Monthly Archives: November 2014

P. D. James

Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge Girls’ High School.

During the war she was a Red Cross nurse and later she was employed in hospital administration before working in the Home Office, first with the forensic science service and then in the criminal law department.

Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 and in 1979 she retired from the Home Office to concentrate on her writing. Many of her novels feature the detective Adam Dalgliesh, most popularly in A Taste for Death (1986) which enjoyed an international vogue. In 1987 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger. She served on the Art’s Council and numerous public services as well as being a Governor of the BBC. In 1991 she was made a life peer, Baroness James of Holland Park. A remarkable lady seemingly indestructible who died suddenly at the age of ninety-four, she was always a force to be reckoned with.

I interviewed her in 1992.

You describe your childhood as having been a time of considerable anxiety: Do you think this was primarily nature or nurture?

Probably a little of both. My parents were not very well matched, so I think it was a house where there was considerable tension. I was quite frightened of my father. I loved him very much, and I remember him with great respect and affection, but the qualities that I admired in him – his fortitude, intelligence and a certain sardonic humour – are aspects you come to appreciate only when you’re older. A child wants a father to be loving and kind and rather more affectionate than mine was able to be.

It is often said that to have a great deal of trauma in childhood is an excellent preparation for the creative writer. In that sense would you say that you served a good apprenticeship?

I have to be very careful here because, although this may seem platitudinous, I’m always aware of the fact that three quarters of the human race go hungry. I didn’t go hungry, so it’s very difficult to feel I had a less happy childhood than I should have done when in fact I had a roof over my head, I had enough to eat, I had an education. But it was a time of some trauma; that is certainly true. It is good for a creative artist to have this, but I’m not so sure it’s good for a human being. Perhaps that is why some creative artists aren’t very easy people.

You seem always to have regretted the fact that you did not go to university. Is this a straightforward sadness at missed opportunity, or is it overlaid with resentment towards your parents for not making it possible? 

It would have been very difficult for them to have made it possible, although if I had been a boy my father would have made a greater effort. As it was I was born in 1920, and there were no grants before the war. You had to be clever enough to get a scholarship, and you didn’t get an awful lot of money even then. I wasn’t bright enough for a scholarship so I didn’t get the chance. I don’t think I can altogether blame my father who was only a middle-grade civil servant, but I would have loved to have gone to university instead of leaving school at sixteen. It had been my childhood dream – I had always thought of university as being a very beautiful place, somewhere full of learning and books and conversation and intelligent people, much brighter than myself. Whether it would have made me a better writer, I don’t know; it may have been lucky for me not to go.

Are you one of those people who believe that all our adult virtues and failings can be explained in terms of childhood influences, or can this delving into the past be overdone, do you think? 

It can be overdone. I tend to think heredity is more important. The first Queen Elizabeth said, ‘I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the Realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christome.’ And one feels she would; she would have survived. Certain people are born with such qualities of character and intellect that they are survivors, and even if they’re born into bad environments or deprived families, they’re going to make their way all right because it’s in them to do it. Having said that, I do accept that early environment and childhood experiences are immensely important.

You yourself have made the connection between your literary interest in death and your childhood experience of seeing a drowned boy retrieved from a river. That seems to have been a psychologically significant moment… 

I didn’t actually see the body, though I do remember being immensely interested in it, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing him. As it was, the children were herded together on one side and then taken away, but just knowing a body had been found was fascinating. I didn’t really understand this interest, but from early childhood I certainly was aware of the fact of death in a very strange way. For example, if we were talking about what we were going to do in the summer, even as a small child I would think, ‘Well, if we are still alive that’s what we’ll do.’ Of course I do that now all the time, I always have at the back of my mind the thought ‘if I’m still here’ – that is because I recognize the inevitability of death and the knowledge that it can come at any time; but it’s odd for a child to think in those terms.

Your mother seems to have provided the warmth and security in your life, and although later you came to respect and admire your father’s qualities, you have often said that you feared your father. Was this a rational fear? What exactly were you afraid of? 

Just afraid of his displeasure; of him as an authority figure. My parents were mismatched. He was very intelligent, very musical, but he didn’t have many opportunities in life. He had to earn his living from the age of sixteen, so I think in many ways he was a disappointed man. My mother was sentimental and warm and not very bright. She would have been a good wife for a country parson with eight children. My mother was slightly afraid of him and that communicated itself to me.

When you became a mother yourself, were you conscious of trying to reverse this rather unhappy experience of childhood for your own children? Was it very important to convey a sense of love and approval to your children? 

Oh yes. All that is tremendously important, especially a sense of approval. It was difficult of course because my husband was very ill, and obviously I had to support the family by myself. The children lived with their grandparents, so they didn’t see me as much as children normally do, but certainly I was a very affectionate mother. Whether I would have been as good a mother had they been difficult children, I don’t know. I’m not very fond of children as children, but I did like my own. They were very easy to love; they were themselves loving and bright, and our interests coincided, so we always had something to talk about as they grew up. But I might have been a poor mother of a stupid, irritating child.

Many people who married during the war have described how the fact of war gave their marriage a sense of urgency or fatalism – it was a defiantly optimistic act in time of uncertainty. Was it so for you? 

It was. In some ways it was such a happy time, which is a curious thing to say, but I think there was a great sense of comradeship; and during the bombing there was a great sense of excitement. It was a romantic time really, and one didn’t think about things so very deeply.

You were to have three happy years before your husband’s tragic illness. Are you still able to recall those years, how they felt, or was that something that was lost in the stressful times which followed? 

Oh I can recall them…I can recall them. They haven’t been really lost. I was so young then, and when you’re young, you’ve got all that optimism, that enthusiasm for life.

It seems that you coped with the difficulties of supporting two children and your sick husband in an entirely pragmatic and unself-pitying way. Were your strength and resourcefulness innate qualities, do you think, or were they born of your immensely difficult situation? 

They were probably innate. Throughout life my attitude to problems has been to find a solution and to survive, and I was helped by the fact that by nature I am more suited to having a career and a job than I would have been to being a doctor’s wife and staying at home. On the whole I enjoyed the jobs I did; not all of them and not all of the time, but I had no reason to feel terribly aggrieved that I was having to work. Once I realized my husband was unlikely to get well, I went to evening classes and qualified in hospital administration so that I could get a reasonably senior job. After he died I took an examination for a senior post in the civil service; so there was a lot of ambition there really.

Was your husband your first love? 

More or less. There were various experimentations…but yes, he was my first real love. I still miss him. We were well suited; I was the dominant partner, but that didn’t worry him; he was quite happy for me to be the one who arranged things in his life. He was eccentric, clever, Anglo-Irish; a strange race, the Protestant Anglo-Irish. He loved books and pictures, he had a wonderful sense of humour, and a very great charm. He adored his daughters, and he would have loved his grandchildren. And since he was totally without envy, he would have loved his grandchildren and he would not have minded a wife who was more successful in worldly terms than himself. I miss him very much. We were very happy.

And after he died you never fell in love again? 

No, never. I didn’t meet a man whom I could really love, and the men who proposed marriage to me after Connor died, I didn’t want to marry. I would also have been wary of falling in love. I do believe that as one gets older one looks at marriage in a rather different light. When you’re young you are forced by sexual desire and youth and romance, while underneath it all the genes are wanting to perpetuate themselves, but when you get past childbearing you begin to think, do I really want to wake up every morning and see this face at breakfast? I would have been happy to marry again if I’d met someone for whom I had a great respect and affection, but it’s very easy to get quite selfish after a bit when you live alone, especially if you’re a writer; you do things in your own time and in your own way.

You have an impressive record of public appointments – you were on the board of the Arts Council, you chair the literature panel, and you are a governor of the BBC. Being a woman seems to have been no impediment in this area… 

Not at all. When I was appointed to the BBC there weren’t enough women on the board, so a woman can have a slight advantage in that way. Not always of course, and there are still not enough women in public life. In the Health Service I had to be much better than the men if I was going to get a job over their heads, but otherwise I’ve never felt disadvantaged as a woman, and I never felt that I was sexually harassed. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.

Is it attributable to luck, or do you think sexual harassment is a bit exaggerated? 

It’s been overdone. Men have always flirted, and why shouldn’t they? I’m quite prepared to flirt with a man if he’s attractive. And a woman always knows the difference between a man who is flirting with her because she is a woman, and a man who is sexually unpleasant. If women have lost the art of knowing that, I’m very sorry for them. If a man opens a door for you nowadays it’s regarded as an insult, and I think that’s dreadful and also rather sad.

You have done a great deal in your own career to advance the cause of women, but am I right in thinking you might share Doris Lessing’s view on feminism – you support its aims but you dislike its shrill voice? 

I share her view entirely. I also suspect that many of the extreme feminists are so because they envy men and dislike being women. I don’t dislike being a woman. I have many men friends, and I admire men, but I’ve never wanted to be one, and I sometimes suspect that the shrillness comes from a huge resentment that they haven’t been born male. I very much dislike the suggestion that all men are by nature rapists. It just is not true. There are some very unpleasant men about, one knows, but to look at the entire male population and castigate them as anti-female, uncaring, sexually harassing and potential rapists, is nonsense, complete nonsense.

In your public life you are very much an Establishment figure, an Anglican, a Conservative, a former magistrate and high-ranking civil servant. So you see any link between the Establishment and the rather murky lower depths you explore in your novels? 

No, I don’t think so. I suppose I am an Establishment figure – I’m certainly an Anglican, though not a very good one in the sense that I’m not a regular churchgoer. I am also on the liturgical commission of the Church of England, but I think I sit there more because of my interest in the language of the liturgy. I’m not a member of the Conservative Party but that’s the way I vote; I am a natural conservative, no doubt about that. And I am an ex-magistrate, so yes, I do qualify as an Establishment figure. There is in my character a natural love of order, and a real fear of violence and disorder, which may account for the kind of fiction I write. I’m very frightened of emotional and psychological violence as well as physical violence, and I think good order is important to any country. All the old certainties are just being swept away, that’s the trouble nowadays. I think one needs the central certainties, just as most people need a religion, whatever form it takes. In the modern detective story, order may be restored in the sense that the crime is solved but the crime is so contaminating that all the characters are in some way touched by it. In the 1930s when the detective stories were set in a village, the crime was solved and the little village went back to what it was before. We don’t write like that now, but it is still about restoring order. It is also about affirming the belief that we live in a moral universe and one that we’re capable of understanding. All this is very reassuring, yet with part of my mind I wonder if we’re not living in a universe that is not moral, a universe with chaos underneath.

As a governor of the BBC where do you stand on the business of violence on television? Do you have any sympathy with the Mary Whitehouse view that violence on our screens is corrupting and ought to be censored? 

There is no proof that it does harm but I do think from the common-sense point of view, for young people to be perpetually exposed to images of violence cannot be good. Of course people are apt to say there is nothing but violence on our screens, but when you ask for some examples it’s not so easy. I don’t honestly think it’s the BBC we have to worry about, it’s the videos which children can buy nowadays. These videos are really quite appallingly violent, and that, I think, has to be bad.

What about violence in books? 

In books I hate scenes of torture, but I don’t worry so much about violence in the detective story, because it is such a moral form. The villain always gets found out. What worries me more is that books are becoming increasingly pornographic, and when that happens they cease to be erotic. It’s the same with films. I saw Basic Instinct, which is supposed to be a thriller, on video and every time the main characters were near a bed we had another ten minutes of reeling and writhing. All this heaving and loud breathing and acrobatics…oh dear, oh dear…it’s just not subtle enough to be erotic. Perhaps it’s my age, but I do believe that some of the most erotic things are the most subtle; you can have the most erotic scenes where the couple don’t in fact touch each other, you can have a huge sexual charge without having people rolling around naked on beds.

You have sometimes said that you’re not a professional writer in the sense that you never have actually had to earn your living from writing. Is that something you have regarded as a liberation or a constraint? 

A liberation. This is part of my innate caution. Without the writing I would have been quite poor, but we wouldn’t have starved. When I worked in the Home Office it was a good wage and it paid the mortgage. I didn’t expect the writing to make me rich, although it has; I had ambitions to be highly regarded, and I set out to be a good and serious writer. I certainly don’t despise the money – it’s totally dishonest to pretend that you’re not happier if you’ve got money, by and large. But I’ve never taken a penny in advance for any book until it was completed. Some people work better if they’re given a huge advance to write the next book, but I can’t stand that anxiety, I never wanted that. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not making any judgement here or any moral point – it just happens to be right for me. I do remember the depression of the 1920s and being constantly told by my mother how lucky I was that my father was a civil servant. People were hungry then and I grew up with this great need for security.

I wonder if you are conscious of your readership as you write. Do you feel the need to justify the particular moral scheme within which you operate, or is it something you take very much for granted? 

I don’t think about the readership. I think about what is going to satisfy me. If I have an idea for a book I do the very best I can with that idea. It’s a matter of total artistic pride, not to publish a book until it’s as good as I can make it, and I suppose I feel that if I can satisfy myself then I shall satisfy my readers. There is a moral climate in which I write, but my characters don’t always share it. My characters can make powerful arguments in favour of a world in which there is no God, for example, and I understand those arguments absolutely, so in that sense I’m not a didactic writer.

Would you increase the sexual interest in order to sell more books? 

I’ve never done that, and I’ve never been tempted. But I can’t imagine a book without sex, because love, including sexual love, is such an important part of human life and it controls so much of what men and women do. In detective novels where you have motives, where you have people driven by compulsions, where there is moral conflict, almost certainly you are going to have strong sexual motives. It would seem a very bloodless book if it had no sex in it, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual sex, and I’ve had both. In one of my books Dalgliesh remembers a constable saying to him, ‘People will tell you that the most dangerous emotion in the world is love.’

Are there any passages in your books which you would mind your daughters reading? 

No. I’ve never written anything of which I’m ashamed, or that I’d mind them reading. With regard to my descriptions of dead bodies I sometimes think they will say, ‘Oh Mummy, really, this is a bit much’, but I’ve never written anything which I feel I couldn’t justify artistically. When a body is found I want the description to be absolutely realistic, what it would look like and smell like. That’s important.

Do you believe novelists have a moral responsibility towards their readers? 

They have a moral responsibility to do the very best they can with their talent, without considering what is going to earn the most money, without twisting it to suit a particular market, without inserting gratuitous sex or pornography in order to increase sales. It’s artistic honesty that counts.

Your books are as remote from the comfortable middle-class world of Agatha Christie as it is possible to be. It seems to me that your concern is more with the ethical problems or murder and the consequences of crime, something which allows you to probe deeper into the complexities of human nature. Is this the real area of interest to you? 

Yes, it is. What I’m interested in are the people, their motives, the characters’ compulsions and the moral choices. That’s why there are no psychopaths in my detective stories. A psychopath murders because he just happens to enjoy murder; he has no moral choice, and therefore he is of no interest to me.

Do you perhaps rather disapprove of Agatha Christie and her Poirot and Miss Marple? Has part of your purpose been to explode the cosy class-ridden snobbish world she portrays? 

Sometimes people say that I am Agatha Christie’s crown princess and successor, and that always seems to me to be nonsense because I think we’re very different writers. I don’t think she’s a good novelist; I have to say that, although I feel it’s very unbecoming of any writer to deride her because she has given immense pleasure to millions of people all over the world. Some people say she’s done harm to the crime novel, but I don’t see that. She’s a kind of literary conjurer. Every time most of us are surprised – I’m not because I now see through the trick – but if we think about it afterwards we realize it could not have happened in real life. She puts down a character as pasteboard, and we get the same ones in each book; she shifts then around, and we think ah, that’s the murder; it never is. I wouldn’t be too unkind about her, but I don’t think I am at all like her. The accusation of snobbery in connection with a classical detective story arises from the fact that you are really hoping to provide an intelligent murderer who knows the difference between right and wrong, makes the moral choice, and is out to commit a very clever murder; and that being so, he is very unlikely to be a stupid, professional villain. The horror of the deed is greatly enhanced if there is contrast, as W.H. Auden knew when in an essay called ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ he said that the single body on the drawing room floor is a great deal more horrible than the dozen bullet-ridden bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. You need contrast, and it’s a good thing to have it in a fairly prosperous, orderly society. If I were to set a detective story among professional criminals in the worst areas of inner-city violence, it would not be very interesting. Murder has to be set among people to whom murder really is an appalling crime if you’re going to get that contrast, and I suppose Agatha Christie felt that to an extent, even though she produced prosperous middle-class books set in cosy little villages.

You have described the detective novel as essentially an unsentimental form. Does sentiment hold many terrors for you? 

I’m very wary of sentimentality and I don’t think it’s the same as compassion. Sentimentality is a very easy and agreeable emotion which doesn’t often find its outlet in effective action; compassion does.

I imagine you are wary of conclusions about art imitating life, but at the same time your hero Dalgliesh is intelligent, self sufficient, unsentimental, wary of relationships – is he not created in your own image? 

Yes, he is a bit. If you have one character who goes through a succession of books this tends to happen.

You have used Graham Greene’s words of Dalgliesh, saying that there is a splinter of ice in his heart. Is there also a splinter in yours? 

Yes, there is. It’s difficult to explain why because it involves something which happened to me, and telling it could be much too painful for my children. Let me just say that even when appalling things have been happening to me, part of my mind has been observing my own reaction to them; I have known myself to do that in many quite terrible situations. I know I couldn’t do it if one of my children had died. If that happened I wouldn’t be able to watch my own grief or record it or watch myself grieving; it would consume me, absolutely. But in most other situations, when I’ve been in a condition of great trauma, and sometimes if I’ve been comforting friends in great distress, I’m still observing the manifestations of the distress.

You have a fascination with the bridges we construct over the chaos of personal and psychological disorder, the bridges of law and order and religion. Murder, the ultimate crime, blows away these bridges and reveals how people behave under stress. Are you attracted to writing about the chaos in the knowledge that you are able to put it right? 

Yes, I’m sure that’s so. In life you aren’t able to, but in books you are. Of course you don’t put it totally right. In A Taste for Death in which the bodies are found in the church vestry by poor Miss Wharton and the little boy she befriends, we know at the end how the murder was done and we know who’s guilty, but nearly all the characters in that book had their lives changed because in some way they came in contact with the two butchered bodies in that church. And yet it is controlled, and this profound sense of imposing order on disorder is highly agreeable to me. It’s psychologically satisfying, especially in a world where there is so much disorder.

Albert Camus believed that the evil in the world almost always comes from ignorance and that ‘good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding’. Is that something you agree with? 

I could agree with it in certain circumstances, but I don’t think evil is just the absence of education and the absence of knowledge. It’s true that good intentions on their own are not enough; well-intentioned people who lack wisdom and knowledge and intelligence can do a great deal of harm, but it doesn’t follow that these qualities when present make for an absence of evil.

But do you think that without evil there can be no goodness? 

I don’t think goodness depends on evil, but it depends on the possibility of evil.

Despite the fixation on death in your books there emerges a distinct sense of the sanctity of life. Is that an intended effect, one you’re pleased with? 

Yes, it is intended and I am pleased with it.

Do you ever apply your mind to the abortion issue? 

Yes. It’s extremely difficult because here my reason is at war with my instinct. If the child is going to be grossly deformed, mentally or physically, then abortion is justified, but I find it abhorrent when abortion is used as a method of birth control or for the convenience of the mother. Of course one can argue logically that if the woman is to have a choice, then the choice includes abortion, and who am I to judge whether her motives are selfish or not. Yet it is abhorrent, it is abhorrent.

Are you saying that the sanctity of life depends on the quality of life? 

Yes, I am, though I don’t think that’s very logical. The easy answer is to take the extreme view that abortion is never justified; or to say that it is always justified, and no child should come into the world unwanted. It is far more difficult for human beings to have to apply their minds to this essentially moral question: are there circumstances in which the destruction of an embryo is justifiable? I would say there are, when it’s a question of preserving the life of a mother, or if the foetus is so abnormal that its chances of having any kind of life worth living are virtually none. But it’s a slippery slope.

You are fond of quoting the psychologist Anthony Storr who said, ‘All creativity is the successful resolution of internal conflict.’ How would you describe your own internal conflict? 

What he said is profoundly true for me. My fear of violence and disorder reveals a basic insecurity which likes this ordered form, because in the end, although I can’t put it right in the real world, I can put it right between the covers of my books.

You are generally dismissive of physiological theorizing about yourself, and tend to promote the image of a respectable, sensible grandmother figure. Is this to keep intruders at bay, to keep yourself private, or is it perhaps an unwillingness to delve too deeply into your own psyche? 

It’s a bit of all three. I do delve quite deeply into my psyche, as deeply as I would want to delve, but I don’t like other people doing it, and I don’t feel much good comes of it. The old idea that if you can understand things then somehow you put them right is not necessarily so. I can see that my insecurity might well have come from a childhood trauma, that my need for religion, my belief in God is perhaps the need to have a better father figure than I had; but I don’t think I gain much by knowing, or by somebody else expecting me to lie on a couch and pay a great deal of good money in order to reach that same conclusion.

You fear violence a great deal, which is perhaps a natural condition of women. But in your case it seems a rather heightened, almost irrational fear – keys always kept round your neck, doors locked, truncheon under the pillow, and so on. Would you agree it borders on the pathological? 

Boarder perhaps. But it’s very difficult in this modern world not to feel that it’s really quite sensible. The keys round the neck are simply because I have a fairly big house and if I require to open the door, if only for the postman, it’s just maddening chasing up and down for keys. I am meticulous about locking up, but I think that is no more than common sense. The house was never locked throughout my childhood, and people who had cars could leave them unlocked in the street, but it’s a different world now.

Do you believe that we are all potential murderers? 

I believe we’re all capable of homicide but I don’t think we’re all capable of murder. I would make a distinction between killing to save people, to protect one’s children or grandchildren, to protect oneself if assaulted, but the legal definition of murder involves premeditation: ‘causing the death of a living creature under the Queen’s Peace with malice aforethought, death occurring within a year and a day’. And I don’t think we’re all capable of that. I would not plan to kill someone, but if I woke up in the middle of the night and found a rapist in my bedroom, I wouldn’t give much for his chances; and it wouldn’t worry me, not in the slightest.

Would it be overstating it to say that your novels perhaps offer a catharsis of the natural state of guilt, your own included? 

I think the detective story does that, for my own guilt and the reader’s. If people don’t look back on their life and feel guilty there’s something wrong with them. Guilt is almost inseparable from being a human being. I certainly think I could have been a better daughter, a better wife to my husband, a better mother to my children, and there are those to whom I could have been a better friend. At the same time we shouldn’t let guilt master us. If we don’t learn to forgive ourselves we never learn to forgive other people, so guilt can be very destructive, and that’s why religions make a provision for coping with it.

The subtext of much of your writing seems to be a deep disapproval of the present world and its moral climate. Is there something of the old morality play in your fiction, do you think? 

Not intentionally, but it tends to be so. Auden certainly thought that a detective story was the equivalent of the old morality play. Its moral stance is unambiguous: murder is wrong, and it should be discovered and punished. There should be an attempt to understand the murderer and what the temptation was, but my books would never say that what was done was right.

Do you believe in punishment as a deterrent to crime? 

Yes, I’m sure it is. I remember a conference where people were saying that punishment was never a deterrent, and the speaker stood up and said, ‘If the penalty for illegal parking was a public flogging very few would have left their cars where they are standing now.’ And she was absolutely right. It’s a commonsense thing – it would deter me. I don’t know how far, if we had the death penalty, it would deter potential murderers, but by and large human beings are deterred by the thought of punishment.

Do you agree with Muriel Spark that although novels are fiction, there emerges from them a kind of truth, a moral or metaphorical truth perhaps, but none the less truth? 

Yes, she is right. The truth which emerges is the truth about human beings. I don’t think that one can make a universal application from a particular novel; one can say this tells us something about how human beings would behave in certain circumstances, and the consequences of that behaviour.

I have noticed that in your earlier books there is almost a complete absence of cruelty, or description of pain; the reader was protected in a sense. In later books, such as A Taste of Death and Devices and Desires, this is not so. Why do you think your writing developed in this way? 

I think it had to do with becoming increasingly aware of the pain and the violence of life. If only our moral progress could match our scientific progress. I remain an optimist, but that is a state which is very difficult to justify intellectually.

Your new book The Children of Men describes a futuristic world stricken by universal infertility. Your hero Theodore recounts the fact that people’s interest in sex is waning, and that ‘romantic and idealized love’ has replaced ‘crude carnal satisfaction’. Do you think sex is dangerous when it is separated from love? 

Dangerous is perhaps rather a strong word. It can lead to the dangers of being promiscuous and that in the end is not satisfactory to human beings. When sex is divorced from love it’s a sterile business. Women find it extremely difficult; men find it much easier.

Is it something you would be able to do? 

I think I could. I can quite see that I could have a sexual relationship simply because the man was very attractive and I was sexually drawn to him, but I don’t think I’d find it very satisfying. The highest satisfaction from sex is through love.

Your detective books are concerned with the judgement of men, but your new book is more to do with the judgement of God. This is surely difficult ground for any writer… 

Very difficult, yes. The idea for this book came to me from reading about the extraordinary reduction in fertility of Western man. The sperm rate is down by about forty per cent in thirty years, and there seems to be no reason why the same thing shouldn’t happen to homo sapiens as has to virtually every one of the millions of living forms that have inherited our planet. In the nature of things we should die out, and dying out in one year spectacularly is not impossible, but a bit unlikely, so to that extent the book is a fable. It was a slightly worrying book to write, rather traumatic.

The book tells us that much of the sinister, bleak picture you paint can be traced back to the preoccupations of the early 1990s – ‘Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and become more explicit, but less and less in the West we made love and bred children.’ That sounds like a terrible indictment of modern times and morals. Is it meant to be? 

There’s quite a lot of truth in it, but that’s what Theo says – it isn’t necessarily what I believe, although I can see some evidence for his views. For example, he says somewhere that we know more and more about sex and less and less about love, and I think that’s probably true. Even St Valentine’s Day has been reduced to commercial nonsense about sex rather than a celebration of love.

The fact that you describe The Children of Men as a moral fable rather than science fiction seems to place it within the possibility of human experience… 

Once infertility had taken hold, it would not be reversed in the way I describe, but the rest of it is well within human experience. We would start storing sperm, and then there would be all sorts of interesting questions, such as, from whom do you get the sperm, and who has access to it? People would be screened for their suitability to breed, and a great many ethical and philosophical issues would arise.

Isn’t the nightmare scenario you depict in which sex, in so far as it takes place at all, has become ‘meaninglessly acrobatic’ and woman experience what they describe as ‘painful orgasms – the spasm achieved without the pleasure’ – isn’t this getting dangerously close to the wrath of God being unleashed, the extremist view of the Aids epidemic? 

Yes. In this new world people discover that if there is not the possibility of breeding children, sex loses its point and therefore more and more they’re striving after a sensation which isn’t coming to them naturally. I don’t know whether that would happen or not, but it seems to me it’s very possible it could.

Happy sexual relationships tend not to be a feature of your novels. Is that because you regard them as a rare feature of real life? 

It’s rather the result of the kind of fiction I write. The detective story is an artificial from, and though all fiction is a rearrangement of the artist’s view of reality, a detective story is highly stylized in its conventions in order to form a coherent entity: there is a central mysterious death, a number of clues and a close circle of suspects who are all – the reader must believe – capable of this particular murder. One of the strongest motives is the sexual motive, so the novel is not likely to be full of very happily married, jolly people, but rather people whose lives are full of tension and unhappiness and misery of some kind. As my dear mother, God rest her, used to say, why can’t you write a nice book about nice people? But you’re not likely to get an awful lot of nice people in a detective story; it’s inherent in the situation that people aren’t living very happy or stable lives.

The ending of The Children of Men, although ambivalent, suggests that the future of mankind is not entirely redemption, and that ultimately the power of good can overcome moral depravity and corruption. Do you see this as essentially a Christian message, the triumph of good over evil… 

The triumph of good over evil and the triumph of love over hatred is essentially a Christian message; and it is central probably to the great religions of the world. There is a lovely story which has always amused me about a man who appeared in court for some kind of public disorder, and when asked how he pleaded, he said, ‘I plead for hope against despair, I plead for good against evil, I plead for peace against war, for sympathy against unkindness’, and the judge said, ‘That will be recorded as not guilty, and if we hear any more from you I shall order a psychiatric report’ [laughs].

But do you yourself believe that good triumphs over evil? 

Yes, I think I do. I have a fairly simple view of these things. I think of life in terms of a mountain with God at the top, and those of us who are religious or have any aspirations are slowly working our way up. I am a practising Christian because that’s the tradition in which I was brought up. We start life according to where we’re born – I know if I had been born in a Roman Catholic I wouldn’t have changed; I would have remained in the religion of my fathers and my people. I’m a very strong traditionalist, although that does not mean that I assent intellectually to all the articles of the Church of England, with which I am sometimes disenchanted. For example, I can’t accept the idea of a God whose notion of justice was to send his only son to be tortured on earth to atone for the sins of the world. I believe that death on the cross had a universal significance, but I can’t quite see it in those crude terms. I don’t conceive of God as being less merciful than an earthly father would be, and an earthly father wouldn’t do that. So certainly aspects of the Christian religion present me with some problems, but within that basic view of religion, I am certainly a deist. If one thinks of God as being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I like the idea of the Holy Spirit moving through the whole of creation, but it is to the Father I actually pray, God as Father is my concept.

Another possibility which you might be reluctant to consider about the ending of The Children of Men is that there is an element of romanticism in the denouement, the idea that the world can be saved through an act of love… 

The Christian religion said the world could be saved through an act of love; what I was saying was that Theo could find his salvation by learning to love, and at the end of the book he has learned that only through love will he find redemption. I don’t think that’s romantic; I think it’s true. E.M. Forster wrote that we must learn to love or we will destroy ourselves.

Isn’t there an element of tendentiousness in The Children of Men, the idea of divine punishment and retribution hanging over the world, and our agnostic hero ending up making the sign of the cross? 

I don’t think the book ever specifically says that what happens is divine justice. God is not saying, ‘I’ll teach this lot, I’ve lost my patience with them.’ The God of the Old Testament might have felt that, but I didn’t see it in those terms. Theo makes the sign of the cross as a kind of impulse. He is not saying that the world is thereby redeemed; it’s more a natural instinct for him to do it, an affirmation of love, the sign of redemptive love on the child.

Last year you preached the university sermon in Oxford. What was the subject of your sermon? 

Faith in the modern world, and people’s attitude to God and to faith. It was also a sermon about doubt, how one copes with doubt. I talked about different kinds of faith: the faith of people who, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, strive with God and argue with him; the very simple faith of people who, however sophisticated they may be in other aspects of their life, have absolute certainty from the day they’re born till the day they die. I talked about people who have never felt the need of faith, people who believe that man is born of the absolute chance fusion of one sperm with one ovum; that when they die they will go into annihilation and they face that without particular fear, believing that it is not among the most ignoble ways to live or die. And then I spoke about others who work towards faith, for whom life is a kind of pilgrimage, of which group I consider myself to be one.

You once said, ‘When people are maimed, or sad, or die for no reason, it isn’t anything you can cure by means of justice in this world, so it’s important to hope there might be justice in the next.’ Is that hope a tentative one, or is it central to your faith? 

If you believe that God is just, and I do believe that God is just, it’s rather more than tentative. There must surely be an eternal justice. Men and women have a huge need for justice; it’s born in us to hate injustice, so there is a natural wish to believe that if things are terribly unjust in this world, if God exists at all, they’ll certainly be put right in the next. There’s a little poem about a disabled man who lives all his life in pain, who has nothing but misery and pain from the day he’s born, and it ends: ‘God of Heaven, God of Hell, see you recompense him well.’ And I think there’s a need to feel that.

You have been scrupulously careful never to use your husband’s illness or the more traumatic parts of your own life in your fiction. One senses, however, that your characters are infused with your pain and suffering. Would you perhaps allow that this is the case? 

I would allow that if the writer hasn’t actually suffered it must be very difficult to write about suffering. No doubt since if the pain gets into the fiction; I think that’s inevitable.

You have sometimes remarked that the passage of time has not helped ease the pain of loss and bereavement. Has this surprised you? 

Yes it has, although you do somehow come to terms with it. You either lie down and die, or you adapt, so after a few years somehow you’re coping. But time doesn’t heal everything.

Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you expect to see your husband again? 

I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t believe in the traditional old-fashioned Christian view of heaven, that’s for certain. I don’t think we’re all going to go up there into eternal bliss with pearly gates and everlasting feasting, but I think something does survive. I suppose one would call it the soul, but in what form, I have no idea.

Do you ever feel a sense of loneliness? 

No. I don’t feel lonely. But I can see the possibility of feeling it. And I don’t think I’d like it at all.

You are anxious not to be a burden on others. Is that partly because you yourself have borne great burdens in life? 

It’s not a very noble thing; it’s more a matter of pride. Partly it’s just not wanting to be a nuisance to one’s dearly loved children, but it’s also that one doesn’t want to be poor old gran who has to be visited and supported, poor old gran who’s got to be found a nice place in the nursing home. I don’t much like old age…

Christmas in July

The Christmas spirit invades the merchants as early as July.

I remember when, as boss of Mappin & Webb, I introduced many of our sumptuous gifts destined for the festive season through a well-orchestrated presentation to the press, calling the event ‘Christmas in July’.

The campaign was a big success insofar as it gave the media the insight of what was planned to lure the public to spend their money, without scratching their brains at the last minute to find something suitable for the Christmas bonanza-buying madness.

I think many of the shops are now following suit by initiating their planning to blitzkrieg their onslaught on the public once the summer fades away and winter begins in earnest.

The big question now is whether the public has the inclination or the means to spend without restraint, given the financial state of the world and the precarious political instability that threatens the return of the Cold War and the consequences that follow.

In addition, although we talk about growth and seem to infer that the recession is practically over – despite the unbridled increase in our National Debt and the signs that all is not well, even with Germany and Japan and the threat of global stagnation – the omens don’t look promising.

My Christmas will not have the razzmatazz that I once had in my youth. I shall simply celebrate by closing my eyes to that which surrounds us and switch off, in order to amass my energies for the unpredictable events that might engulf us in the months ahead.

As one gets older the pursuit of recognition and wealth no longer mean a great deal. We become immune to the destiny that hovers in our vicinity and accept matters the way they are.

My Christmas resolution this year is to remain conscious that perhaps I’m reaching the end of the road where eternal contentment replaces all worldly ambitions and a ray of heavenly light transports us to a well-deserved slumber.

Teresa Waugh

Last night saw the publication of Teresa Waugh’s thriller, A Long Hot Unholy Summer, at Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street.

Tout Londres were assembled to celebrate the event and to pay tribute to the author.

Here is what I said in my short address to a jolly gathering of friends and acquaintances.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me first welcome Teresa Waugh with open arms for becoming a Quartet author.

On a sad note, however, I am aware that Teresa recently lost her partner, Richard, for which I offer my condolences. We are very sorry that he is not here to be able to share this occasion with us, for I’m sure he would have been thrilled and proud.

The Waugh family and Quartet have a long history which must now span over a period of three decades when Bron first wrote to me about the possibility of employing his daughter, Sophia, a university graduate, whom he described as clever and beautiful.

How could I have resisted this charming request by a father who was proud of his daughter, and was willing to bat for her in every way possible?

Sophia became the first member of the Waugh family who graced the Quartet coterie of young women, later to become great achievers and a real credit to the literary ensemble of London society.

Then Bron became editor of the Literary Review, a magazine I owned for many years, and subsequently the inspiration behind the Academy Club which gave all of us a refuge from the competitive edge of the world outside and where serenity and raucousness intermingled in a bizarre and enjoyable manner unparalleled at the time.

During all this period Bron became my idol and best friend whose memory will remain with me until the day I too will travel to the next world hoping to encounter once again friends I have missed for so long.

In the meantime, Quartet is still thriving with a new generation of the Waugh family. Beatrice, one of Sophia’s daughters, is now carrying the flag of continuity – not only following in her mother’s footsteps by working here, but opting to marry the enterprising Gavin who runs operations at 27 Goodge Street. Their union reinforces the view that Quartet and the Waugh family have become indispensable to one another.

And to crown it all, the formidable Teresa has now given Quartet the full accolade by granting us the privilege of publishing her latest book, A Long Hot Unholy Summer.

Isabelle, a young girl on holiday with her family in France, disappears with a man she meets online – unaware of his troubled past and twisted sexual nature. Strange coincidences link an eighteenth-century archbishop to the present with the suggestion that, shaped by time and circumstance, we are all equally guilty or equally innocent…

As it’s a thriller I’ll stop there…

Suffice it to say that the best way to celebrate this occasion is to ensure that every member of this illustrious gathering buys a copy of her book – and better still for those who can afford to splash out, to acquire more than one copy to give to friends and relations over the Christmas period.

Let’s hope Teresa will go home in great spirits as a consequence of your appreciation and generosity, so please don’t let me down.

The more copies you buy the more joy we all feel. The publisher will be particularly happy, so I’m sure will the bookshop.

The Aftermath of the Sexual Revolution

The Hollywood fanny hairdressers who have been prospering for the last decade might find themselves out of business soon if the present trend of bottom exposures catches on, after the notorious Kim Kardashian’s photo shoot by Jean-Paul Goude caused more than a ripple of stunned outrage worldwide.

Could the bottom become the preferred object of desire rather than the fanny, which has for so long been the focus of sexual attention and pampered beyond anybody’s imagination by the rich and famous – whose excesses know no boundaries.

I’m afraid the elevation of the bottom since Pippa Middleton displayed its contour to best advantage at the wedding of her sister has got its limitations and can only be effective when cleverly clothed and manipulated to give it the desired impact.

But a bare bottom is different. Over-sized or pert, it must have a form of exquisite beauty or an unusually pronounced shape – as in the case of Kardashian – to thrill, shock and better still to ooze the kind of animal sexuality that men dream about.

The fanny has more scope as its inner depths holds many a secret, which to unravel is an adventure of its own. Its shape variation and its surrounding pubic hair gives the specialist hairdresser the opportunity to demonstrate his skill in turning it into an enhanced object of desire – yet, retaining the secrecy that shrouds its mysterious inner enclave.

My view is that the emergence of the bottom as a competitor to the fanny is short-lived, although it has its many followers and cannot be underestimated given the sexual revolution that has propelled it to heights hitherto unknown.

Chacun à son goût, as the French say, but for me a fanny where life begins is supremacy unparalleled.

In and Out

Recently, the political cartoonist of the Daily Telegraph, feared by many, revealed what his victims have said to him about his work.

Since the vanity of men in particular is highly sensitive, here is what David Cameron demanded to know from him, when they met at a function. ‘Why do you make me so fat? Look at Gove over there, he’s much fatter than I am and you draw him thin.’

Perhaps the PM failed to understand that cartoonists in general tend to take the mickey out of their subjects by presenting them in a contrary form, so as to make them look ridiculous in order to get the most impact for their drawings.

This is not, it seems, the first time Mr Cameron has objected to a caricature of himself.

Simon Hoggart, the late parliamentary sketch writer, used to tell the story of the time Steve Bell, the Guardian’s political cartoonist, was accosted by the prime minister who grabbed Mr Bell’s forearm in a bold move and asked him, with a veneer of unconvincing matiness, whether the time had come to stop drawing him with a condom stretched over his head. Given that Mr Bell is about seven foot tall and built like a bear the physical encounter between the two must have been breathtaking.

Although the idea of a condom was clever and rather risqué, the PM suggested that the joke had surely had its day by now. ‘After all,’ he said – and Simon swore they were his exact words – ‘you can only push the condom so far.’

That was, in my view, a brilliant parry coming from someone whose sense of humour has never struck me as endearing, to say the least.

However, despite this unexpected stroke of wit which should have floored Mr Bell, Mr Cameron’s riposte did not pay off. The cartoonist continues to draw him with a condom over his head to this day.

That’s what I call either a dedication to his art or proof that democracy in some form or other is still alive and prospering, and that the innuendo of sex is never far away.

Lord Hartwell

Lord Hartwell, who died in 2001, aged eighty-nine, was the last of Britain’s real press barons.

Alone among the scions of the pre-war dynasties that dominated Fleet Street for three-quarters of a century, he was a lifelong, full-time newspaperman, and chairman and editor-in-chief for thirty years of the family’s Daily and Sunday Telegraph – until his dedicated, but idiosyncratic, stewardship delivered them into the hands of the now discredited Canadian entrepreneur Conrad Black in December 1985.

He married Lady Pamela Smith, a zesty figure in pre-war society who made up for his reclusiveness with her dinner parties and gossip. The couple had two sons and two daughters, who all survive. Lady Pamela died in 1982.

Born in 1911 and educated at Eton and Christchurch, Oxford, he served as captain and major in the army and was twice mentioned in Despatches.

His career in newspapers started in 1934 when he edited the Sunday Mail in Glasgow for a year. From 1937-9 he was managing editor at the Financial Times and in 1954 he became chairman of Amalgamated Press Ltd, a post he held for five years. When his father, Lord Camrose, died in 1954 he became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and some years later of the Sunday Telegraph which he founded in 1961.

Lord Hartwell retired in 1987 when the Telegraph Group was acquired by Conrad Black.

His biography of his father, William Camrose: Giant of Fleet Street, was published in 1993. His family reported that he died holding a copy of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaperman till the end.

I interviewed him in early 1993 and found him easy to talk to, a dedicated man whose motives were always honourable and his failures gracefully conceded. He had an air about him that endeared him to most people he encountered, despite a reputation for avoiding interlocutors.

Did you feel that the education at Eton and Christchurch equipped you well for your subsequent life in newspapers? 

Education at those two places really depended upon the application of the boy. I can’t say I worked very hard at Eton, but I didn’t do badly. In my last year I had a great deal of responsibility. The trouble was you had so much freedom at Eton that you didn’t feel the extra freedom most boys from other types of schools felt when they went to university. The consequence was that you really rather let go. The examination wasn’t until the end of the third year which seemed an aeon of time away, and you didn’t take it very seriously until the last year by which time it was too late to catch up.

Were you very much in awe of your father Lord Camrose? Did the fact that he was a press baron, along with people like Beaverbrook and Northcliffe, lend him a certain eminence and remoteness as a father figure? 

Certainly not. He was in no way remote, and he was very good with his children. He treated them like young adults and discussed all his problems with them, so although I had the deepest respect for him I was not in awe of him. He was very supportive of us, particularly when we got into trouble. I can’t say I had very many troubles myself but I saw it with the rest of my family, and now I know he did even more for his children than I had realized before.

Your father knew Churchill well. What was your impression of Churchill?

I only saw him towards the end of his life when he was already a national hero. My father didn’t really trust him at all at the beginning. He first came across him in the early 1920s and until about two years before the war he regarded Churchill as a fascinating mountebank, as indeed most of the nation did; he was thought of as somebody not to be trusted, always out for office and his own self, and for the massage of his own ego. I saw him only after the war when he was already established in his own right as being the great of the greats. I had some professional dealings with him because when my father died I took over Churchill’s war memoirs which the Telegraph had bought. In fact I think I must have been one of the few people ever to have given a sizable tip, twenty thousand pounds, to Winston Churchill. Like all authors he over-wrote his memoirs and although he had sold them on the basis of five volumes, he wanted to write a sixth. Most of the international publishers wouldn’t pay extra but my father agreed to pay for another volume though there was nothing in writing about it. Churchill asked me to lunch and was very much relieved to hear that I was going to honour my father’s unwritten promise.

You have suggested that Churchill would have made your father Minister of Information in 1943 but for the fact that Beaverbrook was jealous and told Churchill that your father was too ill to take the post. What is the evidence for that?

The suggestion that he should be made Minister of Information came from Oliver Harvey, later Lord Harvey, who was principal private secretary to Eden when he was Foreign Secretary. Churchill had agreed to my father being Minister of Information until Beaverbrook – who had been falsely promised leadership of the House of Lords – heard about it and told Churchill that my father, who had had a serious illness five years before, was likely to break down if given any responsibility. The source of that information was Churchill’s scientific guru, Lord Charwell, who was a great friend, very close to Churchill and also close to my father.

What was the origin of the jealousy between your father and Beaverbrook? 

Just that they were the same age, exactly the same age, and both newspaper proprietors. Beaverbrook, by virtue of his Canadian fortune, had started at the top while my father was still working his way up, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of a man of his own age becoming as important, if not more important, than himself in the journalistic world. There were several manifestations of this which I have detailed in my book.

In 1954 you became chairman and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph. What were your feelings as you stepped into your father’s shoes? 

My feelings were that I wished to continue his traditions, and to maintain the Daily Telegraph as an institution in such a way that for anyone who really wanted to know what was going on, not only in this country but in the whole world, it would be difficult to be without the Telegraph. My father had already deputed a good deal of the running of the paper to me in any case. In fact he had already nominated me two years before as deputy editor-in-chief, believing it would be a mistake for him to linger too long. We got on very well indeed and he was such a tolerant man, although he did say when he put me in charge that he did not want a new broom, in other words, he didn’t want me to start throwing my weight about and trying to change everything and everyone; rather he wanted the paper to continue to evolve. That was his great feeling about the Telegraph itself, because when he bought it in 1927, it had been a very great paper in the previous century but it was definitely in decline. It wasn’t actually losing money but it wasn’t making any and it might not have lasted another ten years. He permeated it with his own ideas, and although he did bring in a few people, he got rid of very few indeed, and he congratulated himself afterwards since he didn’t think a paper had ever been revived in quite that manner, so apparently effortlessly. That was an achievement he particularly prided himself on, and he didn’t want me to start making mistakes he hadn’t made.

But by all accounts your father ran the Daily Telegraph as if it were a feudal institution; in the words of one observer, ‘he ruled as well as reigned’. Were you at all critical of this autocratic approach? 

It was centralized to a certain extent and he wasn’t prepared to let everybody do their own thing; he preferred always to know what they were doing. Lord Burnham, the managing director, said he wasn’t very good at what in the army they call staff duties, which means apportioning duties to everybody down the chain and making them responsible only to those directly above them. For example, he was continually ringing up the newsroom to talk to people who were running a particular story without going through the news editor. My father interfered in everything if he wanted to.

Was it filial devotion and respect which kept you from altering much at the Daily Telegraph or was it the fact that the newspaper was doing well and there was little point in changing a winning formula? 

The last proposition is always a good idea, but there were one or two things that he would never have let me do, which I did do in the end, but nothing of any importance – the masthead, for example. He took over the Morning Post in 1937 or 1938, and he always insisted on including the Morning Post in the masthead, which I thought rather an anachronism after the war. He wouldn’t allow me to take it off, because he thought there was still some goodwill left in these ageing Morning Post readers, but when he died I did take it off. Apart from appearances I think I also made the paper less stuffy; concentrated on more good writing and introduced more humour.

You have been described as a journalist through and through. Do you see yourself as a journalist by nature, and if so, what does that entail? 

I think a journalist principally is a person who is interested in people and who is immensely curious about affairs and wonders why things happen and why people do what they do. I suppose it’s a form of busybodyness. Everything is grist to the mill.

Although in your capacity as editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, you always defended your journalists loyalty, some people have detected that you are a little uneasy with journalists as a breed, and that you are particularly suspicious of columnists and leader writers…is there any truth in that? 

As a generalization, none whatever. I do think a leader column ought to be consistent, and if it pronounces once a fortnight on some subject, it ought, on the second occasion, to remember what it said on the first. You shouldn’t contradict in your leader something you said in the previous one unless you draw attention to it and do it gently and for apparent good reason. If you have to box the compass, admit to it.

In the quality newspapers there is a tendency nowadays for the intellectuals to rule the roost; newspapers have become platforms for opinion. How do you view this trend in journalism? 

Certain journalists have their hobby horses and one should simply not employ hobby horses because they can’t move anywhere, and then they become a bore. They plug the same line and use their column for their own personal purpose and not for the purpose of the newspaper, which should be a different thing every day.

Richard Ingrams once said to me that journalists who take themselves seriously or believe they have influence are bad journalists. Would you agree with that? 

No, I would say they have to be very good at their job, otherwise they’re bad journalists. Journalists would do well to remember that they hold no position of responsibility in the running of the country, and bearing that in mind, they should acquire a little humility which is quite a rare quality in Fleet Street.

There is, however, a great deal of talk nowadays about ‘opinion makers’ in newspapers. Politicians obviously believe newspapers hold great sway over the way people think…what is your view? 

I don’t know that they do. Because of the rise of television they have far less influence than before. Newspapers tend to provide the public with information, the facts, which televisions can’t do, because it’s trying to do too many things at once. Television is rather like opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera for a beginner; it’s very difficult for an untrained person at an opera to appreciate the decor, the singing and the music, let alone the words which don’t matter. The same thing applies when people watch television – they are so obsessed with whether a man’s tie is straight or his eyes rotating to hear what he’s saying. But what they are able to do is to get an idea of the genuineness or the non-genuineness of the man talking, and therefore the opinion to a certain extent is made by watching television. In short, people get their information from the newspapers and their prejudices from television. People say that such and such is a very poor performer and conclude that he must be a very bad administrator, and form their opinions in that way. It’s not the way that public opinion is supposed to be directed but that is what happens.

You have always upheld editorial independence. People often recall how the Daily Telegraph criticized Anthony Eden just before Suez and how protests on the Prime Minister’s behalf failed to move you. Did you have any qualms about that at the time? 

Not at all. We’d all thought that Eden was faltering a bit in so far as he was trying to be like Churchill was, always interfering in every department without going through the Cabinet. I well remember a story told to me by Jim Thomas who was First Lord of the Admiralty when Churchill was Prime Minister. Churchill used to ring him up early in the morning, about 7.30 – he of course had been called with a large whisky at about 7 o’clock – and Thomas was always very much annoyed at being wakened at this hour. One morning he rang up: ‘Is that you, First Lord?’ ‘Oh yes, good morning Prime Minister, how nice to hear your voice’ then Churchill said, ‘I’m very worried about that submarine, you know’. And Thomas hadn’t any idea what he was talking about. It turned out that some submarine had brushed a sandbank in Portsmouth; Churchill had read about it in the first editions of the papers, but by the time the final edition came out the submarine had come off again, so it wasn’t news anymore. Anyway, that was the sort of thing that Churchill used to do, but he did it just to keep his ministers on their toes, whereas Eden got the impression that he really was trying to interfere in their business, and he tried to do likewise, only in a rather schoolmistress sort of way, thereby making himself very unpopular. It was Donald MacLachlan our deputy editor who wrote that the government under Eden lacked the smack of firm government, a phrase that put Eden very much on edge. But we weren’t highly critical of him, we just said that things seemed rather a shambles and there was no firm direction. We did criticize him on one or two other things, as one has every right to do, and he took this very much amiss. I remember Lord Salisbury and Butler came to see me at my home and asked if there was anything personal about it, and I assured them there wasn’t, but that the paper wasn’t going to give unthinking support to the government. This was discussed sometime before Suez on which we were generally supportive of him; we were only critical of his having stopped it midway, and having no plan as to what to do next.

It is perhaps not surprising, given your uncompromising stands on critical independence, that your life peerage came from a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson? Were you conscious of a certain irony in that – after all, you were editor-in-chief of the Telegraph, a widely perceived Tory stronghold. 

I certainly wouldn’t have accepted a peerage from a Tory government because it would have looked as if it was payment for the services rendered – not that I was offered one.

But all the editors do that now. 

Well, that’s no business of mine.

But would you have turned down a peerage from a Tory government? 

Most certainly.

Why do you think Harold Wilson gave you the peerage? 

I think it arose because Cecil King, a very strong Labour supporter, also a man of immense self-importance, wanted to be placed in Wilson’s Cabinet and to be given an earldom. Wilson turned this down but offered him an under-secretaryship and a simple barony which made him furious, and so in order to stop the Daily Mirror turning against him altogether – that being the way politicians think – he gave a peerage to Hugh Cudlipp, and I think I was pulled in to balance him. Wilson never told me this, but that’s what I assume.

But tell me, of all the former Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson is perhaps the least talked about, the least respected. Why do you think that is? 

During his government there was so much backbiting and backstabbing, and everyone seemed to act so much out of self-interest, and then he retired for supposedly mysterious reasons. I don’t think them mysterious reasons. I didn’t think them mysterious at all; he was getting past it, even though he was only sixty. Callaghan who took over from him was a much rougher man, made of much tougher moral fibre than Wilson. Wilson was much more like Lloyd George, a tremendous wheeler-dealer but without the same skills.

Did you know him well? 

I knew him quite a bit, yes. When he was Prime Minister I saw him often at Chequers because we had a house nearby. He was always extremely agreeable and could be very funny, but one couldn’t really respect him much.

It is sometimes said that your late wife, Lady Pamela Berry, persuaded Wilson to confer the peerage. Is there any truth in it? 

She hardly knew him.

Your wife was very sociable, gregarious and someone who loved meeting people and giving parties. By contrast you always preferred to remain in the background socially. Was this ever a source of tension between you? 

Not at all. She gave quite a few small lunch parties, but she resented being called a political hostess. A lot of her friends were middle-ranking politicians and perhaps quite a few left-wing journalists, but she really invited them for their conversation. She found them much better company than the more respectable lot. But she was not interested in politics, she was interested in people.

You have a thinly disguised distaste for social life – how on earth did you cope with your wife’s enthusiasm for entertaining politicians, people from the arts and other dignitaries? 

I found them interesting on the whole. But the difficulty for a man in his own house is that he is usually put next to a wife…and although many wives are often very interesting, very often they aren’t. People tend to marry young and when the husband has achieved something in life the wife may have got stuck in her early rut. My wife quite rightly thought that general conversation made the most interesting party. Sometimes one of ‘my wives’ – the ones sitting next to me – couldn’t keep up and kept turning to talk to me. One could not but answer and my wife used to frown at me angrily. I once suggested jokingly that I should give her a silver bell which she could ring when she wanted general conversation – as did a Parisian hostess described by the Goncourt brothers. But this of course would have seemed arrogant in her and rude in me.

Most Englishmen seem to prefer the company of other men, is that because of the public-school background, do you think? 

No, it’s because men are usually doing something, and as a journalist I like talking to people about what they do, not about things at large.

Lord Weidenfeld said of your wife, ‘She had a respect approaching reverence for her husband’s profession’, but he added that she did not exercise influence over the contents of your newspapers. Would you agree with that? 

Yes. Actually she never tried to, and I would certainly not have approved of it. She’d advise me on certain things, but she was never able to persuade me unless I thought it a good idea. She was a great influence on my life personally I suppose, because of our mutual confidence, but she wasn’t an influence so much on what I did as what I was.

Weidenfeld also said that she ‘humanized’ you. What do you think he meant by that? 

I suppose he meant that without her I was inhuman, but I plead not guilty.

The Hartwell house was often regarded as the last private political and intellectual salon in the classical tradition. Were you conscious of that at the time, and do you mourn its passing? 

I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, nor was she, and therefore it’s nothing to mourn. She didn’t regard herself as a centre of political discussion; she only asked people who amused her, and it so happened that some of her left-wing friends she found more amusing than the right-wingers, perhaps because they were more indiscreet which helps conversation. The thing she really hated was to be called a Lady Londonderry type who had vast parties of only one political persuasion – that was what salon was really about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, referring to your keen sense of duty, wrote that newspaper proprietorship for you was ‘a high public trust to which all private and family must be subordinate’. Did you ever come to regret that scheme of priorities? 

Certainly the Telegraph dominated my life, and I daresay I should have been at home more than I was. But I don’t feel any guilt about it. If you’ve got a rather important job, you must devote everything you’ve got to it. I don’t think my family suffered as a result. My wife would have like to have travelled more, but other than that I don’t think so, and certainly my children did not suffer at all.

Would you consider yourself to have been a good father to your children? 

I’m the wrong person to answer that, but I was a good father according to my own lights, and I hope they would agree. Now that they have all made their own way in life we all seem to get on very well together.

Lady Pamela was often the subject of severe criticism in the press. To what did you attribute these attacks? 

Spite more than anything else. She attracted a certain amount of publicity because she associated with the people I describe, and I suppose those who didn’t like her thought she was becoming too big for her boots.

In 1980 Lord Lambton wrote a disparaging article for Now magazine about Lady Pamela. Why did you take such exception to that? 

It made me very angry because it was highly offensive to her. It was written as if she were already dead, and she was suffering from a disease which killed her two years later, she found that particularly damaging and hurtful. I daresay Lambton didn’t know at the time. There was a long story behind it involving Sir James Goldsmith who had been attacked three times in the Daily Telegraph, on three separate occasions about three different things by three different people. Being a very sensitive chap he got it into his head that I had organized and coordinated a campaign against him, and having started Now magazine he decided to hit back at me. His editor commissioned Alan Brien, who could wield a vicious pen and had been on the Sunday Telegraph, to write an article attacking me, but Alan Brien said he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t find anything to attack me on. Then Goldsmith had the idea that if he couldn’t get at me, he would get at my wife instead, and so he hired Lambton, who had been a friend of ours, to do it.

But why did Lambton do it? 

He has a great deal of money but he like notoriety, and thought it rather a jolly thing to do. He was a sort of acolyte of Randolph Churchill who regarded all personal attacks as jolly jokes – that’s what he called them – and this was one of those jolly jokes. We didn’t find it at all jolly; in fact it was astonishingly offensive, so I wrote a letter, and had great difficulty getting it published because it was thought to be libellous. But I offered to guarantee it personally and financially against libel, though later I discovered that is illegal.

Did you ever regret having the letter published? 

No. I was rather pleased with it. My wife was unmollified. She had put so much enthusiasm into working for the great museums that she deeply resented her efforts being rubbished.

Lady Pamela appeared to have been singled out for attack by Evelyn Waugh in letters he wrote in 1962, including one to the Sunday Telegraph. She was accused of being a ‘Judas’ and ‘a Sneakhostess’. The recent publication of Auberon Waugh’s autobiography reveals that it was in fact he who had passed on information to the Telegraph, not Lady Pamela, though he never confessed to his father. Did you suspect the provenance of the diary story at that time? 

Not at all. I quoted him to Auberon Waugh, who was working on the Telegraph, as evidence that was not the way we did things. I had no idea that he’d done it.

What are your views on the current libel laws in this country? 

I think it quite ridiculous for juries to deal in sums of money which mean nothing to them. They know perhaps what money means up to two or three thousand pounds, but beyond that nothing. I can give you an example. We were sued by a real rogue called Lewis who was chairman of a rubber company, the biggest manufacturer of French letters in the country. Without going into the details of the case we reported that he was being investigated by the Fraud Squad. We were given damages of a hundred thousand pounds against us. Afterwards our solicitor’s clerk went into the jury room and examined the contents of the wastepaper basket only to find that each member of the jury had written down what he thought damages should be; it ranged from five thousand to a hundred and fifty thousand, so they settled on a hundred. That’s the way the libel damages are decided – the people who do it have no idea what it means. What does an assistant in a grocer’s shop know about sums over ten or twenty thousand pounds?

What do you think is the duty of a newspaper man, editor or proprietor, when faced with the problem of whether or not to publish potentially scandalous material? 

It’s a question of whether we restrain people who say it’s in the public interest, which means absolutely nothing, since they do it for obviously moneygrubbing purposes.

Yes I agree. It’s becoming a dangerous weapon in the sense that anyone can threaten your livelihood or position for personal gain. 

I certainly don’t approve of that trend. I can give you a good example from my father’s day when he personally refused to do something like this, even though it would have been a great journalist coup. After the war the Duke of Windsor was determined to make himself whiter than white over the abdication crisis he wrote, or rather had ghosted, A King’s Story, which his solicitors brought to my father. The Duke wanted it published in the Daily Telegraph which he thought influenced respectable opinion, and not in the Daily Express, even though Lord Beaverbrook had supported him during his crisis. My father said he wouldn’t even see it, and he certainly wouldn’t publish it as it would only reopen old wounds. But the Duke did publish it; he took it to Lord Beaverbrook who printed it in the Sunday Express which put on an extra three quarters of a million copies. I tell you this to illustrate the Telegraph’s attitude, which would be the same now I think. Certainly we wouldn’t have published Morton’s book.

Are you in favour of the French privacy law which forbids newspapers to pry into people’s personal lives? 

The trouble is the French don’t find the law very satisfactory. It is an extremely difficult problem, but if we instigate censorship, then it has to apply to everybody, and censorship is a very big and undiscriminating club; it may hit the sort of thing we deplore now, but it will hit a lot of other things as well and make freedom of the press very much more restricted in ways unthought of, unexpected and not desired. There are two different sorts: there is the Andrew Morton book about the Princess of Wales which doesn’t involve privacy so much – it may involve indiscretions of ‘friends’ and possibly the encouragement of the Princess herself but one doesn’t know whether that’s true or not; the bugged telephone conversation is quite a different matter – that really is Peeping Tom stuff.  And I think there should be some way of stopping that by law. In America you’re not allowed to tape anybody’s conversation, even if he’s a friend, without telling him you are doing it.

Don’t you think that in Britain we are rather hypocritical about sex? Someone in public life who is a womanizer is a hero among his friends as long as he’s not caught; once caught he becomes ostracized. 

Do you know the famous story about Disraeli and Palmerston? Just before a general election in this country when Disraeli was leader of his party, his aides came to him and said they had a wonderful story about Palmerston – that although over seventy he had made some lady pregnant. Naturally his aides wanted to publicize it; but Disraeli said, ‘Are you out of your minds? If this gets out Palmerston will sweep the country.’

In 1979 there was a public row between the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, over the Jeremy Thorpe affair between the Sunday Telegraph’s offer to buy the memoirs of Mr Peter Bessell, the chief prosecuting witness. Do you think with hindsight it was right for the Sunday Telegraph to offer Bessell a financial incentive for a Thorpe conviction? 

We were advised that it was perfectly safe. We bought his memoirs quite a long time before the case came up; he’d already given his evidence to the prosecution, and it had been circulated to the defence, so there was nothing more he could say other than what was already in his evidence which he was going to give the court. Some bright spark, I don’t know who it was, put in the contract that we would pay him double if a conviction was secured. That’s what got us into trouble with Mr Justice Cantley. I was attacked afterwards in the House of Lords by Lord Wigoden, who is a friend of mine, and Lord Elwyn Jones. I replied at some lengths and Wigoden congratulated me on my speech; he said it was like a speech where an attorney had no case but puts up a very good one.

But with hindsight, would you do it again? 

Certainly not. Principally because Bessell’s story was so frightfully boring – just a repetition of what he’d said in court – and certainly I wouldn’t give double money.

1985 was a very difficult year for you, perhaps the most difficult in your career, when you were unable to prevent financial control of the newspaper slipping out of your hands. The financial disaster seems to have been rooted in two things: your commitment to the £100 million modernization package, and an overwhelmingly generous redundancy agreement with the unions. Would you agree with that analysis? 

No. It was generous, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly generous. The modernization programme was rather complicated but I’ll try to make it simple. It had two components – electronic composing and banks of new-style printing machinery (more modern than anybody else’s), the horse and cart. Unfortunately there was a definite date when the cart had to start so that the time the horse had to be schooled in (a long process) was far too short for comfort. The experts said that eighteen months was the right period to allow for training our own compositors to work electronic composing as distinct from the old Lynotypes using hot metal. The compositors’ union (the NGA) saw here a wonderful weapon for extracting the maximum concessions from the management: it would not allow electronic machines into the Fleet Street building until about Christmas ’84, and even then we didn’t start training until May or June ’85, barely six months before the deadline for the cart. The latter date had been determined by the unexpected action of our Manchester Contract printers throwing us out of their works, so that we had to provide not just our new building housing new printing machines in London but a second one in Manchester, most of whose composing would be done in London. The result in the composing room was chaos. We had to have two composing rooms – one old technology, one new technology – running in tandem. The paper was always late, always filthy with misprints, the malaise spread to other departments, trains were missed, hundreds of thousands of copies remained unprinted, management set a nightly limit on the number of columns that could be set, readers gave up in droves. All this began to happen just as we were finalizing our funding plans. The effect on profits was profound. What’s more, it was just the time when unemployment was reaching its peak and the revenue from job advertising, in which we always led the field, fell right away. To cap it all, the Chancellor in the March budget of ’85, put VAT on advertising which had a tremendous effect on us. So all told, our revenue was slipping away and our costs, instead of going down, were going up. The cost-saving new machinery had not yet come into use.

Max Hastings has said: ‘The great enigma remains the readiness with which Hartwell, without trying to find a more sympathetic investor, sold fourteen per cent of the newspaper to a Canadian he met only once in a New York airport hotel.’ What comment would you make on that? 

In about 1975 we started to look for a new building site, and eventually we found it in the new enterprise zone which had great financial advantages. The question was one of how we were going to finance the new planet. First of all, we tried to raise money on loan from our banks but the banks said our capital base was too restricted. Then our merchant bankers said we’d have to raise thirty millions in ordinary shares, and the syndicate of banks decided they’d put up the money. We came on the market in May and the first twenty millions went immediately. Then there was a long interval, and the last ten millions could not be raised. At that point our advisors found Conrad Black of whom I’d never heard. I had to do something fast since we had the machinery ordered. Conrad Black was unable to come over to London for another week, and since our advisers said they couldn’t wait that long, I decided to go and see him. I got into a Concorde with the managing director (the finance director could not get a visa on Bank Holiday Monday), and we saw Conrad Black in New York where he agreed to back us. But he did not want always to be a minority shareholder and he insisted that should we need more financing he should be able to increase his proportionate stake. I did not see how I could avoid agreeing to his terms. We had been advised we’d get by quite all right, and that’s when the trouble started, because when we did need more money Black had my rights. I didn’t sell out to him; he bought in, so to speak.

It is of course easy to be wise after the event, but looking back, is there one crucial thing which you wish you had done differently? Would you for example have allowed Black the option of increasing his stake to the point of taking control? 

We had been advised that we’d got plenty of money there. I took great trouble going through the prospectus for the investors, but I didn’t take any trouble at all in going through the covenants we were signing with the bankers who stipulate various levels of profits at various stages. I remember that on 30 June, which was the financial deadline, I was made to sign a dozen documents which had been thrashed out by ten lawyers who had been arguing about them for a month. For instance, the saving we expected to make in our costs should have covered the interest on our loans. Of course it didn’t. In the end it turned out that our wonderful new Manchester site actually cost more to run. What was planned is what is called a leasing arrangement. Banks agree to put up large capital sums to pay for equipment which you don’t have to repay until the equipment is installed and running. In return for their patience they expect to see your plan of how you will provide the profits in stages, so as eventually to repay the total. When you borrow in this fashion you covenant at least to reach the level of profitability in the plan. If you fail at any stage, the deal is off, or has to be renegotiated. Thus when in a far bigger scheme like the Channel Tunnel you see that the banks have promised £8 billion or whatever it is but are refusing to advance more than six, it means that the covenant has been broken.

There are those who have suggested that the tragedy might have been averted if you had been more willing to take advice. Is that something you found difficult to do? 

I didn’t get the advice. Perhaps I should have asked for advice. I should have had more detail about whether we would ever require any more money. I didn’t. I was told it was going to be alright so I didn’t question it. I didn’t ever reject any advice; it’s advice I didn’t get which I regret not having.

But before the sell-out you dismissed reports of a crisis… 

It wasn’t a sell-out…I didn’t sell out.

But you dismissed speculation that you would be forced to lose control. You even wrote an open letter to readers of the Telegraph explaining developments in the paper, a letter full of hope for the future. It must have been all the more painful when events took the turn they did. Did you suffer a personal sense of having let people down? 

No, I didn’t. I had a sense of personal humiliation. I don’t think I let anybody down. I personally assisted those who weren’t to continue in the new regime where I thought them rather shabbily treated. So I don’t think I would say I let people down.

I understand that Andreas Whittam Smith, at the time a journalist with the Telegraph, offered you financial advice along the lines of selling shares to Telegraph readers. People say that you were deeply offended by his advice. Was that true? 

Quite untrue. I wasn’t offended by it. In fact I took it on board, but the trouble was we were already in the middle of this issue and it would have been swapping horses in midstream. If I had stopped then, God knows what would have happened. Anyway, you can’t raise thirty million pounds from your readers. I didn’t think it was a very practical idea, but I didn’t take the decision to turn it down myself. I think I referred it to our financial advisers and I was told it wasn’t on.

Shortly afterwards Whittam Smith’s decision to start his own newspaper and take two Telegraph journalists with him was leaked. With characteristic good manners you wished them well, but it is said that privately you felt a deep sense of betrayal. Is that true? 

No. It’s true that I did wish him well, but I didn’t feel a sense of betrayal. I didn’t think the paper would fall to pieces because he’d gone. I didn’t particularly like his taking two journalists; one I was delighted to lose, and the other one I much regretted. I won’t say which.

You are accused of never having stood up to the unions in the way that Murdoch, for example, did. It is said that you looked upon all your employees as friends, that there was no ‘them and us’ situation at the Telegraph. Is this an accurate portrayal, and if so is it something you feel proud of or embarrassed about? 

I did go on a bit about there being no ‘them or us’. Till 1979 my brother and I owned all the ordinary shares; then we decided to make them all over into a trust. We didn’t want to pay big dividends, but if we didn’t pay dividends commensurate with our profits, the surtax people would have taken about ninety-eight per cent, many which should have been left in the company. One of the ways of getting out of their clutches was to put it all into a trust, and the rules of trust were that the income was to be used for either the paper or the employees, all at our discretion. (When it came to the crunch I did lend £3 million to the company to sustain the company’s cash. The trust didn’t have any money so I had to borrow it from my family.) When appealing to staff to try to behave like human beings, I said there was no more them and us, that was the context of it.

But did you regret the stand you took? Would you have done a Murdoch if you had had a second chance? 

You couldn’t do a Murdoch unless you had a separate plant. And Murdoch never intended to do what he ended up doing. His companies were weaker with the unions than practically everybody else, and we were really as tough as anybody. When he put up the plant, an old-fashioned letterpress plant, he told me it was for the News of the World and the Sun, and if it worked happily then later he would add to the plant in order to accommodate the Sunday Times and The Times. That building stuck there for six years after it had been finished, rusting up, and nothing happening. Eventually he made a proposition to the Sun and the News of the World people to move down there, but the unions wouldn’t wear it. He lost his temper and was advised that the only way to get people out was to so manoeuvre them that they would all go on strike at once; and that’s they managed to do. Unlike an ordinary strike where one union is out and you have to pay all the other ones, they all went out at once and they had dismissed themselves. It was a great stroke doing it, and very clever organization, but it wasn’t a thing that anybody else could do because they didn’t have a plant to move to. Eventually when our plant was ready much later, the new management did give new contracts, and if the staff wouldn’t accept them, then they were out. Wapping was a great blessing for everybody else, because you were then able to do this kind of thing, and the unions became like Samson without his hair.

In 1986 you experienced yet more difficulties when effectively you lost editorial control over the newspaper. Was that even more painful for you than the loss of financial control? 

I should have resigned straightaway. Black said he wanted me to remain as editor-in-chief, but he also authorized Andrew Knight, who appointed editors over my head, to report not to me but to him.

You didn’t know Max Hastings, but you said of Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘He couldn’t edit a school magazine, let alone a national newspaper.’ On what did you base this low opinion? 

My experience of him. I used my judgement of him.

Your own son Adrian, though loyal to you, spoke out in Worsthorne’s defence and though he wouldn’t vote against you, he decided to abstain. You must have regretted that the troubles at the Telegraph divided the family in this way.

I did, but because I had lost the vote so handsomely his abstention didn’t make any difference.

You have been reluctant to offer any judgement on the new breed of newspaper tycoon. Does silence conceal contempt in this instance? 

No. Reticence forbids it, though that sounds very condescending. Most of them are not journalists, you see, and I don’t think non-journalists ought to run newspapers. It’s like hiring a jockey who has never ridden a horse.

Are you saying that the old traditional proprietor was basically a journalist? 

Yes. Even Beaverbrook was a marvellous journalist, a natural journalist, and even though he wasn’t trained as one, he quickly became one. He is reported to have said when he appointed Beverly Baxter editor after Blumenfeld retired in the 1920s: ‘I’m appointing you editor of the Daily Express because you know even less about journalism than I do.’ I wouldn’t say he was a very nice man, but he did put sophistication into a popular paper, so that it was read by all sections of the public.

How do you view Murdoch? 

He’s become purely a financier. He’s very good at tabloids, but he’s never had a success with a serious paper anywhere, here or Australia. The success of the Sunday Times is not his at all. Anyway, I don’t like the way it’s going at all, quite apart from the scandals.

How do you view the Telegraph now? 

I don’t want to discuss my successors at all. I think they’re producing a very good paper on the whole. Naturally they’re not doing it exactly the way I would, but maybe I’m out of date.

This year you wrote a letter to the Telegraph which spelt out your own anti-federalist, anti-ERM view of Europe. Do you align yourself with Lady Thatcher in this regard? 

That something of a poisoned chalice, but I personally thought the Bruges speech very sound, though not over-burdened with tact. What ERM means is fixed rates of exchange, and that is always disastrous. Rates of exchange to my mind depend on purchasing power parity, and our purchasing power is not at all the same as it was. That’s why I do agree wholeheartedly with Lady Thatcher who says you can’t buck the market. That’s what we tried to do, with disastrous results. We are striving, it seems, to be at the heart of Europe. The heart of Europe, under ERM rules, is either in Herr Kohl’s waiting room or in Carey Street.

Why do you think the government is sacrificing everything for the sake of a strong pound? 

Why indeed? The exchange rate is the answer to the equation; it’s not a constant.

What is it you are proudest of having done – was it founding the Sunday Telegraph in 1961? Was that the high point of your career, do you think? 

No, it was an obvious thing to do. I preserved the integrity, the popularity and the eventual prosperity of the Daily Telegraph, and the fact that I wasn’t there to see it happen doesn’t matter. The whole thing was planned by my team, and if things had worked out right, we should have succeeded. The costing was right to within two percent.

So what do you see as your proudest moment? 

My first job on a newspaper was on the sports page of the Aberdeen Evening Express and after my first day subbing, the chief sub said to me almost angrily, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d done this before?’

You were perhaps the last great gentleman proprietor and when you left it was in some sense the end of an era. When you look back on your life, do you think mainly of your great achievements, or are they now overlaid with a sense of loss and perhaps failure? 

They are overlaid with a sense of failure; certainly loss, and failure in so far as I didn’t see it through. But I think it has worked out for the best in the end. It has certainly benefited my family, because in the last two years we have made quite a lot of money out of the Telegraph, and it’s gone not to my brother and myself, but to our nephews and nieces and their children. It has been more to their financial advantage than if I had soldiered on with no intention of selling anything.

How have you coped during the last ten years since the death of your wife? 

Certainly it has made me a much lonelier figure. I also feel that she would have been greatly upset at my losing control of the newspaper. She was terribly loyal to me and she realized that I was bound up in this thing with my whole life, and she would have been deeply shocked to see the present regime, or me out of it. She would have been much more conscious of my failure than I am. That she was not there to see it is my only consolation at our parting.

John Bird’s Clash with the Labour Party

John Bird, co-founder of the Big Issue and author of The Necessity of Poverty, published by Quartet in 2012, must have been in a rather enraged form when he let rip at Ed Miliband in an article he wrote for the Daily Mail recently.

His scathing attack on the Labour leader from a man who was himself brought up in an orphanage, served time in a young offenders’ institute in his teens, and slept rough with London’s homeless, shows to what extent Ed has infuriated his followers and lost their respect.

Bird describes his catalogue of gaffs, from clumsily eating a bacon sandwich to pausing in a ‘feminist’ T-shirt made by exploited female workers, in public appearances during recent months.

He goes on to say that few of these moments have been more awkward than his spontaneous decision to give some loose change to a young beggar while he walked along a street in Manchester earlier this month.

Adding to this, he concludes that if that was an attempt to parade his decency it backfired disastrously.

Instead of looking compassionate, he came across as foolish, opportunistic and embarrassed. And to make matters worse, the recipient of his generosity was later identified as a fourteen-year-old girl and Romanian immigrant – some of whom are causing mayhem through their begging activities in our streets.

No wonder the Labour party is becoming a target for derision, with power no longer effectively in their sights.

Ed Miliband’s lacklustre personality will cost them dearly and unless they change leadership and do away with some of their ideological lunacy, they are bound to be cast aside by the electorate and spend years in the political wilderness – from which they will find it hard to shake off.

The Conservatives, despite their numerous problems, especially with Europe and the division within their ranks, must feel re-energised at the spectacle of Labour losing their grip and making fools of themselves and becoming a laughing stock without probably realising it.

The next general election looks like being catastrophic in many ways, but oddly it might eventually bring reform to the political system which has for many years deteriorated almost to the point of no return.

Let’s pray that salvation is knocking at the door, and someone will have the good sense to see it.