very strong. Not only in Wales, but in Scotland, in the Midlands and elsewhere. There are bastions of working-class people who did care about education and intellectual life. Equally there was another section which didn’t care, and they wanted their kids to be plumbers and butchers and had no special interest in education. That was the state of mind that said, we are who we are, we’re very proud of who we are, and we don’t want to have anything to do with theatres and all that arty-farty nonsense, we’re happy with our pints of beer and our games of darts. So when I talk about the working class as a state of mind I mean that it can be identified as believing that you should live your life in a certain way and have absolutely no other horizons.

Do you think your own plays were true to the principles of Centre 42? I mean, are they essentially popular, accessible plays, would you say? 

A distinction must be drawn here. Centre 42 was not set up to create popular art, it was set up to popularize art – a very important difference. What I wanted to do was to make available to a wider audience the best of the classics, as well as the best of what was being produced at the time; not to create what people described as working-class culture – I didn’t know what that was. As regards my own plays, some are more accessible than others. As you grow older you set yourself more difficult challenges artistically. So my most recent play When God Wanted a Son is not a play to which a popular audience would respond so much as they might to a play like Roots, but it is important to observe that the audience for the arts has always been, and probably will always be, a minority audience.

The so-called wilderness years were obviously extremely painful for you. What made you keep the faith? 

One reason is that I didn’t have any alternative, the other is that the wilderness didn’t extend to the rest of the world. The world is a very big place, and I was constantly invited abroad for the first nights of productions of my plays in other countries. I managed to bounce back and write new work – something which irritates my critics, but I’m a compulsive writer and there’s still a great deal to write.

Why do you think there has been a lack of interest in Britain compared to abroad? Are the reasons very complex? 

The first thing to be said is that you have to get the lack of interest in perspective. I have complained rather more vociferously than the reality perhaps warranted, for there has always been something happening in England, whether it’s been the publication of a collection of essays, or the performance of a new play, or the revival of an old one. What began the distress was that a certain moment in my career, when I was aged forty, I had two plays which were going to be put on in the two big theatres, the National Theatre and the Royal Court, and for various reasons they just didn’t happen. The Old Ones was bought by the National Theatre and was to be directed by John Dexter, who had directed my first five plays. Dexter then went on holiday, and when people go on holiday the coups take place. Kenneth Tynan just threw it out of the programme, and I was very angry, particularly because the contract had already been signed. A few months later the actors refused to perform my play called The Journalists which had been bought by the Royal Shakespeare Company and announced as part of their programme. I had sold the rights to three countries who had been told by the Royal Shakespeare Company not to do the play until they had performed the premiere. And yet in the event the RSC sided with the actors, and so the play was never performed. I sued the RSC, a process which took eight years and didn’t do much for my reputation in this country.

Why did the actors refuse to perform the play? 

We will never really know the truth. What we do know is that it had never happened before, and it’s never happened since. The RSC in their evidence submitted written statements from the actors which said various things, such as ‘we don’t think this play can work technically’ and one actor even said: ‘Wesker needs his knuckles rapped,’ which was extraordinary. My own theory is that at that time, the early 1970s, the actors were under the influence of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. In my play there were four Tory cabinet ministers whom I had made very intelligent, on the assumption that if you’re going to criticize anybody it’s better not to make them idiots who are easy to knock down. Actors do not have the most subtle political minds, and they simply didn’t understand the play and thought it was very right wing. In fact I have never been a member of a political party and it is very difficult to pin me down politically.

There is a sense in which you seem to have clung to the conspiracy theory with regard to your play being performed. Isn’t it just as likely that the theatre – like other art forms – is subject to changing trends and fashions, and one minute you can be acclaimed and the next you can be cast out into the wilderness. Isn’t this an old, old story? 

I suppose it could be that the reason they don’t do the plays is that the plays aren’t any good. This has at least to be considered as a possibility. Obviously I think that they are wonderful plays, but I may be wrong. And as you say, fashions change, tastes change, young directors come who want to find their own playwrights, they don’t want to go on with existing playwrights … so there are all sorts of reasons. Together they make it very hard to stay afloat.

Over the years you have had problems with the directors of your plays and you seem to feel almost as if they were violating what you created … were you ever able to see this relationship as a partnership? Isn’t directing a play also a creative activity? 

No, I don’t think it’s a creative activity; it’s an organizational one. Rather it’s an organizational one which requires sensitivity and imagination, but it’s not a creative one. Essentially God is the one and only creative person since He started from nothing; writers don’t start from nothing because we use our experience of life which makes us recreators, if one wants to be very precise. But let’s accept the generally used description that we are creative because we start with raw experience, and we make order out of something that is essentially in a state of chaos. What the director is handling is something that has already been put in creative order, and for that reason he can’t really be described as creative. I discussed this precise question in my Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture in 1987 which, if you’ll permit me, I’ll quote from: ‘The raw material of the playwright is their individual experience of life. This experience is a kind of chaos into which occasionally there shines a light, a tiny light of meaning. A small part of the chaos is identified, sometimes comprehended. The playwright gives this comprehended chaos a shape, an order. He calls it a play. And like a scholar he is handling what are called primary sources which no one else has explored. Those primary sources are his own being and experience for which an original quality of imagination and a kind of courage is called upon, because he is going where no one dared to go before. The metamorphosis which seems to be taking place in the theatre is this: the director is usurping the play as his primary source, as his raw material to do with it as he fancies. The playwright endures the life and from it shapes a play; the director often rapes it.’ Having said that, I have had very good relationships with directors, but tensions inevitably grow after a time. What concerns me most is when I go to see a production of one of my play and discover that the director has imposed something that is not there in my work. That’s where the difficulties arise.

Is it only with a living playwright that these problems exist? I mean, presumably you don’t object to widely different stagings of Shakespearean plays? And in the case of opera the public expect to see a different interpretation each time… 

Yes, it really is a very complex area. The trouble is that I am not sure that interpretation is what happens when a director is directing something. What worries me is when there is an imposition which then becomes not the freedom of interpretation but a tyrannical treatment of something. The director is in effect saying, ‘I don’t want you to see this work as it might be, but as I see it.’ This is a terrible form of dictatorship.

Can you summarize what you are trying to achieve in a play? Is it more than entertainment? Are you trying to influence the way people think and behave? 

I don’t think on those levels at all. What I think I’m doing is understanding the material that has prompted the play, and getting from that material something that is more than itself. One of the first things I advise young writers is to try to make a distinction between material that is anecdotal and material which is what I call resonant. For example, you might think that something said at a dinner table is very lively and would make a good story, but actually it doesn’t because it’s only an anecdote. What makes material rich is when you have selected that which has become more than the material itself, so that it ripples out. This is what I like to think I’m doing: identifying the material of my experience which might resonate outwards.

You have said that when you compare the intellectual experience to the theatrical one, it is like moving from the adult world to the kindergarten. Does that imply that the theatre is not a sufficiently weighty medium to carry your intellectual message? 

I don’t deal in intellectual messages. I am inspired by people who are animated by ideas to such an extent that it shapes what they do with their personal lives. I’m also interested in people who are complex and emotional creatures. What I said applies to my experience of going to the theatre. Frequently it’s infantile; you find characters who are limited in their literacy and their articulation, in their capacity to feel at any profound level – it’s what I call street-corner experiences. Occasionally of course one goes to the theatre and finds an adult experience, not simply intellectually but emotionally as well.

You once said that any bitterness or sadness as a playwright comes from the feeling of not being trusted, or having to struggle against the odds to get your plays performed when you know that they are good and that they work. Have you ever thought there might be easier ways to earn a living? 

[Laughter] Yes, but I’m not very good at anything else. There were times when I thought that I might have had a head for business but I was told by a friend that I would be absolutely useless with money.

You sued the Royal Shakespeare Company for loss of earnings and eventually settled out of court after a long legal wrangle. In retrospect do you wish you had channelled that energy into more creative things? 

I’m ambivalent, just as I’m ambivalent about almost everything. It took up a lot of time, but writing letters to my lawyer and composing documents were part of a creative process and, more importantly, I continued to write plays and stories. What I am conscious of is that it was a very bad career move.

The traditional perception of the Jew which has become almost a caricature is of someone forever talking about the injustices of the world, verging on the victim mentality. Are you aware of that in yourself to an extent? 

No, because I’ve never strongly felt myself to be a victim until recently when my plays were not accepted as I thought they ought to be. I suspect that there is a very unEnglish tone in the plays since I do feel very Jewish, and I believe that there is a resistance to this quality in the work. In fact one director is reported to have said that the problem with my writing is that I am too Jewish, which is something which would never have been said about an Irish or a Scottish writer.

But if that were the case, your plays would surely be very successful in New York… 

When they have got there, they have been very successful, but the problem is that New York puts on what has been successful in London.

Some years ago you wrote in defence of Salman Rushdie and what you called his basic right to blaspheme. In your own play Shylock, a character suggests that Abraham invented God, which surely offends more than one religion … can you explain first of all why is it all right to blaspheme? 

It is impossible to hold views which don’t offend someone somewhere sooner or later, and since it is impossible it is crazy to try to prevent it. There are some who find a belief in God as offensive as those who believe in God find it offensive that others don’t. It is possible to argue that religious faith is an offence to one’s intelligence, it’s even possible to argue that to be accused of blasphemy by denying God is offensive.

Would you always defend people’s right to be offensive towards you? 

It’s a very difficult area. There is a part of me which says that if someone wants to call me a dirty Yid they should be allowed to. What upsets me more is the existence of that mentality, which manifests itself in all sorts of other ways. It walks the streets drunk, shouting fuck you, fuck you. I find all that distressing, not because of the language, but because of the mentality. What must be prevented, of course, is people acting on their beliefs: the idea that the Jew is terrible so you slaughter him, that the infidel is awful so you slaughter him.

Now that there is something of a revival of your plays, would you say you were now through the wilderness and heading towards the promised land? 

No. I don’t believe that you’re ever there until you’re dead. Unless my play gets good reviews, unless the one I’ve just finished takes off, unless a number of other projects are successful financially, and give me the security I’ve never really had, unless I’m able to create what we call in the profession my ‘fuck-you fund’, I will never feel that I’m out of the wilderness.

You say in your autobiography that your marriage would amount to another book in itself, and one can see why … the relationship has been so much part of your life and so complex that it must be very difficult to talk about it in a few sentences. What I wonder is, has the marriage survived the period of separation in any recognizable form? 

Yes … it seems to me that two interesting things have happened. The most important is that Dusty has created a very individual life for herself in this house; she is queen of the roost, and she has a circle of adoring, admiring friends, and she no longer perceives herself as my shadow, though I believe she always made an impact in her own right. I was never competitive, but that is how she perceived it, and now that there is a sort of living together separately she feels much more confident. I don’t think she’s entirely happy with the situation, but I think we’re moving towards a truly interesting relationship.

At the time of falling in love with someone else, you said that you had not fallen out of love with Dusty. Was that a way of making it more acceptable or presentable to other people, perhaps even to yourself? 

It’s possible. I mean, we all play tricks with ourselves, and I’m in no position to argue one way or another. All I would say is that I was conscious of a very rich relationship, not perfect, because nothing is perfect, but we had a great rhythm, which is why we’re able to enter into a rhythm now.

Right at the beginning, nearly forty years ago, you felt troubled and confused by your relationship with Dusty and worried about your future together. You wrote to her then: ‘if it does not end now it will become more complicated and worsen. I see that so clearly that it is almost a vision.’ Was there any sense of that being a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

God knows. I think I saw a great deal that was right, but there were other things that I didn’t see, such as the way in which she would grow and blossom into something very striking and individual – although I did detect something. What I was referring to was more what I recognized about myself, my needs, my inability to make the relationship work, rather than hers. And I suppose I also made a mistake about what I was capable of making work.

You mentioned your weakness for women. What did you mean by that? 

Well, I love their company. I don’t pursue them at any great level … for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because it just hurts everybody, so it’s very limiting. The desire remains, and you have to find a way of living with that, and yes, given a different situation, I would explore all sorts of relationships.

The relationship with your eldest son was perhaps the main casualty of the break-up. Indeed, intimate parts of your autobiography are addressed to him. You say at one point: ‘It causes me heartache but, more, I fear for you, that when I’m dead you will grieve with a deep guilt.’ Wasn’t that quite a burden to lay at the door of your son? 

Yes, but I didn’t realize that he would respond by refusing to talk to me – that came as a great shock. To that extent he succeeded in breaking something up, and bringing Dusty and me together again. I don’t know whether he was the greatest casualty … he was the one who didn’t talk to me; the other two did, but they were affected as well. This is an area that I don’t want to get into in too much detail.

Yes, but don’t you think we should do everything possible to remove guilt, not to perpetuate it… 

Yes, that’s why I urged him to sustain the relationship with me. My mother always used to say, don’t shout at me, because you’ll feel guilty about it when I’m gone. And she was right – one regrets all the wrong things one did to one’s parents.

You’re very conscious of the shifting states of mind which we all experience. Your autobiography was written at a particular time of your life when you were experiencing separation, loss and presumably guilt. How would you describe your state of mind at present? 

A little more at peace but still in a great mess. The past three or four years really splintered me apart, and the pieces are still floating in space. I’m not sure I’m going to get them all together again. I think I’m going to stay in a sort of shattered state in orbit until I die. If I were to strike a gold mine with one of my projects then all sorts of things would follow from that. I could begin to help my grandchildren with their education for example, which would give me great pleasure, I could try to rectify the damage done to my daughter by helping her financially. It would also enable Dusty and me to find a way of doing many things together which we can’t so because of financial straits, so if I struck it lucky then some more bits might come together. But emotionally I will always be all over the place now.

Would you say you’re a good father? 

I think I am. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life which has affected the children but I’ve always been around for them. My big mistake was education. I foolishly thought that because they came from a very privileged background, by which I mean they had exposure to very interesting people, it should therefore be balanced by education in a comprehensive school. That was a mistake.

Let me move to a more delicate matter. As a Palestinian I can perhaps be forgiven for taking a rather different view of the rights and wrongs of Zionism and what happened in 1947. Wouldn’t you at least allow that in the great dream of building Israel and making that a reality there were many casualties… 

Oh God, yes of course. My own view – a view held by many people – is that there were two rights in the conflict. The problem was presented to the wise men and women of the world in the shape of the United Nations, and they came out with the solution of partition, and as I understand it the Jews accepted partition and the right of the Palestinians to have a homeland. As I remember it the map favoured the Palestinians more than the Jews, who were given the arid lands, but the Palestinians didn’t want to accept that the other side has a right. They were under the influence of medieval Arab states who disapproved of the Jewish presence with its democratic values and egalitarian views. The fact that men and women lived together in kibbutzim and walked around in shorts was an affront to their medieval state of mind, and so they mistakenly encouraged the Palestinians to go to war. Some years ago a Palestinian writer observed that if they had accepted partition they would have had more than they are now fighting for. That seems to me to have been the beginning of the tragedy. Tragedies don’t bring out the best in people and this one certainly didn’t bring out the best in the Israelis any more than it did on the other side.

In your youth you were a member of Habonim, a Zionist organization for young people, which presumably shaped your views. Did you ever think that this might have been an impediment to impartial, independent thinking? I mean, all religious organizations can foster prejudices to some extent… 

Yes, except it wasn’t a religious organization. It was an organization of people who simply shared the view that there should be a Jewish state and it wanted to encourage young people to go and live and work in that state. Even from the beginning we were all very conscious of Palestinian rights so that when partition was announced there was no protest; indeed we embraced it and said, thank God, this is a solution. To that extent it wasn’t an impediment and I haven’t changed my views very much since then. I’ve always believed there should be a Palestinian state.

By parodying the PLO in your book, in what you call your ‘fantastic scenario’, don’t you take tremendous liberties with the facts? Isn’t it rather like identifying Catholic Ireland with the IRA? 

Not quite, because I happen to have met many Palestinians who were not members of the PLO and I have had a rapport with them, so I hope I don’t fall for caricatures or stereotypes. No, this was a very mischievous, cheeky scenario which I invented because it seemed such an absurd thing to equate Zionism with racism.

It depends what form of Zionism … I mean, some Zionists want to go beyond the shores of Israel, to reclaim the old Biblical kingdom of Israel… 

I don’t share that view at all, but I don’t know that it’s racist – which is not to say that there are no racists within the Jewish community. There has been new research into African, Asian and Jewish communities in this country and an enormous amount of racism has been discovered: the Asians won’t let their children marry Africans, the Africans don’t want their children to marry Jews, the Jews don’t want their children to marry outside the faith, and so at that level racism exists. But if you take the best of Jewish and Zionist thinkers, the most rational of them, the evidence is that the Peace Now movement was a very strong force in Israel. There is no Peace Now movement among Palestinians.

Yes, but don’t forget the Israelis murdered their own prime minister because he was making the peace accord, so there are two sides to the story… 

That’s absolutely true, it’s shattering, and one is very ashamed of those crazy extremist Jews. But the Peace Now movement still exists.

I read somewhere that you believe friendship and love have to be earned. Can you expand on that? 

Again, I’m ambivalent about it. I suppose I’m thinking of how it happens in the States, where friendships are made immediately and people call you by your first name and they’re all over you; it’s not the same in England, and I have a certain respect for this difficulty of getting close to the English. Sometimes it’s to do with coldness and aloofness and a mistrust of the foreigner, but part of it is to do with more having to happen before the relationship can be described as a friendship. The other thing is that I’m not very good at judging people. My relationships always begin at one hundred percent and then they can only ever decrease. I start off trusting most people and believing that their intentions are honourable; it’s only after learning more about them that you can really judge. In that way you earn love and friendship by getting to know more about them and by giving to them, and of course they also give you. There are those people who just give nothing, so they don’t earn friendship. I also believe that in art the tears and the laughter have to be earned.

At the end of Chicken Soup with Barley Ronnie Kahn’s mother shouts at him: ‘If you don’t care you’ll die!’ could that be your own epitaph? 

No. I’ve actually written my epitaph which will go on a stone up a hill behind a house in Wales. It will say something like, ‘Come to this spot to remember him and enjoy what he loved.’ I want people to make a pilgrimage to this place and see the beautiful panorama.

Do you see yourself as a prophet in your own country? Do you have that image of yourself? 

No, I see myself in very traditional ways, as belonging to the mainstream world of drama. What I am doing can be simply described: it is the task of trying to create a little bit of order out of the chaos of my experience. There is chaos all around us and art seeks to gather some of it together and illuminate. That is my function.

The Wall

On 13th August, Julian Pölsler’s engaging drama, an adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 acclaimed existential sci-fi novel Die Wand (The Wall), was shown on Channel 4 with English subtitles.

The film was first screened at the London Film Festival in 2012 receiving rave reviews. Considered her greatest literary achievement, Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall is the story of one quite ordinary, unnamed middle-aged woman who awakens to find she is the last living human on Earth. Surmising her solitude to be the result of a too successful military experiment, she begins the terrifying work of not only survival, but self-renewal.

I was struck by what might have been unconsciously worrying me the whole time, the fact that the road was entirely deserted. Someone would have raised the alarm ages ago. It would have been natural for the villagers to gather inquisitively by the wall. Even if none of them had discovered the wall, Hugo and Luise would surely have bumped into it. The fact that there was not a single person to be seen struck me as even more puzzling than the wall. I began to shiver in the bright sunshine.

Variously interpreted as an ironic Robinson Crusoe story, a philosophical parable of human isolation and as dystopian fiction, The Wall is at once a simple survival story and a disturbing meditation on twentieth-century history.

The author is most famous for The Wall. She won numerous awards in her lifetime, including the Grand Austrian State Prize for literature. Although nearly forgotten after her death in 1970, she is now experiencing a sensational revival.

The Wall, in the words of Doris Lessing, ‘is a most absorbing story’.

However, to some it has a nightmarish quality about it. Whatever your taste, The Wall, first published in the UK by Quartet and reissued in 2013, is a must read for all those who appreciate literary endeavour at its best.

Discover the book and add to your lexicon of great unforgettable story-telling.

An Intoxicating Cocktail of Love

Emily Shaw, who went to one of Britain’s most expensive preparatory schools, and who hails from an upper-crust Berkshire country background, has scandalised the less tolerant members of society by posing in the nude in the July/August issue of Playboy.

Am I surprised that girls of her ilk have always had the inkling to shed their clothes while their bodies are in full bloom? Not at all. As sex is nowadays the most discussed topic, no wonder we rate it high on our agenda.

Emily was determined to cause a sensation when she sent nude pictures of herself to Playboy photographer Tony Kelly, and could not believe the response she got as a result.

Hugh Hefner asked her to fly to LA to test for them. She spent a month at Playboy Mansion learning about the Bunny Girl brand, mixing with other Playmates and taking her clothes off.

‘It was amazing to be part of it,’ she recalls. ‘It was a dream come true.’

Hefner himself, after seeing Emily’s test shots, decided to make her one of his official Playmates. The title is given to any model who appears in the magazine’s centrefold as ‘Playmate of the Month’. It is the highest accolade a new model could receive.

Emily is adamant that the photographs she has done are far from being tacky. For me, however, who has invariably worshipped at the altar of Venus, it is always refreshing to see a newcomer light up the horizon when the darkness of today’s world is excruciatingly horrid.

Instead of love, we see hatred. Instead of kindness, we experience brutality.

It’s a welcome change to see beauty instead of ugliness perpetrated by man. Let us therefore celebrate the advent of a new blood, vibrant, exquisitely alluring and full of promise – lest we forget the elixir of life itself.

Emily, titillating you certainly are and a sexual magnet brimming with vitality – but above all, an intoxicating cocktail of love.

Having now adopted you as my little princess, I welcome your invasion into my world of fantasy.

A Missed Opportunity

The death of Lauren Bacall at the age of eighty-nine was to me the end of an era where the dazzling film icon created a new style of sexual equality and allure to the Hollywood cinema of the 1940s.

She hit the big screen by playing the leading lady in four of Humphrey Bogart’s most memorable films. The couple fell in love while making Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not in 1944, and were married two years later, by the time they had made The Big Sleep, in 1946.

Tall, slim and sultry with a hypnotic hoarse voice and a cryptic personality, she made the perfect match for Bogart’s rugged cynicism. Although their marriage had a tempestuous tinge to it, they remained together and in love until the end, with Bogart’s death in 1957.

In the spring of 1991, the Asprey group of which I was the CEO embarked on the acquisition of the famous jewellery establishment of René Boivin, in Paris, a company that had achieved international fame and recognition for its innovative and beautiful designs embellished by gems of rare quality.

The pioneering work done by René Boivin was abruptly curtailed by his death in1917. His wife, Jeanne, then took the courageous decision to continue her husband’s work. To assist her in the task she created a ‘women’s workshop’ by taking on Suzanne Belperron, Juliette Mutard and later, her own daughter, Germaine Boivin. Masquerading as a male concern, they went on to create some of the masterpieces of twentieth-century jewellery making.

Jeanne had a less stereotypical image of women than other jewellers of the time, neither doll-like nor masculine, but more natural and relaxed and the individual taste of Boivin’s clientele, which came to include the Duchess of Windsor, Lady Diana Cooper and a whole host of actresses, also influenced the design. Jacques Bernard, the proprietor since 1970 and at the time of the takeover by Asprey, continued to uphold the inimitable Boivin style of the house while designing new pieces for the modern woman.

It was then that he formed a special relationship with Lauren Bacall, whose patronage of the house was to bring him a great deal of prestige. Jacques often talked to me about his regular visits to New York to see the actress and show her his latest creations before they were put on the market and how thrilled he had always been to be in her company.

Needless to say, she was his client par excellence for she had a very good eye for exquisitely crafted pieces that in her view would remain in vogue throughout the years and consequently augment in value. In those heady days, I was engrossed in a variety of ventures which included amongst other things interviewing women of merit for a series of books I was publishing. How she escaped my net then, I find unforgivable today.

I missed a great opportunity to meet a formidable lady with a sizzling encounter that would have defined her many attributes at close quarters. Perhaps, though, the intrigue served me well in the circumstances.

You Never Can Tell

Reading a report in last week’s Daily Mail, I was stunned to discover that one of Quartet’s authors, whom I knew rather well in the 1980s, is now accused by Susie Henderson of raping her when she was only four years old.

Waiving her right to anonymity, she went on to describe more appalling abuse by a senior Tory MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, once one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies.

The Conservative politician, appointed solicitor general for Scotland by Mrs Thatcher when she became prime minister, has been linked to the child abuse scandal currently threatening to engulf Westminster.

Last month, evidence came to light which suggests Sir Nicholas may have visited the Elm Guest House which serial abuser Cyril Smith also attended.

The property in Barnes, South West London is the focus of a Scotland Yard investigation into an alleged Establishment paedophile ring in the 1980s.


Now Miss Henderson, forty-eight, has told the Mail that not only was she raped as a young child by Sir Nicholas but that she has suffered years of sexual assault by her late father, prominent Scottish QC Robert Henderson who was a friend of the MP.

She said of Sir Nicholas: ‘I hated that man, more than I hated my father. He just wasn’t a nice man. I want it acknowledged that my father and Fairbairn did something very evil. Not just to me. There are other children out there.’

Sir Nicholas, flamboyant MP for Perth and Kinross died in 1995 aged sixty-one.

Twice married, the MP from 1974-1995 was a favourite of Mrs Thatcher because of his right-wing views and his noisily expressed adoration of her. He once claimed to enjoy ‘a special chemistry’ with the former PM and wrote in the Spectator about her: ‘sexually attractive no, but certainly bonny’.

Miss Henderson, whose father died in 2012 aged seventy-five, claims Sir Nicholas first abused her at one of her father’s parties at his Edinburgh home. She said: ‘We were in the kitchen. I was maybe four years old. I could have been younger. I had a skirt on and Nicholas and my dad had been drinking and my dad told me to sit on Nicholas’s knee. I sat on his knee and he put his hand up my skirt and abused me. My dad just stood there laughing.’

Recalling another incident, Miss Henderson, who lives near Inverness, claims Sir Nicholas raped her when she was in bed with him and ‘another guy’ in a guest room on the top floor of her five-storey family home. She says that she was just four or five at the time and remembers the pungent smell of his feet. Sobbing, she said she was not sure how many times Sir Nicholas abused her but says it was ‘a lot’ – adding, ‘even once is too much’.

In my long career as a publisher and journalist/interviewer, I have achieved a certain reputation as a man who is seldom shocked by anything he reads or hears. But I was so devastated and distraught by Miss Henderson’s story of abuse by these two prominent Scottish QCs – one, her father, and the other, whose book of memoirs, Life is Too Short, I had even published – I was sick to the bone for the rest of the day.

Fairbairn, a respected politician and advocate, wit and raconteur, was, as far as I was concerned, a man of the highest integrity. Although pompous, self-involved and rather inclined to be an addicted self promoter, he never struck me as a pervert who preyed on little girls, and perhaps little boys for all I know, with such little regard for the consequences of such evil acts.

What a monster he must have been – and so was the father of his victim, a shameless perpetrator of sexual criminality.

I applaud the courage of Susie Henderson who had the inner strength and stamina to reveal all in order to alert us that, even in a supposedly civilised world, we still come across people who shame us in pursuit of their base and sickly carnal desires.

May both of them never rest in peace, for their crime is so abominable it defies description.

Frances Partridge


Frances Partridge was born in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury in 1900, one of six children of an architect.

She was educated at Bedales and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English and Moral Sciences.

In 1933 she married Ralph Partridge who died in 1960.

In addition to translating many books from French and Spanish and helping her husband to edit the Greville memoirs, she is author of five other published volumes of diaries: A Pacifist’s War, Everything to Lose, Hanging On, Other People and Good Company.

I interviewed her in the autumn of 1993. She was ninety-three then and as sharp and alert as she had always been.

I dread to contemplate what I would be like at her age and to think that she survived until the age of one hundred and four.  Such women with their full mental capacity until the very end are remarkably rare.

Here is the full text of the interview.

You describe your father as ‘the obelisk directing our lives’ and your mother as ‘a friend in need, a support, someone to be greatly admired without qualification’. It sounds like the perfect combination for a child growing up. Were you aware of that at the time or did you come to appreciate it only late? 

Of course I didn’t think of it in that detached way at the time; a child doesn’t. I was simply living it, but I was certainly aware of it. My father died when I was twenty-one so I have to think back quite a long way from my ninety-three years to recapture that picture. My mother lived on longer and I loved her very much. Sometimes one is irritated by one’s near relations, but I thought she was an admirable woman with a detached manner; I think that even more now.

You were the youngest of six children. Did this position in the family seem to carry with it a special significance … you weren’t just one of the children in the middle of a bunch, as it were… 

My sister Eleanor and I were always called the little ones, and sometimes we were left out of some exciting expedition because we were the youngest. Eleanor was three years older and I quarrelled terribly with her. When we walked home from day school my nanny used to say, ‘I can tell you’ve been quarrelling. Your eyebrows show it – they cross together.’ And she was generally right. In some ways, of course, one did score by being the littlest one.

You say that your mother, although warm and loving, was singularly undemonstrative and disapproved of feelings being displayed. No doubt that was very much in keeping with the times. How long did it take you to break that particular mould? 

My mother was an orphan from a very early age, and I think that may have affected her. She wasn’t a cold person at all; in fact she was deeply emotional, but her remark about cheapening your feelings by displaying them dented me for most of my life. Until I fell in love myself I was always affected by it and felt that emotions shouldn’t be shown. What she said seemed to me to be wrong, and I didn’t agree with her, but until I came into touch with Bloomsbury and the people who showed me that you’ve got to think for yourself, I probably accepted my mother’s values. I still recall that feeling of being snubbed: one moment one was sitting on her lap, and being fondled and caressed, and then suddenly one had to stalk off and be oneself; one was considered too big.

Your life was very much middle-class Edwardian with the usual domestic staff. Were you at any time struck by what might be called a social conscience? What I mean is, were you at all aware of the difference in comfort and status between your own life and those of the maids, for example? 

Very much so. We had six maids, we were six children, and yet my father, who was an architect, built a house in the country which had no bathroom for the maids, and only one for all his children. This seemed quite extraordinary afterwards, and I can’t account for it. I also remember once walking by myself, and suddenly having the thought: why should people receive the money of their parents when they die? They have no right to it particularly, and should not everybody start equal? I was about fifteen at the time when a social conscience, as you call it, first appeared. My father was a fairly conservative man, but after his death my mother joined the Labour Party and adopted socialist leanings.

Your mother was a keen suffragist. How important was she for you as a role model in this respect? 

I was very convinced by her arguments and also by some eminent suffragists. It was ‘gist’ not ‘gette’, she always said. The ‘gettes’ were the people who ran into race-horses and broke windows, but the people she believed in were the people who reasoned. It was she who sowed the seeds of my admiration for reason. Various eminent women such as Mrs Fawcett would come and stay in our house to make speeches. From an early age, I was very interested in listening to them. I even walked in a procession when I was about ten, holding a banner saying Votes for Women.

As a young girl you set aside any faith which you had acquired and wrote that you never had ‘the least temptation to believe in God again’. God is not usually so easily got rid of, especially when one lives as you did in a family of believers (apart from your father who was agnostic). Was it a rational thing with you, do you think, or was it a purely emotional reaction? 

I don’t think there was anything to be emotional about really. My mother expected us to go to church but didn’t make a great fuss if we didn’t, and in the country church was rather a long way away. I never questioned it until I was eleven when I began to wonder where the belief came from, and indeed how one could possibly believe. I remember telling my sister that I didn’t believe, and she was appalled. All my brothers and sisters kept their faith longer than I did. I’m very interested in religion, and I’m fascinated, for instance, by how much comfort it gives to people when they’re bereaved. I became very fond of Lord David Cecil, and when his wife Rachel died slowly of cancer of the liver, I saw the enormous support religion gave to David who was not a very strong character. I myself never felt that. I can see that religion works for individuals, but appalling things have been done in its name – the Inquisition, the religious wars, the terrible problems in Ireland, and so on.

Did the fact that you spent so much time in the country encourage you to have a pantheistic view of the world – the kind of Wordsworthian ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused…’? 

One of the poems that has chiefly moved me in my life is Wordsworth’s Immorality Ode, although immorality itself has never been an attraction. I love life, I might be said to worship it, and pantheism yes, that has remained with me until my nineties. I love nature and derive enormous pleasure from walking along hedgerows I’ve walked along dozens of times before.

Religion often becomes more important with advancing years. Have you never been tempted? 

Not in the least … I must be truthful about this. My husband was not religious either but when we had our son the great question was whether we should have him christened. In the end we didn’t, and everybody said it was wrong and that he would be converted to some extreme form of religion himself, but he never was. As regards an afterlife, I can’t know for certain, but I see no reason to believe in one. I’m rather afraid of death – who isn’t – and obviously it must be close to me, but I prefer to think of it as sleep, which is something I love very much. Oblivion; that is what I long for when I cease, which doesn’t mean I don’t love the world.

You describe a very painful return journey to the Hindhead house of your childhood when you felt nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. The house and the garden and the surroundings were not all as you remembered them, but after a period of unease you decided to try to keep you childhood memories intact. Do you think this is something that happens only between childhood and adulthood, or is it a phenomenon which affects the different stages of our lives? 

That’s a very difficult question. It certainly did happen the way you tell it. I remember being terribly disquieted by an old oak tree in which we used to sit and play games. The picture that I’d carried around in my mind simply didn’t fit. Perhaps it is because a child sees this differently in relation to other things; the dimensions are not the same as those of an adult. I did not make any deliberate decision to preserve the childhood memories; they were simply too strong, and they overcame me.

By the time you went to Bedales at the age of fifteen you were already someone of independent mind and self-knowledge. It is difficult to see how you managed to adapt so well to the cold baths, the stinking lavatories and the lack of privacy without sacrificing your independence to the herd mentality. How was this actually achieved? 

All my elder brothers and sisters had gone off to school, so in a sense I became more lonely than I had been earlier. I went to Bedales partly because my great friend Julia Strachey was there and I wanted to join her. It was a co-educational school so we were always in love with somebody. Somehow, while criticizing it for its discomforts, you saw the world in miniature at that kind of school. Of course, I never came to like stinking lavatories – in fact, I was often in tears and had to retire to the staff lavatory or some private place to have a good sob. But I did find other pleasures, and those were mainly social.

The war was of course underway by this time, and you had already begun to form pacifist convictions. How was it possible to nurture such thoughts in such an atmosphere of patriotism and king-and-country idealism? 

I don’t think my immediate family were strongly patriotic or in any sense jingoistic. Indeed I had a first cousin, so very much older than me she might have been a different generation, who was a leading pacifist. Her name was Catherine Marshall, and you will find her in all the books of that time. I don’t know that she influenced me much; I mention her simply to show that it wasn’t thought an outrageous thing to take that view. I became a total pacifist around the age of sixteen, though whether I spoke about it to anybody I can’t really remember.

Your brother Tom was interned in a German camp for the duration of the war. Did that have a profound effect on you? 

It did, because he was one of the two siblings of whom I was very fond. Also my mother was very upset – we all were – and she desperately tried to get him home. He emerged from the camp a perfectly changed being. He’d been a very lively boy, talkative, quite pleased with himself in a way, rather good looking, but he came out as if somebody had put a mute on him, it was not that he had been badly treated; in fact, there were a lot of academics in the camp, they learned languages, they had orchestras, they acted in plays, and so on, and he might very well have been killed in the war if he hadn’t been interned. But he was severely affected. Indeed the whole trainload seemed subdued; it was as if they had come from a place where people spoke softly. That first war had an appalling effect on people.

Before you went to Cambridge, you describe an almost mystical experience when you understood with absolute conviction that your beliefs were yours alone and always would be, and that you were very much your own person. Where do you think this conviction came from? 

I wish I knew. I was walking alone when I had that feeling. It perhaps makes me sound a very conceited young person, but it was an exciting thought certainly. It was a kind of realization that a person and his beliefs were in some way indissoluble.

And that stayed with you for the rest of your life? 

Yes. I’m very dull; I go on in the same way.

Your days at Cambridge were exciting and intellectually stimulating. Did you have the feelings at the time that you were part of a very special group of people who were going to be influential even outside the university precincts? 

No. It was a very interesting time, but I didn’t think in terms of power or influence as such. We lived a very simple life since the war wasn’t quite over. One went off to lectures which were often rather a waste of  time – people gave the impression of simply reciting what they’d said a hundred times, almost falling asleep where they stood. I read philosophy for the second part of my tripos, and that really stimulated me, as did Shakespeare. I was very keen on Elizabethans altogether, and I liked some poetry very much but not as much as other people did. I’ve always been sorry about that.

You mentioned the disease of ‘incipient Bloomsbury’ which was rife at Cambridge. It is interesting that you describe it in terms of an affliction. Did you feel at the time that it was a mixed blessing in some ways? 

I think perhaps that was rather ill-expressed. I suppose I meant the voice, the way they talked and so on, but there weren’t so very many.

Through your first job in Birrel & Garnett’s bookshop, you got to know the Bloomsbury set – the Bells, the Stracheys, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and many other remarkable people. Did you feel on the outside of this world and that you very much wanted to get inside? 

I think the second. I was only twenty-one when I came down from Cambridge, and I thought these were fascinating people, people I wanted to know. I was thrilled but humble, and sometimes, as with Virginia, I was frightened by the sense of their being something I could never attain. They were very friendly; most of them liked the young. Even Virginia did, though she didn’t much care for my sort of young. There was so much I liked about their way of life that I had the feeling that I wanted to spend mine with them.

Was it chiefly their way of life, or their intellectual superiority? 

Both. It was also the way that they seemed to be close to life, to be real. They were not at all conventional; they didn’t really care what other people were doing or what they might think of them.

You have said more than once that you think too much has been written about Bloomsbury, almost as if you disapprove of the interest that has been shown, and continues to be shown. Is that a correct impression? 

I have always been in favour of truth, and I think that as the Bloomsbury idea has persisted there has been an over-excitement and people have sentimentalized it. Only yesterday I was signing copies of my latest book and there were people who were all very excited to meet a member of what they thought was Bloomsbury. This seemed to me a little false somehow.

But what was the true picture of Bloomsbury? 

The true picture was that there was a very strange collection of remarkable people who happened to like each other. They valued friendship enormously, and I’ve taken that from them. Maynard Keynes was the most intelligent man I’ve ever met in my life and you felt it when you talked to him. I know people say other things about him, but I think he was extraordinarily generous and genial. Then there were Virginia and Vanessa, and Lytton Strachey whom I knew very well – a curious mentality but an interesting one – and other people like E. M. Forster and Arthur Waley, the Chinese expert. There was such variety. They just happened to coexist and to live in the same part of London.

Did you mourn the passing of that period? 

Yes, in a sense, but I don’t waste many tears on it now. I’m sorry it’s gone, and I wish I had made more use of it.

The Bloomsbury Group did not seem to have a corporate identity, except perhaps in a common belief in the importance of the arts. Beyond that it was made up of individuals with very strong and often different ideas. Was the idea of being ‘a group’ very important? 

No. I never heard them using the word group. It’s all happened since the death of most of them, not all of them, because some lingered on longer. Friends are very different from groups, and they were primarily friends, albeit fairly malicious ones; they were quite outspoken about each other, and made fun of each other. Sometimes the things they said in their letters to each other or about each other are slightly disagreeable to read. All the same, they were enormously vital.

Did you ever have a disagreement with any member of the Bloomsbury set? 

We had lots of arguments, which I loved. Ralph, my husband, also adored argument and used to engage in it rather fiercely, becoming rather red in the face. Nobody understood how much he was enjoying himself.

In your book Memories you write that it was not so much that they were unconventional as that they were not interested in convention. It seems a delicate distinction: surely their tolerance in sexual matters, for example, did go far beyond the accepted social morality of the day, and in that sense they were indeed ‘unconventional’…? 

It was more that they ignored conventions, they didn’t take them as their guide on morals or how to behave. There was a great deal more homosexuality everywhere at the time than was realized. It was against the law, and naturally it was kept very quiet; nobody wanted to go to prison for seven years. But since quite a few of the Bloomsburys became famous, so too did the fact of their homosexuality, that of Strachey and Keynes and all the rest of them. It became more obvious, and this made them seem unconventional.

Friendship was valued very highly within the group, and love – whether heterosexual or homosexual – seemed to take precedence over anything as standard as marriage vows, for example. Did you find this disregard for conventional morality exciting – intoxicating perhaps? 

A little, yes. It was like making your own way instead of accepting something and obeying orders. I suppose I was rather rebellious, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

Is it the case that this new moral freedom would have been very difficult to put into practice except within the structure and shelter of a group of intelligent and interesting individuals? 

Yes. In every country I imagine this is true. The writers, the painters, the people interested in the arts and sciences are the ones who develop this kind of attitude. A scientist in pursing the truth can’t follow the rules of the state, or even of a religion. He has to go where his investigation takes him.

Why is it, do you think, that homosexuality seems to be more the domain of the intellectual or the artist…? 

A very interesting point. I’ve always thought that a very strange thing, and I have various theories about it. I’ve never come across a whole lot of lesbians in my life, so it’s always been a question of male homosexuals, of whom I’ve known a very good many. In a way the public schools produce them by the sort of toughness that was required; if a boy was good looking but not tough he became rather a prey to homosexuals, and in that way he was drawn into it. The other thing was that they didn’t like the idea of war, and as they couldn’t display their success as men, so to speak, they tried to be successful as women. These were ideas that came to me but they didn’t bring me happiness. The prevalence of homosexuality is something about which I feel rather sad. I have a great many homosexual friends and I love them, but I do feel they miss some of the pleasures of life, those of family, of children.

Bloomsbury society also included a good deal of sexual ambivalence. Would you say that bisexual men were principally homosexual? 

Not necessarily. I’ve know a number of people who started as homosexuals at school, partly because of the pressure on them, but then changed completely. For example, my brother-in-law, David Garnett, was the object of love of other homosexuals when he was young; then he became totally heterosexual and married twice. His first wife was my sister who died, and then he married Angelica Bell who was the daughter of Duncan Grant. David was a very great friend of mine as well as my brother-in-law and my boss in the bookshop, so I knew him very well. In the end he rather disliked homosexuals, saying that he found something about them disquieting; yet some homosexuals would have claimed him as their own. It’s rather difficult to get a completely accurate picture.

It can sometimes seem to the outside observer of Bloomsbury that homosexuality was very much the order of the day, and that it was unusual to be straightforwardly heterosexual. Were you accepting of all that, or perhaps indifferent to it, or what? 

I was very interested in it. My son went to Oxford at a much later date, in the fifties. There was a tendency still to think of the universities as being hotbeds of homosexuality, but from what I gathered from my son, there was a wave of going back to heterosexuality in his time. These changes are due to goodness knows what, but it is an interesting subject.

Sometimes it almost seems that homosexuality was an affectation. Did you ever regard it as such? Was it fashionable to be homosexual? 

Yes. People often behaved in an absurdly fancy way, and undoubtedly some assumed homosexuality in order to be a success. To get on with your fellows and to be liked is a terribly strong thing, especially among young people who haven’t made their way yet.

Did you ever at any point feel that the Bloomsbury Group was terribly elitist and therefore questionable on those grounds? 

I’m always a little baffled by that word elitist. I have the strongest possible dislike of class – that’s one of my fundamental beliefs – but I think there should be high standards in everything, whether it’s making shoes, or pictures.

You first got to know Ralph Partridge in 1923 … was it love at first sight? 

No. he was winning a race at Henley when I first saw him. He was a great rowing man and I thought him a very handsome and glowing figure, but I never thought of him as being anyone I should see again. Nor did I for some time. He worked for the Hogarth Press, selling Virginia and Leonard’s books so our paths crossed at the bookshop where I worked. I think I fell in love with him gradually, though perhaps he fell in love with me rather earlier.

Did you attract a lot of men? 

Yes I think I was quite pretty, and without boasting I have to say I was a very good dancer. Men liked that. I had quite a lot of admirers, but our sexual morals were very different from those nowadays; one would not have hopped into bed in the easy way that the young do now, or anything like it. A kiss was quite serious business.

Even by Bloomsbury standards, Ralph’s marriage to Dora Carrington and the resulting living arrangements could be considered highly unusual. Did you have any hesitation in becoming involved in that complex ménage? 

I think I was bewildered by it. I certainly heard all about the situation, and it was a very complicated one by the time I appeared on the scene. The story is well known: Ralph met Dora Carrington – always known as Carrington – through her brother with whom he was at Oxford. Carrington was sharing a house with Lytton Strachey who, although, homosexual, was the great love of Carrington’s life. It did not take long for Lytton to fall in love with Ralph, and for Ralph to fall in love with Carrington. Lytton soon realized that Ralph was hopelessly heterosexual, but they became lifelong friends. Carrington at first opposed marriage to Ralph, feeling it might threaten her relationship with Lytton, but in the end she believed it might actually consolidate her position. Although she married Ralph she was very much in love with Lytton who was her life passion. It was the more extraordinary because Lytton never responded in a sexual way; he was a hopeless case. Anyhow, Ralph and Carrington married, and this ménage was set up which worked very well. I was rather a spanner in the works in a way, except that part of the arrangement was that Ralph should have total freedom. After a time there was a terrible thing which was always called the Great Row, when Ralph’s best friend from the war, a writer called Gerald Brenan, made love to Carrington and she fell for him a good deal. Ralph was always a very truthful man, and their deception made things worse, and when he found out he made the most fearful row and it pretty well broke relations. Eventually Lytton patched things up; Lytton was very good in that way. It is difficult to describe, but in a sense he was rather a moral man; he didn’t like people to be on bad terms, and in any case he had also rather fallen for Gerald Brenan, so he understood the various points of view.

Did you like Carrington? 

Yes. I did. I was fond of her, but we were in each other’s lights. She was afraid that if Ralph came to live with me – which was what we both wanted at one time – Lytton might leave her. Lytton was so very fond of Ralph and also felt that he was a strong person in the household. There was a time when I was asked to Lytton’s club and really hauled over the coals; he told me that if I were to go and live with Ralph he couldn’t promise that he would go on living with Carrington. This was a terrible blackmail really, because I didn’t want to take everything away from Carrington, and it seemed to me she and Lytton were very well suited.

The following year you became very attached to another man, and there followed a period of agony in which you felt torn between your two loves. Did this situation develop partly because the future with Ralph was very uncertain and complicated, and you longed for something simpler? 

It’s quite genuinely hard to trace the history of this, because I met him in another world. He was a diplomat, who ended up as an ambassador. Philip, he was called, and I met him dancing. He fell very much in love with me, and he had no wife or other attachment. It was a desperate situation. I genuinely didn’t know which to choose. It is very cruel the way one always wants what seems to be less available. Ralph of course became very anxious, and Philip nearly had a nervous breakdown. He put a lot of pressure on me to marry him.

And you didn’t want to? 

I don’t know how much I wanted marriage. I suppose in the end I was still brought up in the idea that one married and had children; and I certainly wanted to have children. It was a difficult time. Poor Ralph probably had the worst of it because he was being pressurized both by Lytton and Carrington who didn’t want him to go away altogether, and I couldn’t persuade them that I didn’t want to break his relations with them. They thought I would, but I never did. I was good in that respect. I didn’t want to attain my happiness at the cost of Carrington’s.

Even though you had worked out your own scheme of moral values, it must nevertheless have been difficult at times, socially at least, for someone of your background to live openly with Ralph, a married man. Was this never a problem? 

It was indeed. It was a problem telling my mother, for example. She was frightfully good about it really. My father by that time left this earth, the rather left-wing broadminded side of her had had a chance to develop, and luckily she liked Ralph very much. But breaking the news was not easy, an d the whole family had to sit in judgement. Not that I was going to take their advice, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. My mother, like all parents, would have wanted to say that her daughter was marrying a young man who was going to be an ambassador one day – as Philip would have been. As it was she couldn’t say that. She took it very well, I think.

In 1932 Lytton Strachey died, and thus set in motion a tragic sequence of events. You have said that looking back ‘there was a vein of hysteria in the agitation that surrounded Lytton’s deathbed’. Was this principally because you feared Carrington’s suicide, or was it more because everything in Bloomsbury circles was accorded a greater intensity, including death? 

It was partly because the Strachey family, who consisted of intellectual maiden ladies on the whole, and some men too, but they all adored Lytton. They all kept coming down and staying at the local inn, and visiting him when he was virtually dying, poor man. It was also to do with Ralph who by nature was a little hysterical. It was very odd in a man who was markedly macho, but in certain ways he had feminine traits. Anyhow it was natural to mind; all Bloomsbury ranks rather closed at the thought that their chief friend was in grave danger, and there was a great upset about it. It is difficult to recapture that strength of feeling. I think I understood it at the time; I was perhaps party to it.

How did Ralph react to Lytton’s death? 

He was very upset indeed. He loved Lytton, and he was terrified that Carrington would commit suicide. But Ralph was also a realist, and at one time he said to me, ‘I know that if she wants to kill herself she will; nothing in the world will stop her.’ I don’t think any of us knew what a long time it takes to get over the death of a very much loved person. We planned to fill our time and arrange for Carrington to go with Augustus John to France, but you can’t do it like that.

Suicide leaves such a terrible legacy for people to live with. How did you and your husband come to terms with Carrington’s suicide? 

By facing it head on. Ralph took the whole thing very much as a blow; he felt he’d failed. He had been scheming and planning to prevent her doing it, and I was his lieutenant, shall we say afterwards we went out to the battlefields of the First World War. He wanted to do something totally different, and also very moving; that was the antidote to the sense of guilt and pain he felt.

Did you ever feel discomfort, guilt even, at the thought that but for Carrington’s death you would not have been granted so many years of happy marriage? 

We were living together as if married before we were really married, so I didn’t think of it as so very different.

You had developed pacifist leanings during the First World War and these became stronger during the Second World War when your husband was a conscientious objector. Did the fact that he was in any case too old to fight not detract in some measure from his moral stance? 

I don’t think it detracted; it meant that it wasn’t so telling perhaps because he wouldn’t have had to go to war, but he would have been called up for what were called non-combatant duties. He really believed in his pacifism and felt he should act in consonance with his beliefs. He knew very well the horror of war, having been all through the first war. He had been a very self-confident and was thought to be a very successful man, but he was changed by war and he really did very little with his life afterwards.

Your beliefs were obviously sincerely held, but how did you imagine the Nazi threat could be countered? 

Yes, how indeed. I used to think of it in terms of what the Danes did: they catapulted but they led their own life, and continued to do so. I used to describe it to myself in terms of butter spread thinly over bread, and if they were going to spread over an enormous region of the world, their influence would be considerably less. I always had the feeling that violence and killing bred violence and killing, and I perhaps still think so. I don’t believe it’s ever going to stop, because evidently people are so violent and so like killing each other that nothing will dissuade them. But at that time I was more idealistic and I thought that in the end non-resistance might have its effect.

Your own attitude was not just one of wanting peace but an utter condemnation of the nation’s romantic attitude towards war and what you called ‘the semi-erotic excitement about the brave young airmen in danger’. Is this something quintessentially British do you think? Did you sense the same attitude during the Falklands War, for example? 

Yes, I did, but it was much less widespread. I talked to a lot of young people about the Falklands War and a great many of them were dead against it, were horrified by it, and that was rather an eye opener. It was also a sign of hope, because I thought Mrs Thatcher went so far overboard with her exhortation to ‘rejoice’. The Falklands War was so idiotic that my beliefs rather seemed to be justified. There were people offering to take all the Falklanders and put them up in a Hebridean island, and New Zealand offered to take them. This seemed to me to make the idea of people killing each other even more senseless.

Your diaries of the war years moved one critic, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, to write: ‘The worst direct effect of war on the Partridge lives was that it became hard to find domestic help, and Frances had to spend her time scrubbing floors instead of doing the things she enjoyed, such as reading Voltaire and washing the leaves of her arum lilies.’ Does such criticism upset you? 

Not really, no. I think it’s an ironical and quite good remark. It was true in a way … but I don’t think anyone grasped how deeply we felt the war. Ralph used to get up at night and walk about, head in his hands, knowing from his own experience what war entailed. Perhaps it seemed to people that I was just thinking about arum lilies. I certainly did think about arum lilies, but I also thought about the war. We were English people, we lived in England, and we had a right to do as we believed really.

You obviously believed that your husband was hard done by, as you put it, in many books on Bloomsbury, something which originated from Michael Holroyd’s portrait of him in his biography of Lytton Strachey. Which aspect of this portrait did you most object to? 

The bit which came from his old friend Gerald Brenan, the seducer of Carrington. He was at pains to say that Ralph was an oaf, and sometimes in order to bring this home, he would go so far as to say, ‘as I myself was’. Brenan was not an oaf himself; he was in fact a very remarkable man, and Ralph certainly was extremely good academically. He whizzed through all his exams, he was head boy of Westminster and he had an extremely good mind.

Michael Holroyd, I gather, is in the process of updating his book in a way that suggests there are still skeletons to emerge from Bloomsbury cupboards. Do you think this is the case, and do you mind? 

I don’t know of any new skeletons. At the time when he first brought out his book Duncan Grant and other homosexuals were in danger of going to prison for seven years. He became a little anxious and so did his friends, but there is nothing new that I know of. There may be one or two more homosexuals somewhere, but that’s all I can think of.

In your latest volume of diaries you write: ‘I have been monstrously deformed by affliction.’ Do you think that your experience of the extremes of shock and grief has sharpened the sensibilities in such a way as to heighten also the joys and pleasures in life? 

I don’t think it has heightened them, but in some strange way it can’t remove them. They receive a shock which may temporarily put them out, so to speak, as a person is put out by an anaesthetic, but then I think you can get back. I certainly seem to have a strong adherence to life, though in some ways I really feel I’ve had enough. I sometimes feel awfully lonely, and I’d much rather have Ralph to live with than be by myself. I have very good friends, but friends die; it’s not a good thing to live till you’re ninety-three…

The self-portrait which emerges from your books is a rather harsh and unattractive one. You describe yourself as ‘disagreeably aggressive’. Have you found it difficult to love yourself? 

No, I’m rather fond of myself, which doesn’t mean that I appreciate myself, but I’m all the company I’ve got. I sometimes am rather aggressive I think, but I’m not all the time. I said those things in a diary, and it was true at the moment of writing, but it is not always true.

When your husband died in 1960, your diary entry for that day reads: ‘Now I am absolutely alone, and for ever.’ Was that the rawness of bereavement, or has it proved to be so? 

It has not proved to be so in regards to friends. My friends rallied round me in the most wonderful way and I’ve had support from people I love dearly. It has made me realize that there are lots of kinds of love.

The death of your son three years later must have made you feel that fate was dealing you an impossibly cruel hand. What prevented you from going mad with grief? 

Nothing. I think I was a little mad. I was unable to write about it; my state of mind didn’t seem something one could put into words. That was what I felt.

Mothers and sons are usually particularly close. Was that true of you and your son? 

No. in a way it was rather a fraught relationship. As he grew up there developed a sort of jealousy between the two men in my life, which was very difficult for me at times. Burgo wasn’t a boy who fitted into the scheme of things. Ralph had a dream that he would go to Oxford and row … well, he did go to Oxford, but he didn’t row like his father. He made a sort of life for himself and married a delightful girl, David Garnett’s daughter, who has been utterly shaken and shattered by his death, permanently scarred. There’s always this feeling of responsibility and anxiety for a child, but I did get enormous happiness from his childhood. I loved him very very dearly always but he was a source of worry at times. I so much wished that Ralph had lived to see him marry and become a father.

How did the death of his father affect Burgo? 

He came hurrying down to the country and tried to support me as best he could, but I don’t know what he felt. From the things he told his friends I know that he had very mixed feelings for his father. Ralph was too powerful for him growing up. The good moments were very good, but it wasn’t at all a steady thing.

In your latest book you write: I feel the rough gravel of the bottom on which I crawl very distinctly, but it has not yet quite destroyed my senseless love of life.’ Has this ‘senseless love of life’ come mainly from your own inner resources, do you think, or has it been gifted to you by other people? 

From my own resources, I suppose, from what I was given by my genes – a happy nature and also a happy childhood. My childhood contained no horrors.

I have the impression that even in old age you have remained very true to the Bloomsbury ideals and ethos. Have they served you well, do you think?

They have, but I see them with a slightly more cynical eye. My ideas have not evolved as much as I would have liked; they have stuck rather. It’s very hard to remember what one thought it was going to be like, but I don’t think I’ve had a great success except in so far as I’ve had a marvellous lot of friends. I see them as an army sometimes – of course many of them are dead, and that distresses me a good deal. But I have known the most interesting people of my generation, and that to me is a great thing, the success of my lifetime.